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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.

Chapter Text

Naomi tells her about Riga, properly; it’s different than New Year’s, because the air feels much clearer, for one, and Emily’s feeling all too sober, for another. Naomi thinks it did help that Emily managed to stop them before the night went horribly awry, that moment she leaned in and tried; somehow, she even finds the restraint admirable, if only a bit unfamiliar, since between the two of them, she remembers Emily to be the one with her heart more visible on her sleeve. Naomi takes a moment to wonder what it is that changed all that; reminds herself to ask, later, when it’s her turn to field questions.

Right now though, Emily’s asking, “Were you ever in love with her, then? All that time in between?”

Naomi only says, “It’s just different, I guess,” as she takes a drag so deep the flame nearly reaches the filter; she looks at the butt one last time before flicking it onto the street. Naomi estimates it must be half past three by now, and the streets are empty and quiet. “Though I wouldn’t call it that.”

“Oh,” Emily just manages, her fag dying right between her fingers; the way the ash has built up at its tip gives it all away, how Emily hasn’t moved for a long time, just sitting there and breathing and hanging on to Naomi’s story all the while. “What would you call it then?”

Naomi sighs. “It’s an understanding, Em,” she says, moving in and gently dislodging the cigarette butt from Emily’s fingers. “At some point, I may have misread it, but in the end it was very clear.”

Naomi tells her of the day she said no to Cyprus, how Effy had looked heartbroken but not quite enough. “Though it’s Effy, you know,” she just says after, shrugging. “At some point, I thought I was getting through, but looking back at everything, I have to wonder if I ever really did.”

Emily’s mostly quiet after that, speaking only to ask for a cigarette every now and then; Naomi looks at her and worries that she’s probably said too much. On Emily’s third cigarette, Naomi finally asks, “What about you?” And then, “I mean, this is thoroughly one-sided and unfair.” She rubs at her nose tentatively, waits for a sign.

Emily breathes in, deep; in the distance, Naomi can almost see the faintest trace of light as dawn starts breaking. “There was someone,” Emily begins, and Naomi holds her breath, stares at how Emily’s face is lit up slowly in the sunrise. “She was a lot like you.”

Naomi doesn’t know what to say to that; there’s too many things going there, in only so many words. She. Someone. Was. Was. Naomi sighs as she reaches for Emily’s hand. “Go on,” Naomi says, when she gets enough strength for it. When she sees Emily hesitate a little, she adds, “Come on, we’ve gone this far.”

Emily opens her hand a little before closing in, tighter. Her hands are as soft as Naomi remembers.

*

It feels odd, trying to tell Naomi about Lily, since she’s never really talked about Lily to anyone before, and Emily is realizing only now, how difficult it actually is to assign words to things.

“I’m sorry,” Emily says, sniffing lightly. Slowly, it is getting warm with the approach of morning. “I’ve never had to talk about her before, you know.”

“’S’alright,” Naomi says, smiling lopsidedly even. “You don’t really have to, you know.”

It strikes Emily as awfully familiar, and for the first time, it is Naomi who reminds Emily of Lily, and not the other way around; Emily’s heart constricts at the thought, involuntarily. “That’s exactly what she said,” Emily finds herself saying, rubbing her chest absently. Too many cigarettes, she figures, catching her breath; that and the early morning cold. “I mean. When I first told her about you.”

There’s a slight change of mood that glides over Naomi’s face; a subtle shift into being slightly more involved. “You told her about me?”

Emily has to laugh a little at how she sounds so surprised. “Of course I did,” Emily says, and for a while, Naomi even laughs along, the spell abruptly interrupted only when something gets caught in Emily’s throat and she starts coughing. Naomi’s expression turns immediately to a frown.

“Was there already something going on, before Christmas?” Naomi asks quietly, rubbing Emily’s back absently.

“I wanted to tell you, but—”

“You didn’t have time, I figured out as much,” Naomi just says, though it hits Emily less accusatory than expected.

After a while, Emily says, “I’m sorry.” The sun is up high enough that she has to shield her eyes with a hand.

Naomi looks out in kind, squinting. “We’ve been sorry enough,” she says. “I think it’s time to feel something else.”

