Actions

Work Header

either/or

Chapter Text

either/or  

----

Disclaimer : the vast majority of the characters in this story (notably, Katie Fitch, Emily Fitch, Tony

Stonem, Effy Stonem, and Naomi Campbell) are being "borrowed" from Skins; consequently, all

creative rights to these characters belong to Company Pictures and their other respective owners.

Poetry is, as per usual, (c) Elizabeth Bishop.

----

To Cubed, for being the Effy to my Emily and becoming the Naomi to my Katie;

To B., for being the Effy to my Naomi (or perhaps my Katie);

To everyone who has a Tony or a Jimmy;

And to the two Katies, for helping me to do a little bit more, every time.

----

The tumult in the heart

keeps asking questions.

And then it stops and undertakes to answer

in the same tone of voice.

No one could tell the difference.

Uninnocent, these conversations start,

and then engage the senses,

only half-meaning to.

And then there is no choice,

and then there is no sense;

until a name

and all its connotation are the same.

 

elizabeth bishop, "conversation"

----

1. Alameda

If you're alone, it must be you that wants to be apart.

2. No Name # 5

A sweet, sweet smile that's fading fast, 'cause everyone's gone at last.

3. 2:45 AM

Hidden cracks that don't show, but constantly just grow.

4. Ballad of Big Nothing

You can do what you want to, there's no one to stop you.

Interlude. Between the Bars

Do what I say and I'll make them okay, and drive them away, the images stuck in your head.

5. Pictures of Me

Saw you and me on the coin-op TV: frozen in fear every time we appear.

6. Angeles

I could make you satisfied in everything you do; all your secret wishes could right now be coming true.

7. Rose Parade

They say it's a sight that's quite worth seeing; it's just that everyone's interest is stronger than mine.

Interlude. Cupid's Trick

She's shaking down, it's never over and done.

8. Punch and Judy

They don't read the same page, or speak easy, now they're gonna go say the words in the

wrong order again.

9. Speed Trials

You're such a pinball, yeah you know it's true; there's always something you go back running to.

10. Say Yes

I'll probably be the last to know, no one says until it shows.

Chapter Text

She drops her bags in the hallway, only seconds before Tony ambles down the stairs and lifts her up effortlessly into a somewhat panicked hug.

"I'm all for you saving the world, love, but try not to get shot again in the next twelve months or so, all right? There's only so much of this I can take," he says when he puts her back down, and Naomi sighs.

"Bloody hell; I told Charles not to call you, we both know what a ninny you are. I wasn't shot at, okay. There was gunfire in," and she trails off, just gestures faintly in the distance. "Whatever."

"Still," Tony says with a scowl and she can't help but smile, rolling her eyes.

"I'll take some utterly meaningless and harmless assignments in the Balkans, okay? You pansy," she says, just to get him to stop nagging, and he grins at her brilliantly before picking up her bags and lugging them upstairs.

She doesn't want to ask, and doesn't have to; he very casually tells her without prompting that 'the lesbians' are getting another dog and will be down to visit soon, to see Katie and Cook. "We should all do something together, right?" he asks, carefully, and she just nods.

It doesn't hurt as much as it used to; perhaps some part of her is finally learning to just give up on caring altogether, what with Emily's careless expressions of permanence every time they see each other. Tony, thankfully, doesn't pretend to not know; he also doesn't coddle her, and it's part ofthe reason he's been in her life all of these years.

It's not fair to him, really. But then nothing's been fair to her, and she's been nothing short of honest all these years; surely the fact that she still refuses to keep a toothbrush at his house works the point more bluntly than anything else could--the empty spare holder, hanging to the right of thesink, is a constant reminder of everything they'll never be.

"I'll let you get some rest. Want me to call your mum?" he asks, leaning in the doorway while she unzips the front of her suitcase and just pulls out an oversized t-shirt. 

"No, I called her on the way." She pauses briefly, and looks at him directly, which is rare. He stiffens at it and it's so wrong, the way they play house together despite knowing better, but she can't help herself one way or the other. "Thanks. For everything, Ant. I--"

"Yeah, I know," he says, and manages a smile.

She doesn't fall asleep for another hour despite being exhausted. The sheets smell like home, sort of, or maybe Tony's detergent is just all she allows herself to remember of England these days. It's not fair, though, that this is all she has to associate with home now; home should be more than whatshe's got left.

-----

She has coffee with her mum early the next day; catches up on volunteer activities in the region, feeling somewhat guilty when her mum reminds herthat there is plenty she could be doing in Bristol that would be just as noble and helpful as everything she manages to do all over the bloody world.

"I--" she starts to say and then just shakes her head, smiles. "Maybe. Okay? Maybe I'll stay, this time."

"You need a haircut," her mum reminds her with a soft smile.

"Mum, please; stop coddling me," she responds with a sigh. "I'll go in tomorrow, okay? God, I've barely got off the fucking plane."

Her mum just smiles and goes back to reading the newspaper moments later; she spends the rest of the afternoon in her old bedroom, and after an hour of just lying on her bed, finally decides to go through some of the things she's forced herself to not look at for years.

The boxes under the bed contain things that, if she were that kind of person, she'd think of as memorabilia. Instead, it's nothing but shite, really. Old shite that she hasn't figured out how to get rid of.

The worst of it is the clothing: T-shirts that she doesn't fit in anymore, t-shirts that she never fit in to begin with. She only barely manages to not pressher face against those, to see if they still smell like they used to, and then just laughs, almost disgusted with herself because it well and truly has gotten to a point where it's sick.

She lugs a bag of them downstairs and calls for her mum. "Get rid of these, yeah? They're all fine, just, I'm not sixteen anymore."

It leads to a hug that she doesn't want to think about too much, because that just brings her right back to the thing she doesn't want to think about: how all these years, she's been fooling nobody, with the hilariously ironic exception of Emily herself, who probably just doesn't want to know.

"Stay a while," her mum says again, when she's just about ready to make the trek back home, and they both know she doesn't mean for dinner.

"Yeah. I'm thinking about it," she says, and sighs. "I've got so much bloody vacation time built up they're almost begging me to use it at this point, so, I suppose I should."

It's not the truth, really, but her mum lets it slide.

----

"Emily doesn't know," Katie says, as soon as Naomi's eyes have shot almost out of her skull and then all she can think to do is grin stupidly. "So like, keep your--"

"Katie, I barely talk to your sister these days, okay?" Naomi assures her. "When are you due?"

Cook and Tony are trying to get a barbeque going in the backyard and Naomi watches them with some amusement as Katie, actually mortified, talks about a rather unfortunate condom incident a few months ago that probably was the date of conception, and then mentions the wedding.

"Thought you didn't believe in marriage," Naomi says, raising an eyebrow.

"I don't," Katie says sullenly. "I also don't believe in having my bloody mother judge me for the rest of my life over something this stupid, though."

"Emily doesn't know that, either?"

"No, she does; I sent her an invitation." Katie looks a little uncomfortable before pressing on. "I didn't send you one because, well, I wasn't sure where to send it. I mean, I figured you were probably Tony's plus one anyway, so."

Naomi smirks. "Subtle as always, Katie."

"Whatever," Katie says, sounding more like herself at age sixteen than she has in years, and then rolls her eyes. "It's none of my fucking business."

Naomi just takes a sip of her iced tea and looks away for a moment, amused and annoyed almost at once, and then sighs when she hears barking.

"Ugh, I told them not to bring the fucking--" Katie mutters and then gets up; Naomi looks her up and down quickly but she's not showing at all yet andso her plan to keep it a secret, for whatever fucking reason, will probably go off without a hitch.

She gets up to greet Effy and Emily, tries to keep a straight face, and still wonders how it got to a point where she feels more comfortable around Effythan around the girl that--

Maybe it's understanding, or something. A final common ground.

----

She manages to barely exchange two words with Emily the entire afternoon, and knows that pretty much everyone except Emily has picked up on it.

"Good on you," Effy says, softly, right before they're leaving, and Naomi has to almost bite through her lip to not say anything bitchy in return, becauseshe's spent enough time around Effy now to know that Effy, more than anything, won't ever gloat about it. Just sympathizes, and while in some ways it's worse, it would just make her look like an asshole to reject what essentially is kindness.

"All right?" Tony asks when they're on their way back to his house, and she sighs.

"I'm not telling Katie that Emily and Effy got married, and I'm not telling Emily that Katie is pregnant. Pray tell, Anthony--how the fuck did I end up inthis position? I still very clearly remember Katie despising me and Emily wandering after me like a demented, lovesick puppy."

He laughs. "Well, you can always fuck off back to Africa again."

She prods him in the side and he slings an arm around her shoulder.

----

She manages to stay put in Bristol for a month and a half, which is a post-age-19 record, but to nobody's great surprise the anxiety sets back in, andone morning she just writes a still-asleep Tony a note and kisses him on the cheek before packing her bags and heading down to London.

"Any preferences?" is all Charles asks when she shows up, squeezes in between two fundraising appointments, and she just shrugs.

"Anywhere but here."

"I worry about you sometimes, Naomi," he says after a moment, and then sends her off to go find some coffee; five hours later, she's at Heathrow, waiting for boarding on her Singapore Airlines flight to Taipei to commence.

Tony calls right before she heads off to the gate, and for once, sounds disappointed. "I thought we were making progress. I don't even--" and he trails off, just as helpless as she feels.

"Tony," she says, and feels her throat close up around the word; she never calls him Tony anymore, and it's almost like she's breaking up with him onthe spot, but she can't bear that thought anymore than lying to him. "It's--I'm not sure there is progress to be made. I'm sorry."

He doesn't respond before hanging up and she almost cries on the flight; instead, furiously works through her preparatory documents and writes out aneat list of things to do the minute she lands. None of them involve England, and by the time the plane taxies to the terminal building, she feels likeshe's breathing again.

----

She's on her way from Taipei to Kuala Lumpur--idling in the departure hall-- for one last meeting with the IMF before trekking back to Europe when Tonysends her a text message. "Junior (not a joke) has arrived. Looks like Cook, unfortunately."

She laughs out loud, waking the person in the seat next to her up, and apologizes profusely before smiling again. It's getting to that point in travel where she almost breaks; hating everything to do with England, but missing the few people there that she can think of as family so much that it's almost paralyzing.

She buys a small cuddly toy at the airport after her meeting, tucks it into her carry-on luggage and then laughs when security goes through it andlooks at it questioningly, as it clearly doesn't fit with everything else she's doing.

"For my nephew," she says, in lieu of an actual explanation, and the security guard grins toothily before putting it back in her bag.

She's already back on a train to Bristol when she finally realizes that she's not completely fraught up about being back for a change; instead, is rather looking forward to what one gets when one splices a Fitch with a Cook, because only nightmarish things come to mind.

----

"If you tell me I look good I am throwing you the fuck out," Katie says, glaring rather ineffectively because she's stroking his tiny head at the same timeand Naomi smiles unwillingly.

"You look awful, Katie," she says instead. "Like a whale that exploded."

"Bitch," Katie grumbles and then rolls her eyes, holds out the baby. "Here, hold him. I need to go to the bathroom. Again."

Naomi bites her lip not to laugh and then looks at the tiny little thing in her arms. She's got nothing with kids, really, but there's something about thevery serious way that Junior--or Jimmy, really, but to her he'll always be Junior because she and Tony had laughed about it for about twenty minutes when she'd gotten back home--is staring back at her. "I hope you'll get your mum's brains, at least," she tells him, equally seriously, and hears Cook laugh somewhere behind her.

"Better hope he'll get his mum's temperament, don't you think?"

Cook is the quintessential proud father; a little overwhelmed but also terribly excited by everything, like the baby laughing, crying, smiling, eating, which just about summarizes everything it knows how to do at this point. It's rather endearing, though, the way the videocamera appears to be glued to Cook's hand even though Katie keeps shoving it out of her face, telling him to fuck off.

"How's your mum been?" Naomi asks when Cook's taken the baby off to take a nap and they're having some caffeine-free tea--"horrible shite, but apparently it's better if I don't" Katie mutters--in the kitchen.

"Meddlesome. And relieved that we managed to squeeze in the wedding, really, because God forbid I give birth to a bastard," Katie says with an eyeroll.

"Think there's about a fifty percent chance of that anyway, given his parentage," Naomi notes with a smirk and Katie chortles. 

"Yeah, I almost said the same thing. Not known for her sense of humor, though, my mum."

"Have Em and Ef been by?" Naomi asks after a moment and Katie stares at her, for once not bothering with any opacity, long enough for Naomi to avert her eyes. "What, we're--we're all fucking friends, aren't we? Hasn't that been the point Emily's been trying to make all these years?"

"Yeah. And here we are, all following her; the brain trust who for years thought she could easily love both you and Effy without fucking everything up," Katie says, unexpectedly sharply, and then deflates almost visibly. "Sorry. I'm--Jimmy cries a lot, I'm fucking exhausted."

"Oh, please. When have we ever been unnecessarily nice to each other?" Naomi says, lightly, and then snorts. "Besides, it's the fucking truth, isn't it."

"It's still funny, though," Katie says a moment later, and finishes her tea; puts the cup down on the table deliberately and then almost smiles. "Out of all the shit I've ever called you, I never thought I'd be adding coward to the list."

Naomi doesn't have a response to that; it's been too long since the constant sniping back and forth between her and Katie for her to fall into it that easily again, and besides, it's not like Katie isn't right, about everything. There's just one thing she's always wanted to know, and since they're apparently having a moment of truth she might as well ask.

"What was it about Effy that made her okay for your sister? Back then, I mean?"

Katie blinks and then shrugs. "She was my friend."

"That's all?" Naomi laughs sharply. "That ignores a whole lot about what Effy was like as a teenager, doesn't it."

"She never did anything to make Emily feel like shit about herself," Katie responds after a moment. "That was you and me, babes. Not Effy."

Naomi shakes her head. "I'll never understand it; I mean, you hated that she was gay, and--"

"Don't bother trying to like, analyze it," Katie says with a small frown. "Can we just leave it at how I couldn't fucking stand you?"

Naomi smiles. "Changing times, eh."

"Please. If I ever sleep again, I may work up the energy to be a cunt; in the mean time, I'll pander to all the potential babysitters I can think of," Katie concludes, sighing deeply immediately afterwards when Cook hollers at her from upstairs. "Christ. Sometimes, I wish I was gay; women can't possibly be this useless."

"Maybe, but they're much more complicated," Naomi says, before getting up to rinse out the mugs as Katie makes her way upstairs.

----

Her twenty-fifth birthday passes quietly, on the sofa with Tony and two bottles of wine, watching old documentaries about global warming from back when scientists believed the world was going to end by 1999. They laugh themselves sick about the way the evidence is presented.

Emily and Effy send a card, written by Effy in her nearly-illegible scrawl. It's rather typical, that; apparently Naomi's not the only one who excels at being a coward anymore. 

Katie and Cook invite her and Tony out for dinner and drinks, and midway through the night--when she's handing Cook his ass at pool, for old times' sake, and Katie's having a rather intense-looking conversation with Tony over pints of cider at their table--she stops to think that it's incredibly strange,the way that as long as she stays in Tony's ambit, this is almost her family these days.

If anyone had predicted years ago that there would come a time when she'd have more patience for Katie than for Emily--and maybe patience isn't theright word, but it has a whole lot to do with tolerance anyway, because Emily's blind, voluntary stupidity is perhaps the only thing that Naomi doesn'tstill love about her--she would've laughed almost hysterically. But then Emily's not changed at all, and Katie and Naomi are barely the same people they once were, so maybe it's kind of inevitable, the way they gel together these days.

Maybe none of that matters, when it means she's got people to call a home for the first time in years.

----

She spends most of her 25th year in Argentina, then parts of it in Costa Rica, and the months preceding Christmas in New Mexico; she sends emails to Tony and to Katie and a second cuddly toy (this time, a narwhal, because it's rather badass-looking and she enjoys the thought of toddler Jimmy stabbing his parents with it) for his first birthday.

Tony responds promptly; Katie writes back sporadically. Neither of them mention Emily and Effy, and by the time January rolls around, Naomi actually can't wait to get back to Bristol, which has finally somehow managed to divorce itself from everything she hates about the UK in general.

It pours rain when she finally lands, but Tony's right there, picking her up as he always has, and she kisses him without any hesitation for a change. He blushes in response, and she just shrugs. "I'm too old for--let's just give this a serious go, okay?"

"What have we been doing to date?" he asks, on the drive home. "If not giving this a serious go."

"Don't ask questions you don't want me to answer, Ant," she replies, kindly, and he just snorts and turns the radio on.

She buys a toothbrush for his house. Almost hangs it up, but can't quite do it at the last minute. 

----

She sees Emily a week later, still in Bristol because of endless school holidays, and they go and have coffee together.

"Are you and Tony finally--"

"Maybe," Naomi cuts her off, because she'd still rather poke her eyes out than have Emily congratulate her on her wonderful relationship. "We'll see."

Emily looks at her pensively for a moment and then smiles. "I always thought it would hurt me, you eventually settling down, but I think I'm just happy for you at this point. It's funny how things change, isn't it." 

