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a place aside

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I do still sometimes put my hand across and imagine yours. – a place aside, beth orton.

i.

Emily tries it for a while, being alone; doesn’t find it as quite terrifying as she remembers, the first time around, as slowly, she is becoming more and more comfortable under her skin. Alone, but not necessarily lonely; Emily likes the distinction -- likes repeating it to herself, sometimes, when the need arises. She notes though, how lately she’s had to remind herself less and less, and at least, it makes her smile.

She still frequents the park where she and Lily liked to hang out; it’s almost always never empty when she comes to visit, but Lily’s never there. Emily lights a fag, wonders about her for a moment, but then she remembers that it’s summer, and that perhaps there are other places Lily should rather be -- like her parents’, or some other island for a much-needed vacation.

Sometimes, Emily still misses her; sometimes, it’s even in a way that’s just her and not in connection or comparison to Naomi altogether. But then Emily knows there wasn’t any other way it could have gone; she came too close after, and Emily has since come to terms with the fact that sometimes, there are things she cannot help.

Emily thinks it’s a good place to start rebuilding as any.

*

On the day Effy leaves for the summer, Naomi’s the only one who sees her to the airport; it’s the middle of a sweltering afternoon, and Effy has nothing more than a single suitcase that can’t possibly have enough clothes to cover two fucking months.

“Are you sure you’re leaving with only that,” asks Naomi, right before Effy boards. Effy only smiles, looks away, and Naomi’s eyes drift over to a sign that says they can’t smoke here.

“Are you sure you’re still staying,” Effy asks back in response, tilting her head as she shifts her eyes over at Naomi again. “I mean, I did mention it’s fucking Cyprus, yeah?” Naomi knows Effy only means to tease but her voice comes off as completely soft that it throws Naomi entirely and the way Effy’s smiling isn’t making things any easier.

Naomi remembers how close she had come to saying yes; remembers everything that has gone down between this day and the day Emily left at the end of the year.

The day Naomi said no to this summer someplace else, Effy had just shrugged, her hands in her pockets. Naomi had said, “I need to do some thinking,” and Effy had only answered, “Okay.”

Naomi remembers how there was no hint of anger nor disappointment, though the sadness that seemed to wrap around the word, over and over in layers, had its way of haunting Naomi, time and again.

She does not see Effy much after that. Instead, in the days following Naomi just asks herself, as she goes over the days she’s spent with Effy – the Saturday-Sundays that bleed into each other, clotting only on Monday dawns; the afternoons after uni spent smoking at the empty football field; the way Effy tastes vividly like cigarettes when they kiss – Naomi asks herself if at some point, she was actually ever in love.

The thought that answers that makes her want to cry, not only because the answer teeters on no, but also because it fills Naomi with inexplicable regret. She can’t discount the fact that for a while, she looked at Effy and saw the beginning of something, and now here she is, realizing what it all was: Something she only saw because of how hard she wanted to at least see something.

Perhaps sensing how she’s been thinking, Effy reaches over, pushes Naomi’s hair to the side with her fingers. “Hey,” she just says, “Forget what I said, yeah?”

After a while, Naomi manages to laugh; Effy’s still, surprisingly, the best put-together, most well-adjusted person she knows. The urge to hug her is so strong, granted that Naomi hasn’t seen her for a while, but then Naomi holds herself back, settling instead for a hand on Effy’s suitcase-wielding arm. “Yeah,” Naomi just says, eyes moving around as a queue begins to form behind Effy. “Not going anywhere this time.”

Effy smiles at that. Someone talks into the PA system, and it makes Effy’s brow arch, slightly. She says, “Good,” and when she leans in to kiss Naomi, Effy’s lips don’t stay quite long enough. “Well then,” Effy says after, almost too quick to part. “Have a good summer.”

Naomi opens her eyes, slowly, breathing in. This time, she just tells herself, this time. “Have a good summer,” she says back in kind, and Effy smiles one last time before turning around.

Naomi stands there, watches as Effy enters the tube and disappears; deep inside, something tells her that when Effy gets back, it need not be so hard.

*

Katie calls Emily on a Saturday morning to ask where the fuck she is; Emily is reading the morning paper over coffee when her phone goes off, and she nearly falls off her chair as she scrambles to get it, picking up on the fourth ring.

