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Living in a house with three other girls and one bathroom is proving to be a challenge for everyone but Emily, who—thanks to sharing a house with just one Katie—is completely prepared for it and just laughs in the hallway when invariably someone is banging on the door, trying to get someone else to hurry the hell up.

It's nice, though; the constant company. It makes it easier to be away from the people she loves, especially since they all seem to think of her as needing lots and lots of hugs.

It unexpectedly becomes clear why.

----

“Emily,” Lucy says in greeting, as Emily walks into the kitchen on a Friday morning. “There's coffee.”

“Yes please,” Em says and pours herself a cup.

“No worries. But do me a favor; next time you have extensive phone sex, wear a gag or something, yeah?” Lucy says without looking up from the paper.

“Oh, God, I'm so sorry,” Emily says with a cringe. “I didn't think the walls were that thin.”

“They're not,” Lucy says, and then finally looks up at Emily and starts laughing. “Gotcha.”

“Oh, you minging bastard,” Emily says and then can't help but laugh a well.

“How are things, then?” Lucy asks when Emily's sat down at the table and is reaching for the arts section of the paper. “Better than they were when you came to London?”

Emily's hand stops mid-grab. “What do you mean?”

“Well, leaving aside for a minute that you disappeared for about 20 minutes and when you came back, Effy's lip was bleeding and you both looked like you were going to toss,” Lucy says and folds her hands together, looks at Emily with a bit of a frown. “She just—she seemed very sad. Generally.”

Emily blinks. "Where is this coming from?"

"Coin toss," Lucy says with a sigh. "We've been wondering how to ask for ages; I lost, obviously, which is why you're getting the subtle treatment."

"It's none of your business," Emily says with a frown.

"Don't get so fucking defensive; we're just trying to help," Lucy says mildly; pushes the creamer towards Emily, like some twisted white flag.

Emily takes a deep breath. “Fine. I cheated on her. I mean, not by either of our definitions, but I was with someone who matters a lot to me and it's—well, it doesn't matter. Things are better now.”

“Naomi, yeah?” Lucy asks and then shakes her head. “Emily. Things can't possibly be better.”

“It wasn't—like, God, Lucy. She just needed someone and I happened to be there,” Emily says, and there's something twisting in her gut that makes that a less plausible explanation every time she has to bring it up to someone new.

“And what about Effy? And what Effy needs?” Lucy asks, pointedly, and Emily starts.

“It isn't—what happened wasn't about Effy,” she protests and Lucy rolls her eyes.

“Emily, I love you, but you're a stupid cunt if you actually believe that,” she says, before getting up.

----

She sits alone in the kitchen with a cup of coffee that has grown cold by the time Liz finds her.

“Em?” Liz asks carefully and Emily finally looks up, blinks and then feels her eyes well up.

“What's wrong with me?”

Liz doesn't ask any questions, just sits down next to her and rubs her back.

----

Subject: Explain to Me How You See What Happened

You slept with Naomi because she needed someone.

(I think I'm going to scrap the one question a week rule because this seems important. So one in turn: why?)

----

Re: Explain

I ask because that's how I see things but I don't really think you do. So if you stop listening to what I've said about this: what, in your experience, did I do?

----

Re: re: Explain

Made it impossible for me to trust that you won't sleep with other people you care about if they need you and I happen to not be around. [I assume you would not have ‘comforted’ Naomi had I been 3 streets over.]

----

Re: re: re: Explain

So this isn't really about Naomi at all, then.

----

Re: re: re: re: Explain

No, it's not; this is about you. [Are you just now getting this?]

----

She stops e-mailing at that point and just calls.

“I don't think of it like that. Choosing someone else over you,” Emily says, and then closes her eyes. “But that is what I'm doing every time, isn't it.”

“You can't have us both,” Effy says softly. “Not like that, Emily.”

“If you and Naomi both figured this out ages ago, why has it taken me so long?”

Effy is silent for a long time and then sighs. “Because neither of us have ever made you choose before.”

“And is that fair?” Emily asks, a little desperately. “Letting me think for so long that I could fit both of you into my life, fix you both somehow, when you knew better?”

Effy laughs softly. “I guess it's about as fair as not being able to be upset about your girlfriend cheating on you because she's doing it for compassionate reasons.”

“What do you need me to assure you of, here? Will I choose you make a difference?” Emily asks, exasperatedly. “Because I love you hasn't helped at all thus far.”

“Maybe that's because you love us both,” Effy says quietly.

“I've never said it to her,” Emily says forcefully, and Effy doesn't respond. “She told me twice, and I never said it back, because I knew I couldn't stay with her. You're the first person I've ever told, and if you would just start treating it like it means something, you will be the only person I'll ever tell.”

Effy stays silent on the line and Emily is on the verge of checking if the connection dropped when she hears a sniffle. Just once.

“Ef?”

“Why don't—why does it take this much to get you to make these things clear?” Effy says, voice thick and broken.

“Because you've always made it clear that you know everything. I thought that meant that you understood that how I feel about her can't compare in the slightest to how I feel about you; however stupid a choice I made this summer,” Emily says with a sigh.

Effy exhales shakily after a few seconds. “Em.”

“Yes?”

“Thank you. For trying to understand,” Effy says, and Emily closes her eyes, feels tears burn in them.

----

She calls Naomi not long thereafter.

“I want to be your friend, but it needs to be different than it always has been,” she blurts out.

Naomi starts laughing. “God. Is Effy finally sick of your inability to stop helping strays, then?”

“No,” Emily says, feeling like an idiot because Naomi's making fun of her and it's apparently been a big joke for some time now; she just hasn't been privy to it. “But maybe I am sick of letting her down.”

Naomi stops laughing and makes a small noise in the back of her throat; finally just says, “Good on you, Em.”

----

Subject: Hair

Consider it done.

----

“Lovely” is Phoebe's final verdict, after she rinses out the last of the dye.

Emily agrees; every time she passes herself in the mirror she can't help but feel like she's finally looking at herself again; like she can handle looking at herself again.

All red, just like you ordered she texts back to Effy, and goes out to get a new pair of glasses that doesn't clash horribly with the rest of her head.

----

Effy calls in the second week of October.

“You turn twenty next month. What do you want to do?” she asks, and it's a funny question because for Effy's twentieth, they got incredibly fucked up and went dancing, which is not unlike how they spend most of their time.

“See you,” Emily says after a beat. “I don't care what we do, as long as we're together.”

“All right,” Effy says easily, but then clears her throat. “I'll come down your way, okay?”

