Mary Margaret looked stunned for a moment, eyes filled with disbelief. But then her hands crossed in front of her chest and the expression on her face hardened.
It made Emma swallow harshly, wondering if it had been a mistake to come here after all. “Hey mom,” she said after a moment’s hesitation, “you sound surprised to see me.”
“I suppose I am.” She noticed her mother’s lips curling up, as if she attempted to hide the bitterness that crept into her voice by forcing herself to smile. “It wasn’t as if you bothered to respond to any of our calls, so we didn’t exactly have any way of knowing whether you would show up at all.”
Emma cringed and pushed her hands into the pockets of her jeans. “As if this was easy for me, mom,” she muttered through clenched teeth as she rocked on the balls of her feet. “Just being here reminds me of..” She sighed and shook her head. Her eyes drifted to a crack in the wooden doorpost her mother was leaning against.
“I know,” Mary Margaret sighing as well made Emma’s head tilt upwards. “I know it’s not easy for you sweetie and I’m sorry for snapping at you like that. This isn’t quite how I imagined our reunion would go.” She opened the door further and stepped aside. “Do you want to come in for a moment at least?”
“Yeah, sure,” she said, though her stomach twisted itself into knots as she walked through the hallway and into the living room. “Dad not around?” She questioned as she looked around the room for any sign of him.
“He’s putting Helena to bed. She’s had a bad case of the flu last week, and she’s been sleeping a lot ever since.”
“Is she doing okay?”
“She’ll be fine,” Mary Margaret said as she stifled a yawn behind one of her hands. And it was only then that Emma noticed how tired her mother really looked. There were clearly visible bags beneath her eyes and the slow way she walked around the kitchen island betrayed her lack of energy. “She gave us a slight scare but Dr. Whale said she’ll be back to her normal energetic self in a week’s time from now.”
Mary Margaret grabbed a mug from one of the overhead cupboards before turning around and raising an eyebrow.
“How are you and dad holding up?” She knew it was a loaded question, especially since she had been the one to leave all the calls unanswered.
“I could ask you the same question, couldn’t I?”
Not as bitter this time at least. Which was an improvement, though only a small one. Mary Margaret’s eyes still shimmered with a kind of hurt and betrayal that she seemed unable to mask and it only served to make Emma feel a renewed sense of guilt over the whole situation.
She has no idea what to say to her mother’s inquiry either. And it was one thing to steer a conversation into a different direction while you were talking on the phone, it was another entirely to try to do the same while you were standing face to face with someone.
“Hey dad,” she managed to get out before her father enveloped her into a bear hug and Emma smiled despite herself.
“I didn’t know you would be stopping by today,” he said as he exchanged a quick look with Mary Margaret.
“Uhm yeah, about that..”
“Cinnamon?” Mary Margaret interrupted as she placed a steaming mug in front of Emma on the kitchen island.
The smell of hot chocolate wafted up to her nose and she breathed in a lungful of it. She knew without evening having taken a single sip, that it would taste far better than any of the chocolate she had ordered at various places in New York.
She nodded at Mary Margaret as she sat down on one of the stools, curling her fingers around the warm mug and staring down at the dark brown liquid inside of it. Though she knew it was only a moment’s respite from the questions she was sure David was dying to ask of her.
“You arrived today?”
“Yeah. I guess only thirty minutes ago or so. I figured I’d stop by here first and all,” she explained softly.
Something scraped across the floor and movement in her periphery of her vision confirmed David had sat down next to her.
“Are you going to stay?”
“Dad…” she muttered as she tightened her hold on the mug in her hands. “You already know the answer to that question.”
“So that’s a no,” David said.
One of his hands pressed against her cheek and she felt compelled to look up at him.
“You know why I can’t.”
“I don’t see why you two can’t just..”
“David!” her mother interrupted and Emma sighed and took a sip from the mug.
“I’ve closed off that chapter of my life and moved on,” Emma muttered, while wondering who she was really trying to convince with that statement. “So I would really appreciate it if you left this particular topic alone for the next couple of days.”
