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ii.

Emily hits the ground running when she gets back to uni; unlike the previous year, when she had at least a couple of months before things got crazy, this year’s proving to be a little harder, a little faster, and by the end of the first month she’s already thigh-deep into readings and various papers.

She doesn’t run into Lily until the third week, at the library. They’re queuing at the check-out counter when Lily comes up first and says hello.

Emily beams, gushes briefly about the speed with which things are coming down, altogether, like a flash flood. “How are you,” she says after the litany, breathless. “I mean, I don’t think we have any classes together this time.”

Lily shakes her head. “No, I don’t think so.” She smiles a bit too tightly that Emily actually notices, and they stand side by side just like that, quiet as they wait for the line to move.

When she’s done, Emily heads out with a soft, “Bye,” that she barely hears Lily’s response to. Outside, with the setting late afternoon sun in her face, she thinks about heading home altogether; but then after much deliberation, she hangs around anyway, smoking by the steps and waiting for Lily to come out.

Emily drops her fag and comes up to Lily when she does.

“I thought you’d already left,” says Lily, tucking her hair behind her ear, and Emily is jolted with a flash memory of Naomi doing the exact same thing. Blinking and refocusing her eyes, Emily sees how Lily’s hair has grown longer, and how she’s a bit tanner than a few months ago.

“Nice tan,” she offers, smiling weakly. “Fun summer?”

Lily smiles and says, “Cyprus.”

What were the fucking chances, Emily thinks, smile fading completely as another one of those familiar heavy things begin to wrap around her heart tightly at the thought. Lily looks upon her with a question, and Emily just says, “Oh, I just remembered something.”

“Oh alright,” Lily just says, and for a long while there is silence. Emily lights another fag and drops her bag on the steps, offers her pack to Lily in kind. As Lily takes one, she asks, “So how’s your summer?”

Emily takes a drag before saying, “Bristol. Nothing too interesting.”

“So how’s things with Naomi then?” Lily asks without much ceremony and Emily flinches at the speed. There’s Lily for you, she thinks, always the one with the curve ball. Lily smiles slyly at her even, as she takes a drag.

“Better,” says Emily, nodding into her cigarette. “I mean, compared to the last time, much better.”

“Did you get back together?” she asks.

Emily exhales smoke to the side. “Lily,” she says, sighing.

“Emily,” Lily says back, just as emphatically. “It’s just a question.”

Emily pauses a while, worries her cigarette some more. “Well, no,” she just says, putting into words the events of her brief summer in Bristol for the first time. “Or at least, not yet.”

Lily draws in a breath faintly, and Emily looks away. She does not want to think about how horrible a person she’s been to Lily, all this time, because honestly she’s trying to make amends. After a while, Lily manages a curt, “That’s great news.”

They are quiet for a bit. Emily drops her fag as she says, “We should go have dinner sometime,” And then, “Catch up, that sort.”

When Lily looks at her, Emily realizes for the first time, how she can still see the faintest traces of a failed love affair. “Maybe not,” Lily declines, smiling prettily as she turns her face away, and suddenly Emily is overwhelmed by the things she had once loved about this girl, coming at her all at the same time, as if a dam holding them were breaking. “Not yet, Emily, yeah? Surely, you’d understand?”

Emily bites her lip, stops herself from reaching out and stroking the side of her face. She swallows the lumps in her throat as she nods. “Yeah,” she says quietly. “Of course.”

Lily takes one more hit, deep and slow, before dropping her fag altogether and crushing it under a heel. “I’m not angry,” she says quietly. “We’re okay, but I…” she breathes in, braces herself. “It still hurts to be around you, you know?”

“I’m sorry, Lils, I really, really…”

“I know, ‘kay? Give it time.” And then, “You’ll be fine. Someday, I will be, too.”

Emily follows her with her eyes as she walks away, bag slung over a shoulder, a pile of books hugged to her chest. She asks herself if she would have done it any other way with her, given a chance; if she would have stayed away, if she would have preferred to stay friends, had she known then that this is how it ends.

Much to her surprise, Emily finds herself instead thankful – that once she had Lily, and that once they tried.

*

Naomi doesn’t see Effy until a month after her return, and when she does, it’s as if Effy hasn’t been to Cyprus at all, if the changes in her skin color or the lack thereof should be any indication. Effy’s still as pale as before, and her decision to stay under the radar all that while feels all too painfully deliberate; this much Naomi knows.

“Something the matter,” asks Naomi, when she finally gets wind of Effy in uni. They’re in between classes and Naomi nearly bumps into her in one of the rarely visited corridors. “I haven’t seen you since—well, since you left.”