Emily follows Naomi with her eyes as she moves up and dusts herself; Naomi stands between the sun and Emily and the light goes around her in a way that makes her pleasantly glow. “I guess it’s time we go in, yeah?” Naomi says, extending one hand down to Emily, the other picking up the long-forgotten bottles. “I’m bloody exhausted.”

Emily smiles, takes her hand and moves toward the door; she knocks a few times and waits. It’s too early in the morning, and for all they know Katie might not even hear, but Emily really doesn’t care.

Naomi holds on all the while.

*

Katie opens the door after a good round of loud knocking; she looks at them with bleary eyes, which she rubs absently with a hand. She says, “What the fuck?” first, before going for a softer, “What the fuck took you so long?”

“We were right here,” Naomi says, tightening her grip on Emily’s hand.

“I fell asleep on the fucking couch, fucking waiting” Katie says, rubbing her neck and stretching as she steps aside. Emily moves in first, dragging Naomi behind her, hand in hand; this time Katie sees, and when Naomi catches the look on her face, she suddenly looks so awake, her face suddenly full of hastily put-together questions.

Emily heads for the stairs, wordlessly, letting go of Naomi’s hand when she reaches the fourth step, as if suddenly remembering something. Naomi stays behind tentatively, looks back at Katie with her best attempt of an answer.

Katie shrugs, waves a hand dismissively, mouthing, “Whatever,” but even as she rolls her eyes, to Naomi it feels like permission.

Emily’s waiting by the door when Naomi gets to the top of the stairs; her head’s tilted and leaning against the frame. She’s looking at her with tired eyes that Naomi sees only then. “Exhausted?” Naomi asks, settling across her, tilting her head in kind.

“I know we shouldn’t—“ Emily begins, and Naomi cuts her off gently with, “And we won’t.”

They don’t. Emily closes the door softly and Naomi turns away as Emily gets into something more comfortable; it stings, because it reminds her of a certain lake and a horde of things that they can’t go back to, just because there is too much to be undone.

“My body’s fucking crashing,” Emily says behind her; she’s getting into bed, and the sheets rustle in a way so familiar that Naomi has trouble breathing.

Naomi recognizes how this is crucial, this momentary truce, and she’s sitting on the corner of Emily’s bed, trying not to fuck it up.

“You can stay, you know,” Emily says, yawning. And then, “Aren’t you bloody sleepy anyway?”

Naomi wants to say no, wants to insist that she’s well awake, but then Emily’s yawn is as infectious as her laugh, and the way Naomi shakes her head despite already being halfway through one makes Emily giggle sleepily; Naomi closes her eyes briefly, puts a tentative hand lightly on Emily’s thigh.

“Stay,” Emily says again, covering Naomi’s hand with hers. Naomi just looks at her, waits for her breathing to even out, before settling beside her carefully, a calculated space in between, her hands to herself, securely.

*

Of course, Naomi does not sleep, given that all she can think about is how Emily’s leaving again in a few days; she takes her time, looking at Emily’s closed eyes, watching carefully the rise and fall of her chest and timing her own breathing in kind. Somewhere in the middle, Naomi almost forgets where they are and how it’s been, almost reaches out to put a hand on Emily’s cheek as it is touched by a shaft of sunlight from the window, only to pull back the second she catches herself, clasping one hand with the other and keeping them close to her chest.

There used to be a time when touching Emily was one of life’s easier things and Naomi tries not to think of that: how Emily’s skin was always soft, how her laugh sounded like whenever Naomi tucked her hair behind an ear and brushed the space just behind her earlobe, ticklish; Naomi closes her eyes, tells herself, Not now, tries to think instead about the months in between that changed all that.

But then, Emily’s just so near, this mandatory space between notwithstanding, and inside, Naomi feels her heart trying to break through her chest with all its furious heavy pounding. After a while, Emily shifts and turns around, her back to Naomi now, and there’s little Naomi can do to stop herself from crying. God, must it be really this hard, to try to stop herself from making a sound?

Breathing in, she touches Emily’s nape, briefly, fingertips brushing lightly against Emily’s hair; she smells faintly of a long ago memory and the early morning air.