“We can do that sweetie,” Mary Margaret said, though Emma noticed she was looking at her father while she spoke. “Do you still need a place to stay, because it really is no troub…”
“No, I’m good. I’ll get a room at Ruby’s.”
“Alright. Just know that you’re always welcome to stay here whenever you want,” David said and the glimmer of hurt in his eyes made Emma flick her eyes to the mug cradled in her hands again.
“I know,” she mumbled softly, not sure whatever else she could say.
The tension in the room was thick and cloying and for a long moment the only sound that pierced the silence was of the large clock hanging on one of the walls of the living room, slowly ticking the seconds away. It only reminded her of how things used to be. And Emma imagined if she closed her eyes she could still recall the memories vividly. The loud music playing and the people laughing as they danced around the room. Something she could still cherish, even if it might’ve been the beginning of the end. At the very least it was a stark contrast to the way she felt now. As if trying to fit herself into the person she used to be. Only to realize that she no longer could and no longer felt the need to.
“I uhm,” Mary Margaret was fidgeting in a way that put Emma instantly on her guard. “I assume you at least read the last few messages we send you? We felt it was only right to invite her all things considered but if you want..”
“It’s not like I can avoid her forever,” Emma interrupted her, “besides there will be plenty of people there, it’ll be fine.”
Though the thought of attending her parents renewal of vows considering the state of her own marriage still weighed heavily on her mind. But it would only be a few days, she repeated inwardly to herself. Just a few days before she could go back and chase down some bail jumpers and pretend that she was fine with the state of her life the way it was.
“There should be,”David let out a nervous sounding chuckle, “your mother invited half the town after all.”
Emma noticed her mother lightly slapping David’s arm, but she was distracted by the phone buzzing in the pocket of her jeans few times in quick succession. Five new whatsapp messages greeted her. All of them were from Henry and she sighed deeply when she read the last one.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Emma answered Mary Margaret’s inquiry absentmindedly as she reread the message. “It’s Henry.” She hesitated for only a second before she quickly typed out a message back to him. “I promised him a while ago that when I came back here I’d meet up with him.” Then she frowned as a thought hit her. “He says he’s at the park but I only just got here, so I have no idea how he found out I was in town already.”
“Probably because of your car.”
She narrowed her eyes at her father.
“What?” He scratched at his cheek and she was reminded of all the times he had attempted to convince her to trade in for a newer car. “I’m just pointing out that your car is a bit...hard to miss and all.” He shrugged and she rolled her eyes
“I’ll go meet up with Henry while it’s still early,” she said as she pocketed her phone and stood up from the stool.
A half-hearted ‘bye’ was lingering on the tip of her tongue when she noticed the twin looks of expectation that were residing on her parents faces. Her heart squeezed itself into a tiny little ball as it reminded her of the way they had looked at her when she had broke the news that she was going to leave town.
“I’ll uhm…” she mumbled, suddenly at a loss of words. “I’ll call tomorrow, if that’s okay?”
“That’s fine, Emma.”
Mary Margaret stood up from her stool, took a few steps her way and Emma wasn’t sure what to expect. But her mother looked cautiously hopeful. A fragile kind of wistfulness that Emma couldn’t recall ever seeing in her eyes before. Then she opened her arms and Emma allowed herself to be pulled into a loose and quick hug.
It didn’t quite feel like home, she thought as she took a few deep steadying breaths. There was too much distance there now, as well as the ever-present thought that she couldn’t stay. But it felt like something. And Emma pulled away without meeting her mother’s eyes.
“We’ll see you tomorrow.”
She nodded, not trusting her voice as she walked through the hallway and closed the door behind her.
He was easy to spot from a distance and Emma smiled as she observed him quietly for a moment. He was wearing his usual grey coat and on the bench next to him was the blue backpack he always carried everywhere with him. His face was obscured by the comic book he seemed to be engrossed in and Emma’s smile grew.
“Hey kid,” she called out as soon as she was within hearing distance.