“Sorry about that,” Effy says flatly, without even looking. “Jet lag.”

Naomi tries not to wince at this tone; after all, she very well deserves it. “How was Cyprus?” she tries instead, shoving a hand in a pocket, feeling for a fag.

“Hot. Uneventful,” says Effy, looking for the first time now. She has that look in her eyes again, where she’s almost smiling but not quite. “You made a good call, not coming.”

“Effy.”

“I heard Emily came back,” says Effy, clearing her throat and sliding out a fag in the middle of a corridor no one’s supposed to smoke in. Naomi looks up, tries to find a smoke sensor and finds none. “How’d that go?”

Naomi worries her lip briefly before going ahead with, “Unexpectedly nice.” And then, “Surely, Cyprus wasn’t that bad, was it.”

“Of course not,” Effy manages a laugh even, a little. “But still, hot. Though I never said uneventful necessarily equated to bad in my book.” She leans back against the wall, lights up before closing her eyes as she takes a drag, head falling back. “There was a girl, you know.”

Strangely, Naomi feels betrayed, as if this were the sort of relationship where the sort of feeling’s actually justified. She looks away as she lights up her own, inhaling to calm herself. “That’s great,” she says quietly, though she’s still not looking anyway; she leans against the wall herself, alongside Effy, mindful of the requisite space between.

“If it’s any consolation,” Effy begins, “She reminded me of you.”

Naomi closes her eyes against that. What the fuck, she thinks, reminds herself how she once thought it was all going to be easier, after. This time. “Effy.”

Effy breathes in, takes in a lungful of smoke before, “So. Are you back together or what?”

What? Naomi still has her eyes closed as she lets herself laugh, no matter how weird it just strikes her, to be laughing just then. Effy reverts to normal so quickly, it’s hard to see the girl she once was when she was younger because it’s just so far away. “Well,” Naomi says, opening her eyes, “No, not really.”

Effy takes another drag, looking at her with all too bright eyes. “Intriguing,” she just says, lips faintly curling into a smile.

They spend the rest of the afternoon out on the empty football field, smoking side by side but not quite touching. They look out to the field ahead, legs splayed out in front of them, watching the grass change color as dusk sets in and night falls. They say nothing else – nothing of Emily, nothing of Cyprus – and all things considered, Naomi feels like it’s more than enough.

(She walks Effy home after, just before dinner. In front of the Stonem house, Naomi asks, “We’re good, yeah?” and Effy just nods. They hug upon parting and nothing more; Naomi thinks it’s fitting, this.)

*

iii.

The next time Naomi sees Emily, it’s several months later. As per usual, Emily comes into Bristol without so much of a phone call, knocks on the door to the Fitch house on a Friday night as if she were the next-door neighbor.

Naomi’s at the Fitches, wrapping presents with Katie; Katie’s in the middle of finishing up a ribbon when the knock comes. She looks up at Naomi from across the living room table as she mutters, “Fucking hell.”

Naomi rolls her eyes as she stands up, smirks at how Katie’s still got her finger trapped in a knot. “Sometimes I wish James was here as an errand boy,” Naomi says, but then upon remembering how he’s as annoying as any adolescent boy is wont to be, she flashes Katie a knowing look that shushes her complaints completely.

Emily’s not even on Naomi’s mind when she opens the door; when she does, there’s little she can do to stop her mind from practically overflowing with all that she sees. Emily’s wearing a hat that’s all too soft and a smile that Naomi nearly kisses off her face, if not for the splendid self-restraint she has been building for herself all these months.

“Jesus,” Naomi says instead, touching her lip absently with a hand.

“Heard pretty much the same thing about Christmas,” Emily just says, clearing her throat. Predictably, too much holiday drinking does wonderful things to her voice that it turns hoarse and nearly unbearably sexy. Emily smiles for a bit before a look of confusion glides over her face. “Wait, I do have the right house, yeah?”

At that point, Katie calls her from behind. “Em?” Naomi turns her head, sees Katie with this genuinely soft look of shock on her face that is surprisingly endearing; had she been her college self, truth be told, Naomi would have burst out laughing right then and there, but right now, there’s nothing but this warm feeling spreading all over her chest like candle wax.

Emily steps in, walks past her at the door and Katie throws a hug around her and practically giggles. Katie takes another split-second before the hug breaks and she’s hitting Emily again with an open palm against Emily’s arm. “What the fuck,” Katie’s saying, seemingly coming to her senses, and Naomi looks away with an amused smile. “Do you not know how to call home anymore?”

“Nice to be back, yeah,” Emily just says, grinning at Naomi, and Katie just hits her again.