“Actually—“ Emily says, and then sighs. “Katie's throwing a huge bash; twins turning twenty, that kind of thing, and I think she'd murder me if I didn't show up. So—“

“Bristol, then,” Effy says, and it sounds a little nervous, insofar as Effy ever sounds nervous.

“It'll be all right,” Emily says, with a wince, and then laughs awkwardly. “I promise to not throw myself at Naomi or JJ, if that helps.”

Effy sighs. “Perhaps I'll just put you on a leash,” she says, after a few seconds, and only Emily would be able to prick through the bland tone of her voice to get that she's teasing.

“Hm, now there's an idea,” Emily responds and Effy starts laughing.

----

Cook calls her on Katie's phone a few days later.

“Right, so, I want to do this right, yeah?” he says and Emily laughs. “What do I get her? I don't have a fucking clue what to do; bought a gateau once for Effy and that didn't go over well, 'cept with her mum, who ate the whole fucking thing.”

“It's not that hard, Cook,” she tells him. “Just buy something shiny that looks expensive even if it isn't. Katie is a simple girl.”

“Right, but, then wouldn't I be doing just what that fucking football-playing wankjob she used to date did?” Cook responds after a second and Emily finds herself smiling unwillingly.

“You're really serious about this, then,” she says.

“What, about getting her something good?”

“About her, you knob,” Emily says and the line remains silent for a bit.

“Yeah, I guess I am,” Cook says, sounding very confused. “Fucking hell.”

“Scary, isn't it,” Emily says; thinks back to tickets to Avenue Q and the vaguely baffled expression on Effy's face when she'd handed them over on her nineteenth birthday.

“Scary? Fuck, it's blowing my fucking mind,” Cook says, and then laughs. “Your sister's a proper handful but I dunno, Em, I guess that's just what I like in a bird.”

“Common theme, that,” Emily says. “You know what, though? Get her something that'll surprise her. The rest will work itself out.”

----

It takes Phoebe and Liz exactly one month to pretend that they're not sharing a bed every night, and after that Liz's room becomes a place full of books and papers and other things gathering dust.

“I'm happy for you,” Emily says one afternoon, when she and Liz are cleaning the kitchen. “She might be a bit of a nutter, but her heart's in the right place.”

Liz smiles. “Sounds like experience there, Fitch.”

Emily blushes involuntarily; thinks about Effy's more unusual suggestions for having a good time, and then shrugs. “All worth it in the end, as far as I'm concerned.”

“Things actually sorted then?” Liz asks, carefully, and then lowers her eyes when Emily looks at her. “Lucy reported back to us, obviously, and it took most of our manpower to keep Phoebe from knocking your skull in, is all I'll say.”

Emily sighs and puts down the wet rag she's holding; leans heavily against the kitchen counters instead. “I just—I've never really stopped to think that maybe it's not okay for me to want to help people, you know?”

“I get that,” Liz says, but then purses her lips anyway. “And now?”

“Now,” Emily says with a sigh. “Now, I think I'm lucky I haven't lost her completely.”

“She told you she loves you yet?” Liz asks gently.

Emily can't stop a faint laugh from bubbling up. “No; just that she wants to move in together after uni, get a dog, spend at least the next five years of our lives doing everything we've been doing so far.”

“Wow. Maybe she'll just skip the words altogether, go straight to a proposal,” Liz says, teasingly.

Emily blushes furiously. “Don't be absurd.”

Liz just smiles before throwing a wet sponge at Emily's face. The kitchen ends up twice as messy as when they started cleaning it before they just give up and crack open a bottle of wine instead.

----

She's never cared less about her schoolwork. She can't bloody focus on anything to do with literature because a shared trait among all famous protagonists is royally fucking up, so she has too much in common with all of them; mostly just wants to drop out and move to Glasgow and say sod it all, because there's too much she can't fix from Warwick.

She calls Effy after another fruitless day of staring at an Austen novel and sighs deeply when Effy picks up.

“Hang, I'm still wearing trousers,” Effy says in response and Emily laughs despite how lost she feels.

“Not that kind of phone call, I'm afraid,” she says and Effy makes an exaggerated sound of disappointment that makes her laugh again.

“Everything all right?” Effy asks.

“I miss you,” Emily says and lies down flat; looks at the ceiling and then finally at the wall, by now covered with several pictures of Effy as well as cat cards. “And I keep feeling like—like I've messed up too bad for you to ever trust me again.”

She hears some rustling on the other end of the line, before Effy says, “You haven't, Em. If things were that bad I wouldn't still be here.”

“But there's still something... I don't know, Ef, I don't feel confident about us like I used to, and I hate it,” Emily confesses. “Like, I can't see your face, I can't see what you're doing, and so much of what I believe in comes from being with you.”

Effy sighs deeply. “Emily—“

“I'm sorry,” Emily says and then rubs at her forehead. “I don't—like, don't feel pressured to say things—“

“Em,” Effy interjects gently. “I'll be there in six hours, okay?”

----

It's past midnight when Effy finally steps off the train; looks bedraggled and exhausted, but still manages to spot Emily in about three seconds and faintly smiles before walking towards her.

“I don't know why I'm crying,” Emily confesses when Effy frowns as they stop hugging.

“It's okay,” Effy says and reaches for Emily's hand, gives it a solid squeeze. “Let's go home, yeah?”

“You just came from home,” Emily says shakily, and then closes her eyes. “Is it stupid that I—“

Effy silences her with a kiss. “No. It's not stupid at all.”

----

They're lying together in bed, Emily curled up on Effy's chest with Effys hand rubbing slow, soft circles on her back.

“I don't know where this came from,” Emily says quietly. “I thought—we were fine, right? After Glasgow?”

“Yeah,” Effy says; presses a barely-there kiss to Emily's forehead. “We were. Maybe you weren't, though.”

“I feel—“ Emily starts saying and then just sighs. “I feel like I almost lost you.”

Effy squeezes tightly and pulls Emily in closer. “You need to stop thinking that I have something to gain from leaving you.”

“Why—“ Emily starts to say, and then closes her eyes. “Why can't you just get mad at me, for fucking up so badly?”

“I was mad,” Effy says, after a beat. “But I've never been able to stay mad at you. Not even after you broke my heart.”

Emily shifts up to look at her, question on the tip of her tongue but she can’t quite voice it; just feels her heart speed up out of nowhere and her jaw go slack without warning.

“I should have said it months ago,” Effy says quietly, then faintly smiles. “But you keep finding ways to make me feel like I'm jumping headfirst off a cliff if I let you have this much.”

“Effy,” Emily says, so faintly that it's almost inaudible, and Effy silences her with a finger to her lips—so reminiscent of the first time they ever fucked that Emily gets a little lightheaded.