She hadn’t quite expected the way his eyes lighted up the moment he saw her, nor the way he crushed her in a hug almost a second later but it did help alleviate the worry that had gnawed at her the entire drive over to the park. It had been well over a year since she had seen him in person after all and she wasn’t sure how well he would respond upon seeing her again. A part of her had feared that he still harbored some lingering anger at the way she had left so abruptly out of his life. And a part of her wouldn’t blame him for it either.
“Ooff,” she muttered, “I’m happy to see you too, but I’d love to be able to breathe again, Henry.”
He let go of her almost immediately and grinned.
“I can’t believe how much you’ve grown,” she remarked as she sized him up. She figured within the next few years he would be taller than her and it felt almost strange to her to realize she wouldn’t be there to see it. “You look good kid,” Emma said as she flashed him a smile and ruffled through his short crop of hair.
“And you look...uhm..” His brown eyes were twinkling and the lopsided grin on his face gave away that he was having too much fun at her expense.
“Yeah yeah,” she rolled her eyes at him, “I know I’m a bit of a mess at the moment. It’s been a really long day for me.”
“I’m still glad you’re here,” Henry said, though Emma noticed the way his smile faltered as he turned around and walked back towards the bench. “You never answered when I messaged you about it so I thought..”
“Henry…” Emma sighed and pursed her lips. “I’m sorry,” she finally said after a moment.
She knew those apologies weren’t enough to fix this, only time would. Time she didn’t have. In a few days she’d leave again and she had no idea how he would react this time. Would he even bother to keep in contact with her anymore. And the thought was killing her.
“And now you’re here,” Henry continued and she swallowed as she watched him stare down at the open comic book in his lap. “But only for a few days right?”
“What?” Emma blinked and gave him a puzzled look.
“Why can’t you stay? Why can’t you just...talk to mom. She hasn’t been the same since you left, Emma.”
“Look Henry,” Emma scraped her throat and sat down next to him. She closed the comic book in his lap and placed a few fingers below his chin to tilt it up and force him to meet her eyes. “What happened between your mother and I is a bit hard to explain alright? But it didn’t just happen overnight. We just...grew apart I guess,” she muttered. It wasn’t the entire truth but she thought in this case it was better that way. “Talking isn’t going to make things better between us. And your mother will be fine, it might just take a little time, that’s all.”
“I just..miss the way things were,” Henry said, “I kept thinking that eventually you’d come back and..” his voice trailed off and he shook his head with a crestfallen expression on his face which made Emma want to kick herself for being the cause of it. “I missed you.”
“I missed you too,” Emma confessed without missing a beat. It had been hard to leave and say goodbye to him and it had been even harder to stay away.
He gave a feeble attempt of a smile and flipped through the pages of his comic book again and she breathed a little sigh of relief. There was no doubt in her mind that they would talk about this more in the coming days. And she knew for certain that the subject of her leaving the town would come up again.
“Is that the new comic book you were obsessing about this past week?” She said after a moment. She’d been mulling over a safe subject to discuss and since most of their back and forward on whatsapp had been about a comic book he was dying to pick up, she thought it would be as good as any place to start.
“Yeah.” He lifted his gaze from the page of the comic for a second and looked her in the eyes. “Mom got it for me yesterday.”
Emma stiffened immediately. Of course Regina had gotten it for him the moment it hit the stores. It seemed that at least hadn’t changed, even when everything else apparently had. Thankfully Henry was too engrossed in his comic to notice her reaction.
A group of people talking loudly amongst themselves passed by where they were sitting. She didn’t recognise them, but she thought she caught one of them looking at her and Henry for a moment before he turned around again and Emma had no idea what to make of it. Though it made her wonder how many had taken a notice of her arrival in the town. The thought made her grin wryly. Prior experience taught her that gossip usually travelled pretty fast in Storybrooke after all.
