Her parents brought her to the club to 'socialize', but they're the ones doing all the socializing. And now they've met some business friends of her dad's, and there's some secrecy clause about an upcoming deal, or something? So her mother's at the bar getting a drink with the guys' wives, but Emma's only twenty. So here she is, wandering around on the golf course, enjoying the sunset and trying to kill time until she can go back inside. And really, honestly missing school, where she doesn't have to go through this nonsense.
Finally she decides she's had enough of being outside- however much her mother protests that really, Connecticut is lovely in the fall, it's also chilly- and she starts to make her way back to the clubhouse. She's walking up the golf cart trail through the trees to get across the last hole when suddenly she realizes-
-the clubhouse isn't there any more. There's just more forest.
...what just happened?
She doesn't much like the idea of never seeing Promise again ever. Really, at least a thank you gift seems appropriate? Promise rescued her, and all. And Promise would be a responsible gatekeeper.
But... what if she left? At the very least, she's not at home always.
"How- what happens if it stays open?" she asks timidly. "Could..." River! "...other fairies come through?"
"It'd be open. They can't see it, but if they went in that direction through that space, they'd be through. I don't get a lot of visits, but it'd be impossible to guarantee no one getting in."
It takes Emma a few seconds through the iron bands that feel like they're tightening around her chest. "I don't... let's not," she says faintly. "I'll leave a note, near the gate, maybe? In case you can't find me? But not... not open."
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. She's been okay since Promise got her, she's been so much better, but River... she can't think about it. Home. Home home home. Focus.
"Okay. I'll leave it closed. You won't be able to - signal through it, at all, but it's safer, yeah."
"That's okay. I think it's still... safer is better."
Safe, she gets to be safe.
Of course she does, because Promise is wonderful.
Emma makes herself as useful as she possibly can while they wait for the gate to settle. Promise is going to have as many spare dresses and pre-prepared meals as Emma's limited skills will allow her to create. She will never in a hundred million years make up her debt to Promise for this, but she will make as much of a dent as she can.
"You know you're allowed to relax, right?" Promise asks one day, looking up from notetaking.
Emma looks up from dusting a cabinet. "...yes?" she says, confused. "I sleep," when I want to, whenever I want to, however long I want to, "and take breaks," ...sometimes... " I just, um. It was all I could think of to help?"
"You don't actually have to help me, though, is my point."
"But you've helped me so much."
"... and I don't really know what else to do."
"Okay. It is a little boring in here, I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry for."
Emma has said this a lot in her life, mostly to rich jerks or at boring parties. It's nice to say it and actually mean it.
"Okay. It won't be too much longer before it settles."
Emma smiles at her in place of a thank you, because even she knows she's starting to sound like a broken record, and returns to her latest pattern. Can she pull off colored stripes with leaves? She won't know till she tries.
And eventually the gate turns out to be settled when Promise checks.
And just like that, Emma is home.
Now that she's paying attention going through a gate, she can tell when she's back; the weather's balmier, a little more humid, and there's scattered birdsong in the background. (She hadn't even thought to miss birds, but now that she's hearing them, her eyes are tearing up.) Autumn-to-spring is admittedly a larger shift than autumn-to-autumn, but it feels... right. That she can walk through, and tell that she's home, she's really here.
She winds up sitting on the forest floor and crying to herself for a little while. She's not in a rush. She can do that, now.
Her house is walkable from the club, but she tries the club first. It doesn't occur to her until she walks inside what she must look like- she's not precisely untidy, but even beyond her limited grooming abilities she's wearing a (at best) semi-competently hand-sewn dress. Everyone stares. One woman only mostly stifles a shriek. After a stunned silence, everyone who recognizes her starts to babble in unison. One woman she faintly recognizes as a charity board member with her father rushes over and hustles her into the women's locker room, which is blessedly empty, and holds out her cell phone. "Call your parents first," she says sternly.
Emma was not, quite, prepared for that many people after this long. Except for the meeting where Promise rescued her, she's only been around one fairy at a time nonstop for months. The quiet of the locker room lets her unclench muscles she hadn't even realized she'd been tensing, and she doesn't even bother to question why she wouldn't call her parents first. She murmurs a thank you and calls her parents; it turns out to be saved in the phone but she's had it memorized for years anyway.