“I love you, Em,” Effy says. The words come out a little awkwardly but all Emily can think is that it—Effy—is perfect.

It's not the moment to start crying again, but maybe they’re the other kind of tears, Emily thinks even as her mouth starts to tremble.

“The idea of you—with anyone else is not even nearly as bad as the idea of you no longer being with me,” Effy says; averts her eyes, looks down at the mattress instead of at Emily. “So, no; you didn't almost lose me.”

“Say it again,” Emily whispers, not giving a fuck how needy and wrong it sounds to ask for it.

“I love you,” Effy says, blinks her eyes open again and then smiles—so embarrassedly that Emily can't help but reach out, to touch Effy's cheek with trembling fingers.

“Yeah?” Emily asks. She can barely make Effy out through the tears but it doesn't matter in the slightest.

“Yeah,” Effy says and kisses her.

----

They whisper it at each other a total of five times the first time they make love; then three more the second time, until Effy rolls her eyes when Emily starts saying it again, and then they both just start laughing.

“Fred,” Emily says, when they're finally done, and she's just playing with Effy's fingers while Effy's flopped out on her back with a dazed smile on her face.

“Hm?” Effy responds, as her eyes slowly blink open. “Fred?”

“Our dog. Fred.'

Effy's smile turns into a grin. “After our Freddie?”

Emily shrugs. “Stupid, loyal, tongue wagging at you constantly...”

“Fred it is,” Effy says and squeezes Emily's fingers tightly.

----

Emily doesn't quite know what to do with herself when she wakes up in the morning; spends at least half an hour aimlessly running her fingertips along Effy's hip and thigh, but aside from the occasional sleepy twitch it doesn't wake her up.

Some parts of her wants to call and tell everyone who cares—so, Katie—and then there's a much larger part of her that wants to hold the words inside her forever, in a space that's just hers and Effy's and that other people may not even be able to glimpse at from afar.

It's not that simple, though, keeping it inside. She doesn't even realize she's singing while making breakfast until a bleary-eyed, bed-headed Phoebe shows up after about ten minutes.

“Jesus Christ, I thought someone was slaughtering a cat in here,” she says, and Emily flips her off without turning around, attempts to flip over a pancake without a spatula and laughs when it almost lands on her head. “Well then, someone's in a good mood. If I didn't know better—“

Phoebe steps in coser and takes a look at the plate next to the stove. “Okay, either you've got a tapeworm or you did get lucky last night.”

Emily just shrugs with a grin.

“My God, you're glowing,” Phoebe says, sounding vaguely disgusted.

“I am not,” Emily protests. “Only pregnant women glow.”

Phoebe stares at her critically for another moment and then starts making coffee. “Well, whatever it is your lady friend did last night, get her to tell Liz about it. I'd like some of that sugar in my bowl.”

Emily chuckles. “Noted, you perve.”

Effy stumbles into the kitchen moments later, wearing a t-shirt and a pair of ridiculous shorts that Katie once got for them when they were 15, and heads directly for the coffee.

“Ah, Magic Fingers herself makes an appearance,” Phoebe says lightly.

“Don't bother; she needs at least one cup of coffee before becoming responsive,” Emily says, and takes one long step to the left to just kiss Effy on the head, who merely grumbles in response.

“Milk in the fridge if you need it,” Phoebe says and then watches in horror as Effy drinks a cup of black coffee in two big gulps.

“Better,” Effy says and then eyeballs the pancakes. “Mine?”

“Half, yes,” Emily says and spoons the last pancake on top.

Effy leans in closer and inhales. “With cinnamon?”

“Mmhmm,” Emily confirms and then swats at Effy's hand when it snakes out to tear off a piece of pancake. “Barbarian.”

“Ngh,” Effy responds, but obediently goes to sit at the kitchen table.

Phoebe snorts. “Dear God; ladies and gentlemen, the world's most nauseating monosyllabic couple.”

Effy just smirks, then yawns, and then turns to Emily. “Hey, were you singing earlier?”

“Maybe,” Emily says, balancing the plate of pancakes and some syrup.

“Ah,” Effy says and then winces. “If I pay you, will you promise to never do it again?”

Phoebe starts laughing even as Emily flips her off.

----

“When do you have to be back?” Emily asks when they've taken a shower and Effy is toweling her hair dry.

Effy shrugs in response. “Not missing anything important.”

“Stay until tomorrow, then?” Emily asks.

“I was thinking until Sunday, actually,” Effy says, then pauses. “If that's okay.”

“Babe, what the fuck,” Emily says before getting up off her bed and pinching Effy in the side. “Of course that’s okay; more than, obviously.”

“Hm. But your classes?” Effy asks, drops the towel and pushes Emily back to the bed. “Part of what makes you so appealing is that you're this big clever nerd. Nobody would suspect what a little harlot you are beneath it all,” she continues, before straddling Emily and running her hands up Emily's ribs.

“Of course nobody knows; I'm only a harlot for you,” Emily says, and then laughs. “I can't believe I just called myself a harlot. Well done, Elizabeth.”

Effy winces. “That's just low.”

“You know what else is low?” Emily says, wiggles her eyebrows.

“I worry about the quality of your education if that's the best wordplay you've got after a whole year of studying English,” Effy responds, but pulls Emily's shirt out of her skirt anyway.

“Want to come examine?” Emily asks spontaneously.

“What, your down low places?” Effy looks down their bodies and smirks. “I was planning on taking a bit of time before going there, but okay.”

“No, you relentless pervert; my classes.”

Effy smiles devilishly. “Can I finger you in the midst of Shakespearian poetry or whatever you'll subject me to?”

Emily literally freezes mid-thought and then just feels herself grow hot, even as Effy's fingers deftly slip inside her knickers and find out what the results of the suggestion are.

Harlot,” Effy whispers in her ear, before they both start laughing.

----

“Let's go out dancing,” Effy suggests on the second night. “I'm—dunno, energetic. Let's slip some X and fuck some place we're likely to get caught.”

Emily laughs. “What a flattering proposal, babe.”

“If you like, I can tell you I love you when you're desperately rubbing up against my hand,” Effy says, and then shrugs with a quirky smile. “Life's all about compromise, right?”

“I hate you,” Emily says, but she can't keep the laughter out of her voice.

----

On Saturday, Effy says that she wants to help cook something.

“Without killing us both, right?” Emily asks, just to be sure, and gets prodded in the ribs for her cheek.

Cooking together turns out to mostly imply Effy reading instructions out loud, lining up spices in a completely unexpected anal-retentive way, and cutting anything that needs dicing at a speed that Emily can barely handle watching.