"Hilarious," Naomi says, and the familiar nausea comes back so abruptly that she almost swoons with it.

" Tony's good for you; better than almost getting shot at in Africa, anyway," Emily says with a small grin, and Naomi grips the table hard; it's like theknowledge that she's making a go of it with Tony has cancelled out any distance Emily has felt a need to keep all these years, and now she's back toactually being Emily, the Emily that Naomi hasn't figured out how to not long for in all these years. It's fucking miserable.

"I daresay that most things are better than getting shot at," she responds, as blandly as she can, and looks away when Emily's grin widens just enough for a flash of teeth to show. A few minutes later, in which she mostly just nods and looks away, Effy shows up and Emily's mood shifts to something--more appropriate, is the best way Naomi can think of putting it, but whatever it is, Effy makes it easier.

She exhales slowly and gets up to order more coffee; then texts Katie while waiting for her order at the counter: tell me something awful about your sister, please

The response--secretly kills babies and then eats them; yum!--makes Naomi laugh so hard that Effy and Emily look at her in surprise, until sheshakes her head and makes her way back over with a coffee tray.

Emily and Effy go back to Glasgow the next day, and Bristol rights itself; the sun starts shining out of nowhere, even though it's freezing, and Naomi goes on a long walk with Katie and Jimmy in the stroller and feels a weight lift off her shoulders when Jimmy reaches for her hand unexpectedly andpoints at the sun with a big smile on his face.

----

"Are you going to travel less, now?" Tony asks over dinner one night, cautiously, and Naomi blinks up at him.

"It's my job, Ant. It's not like there's anything I can do about that."

"You could ask to be England-based," he counters. "Charles owes you, what with how many screwed up last minute meetings and taskforces you've led on his behalf to date."

"I'll think about it," she says after a moment, and they finish dinner in silence.

----

After he's fallen asleep, hours later, she does think about it.

Doesn't know how to tell him that staying put would be like not breathing, and that's excluding all the wrong reasons she escapes England every so often.

She sleeps restlessly, until he wakes her up and stares at her intently. "I don't want to tie you down, make you something you're not. Okay?"

He knows her so well; it's part of why she wishes it was easier, giving in to him. Instead, she kisses him; the word thanks has lost all meaning between them, and there's easier ways to let him know that she cares to the best of her abilities.

----

Three weeks later, she leaves for Dubai.

----

She turns 26 in the Middle East without any celebrations. She doesn't care; just boards another plane the next day, taking her to Vienna for days of meetings with the World Bank, and realizes after just three days there that it's almost too close to England for comfort.

When the meetings wrap up, she heads to Vietnam.

The air's cleaner, there, somehow, and Tony's e-mails stop making her feel guilty. She stays for almost eight months, and opts to buy toy cars instead of a cuddly toy for a change, even though she has no fucking clue if two year olds have the hand-eye coordination to play with those, or if Katie is going to write back thanking her for the potential choking devices she's sent over.

She wraps up her work just in time for Tony's birthday, and puts a party hat on her own head when she's on his doorstep. "Didn't have time to buy apresent; sorry."

"Whatever," he says, picking her up and carrying her upstairs. "Got what I wanted, anyway."

Things are so good sometimes that it almost kills her when they stop being that way, usually without any warning.

----

"I'm throwing a party for Emily and Effy," Katie tells her on the phone. "They've been together for ten years. More or less. I mean, less, obviously, because--"

"Oh, save it," Naomi says with a sigh. "I'm well accustomed to my insignificance, thank you."

"Do you want to come or not? I'd get it if you don't," Katie says after a beat and Naomi laughs bitterly.

"Why wouldn't I, Katie? We're all friends, aren't we?"

"Bring liquor, in that case," Katie responds, and Naomi attempts a smile.

----

Effy breaks her heart completely that afternoon, but it's not what she'll remember the day for.

Still, the very casual and understanding way in which Effy apologizes for being luckier almost undoes her and she disappears in the house, leans heavily on the kitchen counter while running the tap and washing her face.

Cook shows up behind her after a few minutes, placing the camcorder on the kitchen table, and just clasps her shoulder.

"Emily's a good lass, Naomi, but she's not the only one," he says, and she nods. "Do you want to head home? I can give you a lift; we're out of fucking ice, I'm going out anyway."

"No," Naomi says, taking a deep breath. "I'm all right. I've just--I've just got to get over this, haven't I."

"You will," Cook says. "My wife doesn't need to hear me say this, but I'd lose my fucking nuts if a bird as fit as you didn't find someone to make herhappy. All right?"

She laughs and gives Cook a hug. "Thanks for being such a tosser, James," she says, and he pinches her ass, makes her laugh again before heading out the door.

"Who would've thought, really, that I'd one day be telling you you're lucky to have Cook in your life," she tells Katie once she's back outside, and Katie just rolls her eyes, looking pleased nonetheless.

About half an hour later, Naomi will do just about anything to take those words back.

----

Tony ends up getting the door, passing it on his way back from the loo, and when he steps back into the living room, all Naomi can think is that she's never seen him more wan.

He looks at her and blinks twice. "I think we--can you get Jimmy please?" he says, softly, in a tone of voice that Naomi's never heard but she gets upimmediately and finds Jimmy in the yard, kicking at a small ball, and she reaches for his tiny hand, holds it while watching what's going on inside.

Tony kneels by Katie's chair, reaches for her hand, and the look on Katie's face says more than anything Tony could've ever told her.

Naomi looks away; sits down on the grass and takes a deep breath, looks at Jimmy. "Want to hear a story?" she says.

"Yeah," he responds and settles against her willingly, even though she's just one of the many people that occasionally interact with him. It unravels hercompletely in a way that just knowing couldn't.

Effy joins them after a few minutes; sits down across from them and manages to hold it together until she sees Jimmy, and then has to look away again while taking a few deep breaths.

"More story," Jimmy calls out after a moment and Naomi swallows hard, dislodges whatever was making it impossible for her to speak for a fewseconds.

She rambles her way through Aladdin from memory and somehow manages to make Jimmy laugh until Emily somberly joins them about thirty minutes later and reaches for his hand, pulls him up from Naomi's lap and then picks him up, hugs him tightly with her eyes closed.

"We're taking him with us," she tells Effy, and Effy just nods, unfolds her legs and gets up as well, putting a hand at the back of Emily's neck just for amoment, and Naomi looks away, for once not jealous, but just envious.

"Is--"

"She had to go with them," Emily says, softly, and then blinks until her eyes stop watering. "Tony went with her; he asked us to give you a ride home."

"No," Naomi says, and rubs at her face. "Drop me off at the station, will you? I--"

"Sure," Effy says, and then heads back into the house. Emily strokes Jimmy's head and looks at Naomi helplessly.

"I never thought--"

"None of us did, Emily," Naomi says, abruptly, and then can't stop her tears anymore. "God. I just told Katie she's lucky to have him, minutes before--"She shakes her head and takes a step back when it looks like Emily might try to hug her. "No, don't. Just don't."

She heads back inside after Effy, finds her out front, leaning heavily against their car and sighing. "We don't have a car seat," Effy says after a second,and then rubs furiously at her face. "They don't have a spare; the only one they have was in--" and then she trails off, just shakes her head.

"Call Emily's parents; they probably have one," Naomi suggests and Effy nods, takes out her phone and dials; asks for the car seat without giving any details as to why they need it, even though her tone of voice is so far from normal that Mr. Fitch must be picking up on something, but a few minutes later she heads off to get it and Naomi sits down on the front steps, until Emily and a sleeping Jimmy join her.

"Are you all right?" Emily asks after a beat, and it sounds accusatory, like somehow Naomi's biggest failing here is not being upset enough.

Naomi just sniffs in response and digs around in her purse for a cigarette, even though she quit smoking years ago, and then finally just asks Emily for one. She smokes it quietly and then flicks it out on the street, leans heavily against the doorframe. "I've wasted so much time."

"On what? Travel?" Emily asks, and Naomi doesn't even look at her.

"Yeah. Travel," she says, and then closes her eyes; stays silent while waiting for Effy to come back. 

----

The next time she sees Katie is at the funeral, flanked by Freddie on one side and Emily on the other.

Emily looks so desperately in need of something, even with Effy by her side, holding her steady, that Naomi almost aches with the desire to run forthand be a hero, but instead all she does is run; it's all she can do.

She skips town to Berlin the next day, and from Berlin goes to Washington, then New York, then Toronto, until she finally gets an e-mail from Tonythat calls her on her bullshit, and she trudges back home, braving three subsequent layovers just so she can promise him she took the first flight backand isn't a horrible person.

"Honestly--I don't care if you're selfish with me, but this isn't about me," Tony says when he picks her up at the airport and she looks out the windowthe entire ride home. They're already almost parked when she reaches out for his arm, grips it tightly.

"No. I--take me to my mum's, please."

He sighs. "I didn't mean anything by it; just, Katie--"

"I'm stopping being selfish, Ant. Okay?" she says, looks at him just once, and he swallows hard before his face hardens. "You can't have it both ways."

"Yeah, okay. Bloody brilliant timing on this, Naomi. It's not like you've had eight years in which to tell me to fuck off; you wait for everything else to fall apart first."

She doesn't apologize; just isn't that kind of person.

He kisses her goodbye on her scar, tentatively, and she picks up her own bags and carries them inside.

----

It's only when she's already ringing the doorbell that she realizes she doesn't have anything for Jimmy, and curses herself for it.

Katie opens the door, not looking any less devastated than three weeks prior, and Naomi almost throws up on the spot. The understated way in whichshe and Cook cared for each other seemed so far removed from the nuclear drama that has been her own romantic life for years now that she didn't really get it, but there's no looking at Katie and missing the point anymore now.

"Thought you'd fucked off again," Katie says after a moment, surprisingly matter of fact given that just as a friend, with complete awareness of Naomi's flexible schedule, she knows that it was by choice.

"Someone inspired me to fuck, well, back here," she responds and Katie just holds the door open further.

"It's a bit of a mess; I finally had to tell my mum to stop fucking hovering around and I just--"

"I don't care. You've obviously still never seen my bedroom," Naomi interjects, and Katie almost smiles in response.

They have coffee silently until Jimmy wakes up from his nap, and Katie looks actively pained just looking at him, to the point where Naomi sighs andsays, "Why don't you go and rest or something? I can watch him for a few hours."

Katie doesn't say thanks. It's probably the only thing that feels normal about the entire situation.

----

Jimmy has almost cut off a third of his hair by the time Naomi spots what he's doing, and figures there's no point in berating him for it, so she just guiltily watches a cartoon with him until Katie comes back downstairs.

Katie frowns at first and then laughs, quietly, but it's laughter all the same. "Oh, Jesus."

"Sorry," Naomi says, contritely. "I think it's jet lag, I nodded off for a second and, well."

"You're paying for his haircut," Katie says and kneels in front of Jimmy with a sigh. "Fuck. It's going to have to be really short. He'll look--"

She trails off and Naomi closes her eyes. "He already does, Kay."

"Yeah, well, the little things--" Katie starts saying and then shakes her head, rubbing angrily at a few tears. "Fucking hell."

They have dinner together and then Naomi just doesn't know how to offer to do anything else; Katie directs a sharp look at her and says, "I'm not fucking incompetent, okay? He's a handful, but he's always been, and James worked really fucking strange hours so it was mostly just the two of us."

"I didn't say--" Naomi starts saying, but Katie cuts her off.

"And, what the fuck's wrong with you, then? You haven't asked about them all day."

Naomi blinks. "Are you serious?"

"Oh, get off it," Katie scoffs. "Don't even try to pretend that you're suddenly considerate. You've been a little single-minded for the past decade. Andthey're fine, by the way. Stuck up North with work. Effy offered to come down by herself but knowing Emily, she's probably more fucked up about this than I am."

"I somehow doubt that," Naomi says, but then rolls her eyes. "Though she does have a talent for crying spectacularly about everything."

"Yeah, and I don't need that around me right now," Katie says, leaning against the wall with a sigh. "So like, don't fucking--"

"Please. You just accused me of only coming here for an update on your sister. And now you're worried I'm going to get emotional?"

Katie almost smiles. "I hope you're not suggesting we have anything in common."

"Of course not," Naomi says. "That would be insane."

----

She goes out for a drink with Tony; almost apologizes for how she ended things, but he just looks at her discerningly and smiles bitterly. "Naomi, it's been a ticking clock since we've known each other. Don't patronize me, okay? I've always known you were in love with someone else."

"This isn't about her," Naomi says, and realizes only after she's already said it that it's true.

"I'm sure," Tony mutters and Naomi covers his hand with her own.

"No. It's about--knowing that if something like that happened to me, you'd deserve to have someone who would fall apart as completely as Katie did.And I'd be devastated, but I wouldn't be like that."

He looks down at the table and smiles. "A break-up over hypothetical grief. Well. It's something to tell my children, at least."

"Don't be a prat," she tells him, gently, and he nods after a second.

"It'll take some time. I do love you very much, you know."

It's the first time he's ever said it, and the first time anyone has said it that she cared about even a little.

Afterwards, she goes home and watches a documentary about classism with her mother; falls asleep on the couch and wakes up with a blanket covering her and a mug of coffee in front of her.

----

She spends Tuesdays and Thursdays with Katie, and even though they call and confirm the first few times, after the third week she just shows up andKatie opens the door before she's even rung the doorbell.

They don't really talk much to each other; mostly just to Jimmy, but it seems to help either way, just being around, giving Katie a bit more space to just be. It's not like they were ever friends like that anyway--chatty and gossipy together. Some part of Naomi still can't quite believe that they're friends at all, but when it becomes clear that it's not even hardship to go over and take Jimmy to a park, to help him up and down the slides, she realizes that they must be.

Otherwise, as Tony would remind her, she'd be far too selfish to do this.

On the other days, she helps her mum, who hasn't stopped setting up literacy projects since the first original one proved such a raving success, andit's taken most of the decade but the horrible associations she has with that one have become muted, to the point where she can be involved ineverything except the reading itself, and it's not like she's needed for that, anyway.

It takes her the better part of a month before she realizes that, despite all previous attempts, this feels like settling down, and the panic closes up herthroat so badly that she almost hyperventilates, just sitting on the edge of her bed with her socks still on, almost ready to go to bed.

Naturally, because that's how these things go, the Fall reading week of the University of Glasgow follows almost immediately afterwards, and the next time Naomi heads over to Katie's house, they're both there already.

It's a relief, really, the instant irritation she feels when seeing the pitying look that Emily directs towards her sister, because it's the only non-fucking-wonderful thing she's thought about her in years, but that doesn't change the fact that she doesn't want to subject Katie to it anymore than she wants to sit around and watch it.

"Fancy going out for a bit?" she says to Katie, who is sitting at Cook's old desk, going through pile upon pile of bank statements and bills that haven't been dealt with, and Katie looks up with a sigh.

"Do you know anything about bookkeeping?"

Naomi shakes her head. "I have no expenses, Katie. Just income that I don't do anything with."

Katie nods and drops the pen she's holding and pushes away from the desk. "Let's go, then. I don't even give a fuck where; if Emily looks at me like I'm going to break one more time, I will punch her."

Naomi tries not to smile.

----

"I think I'm going to have to move," Katie says, when they're having ridiculously tall Irish coffees at a pub a few blocks away from her house, and Naomi takes a careful sip. 

"House too expensive?"

"It wouldn't be if I could work," Katie sighs. "I mean, I know I haven't done fuck all since Jimmy was born, but we were doing better than all right before; part of why I could take time off."

"But?"

Katie stirs her drink idly before licking off the spoon. "I don't want to--like, I'm sure my parents would watch him, but I don't want to fucking owe them that much, you know? If I go there, they're just going to plead with me to move back home, and I'll feel like some fucking--" She smiles, slightly. "I guess I am one, but I just don't want to have to go there. If I move someplace smaller, I can afford childcare, and it wouldn't be an issue."

"That the only reason?" Naomi asks carefully and Katie looks up sharply.

"What the fuck else would it be?"

"Too many memories?" Naomi suggests, and when Katie's eyes narrow, Naomi shrugs sadly. "I'm not judging. There's this lake about a fifteen minute bike ride from here that I haven't been able to go to in the past seven years. Sometimes, things are just like that."

Katie laughs after a moment. "That's pretty pathetic."

"Doesn't make it less so, though," Naomi responds, and after a beat, Katie deflates.

"Everything fucking reminds me of him. I mean, Emily went into the hall closet for a fucking spare towel last night and found a few disposable razors that we'd stocked up for him. And she actually fucking asked if I wanted to keep them, for Jimmy, maybe. They're fucking disposable razors, Naomi." Katie's lip trembles perilously for a second and then she pulls it together. "I don't want that to be my fucking life, or Jimmy's life." 

"So what are you thinking?" Naomi asks. "Smaller flat?"

Katie sighs deeply, finishes half of the coffee in a few sips and then rubs at her forehead. "I'm in a fairly small field. I don't know what the fuck I'd do inBristol, I mean, I am the bloody fashion world here. You know how it used to be. Before Jimmy, I mean; I worked from there three days a week."