She glanced once more at the group of men, but this time it seemed they were too preoccupied with whatever they were discussing and didn’t take notice of the fact they were being watched. There were a few other people walking along the path and a couple standing at the hotdog stand, but it was fairly quiet otherwise. Much more quiet than she knew it would be during the summer months. When the park would be bustling with activities and people were picnicking everywhere and soaking up the sun. Already the willow tree near the pond was turning a brighter green again and she noticed various purple and yellow flowers were in bloom along the edge of it.
But the chilliness that permeated the air and prickled along her skin betrayed the fact that it was still early spring. It also made her curse herself for not putting on her wintercoat instead of the red jacket she was wearing right now. Shivering she stole a glance at her watch and frowned. It would be getting dark soon and there were still a few things she had to do before settling in at Ruby’s bed and breakfast.
Which included having a bite to eat. She had a quick lunch while on the road but the hunger pangs she was feeling now made her all too aware it had been half a day since then.
“You up for a hotdog kid?” She asked as she watched him put the comic into his backpack. “My treat.”
“Well if you’re paying…”
He got up from the bench almost immediately and Emma snorted. “Still putting away everything that’s edible aren’t you?”
“Hey, you know I love my hotdogs.”
“And donuts, and anything else that consists of more than half of sugar.”
Henry closed his backpack and slung it over his shoulder as they slowly walked to the one of the nearby food stands. “And yet you were the one that always ate more than half the donuts every time mom bought a box of them.”
“Fair point,” Emma conceded and ordered two hotdogs. She knew for a fact that Regina had often bought a few extra chocolate frosted donuts with colored sprinkles because they had been Emma’s favorite. Had, since she also hadn’t eaten a single one of those for over a year now.
Once they had been paid for, she handed one of them to Henry and started walking back to the bench they had sat on before.
Taking a small bite from the hotdog she relished the taste of it for a moment. She was about to take another bite when she glanced over to Henry. And the almost completely devoured hotdog in his own hand.
“Sometimes I wonder if you ever learned to chew, you always seem to just wolf everything down,” she chuckled in between small bites.
“Hotdogs, truly? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.” A voice spoke up from behind them and Emma froze, lowering the hotdog away from her mouth.
Her heartbeat accelerated and she swallowed a few times to clear the sudden constriction in her throat. She turned around slowly and found herself coming face to face with her estranged wife for the first time in over a year.
“Regina, hey,” she managed to mutter out, while attempting to seem unfazed on the outside.
The inside was an entirely different matter. Her stomach was twisting itself into knots and she was under no illusions she would be able to finish what was left of her hotdog now. Sinking her teeth into her lower lip, Emma was unable to keep her eyes from raking across Regina’s form. And whereas she knew she likely looked like a complete mess right now, Regina looked as immaculate as ever. She was dressed in a dark pantsuit and the makeup she was wearing was drawing attention to the brown eyes that were watching Emma like a hawk.
“I assume this was the reason you turned off your phone?”
Regina’s gaze remained trained on Emma’s features, but a quick flick of her eyes sidewards revealed the words were meant for Henry instead. The corners of his mouth had drooped down and there was a guilty look on his face as he fidgeted with the straps of his backpack.
“Thought you could skip out on your homework?”
Instead of replying Henry looked down at his shoes. Regina sighed and Emma noticed how her eyes lost some of their sharpness. Her attention moved fully towards Henry and Emma let out a breath she didn’t realize she had been holding, the tightness in her chest abating for the moment.
“Henry..I’m not mad but you can’t just turn off your phone like that. I was worried about you.”
“Regina, maybe..” Emma started.
It was just one word, but the way it was said felt like she had been doused with ice cold water. Emma felt as if they were trapped in a bubble all of a sudden, isolated from the outside world. Just her, Regina and Henry and enough tension to make Emma want to run again. Far away from this accursed town and the woman who broke her heart.
“I just wanted to spend a little more time here…” Henry finally mumbled as he rocked on the balls of his feet.
Once more Emma felt Regina’s gaze on her and she didn’t know what to make of it. As if Regina was trying to get a read on her somehow.