They make a supposedly Argentinian roast that's so spicy that Emily gives up after about five bites and Effy works her way through about three more before bounding for the sink and hanging underneath it.

“Everything you imagined?” Emily asks, after about 3 gallons of water and a lot more cursing at the instructions.

Effy starts rolling her eyes but then stops; smiles instead. “Yeah, actually.”

----

Sunday comes too quickly, as it always does.

“Mm,” Emily says when she opens her eyes and finds Effy staring at her with a small smile. “Like old times.”

“What?” Effy asks, shifts in closer and tangles them together legs first.

“All of this; my hair's red again, you're watching me and not saying anything...” Emily wrinkles her nose and shrugs with a smile. “I don't know. Sudden wave of nostalgia.”

Effy smiles. “I remember the first time I saw you very clearly.”

“Yeah?” Emily asks; presses a kiss to Effy's nose, just because.

“Yeah. First day of college; Katie was making a complete arse out of herself talking about Danny, and you were stood behind her, trying to get as far away from her as possible,” Effy says, eyes crinkling. “Then she called you a loser, and the look on your face...”

“Oh, lord. What a first impression,” Emily says, rolling her eyes.

“You hated her that day; it took me months to figure out that you and Katie are just not like me and Tony, but you still care.”

Emily rolls over onto her back and pulls Effy in close. “She's changed a lot. I'm not so sure I have, but Katie's changed a lot. You know, I never told you this because I figured it would pass, but when I first told my parents—you know, you were there. My Mum sat Katie and I down later that night and told me that if Katie was straight, there was nothing stopping me from being it as well.”

“Nice,” Effy says.

Emily sighs. “Yeah. Well, a lot's changed, obviously—my mum adores you, my dad will never stop treating you like my boyfriend, and let's not talk about James, but after I left the room crying that day, Katie must've said something, because Mum never brought it up again.”

“She's really been an unexpected help, hasn't she,” Effy says, sounding pensive. “I've been thinking about what to get her for her birthday—“

“Excuse me?” Emily says, pulling back to look at Effy with a mock-horror look. “Her birthday?”

“Don't worry, you're sorted... needy cow,” Effy says with an eyeroll. “Anyway, my point: shall we get her a joint present? I think her head would explode with joy even if the actual gift was a three quid necklace from Peacocks.”

“You know, it is okay for you to be considerate,” Emily says, reaches up to ruffle Effy's hair, who scowls in response. “You don't have to hide it behind sarcasm all the time.”

“Whatever,” Effy says, forcing a bored look on her face and Emily just laughs.

“You're so precious sometimes,” Emily says with a grin, and then squeals when Effy rolls over on top of her and teasingly bites her neck.

----

Subject: Can Fred be a Bitch?

How do I love thee; let me count the ways...

[Look what I learned in Shakespearian Poetry! And you accused me of not paying attention… tsk.]

----

Naomi calls at the end of October.

“Guess who's not dying!” she blurts out before Emily can even say hello.

“Oh, bless,” Emily says. “What a relief, hon.”

“I didn't think I was actually worried, but Jesus, I haven't slept for more than three hours in a week,” Naomi says with a deep sigh.

“But all clear, so you'll catch up on it, yeah?”

Naomi laughs smugly. “Well, I don't know about that, exactly...”

It takes Emily about three seconds to put that in context. “If you are referring to an activity you are now safe to engage in with someone who will one day be my brother in law, please say no more,” she says with a cringe.

Naomi chuckles softly. “I was just taking the piss, obviously, but—wow.”

“What?” Emily says.

“I think you just implied marriage there, Em,” Naomi says, still sounding surprised.

“Oh,” Emily says, and then blinks. “Wow, yeah, I guess I did.”

Naomi is silent for a few minutes. “This is really it then, isn't it.”

“What—“ Emily starts saying, and then stops herself because for once, she can tell that things are going in a direction they shouldn't.

“No, I mean, I know you're serious about her, but God. You met the love of your life at age 16.”

“Don't be—“ Emily starts objecting, but then fleetingly thinks of Effy just once, stretched out on her belly with a satisfied, happy smile, and she can't. She just can't. “Yeah. I think I did.”

“Well then,” Naomi says, takes a deep breath, and then laughs faintly. “At least I got unceremoniously set aside for something grand. Feel free to reference my noble acquiescence in your wedding vows.”

Naomi's deliberately making light of things, and Emily lets her after barely any hesitation, because this is the only way they can stay in each other's lives. “Noble acquiescence? You fucked off to Africa without even consulting me!”

Naomi laughs. “Wow, I didn't know that rewriting history was something they focused on in English Lit degrees these days.”

“Natural talent, dear, just like your mastery of the art of bollocks,” Emily retorts with a smile.

Naomi chuckles again. “You sound radiantly happy. It's vaguely nauseating.”

“As is the idea of you banging Tony, so I guess we're even,” Emily says with a grin.

“Later, little Fitch; send my love to your future wife,” Naomi says; hangs up.

It's different like this, but when Emily looks at the picture of her and Naomi by her lockers, she thinks it might be better to care a little less.

----

She curls her hair for the birthday party without asking; it's the first time she and Katie have looked vaguely alike in close to two years now, but sheknows without asking that it’s the nicest thing she can do for her sister, who’s always hung onto the idea that she’s one of two in a much grander way than Emily herself has.

Katie doesn’t comment; just gives her a brief but tight hug in passing and then says, “Still don’t understand why you won’t just fucking get contacts.”

Their parents have agreed to bugger off after the traditional family cake and candle-blowing, which is always done by Katie while Emily just sort of rolls her eyes in the background, because twenty is apparently old enough to be able to throw a large house party without wondering.

JJ is the first person to arrive; ridiculously prompt, really, and gives Katie an H&M gift certificate and Emily a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies before introducing them to his girlfriend: a pixieish Chemistry major at Corpus Christi named Zoe, around whom JJ doesn’t stammer in the slightest.

“Cute,” Katie says offhandedly and then starts at herself. “I mean, it’s nice, you know. Knowing that people like him end up—“

“Stop talking, Kay,” Emily says mildly. Katie just purses her lips in response but manages to shut up, for once.

Cook and Freddie arrive at the same time; still mates after all these years, but less close than they used to be, what with Freddie living in London with Karen and doing fuck knows what—something to do with sound production, but every time they’ve asked him to explain he just shrugs and says that it’s boring, not nearly as cool as it sounds.

Freddie brought booze and spliff, and grins with a shrug before saying, “Old times’ sake, yeah?” even as Katie kisses him on the cheek and says, “Tosser.”

“Hands of my girl, Fred,” Cook says mildly in the background, and then leans in to kiss Emily hello.