“What,” Katie opens and Emily holds her breath, tries not to laugh out loud; it’s been days since she at least talked to anyone, much less on her fucking phone. “Where is fucking everyone? Isn’t school over? Aren’t you coming home for summer, Em?”

Emily takes a sip before, “It’s 9 in the morning Katie, why the fuck are you up this early?”

“I was out jogging,” Katie says. Emily imagines Katie in her jogging suit with her signature eye roll and Emily can’t help laughing; it’s the hardest she’s managed in days, weeks. “So what?” Katie asks, annoyed. “’Sides, no one to get smashed with here. Fucking summer this is.”

In the background, Emily can hear Katie forcibly fanning herself; Bristol must be positively burning, hence Katie’s temper, but a part of Emily’s actually *glad* to hear Katie sounding somewhat familiar. “Can’t be that bad,” Emily just says, smiling. And then, “Where is everyone?”

“I don’t fucking know,” Katie says, before, “Well, except Effy, I think she’s in Cyprus.” The word makes Emily recoil, a little; she stands up all too abruptly and spills a little of her coffee on the table. She pins her phone between ear and shoulder as she scrambles around for a tissue, hands a bit shaky. “Em,” Katie says, perhaps sensing the agitation. “She’s not with her, you know.”

Emily’s mouth is dry. “What?”

“Naomi, I meant,” says Katie. “She’s here. In Bristol.”

Emily lets out a breath she does not even mean to hold, to begin with. “Oh,” she just says, softly.

“She’s around, most days,” Katie continues. “Been asking about you. God, if I have to tell her one more time that I have no fucking clue when you’ll be back – really, Emily.”

Emily doesn’t say anything; downs instead the remaining coffee in her cup. She scrubs the table top dry one more time before tossing the tissue into the trash bin; she’s shaking her head, but she can’t seem to bring herself to say no.

“Come home, Em,” Katie pushes. “I mean, it’s me and her, yeah? That’s got to count.”

What Emily really wants to say is, Not now, not yet, but instead, what she comes up with is, “Give me time.” And then, “Let’s see, okay?” When she puts down the phone, she sighs, inhaling deep.

Emily is not ready. The last thing she needs is to be not ready, this time.

*

Naomi comes by on a Thursday. Katie comes to the door and greets her, smiling wearily, even when it’s only the middle of the afternoon; these days in Bristol, the heat seems to make people age faster.

“Did I come at a bad time?” Naomi asks, off the look on Katie’s face.

Katie rolls her eyes, but it’s just not the same anymore, as before. “If by that you mean, at a time when Emily’s not yet here – well, I guess you did,” she says. There’s a long silence as Naomi tries to pick herself up from yet another disappointment – these days, she gets up and thinks, in a few days Emily will be here, and then.

But Emily is still nowhere now, and Katie’s touching Naomi’s arm, slightly. “Want to come in?” Naomi shakes her head, shifts from one leg to the other. “Fine, a walk then,” says Katie, shutting the door behind her even as Naomi does not answer.

At the curb, Naomi lights a fag. For a while they walk aimlessly around – this place is so conducive to lots of these purpose-less walks, and Naomi has walked these streets lost with practically all the girls she knows; Naomi thinks about them as she exhales.

After a while, Katie says, “Emily’s coming back, you know,” and Naomi tries not to choke on smoke. “I mean, not right now, but she will, soon.”

“Categorical or conjecture?” asks Naomi, blowing smoke to the side, a column of smoke too thin escaping between her lips.

Katie shakes her head. “I don’t fucking know, okay,” she says, and Naomi looks at her tentatively before offering her lit fag. Katie looks at it for a moment, incredulous at first, before relaxing and leaning in, taking a drag; the whole thing somehow makes Naomi smile, and it makes her think about how far they’ve come, about the distance they’ve spanned from sniping at each other beside lockers to this agreeable sharing.

Katie coughs a little before asking, “What are you waiting for, Naomi?”

Naomi finds herself asking this same question often, these days; sometimes, the exercise does strike her as particularly futile. Naomi does not like waiting, not at all; but then, she remembers the last time she didn’t, and that’s all she has to do to get herself to stay put.

(For a moment, her thoughts drift to Effy and Riga and Cyprus before crashing back to Emily not being here, altogether; Naomi wonders just when and how these things just started getting so fucking painfully entwined.)