“We’ll continue our talk about this at home,” Regina said, her voice softer and having lost some of it’s edge. “Go on ahead and get started on your homework, I’ll be right there.”
His eyes flicked from her to Regina and back again, a faint smile making it’s way to his lips. “Okay,” he said with obvious reluctance, “bye Emma.”
He turned around and Emma followed him with her eyes for a moment, smiling when he glanced back across his shoulders once and waved at her. But the smile vanished just as quickly as it had appeared when she realized Regina was still standing a few steps away from her.
“Just for the record,” Emma said and stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jeans. “I did not know he had turned off his phone.”
“I believe you actually.”
A pause followed. A pause in which Regina kept looking at her in a way that made Emma feel small and fragile. As if one mere wrong word might make her fall apart. Again. And it was enough to make her avert her eyes for a moment and take a few deep steadying breaths.
“That’s not why I stayed to talk to you.”
“Look,” Emma muttered, not bothering to hide her annoyance. “If you’re worried about my presence in Storybrooke then let me assure you. I’ll be out of your hair again in a few days from now.”
Regina folded her arms across her chest and pinned her with a stare. “That’s not what I’m worried about.”
“Is that supposed to hint at something?”
“I’m not worried about what you’ll be up to during your stay in Storybrooke. I’m worried about what it means to Henry. I’m worried that in a few days, he’ll be back to his moody and distant self because you made a promise you know you wouldn’t be able to keep.”
“Do you really think I would do that?” Emma muttered.
She removed her hands from the pockets of her jeans and balled them to fists at her side. A part of her, the part that had warned her to stay away, to never go back here and reopen the wounds that never properly healed in the first place, that part of her wondered how the hell she had expected this first meeting between them to go. As if exchanging niceties and small talk would’ve been an option considering the hasty way she had left. Considering how utterly furious and hurt Regina had been the last time she had seen her.
And it might’ve been over a year. But the way Regina was looking at her now, the Mayor’s mask firmly snapped into place and her brown eyes devoid of the warmth she had once shared with Emma, it felt like it had been mere days instead.
It was strange she thought, as she watched Regina appraise her silently for a moment, to think of how happy they’d been together once upon a time.
“I can see you do exactly that, yes,” Regina spoke up after she had taken a step closer. “Because while I obviously didn’t know you as well as I thought, I do know that you likely feel a sense of guilt for the way you left Henry behind. A sense of guilt that might compel you to spend some time with him while you are here.”
Setting her jaw, Emma looked directly into Regina’s eyes. She hated that Regina knew her this well. She hated that despite everything, it had taken Regina mere minutes to pry open the armor she had donned to protect herself. Everything about Regina chafed, making her feel raw and untethered. And there was nothing for her to cling to besides the thought that she would be free of this again in a few days time.
“I would never hurt him on…”
“But you did exactly that!” Regina spat out.
She closed the gap between them faster than Emma was able to react and crossed right into her personal space. Emma’s heart clattered away in her chest as Regina’s furiously glittering eyes bored into her own.
“You hurt him, Emma. He adored you and you left him behind without any care in the world. I don’t give a damn about how bored you were over here and how you likely can’t wait to get back to that exciting new life of yours you’re leading,” Regina hissed, putting a particularly venomous emphasis on the word exciting that made Emma cringe. “But you will not engage in raising his expectations of your visit here. I will not have you do anything that results in him crumbling to pieces again and leaving it to me to put them back together just because you feel it’s more important to run from your problems instead of facing them.”
“I..I didn’t know..” Emma started, feeling off kilter by the way Regina had spoken to her.
“Of course you didn’t know,” Regina interrupted, sounding merely resentful now, instead of raging with anger. “You weren’t there after all.”
Emma swallowed. Then swallowed again, while averting her eyes to the hotdog stand she had stood at a few minutes ago, blissfully unaware of what was about to follow.
“Alright,” she said, keeping her voice even and neutral, “I suppose I deserved that one.”
Regina sighed loudly and Emma registered how she turned slightly away from her, from the corners of her eyes.