“All sorted?” she asks and he narrows his eyes at her.

“If this makes me look like a cockhead, I am blaming you,” he says, and Emily does what she can to not start smiling.

After them, the arrivals become more dysfunctional—a bunch of Katie’s schoolmates pile in all at once, and Emily’s never seen a larger collection of more obviously gay men in her life—but they all kiss Katie’s hand and call her darling, and she eats it up like it’s a fucking gift.

One of them eventually turns towards Emily and goes, “Oh! Family!” and before she can do anything she’s being lambasted with questions about how fabulous Katie was when they were younger and where this fabulous girlfriend that they’ve heard so much about is, then.

It’s a little overwhelming and Emily can’t help be relieved when her own friends show up.

“I feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere,” Phoebe says with a sigh. “Like, really, where are we?”

“Hush, Bristol isn’t that bad,” Emily says with a faint scowl, and Liz gently elbows Phoebe.

“She’s just being a bitch because she had to drive. Never you mind her.”

“Happy birthday, Fitchface,” Lucy adds and hands over an envelope. “We didn’t really know what to get you this year, but someone else helped out. We’re under instructions to not let you open this until later, for the record.”

“World’s flattest strap-on?” Emily asks, shaking the envelope.

“It inflates,” Phoebe retorts, with waggled eyebrows.

“Well, thank you, in advance—and for coming, I know it was a bitch to have to drive,” Emily says, before hugging them all. Right when she pulls away from Lucy she hears Phoebe say, “Well, I guess there’s something to be said for Bristol after all.”

“I’m right here, you know,” Liz says mildly and Phoebe chuckles. “But I am not going to disagree with you. Wow.”

She turns away from Lucy and looks around the room to find out what they’re seeing; sees JJ and his girlfriend, Cook with an arm slung around Katie, who is gesturing emphatically about something with a bottle of vodka in her hand, and then finally spots Naomi, shrugging out of a coat and handing it to Tony, who leans in to say something that makes her laugh.

“Ah,” Emily says and swallows. “That’s, um…” and it’s weird, really, because of course Naomi is gorgeous but she hasn’t thought of her like that in God knows how long. Everyone else’s reaction is just making her think of all those years ago in middle school, feeling faint every time she so much as caught a glimpse of her, and she only snaps out of it when Naomi spots her and raises her eyebrows before winking, which would’ve never happened in middle school.

“Oh, geez,” Liz says, putting it together. “Well, you’re still a stupid twat, but I see what the dilemma was, now.”

Lucy laughs. “Don’t be an arsehole. Emily’s repented enough, I think.”

“Yeah, between the legs of hotness. God, I wish my life were this difficult,” Phoebe says, and then wraps an arm around Liz’s waist. “Instead all I have is one very compliant and willing partner.”

“Guys, please,” Emily says, feeling very faint out of nowhere. “Don’t, okay?”

Naomi’s making her way over slowly but Tony reaches her first, picks her up and kisses her on the forehead. “Happy birthday, Em. I talked to Effy right before we got here; says there’s a huge queue at baggage but she’ll be here within the hour.”

“Good,” Emily mutters and then leans up to kiss Naomi on the cheek. “Hey, you.”

“Still short, I see; so much for growing bigger,” Naomi says teasingly and then hands over a small box. “Nothing fancy, don’t worry.”

“You didn’t have to,” Emily says and fingers the ribbon a bit nervously. “But thanks, anyway.”

Tony watches them stand silently for a second and then pats Naomi on the shoulder. “Shall we get ourselves some liquor, then?”

“Absolutely. See you in a bit, Em,” Naomi says, smiles faintly at Emily’s friends and then directs Tony to the kitchen with a hand at the small of his back.

“Well, that wasn’t weird,” Lucy says after a beat. “And who’s the bloke?”

“Effy’s brother,” Emily says; she looks at the package some more and then takes a deep breath. “I’m just going to go put this away, okay? Help yourselves to whatever, and if you need anything just ask Katie.”

She doesn’t wait for a response; just makes her way up the stairs and sits down on her old bed, takes a deep breath and puts the box on her nightstand.

It’s maybe ten minutes before someone comes to find her.

“You okay?” Tony asks, before sitting down on Katie’s bed and folding his hands together, leaning forward onto his knees. “That was a bit—“

“It’s weird; realizing you’re over something,” Emily says, and then rubs at her nose. “I’ve never—I didn’t even realize I was until my friends pointed out to me that she’s very pretty, you know, and I had to think to remember when I last thought of her like that.”

“So this isn’t about…” Tony says hesitantly.

Emily shakes her head. “No. It just threw me to realize that I—I am okay with not caring that much about what she’s doing. I thought I’d have to try harder.”

Tony smiles faintly. “You know, I still see my ex-girlfriend from high school all the time; and not to long ago, we hooked up whenever we were both in Bristol. But I’d always leave feeling in the morning like I’d spent some time with a ghost, you know?”

“Yeah. That sounds about right,” Emily says, and sighs. “I don’t know why it’s making me a little bit sad.”

“Because it’s never easy, saying goodbye to something,” Tony says kindly. “No matter how—”

A knock on the door interrupts them, and seconds later a weary Effy drops her bags on the floor, takes two long steps and collapses on top of Emily, who just chuckles.

“Right, on that note,” Tony says, after clearing his throat. “I think I could use another drink. See you two—in a bit.” He frowns at the last bit and then chuckles, closes the door behind him.

“No more travel,” Effy says with a deep sigh; then fumbles with the buttons on her coat and shrugs out of it.

“Rough day, love?” Emily asks, and Effy lifts her head just to look at her, eyes softening after a moment.

“Getting better,” she says, and then kisses Emily softly—barely a peck, but with a smile. “Happy birthday.”

“It is now,” Emily says and runs her hands through Effy’s messy hair, smooths it out a bit before kissing her again.

“Should we go—“ Effy asks after a third kiss, but Emily’s hand slip down to her trousers in return, work the button open quickly.

“Later,” she says, and kisses Effy’s forehead. “I don’t care what they think; this is what I wanted for my birthday.”

Effy doesn’t respond; just pulls down her own zipper and kisses Emily again, with a little more intent this time.

----

Effy laughs when Emily gets out of bed and walks directly to the mirror; starts patting down her own hair. “Em, I don’t think anyone doesn’t know what we were doing up here. Honestly.”

“Whatever,” Emily mutters; pulls on a faint curl until it bounces back up. “You know what Katie’s like. Have to look perfect or I’m putting her to shame.”

Effy gets up and steps in behind her, puts her hands loosely on Emily’s hips and rests her chin on Emily’s shoulder. “You always look perfect,” she says softly, presses a kiss to Emily’s neck.