"You're not going to be able to rent cheaper in London," Naomi says, gently, and Katie just stares at her.

"No, really?"

Naomi almost smiles. "That's a fairly big problem there, Katiekins."

"Thanks for being so fucking helpful. Really, next time my sister wants my opinion on who to date, you're at the top of my list," Katie snarks back, andNaomi does laugh at that point.

"You'll figure something out. You're very resourceful; I seem to remember you making my life miserable with minimal effort for a fair number of years."

"Am I, though?" Katie says, looking at Naomi with an almost painfully insecure look. "Because I don't think I've had to be in years now, and I don't honestly think I remember how." 

"People like us land on our feet, Katie, no matter what fucked up shit happens to us," Naomi says after a moment. "It's what separates us from theEmilys of this world. We don't need people to catch us." 

Katie doesn't say anything in response; just reaches for Naomi's almost untouched drink, and finishes it, too.

----

"Thanks for being there for her," Emily says quietly when they're doing the dishes. "I know you've got no reason to be nice, what with how--"

"For God's sake, Emily. This isn't about you, or us," Naomi snaps, almost dropping the plate she's drying in the process.

"I know that," Emily responds, sounding a little wounded. "I just mean you were never friends."

"You're still wrong. We were never friends," Naomi says, and then looks back out into the living room, where Effy's entertaining Jimmy and Katie's watching it happen with a faint, sad smile. "Your sister and I have been friends for years, the entire time you've been living in fucking Glasgow, actually. Thanks for paying attention."

Emily stops washing; just stares at Naomi. "Why are you being like this? I'm just trying--"

"Yeah, well, maybe you shouldn't. Try. Maybe that's why things are the way they are. Because you just don't know when to let something go."

It's ridiculously unfair, almost; both the words and the hurt look on Emily's face in response to them.

Naomi sighs and drops the dishtowel; heads outside and smokes angrily for a few minutes until Katie shows up next to her.

"Let me have one," she says, and Naomi hands them over quietly. "Friends for years, huh?"

Naomi purses her lips. "That was a private--"

"Yeah, we haven't gotten around to soundproofing the bloody open kitchen yet. Whatever," Katie handwaves. "I just think it's fucking hilarious."

"What, that I finally snapped at your sister?"

"No," Katie says, and exhales slowly before her lips twist into a small smile. "That you snapped at her because of me."

"Oh," Naomi says, and then scowls. "Fuck's sake. She had it coming."

"Doesn't mean it's not funny."

They smoke silently and Naomi heads home afterwards. The next time she sees Katie, Emily and Effy have gone back home already, and shebreathes a sigh of relief before picking Jimmy up and putting him in his stroller.

----

The saving grace turns out to be Cook's rather excellent life insurance policy, which clears a month after Katie's near-meltdown over Irish coffees.

"I mean, I shouldn't be so fucking surprised, it's what he did for a living," Katie says, a little sadly, but then manages a smile. "It'll cover all of childcareand most of rent. It's enough; I've just got to get back in touch with a few people and see what's happening, but I think it's going to work out, soon."

"Good," Naomi says, handing James a blue crayon on command and then ruffling his hair. Katie says nothing for a long time, but then sighs.

"So when are you fucking off again, then?"

Naomi watches James color for another few moments before answering, slowly. "I hadn't really thought about it."

"You've been in Bristol for almost 3 months now. If not longer. Surely you're leaving soon," Katie suggests, and Naomi frowns before doing the math inher head. It's jarring, when it turns out she's right.

"I--honestly don't know."

"Right," Katie says, plainly, and then leans forward, presses a kiss to Jimmy's near-bald head and says, "Time for a bath, Jim."

He squirms but finally lets himself be picked up and then excitedly yells "Bye Nay-mee" before disappearing upstairs.

Naomi clears up his crayons and then looks at her phone for a long moment, before finally calling Charles.

----

She stops by Tony's on her way to the airport and he smiles a little sarcastically. "Well, this is a relief."

"What?" Naomi asks, genuinely confused.

"You, leaving again. I have to say, it was a bit damaging, feeling like I couldn't compete with a two year old."

She punches him in the shoulder and he grins more sincerely after that. "Fellini and cocktails, for old times' sake?"

"I've missed you," she says, and after a second he says, "Good. About time."

----

Katie ends up driving her to the train station, only a few days before she, too, moves away, and they sit in the car in short stay parking for a moment while Jimmy, from the back seat, points up towards the landing airplanes that coast by with a frequent "look!".

"I wanted to say--" Katie starts saying and Naomi sighs.

"Ugh. Please don't."

"It's not what you think. I just wanted to say that I'm sorry I've given you such a hard time about Emily, over the years," Katie finishes, and then takes adeep breath. "I wish I didn't, but I get it."

"Emily's not--"

"No. But the thought that James is still out there somewhere and just not with me--well, it's not any fucking better. At all. Is it?"

Naomi reaches for Katie's hand unthinkingly and squeezes it. "I refuse to compete with you on this."

Katie laughs shortly. "It's not--I just wanted to say that yeah, I won't be giving you any shit over it anymore. I understand; if I didn't have a two year old, I'd be running, too."

"I don't want to anymore," Naomi says after a long moment of silence, interrupted only by another excited sound from Jimmy and Katie going 'mmhmm'in response. "Run, I mean. I don't want to--I'm not even sure that I have been hanging on, because, well, they're bloody married and--"

"They're what?" Katie asks and Naomi freezes, before laughing with a sigh.

"I wasn't supposed to tell you. Apparently it was a very covert affair, or something."

"Bitches," Katie mutters, and then they both laugh, a little painfully but genuinely nonetheless.

"I haven't been hopeful in years," Naomi continues after another pause. "I just haven't known what else to be, other than nothing, really."

"And now?" Katie asks.

"Now, I'd rather be anything but this," Naomi confesses, and exhales slowly before offering Katie a tremulous smile. "I still feel like a cunt, by the way, complaining about this to someone who--"

Katie just rolls her eyes. "Your life can suck as hard as mine does. I don't have it patented."

"I can't actually complain, to be honest," Naomi says, and then wonders about whether or not it's true for a moment. "Not lately. Not as much."

"Working, then," Katie suggests. "Instead of running."

"Perhaps," Naomi says, slowly, and then shrugs with a smile. "Saving the world, one bloody ridiculous trip at a time."

"You know what I honestly appreciate about you?" Katie asks after a beat. "Your modesty. I mean, that and your dress sense, obviously. I can't wait to get back to work and fucking like, design something for you that both fits and doesn't make you look retarded. Honestly."

"Does that make me your muse, then?" Naomi asks, and Katie laughs.

"More like my worst nightmare, Campbell."

Naomi squeezes Katie's hand one last time, and then twists in her chair until she can give Jimmy a high-five.

"Where going?" he asks, and some part of Naomi stops at the simple question; tells her to reconsider something.

"Not far. I'll be back," she tells him, and he grins at her toothily before pointing up at another airplane with a wide smile.

It's not until she's already in the air that she realizes that the next time Charles offers her something in London, she might actually take it.

Chapter Text

"Wha's that?" Jimmy asks, pointing at her cheek. Naomi stills and has to actually think about what he's asking after, but with her rather inevitableBrazilia-inspired tan, of course the scar's standing out a bit more.

"I got hurt once," she tells him, and he looks at her with a frown.

"But it's okay?" he asks and she smiles unwillingly.

"Yeah, it's okay now," she assures him and he grins before getting up off her lap and running towards his toy chests.

"Sorry," Katie says, not sounding sorry at all, and Naomi just shrugs.

"Whatever. Two more years and he'll be telling me I'm disfigured; it's probably best he notices it now."

Katie smiles and Naomi sits back, surveying their small apartment. It's cosy, really; not much bigger than her apartment during her second year of uni,but then she'd had a roommate and Jimmy doesn't really count as a full person. She admires Katie for subtly working Cook into the surroundings--alamp that Katie would've never bought, a faded Kill Bill poster in the hallway--without any obvious reminders that would hurt on a daily basis; the only picture of Cook she saw when she got the quick tour was in Jimmy's room.

"We can drop him off on the way," Katie says after a moment, and Naomi blinks before looking over at her. "At daycare, I mean."

"I don't mind if he comes with us. He's a great kid, Katie; always has been," Naomi says and shrugs when Katie looks at her skeptically. "I mean, I'm glad I don't live with you two, but--"

"Where are you staying?" Katie interjects. "I mean, you've been visiting us here for close to a year now and--like, I have no fucking idea. Does your work just pay for a hotel?"

"I have a flat in Haringey," Naomi says after a beat and then smiles. "Sorry. It's just one of those things that I guess I assume people know. I've always had the option of being here."

Katie looks at her for a long moment and then gets up. "Funny. Not running as fast as you could after all, then."

Naomi rolls her eyes and heads into the hallway; finds James' jacket and holds it out for him as he bounds over and sticks out his arms, and when they're done and she's zipped him up, Katie's looking at them with an odd look on her face.

"What--not warm enough? Does he need his hat?" Naomi asks and Katie blinks rapidly, just three times.

"No, he'll fucking die on the Tube. It's fine. Ready, Jim?"

"Ready," Jimmy confirms brightly and then reaches for both of their hands. 

----

Katie's workplace--"call it an atelier and I'll fucking stab you," she'd warned, once--is a disaster, but somehow, even while Naomi lingers in the doorwayand holds on to Jimmy, Katie unerringly manages to go through the mess and find what she's looking for.

She eyes Naomi somewhat critically after a moment and then sighs. "Honestly. With legs like yours, I don't fucking understand why you do this toyourself."

Naomi smirks. "Height envy?"

Katie flips her off discreetly even as Naomi mockingly covers Jimmy's eyes, and then watches as Katie pulls a garment bag off whatever she's made.

"You said gala, right?" Katie asks, bending over and grabbing some measuring tape off the floor. "Not dance?"

"Yeah, there's not much dancing at the Development Agency, sadly," Naomi says, dryly.

"Right. Well, should something change, you'll probably still be all right," Katie mumbles and then tilts her head. "Jimmy? Do you remember where I kept your toys?"

When he nods, Naomi lets go of his hand and he shoots off around the corner.

"Get undressed," Katie says a second later and Naomi can't help a spontaneous burst of laughter.

"Is this how you treat all the girls?"

Katie snorts. "Most just get naked when I look at them a certain way; be happy I asked."

Naomi laughs. "That wasn't a question."

"Whatever," Katie says, looking impatient, and Naomi just grins before shrugging out of her coat. "And take your bra off as well, yeah?"

"Good lord, you don't fuck around," Naomi remarks teasingly and then manages to not blush when Katie stares at her rather blatantly as she slips outof her sweater and her skirt. When she stares back for a moment Katie finally rolls her eyes and turns around.

"Better, princess?"

"I like how you're making me feel like an arse for being a bit embarrassed getting naked in front of my ex-girlfriend's sister, Katie. Really. Thanks for thecompassion."

"Yeah, well, unlike Emily, I won't overly appreciate it, so don't fret it," Katie responds, and Naomi snorts before straightening. 

"All done."

Katie glances up and down just once, but it's suddenly a lot more professional than it was before, and when she looks back at the dress immediately afterwards Naomi manages to relax, just a bit. 

"Right, then. Put this on," Katie says a second later, and helps her work the dress over her head.

"Ow, fuck me, are there still pins in this?"

"Don't be a baby," Katie mutters behind her, measuring tape between her teeth, before tugging up the zipper and pinning it with something behindNaomi's back. "God's sake. You'd think you were paying for this or something."

"Sorry," Naomi mumbles, a little contrite, until Katie pricks her with something again and then she just bites down on her teeth.

"Well, look who cleans up nicely," Katie says after a few seconds, sounding incredibly smug about it. "Perhaps this time you'll listen to me when I saythat granny chic just makes you look like a dyke."

Naomi rolls her eyes, but then steps in front of the mirror anyway, and blinks twice. "Katie, for God's sake, I'm having dinner with approximately 200 lecherous old goats. What the fuck is wrong with you?"

"There's never a wrong time to look good," Katie says, and then purses her lips. "Strapless bra, I think. Wouldn't want to make anyone miss the fact you've got tits; I mean, it was a surprise to me, but it shouldn't have to be."

"I hate you," Naomi mutters, but can't stop staring at herself anyway.

Katie unzips her a second later and they carefully work the dress back off, trying not to dislodge any pins, and then Katie hands her her shirt back without comment and puts the dress back in the garment bag.

"You need a haircut, " Katie says a few moments later. 

"It's fine like this," Naomi responds, deliberately not looking in the mirror, but Katie steps back into her line of vision a few seconds later, before she's managed to tug her shirt back up, and pushes her hair away from her cheek.

"You can barely fucking see it, okay. And you look good with short hair."

"Thought I looked gay with short hair," Naomi responds after a second and Katie rolls her eyes.

"You look gay anyway. Just trust me."

Naomi can't think of a sharp reply, because it's not like this isn't what Katie does for a living, and rather successfully at that. "Fine."

Jimmy comes back into the room a second later and stops abruptly.

" Mum, where are Nae's clothes," he asks, and Naomi raises her eyebrows before Katie sighs.

"I swear to God, it's like living with my brother again," she says, quietly, sounding mostly amused, and then heads over to the other side of the room,to explain to Jimmy that the rules about staying in the play area also apply when it's just Naomi.

Naomi tries not to laugh, because it would probably undermine the lesson a bit too much. 

----

She gets felt up a grand total of twenty times, and doesn't know whether to thank or shoot Katie.

Tony's appreciative look at the start of the evening somewhat makes up for it, though; in his words, "well, this'll compensate for the fact that we're not having sex later tonight nicely".

She sends a thank you card in the mail the next day, just minutes before heading to Brussels for a last-minute meeting with the Social Policy committee in the Commission.

----

"What the fuck was that about?" Katie says when Naomi calls, after she's gotten back.

"What?"

"The card. What am I, your grandmother?"

"Just my fairy godmother, last I checked," Naomi says and then grins. "If I click my heels together twice, will you come clean my flat?"

"Wrong fucking story, you idiot," Katie responds, and hangs up.

----

Emily calls unexpectedly sometime in March.

"Hey," Naomi says, distractedly, shoving a last few slides into her briefcase before slamming it shut and then sighing. "Is something wrong?"

"No," Emily says after a beat. "I didn't realize something had to--"

"Look, Em, I'd rather not, okay? What can I do for you?"

Emily sighs. "Effy and I are planning on visiting over Easter, and we were going to offer to take Jimmy someplace fun, but it won't work if Katie's just going to work herself to death while he's gone. Like the last two times we tried."

Naomi had been out of the country, but had heard from Katie nonetheless that she'd had a very productive week both times; and she can't help butlaugh. "Need a better plan, I guess."

"Well, that's where you come in. Are you going to be around?"

"Mostly," Naomi says, a little hesitantly. "I don't really--"

"Just drag her out a few times, please? She's--" Emily sighs deeply. "I feel stupid saying this to you because, well. But she's twenty six, and she's living the life of an eighty year old. ... You both are."

"Sorry. I must've forgotten to order that fairytale romance that had me falling in life-long love at age 16. What an oversight; shame on me, really," Naomisays; she aims for levity, but it comes out rather cutting, and to her own surprise she finds that she doesn't really care one way or the other.

"I didn't mean--"

"You might want to rethink how you phrase this when you talk to Katie; I'm not sure she'd appreciate the nun analogy one fucking year after herhusband died," Naomi says, and hangs up.

It's only when she's already walking into her office and hanging up her coat that she realizes this might be the first time, ever, that she's said no toEmily since she started saying yes.

----

Saying no to Emily, however, does not preclude picking and choosing from her ridiculously insulting suggestions.

She doesn't bother calling; figures Katie will just snipe at her, what with her ridiculously low tolerance for being distracted from her work, but instead takes a taxi to her studio and knocks on the door impatiently until Katie, looking as bedraggled as Katie lets herself look--like she's gotten no sleep inthe past day, her never-again-red hair messily tangled up in a bun--opens it and glares.

"I don't want to be obvious or anything, but like. I'm working," she says after a beat, looking at Naomi's outfit.

"It's half eleven, Kate. Probably time to go do something else, isn't it?"

Katie's lips thin considerably before she opens the door further and walks back into her workspace, sits back down at her drawing table and ignoresNaomi completely, who--after a second's hesitation--follows her in.

"Are you up against deadline or something?" she asks, sitting down on the small stool by one of the dummies Katie uses to fit dresses on, and Katie shakes her head. "Right, then, so there's nothing stopping us from going out for a couple."

Katie stills rather abruptly and carefully puts the pencil she's sketching with down before looking at Naomi with an almost spiteful expression in hereyes. "I thought you were getting better at telling my sister to mind her own fucking business, but apparently--"

"I did," Naomi interjects gently. "She's a stupid twat; thinking there's something wrong with your life just because you're not madly in love or whatever."

Katie makes a small, involuntary noise, and then her face hardens. "I'm not going out to pull."

"I don't think I'd appreciate being left by myself in the middle of Camden much," Naomi responds dryly. "So I'd hope not."