No one answers.
She tries the second line. No one answers.
She tries her father's work number. "Hello?" his voice comes immediately, sounding irritated. "Judy, how did you get this number?"
She tries not to cry, she does, but she doesn't quite keep down a sob. "Dad?"
"Dad, I'm- I'm back, I missed you, I missed you, please-" and she starts crying in earnest.
"Emma? Emma, where are you- Eleanor, come here right now, yes now Emma's on the phone-"
Emma manages to choke out that she's at the club before she gives up and hands the phone back to apparently-Judy. Judy pats her awkwardly on the shoulder before answering some basic questions for her father (yes, Emma is really here, no, she hasn't said what happened, and so forth). Emma just huddles on the floor. The urge to find her parents is warring with the fear of going out into a room full of all those people eating lunch, and staying put is far, far easier than making an actual decision. Home wasn't supposed to be this overwhelming.
Judy is nice enough to sit near her on the bench while she waits. She doesn't try to talk through Emma's tears, either, which Emma would appreciate if she had more brain power to think about it. Her parents are on their way and should be here in ten minutes, they said; Emma knows it'll be at least fifteen, but it hardly makes a difference. She sits, and sniffles, and waits.
And then the police arrive.
Her parents arrive after the police, but only just barely. Her afternoon turns into a whirlwind of people, and sobbing hugs from her mother, and gruffer choked up hugs from her father, and more people, and questions from the police and stares from the club members and at least one semi-hysterical "-and oh my lord, Emma, what are you wearing," from her mother that has her burst into giggles through her sobs, and then even more people. She doesn't want to talk to the police, she doesn't want to talk to the club employees or the rubbernecking club members, she can barely handle talking to her parents. She wants to go home home home. Eventually she's so overwhelmed and feeling hemmed in, she yells "I just want to go HOME" at the top of her lungs; the policeman in front of her has the grace to look slightly ashamed before reassuring her mother he'll be back in a day or two and letting them leave. Her father drives but her mother sits in the back seat and just clings to her the whole drive home, however admittedly short it is. Emma just nestles up against her and thinks, home home home.
She gets a glass of water when she's home, and they haven't kept her favorite popcorn in the house in a while but they send the housekeeper out to pick some up, and she spends a good half hour just sitting on the couch with her mother clinging to her and her father awkwardly hovering and refilling her water glass.
And then they ask her where she was.
She tells them the truth. She knows it sounds crazy but it's all she has, and everything they could have imagined must have been worse. From what they've told her of their own experience, she suspects her father had given her up as dead; certainly the police had, after this many months she'd been well into their Statistically Dead bucket. But her mother had insisted it was something else, she'd run off or gotten kidnapped or held in a cell like one of those lurid news stories she's always watching, and her father had humored her. It feels almost anticlimatic to assure her mother that no, nothing like that, she wasn't raped or murdered or even injured particularly badly. Telling them about River is painful, and horrible, and she has to stop regularly when some of the memories give her fits of the shivers, but she gets through the whole story through sheer force of adrenaline and panic.
They don't believe her.
Fairies don't exist. Telling someone your name doesn't do anything. Magic's not real. Why is she lying, they love her, they just want to know what happened, it's okay, whatever it is it'll be okay-
She's telling the truth.
She refuses to talk to the police, when they eventually come back. Her parents must get rid of them; she doesn't know. She stays in her room. She tries to go into the backyard, once; the housekeeper follows her, uncomfortably watching her every move while cleaning an already spotless patio table. She doesn't try again. Her parents keep asking. She keeps telling them the same story. River found her, River kept her, Promise rescued her and returned her.
They don't believe her.
After another couple days, she refuses to answer when they ask. "I already told you," she insists, over and over.
(Fairies don't exist.)
"I'm not lying! That's what happened!"
(Magic isn't real.)
"Why don't you believe me, why would I lie?!"
They get a doctor to examine her. He confirms she hasn't been raped, over her shrill insistence that she'd said that, didn't she. He says her diet's been poor and she needs more iron, and identifies some of her older injuries- scars on her feet when River made her walk, mostly- but nothing needs any treatment beyond some vitamins. She lists all the ways this supports her story.