Emily stares at them both in the mirror; imagines them doing the same thing five years from now, ten years from now. It’s not even a little bit frightening.

“I love you,” she says unexpectedly; feels it hit her like an anvil after she’s said it.

“Ditto,” Effy says, with a soft smile.

----

Freddie’s spliff appears sometime close to midnight and Katie ushers them all out to the garden. Emily smiles when she and Effy step outside together holding a bottle of wine, and when Effy passes it over with a faint smirk she knows they’re thinking the same thing.

The spliff makes its way over for a second time eventually and Effy inhales deeply, then closes her eyes and slowly exhales again.

“I want to go down on you for hours when we’re done this with this,” Emily says, takes a small hit herself and holds the spliff up before someone else takes it from her.

Effy lies down on the grass and pulls on Emily’s arm, and even though there’s hordes of people around them, it feels like it’s just the two of them, lying down and looking at the stars.

“My place, then,” Effy says after a few minutes.

“Yes. Unless you want to permanently scar Phoebe, Liz and Luce,” Emily says with a small wince.

Effy turns to her with soft, red eyes and smiles. “How quickly can we leave?”

“It’s my party,” Emily says; can’t think of the rest of the song, but it’s only half a minute more before they both get up and disappear.

----

“I like that I’m the one getting fucked on your birthday,” Effy says breathily, and then moans softly.

“You’re my favorite,” Emily says, bites at Effy’s thigh playfully until Effy pulls at her hair and then leans back down for long, slow teasing licks.

“You’re lucky I’m so fucked up,” Effy says, then laughs. “If I wasn’t high I wouldn’t be putting up with this.”

Emily grins, licks her own lips. “Putting up with?”

“Yeah, bloody torture,” Effy says, lifting up on her elbows and looking at Emily challengingly.

“I think I’m being rather nice, seeing as how you haven’t even given me a present yet,” Emily says, extending her tongue slowly and watching as Effy’s eyes roll back in her head in anticipation.

“It’s in—the bag,” Effy says, strangled laughter following. “I can—show you if you—stop doing that.”

“Not a chance,” Emily says, and keeps her eyes on Effy’s face as she settles down to lick her with purpose. It only takes a few seconds of concentrated sucking before Effy pulls on her hair so hard it hurts and then arches off the bed.

“Oh, God,” she says, about twenty seconds later, followed by a shaky sigh.

Emily just smiles and kisses Effy’s stomach, slowly crawls back up her body before straddling one of her thighs. “Up, please.”

Effy reaches for her hips after brushing some hair out of her eyes and then smirks. “Can’t wait?”

“Fuck, no,” Emily confesses and bears down on Effy’s thigh; bites her lip at the soft, wet slide they make together and then at the look on Effy’s face, which is both frustrated and pleased. “You’re so—God, I love the way you taste,” she says. Effy’s eyes narrows in response and without further warning a hand slips between her legs, curls up and strokes very deliberately.

“Go on, then,” Effy says softly, voice a little rough; slips a finger inside when Emily lifts for just a second. “Come for me.”

“Fuck,” Emily sighs and cants her hips just twice more before climaxing with a shuddering moan.

She slumps forward on Effy, who just wraps her free arm around Emily’s back and rubs at her neck, slowly and soothingly.

“No stamina. You old bat,” Effy says after a few seconds and then laughs when Emily reaches for Effy’s own hand and flips her off with her own wet middle finger.

----

“Present,” Emily murmurs after a bit, then smiles when Effy pinches her in the waist before getting up.

She’s handed an envelope and a small box; it’s so small that for a minute all she can do is look at it, but then hears Effy snort.

“It’s not that, don’t worry,” Effy says, and Emily doesn’t know how to explain—how worry was maybe only two percent of what she was feeling, and the rest of it, she doesn’t have words for.

“Envelope first,” Effy instructs, and when Emily slides a finger underneath it, Effy settles behind her; wraps an arm around her waist.

It’s a hotel reservation, and as Emily scans down it quickly, she sees the word Paris.

“Ef—” she says; is on the verge of saying that it’s too much, but Effy presses a kiss to her shoulder and it’s enough to silence her.

“For after Christmas. When you’re ready to strangle your entire family, and it won’t be nearly as sodding awful weather-wise in France.”

“I don’t even—” Emily starts to say, but then just rolls over and kisses Effy, hard and intently.

“Good choice, then?” Effy asks, a little breathlessly, after Emily pulls back. “I got your friends to pay for our Eurostar tickets.”

“Baby, you could’ve taken me to a bloody tent out by Stonehenge to watch rocks grow for three days and it would’ve been a good choice,” Emily says, watches as Effy’s eyes crinkle faintly. “This is just—wow.”

“Good,” Effy says, and then leans over and grabs the small box, holds it out like an offering. “Part two.”

Emily attemps to look at the box without any trepidation but can’t quite manage, because the size is just throwing her off. She fumbles in trying to get it open, until Effy gently takes her fingers and presses them into the sides.

It pops open and reveals a key on a necklace. Emily lifts it out without saying anything, and then finds the small tag tied around the body of the key.

“I—” she starts saying but can’t find words to follow it.

“Anytime you want to,” Effy says, softly. “Okay? You don’t have to call and ask. Just come.”

Emily hangs the key from her neck wordlessly, watches as it gently sways between her breasts, and feels her chest swell with so much emotion that there’s only one way to properly express it.

She slips her hand between Effy’s legs again and gently pats. “Are you good?” It’s meant to come out casually, but it doesn’t, and she’s already leaning forward to kiss Effy by the time a response comes.

“Never better,” Effy says, before Emily presses her down onto the mattress, small, cold key labeled home crushed between their bodies.

----

The next day, they head back over Emily’s house and collect everyone who slept over for a late brunch at a carvery a few blocks down.

“Where’s Lucy?” Emily asks, looking around the room and not spotting her.

“Slipped off somewhere with tall and skinny,” Phoebe mumbles into her pillow before rolling over with a groan. “God, what the fuck are you so chipper about? Is being 20 proving to be that fantastic?”

“Yeah,” Emily says after a beat. “It’s going to be a great year.”

----

Tony, Naomi and Effy have already arrived by the time Emily hustles the girls out of her house, and it’s still faintly jarring—seeing the only two girls she’s ever seen naked sit maybe three inches away from each other, engaged in what looks like small talk. It makes her realize what a big person Effy is—maybe Naomi too, really, since she doesn’t think she could do it if she were either of them.

Effy turns her head before she’s even said hello—just seems to know she’s there, and slides the chair next to her back with one hand. They last saw each other maybe forty minutes ago, but it’s forty minutes too many.