“You do. You really do. Just..please Emma, don’t do that to him,” Regina said so softly, Emma barely heard her at all. “You can see Henry and talk to him whenever you want, but please make sure you explain everything clearly to him. Make sure he understands. Make sure there is no room in his heart for him to blame himself when you leave again.”
“I can do that,” Emma said as she caught Regina’s gaze for a second. “I’ll talk to him, okay?” She hoped her promise would be enough to close the subject, since she was feeling the drain on her emotions and wanted nothing more than to retire for the day.
Regina nodded and stepped away from her. She walked around the bench, with one hand bracing on the backrest of it, as if she felt the need to place a visible barrier between them. It made Emma frown and wonder just how vulnerable Regina had allowed herself to be moments ago.
“Right,” Emma spoke up, feeling awkward and out of her element suddenly now that they had come to an agreement. “I’m gonna…” she made a vague hand gesture towards the exit of the park that would lead towards the parking lot.
“Hm?” She blinked, confused about the hesitating way Regina had said her name.
Regina’s other hand was clutching the backrest of the bench now and there was a tightness around her lips.
“About your parent’s upcoming celebration…”
Emma stiffened. She licked her lips and mentally went over all the possible reasons Regina could have to discuss the topic now of all times.
“What about it?” It came out all hoarse and she cursed herself for not being able to keep a clear head.
“I could cancel my attendance. I’m sure you’d rather not have me..”
“No. It’s fine really.”
It wasn’t, but she would be damned if she was going to let this get to her. She had come this far already, she would see it through to the end as well. Even if it put her through an emotional blender before the weekend was over.
“They are your parents, dear. I’m sure they would understand it if I explained the reason why.”
“Because I’m too hung up on how my own marriage is in shambles you mean?”
This time it was Regina that stiffened at least. Emma could see it from the way her shoulders squared and her lips pursed into a thin line.
“That’s not why..” Regina’s jaw locked before she expelled a long breath and looked Emma straight in the eyes. “I was trying to make things easier for you.”
Emma’s eyes flicked to a young couple walking with a baby stroller along one of the paths in the park as she processed what Regina had said to her.
“They are your friends though, I don’t think I have the right to ask you to stay away just because of what happened between us.”
The couple smiled at each other, talking about something Emma was unable to hear. They looked happy and carefree and it made something coil in the pit of her stomach. She looked over at Regina again briefly before lowering her gaze and staring at the bench instead.
“Besides,” Emma added more calmly than she felt, “there will be a lot of people there. It’ll be fine, really.”
Regina didn’t look at all convinced and Emma nervously rubbed her sweaty palms together.
“You still use that word too much.”
“Fine. You say you are, but it’s never true.”
“Look,” Emma muttered, “I’m not even remotely in the mood to go into that particular discussion. Besides we’ve went over that and look where that landed us.”
“It’s not the same as…” Regina halted mid sentence and Emma wondered what else she had been meaning to say before she thought better of it. “Never mind. I’ll head home since Henry is waiting.”
“Right.” Emma toyed with the hem of her red jacket as she thought of what to say. “I’ll see you later I guess?”
She expected Regina to spin on her heels and walk away but she kept looking at Emma instead. Her dark eyes were unreadable, but the intensity of Regina’s gaze made her feel decidedly uncomfortable.
“Was there something else?” She finally asked as the moment seemed to linger on.
“No. Not really. Just something that has been on my mind since you left.”
Emma sighed. “Regina…”
“I never took you for granted, Emma.”
She didn’t say anything in response. Her throat felt too constricted to do that. Besides she didn’t have a reply ready in the first place. She suppressed the sob that welled up in her throat and wrapped her arms around herself, turning around and away from Regina. And after another few seconds she more felt than heard how Regina was finally walking away without saying another word.
Tears burned in her eyes at the surfacing memories of the way she had walked away herself. Using the same words Regina had said as an excuse for leaving, without clarifying them further.
“Yes you did,” she whispered, knowing fully well that by now Regina was too far away to hear her.