They don't believe her.
They get her a shrink. The shrink doesn't believe her either. Emma refuses to talk to him after that.
They get her another. The new shrink doesn't believe her any more than the last. Emma shuts up.
They get her a third shrink. Emma doesn't even bother trying; she just won't answer.
They have her committed to the psych ward.
Emma hates it. There isn't a word for how deeply, passionately and fervently she hates it. She's the youngest except for a suicidal teen who's on so many psychiatric drugs he might as well be a robot, and she quickly learns that the visibly crazy ones are the less worrying, because the apparently normal ones get deeply creepy if she spends too long talking to them. One of the older men tells her she reminds him of her daughter, then three days later he's screaming at her to stop hiding his grandchildren, why did she hide them, did she ship them off to China, doesn't she know the commies eat babies?
She doesn't talk to anyone after that. Not the other patients, not the doctors, not the nurses. All the staff know why she's there and no one believes her and she can't stand it. It happened, there were fairies and magic and crazy mind-control orders and Promise rescued her, Promise, if she admits they're right that means she's giving up on Promise, Promise saved her and she won't won't won't.
They try different drugs on her. None of them "work", because she's telling the truth, because she won't forget them, won't forget Promise, it happened it did. She spends a few months catatonic and one very uncomfortable month too hyper to sleep and cycles through a few more drugs before they finally admit drugs aren't addressing her "psychosis".
She can't stand it in the psych ward. It's horrible, institutional and cold and peeling white linoleum everywhere, there's hardly any entertainment because it's all so monitored, can't let the suicidal boy have internet or the crazy girl watch TV unmonitored, what if they worsen. (She's got nothing to worsen, she's right.) She has to wear the horrible suicide-safe clothes and be monitored every day and meet with a shrink whenever they tell her to. She hates it. It reminds her of living with River, with no control over her actions or her free time and nothing to do but cry. But she survived River and she'll survive this. Promise was real she was.
She's in the hospital for more than a year before she gives up and lies.
(It's longer than she was with River. Later she'll be proud of that.)
She moves back in with her parents. She apologizes for her confusion, trauma must have confused her, so sorry she doesn't know what happened after all. The doctor said it was okay. Everything's okay.
She doesn't go to college. She stays home and does translator work for her father and draws sketches of leaves never seen on Earth that she immediately tears up. She works part time at the clubhouse as a hostess. She's "recovering and very fragile," her mother says, she doesn't have to go to parties and she doesn't have to meet Nice Boys and she doesn't have to get a Good Degree and in another life this might've been nice, might've been a blessing.
Isn't it nice, to be home?
Two years, six months, and seventeen days after Emma went home, Promise ducks through the gate.
Late fall in Connecticut isn't freezing, but it's well into chilly.
The club isn't open much this late in the year; Emma's at home translating some French contracts. She's in the study overlooking the garden; other than the housekeeper vacuuming the upstairs bedrooms, she's the only one home. Her father's at work, her mother might be at a fundraising lunch? She usually doesn't pay attention; she doesn't really care.
Promise circles the club, but there's nobody there. She has directions to Emma's house and heads that way at high altitude.
She arrives at the house and starts hovering outside of windows in search of Emma. Knocks when she spots her.
Emma looks up and drops her pen. After a few seconds to blink, she rushes over and opens the window, with a blinding smile. "Promise!"
(She was right she was right she was right!)
"Hi Ruth! I would like to hide here for like, a month maybe? I think it would behoove me not to be someplace I'm expected for a little while."
The petty part of her wants to instantly introduce Promise to her parents and gloat. Her practical side then reasserts itself and worries about the possibility of Promise getting subjected to a psych ward or laboratory experiments, and gloating is summarily discarded.
"Yeah, of course, um, pool house probably? No one uses it except in the summer, I'll just grab you a space heater. One sec, one sec, I'll be right out."
She puts down her work and rushes. She can't make herself stopping smiling even though she probably looks like a loon. Promise is here! She's here she's real it was worth it.
(She is never listening to her parents ever, ever again.)