*

On her way out, Naomi spies Katie in the kitchen, drinking coffee; she looks up from her cup as Naomi stands by the doorway. Katie asks, “So how was it?” Naomi shifts her eyes to the floor, crossing her arms as she says, “It was fine.”

Katie scoffs, a little, and after a while she says, “She’s flying out Wednesday.” And then, “I saw her ticket; she could be so careless, you know.” Naomi sighs as she runs a hand into her hair, stepping into the kitchen and settling across Katie. Katie rolls her eyes, fully awake as she adds, “And what the fuck is up with all that vodka, jesus.”

When Naomi turns her head, the bottles she and Emily had bought are there, standing side by side; Naomi tries to swallow her laugh. “I thought you wanted to party,” she just says, trying to sound amused despite her exhaustion.

“I thought Emily was staying longer,” Katie just says, in a way that makes Naomi turn her head sharply; all those days, Naomi hasn’t quite heard yet the sort of heartbroken tone Katie just used on her and Naomi thinks about that, how Katie’s been outdoing herself in the emotions department consistently, since Emily left.

Naomi looks at her, hesitates a little before reaching out and touching Katie’s hand on the table. Katie flinches but she does not pull away, only looks away instead. “When are your parents getting back?”

“Tomorrow afternoon,” says Katie.

Naomi sighs. “Tonight then? I’ll call Cook, or whatever. See if Panda’s around, even.” When Katie looks up, there’s actually a faint smile. “Like good old times, yeah?” she appends, and Katie just nods.

*

Emily wakes that afternoon with her head pounding. “Fucking hangover,” she murmurs, opening one eye ahead of the other, reaching out tentatively to scan the bed until her eyesight focuses. There’s no one there, and for a moment Emily’s heart stills.

Certainly this has happened before; truth is, Emily has long resigned herself to the fact that it just does. She tries to remind herself how long she’s come from that girl whose heart got broken over such small things, though the fact that she’s been here before doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any less jarring.

“So, are you going to be asleep till tomorrow then?”

Emily blinks twice at the voice and pushes herself off the bed. “It’s called jet lag, Katie, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“Sure,” Katie says, rolling her eyes, sitting on her bed across Emily. “Fucking amazing feeling, jet lag, isn’t it? Can’t go without it for more than a week, yeah?”

Emily takes a moment to figure out what Katie’s on about; groans inwardly when she realizes, a bit later. “Katie,” she just sighs, rubbing her forehead. “Come on.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Katie says, waving a hand dismissively as she stands. Emily just looks at her helplessly. “Just, fucking get up, yeah? Naomi’s cooking up something before Mum and Dad get back.”

The door’s shut even before Emily can get a question out.

*

Emily remembers how she barely made it through that other time Katie threw a party; half the time she was here alone, and half the time she was running in circles with Naomi. Frankly, granted a choice, Emily wishes to avoid another night like that, though remembering how Katie said “jet lag” with such contempt leaves Emily with no other choice.

Naomi says, “I warned you,” coming into their bedroom after knocking twice at a door half ajar anyway; she momentarily left Katie to deal with the steady influx of guests.

“A party on a Sunday night,” Emily just says, and Naomi snickers, a little.

“Well, someone’s got to get it done before your parents arrive tomorrow, yeah?” Naomi says, settling on the far end of the bed carefully. “Katie’s getting better at dealing with this sort of heartache. I’m glad.”

“Since when did you become such an expert?” Emily asks, eyeing Naomi and the distance she’s imposed between them, consciously. “I mean, with Katie and her feelings.”

Naomi laughs a little. “Oh, you know,” she just says. “The perks of waiting for the same person to come around. Together.”

“Sorry,” Emily says, automatically. In the living room, someone has turned the music on, and there’s a round of laughter of mostly male voices. Furrowing her brow, Emily asks, “Is that…”

“I think,” Naomi says, rolling her eyes, and Emily laughs a little, finally.

“Wow,” Emily breathes, moving closer. “I mean, it’s been only, what, a year?”

“More or less,” says Naomi, biting her lip slightly, her eyes shifting warily over the truncated space between the two of them. “I mean, since college, a year, but about half since the last party.”