"So this is--just drinks with friends, okay?" Katie presses, and only relaxes when Naomi nods; a little unwillingly, because while she thinks Emily was ridiculously off base with her suggestion that either of them should be off finding their own Effy, and there's a thought that makes her stomach crawl, Katie's vehement unwillingness is also a sign of, well, something not good.

"Right," Katie says after another long moment and then sighs. "Give me a few minutes; I need to go clean up." She disappears around the corner andseconds later Naomi hears a tap run. She twists around on the stool for a few more moments but then gets up, unable to resist looking at what Katie's working on next, because to her own surprise, the few things that Katie's designed for her--including the low, off-centered v-neck blouse that started it all, only a few weeks after she'd been back in London--have all been acutely lovely.

This, though--she looks away after the second sketch and just sits back down on the stool again, and tries not to think about what it means, thatKatie's drawing variations on polo shirts even though she's never bothered with men's couture before in her life, and doesn't look like she's gotten any commissions to start.

Sometimes, she thinks, as Katie comes back out of the bathroom, now significantly more kempt and with her make-up masking the lingering sadnessthat had almost overwhelmed Naomi when Katie'd opened the door, she wishes that they could go back in time and find some understanding years ago. It would make it less horribly awkward to offer to give Katie a hug, and she knows enough about Katie to understand that Katie would be very unlikely to accept a hug from anyone else at this point, because it would mean conceding defeat.

Naomi flags down another taxi once outside and they hurtle up north, occasionally ramming into each other because of the cab's lacking shock-breakers and the driver's complete lack of concern for his cargo. After the third violent bump, Naomi just reaches out and puts a hand against Katie's side, pushing them apart just enough to avoid impact, and then looks out the window again, watches London stream by in a blur.

"Do you know when the last time I went out for drinks was?" Katie asks, suddenly, and Naomi shakes her head without turning around, because thetone of Katie's voice isn't promising anything good.

"Tony's birthday. Back when you and Tony were still--"

"That can't be right," Naomi interrupts, and then does turn to look at Katie with a mild frown. "Katie, that's almost two years ago by now."

"Yeah, well," Katie says and averts her eyes after a moment. "It's called daycare for a reason."

"I'm sure you could find a babysitter if you--"

"Whatever," Katie cuts her off, and then they both go back to looking out the window until they reach their destination. It's not as trendy anymore asNaomi remembers it from her uni days, the bar she's dragged them to, but still upscale enough for Katie to not scoff at it, and that was more or lessthe point.

Katie composes herself relentlessly mere seconds after stepping out of the taxi, and Naomi can't help but feel like the oaf that's accompanying here, even though Katie impatiently gestures for Naomi to stop trailing after her after only a second. The only sign that any of this is remotely out of theordinary for her is the deep breath she takes right before throwing the bouncer a wink, and then they're inside, in a world that's always been moreKatie's than Naomi's.

Not tonight, though, because Katie grabs for her hand almost frantically the minute they've crossed the threshold and hangs on to it tightly before maneuvering her way over to the bar. She mimes drinking at Naomi and Naomi shakes her head, leans in close. "Let me get it; this was my arsehole idea, after all."

Katie smiles faintly and then requests a bottle of Heineken, staring at Naomi the entire time as if daring her to comment on it. Naomi doesn't; ordersthe same, and when she's got two bottles, she hands one to Katie and looks at her seriously.

"To James, who shouldn't be forgotten," she says, leaning forward just enough where Katie can hear her, and Katie's rushed exhalation in response almost gives her goosebumps. Katie needs a moment, just looks down at the bottle, and then finally straightens and clinks their bottles together withforce.

"To James," she shouts, and closes her eyes before drinking. 

----

Naomi's not sure if Emily would approve of the turn the evening is taking. After the beers, which they both acknowledged were every ounce as vile as they remembered beer being, Katie suggested going someplace a bit more quiet and Naomi had laughed but agreed.

"We're getting old, aren't we," she says once they're outside, and doesn't object when Katie links their arms together, walks them down the block.

"Getting? You're twenty seven and I've got a three year old. I think it's time to like, admit defeat," Katie replies sharply and Naomi laughs.

"Well, damn. Neither of those things mean that we can't get sloppily drunk like we used to, just this once."

"One more beer, then?" Katie retorts, and Naomi rolls her eyes.

"I remember someone having a penchant for tequila once upon a time."

"That was a long fucking time ago, Naomi."

"So?" Naomi says with a shrug. "I bet I can still handle vodka straight from the bottle. Some things are like riding a bicycle."

Katie smirks, but when Naomi stops by a 24 hour off-license and buys two bottles, she doesn't protest.

----

They go to Naomi's, because Katie makes a face at the suggestion of getting drunk at her own flat, and Katie looks around curiously before herforehead narrows into a frown. "How long have you had this place now?"

"Four years or so," Naomi says, and holds up her hand to forestall any comments. "I went for a minimalist look, okay."

"A lack of furniture isn't minimalism," Katie says and then wanders around the place, sticks her head around the corner of Naomi's bedroom and then laughs. "You pig."

"Hanging things would require a wardrobe, wouldn't it," Naomi says airily and then just gets out two shotglasses and the bottles, puts them on hercoffee table.

"No wonder you travel so bloody much," Katie says, sinking into the couch with a sigh, and then rubs at her face. "Fuck, my eyes are killing me."

"Take out your contacts," Naomi suggests, and Katie looks at her skeptically. "What, are you incompetent without them?"

"Nobody sees me in glasses," Katie responds, and then makes some sort of dismissive sound. "I'm not bloody Emily, okay."

"No you are not," Naomi agrees, somewhat sarcastically, but then points. "Bathroom's over there; I've probably got some solution left from the last time Tony stayed here, if you need some."

Katie hesitates for another moment but then gets back up, disappears with her purse. When she comes back out, she's wearing large, black square-framed glasses and is staring at Naomi with a defiant expression on her face, who just rolls her eyes.

"Whatever," Katie says after a moment, and settles back on the sofa, kicking off her shoes and curling up in the corner. She watches as Naomi pours two shots, and then silently sticks out her hand for the tequila which Naomi almost manages to transfer without any spills.

Katie pounds it back with all the hopefulness of a seventeen year old and then tries valiantly not to cough when it goes down. Naomi just grins, opts not to joke, because she's still got her own hurdle to cross.

Her eyes are still watering when she remembers to put the shotglass down.

"This is well pathetic," she hears Katie say, before she feels a hand between her shoulders, rubbing lightly.

"Fuck. Let's never tell anyone," Naomi manages after a moment, and then takes a deep breath. "I'm not willing to give up this easily, though; are you?"

Katie just stares at her with a raised eyebrow, and for one second Naomi thinks that she's going to say something like, "I'm Katie fucking Fitch" butthen she remembers that she's not anymore, and that that wasn't the expression she's thinking of anyway.

"Right," she says with a small smile. "You're Katie fucking Cook."

Katie's lips twitch at the ridiculous phrase--one that Cook himself probably hadn't uttered in over five years--and then she reaches for the shotglass. "That I am."

"To James," Naomi says, again, and the second shot goes down a little easier for both of them.

----

"To James, and his ridiculous cock tattoo," Katie offers, sloppily tipping the shotglass up before bringing it to her mouth, and Naomi doesn't know whether to laugh or object to that toast; instead watches as Katie's eyes slip shut with a small smile while she's swallowing, obviously drunkenly remembering something pleasant about Cook, and suddenly she just doesn't feel like drinking anymore.

"Do you ever talk about him? To anyone, I mean?" she asks, instead, and Katie's eyes slowly blink back open.

"Do you ever talk about Emily?" she retorts after a moment, but there's no malice behind it.

Naomi unfolds her legs and props them up on the coffee table before slumping further down onto the couch. "I don't think this is something we can compare. I had one year and one night with her. You had a life."

Katie makes a dissenting noise but then leans forward, depositing the shotglass on the table, and quietly says, "I talk to Jimmy about him. Who should know things about his dad, even if I don't want to remember them."

"If you ever want adult responses, you know, words other than 'awesome' or 'yes!'--" Naomi starts saying and Katie looks over with a faint smile.

"There's not much to say, really."

"I'm sure that's not true," Naomi protests and then sighs. "If I had to talk about Emily, if that would help me, I'd have loads to say."

"Like what?" Katie asks, sounding genuinely curious, and Naomi shrugs.

"That I sometimes don't know who I'm in love with; the Emily I once had, or the way that she is now, what Effy's made of her. That I wish I'd been less fucking scared of being with her when she wanted me to. That, if I had to do it all again, I wouldn't go to Africa, or at the very least I'd give her thechoice of making me stay."

"And would she? Have made you stay? Would that have fixed everything?"

Katie asks the question in a way that hints at knowledge about the answer, and Naomi closes her eyes. "I've always thought that--that maybe, yes."

"So all these years, you've hung on to her, because maybe she would've stayed with you if you'd given up something you'd dreamed about," Katie summarizes, slurring the words together a little, but the sentiment goes by unharmed.

"A simple pathetic would've sufficed," Naomi responds after a moment.

"That's not love, Naomi. If James had asked me to stop designing, to permanently move to Bristol, at any point prior to Jimmy, I would've told him toget bent. And I never would've told him to get a different job that involved less travel, either."

"You weren't as young as we were," Naomi says morosely after a moment. "You weren't--you didn't get together at one of those lynch pin moments, where all the odds are stacked against you."

Katie laughs. "You think the odds weren't stacked against us? Really?"

Naomi deflates that final bit. "I'm sorry. I guess I don't--"

"I spent most of the first three years we were together wondering when he was going to dick some random girl he came across in a club when outselling insurance in some fuckhole town up north. We saw each other twice a month at best. It was never easy." 

Naomi doesn't know how to respond to that and just waits; Katie doesn't disappoint.

"I mean, your idea of love, right, is based on like, some idyllic fantasy from when you were a fucking teenager. That isn't life, Naomi. That's--."

"Nothing?"

Katie kicks at her thigh, sharply, and Naomi blinks her eyes back open. "Don't pity yourself."

"I'm sorry," she mumbles in response after a long moment. "It's not easy, seeing someone else live out the life you wanted for all these years."

"Yeah. And you would've what, given up your own ambitions to follow Emily to whatever university she ended up at? Been happy in Glasgow? With adog, just mulling about the house for the rest of your fucking life?" Katie snorts. "That? Whatever it is between them? That isn't you. It never would have been. I honestly fucking think that even if Emily had chosen you, and you'd had a proper go at it, you still would've crashed and burned. She's always wanted stability. You want to fucking, like, I don't even know--"

"Just don't, okay?" Naomi says, swallowing hard around the sudden lump in her throat. "I know that you're probably right but--"

Katie clears her throat and when she says sorry, she sounds almost embarrassed.

Naomi reaches for the vodka again and this time doesn't bother preparing a shot; just swallows straight from the bottle, until some of it spills past herlips and runs down her chin, and Katie gets up to get some kitchen roll, before dabbing it away with a faintly disapproving look on her face.

"Jimmy's got her eyes, you know," Naomi mumbles when they're settled again and Katie's had a few more shots, probably out of solidarity more than anything.

"You mean my eyes," Katie corrects, lisping more than she has in years, and God, they're properly fucked up, Naomi thinks; quenches down a gigglethat would be out of place.

"No. You've never looked at me the way they both do," she says, and then falls asleep, still clutching the bottle. 

----

When she wakes up the next morning, it's because of bright sunlight in her eyes, and the feeling that her head's going to split right in half.

It takes her a few moments to realize that Katie's gone, but then her shoes are still on the carpet and so she just gets up and looks in the bedroom.

In the gloom of the early morning, her shade of hair is so nondescript that it doesn't influence Naomi's perception at all; all she can think of is that it's been years since she's seen this, a girl like Emily wrapped around her pillow. Only after two minutes of watching does she realize that Katie sleeps onher side, curled up as if ready to be spooned by someone else, whereas Emily always slept on her stomach, dead to the world.

She brushes her teeth and then slips into bed next to Katie, who stirs minutely but doesn't wake up.

Naomi almost reaches out for her hair, the few strands of it that are clinging to her face, but then stops herself because it brings up another memorythat she'd rather lose sight of.

"Fuck's sake," she mumbles, then rolls her eyes at herself, because apparently not much has changed since sixteen.

She closes her eyes.

----

When she wakes up a second time, she's feeling a little better--and completely disoriented because someone is playing with her fingers. She blinksher eyes open, rubs at them with her free hand, and then notices that sometime in the morning, Katie's rolled over and grabbed for her hand; is now toying with it in a way that seems incredibly familiar, but isn't familiar to her.

"Kay," she says, softly, and Katie just makes a small, protesting noise before shifting in ever closer. She whispers her name again and Katie just frowns.

"Five more minutes, okay babe," she mumbles and then sighs slowly, pulling Naomi's hand up to her chest.

Naomi closes her eyes and counts to five; then, feeling absolutely horrible for doing it, says Katie's name a third time, loud and sharp this time.

Katie's eyes shoot open, and in the two seconds between dreaming and awareness, she drops Naomi's hand like it's burning her; scrambles back alittle bit on the bed, and then finally looks up at Naomi helplessly.

"It's okay," Naomi tries, but it's not, not really, and they both know it; so it's not fucking surprising that Katie just loses it altogether.

They're not the kind of friends who hug, really, but they're all they've got a lot of the time. Naomi hesitates for exactly one second before sitting up andreaching out, tugging on Katie's shoulder until Katie relents and shifts in closer, buries her face in Naomi's neck while her body shudders with loud, wracking sobs. 

She doesn't really understand why she's crying, too; just knows that she can't help it. 

----

After about five minutes, Katie sniffs loudly, just once, and then pulls away; slips out of bed without another word and disappears into the bathroom.

Naomi's left feeling like she's going to throw up. In the biggest of ironies, she gets a text message from Emily only minutes later, asking if they had fun last night.

She deletes the message without responding to it, and then deletes Emily's phone number, too.

[It hardly matters that she's got it memorized. It's something.]

----

Katie reappears after Naomi's put on some clothes, despite desperately needing a shower, and looks a little better; not much, though.

"Fry-up?" Naomi suggests, and Katie shrugs. "I promise I won't make it myself."

It earns her a small smile, which is about all she can hope for.

----

She takes them to a small diner two streets down from her apartment building and Katie raises her eyebrow when all they get upon entering is ahandwave and Naomi has to specify she wants a menu.

"I come here a lot," Naomi confesses and then sighs with a smile. "I can't be arsed to cook, really. Not if it's just for myself."

"You should get a three year old. It's positively inspiring," Katie responds.

"No, thank you. I'm quite happy just borrowing yours from time to time," Naomi says, making a face, and Katie snorts unwillingly.

They eat mostly in silence, except for that one time when Katie goes, "thanks", and Naomi pretends she didn't hear it, because that's what they do for each other.

"We should do this again sometime," Naomi says when they're done, dropping a twenty on the table, and waving Katie off when she reaches for herpurse.

Katie looks a little surprised, but then just shrugs. "Yeah, all right. I've had worse nights."

"That's well flattering," Naomi remarks dryly, and Katie winks at her, almost making Naomi forget about how worn out and rotten she looks, before slipping on her sunglasses and heading out the door.

----

Charles calls the next day. "I've got something in Burkina Faso. You game?"

It's not too close to Sierra Leone, but then that isn't the reason she hesitates, at all. She can't put into words why she does. "When do I leave?"

"Three days. We have to expedite your visa," he responds, and she waits another beat before agreeing.

----

It's the day before she leaves, and Emily and Effy are dropping Jimmy off back home; Katie had to disappear to a client meeting with absolutely no warning and so Naomi finds herself doing the neighborly thing, waiting around in Katie's flat until they arrive.

Emily looks surprised when she opens the door, but then even moreso when Jimmy greets her with an excited "Nae!" and sticks out his arms to be lifted up into a hug.

"Hello, little man," she says in response, and he prods at her scar with a slight frown until she presses a kiss against his forehead; that seems tomake it better.

She kisses Effy hello after that, and ushers them all inside, carrying Jimmy all the time. "Katie will be home in about an hour; she had an abruptly rescheduled meeting."

"And she asked you to--" Emily starts saying but then falls silent. "All right. We'll stay, right?"

Effy shrugs and looks around. "Anyone for tea?"

"Please," Naomi says, and puts Jimmy down on the floor. "Go get your trucks, buddy."

Jimmy scampers off to his bedroom a few seconds later and Naomi sits down on the sofa; gestures for Emily to do the same.

Emily stares at her. "Do you spend a lot of time with him, then?"

Naomi shrugs and clamps down on any defensiveness she feels coming on. "A fair bit. I stop by at least once a week when I'm here." It's a total understatement; sometime in the past half year, Katie's concluded that Naomi can't fucking take care of herself at all--which is only about thirty percent untrue--and invites her over for dinner a lot. They don't talk about loneliness, really, but it's an easy fix either way.

"That's nice," Emily says, not sounding like she means it at all, and then crosses her legs. "So, did you manage to get her to have any fun?"