“You all right?” asks Katie, off the look that ghosts over Naomi’s face.

“A do-over,” Naomi just says, dropping what’s left of what they’re smoking. Katie frowns as Naomi steps on the butt and crushes it against the pavement. Seeing Katie’s furrowed brows, Naomi adds, “It’s what I’m waiting for.”

“What the fuck does that mean,” Katie just says, in a way that doesn’t really strike Naomi as a question; Katie does that often, Naomi has figured out as much in the days they’ve spent waiting together.

Naomi shrugs, takes a drag off a fresh cigarette; Katie flinches, perhaps at the speed with which Naomi’s smoking, but really, who gives a fuck. Naomi doesn’t really say anything, because she doesn’t know what it means, though it does sound like the best thing at the moment.

After a while, Katie says, “You thinking of getting back with her, then?” Naomi shrugs a little without even looking at Katie, her gaze fixed at some far away point as she draws from her fag, steadily. When there is no response, Katie decides to push: “What about Effy?”

Effy. Naomi twirls her name around in her head a bit, as she tries to remember a time when she almost started feeling differently. “Effy and I are friends,” Naomi only says, exhaling smoke to the side. For a moment, she nearly wants to make Katie see, just how it works between the two of them, but then suddenly, it all feels too vast and Naomi finds herself with no words.

Naomi only manages to shake her head as she says, “It’s a bit hard to explain.”

Katie shakes her head in kind as she looks away. “For fuck’s sake,” she just says, breathing out.

Naomi hangs her head at that, biting her lip. Somewhere inside, she wants to say sorry, but then she knows apologies don’t fix anything, after all.

*

Emily arrives in Bristol unannounced, weeks after Katie’s phone call. She takes a cab from the airport with her phone turned off and knocks on the door to their house as if she just came from somewhere nearby.

When Katie opens the door and sees who’s on the other side, her jaw drops, hangs a little; she takes half a minute before she can say the softest, “Em.” Fifteen more seconds later, Katie recovers with, “What the fucking hell, Emily,” before punching Emily on the shoulder and then dragging her inside.

“Well,” Emily just says, rubbing the space Katie hit, her steady smile interrupted by a wince, but only briefly. “Katie.”

“I’ve been trying to get you on your fucking phone all day, you stupid fucking cow.”

Emily retrieves her phone from a pocket and waves it a little, showing Katie just why she’s been out of reach. “Sorry about that,” she says, but in a way that Katie can easily tell is not contrite at all. “Planes.”

Katie rolls her eyes before hitting Emily again on her other shoulder with a balled fist; this time it’s a little less painful, though Emily chooses to humor her a little with a wince just the same. “But really Em,” Katie says, clearing her throat, face growing more serious. “You should have called. We would have picked you up, yeah?”

Setting her suitcase down by the foot of the stairs, Emily just nods and shrugs. When she looks back up, Katie’s looking at her with her arms crossed, and her lips don’t move as she says, “Emily.”

Emily’s brows furrow at that; that isn’t Katie at all. As she straightens herself, her eyes drift over and beyond Katie’s shoulder and there Naomi is, standing by the doorway to the kitchen and looking at her with that half-smile; Emily feels the beginning of an all-too-familiar thrum in her chest and suddenly, the world feels too small and air, so little.

“Oh,” is all Emily manages, for the time being; Naomi has her way of disarming people, and Emily, after all this time, seems to have not built any defenses at all. She stares into Naomi’s eyes, unable to do anything else until Naomi herself looks away.

Naomi just says, “What took you so long?”

Emily takes a moment to breathe; her heart’s beating too close to the roof of her chest, and it’s making it so hard to speak. “You look like you could use a glass of water,” Katie breaks in, clearing her throat. And then, looking over at Naomi behind her, she just says, “Today’s a good day, yeah?”

Naomi laughs, and if that isn’t the loveliest thing Emily has heard all day – truth be told, Emily doesn’t know of any other thing that comes close.

*

Naomi’s in the kitchen slicing limes when she realizes that there’s another voice in the living room, a long while after Katie left to open the door; it’s a Saturday night and the Fitch house is empty, save for Katie, who had insisted on staying.