Emily says, “Of course,” though it feels much longer than that; being in a place other than here does have its way of warping time. She moves to stand, rubbing her hands together. “So, we’re really doing this, yeah?”

Naomi shrugs. “Can’t see why not,” she says, standing in kind, brushing against Emily’s shoulder in the process; Emily holds her breath briefly, holds Naomi’s gaze a moment too long. “Emily,” she says softly as she looks away.

Emily blinks. “Sorry,” she just says, moving quickly toward the door; she doesn’t look back until she’s four steps down the staircase, and when she does, Naomi still hasn’t followed.

*

Emily sees JJ first, as she turns toward the living room; he looks positively thrown the moment he realizes it’s her, shifts his eyes nervously around before Emily wraps an arm around his forearm and says hello properly, her smile wide. Emily does miss Bristol, truth be told; after all, once upon a time, it stood for so many things.

She sees Freddie next, holding a can of beer in one hand; he’s talking to Cook in the living room, and Cook waves in kind. Emily knows how hard she’s missed this place when even someone like Cook elicits a form of fond feeling, despite that nefarious grin.

When she looks around for Katie, she finds her by the stereo, fiddling with the controls. “Hi,” says Emily, tentatively, sliding alongside Katie casually. “Nice party,” she offers.

Katie smiles, tightlipped. “Fuck off,” she says, but it feels less aggressive than expected, coming from Katie, who even adds, softly, “There’s still vodka in the kitchen, better get a head start on that, as well.” And then, “You and Naomi fucking bought an entire shelf of it, and there’s only so much Cook can drink on his own without dying.”

Emily has to laugh; admittedly, she and Naomi may have been a bit overeager in buying supplies. Emily toys with the word, overcompensation. “Best not to be short of anything,” she just says, touching Katie’s arm briefly before moving into the kitchen.

On her way she passes Naomi ushering in Thomas and Panda from the door, and expectedly, Panda’s beside herself, as she always is. “So glad to see you finally again,” she says. “It’s so good, seeing you and Naomi together. So good.”

There’s really no implication anywhere that Panda meant they were back together, but the air she leaves behind as she moves on into the living room is just as awkward. When Emily catches Naomi’s eyes, she just says, “Vodka in the kitchen?”

To which Naomi just nods, emphatically. “Yes, please.”

They settle across each other on the counter, passing a bottle of vodka to and fro, listening to Katie’s music and the incessant round of laughter wafting in from the living room. They talk sparingly; once, Naomi mentions how Effy is not around, and Emily tries to come up with a diplomatic answer.

“When’s she going to be back?” Emily asks, a long while after.

“What?” Naomi blinks, straightens her face after her nth shot from the bottle.

“I mean, Effy,” Emily says by way of clarification, and Naomi passes her the bottle in kind.

“Not sure,” says Naomi, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “In a couple of weeks, perhaps?”

Emily shrugs. “Too bad I’m totally going to miss her, then,” she says, and Naomi snickers lightly. “What? I can’t say that anymore?”

“Odd, is all,” Naomi just says.

Somewhere between the twelfth and thirteenth round, Emily puts the bottle on the table, still a quarter of liquor left. Naomi rubs her eyes a little before asking, “What?”

“Wanna smoke,” Emily slurs. “Garden?”

Naomi just says, “Yeah,” gets up unsteadily from her stool. Emily grips the edge of the table in kind. In the living room, they’re still laughing, unmindful of their absence.

Out in the garden, Emily stumbles onto the grass, shakily, and Naomi falls after her in kind. With the volume of vodka wrapped around their brains, their skins seem to be quite numb enough to be unmindful of how close they are sitting alongside each other. At some point, Naomi even reaches out and holds Emily’s hand, and Emily lets her.

“You reckon we should just get back together?” Naomi asks out of the blue, watching Emily light a fag.

Emily takes a deep drag before answering, “I don’t think I’m in the best mind to say something.” Naomi smiles at that, leans in to take a hit at Emily’s fag. When Emily sees the pleased look on her face, she just has to ask, “What are you so happy about?”