"Sort of," Naomi says, and then sighs, stares at Emily for a change. "She's--look, okay. If Effy fell off a cliff tomorrow--"

"Unlikely unless we move to Dover, for the record," Effy calls from the kitchen, and Naomi suppresses a smile.

"--it's not like you'd get over it within a day. Or a week. Or however long. Okay? So give her a break."

Emily looks a little hurt. "That doesn't mean that she shouldn't be encouraged to like, I don't know--"

"Move on?" Naomi asks, and then laughs, a little meanly despite her best efforts to stay civil. "I don't know if you've seen your nephew lately, Emily,but he's his dad's spitting image. There is no moving on from that."

"I just don't want her isolating herself," Emily repeats, stubbornly, and then lowers her eyes. "I don't think that makes me a bad person, or a bad sister. Katie was always the life of the party and--"

"Things change," Naomi cuts her off, and then swallows the rest of what she wants to say, what she can't help but think whenever Emily is around. "None of us are the same people we were once, and she is doing the best she can."

"She's got a good friend in you, it appears," Effy comments, incredibly neutrally, when she comes back with a cup of tea for Naomi and herself.

Naomi doesn't respond to that, because with the way Emily's staring at her, it feels like an accusation.

It's not until hours later, when Katie's gotten back and looks positively relieved to see Jimmy back in one piece, that Emily manages to elaborate onwhat her fucking problem is, cornering Naomi in the hallway by the loo. "I don't know how else to put this, but--I don't understand how you two got to be so close."

Naomi just glares at her for a long moment. "We have something in common."

"You've never lost anyone the way--" Emily starts saying, and then blanches. "Oh. Oh, shit, I'm so sorry. I--"

"It's fine, Ems," Naomi says, softening her tone of voice deliberately, because she can't really let Emily berate herself when this isn't about David at all. "Just, try not to be such a cock in the future, okay? The fact that I get on with your sister now isn't a bad thing."

Emily exhales slowly and then faintly smiles. "Sorry. I really am, I just--it's incredibly jarring, to think of how different things would've been, if you'd gotten along--"

"Emily. You're happy," Naomi interjects, and after a long moment Emily nods and disappears back into the living room, where Katie and Effy are talking about something related to design architecture, and for a long moment, Naomi feels completely out of place.

Then, she feels Jimmy tug at her trousers. "Why you standing here, Nae?" he asks, and she can't help but laugh.

"I don't know, little man. Shall we go and do some coloring?"

He nods enthusiastically, and when she follows him to his play area, passing by the adults in the process, Katie looks straight at her with a faint smile for just a moment before focusing on Effy again.

Fuck Emily, Naomi thinks, and pulls out a picture of a fire truck for Jimmy to color in. "Purple," he requests, and she laughs.

"I think those are red, Jim. You want to make them red?"

"Purple," he repeats, and she grins; remembers her mum telling her about a wonderful afternoon of coloring when she herself had been about four, andhad insisted on giving everyone green faces because they would be prettier that way.

"Good choice," she says, and he beams at her before lashing the entire picture with his purple crayon while she bites her lip not to start laughing.

----

"Stay for dinner," Katie says later that day, leaning in the doorway, after Emily and Effy have headed to Gatwick and Naomi's worn out from playingwith Jimmy.

"You sure?" Naomi asks in response, looking away from the cartoon she's watching with Jim nestled into her side.

"You going to feed yourself if I don't?" Katie asks, tiredly, but with a smile nonetheless.

"Ehhh," Naomi responds, and then smiles back. "Thanks. I have no idea what one eats in Burkina Faso, but I anticipate being rather hard up for sausages and mash in the next month or so."

Katie's smile falters just for a second but then she heads off to the kitchen, and Naomi looks back at the telly, almost feeling guilty for having brought it up.

----

Katie falls asleep at the eight o'clock news, and Naomi contemplates waking her up before just lifting Jimmy up and getting him upstairs herself. She's never been around for his nighttime ritual before, but he's a good kid that way--lets her know what has to happen, and so they brush his teeth, andwash his face, and then he crawls into his bed and looks expectantly at the picture of Cook on his nightstand.

"Can I have a story," he says. She looks at him until he adds, "Please, Nae" with a cheeky smile.

"About your dad?" Naomi asks, and when Jimmy nods, she almost blushes--the first thing that comes to mind is snogging the hell out of Cook in aclassroom one day, back when she'd still been waffling about Emily, and that's hardly the kind of story to share with a three year old. In fact, mostCook stories aren't appropriate, and so she can't help but wonder what exactly Katie's been telling her son.

It takes her a few minutes, with Jimmy looking less and less happy as each one passes, before she finally smiles. "Has your mum told you about your dad's best friends yet?"

Jimmy thinks about it for a few second and then laughs. "Jay Jay and Uncle Freddie. Right?"

"Right," Naomi says with a smile.

"They're best friends," Jimmy says and then thinks some more. "Three--three mus--"

"The three musketeers," Naomi agrees, and scoots onto the bed with him. "They had silly costumes and everything . With swords, if I recall correctly."

"Swords!" Jimmy exclaims and Naomi shushes him before laughing, and then realizes that Katie is going to kill her if she doesn't manage to put this in some sort of context.

"Yes. They dressed up for Halloween once. Do you know about Halloween?"

Jimmy shakes his head, and Naomi almost sighs in relief, because that, at least, is a story she can tell.

----

Katie's still asleep when she makes her way downstairs, and Naomi wakes her up with a gentle nudge to her shoulder.

"Mm. Time is it?" Katie murmurs and then blinks a few times, sits up. "Oh, fuck."

"Don't worry, I put him to bed. It went fine, though if he asks about his father and swordfighting, I know absolutely nothing," Naomi says, trying not tolaugh as Katie's brow knits and she's obviously trying to piece this information together.

"But he's asleep?"

"Yeah, went out like a light midway through storytime," Naomi confirms.

Katie laughs. "God. The only person who's ever been able to settle him down that fast is--"

She trails off, but Naomi just smiles. "Chloroform. Knocks everything out."

Katie rolls her eyes. "Honestly, has anyone thought you were clever? Like, at any point in your entire life?"

"Your sister seemed to think I was. At some things, anyway," Naomi says, and then blushes belatedly when she realizes how that sounds.

Katie makes a face.

"No, I mean, she thought I was--"

"Please stop talking," Katie says with a laugh and then sobers a little. "I just--well, whatever. Thanks, yeah?"

"No big deal," Naomi responds. "Honestly."

"No, but I mean it," Katie presses on, looking incredibly uncomfortable before she just looks away altogether. "You've been a big help, this entire year. I sometimes honestly don't know how I'm going to manage everything, but you have a knack for popping up at exactly the times when I genuinely thinkI'm going to lose my fucking mind altogether."

Naomi doesn't really know how to respond to that, and Katie just looks at her for a moment before smiling and kissing her on the cheek. "If I ever haveto do college again , yeah, I'd pick you to be my best friend. Fuck Effy Stonem and her fucking like, mysterious whatever."

Naomi laughs. "That's high praise, coming from a famewhore."

Katie rolls her eyes but then levels Naomi with a serious look. "Don't get yourself killed, all right? I don't know what the fuck you're doing in Africa this time, but Emily told me about, well, you know," and Katie trails a single finger down Naomi's scar, so quickly that Naomi breaks out into a cold sweat seconds after she's already pulled her hand back. "I--Jimmy--it would--" Katie shakes her head and swallows hard, but can't seem to say anything else.

"I'll be careful," Naomi promises. "No romping around the jungle looking for random fisticuffs with child soldiers, okay? I promise."

Katie nods, and then pats Naomi's leg, just once. "I'll see you when you get back."

Naomi doesn't respond, because it's not something she needs to confirm. It's a bit of a given.

----

Burkina Faso is sweltering hot and lonely; she can't remember the last time she felt this out of sorts being out in the real world, doing what she loves. She's organizing a water supply project and really, too much of it is bureaucratic bullshit, sitting behind desks--the kind of things she's willing to do if it'll lead to funding, or if Charles honestly can't find anyone else to do it, but at six pm, already locked in her tent on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, it feels like she's being punished or babysat somehow.

Katie's words ring in her head repeatedly, and for one second she considers that Katie might've actually called her boss and requested this nonsense assignment, but then she remembers what Katie said about love, how it doesn't demand sacrifice, and she knows that she wouldn't have.

She tosses and turns underneath the mosquito net, contemplates her relationship with Emily all those years ago; how selfish she'd been, and if she'd be different now, or if the solution is just finding someone who would set her free.

She considers compromise, and a beaming three year old who, since he could talk, always asked "where going?", like even at that age it was obviousthat Naomi wasn't a stayer.

It's never made her feel unreliable or unaccountable before, but she suddenly feels like a shit, and gets out of bed after only about three hours of tryingto sleep to get as much work done as quickly as possible.

----

It's a stuffed elephant this time, which Jimmy tries to say at least five times in a row until it just becomes a "phant", and whatever--it doesn't really matter when he drags her upstairs and has her pick out a good spot for the phant next to all the cuddly toys she's gotten for him over the years.

"Doesn't anyone else buy him those?" she asks Katie when they're having coffee later, and Jimmy is taking a nap.

Katie shrugs. "You got there first; I've never suggested anyone else should get them."

It's kind of nice, having her thing, Naomi thinks, and then raises an eyebrow when Katie shoves a handful of pictures in her direction. "From his last birthday party. I particularly like the one where he's smeared cake all over your face, but feel free to pick and choose at will."

Naomi laughs and flips through them quickly before looking up. "Can't I just keep them all?"

"Whatever," Katie says and sighs. "Got any fags, by any chance?"

"I thought we were quitting," Naomi says, pausing just long enough for Katie to start looking guilty before she digs a pack out of her purse. 

"Hypocrite," Katie mumbles, leaning forward to have hers lit, and then exhales slowly.

"Whatever. It's like bloody currency in Africa; you can't really go without."

"How was your trip, then? Saved a bit part of the world again?"

Other people make it sound genuinely mocking, but Katie just sounds curious and so Naomi shrugs. "Two new villages have water they won't have topay for courtesy of the European Union. It's not much, but it's something."

Katie smiles. "One day, your kids are going to be well fucking proud of you, Wonder Woman."

"Heh. The ones I'm unlikely to ever have, at this rate?" Naomi scoffs, before flicking away some ash and sitting back in her chair. "The best I can hope for is that Jimmy will think I've lived a fantastic, Indiana Jones-like existence." 

Katie laughs freely--doesn't happen often, that, and Naomi knows she's just surprised her into it. "Well, since your nearest competition is a fucking lecturer in English Lit, I think you're by definition not the lamest aunt. I wouldn't worry."

Naomi freezes mid-thought and then blinks at Katie, who just shrugs after a second.

"Wow. I mean, well--"

"Ugh," Katie says and stubs out her cigarette. "Don't fucking lose your head over it. What the fuck else are we supposed to call you?"

It's a fair point; doesn't do anything to diminish the strange rush of pleasure Naomi felt at being so casually included into their small, complicated family, though. 

----

She goes down to Bristol to see her mum; they talk about her work for a little bit, but then she remembers the pictures of Jimmy in her purse andshows those off instead, telling the matching stories with a sense of pride--like how he managed to not eat that crayon after using it, for once, and how he could almost tie his own shoelaces and was demonstrating as much to the camera.

Her mum looks increasingly uncomfortable, until Naomi finally stops talking and just looks at her.

"What--I mean, don't misunderstand, he's an adorable kid, but what exactly is going on there, Naomi?" she asks, finally, and Naomi looks back at heruncomprehendingly.

"What do you mean?"

Her mum runs a hand through her hair and then sits back, looks at Naomi almost pityingly. "I know that--well, I know how you still feel about Emilyafter all this time, but that doesn't mean that this is good for you."

"I have no idea what you're saying, Mum," Naomi says after a beat, but a sick feeling wells up inside of her nonetheless. "And for what it's worth, justonce, it would be nice if you would leave Emily out of things. Jesus. Sometimes it's almost like she's your bloody dau--"

"Don't be ridiculous," her mum says, sharply, then shakes her head. "I won't be made to feel guilty for being on good terms with the girl who helped you get through the worst time of your life without asking for anything."

"Oh, trust me--she had a price," Naomi says, swallows hard to not start crying, and after a second her mum deflates.

" You're right; this isn't about Emily." She sighs deeply. "Just--be careful, all right? I'm not saying that you shouldn't care about Jimmy, but--you're not his parent, sweetheart," her mum finishes.

Naomi blanches and sits back in her chair. "Of course I'm not his fucking parent. He's only got one, in case you forgot. We all do what we can to--"

"All right, all right," her mum interjects gently and then reaches for her hand. "I just--I don't want you to get too attached. One day, Katie will probably find a nice bloke to settle down with again, and--"

"I get it, okay? It's not an issue," Naomi says, brusquely, and then clears her throat. "I'm going to go take a shower."

Her mum just looks at her, and she does what she can to not snap at her; manages to leave the room just in time. 

----

She heads over to Tony's later that night, and they snuggle together on the couch while watching Roman Holiday --his suggestion, after taking one lookat her pissy face when she first arrived with two bottles of wine--and getting mildly intoxicated.

" Truth or dare," he finally says when the credits are rolling and she snorts, rolls over until her head's in his lap and she can see his face.

"What the fuck?"

"C'mon. Truth or dare," he repeats, and she rolls her eyes.

"Truth."

"Have you ever wanked while thinking of Katie accidentally, instead of Emily?" he asks, with an ear-splitting grin, and she punches him in the stomach, which sadly only makes him laugh. 

"Dickhead."

"That's not exactly a no, now is it."

"Oh, fuck off--I don't think about either of them when wanking," she mutters, annoyed to bits with him, and then purses her lips. "Truth or dare to you, Anthony?"

"Mm--truth," he says after a beat, and she smiles.

"Have you ever wanked while thinking about me with Emily?"

He grins. "Only every other day, sweetheart."

"Tosser," she murmurs, and he strokes her hair in response until she closes her eyes.

"I'm seeing someone," he says, a long moment later, and bites down on the inside of her cheek to not visibly react in any way. "It's not serious, but I thought you should know."

It takes her a long time to come up with a response. "Should probably stop thinking about me when wanking altogether then, shouldn't you."

He laughs. "I suppose I had that coming."

She smiles and opens her eyes a second later. "You're the best friend I've ever had, Ant. All I've ever wanted is for you to be happy."

"Likewise, Scarface," he says, and pokes her in the cheek until she can't help but laugh.

----

She's not lonely. She's just--

----

She calls Katie. "I've decided that my flat needs, well, some content."

"You calling me to borrow some actual taste, then?" Katie responds after a second and Naomi sighs.

"Be a cunt about it if you like, but I don't know the first thing about interior decorating, and you claim to know something about fucking everything, so--"

"I'll be over in about two hours with a rampaging three year old and some measuring tape," Katie cuts her off, and hangs up.

----

The day goes fine until they reach the most overly helpful salesman at Heal's ever. He panders to Jimmy, which Katie observes with barely contained impatience, and then addresses them as such:

"So, ladies, if I may put it this way--who is in charge of the overall decor?"

Naomi points at Katie who raises her hand, and the salesman--Garry--grins. "I'd say something about family being predictable, but nevermind; it's true for most couples, isn't it."

Naomi's eyebrows almost shoot off her forehead and she opens her mouth to correct him but Katie elbows her in the side, hard. 

"What the fuck?" Naomi asks when they're following Garry to the bedroom section, after Katie's rambled off some requirements for Naomi's new wardrobe.

"I bet family gets a discount," Katie hisses, and shrugs. "Worth a try, wouldn't you say?"

There's not really anything to say to that; less so when Garry asks if they've got a reward card and Katie says, "We do, but Naomi here, that darling idiot, left it at home" without batting an eye, and Garry swipes his own seconds later, resulting in a 20% discount on everything they've bought. 

Katie looks ridiculously smug afterwards; as smug as one can look while carrying a sleeping three year old out of a furniture store, anyway. 

Naomi sighs. "What would you like for dinner, wifey?"

It turns out to be the magic word; Jimmy perks back up out of nowhere and yells "McDonald's!" so loudly that a few people turn around to look at them,and Katie shushes him even as Naomi tries not to laugh.

Neither of them have any inclination to tell him no, though, since he let them shop for about five hours without getting into the trouble at any point; anew personal best, according to Katie. 

----

Jimmy is finishing off his nuggets and they're both eating ice-cream when Katie looks up.

"Why blue?"

"Hm?" Naomi asks.

"For the guest bedroom. Why blue? You kept everything else very neutral. Blue's rather out there, in relative comparison; especially that shade you selected."

"Blue's awesome," Jimmy says, mid-chew, and Naomi shrugs with a smile.

"You heard the man."

Katie looks at her for a long moment and then goes back to her ice-cream silently.

----

They part ways outside of McDonald's; Katie begging off to do some work, but with the way Jimmy is almost nodding off, it seems unlikely that she will.

Naomi doesn't press the issue; just calls a taxi for them and ignores Katie's objections about paying for it, giving her a one-armed hug instead--almost laughing when Katie glares up at her--and saying, "Without you, my flat would look as ghastly as the rest of me does."