“Fucking cow,” Katie scowls, though Naomi can see how the affection shines through the mock spite. “Next time, just fucking call, yeah?”

Emily nods absently, but then Naomi follows her eyes as they fall onto the half-finished presents Katie left on the living room table. “You’re wrapping presents?” she asks, the smile on her face absolutely incredulous.

“Well,” Katie says, crossing her arms across herself. “Someone’s got to,” she just says. And then, “Just because you’re living your free-wheeling, drunken life in uni doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t have time to wrap presents like you.”

Emily bites her lip, and Naomi catches on the attempt to not laugh and follows in kind. “You’ll be surprised,” she just says, and Katie just scoffs before getting back to the table and resuming her interrupted work. “Whatever. There’s food in the kitchen.”

“What she means,” Naomi says finally, a cautious hand on Emily’s arm, trying to be casual, to appear as if her world’s not tilting several degrees sideways all over again, just having her this close after a long while. “Is that there’s still vodka in the cupboards.”

Emily’s eyes widen and brighten perceptibly as she says, “You can’t be serious.” Naomi just arches her brow, and Emily adds, “From summer. Seriously.”

“Some things we just don’t run out of, Ems,” Naomi just says, heading into the kitchen, and the footsteps she hears after her own just make her want to smile wider.

*

Katie finishes wrapping her gifts around past midnight to the sound of Emily and Naomi giggling drunkenly while lying on the floor beside the living room table, passing a bottle of vodka to and fro like fucking good old times.

“You useless, useless cunts,” Katie just says, tying a final ribbon. She looks over at the two of them, lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor, so close but not quite touching, and scoffs a little at their ridiculous drunken state. Emily’s saying something about a lake, and Naomi’s saying something about bicycles.

Katie does not like admitting this to herself, but a part of her does feel happy, even just a little bit.

*

Emily wakes around past three, on the floor of their living room, fully clothed. Naomi’s right beside her, and the empty bottle of vodka is lying on its side, just inches off Naomi’s arm. The living room is dark, save for the glow of street lamps from the window; Katie must have gone ahead to bed without waking them. Something rustles on the floor lightly as she pushes herself to her elbows.

Naomi stirs lightly, and then, perhaps sensing is amiss, she jolts herself awake with a shocked, “Shit.” And then, facing Emily with a smile, she asks, “Fuck, what time is it?”

“3,” Emily says, and Naomi groans, trying to hoist herself up and failing, a hand to her temple. Emily reaches out, holds on to her wrist. “Stay.” She knows she’s holding too long, judging by how Naomi’s quiet for a considerable while, but she doesn’t let go, not even when Naomi’s skin feels like it’s burning in her hand.

“At least let me settle on the couch,” Naomi says finally.

“What’s wrong with my bed?”

Naomi sighs, runs a hand through her hair. “Emily.”

Emily breathes in, tries to remind herself of who Naomi is and isn’t at this point in time. “I meant, take my bed, it’s not like I’m sleeping in it.”

“I’m not letting you take the bloody couch, if that’s what you mean.”

“I’m turning the telly on,” says Emily, smiling.

Naomi tries to smile through what seems to Emily as the slow descent of hangover upon her head. Emily resists the urge to touch Naomi’s temple, to press accordingly on spots she knows so well. “Fine then,” Naomi relents. “Jet lag?”

“Yeah,” Emily just says, stifling a yawn. “Just go, yeah? Not like Katie minds, I think.”

Naomi shrugs, pauses for a minute at the stair landing, looking at Emily for a long time before going on ahead and climbing. Upon the sound of a door opening and closing, Emily allows herself to sink into the couch and closes her eyes. She doesn’t turn the telly on; not for a long time.

*

Katie wakes her a couple of hours later, bounding down the stairs in jogging pants, earphones hanging down her shoulders. “I’m going out for a run,” she says. “Naomi’s upstairs – what the fuck?”

“She’s got a hangover,” says Emily, rubbing her eyes furiously. “’Sides, it’s too late to send her home, have a fucking heart.”

“Totally not my point, you cunt,” Katie says, whispering in a way that’s totally audible, it’s practically useless. “I meant, what the fuck, alone?”

Emily blinks the sleep out of her eyes, reminds herself again, how Katie and Naomi are actually friends now; she sighs before saying, “Kay.” Truth is that she totally does not have what it takes to explain anything, least of all to Katie, sleep being at the top of the list of requirements for effective explanations. “It’s complicated, yeah?”

“Well,” Katie says, straightening herself up. “Do yourself and your back a favor anyway by taking my bed, Christ,” she rolls her eyes, pulling lightly at Emily’s collar. “And for fuck’s sake, change.” And then, “Just fucking go.”