“Just in case,” was what she said, on the phone with Naomi that morning, and of course Naomi understood without the need for so many words; it’s become so automatic and ordinary, this understanding, and it’s been a while since Naomi’s been so comfortable with something that used to be so strained.

Naomi comes by a few hours later, around noon, volunteering to help with lunch. She’s holding a bottle of tequila in one hand when she shows up at the door and Katie notes it with a smirk that’s actually more of a smile. “Quite early for this, yeah?” Katie says, taking the bottle as Naomi comes in. Katie’s got something like pasta going in the kitchen, and Naomi’s chest tightens, a little.

The afternoon goes fairly well and sober; Naomi tunes in to hippos on National Geographic and Katie actually lets her, even managing an amused, “Cute,” that Katie barely remembers to attach a mandatory eye roll to. It’s quiet, and it’s nothing like how Naomi had imagined being alone with Katie, years ago, but really, there are no complaints.

Other than the fact that Emily’s not here, Naomi thinks everything is rather fine. After more animal documentaries over dinner of leftover puttanesca, Katie suggests they open the tequila; Naomi goes into the kitchen without having to be told, finds the limes so easily with a disconcerting familiarity with the place that betrays just how much time she’s spent here.

When there’s a knock on the door, Katie flashes Naomi a somehow panicked look from across the kitchen counter; Katie’s just horribly transparent about unexpected things that Naomi almost volunteers to get it, had Katie not held up a hand and gone on ahead herself after a particularly long intake of breath.

There’s a long silence that comes after the sound of the door opening, and Naomi unconsciously tightens her hold on the knife. They are so hushed and the silence stills Naomi’s heart. She stops her hand from slicing, listens in and with every second that Katie is quiet, Naomi starts feeling all too afraid and expectant at the same time that it feels like it’s tearing at her skin.

The moment Emily speaks, Naomi’s heart rushes to her throat and lodges itself there; it leaves her chest feeling too wide and painfully vacant. Naomi takes a moment to compose herself before walking to the door leading into the living room.

She breathes in deep, says a name she knows so well. “Emily.” It rolls off her tongue comfortably; it tastes sweet, like all good beginnings. Emily looks at her with those eyes and Naomi sees something unexpectedly hopeful.

*

Emily wonders how things start as one thing and end as another; like how, just a few hours before, she was sober on a plane back to Bristol, and how now, here she is, having a round of drinks with Katie and Naomi, of all people.

“So much for your welcome back party, yeah?” asks Katie, downing another shot, making a face right after the lime; Emily laughs and soon, Naomi is, too, stopping only the moment they catch each other’s eyes.

“Couldn’t think of a better way this could’ve gone down, honestly,” Emily says, waiting for Naomi to fill her shot glass just right with a trembling hand. “Are you too drunk for that, Nae?” she teases and Naomi glares at her with a soft, “Fuck off,” before shoving the shot glass toward her.

“Is that right,” Katie says, slurring slightly now. Emily downs the shot then wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, grinning. Naomi hands the bottle over to Emily, a smug smirk on her face, and Emily takes it gingerly, carefully tipping it into the glass. “I was hoping for a larger party,” adds Katie.

“Like the one at the end of last year,” says Naomi. And then, “You’re taking fucking forever with that, Em.”

“Shut up,” Emily just says, spilling a little as she laughs; in a bit, they’re all laughing in kind, and Naomi seemingly forgets about her drink for a while as they indulge themselves in pointless laughter. Emily can’t even wrap her head around just how much she’s missed this; looks at Naomi and Katie instead while negotiating with this fond feeling that nearly suffocates her. “Katie,” she says, after it subsides. “We can still have one, you know. Not like summer’s ending tomorrow, for fuck’s sake.”

“This time,” Naomi says, downing her drink in kind before setting her eyes on Emily, heavily. “This time we can hang out, yeah?”

Emily looks at her, and the way she actually manages without flinching is a testament to the amount of alcohol she’s ingested thus far. “No more pointless walks around the neighborhood,” Emily says, barely having the time to think about how she’s finding it too easy to refer to these things in the midst of this intoxication, as if it hadn’t been this thoroughly heartbreaking thing all that while. After a moment they even both start laughing, again. “That would be lovely, won’t it?” Emily just says.