It breaks through whatever mood Katie's in and she rolls her eyes. "You're welcome, you shit."

Naomi watches the taxi take off with her hands in her pockets, and then curses as it starts to rain abruptly; looks around her purse for a brolly but it's not in there, and as she hauls ass to the nearest Tube stop, she realizes she left it at Katie's when she was last there.

She's soaking wet by the time she gets home, and her fingertips are so wrinkled that she can barely hold on to her keys long enough to open the door. Once inside, she strips and showers so quickly that she only notices the blinking light on the answering machine when she's gotten back, and listensto her message while toweling her hair dry.

It's Charles, offering her a permanent position in London, as liaison to the Foreign Office; not only a promotion, but a chance to truly settle down andmake something of her life.

She sits down on her bed heavily, and wonders if she's ready for it.

Chapter Text

She thinks about saying yes. Thinks about it; thinks about saying no. Hangs up all her clothing in her brand new wardrobe and looks at it for a longmoment from her bed, wonders what the point in getting it is, really, if she doesn't plan on using it a lot.

It's not enough, though, to push her into agreeing, and so she finally calls Charles back, a day later, and says she needs time to think about it.

"You have a month; the position has to be filled after that," he tells her, and she assures him it's more than enough time.

A week later, she still has no idea. 

----

Katie shows up unexpectedly on Wednesday evening with Jimmy in tow, lugging his own little backpack full of clothes, and Naomi opens the door insurprise.

"I--did I forget we had an--" she starts saying and then pauses, looks at what Katie's wearing. "Wow."

Katie fidgets for a second and then leans in the doorway, and the slit in her dress runs up so fucking high that Naomi blinks and looks back up to herface with burning cheeks. She only snaps out of it when Katie says, "I'm well fucking sorry, but the babysitter cancelled at the last minute; Christ, these bloody teenagers--I was never this fucking unreliable at that age."

Jimmy toddles forward until he's grabbed at Naomi's jeans and then hugs her leg, and she puts a hand on his hair unthinkingly, strokes it. "Right--so--"

"Can you watch him? I didn't have time to ask you to come to mine, but I figure what with the spare bedroom; it's okay if he sleeps there, yeah?" Katie asks, looking incredibly uncomfortable to be doing it, and Naomi feels a stab of something she can't name.

"Of course; other than Tony, nobody uses it. Sheets are clean. Does he need a night light?"

"No, just keep the door open and show him where to find you if he needs anything," Katie assures her and then runs a hand through her hair; it's lightly curled and Naomi can't help but think, stupidly, that she should've worn it like this always, because it softens her in a way that the ridiculous sideways part never did. "This all right, still? I blow-dryed for bloody hours but there was a gust of wind right outside of the house and--"

"Katie," Naomi says, and looks her up and down a little more deliberately; the only thing she can think is that Katie's always known how to best present herself, but has started valuing herself a bit higher over the years. The heels haven't gotten any shorter, though. "You look lovely; bit overdressed for business, but--"

"Yeah, well, it's not," Katie says, almost defensively. "I'm--like, whatever. I got asked out at a fashion show a few weeks ago."

"Must've been the only heterosexual bloke there," Naomi says after an incredibly awkward pause. "Fuck, I'm sorry; I don't know why I'm so surprised."

Katie just looks at her for a moment and then looks down at herself. "You're sure I look--"

"Go. Have fun," Naomi says, and watches as Katie leans over--averts her eyes again when it becomes clear that she probably shouldn't, with a v-neck that low--and kisses Jimmy goodbye.

"Be good, okay?" she tells him and he nods, and they watch her--well, walking wouldn't quite be doing it justice--back over to the elevator and wait for itwith another push at her fringe.

"What's a date, Nae?" Jimmy asks after Naomi's closed the door and shown him where he'll be sleeping.

"It's when two people who like each other a lot spend time together," she tells him and he looks at her curiously for a moment.

"So like when you and Mum visit?"

Naomi smiles, almost. "No, not like that. But when your Mum and Dad used to, that was a date."

"Oh," Jimmy says, and then frowns. "So only boys and girls go on dates?"

Naomi takes a deep breath. "How about some hot chocolate, Jimbo?"

"Okay," he agrees, thankfully very easily distracted, and Naomi makes a mental note to ask Katie if anyone's had the Aunt Emily is a Homo talk with him yet while waiting for the kettle to boil.

After, they watch Bob the Builder together until he falls asleep, and she watches him conk out again after moving him to bed; he wakes up just longenough to see the rocket lamp she found on eBay and points at it with a 'cool' before drifting off again. 

It's not that easy for her. 

----

Katie doesn't come back for him until after lunch.

Naomi doesn't ask if it's because she slept in, or because she assumed Naomi would be sleeping in; it's none of her business.

"How was it?" she asks instead, and Katie--looking suddenly exhausted--sighs deeply.

"Too soon, maybe. Or maybe he just wasn't--whatever." She handwaves it off and takes a sip of coffee afterwards, slowly.

"It isn't easy; moving on when you've got someone wonderful to compare to," Naomi says after a long moment, watching as Jimmy sits forward on thesofa, enraptured by the Aladdin DVD she put in for him about half an hour earlier, and Katie makes a consenting noise.

"No, it isn't," she finally says, and her voice wavers just enough on the last note for Naomi to feel incredibly guilty about wondering, or assuming, that--well, anything, really, had happened.

Out of all of them, Katie's probably changed the most, and it's all been positive, really. It's just hard to remember sometimes, when she still looksmostly the same.

"Emily wasn't all that fucking wonderful, by the way," Katie says, suddenly, and snaps Naomi out of it.

"What? When?" she asks, even though she's pretty sure she knows what Katie's talking about. It's just never been so bluntly confirmed.

"She was fucking Effy for months while trying to get you into bed," Katie says, in a brutally unapologetic tone of voice, as it probably should be after allthis time, and then she shrugs with a smile. "And everyone thought I was the heartless bitch."

"Emily wasn't--" Naomi starts saying, and then stops herself.

"If you like, we can just call her hormonal and frustrated," Katie says, grinning behind the rim of her cup, and Naomi rolls her eyes.

"Remind me again, Katie, of that prince charming that you dated in college. I seem to recall him constantly trying to get you and Emily into athreesome."

Katie laughs. "Whatever. At least my taste improved with time. What's your excuse?"

Naomi sighs dramatically. "What do you think?" she says, before pointing at her hair, and Katie snorts before finishing up her coffee and rounding upJimmy's stuff.

" Thanks," she says, before leaving, with another small kiss on the cheek, and maybe 'hormonal and frustrated' is still going around the UK, becausethe small whiff of Katie's soap--so different from the gender-neutral cucumber stuff Emily used to wear--results in a sudden rush of-- 

"Not a problem," she says, managing not to croak or blush, and then closes the door before she can stare at Katie's arse a second time in twenty-four hours.

----

She calls Tony.

"I think I desperately need to get some. Any tips, stud?"

"Go to a bar and bring up anything but your undying love for your first girlfriend," he says after a beat, and she rolls her eyes before hanging up.

It turns out to be pretty sound advice, though, and hours later she finds herself slipping out of Investment Banker #3's flat--#1 was a shite kisser, #2 grabbed her tits while they were still dancing--wondering when she started thinking of cologne as being the single most off-putting scent in the world.

----

Lilacs. Katie smells like lilacs.

She dreams about a field of them, bursting into flames, and then wakes up. 

"What the fuck," she mumbles, looking at the ceiling for a long moment, and then rolling over onto her stomach before falling asleep again.

----

After two weeks, Naomi still doesn't know what she's going to do.

The next time she sees Jimmy, he conspiratorially tells her that "Mum went on a date again" and Naomi smiles at him. "With a boy?"

"Stupid," he responds, and scowls at her. "Girls can date girls too. Like Aunt Em and Ef."

Naomi looks at Katie over his head. "I can't wait to hear how that conversation went."

Katie flips her off silently and Naomi laughs before taking Jim upstairs to see his new collection of small animal toys. They're in a perfect line, and he explains to her that they're going to board a space ship in case the world ends.

"Has someone been reading the Bible to him?" she asks Katie later, and Katie rolls her eyes.

"He saw some Jesus cartoon on Sunday. Don't ask. Is he sending all the animals into space again?" 

Naomi just grins. "I don't know; it shows the kind of forward thinking that marks a true genius."

"Well, I hope he's good at something, because he's not going to follow in my footsteps," Katie notes dryly, pointing at the refrigerator full of sloppy stick figure art.

"Oh, come on. He's three."

"Almost four," Katie reminds her and Naomi frowns.

"Bollocks. I haven't been abroad in a while; no new cuddly toys to give."

Katie gets up and gets a pepper and a courgette out of the fridge; places one on the table and hands Naomi a cutting board and a knife seconds later. Naomi's already started chopping by the time it occurs to her to object to being wordlessly put to task like this, and so she says nothing until Katie says, "I could use some help with his birthday party."

"Aren't Emily and Effy coming?" Naomi asks, unthinkingly, and then rolls her eyes at herself when Katie stiffens just a little. "Oh, fucking hell, I didn't mean that I wouldn't. Just, you know."

"Naomi, he sees them twice a year and you every fucking week. Who do you think he wants there most?" Katie says softly, before absolutely demolishing the pepper, and Naomi mumbles an apology moments later.

People constantly tell her that she's clever; it only confirms her honest belief that most people are deeply stupid, because she's at least halfway moronic a good seventy percent of the time.

----

They're washing the dishes when Jimmy comes in and says, "Mum, why don't you and Nae go on a date?"

Naomi bites her lip to not start laughing and Katie shoots her a venomous look.

" I don't date girls, Jim," she says, a moment later, and he looks up at them, totally confused.

"But Aunt Em does."

"Yeah, but I'm not Aunt Em," Katie says, somehow producing more patience than Naomi used to think her capable of.

"But you're her sister," Jimmy says, and Naomi lets out an aborted chuckle.

"Have fun fighting that infallible logic, Kay," she mumbles and Katie quite deliberately and viciously steps on her toes when putting the next plate in thedrying rack.

"Right, but being sisters doesn't mean we like the same things, okay?" she then says.

Jimmy frowns heavily for a moment, a look that he's definitely inherited from Katie since Naomi can't remember ever not seeing a half-laugh on Cook's face, and then bites his lip--God only knows where he's gotten that, she thinks. 

"But you like each other."

Katie looks up at the ceiling and visibly counts to five and Naomi snorts. "Jim, your Mum and I don't like each other like that, okay?"

"Like what?"

"Okay," Katie finally says, and turns around, kneels until she's at his level and grabs his little hands. "You know how when Aunt Em and Ef visit, we have to make the sofa into a bed, and they sleep in it together?" He nods. "Right. That's because they like each other in a special way, and want to date."

Jimmy looks between them for a while and then grins. "So you need a bigger bed. Then you can date Nae, right?"

Naomi bursts out laughing and pats Katie on the head. "Best of luck; I think I'm going to have a fag outside."

"Coward," Katie mumbles, obviously also trying not to laugh.

----

"And?" Naomi asks, when Katie finally joins her outside, three cigarettes later.

"Well, he's tucked in, and apparently your bed is 'huuuge'," Katie says, spreading her arms in a perfect imitation of Jimmy, "so when we decide we do want to date, we should all go sleep there."

Naomi chuckles. "Christ. Well, you did your best."

"I think he'll eventually catch on, if I see Mark a few more times," Katie says, and Naomi almost drops the lighter she's in the process of passing on.

"Mark? Of the totally failed attempt? Jimmy mentioned something about a date but I figured it would be with someone else."

Katie inhales deeply and then shrugs. "It's not going to be easy anyway; Mark was nice enough, didn't fucking try to like, push anything. He's quite handsome. I figure I'm just going to have to, I don't know, get past this, you know? There isn't another Cook out there. No matter how much--well."

"Right," Naomi says, quietly, and pretends not to notice Katie watching her.

"What, do you think it won't work?"

Naomi flicks her cigarette out on the street and shoves her hands in her pockets. "I fucked at least four different girls to get over your sister, and then around six blokes to get over girls, full stop," she confesses after a moment, and then shrugs. "You might have better luck."

Katie snorts. "I'm not fucking anyone. I've got--" and she sighs, tips her head back against the wall and lets the cigarette burn up. "I mean, you allthought I was such a slag in college, but other than Danny, Freddie and Cook, I've only shagged three blokes. And now I'm raising one. I'm not in aposition to fuck around."

"So what's the point in dating someone you don't fancy? If you're not even going to get casual sex out of it?" Naomi asks, carefully.

It takes Katie a long moment to turn her head, to look directly at Naomi, and when she does it's with an almost angry look on her face. "Well, what do you suggest I do? Just give up entirely?"

"Are you that unhappy, then?" Naomi responds softly, and Katie deflates a little before shaking her head, and stepping away from the wall with a sigh.

"Jim deserves two parents; at least one person who can pay attention to him at all times. I'm not going to deny him that if I don't have to, okay? So I'll try," she says, and heads back inside before Naomi can respond.

She doesn't have any idea how to respond to that, anyway. It sounds a lot like giving up even if it's not.

----

She meets Mark unexpectedly, bringing Jimmy home from a visit to the park on her lunch hour.

"Oh, hi," he says, and sticks out a hand; he's got sandy-blonde hair and an easy smile and looks significantly swottier than anyone the old Katie would ever be caught dating, what with his tie and his square, rimless glasses. His handshake is firm, and Naomi dislikes him instantly; especially when he adds, "Katherine has told me so much about you", and then proceeds to completely ignore Jimmy.

"Who's that," Jimmy stage-whispers loudly, pulling on Naomi's leg, and she almost laughs out loud.

"A friend of your mum's. Say hi, Jim."

Jimmy straightens up and sticks out his chest and a hand all at once, and it's so much like Cook that Naomi can't help but look over at Katie, to see ifshe's seeing it too. The soft and somewhat helpless expression on Katie's face makes something twist awkwardly in Naomi's chest, and it all in allwould've been a pretty special moment, if not for jackass Mark, who takes Jimmy's hand and then says "Hello James, I'm Mark" so slowly that Naomi has to bite her tongue to not inform Mark the Swot that Jimmy is three, not retarded. 

"Shall we go put your toys away?" Naomi asks, immediately afterwards, and shoots Katie a look that can't possibly be misinterpreted before following Jimmy up the stairs.

"He called me James. The friend. 'M not a James," Jimmy says with a light frown after they've sat him down on his bed and Naomi's pulling off his shoes. "Dad's a James. Uncle James is a James. I'm a Jim." 

"Yes you are," Naomi tells him, and gives in to the impulse to hug him tightly.

----

"Mark doesn't seem like he's very experienced with children," Naomi offers cautiously over dinner that night.

Katie laughs sharply. "And how many men do you know that are?"

"Tony's pretty swell with Jimmy," Naomi responds after a beat.

"Yeah, well, if I fancied seeing someone who I knew was madly in love with my best friend, I'd give him a call," Katie says, rolling her eyes, and then shoves the apple sauce towards Naomi. "Men learn. It's what my mum always used to say, and for a change, I think she might've been right."

"Yeah, well. I still didn't like the way he--"

"Naomi, just don't, okay?" Katie says, wearily, and Naomi drops the subject.

----

The next time she sees Jimmy--days before the third week mark passes, and she still has no idea what she's going to do--he holds up a model airplane excitedly. "Look! From Mark."

She feels a stab of jealousy so hopelessly strong and acute that she can't possibly convince herself it's anything else ; leaves Katie's hours earlier than she planned to, and goes to a Toys 'R Us; spends over two hundred pounds on presents before finally feeling satisfied, and then goes home.

It's only when she's taken a shower and sees the immense collection of presents sat in her living room that she wonders what the fuck she's doing.

----

She considers calling Tony. Doesn't, because he'll waffle esoterically about what 'the philosophers' would think about this conundrum, and she'd rather just stick her head in a vat of acid. Tony's positively useless if she can't get him near a bottle of liquor sometimes, and she's not quite sad enough to suggest drinking together over the phone.

Considers calling her mum. Remembers the conversation they last had about Jimmy. Doesn't.

[Doesn't consider calling Emily. Fuck her.]

She ends up not calling anyone; just lets the three week mark pass, and looks at the pile of presents in the corner of her living room.

----

"And what kind of a fucking arse-kissing knob buys a child a present after two dates, anyway?" she says, out loud, and feels a little better for it.

A little.

----

Jimmy's birthday party takes place two days before she has to give a final yay or nay on the job offer. She distracts herself by running errands forKatie, who has never been more stressed out than at the thought of throwing a birthday party for her nigh-four year old, and some part of it would amuse her terribly if Katie wasn't piling the pressure onto her surroundings as well.

She's never been happier to see Emily or Effy, really, and that's saying a lot.

"She's--having a bit of a Bridezilla moment," Naomi tells them softly, meeting them in Waterloo for coffee before they all head over to Katie's. "Wherethe Bride is, well, the four year old who just wants cake and for things to make loud noises."