Naomi exhales to the side before smiling again at her. “The answer is not no,” she just says. “In the meantime, that’s enough.”

In a split-second, Emily feels like she’s sobering up – like her brain’s making a conscious effort to right itself and even her eyes are coming to focus, as if something internal were twisting itself for the sake of it. “You’re serious,” she just says, her mouth dry.

Naomi looks at her, shrugs and rolls her eyes for effect. “Sorry,” she says, reaching over for a fag of her own to light. “Forget it, it’s the vodka talking.”

Just like that, Naomi reverts to who she is – the girl who breaks Emily’s heart easily – and Emily has to look away, finishing her cigarette in one drag before flicking it off. “Right,” she says along with the smoke, after. “If that’s what you want.”

There’s a long gap of silence that hangs above them heavily, and Emily thinks about how foolish she’s been to think this is going to be as easy as simply falling back into old habits that die hard, because really, Emily’s still feeling so much, and really, nothing can make that any easier.

They reach over for another cigarette and Emily brushes against Naomi’s hand on the way; she pulls back but Naomi’s quick to hold. “Emily,” she says. “Sorry, all right? It’s a stupid thing to suggest; it completely disregards your plans for Lily, or whatever, when you get back to uni after this brief bout with, I don’t know, tying up loose ends or something—”

“Nae,” Emily interrupts, laughing lightly at the mention of Lily, because if Emily’s sure of something, it’s that this isn’t about Lily at the slightest. “I have no intentions of getting back with Lily.”

“Oh,” Naomi just says, laughing a little in kind, though it’s a bit too tight to be comfortable. “There again with being presumptuous, I--”

“If there’s a girl, really,” Emily interrupts again, clearing her throat and it shuts Naomi up proper. “That I’d like to get back with, it’s you.” And then, “Just. In due time, I guess? We have it, yeah?”

“Time,” Naomi says, her face pale and soft and when Emily looks, she sees she’s too close to crying that she has to bite down on her lip. “Do we, really?” Naomi asks, in that heavy voice; Emily’s heart starts twitching a little, and a pit in her stomach starts to pulse.

“It doesn’t have to end on Wednesday, Nae,” she just says. “We can’t be together right now, but we can be, you know,” Emily threads her fingers into Naomi’s and grips, softly. “When we can.” Naomi grips back in kind, sighs heavily, and Emily has to think whether she’s just issued a promise just then.

They’re quiet for a long while, until Emily breaks the air with, “I bet your degree would look sexy on you.”

Naomi laughs out loud at that, swats Emily’s arm playfully, and Emily has no words for the degree of her relief. “’Course it would,” Naomi says, looking Emily over with heavy half-lidded eyes that does something positively warm to Emily’s belly. “I bet you’d look fantastic in work clothes.”

Emily blushes, deep. “Shut up,” she says. She grins at Naomi, that silly schoolgirl grin she hasn’t had on for so long, and the way it feels like it’s distorting her face is everything she’s been hoping to find again in Bristol, all this time.

*

Emily spends the early morning of Monday cleaning the house with Naomi and Katie; it’s easier this time around, and with a smaller crowd there is considerably less garbage to deal with, though with more alcohol volume per capita, the amount of broken glass to deal with somewhat tripled.

“This is your fault,” Katie sighs, shifting her eyes from Emily to Naomi and back; Emily giggles, slightly. “Whoever told you it was fucking necessary to bring home an entire shelf anyway?”

“Again, I think the word was overcompensation,” Naomi says, rolling her eyes but laughing anyway. She’s holding a garbage bag up for Katie, who is shoving dustpan after dustpan of broken glass into it. “Though I think that went well, don’t you, Kay?”

Katie looks up, the scowl on her face softening. “Well, yeah. Whatever.”

Emily raises a brow at that; Katie conceding, much less to Naomi - it takes loads of getting used to, and she’s certain this will never grow old, or at the very least, not for a long time.

At the end of the effort, they lug two big bags of refuse to the dumpster by the curb. Emily claps her hands together as if dusting them, and Katie breathes out audibly. “Well,” Katie says, “Safe to say we won’t be having another one of those for a long while.”

Naomi just laughs, “Feels nice, to be young, yeah?”