“Hey,” Effy says. She keeps her arm around the back of the chair even as Emily scoots it back in and starts unwrapping her scarf, and it’s so understatedly possessive that Emily can’t resist turning her head and just pressing a quick kiss to Effy’s lips.

“Morning,” she then says to the rest of the group, but her hand stays under the table, and her finger traces I love you on Effy’s thigh. They could be anywhere, with anyone, and it wouldn’t make them any less together, she thinks; feels the teeth of the key around her neck rub up against her breastbone, and draws a huge heart with her finger, until Effy snorts and pokes her in the shoulder.

“Excited about Paris?” Tony asks, pushing a menu in Emily’s direction but all she really wants is coffee so she passes it on to Liz wordlessly.

“Who wouldn’t be?” she says. She feels a ridiculous grin come on and it’s amplified by Effy’s fingers rubbing small circles on her shoulder.

Naomi is oddly quiet, but she only realizes as much after about twenty minutes of slowly waking up and watching everyone else do the same.

She starts asking what’s wrong, and then stops herself, just kicks Tony under the table and faintly raises her eyebrows.

He shakes his head at her, and just like that, she realizes it’s not her business anymore.

“These eggs are shit,” Effy says with a slight frown.

“Worse than mum’s,” Tony agrees.

Emily laughs. “We are talking about Anthea, right? Because I don’t think that’s actually possible.”

Tony smirks at her. “Cheeky. You’re not a part of the family yet, you know.”

Effy looks up sharply for just one second, but then goes back to mutilating her omelette without saying anything else.

Emily squeezes her thigh. Sometimes, they truly don’t need words.

----

It’s less than three weeks until Christmas and she’s incredibly busy; somehow her birthday revitalized her energy for school which means she has a metric ton of things to catch up on if she wants to actually obtain the grades she needs. From Effy’s sporadic texts and even shorter e-mails, she gathers things aren’t much different in Scotland, but she wakes up every night holding the key around her neck and Scotland’s never felt closer.

----

Her last exam is on the 18th and there’s at least four more torturous days until Effy finishes. She goes home anyway; spends some time just hanging out with Katie, who takes her out shopping for Christmas presents and actually pauses at a nice collared shirt that she wouldn’t have so much as deigned stand near a few years ago.

“Effy would look good in this,” she says, and when Emily raises her eyebrows, she sighs. “Look, I’m not saying I’d ever wear it, but she’d look good in it, all right?”

Emily holds the shirt in front of her and thinks about Effy; thinks about taking the shirt off Effy. “Yeah, she would.”

It’s bought.

----

When they’re done, Katie drops the bags off at the base of Emily’s bed and then looks at her with pursed lips.

“Right, I don’t want to be a cunt about this or anything,” she starts saying and Emily laughs.

“Kay, I’ve been your sister for 20 years. What do you want?”

“Cook’s just come back from a trip to Cardiff; I haven’t seen him in two weeks, and I want to have him over, make a night of it. Can you bugger off somewhere?”

Emily smirks and shakes her head. “Let me ring Tony. I might be able to crash in Effy’s bedroom.”

“Thanks, babe,” Katie says, and then runs a hand through her hair. “Right, I need to go to the butcher’s; get some filet mignon.”

Emily thankfully manages to hold off on laughing until Katie’s already left the room.

----

It’s strange, being in Effy’s room without Effy there, because the entire place feels different—like a normal, talkative fourteen year old lives there, complete with lava lamp and school uniforms. It’s a place locked in time, and the only thing that makes it not entirely bizarre is the fact that the sheets still smell vaguely like Effy, or maybe like both of them, since it’s where they slept in November.

Emily presses her face into the pillow and closes her eyes; opens them only when someone knocks on the door, and then realizes it’s only 7pm.

“Hey,” Tony says in the doorway. “Naomi and I are going to play some Trivial Pursuit; special rules, every time you bollocks up a question you take a shot of tequila. Fancy joining?”

Emily laughs. “Why not.”

----

Only after the bottle is halfway done does the game turn anything other than violently competitive. Tony and Naomi are both relentless know-it-alls about everything, constantly arguing about wrong and right answers, whereas Emily fully accepts that outside of literature and history she can’t answer a damn thing.

“I’m not reading all of that again. Just tell me who was the German chancellor in 1880,” Tony asks—looks blearily across the table at Emily, who sighs and just reaches for the bottle.

“Your mum,” she responds, and they all laugh hysterically.

Tony wins without too much trouble after it becomes clear that Naomi doesn’t handle tequila nearly as well as she does vodka, and she has such a petulant look about it on her face that Emily and Tony just look at each other and start laughing.

Tony gets up even as Emily is still putting pie pieces back in their little bag and manhandles Naomi out of the chair, who drunkenly protests until he just lifts her up and she squeals.

“Let’s go, Scarface,” he says with a smirk even as Naomi pounds on his back and calls him a tosser. “Emily—see you tomorrow, yeah?”

She laughs and puts the game away; reaches for her phone and calls Effy.

“Hey,” Effy says, souding sleepy.

“Hey. Just wanted to say that I’m drunk, and I love you.”

Effy snorts. “Because you’re drunk?”

“Noooo,” Emily protests, struggling out of her skirt before flopping back onto the bed. “I love you more when I’m not. Less dizzy means more love.”

Effy laughs. “Go to sleep, Em. I’ll see you tomorrow, all right?”

“Mm,” Emily says, and falls asleep with covers that smell like Effy pressed up to her nose.

----

She wakes up in the morning with a pounding headache and a missed call from Effy. She goes to brush her teeth first and then returns it, wincing as light filters in through the windows.

“What gives, babe?” she asks, cursing when her own voice pounds into her head.

“Just wanted to check—you’re meeting me at mine, yeah, but Tony is coming to get me?”

“That was the plan,” Emily agrees. “Though I still don’t understand why I can’t just come pick you up myself.”

“You’ll see,” Effy says.

The bedroom door swings open after barely a knock and reveals Naomi in a huge t-shirt and some basketball shorts, yawning violently before offering a bleary smile. “Hey hon, breakfast’s ready if you’re up for it.”

Emily feels her heart drop.

“Ef—Effy, shit, wait, this is totally not what it sounds like,” she says, frantically, even as Naomi looks at her a little bit stupefied.

“Of course it’s not. I’ve got to go,” Effy says after a second, and hangs up without waiting for the rest of the explanation.

Emily stares at her phone in horror, and then hurls it at Naomi without thinking. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Do you have any idea what you’ve just done?”