Katie jumps in and says, “Yes, it fucking would,” before adding, “Let’s all get out of here for fags, yeah?” Emily looks at Naomi a final time before picking herself up unsteadily and then absently reaching for Naomi’s hand to pull her up. The hand is taken all too absently as well, and it doesn’t even burn, the space where they touch, or at least, not until a very long while after.

They make their way to the front door, adjusting the hems of their shirts and skirts; Katie reaches for the knob, pushes the both of them out, before locking up behind her.

Emily falls against Naomi, who laughs lightly at the contact; Emily looks away and says sorry, softly. “Fucking Katie,” she just says, when she finally manages something, and Katie, who’s already ahead a few steps, says something like, I fucking heard you, Em. Naomi just laughs again, lighter still.

“Still always pushing you around, yeah?” Naomi says, rolling her eyes in jest.

Emily sighs, “We’ve come so far, but not too far,” she just says; unexpectedly, the thought even strikes her rather fondly and without the bitterness she had foreseen. “What about you?”

“Me?” Naomi repeats, laughing a little louder. “Far enough, I think.” She pauses briefly before shifting her eyes to Emily, in that deliberate manner that always leaves Emily feeling rather raw. “And you?”

“So far, but not too far,” Emily just says again.

“Not talking about the same thing anymore, Em,” Naomi says.

Emily shakes her head, “No, not anymore,” she says, clearing her throat. “I know.”

*

Katie’s already on her way out when they reach the convenience store; Emily shivers slightly as a cold gust of air comes after her as she opens the door a bit too wide. “What the fuck took you so long?” Katie asks, annoyed but still not enough for Katie’s usual standards; Emily toys briefly with the phrase, losing your touch, as Katie settles by the curb and pulls out a fag before tossing the pack to Naomi.

Naomi rolls her eyes as she receives it, passes it on to Emily after. “Sorry,” Emily says, lighting up. “A little catching up to do.”

Katie scoffs a little, rolls her eyes, but Emily can see how it’s still in jest. “Well, I’ll go on ahead then,” Katie sighs, “I’ll see the both of you home, yeah?” Emily watches as Katie’s eyes shift over from hers to Naomi’s, and it’s only then that Emily’s mind clears long enough to get her to wonder what exactly happened when she wasn’t around.

Naomi says, “Right,” in a way that takes Emily by surprise, in a way that amplifies the length of time she’s in fact missed. Katie even smiles as she says, “Enjoy. Whatever,” and Naomi tosses back the pack of cigarettes in her hand with a slight wave.

As they enter the store, Emily asks when things such as she and Katie being so damned agreeable started happening; Naomi only laughs as she says, “Kind of hard to pinpoint exactly,” as her hand tightens around Emily’s wrist. Despite herself, Emily blushes, feeling all too young.

“Well, that was,” Emily says, running an absent finger along the stacks as they walk along. “That would have been helpful. You know. Before.”

“You mean, when we were together.” The way Naomi says it – so matter-of-fact and without hesitation – puts a painful lump in Emily’s throat, and just like that, the brief moment of suspended belief is broken, and Emily’s back to the place she left as how she had left it.

Naomi loosens her hold bit by bit before letting go altogether; Emily tries to nod, pretends to busy herself with the nutritional information of a random box of cereal to keep herself from crying. The effort fails magnificently, but Naomi thankfully doesn’t mention it; says instead, “Well, I guess, certain things take more time.”

Emily puts the box back on the shelf, taps the one standing next to it absently while rubbing at her face with her other hand. “I mean, don’t get me wrong,” she says, without looking at Naomi. “I think it’s nice, you and Katie.”

“You make it sound like I’m dating your sister, Em,” says Naomi, though the attempt at humor at this point just falls short; instead the thought hits Emily rather unexpectedly feasible that she steps back and away from her, a little. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, seriously?” Naomi just says, off Emily’s reaction, and Naomi reaches over for Emily’s hand again, her light laugh a bit awkward at the edges. Emily’s still not looking when Naomi says, softly, “Don’t be ridiculous, Emily.”

Emily sighs. “Sorry, it’s just…” she means to say, Too fucking late, but then that’s to assume the only reason Naomi and Katie are friends is her, when the truth is that Emily is learning this slowly, how not everything should be about her – not after she’s been gone for a long while. The whole process is painful, like flaying. “I’ve been gone a long time, haven’t I?” she says instead.