“You say it like we’re terribly old, or something,” says Katie, though the way she’s looking at Naomi tells anyone that for the most part she agrees anyhow.

“Feels nice to be young together, then,” Naomi amends, and Emily is hit with a burst of warmth; it’s strange and unexpected but not unwelcome.

Not unwelcome at all.

*

Naomi finds Emily standing there, upon opening their door; it’s the night before her flight, and she’s not holding a bottle of liquor at all. Admittedly, it worries Naomi, a little, because whatever this is, it means they’re going at it sober. (Not that this is a bad thing, Naomi tells herself immediately as she catches the thought.)

“Emily,” she says, straightening the shirt she has on, suddenly self-conscious.

“I know it’s late, but--”

“You know it’s not too late,” Naomi says, opening the door wider. From the kitchen, her mother asks who it is, and Naomi says, “It’s Emily.” The kitchen goes quiet, running faucet included, and in a bit Gina slides in beside her, wiping her hands on her shirt as she says an all too bright “Hello.”

“Hi Gina,” Emily says, and Naomi recognizes Emily’s smile from much early on, and for a moment Naomi can’t decide whether it’s fondness or sadness she’s feeling; she settles for halfway through nostalgia. “Sorry. This won’t take long.”

“Come on in,” Gina says. “I was just making tea.”

Emily steps in gingerly, and Naomi feels 17 all over again. “Mum really liked you,” she says quietly, closing the door. “I think she was more heartbroken than I was when she heard you were moving away.”

For a moment, Emily frowns slightly, before recovering with, “Well, I don’t know how to take this news.” She narrows her eyes in mock disappointment for effect, but then her lips curve slowly into a smile anyhow. She gestures with her empty hands helplessly. “I knew I should’ve taken something with me.”

“Please, I think there’s still alcohol in my veins right now,” says Naomi, laughing. “Besides, we can take a sober conversation, can’t we? We’re two consenting adults.”

“Yeah,” Emily nods, her tongue darting out quickly to wet her lip. Naomi looks away upon catching it and they’re silent for a bit; Emily shifts unsteadily from one leg to the other.

“I meant it, you know,” Emily says, after a long while.

Naomi settles against a nearby table for support. “Meant what?” she asks, and the way her throat is dry is almost painful. In the kitchen, the kettle is hissing its way to a slow boil.

“What I said the other night.”

Something stops in the middle of Naomi’s chest. It’s not that she does not want it, because god knows nothing’s ever felt quite as right; it’s that she’s not sure what exactly Emily means, what exactly she expects. She swallows heavily before asking an utterly unnecessary, “Which part?”

“The one where I say we have time beyond tomorrow,” Emily says.

It’s not that Naomi didn’t see it coming; it’s that she hasn’t quite come up with the right answer to this just yet. In the absence of a better thing to say, Naomi blinks instead. “Aren’t we too old for these kinds of impossible romances,” she says, trying to be all stern and adult, but her voice breaks at the end of it anyway, and Emily wraps a hand around her shaky wrist.

“Or maybe, old enough,” Emily counters, her thumb brushing lightly over and over the same spot, on the skin just above Naomi’s pulse. “Old enough for impossible romances.”

In the kitchen, the kettle is whistling. Naomi moves back a little, dabs at the tears in her eyes with the hand that Emily is not holding. She’s feeling too much, it’s ridiculous, and her heart’s almost ready to fall out. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you,” she says, sniffling.

At that moment, Gina calls for tea in the kitchen, and Emily says, “Let’s go sit for a while.”

*

They end up taking their tea outside, as Naomi begs for a cigarette. Gina leaves them alone, heads to bed after kissing Naomi on the forehead and touching Emily’s cheek. “Come visit more often, yeah? Always welcome here,” she says to her, before getting back in.

Emily lights the first fag, a considerable while after Gina leaves. “I’ve only realized, I actually missed your mum more than I missed mine,” she says.

Naomi laughs a little, leans in to touch the tip of her fag to Emily’s. “Really?” she asks, brow raised. “She was quite fond of you, really. I mean, in ways your mum clearly wasn’t fond of me.”