“Jesus, Em,” Naomi says, and takes a step backwards. “I just invited you to—”

Fuck,” Emily moans, drops her head into her hands. “I can’t believe what just happened.”

“God, just call her back and explain,” Naomi says after a few seconds. She bends down and tosses Emily’s phone back onto the bed.

Emily dials Effy’s number off memory, and listens as it goes to voicemail. “Son of a bitch, what time is it?”

“Around ten,” Naomi says quietly. “Emily, just—just tell her what happened when you see her, okay?”

“You don’t understand,” Emily says, shaking her head and flinging her phone back across the room. “We were past this,we were finally fucking pastthis—she finally believed me when I told her that you don’t—oh,fucking hell,” she finishes and starts crying helplessly.

“I’m sorry,” Naomi says before closing the door, and for the first time ever Emily realizes how pointless an apology is from someone who doesn’t understand what they’ve done.

----

Tony tries calling but Effy’s phone goes straight to voicemail either way, and Emily sighs. “She’s turned it off in preparation for flying. Right?”

“I’d say so,” Tony says, before clumsily wrapping one arm around her. “Hey—just take it easy, all right? I’ll explain what’s going on. It’s more or less my fault anyway, for not telling her sooner.”

“I can’t imagine how much this hurt her,” Emily says and closes her eyes, burrows into Tony’s arms. “I’m so sorry, Tony.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Em,” he says.

She doesn’t say for once but can’t help but feel that this is just the sum of her past mistakes coming back to haunt her.

----

She goes home after a shower, at Tony’s suggestion, since Effy might need a few hours to think on his explanation. “You know how she gets. Give her a bit of space, just in case,” he says.

Emily can’t bring herself to say that even a bit of space feels too much like letting go and so she goes home; walks the entire forty minute walk in a relentless torrent of rain and snow, until Katie spots her from their bedroom, taking off her sodden heels before just sitting down on the front steps and crying.

----

I really am sorry Naomi texts back sometime in the early afternoon, after Emily’s taken a shower and feels vaguely more human. Katie hasn’t asked what’s wrong; just put in Mr.Smith Goes to Washington and sat next to her with a mug of hot chocolate.

The minutes are ticking by so slowly that she doesn’t even notice that the movie has finished, because she wasn’t watching it in the first place.

Katie sighs deeply. “Come on, you. Let’s go bake something fattening. That’ll make you feel better.”

----

They’re almost done with the batter for the first tray of cookies when the doorbell rings. Emily’s hands are covered in flour but Katie’s are knuckle-deep in chocolate sauce, and so she sighs. “I’ll get it.”

She opens the door distractedly, still halfway thinking about the correct proportion of sugar to add as the very last step—which she and Katie argue about constantly—and only then sees who it is; covered in a thin layer of snow, hair soaking wet, and shivering helplessly on the front step, big box in her arms.

"I love you," Effy says, so hastily that Emily almost misses it. "I've loved you for longer than makes sense, for much longer than you've loved me, and if I’m going to love you this fucking much that means I have to trust you. Okay? So whatever it was this morning—"

"She's sleeping with your brother," Emily interjects gently, feeling like she's going to throw up and cry all at once. "I slept in your bedroom last night, because Katie asked me to bugger off so she could shag Cook, and she asked me if I wanted some toast for breakfast. Which Tony was making. That's all you heard."

Effy sucks in a breath and then lets it go, closes her eyes before laughing helplessly. “And of course neither of you told me, because God forbid doing something that will avoid unnecessary drama.”

"What Naomi does isn’t any of our business, Ef,” Emily says, dusting off her floury hands on her sweater. “And as to why Tony didn’t tell you, I don’t know.”

Effy shifts uncomfortably in response and then leans heavily against the doorframe, teeth chattering. “You really don’t care, then.”

Emily takes off her glasses and folds them, hangs them from the V in her sweater. "I’ve let it go. I’ve let her go. You can't hold me accountable for choosing her once when I was seventeen forever.”

“I just find that—” Effy starts saying, and then sighs deeply and averts her eyes. “I find that nearly impossible to believe, because I can’t imagine ever being able to let you go.”

"Effy, babe, just listen to me. I'm not in love with her. I don't count the minutes until I get to see her again, I don't lie awake at night and think of her when I'm, well, you know," Emily says, trying not to blush. "Just being with her doesn't—she doesn't make me feel like I'm the luckiest person in this pissing country."

"You're not in love with her," Effy states, looks at Emily questioningly, who shakes her head.

"At best, I was in love with the idea of her once," Emily says, and watches as Effy's face works through the math until it finally relaxes. “And babe?"

"Yeah," Effy says, sounding exhausted.

"This has to be the most romantic thing ever. What’s in the box?"

Effy half-laughs and puts the box down. “Open it.”

“In a second,” Emily says, before stepping outside in her socks, pulling Effy close by the lapels on her coat, and kissing her.

The box makes a small noise. Like a whimper, and it takes Emily a second to realize that it doesn’t come from Effy.

“Babe—did it just—”

“Open it,” Effy says again, this time with a soft smile before resting her forehead against Emily’s shoulder.

Emily bends down and unfolds the top covering flaps and gasps loudly when something inside licks at her fingers. “Oh—Ef, tell me you didn’t.”

“I couldn’t think of anything else,” Effy says, looking down at the box. “I called Liz, who checked your tenancy agreement. You’re good to keep him in Warwick, for now.”

Emily reaches into the box blindly and comes out with a squirming, soggy ball of black fuzz that pants at her face before licking at the flour on it.

“Fred,” she says, and watches as Effy reaches out to gently tickle him under his chin, which produces a satisfied growl so soft that it’s almost like a purr.

“Fred,” Effy agrees, and Emily feels her heart burst into a million pieces at just one thought.

This is my family.

She hugs Fred close to her chest and reaches for Effy’s face, blindly—pulls her in close for another kiss that ends in a shaky sigh. "Even after all this time, you are so good at catching me off guard. It's one of the many, many things I love about you,” she says, and it comes out sounding incredibly solemn even though she can't stop smiling. 

“Happy Christmas, Em,” Effy says, before leaning in closer and hugging Emily so tight that she can barely breathe. “I love you” is murmured into her neck, and Emily feels like she's going to liquefy completely, because nobody should be able to mean those three words as much as Effy does.

Fred whimpers and tries to squirm out of Emily’s arms, but they barely notice.

Katie finds them long minutes later, still holding each other in the snow.

----

Close, close all night

the lovers keep.

They turn together

in their sleep,

close as two pages

in a book

that read each other

in the dark.

Each knows all

the other knows

learned by heart

from head to toes.

“close close all night”, by Elizabeth Bishop