Emily lets herself be hauled to the foot of the stairs, and Katie puts her earphones on. Emily vaguely recognizes the faint faraway sound of Fergie; she waits until Katie’s gone before laughing a little out loud.

*

Emily pauses at the door, watches as the faint light of the barely-there morning wafts into the room past the curtains and falls onto Naomi’s hand, and it hits her spectacularly hard just then, how much she misses Naomi in ways she’s been denying herself for quite a long while now. She rubs at her eyes and tells herself maybe she only needs to sleep it off.

(When she does, she dreams of kissing her like they never have to stop ever again.)

*

When Naomi wakes, it’s to the sight of Emily sleeping on Katie’s bed; she has an arm fallen down the edge, and her hand nearly touches the floor. When Naomi’s eyes come to focus, she’s staring at Emily’s palm, at the shadows her fingers make under the steady midday sun from the window, and eventually, at the space between Emily’s bed and hers.

Emily stirs a little, her lips twitching, and Naomi looks away, trying to block this warm fond feeling in her chest that has her holding her breath.

Naomi pushes herself off the bed, thinks about moving over and settling at the space Emily has made, subconsciously, a soft curve between her knees and chest, before dismissing the thought altogether with a long and soft exhale.

She’s wondering how long she can hold her end up for Emily and this in-between; Naomi decides to take it one day at a time, for as long as she has to, and in her head, that sounds just fine.

*

This time, there is no yearend party. On the last afternoon of the year, Emily takes Naomi for a walk.

“No bicycles, yeah?” asks Naomi.

“No,” says Emily, shaking her head, “Just feet.”

It’s a quiet thing altogether; when they meet on the street where Naomi lives, Emily smiles a little, and Naomi tilts her head in kind. “What are you up to, Fitch?” she asks slyly, a corner of her mouth upturned.

Emily shoves her hands in her pockets, sways a little on her heels. “Nothing, really,” she says.

And she means it, actually, when she says she just wants to walk; she stares at her shoes too long, one after the other on the pavement beneath. They say nothing, mostly, and Naomi doesn’t even seem to mind, not even when she moves in and takes Naomi’s hand casually in hers, pulling slightly.

Near the far end of the town, Emily decides to sit on the steps of an old rundown theater, dusts the space beside her and motions for Naomi to join her. The wind has started getting a bit chilly with the coming of evening. Naomi shivers a little, rubbing her arms before settling down beside Emily in kind.

“You weren’t kidding when you said you weren’t up to anything, were you,” says Naomi, and Emily laughs along when Naomi starts giggling lightly.

“I don’t know,” Emily shrugs, clearing her throat. “I was thinking, maybe, a change in traditions would be nice.”

“No yearend party, check.”

Emily grins. “No trips to lakes on bicycles, check.”

Naomi smiles, a little, but for the most part, she’s mostly unable to sustain it. She’s quiet for a while, before finally, she asks, “What’s so bad about our traditions?”

“Well, new ones need not necessarily replace old ones,” says Emily. “But they should be welcome, yeah? New things.”

Naomi nods and exhales. “Good point,” she just says.

They’re quiet a good while after that. Emily breaks the silence when she slides out a pack of fags, lights one and then offers the pack to Naomi, who leans into Emily’s cupped hands to keep the flame alive just enough. She’s so close, and it’s not like Emily can help herself from looking.

Upon exhaling, Naomi just says, “Things won’t change, would they?”

“No,” Emily says, shaking her head slightly and shifting her eyes. “I’d be there. You’d be here. Distance between.”

Naomi takes a long drag before sighing longer, thin smoke coming out of her lips, and ultimately says nothing.

“That is sort of the point, though,” says Emily, flicking the ash off her cigarette. She breathes in, tells herself, might as well now than later. “Things can’t change, but we can, yeah?” And then, “Grow older, I meant?”

Naomi purses her lips, looking entirely unconvinced, and Emily’s heart plummets painfully. “It’s a default setting, innit?” she says, and Emily has to hold her breath to keep her heart from hitting the floor. “Aging. You hopeful that would be it?”

Emily leans in closer. “What do you think, Nae?” She stares at the skin of Naomi’s throat move as Naomi swallows visibly before taking a final drag off her cigarette and turning her face the other way, ostensibly to exhale. Naomi taps her foot slightly before moving in for one more fag.

They finish three more fags each before they face each other again.

“So I’d be here, yeah,” Naomi asks softly.

Emily responds with, “And I’d be coming back.”

Naomi turns her wrist, palm up, and opens her hand. When Emily slides her hand into hers, she just thinks, It is time.#