"How many kids?" Effy asks, sounding wary, and Emily puts a hand on her lower back almost automatically, until Effy relaxes into it and faintly smiles. "I mean, two is too many, as far as I'm concerned, but--"

"Thirteen," Naomi says, and rolls her eyes. "I won't bore you by discussing the episode that having the fourteenth guest decline resulted in; suffice it to say I'm ready for a career in diplomacy."

"Thanks for picking up our slack," Emily says, softly, and the look in her eyes is an apology for the last time they came to visit, as far as Naomi can tell.

She smiles after a second. "Not a worry. Just try to take as much away from her as you can, yeah? I fear she's going to implode before we've even bloody picked up the cake."

It's the most natural she's been around Emily in, well, years; probably since she'd just gotten back from Africa and had had far too much other stuff onher mind to bother with what would consume the remainder of her life to date.

Naomi has no idea what's brought the change on, but won't object to it in the slightest.

----

She lifts Jimmy up on her back to go open the door for guests and every time the doorbell rings, he yells "surprise!" so loudly that she thinks hereardrums may shatter.

They've tried to explain the difference between a surprise party and a birthday party throughout most of the day, but it's had no real effect, and Naomi doesn't really care one way or the other when he's this happily excited about, well, everything.

It all goes swimmingly, until the doorbell rings and Mark shows up. "Hello again," he says, and Naomi almost lets go of Jimmy's legs without thinking, until he clutches at her hair so hard that she remembers he's there.

"Hello. Er," Naomi says, and then tries to smile. Tries hard, even. "The adult party's, well, when the children have all conked off, I imagine; did Katie not tell you?"

"She did, but I offered to help," Mark says, smoothly, and then looks up at Jimmy. "Hello there, son . Happy birthday."

The look on her face when she gets back to the kitchen moments later has Effy raising an eyebrow before licking off a cake knife. "Did someone just kill a whale somewhere?"

Naomi leans against the counter and crosses her arms. "Ef. We're legitimately friends now, aren't we?"

Effy doesn't move for a moment but then tilts her head, clearly assessing. "Depends. Any risk of you shagging my partner?"

"Only if it's that or death, really," Naomi says with a smile. "I hope you'll forgive me, in that case."

Effy laughs. "Yeah, I think we're friends, in some capacity. I would understand if--"

"No, no caveat," Naomi assures her, and then looks back into the living room, her eyebrows drawing together almost automatically. "So, I need an opinion. What do you think of Mark?"

Effy turns to look over her shoulder for a moment and then shrugs. "Bit nerdy. I wouldn't fuck him, but--"

"No, I mean, with Katie. How do you feel about him with Katie?"

Effy carefully puts the knife down and washes her hands before also turning around, and her eyes narrow a little while she watches them together. "Well. You can't get much further away from Cook than that, can you."

Sometimes, Naomi forgets about all the history there, but not today, and she puts an arm around Effy's waist after only a moment of thinking. "You'd rather she be dating another completely obnoxious prick?"

Effy smiles. "Don't think it works like that... just trading in."

"But you agree with me that this is bollocks?" Naomi presses, and Effy nods slowly before looking at Naomi curiously.

"I suppose, but the better question might be why we're having this conversation."

Naomi flushes, unreasonably so, and then looks back out; sees Jimmy, elbows on the table, leaning forward with his party hat almost slipping off thefront of his face, and she can't help but smile. "Because it's not just her that he's dating."

"The choice is hers, though," Effy says, giving Naomi a pointed look, before disappearing into the living room.

Naomi sighs and reaches up for the tall cupboard--the one Katie can't reach without a stepladder--to get out the candles.

----

The party is a massive success; even Katie concedes as much when they've finally convinced her to sit down for five minutes and Emily's stared herdown into drinking a glass of wine.

Afterwards, Effy and Emily clean the living room while Katie and Naomi handle the dishes, and Mark's hovering around them like an annoying wasp, until Naomi just sighs and hands him the dishtowel. "I'll take out the rubbish. I'm assuming you know how to dry?"

Katie raises an eyebrow at her in passing but doesn't otherwise react, and she smokes outside for a few minutes before taking a deep breath andheading back in, reminding herself that it is ridiculous to dislike someone she barely knows so much, especially when Katie's all but confessed it's something casual.

When she rounds the corner with a new bin liner, they're snogging.

Effy shows up next to her and looks at them with pursed lips. "Well. That doesn't look great," she says softly, and only then notices whatever look Naomi has on her face. "All right?"

"I--tell Katie I'll call her next week, all right?" she says, and forces a smile. "I just got a page, my boss needs me, urgently."

"On a Sunday?" Effy asks, not sounding convinced, and Naomi averts her eyes.

"Saving the world's a full-time business, Ef," she manages, and then backs away. Emily sticks up a hand from the other side of the room--Jimmy's play area, where he's sitting enraptured with his new keyboard, a present that Katie will clearly not be thanking Naomi for anytime soon because it's only 'awesome' if it's ridiculously loud--and she returns the gesture without looking at her, or at anyone.

Only on the Tube does she manage to let go of the urge to toss, and she takes a few heaving breaths before digging out her Blackberry and composinga quick e-mail.

It's a punch decision; the way she's made all the important ones in her life to date, like everything related to Emily and everything related to Africa.

Never before has she been this unsure of her judgment, though.

----

The pang of regret hits her when she's still en route to Tokyo.

Once there, the jetlag hits her so hard that she's awake for almost thirty six hours before finally nodding off, and she dreams of Cook finding her in thekitchen, nauseous with Effy's sympathy, except this time he says, "Someone as fit as you will find someone; someone like my wife, eh Naomikins?"

When he pulls away from the hug, half his face is missing, exactly the way that Tony had described seeing it after Katie had been far too hysterical to properly identify him.

She wakes up and throws up, seconds apart; has to call room service for a change of sheets at five in the morning and stands out on the balcony smoking for almost an hour before she feels she's got enough air back into her lungs to go back inside.

She calls Charles the next morning. "What can you give me after Japan?"

There's a pause on the line before he says, "I really wish you'd reconsider--"

"Charles," she cuts him off, and hears his sigh; feels it resonate in her chest, almost.

"Child labor in India," he says after a moment and she can almost see him purse his lips disapprovingly in her mind. "I'll fax the details to your hotel. You'll leave in six days."

"Thank you," she says and hangs up; hugs the bathrobe around her tighter and sits down on the edge of the bed, rubs at her face, and tries not to feel like a massive failure on every front.

----

Katie leaves her a voicemail that, well, sounds as confused as she probably is. "Like, I know you a travel a lot for business," it says, cautiously, andthen rushes on, "but I don't remember the last time you didn't let Jimmy know you were going to be gone. I'm--well, whatever. Get in touch when you can, okay?"

She ignores it. Saves it, but ignores it.

----

Katie doesn't play fair, though; e-mails birthday pictures from Jimmy's party, including a few where she's explaining something to the kid and he's looking at her with these focused, enraptured eyes that no longer make her think of Emily in the slightest.

Instead, all she can think of is the expression that Katie gets on her face when she's designing something.

She writes seven different responses and discards all of them, until finally just writing back, he's getting to be so tall, like she's fucking Grandma Fitchor something, who's renowned for saying the exact same thing on his birthday every year.

Katie doesn't write back. Naomi changes her screensaver to one of the pictures of Jimmy and Katie unwrapping presents after maybe twenty seconds of hesitation, and then changes it to one of her and Jimmy instead.

She almost convinces herself that that makes it better, somehow.

----

One week later, staring up at a spinning ceiling fan in her hotel room in Delhi, she thinks about Katie and her dresses. 

The ones she wears, the ones she makes. 

There's the one that she made for that ridiculous AIDS benefit that Naomi attended, the one that had persuaded even her that a good fit can make sucha difference.

She then unwillingly remembers the low-dipping dress Katie had worn to the first date with Mark, and imagines it on Emily for a moment before almost laughing. Thinks about it on Katie again instead, and can't possibly pretend that it didn't do something for her.

Pictures Tony in it, and actually laughs. 

She sends him an e-mail in the early hours of the morning, says, "What's the difference between finding someone attractive and wanting to shag them?"

"Freud says: 'wanking'," is his reply, the next evening, and Naomi's heart hurts with everything she left behind.

----

One of the WHO volunteers propositions her; actually tries to pull off some line about the scar, about how it makes her look roguish, and Naomi justabout manages to not laugh in the girl's face.

She gets ridiculously wasted later that evening, on something local. It's always something local when she contemplates shagging girls; Zivania inCyprus, Pisco in Chile, her bodily weight in Guinness up in Ireland, and now fuck knows what in India.

It's sweaty and urgent, if only because she keeps her eyes closed and her hand moving so quickly that there's not space for anything other than sounds; no fucking conversation, no names, not ever. 

The girl climaxes within three minutes, and Naomi couldn't possibly be less involved.

When her phone rings, she's almost relieved to have an excuse to fuck off immediately, until she sees that it's Katie calling and she pushes the phone further down the nightstand and closes her eyes, doesn't move until it's stopped vibrating and she feels like she can finally breathe again.

Moments later, the girl--obviously encouraged by Naomi's dismissal of the real world, somehow--curls up on her side and reaches for Naomi again, andwith bile rising up in her throat now that she's almost sober, they fuck a second time.

----

She only listens to Katie's message a full day later.

It's a lot more like Katie this time around; angry, disappointed, and most of all berating.

Jimmy comes on the line to say hello and his excited "NAOMI"--the first time he's ever managed to say it full-out, and she feels her throat close up atthe thought that she could've been there to hear, but instead she's just running off again, like she always is--makes her smile, until Katie softly explains, in the background, that "Naomi isn't actually there, but you can say hello to her like this. She'll hear it eventually."

She owes them an explanation; maybe she just owes it to him, but he's four and he wouldn't understand.

Katie's more difficult than that, because while they might have all the words in the world between them, none of them would line up to make any sense.

"I'm jealous," Naomi would say, but it would only lead to questions, like, jealous of what? and she can't answer those. Not honestly, not when itdoesn't make any fucking sense to her, either.

----

Charles calls her back in. She fights with him furiously to stay abroad longer, but it's time for their annual declarations and he needs her to have all herfinances in order, so there's nothing that can be done about it.

England's soggy, wet, and overcrowded when she gets back, and still, every time she sees a short brunette walking hand in hand with a blonde-haired toddler, she thinks it's them.

She hides in her apartment for two days and then angrily drops all the relevant documentation off with Charles' secretary, not having the patience to deal with him, either.

That's when Katie's third call comes.

It's the worst one yet, because it's accusatory and manipulative and all of those things she never fucking liked about Katie in the first place, and some part of her is seething at how easily she'll use Jimmy as an excuse to scapegoat Naomi.

That sentiment lasts for about thirty minutes, until she realizes that it's probably not an excuse, and "he misses you" means exactly that. 

It's just not enough, him missing her. It's not enough at all, because it won't do anything to remove Mark.

She remembers being so pleasantly surprised when Katie dubbed her one of the aunts a few months ago, and now can't think of a worse thing to be called, because it's limited. It's so fucking limited, and they're kidding themselves if they pretend that Naomi hasn't been--

She buys a bottle of Tanqueray and some tonic at the off-licence on the corner of her street and pops in the Aladdin DVD.

----

Some part of her abstractly knows that she's far too drunk to be here, right now, with everything she's been thinking, and should be smart--should go home, sleep it off, and get some perspective on her fucking life, on what she's made of it in the past few years. If it's any better than it was before.

But then she's very, very drunk, and her finger is weaving towards the doorbell before she can do anything to stop it.

She hears Katie cursing before she sees her, smiles almost unwillingly until Katie opens the door and her face hardens.

"It's fucking half eleven. Remember that four year old who adores you? Yeah. He's fucking sleeping, as I would--"

"'m sorry," Naomi manages. Slurs, really, and then rests her forehead against the doorframe. "Sorry I left, sorry I'm so stupid."

Katie stops in her tracks and then sniffs, once, loudly. "Christ, you're drunk."

"Sorry about that too," Naomi mumbles and then smiles. "Sorry about everything , Katie."

"For fuck's sake," Katie says after a moment and reaches for Naomi's hand. "You can sleep it off on the sofa, and apologize when you fucking remember what that means, yeah."

"No," Naomi responds and pulls her hand back, clings to the doorframe and lowers her eyes. "I--I can't stay, I just want to say--"

"Yeah, you're sorry," Katie says, sounding stung still, and then straightens. "I'm not the one you need to be apologizing to."

"I will, okay, but I need to talk to you first," Naomi starts, and then blinks, feels a headache pop up out of nowhere and she rubs at her face, rubs at hereyes until they feel like they're burning. "I'm sorry that I didn't say anything, there just wasn't anything I could say, okay, and I just needed to figure itout--"

"You're not making any fucking sense," Katie interjects.

"I needed to figure out why I hate Mark, okay? Why I can't stand him," Naomi finishes, miserably, and then looks away, rests her forehead against thewall and swallows hard.

Katie doesn't say anything. They stand together silently for a moment until Naomi wobbles, unsteady, and Katie reaches out to straighten her.

"And why is that?" she finally asks, quietly, and Naomi almost sobs; just makes some sort of horrible noise, because once it's out there it won't ever be taken back.

"Because he's fucking taking my place, Katie."

"Your--" Katie repeats and then the rest of her breath just leaves her in a whoosh, until she manages a tight laugh. "Do I need to explain dating to you as well, then?"

Naomi's vision is swimming, and it's the last thing she needs right now--for Katie to be standing in the near-dark, arms crossed, looking at herdisapprovingly and hurtly, because Jesus Christ it reminds her so much of--

"I don't understand it," Naomi sighs, closes her eyes and shakes her head. "I don't understand at all."

Katie stays silent, but after a second leans in closer and puts a hand on Naomi's back. "I like, don't know what's going here, okay, but Jimmy adores you, and you're not going to be cut--"

"Fucking hell, Katie," Naomi groans, and turns her head. "You don't get it at all, either, do you?"

Katie has about three seconds to move, and doesn't.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, Naomi thinks in the one remaining lucid part of her brain, but it's drowned out completely when Katie gasps in surprise, before shoving Naomi back and slapping her across the face.

She doesn't say it out loud; doesn't do anything except close her eyes and stumble backwards onto the street.

"Go home," Katie says after a second, fingers to her lips, and then disappears back inside.

Naomi throws up, twice, before calling a taxi. 

----

The first thing she feels the next morning is shame.

Trying to kiss Katie like that had been desperate and ridiculous and for fuck's sake, she's still halfway in love with her sister.

She doesn't call to apologize; goes to buy flowers instead and sits on a bench outside of Katie's flat building for almost an hour before finally getting upthe nerve to ring the doorbell.

Katie looks completely fucked up, almost as bad as Naomi feels, and mutely opens the door a little more before warily sitting down on the sofa, aboutas far away from Naomi as she can get.

"I'm sorry," Naomi says, and puts the flowers on the table with a sigh. "I was--I won't apologize for what I said, but I'm sorry for how I did it. I shouldn't have--"

"You shouldn't have done any of that," Katie says, sounding both upset and wounded. "What the fuck, Naomi?"

"Look, I know I went about it all wrong," Naomi continues, and then rubs at her forehead. "I couldn't think of a better reason to explain why I left, why I didn't call back. I just--I needed some time, to figure out what I was doing, and how I fit with you two."

"What the hell--" Katie starts but Naomi shakes her head.

"No, let me talk. What I'm trying to say that I don't--you and Jimmy, you're my fucking family, okay? That's how I feel, about what my place is," Naomi says, and then bites her lip for a moment. "I don't want to be anywhere but here, and I guess I didn't realize I cared this much until, well, until Mark--"

"Care this much. About my son, yeah?" Katie interjects, sharply, and then stares at Naomi until she looks away.

"I could learn--" she starts saying softly, feels her heart contract at the thought with something she doesn't recognize.

"Oh, my God," Katie says, and gets up off the sofa. "I am begging you to stop fucking talking until you can think of something to say that isn't horribly fucking offensive or ridiculous."

"I'm not being ridiculous." Naomi sighs after a second, and then looks up at Katie helplessly. "I mean, is it truly that fucking awful an idea? You're my best friend, and I think you're perfectly attractive, so as far as I'm concerned--"

"Yeah. I bet I remind you of someone you once knew, don't I?" Katie takes a deep breath and then rails on her, so unexpectedly that Naomi shifts back instinctively. "God fucking damn it, how pathetic do you think I am? That this is somehow an offer that I'll be considering? Pity dating from the girl who can't get over my bloody twin sister but hey, she sure loves my son so that's all right then?"

"That's not at all--"

"Jesus, Naomi, I'm not even fucking gay," Katie says, suddenly sounding exhausted, and then sits down on the coffee table, drops her face into herhands. "Why are you doing this to me? To Jimmy? What the fuck am I going to tell him when you don't come around anymore, huh?"

Naomi feels tears well up in her eyes. "Please don't threaten me with that. Please just--Jesus, he's done nothing to--"

"No, he hasn't. But whose fault is it that this is happening?"