“My mum’s a bit of a cunt,” Emily says, and Naomi laughs a little harder. “In ways your mum obviously isn’t.”

Naomi just says, “Right,” taking a sip from her mug of tea and taking a drag from the cigarette in her other hand. She hesitates briefly before going ahead with, “I used to run into your mum often, at the store.”

“Oh?” Emily says, moving in to sip, cradling her mug with both hands. She looks into it wanly as she adds, “Did she say anything?”

Naomi sighs. “Oh, volumes,” she says, rolling her eyes and taking a drag. “I mean, with all the raised brows and eye rolls.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“No, don’t be,” says Naomi. “It’s fine now, I guess; for some reason, hanging out with Katie inches me closer to your mum’s good side.”

“I’ll remember to thank Katie,” Emily says. And then, “So that’s a good sign then? For us, I meant.”

Naomi finishes her tea. “Emily,” she sighs after. “I know I started it, but do you really think—”

“How about we don’t think too much,” Emily interrupts, finishing her tea in kind. “I mean, it’s not like we’ve got anything under control in the first place, yeah?”

Naomi considers that for a while. It’s a nice perspective, admittedly. “Good point,” she concedes, nodding. “What does it mean, though?”

“What do you mean, what does it mean?” Emily asks, laughing a little at the confusion.

Naomi laughs along in kind. “I mean, what do we do next? In the meantime.”

Emily looks at her, lets her laugh soften until it dies down. She lights another fag before speaking. “I don’t know,” Emily says, shrugging. “I plan to enjoy being alone, for a while.”

“Come on, Em,” Naomi says, a frown crossing her face. “University’s a big place, surely there must be…”

Emily shakes her head, waves her cigarette-holding hand a little. “It’s pointless, anyway,” she says. “I’ll always come back to you.”

Naomi’s quiet for a while as she absorbs the gravity of Emily’s words. “You don’t know that,” Naomi says, when she gets to it; she looks away, fixes her gaze at some faraway point, distracting herself into seeing something through the darkness, straining her eyes until they water from all that exertion.

When she looks back, Emily’s looking at her intently. “I’ll always come back to you,” Emily just says again. “Time and again, I just know.”

For a moment, Naomi has no words, her mouth half-open and empty. After a while, she only says, “Oh,” And then, “Well, you know very well where to find me, yeah?”

Emily laughs a little but says nothing, lights a fag instead. Naomi lights another in kind, if only to keep this feeling of want at bay; she’s been good at this for days, a few hours more can’t hurt.

After a while, Emily says, “Do me a favor, Nae?”

“Yeah?”

“Let’s not part at the airport this time?” Naomi furrows her brows at that, thoroughly confused. “I mean,” Emily continues. “I don’t want to remember you as the girl I leave in the airport, okay? Not this time.”

“What do you want then?” asks Naomi. “To remember, I meant?”

“Any other thing,” Emily only says. She stubs out her cigarette, reaching for Naomi’s hand. They hold on for a very long time.

*

Katie drops by the following night, after they’ve taken Emily to the airport. “I honestly thought you’d be getting back together,” she says at the door, and it takes Naomi a couple of seconds to actually process what she’s saying. “I mean, you looked positively disgusting, but nevertheless in love, I mean—”

“Katie…”

“What? Can’t you keep it together for four days, for fuck’s sake? You looked fucking normal on Sunday, what the fuck happened?”

“Emily did not want me to see her to the airport,” says Naomi, matter-of-factly.

“What did you fucking do this time?”

“I didn’t do anything!” Naomi says, suddenly defensive, though she breaks into laughter the minute she hears herself. “Sorry, but you’re reading it wrong, Kay. We had a nice time chatting the night before. That’s when she asked me not to go today.”

For a moment, Katie’s speechless. “Now that’s just grand,” she says later, after recovering. She clears her throat before, “So, we’re back to waiting, yeah?”

“Well, we could hang minus the waiting, actually,” Naomi suggests. She slips a cigarette pack from her back pocket and thrusts it toward Katie.

Katie smiles as she slides a stick out. “Yeah, maybe,” she just says, dangling the cigarette from her lips and lighting up.

Chapter Text

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.#