“How long do you have now?” Naomi asks, biting her lip at the look Emily gives her. “Well, we know you’re not staying long; you’re not so fond of that, lately.”

“Nae,” Emily says, though she doesn’t bother to come up with an excuse or a denial; she thinks it will be useless, for the most part, since Naomi apparently still knows her too well. “Three, four days,” she says. “A week, at most, but no more than.”

Naomi looks up briefly before laughing, shrugging lightly. “We should pick up a few more bottles of vodka then,” she says, “Katie’s party has to be rushed, yeah?”

*

At the counter, Emily hangs back a little, hugging three bottles to her chest, in addition to the bottles in Naomi’s basket. “Wednesday,” she says softly, the store quiet save for the hum of the aircon and the soft ding of the cash register. Naomi looks over her shoulder, wordless. Emily says again, “Wednesday. My flight’s Wednesday.”

For a moment, Naomi goes pale. When she recovers, she says, “Well,” as she shakes her head. “You’re really bad at estimating things. You call that ‘a week at most’?” And when Emily doesn’t say anything as she moves to gather the bottles in plastic bags, Naomi asks, “When were you planning on telling Katie?”

“In the morning?” says Emily, shrugging. “I mean, for fuck’s sake, I just got here.”

Outside, Naomi takes a moment to slide her cigarette pack out of a pocket; she breathes in deep before lighting one and taking a drag, exhaling longer than Emily thinks is actually possible. “Just a question,” Naomi says, a long while after. They’re still standing outside the store and Emily really doesn’t mind, not moving. “Why the rush?”

“What?” Emily says, stepping forward so that she’s beside Naomi now, reaching over for a fag herself. “It’s not that I’m hurrying, Naomi, it’s just…”

“It’s just that you don’t like to stay,” Naomi says, and Emily flinches at how, even after all this time, Naomi still manages to end her sentences for her. Emily doesn’t say anything; not that she has to, even, and Naomi starts walking.

They’re quiet throughout, worrying their own cigarettes, and the clinking of the bottles as they move is all the sound there is. When they reach the doorstep to the Fitch house, Naomi just says, before knocking, “You’re going to break your sister’s heart.”

Emily pauses for a while, flustered. “You say it like I mean to,” she says, recovering.

Naomi looks away, sighs as she lowers her hand previously poised for knocking. “I mean, it’s just that – it’s summer Em,” she says, softly. “You know what summer used to mean?”

Emily closes her eyes against the influx of everything; sometimes, when she thinks about that summer, it feels so long ago, but right now it suddenly feels so near anyway, so clear, and though Emily’s heart is feeling quite worn, the way Naomi says the word ‘summer’ makes her wish she can overlook the things that have gone down in between.

When Emily opens her eyes, Naomi’s looking right back at her, in a way that makes Emily feel like she’s going to get positively kissed; Emily grips her heart, firmly, as she tells herself there are things that are worth waiting for, if this is to work at all, and as Naomi leans in, Emily plants a hand, softly, right in the middle of Naomi’s chest.

Catching herself, Naomi pulls back, as if burned by Emily’s hand. “Fuck,” she says, “I’m sorry, I…” The rest of it dissolves in an all-too-pained laugh. “Obviously, there are things that are easy to fall back into.”

Emily clears her throat. “It’s not that I…” she pauses a bit, contemplates if this is the right time to actually bring it up. “I mean. What about Effy?”

“Are you asking because there’s someone else?” asks Naomi, and she’s still close enough for Emily to manage to see how Naomi’s eyes just darkened slightly.

Emily shakes her head, “I’m asking because I don’t know,” she only says.

“Well, in case Katie hasn’t told you,” Naomi begins, running a hand into her hair. “Right now, Effy’s in fucking Cyprus.” She pauses a little, before, “And I’m right here. Obviously.”

After a while, Emily manages to smile, a bit. “You never really told me about Effy,” she says.

“You didn’t have time to listen, remember.”

With that, Emily sets her bottles aside, putting them down slowly by the door before sitting down on the edge of their doorstep. “Well then,” she says, looking up at Naomi who’s still standing and motioning absently for a cigarette. “I have time now.”

Naomi looks at her, shifts from one leg to the other uncertainly before settling right beside her, handing over the box of fags. “All right,” she just says, before breathing in.