There's nothing else to say after that, and Naomi gets up after a long moment. "I'm sorry. I really--I don't know what else to say. I couldn't think of any other way--"

"Just because we're both alone, doesn't mean we ought to be together," Katie says, softly, and then rubs at her own eyes. "God. Just--give me some space, all right? You've fucking well given me enough shit to try and get past in the last two days."

"Just--"

"You're my best friend, Naomi, and you're Jimmy's--" Katie trails off and looks down at the ground before continuing. "I don't want to punish my son foryour momentary black-out."

Katie doesn't look at her when she leaves; is still staring at the floor when Naomi turns around one last time, hopeful despite knowing better. 

Naomi heads to Bristol on the next available train, and tries not to cry the entire way over.

Chapter Text

Bristol isn't London.

It's a rather pointless observation, but pulling her windbreaker around herself a little tighter while waiting for her mum to get her from the train station, it feels significantly more meaningful than it should.

"Hey sweetheart," her mum says, pulling her in for a brief hug, and then takes a step back with a frown almost immediately. "God--are you all right?"

She shrugs helplessly and looks down at the ground, sighing when her mum immediately reaches forward and pulls her fringe out of her eyes.

"You need a--"

"Don't say it," she cuts her off, and takes a deep breath. "I've made a real mess of things. I don't--we'll talk about it later, okay?"

Her mum nods after a second and picks up her duffel bag. "Car's parked about two streets over; you all right to walk it?"

The wind stings her eyes and it's fine, it's rather perfect, actually, because it means she's not so much crying as just responding to the hurt.

----

She gets her hair done at her old hairdresser; the one who first dyed it blonde, giving her a trademark look that's equal parts blessing and curse. She can still remember trying to hide from Emily out on the steps all those mornings, almost bloody impossible with her height and her hair, and then thinks of Katie pulling on her hair with pursed lips a few months earlier, noting that it's ridiculous that she pulls the color off so well before sticking a few more pins in her.

"Don't you think it's about time you had something different?" Sasha asks, parting her hair down the side in a way she never wears it and Naomi looks at herself in the mirror for a long moment.

"No. No, this is how it should be," she says after a moment and closes her eyes as her head's nudged forward again.

The snips of the scissors are awfully loud.

----

She finds her old college yearbooks, stuck under her bed with everything else.

They'd all looked so bloody stupid back then that she can't help but laugh as she goes through the pictures; the plaid skirts, the collared shirts, and then Katie and Effy, figuring out how to violate the school dress code with as little effort as possible on an almost daily basis.

Her eyes well up as she comes across Cook's message, scrawled over a picture of the yearbook staff that unintentionally highlights Katie's cleavage, like a demented portent of things to come:

Still think you need more cock in your life; maybe some day, eh Naomikins? 

The Cook is just a messy scrawl at best, and she brushes her fingertips past it guiltily before flipping to the next page--only realizing he's somehow managed to make it look like a penis when it's already mostly gone from view. It makes her laugh, unexpectedly, and with a single sniff the tears fuck off again.

Emily's message is all the way in the back. It's so bitter--and in retrospect, undeservedly so--that Naomi can't help but roll her eyes at it--the Have fun in Africa so petulant that, really, the Love, E can't make up for it.

She flips through the entire yearbook front to back, twice, and still can't find a message from Katie. It makes sense, really; she doesn't know what the hell she was looking for, since they couldn't fucking stand each other in those days. Civility was about as good as it got.

On the second to last page, there's a picture of Katie and Freddie, arms around each other at the Love Ball, and she wonders how much of thewhatever, it's just a friends with benefits thing, yeah that Katie had told Emily at the time had been true, really, because they're rather gorgeous together.

She tries to imagine Jimmy as a blend of them, though, and it's painfully wrong; not who he's meant to be. And then there's the other thought--what Jimmy will become, really, if there's someone else bearing down on his life that heavily, and she feels sick all over again.

She throws the yearbook in a corner of the room and lies in the dark, listening to old lo-fi mixed CDs that Emily made for her in that one year they'd actually tried to make things work, and she feels a burst of painful laughter bubble up when Fuck and Run comes on; Emily had told her not to take it too literally at the time, with a small grin and a, "Focus on the fuck, please", but then they'd obviously not understood each other at all.

It's the only song on the entire CD that actually says anything about her.

She turns it off after the second even when I was seventeen and takes a long, hot shower.

----

"Do you think it's just something about us, that we can't make relationships work in the long run?" she asks her mum over a glass of post-dinner wine.

Her mum thinks on it for a moment and then looks at her with a mixture of fondness and pity. "Bit young to start reminiscing on your life-long failures, don't you think?"

"They're rather large; I might as well get a head start," Naomi says with a sigh, and her mum wordlessly refills her glass.

"What's this about, then? Tony or Emily?"

She almost snaps back something incredibly bitchy--feels that same stab of whatever that she always feels when remembering just how close her mother and her only ex-girlfriend are--but it's rather pathetic, how up until two weeks ago, there wouldn't have been any alternatives. "Neither, actually."

Her mum raises an eyebrow after a moment, and then lifts her glass. "To sudden, unexpected variety, then."

Naomi snorts and rolls her eyes. "Thanks."

They finish the first glasses in silence until Naomi sits forward, rests her chin on her hands and stares at the bottle morosely. "Did you ever meet Katie?"

"Emily's sister?" her mum responds and then frowns. "I don't think so. Emily didn't talk about her much, ever; I didn't get the feeling they were close."

"Yeah, they're deceptive that way," Naomi comments wryly.

"Why?" her mum asks and Naomi hesitates for only a second before shrugging.

"Just wondering. I mean. The way my life is now, you probably have more reason to know Katie than Emily."

Her mum takes a deep breath, but Naomi raises a hand. "Sorry. I didn't mean anything by that. I don't--I don't care that you stay in touch, okay? I just think it's about time that don't, anymore."

Her mum doesn't say anything for a long time.

"I just don't think I can, Mum," Naomi says, finally, finishing off the last bit of the second glass of wine with a sigh. "I've tried so hard to just be her friend, and if I'm honest, it's not what I want to be doing. I just don't think--"

"I hope," her mum starts, carefully, and then looks at her with a probing expression. "I truly hope that this means you're moving on, Naomi."

She can't pretend to miss the emphasis on that, but her mum thankfully lets her off the hook without saying anything in response, until she ruins her own escape by laughing. "I excel at catastrophe; haven't I made that clear by now?"

Her mum rolls her eyes, probably just to mock her, but it's enough to break the tension in the room.

"If you'd like to talk about it--"

"I know," Naomi says, manages a smile. "Maybe in a while. I've got some thinking to do, okay?"

Her mum nods, and then hands her the rest of the bottle of wine with an, "It might help" as she heads back upstairs.

----

The next day she calls Tony.

"Hallo stranger," he says. "Didn't realize you were in-country, let alone in-city. Staying with your mum?"

"For now, though if she stares at me accusingly one more time I will happily take up room on your sofa," she responds, and Tony laughs.

"Oh dear me. What have you done now?"

"Oh, Tone," she says, consciously dramatically but the sigh at the end is real. "Promise me that we'll still be friends when I regale you with my latest adventures in stupidity?"

"As long as you're bringing wine," he laughs, and she feels marginally better when she hangs up.

----

The surprise is Effy; surprising in the sense that, sometimes she genuinely forgets they're related, because Tony is talkative, sociable and incredibly easy to read, and she still can't imagine that spending more than five hours around Effy would stop being incredibly exhausting.

"No sofa then," she says after a second and Effy gets up to collect the wine and take it into a kitchen, pressing an airy kiss to Naomi's cheek in the process.

"Sorry; single-occupancy. Though I'm sure Emily would get a real thrill out of you two sleeping--"

"Yeah, no thank you," Naomi says with a wince and then hugs him tightly.

Effy's not a part of her plans, but then, maybe Effy will handle this better than anyone else could; Effy, almost by definition, will not judge. It's just not how she functions, and Naomi feels a pang of regret that it's taken them this long to become even casual friends again, to let Effy in that little, because at the end of the day she and Effy understand each other in a way that even Tony can't.

Effy asks a few questions about obtaining visas for South Africa, explaining that she's been asked to do an on-location shoot for National Geographic,and Naomi feels a pang of something at it; it feels a whole lot like resentment, but maybe that's overestimating how much it matters.

"Emily not got a problem with you buggering off, then?" she ends up asking anyway, despite knowing better.

Effy raises an eyebrow. "During exams? I doubt she'll notice I'm gone. I'll have to leave at least twelve Post-Its around the house to remind her to feed the dog, I think."

Naomi laughs unwillingly and pretends not to notice the way Tony's slung an arm around her shoulders, but it helps; it always has, just having him near.

"How's Jimmy?" Effy asks after a few seconds, and when Naomi looks at her in surprise, all she gets in response is a knowing head-tilt.

"Well, I think. Can you believe he's in school already?" she responds; can't help the slight smile that it results in, and studiously ignores Effy's slight smirk in response.

"Reckon that's what they do, Nae; get big, I mean," Tony says, and squeezes her shoulder.

"Yeah, well, it's happening too bloody fast," she sighs, and leans forward to pick up her glass again. "I mean, the odds are that he's going to stop being this adorable sooner rather than later, so I'd like to keep him like this as long as I can."

"How maternal," Tony says, and while his tone of voice doesn't imply anything, Effy's inquisitive stare does. "Who would've thought that all Jane Goodall here needed was some exposure to a baby and it would've turned her into a regular girl?"

"Peculiar, isn't it," Effy says, and Naomi rolls her eyes.

"God's sake. I travel a lot for work, okay; it's less and less these days. You're making me sound like I'm--" She can't really think of the word, just,abnormal, and she feels abnormal enough knowing that two days ago, she put the moves on her straight best friend without any idea of what she was hoping to accomplish. Not once, but twice.

"Oh, we're just having a laugh. Lighten up, you, and tell us about this horrible thing you've done," Tony says, poking her in the side, and she squirms away from him and shakes her head. It feels like an ambush, talking about it in the context Effy's subtly set up, and she refuses to humiliate herself on their terms.

"Not until we've finished that second bottle," she says, and gets up to get it from the kitchen, ignoring the look Effy directs at her when she passes her.

----

As it is, she just ends up blurting it out; the Stonems together are a quiet sort, content to just be in a room together and drinking, and all the bloody silence is making her more fucking nervously torn up than she was before she sought Tony out for comfort.

"I kissed Katie."

It hangs heavily in the room for a moment until Tony laughs.

"I'm sorry, are we boring you? Because a less drastic way to get our attention would've--"

"Shut up, Tony," Effy says, quietly, and he does.

Naomi closes her eyes; can't quite look at either of them, albeit for entirely different reasons.

"I kissed Katie, and she slapped me, and told me to fucking go home."

"I--can't say I'm surprised," Tony says hesistantly after a moment. "Were you drunk?"

"Oh yeah," Naomi says and then laughs bitterly. "But not drunk enough to just plant one on the first person I saw, unfortunately. No, I had been drunk for days and specifically sought her out, because clearly there's nothing quite like fucking up your own life and your best friend's life at the behest of Charles Tanqueray, or perhaps that's Lord Tanqueray. Whichever it was, I'm sure he was a sodding bastard."

"I can't--you're serious about this, then," Tony asks, after a moment, and Naomi clamps down on a sigh when she feels his arm withdraw from around her back.

"I wish I were joking," she confesses, and then runs her hands through her hair, sits forward with her elbows to her knees. "But it seemed like the best way to deal with things, you know, the way I hate her bloody boyfriend, would like to strangle the arrogant tosser and then cram his glasses down his throat, and the way I love her kid like he's--"

"Oh, bollocks, Naomi," Tony says at that point, and a hand reappears at the base of her back. "That's--"

"Pathetic?" Naomi suggests, peering at Effy through her hand, who has stayed distressingly quiet this entire time. Doesn't mean she's not thinking fuck knows what, though, and Naomi remembers enough to realize that Effy will be the one to cut through all the bullshit, whenever she feels she's ready.

Tony stays silent long enough for another burst of misery to well up and explode in her chest, and that's when she laughs, painfully. "Hell, I wish I could say I'm just that ridiculous, that this is all just about Jimmy, but I'm fucking attracted to her, all right?"

"She is pretty," Effy says, rather blandly, with a piercing look in her eyes that Naomi can't handle for more than a second. "Nothing wrong with you for noticing that."

"Yeah, well, you're pretty too, but I've never thought about you while getting myself off, now have I?"

Tony gets up abruptly and stalks off towards the kitchen.

"You could've probably been a bit more delicate," Effy murmurs and Naomi looks at her sharply.

"Do I look like I'm fucking capable of being delicate? This is my life, Effy. This isn't just some drunken mistake that I get to write off, this is--I'm at her fucking mercy, now, and the worst thing is that if she asks me to just take it back, to pretend it never happened, I don't even think I can. And when I think about Jimmy--" She shakes her head and almost bites through her lip, wills the tears away but they're not budging.

Effy nods after a moment and refills their glasses silently.

Tony reappears after long minutes and looks at her with barely contained resentment. She looks away from him after a moment and stares at her drink, finishes it in two swallows, and only when she reaches to put the glass back down on the table does he speak.

"Well," he finally says and then looks almost sadly amused. "I think it's safe to say you've got a type. Would've been nice if you'd told me years ago that I'd just never stand a fucking chance because I'm not one of the Fitch twins, Nae."

It hurts. It hurts more because of how fast it dismisses Katie, which by proxy means a complete dismissal of the life Naomi's built, the things she's come to value most in it other than him.

"Thanks a lot, Tony. Best friends, right?" she snaps at him and gets up, almost knocking dropping her glass the process. She doesn't look back ateither of them before walking out.

----

Effy catches up to her after two blocks. "Hey, you forgot your purse."

"Fucking keep it," Naomi mutters and Effy yanks on her arm.

"I'm not him, okay? Here," she says, and thrusts it into Naomi's arm with a faint scowl.

Naomi just sighs and sits down on the curb, stares at the drain across the street until Effy squats down next to her; wordlessly lights a cigarette and hands it over.

Naomi takes a quick drag and then sighs. "Not going to tell me how fucked up I am?"

"No," Effy says after a long moment. "I'm going to tell you this isn't about Emily. I think someone should."

When Naomi looks over, Effy's just staring into the distance, a faint almost-smile the only sign that she's thinking about anything at all.

"I didn't think it was, either, but I can't seem to pin down what it is about."

Effy flicks her cigarette into the water and then sits back, stretches for a moment before tucking her hands into her pockets. "It's a little ironic that I'm repeating this to you, of all people, but, just because it's different doesn't mean it's less, Naomi."

"Because what is different?"

Effy shrugs. "That's for you to figure out. And you won't be doing it in Bristol, now will you."

"I don't know how she puts up with you," Naomi says after a moment and when Effy smiles brilliantly, just at a fucking mention of Emily, she knowsthe right girl won, all those years ago.

"I make a mean bolognese," Effy replies, the same smile still lingering on her lips, and Naomi almost gives her a hug; remembers why they were friends in the first place, for the first time in years.

----

They head to a pub after two more fags, and about half an hour later, after just two drinks--Effy noting with a smirk that Naomi's slowed down a lot--Tony shows up, looking soaking wet and bedraggled and a little ashamed, until he straightens himself and Naomi just about braces herself for the way he's about to completely charm her pants off, the way he just knows how to.

"Right. So there was this odd moment, about two hours ago, where my body was suddenly overtaken by a complete arsehole and I had very, very little control over the words coming out of my mouth," he says, before running a hand through his hair and then leaning against the empty chair. "Do you reckon we can replay that?"

Naomi sighs and looks up at him. "Sit down, you wanker."

He does, after a second, and then folds his fingers together. "Well then. Since none of us are immune to the wonderful assets of those carrying XX chromosomes, let's start with something obvious; Katie's arse. Better than her sister's, or what?"

Effy punches him in the shoulder even as Naomi starts laughing. Minutes later, he squeezes her leg under the table and she covers her hand with his.

----

Effy takes her leave after two more drinks, citing exhaustion, and then levels Naomi with a kind look. "In case you're worried, I won't--"

"I'm not," Naomi says, easily, and hugs Effy the tightest she has in years. It's oddly nice.

"Who would've thought that putting a move on her wife's sister would finally build some bridges between you two," Tony comments with a smile, before taking another sip of cider, and she rolls her eyes at him.

"Tell me what to do, Ant. I mean it, I just--" She sighs hopelessly; runs her fringe back past her ear even though it's too short to be falling into her eyes, and then looks at him.

"Do you think you've got a real chance?"

"She's straight, mate. How the hell--"

He shakes his head. "Not what I meant, and not relevant. Last I checked, both you and my sister were straight once, too. That's a technical issue. I'm asking about, well, the global event."

"That being?" she asks, and he finishes off both their drinks before responding, after she pushes her glass his way.

"Do you think you'll end up making each other happy?"

----

It's a million dollar question. She doesn't have an answer, not after one night of sleep, nor after two.

Thinks about her future and what she pictured for it.

The first realization is that she doesn't immediately think of Emily.

The second is that she's never allowed herself to think about her future, and it's not easy, imagining anything.

The third is that when she's drunk enough, all she can think about is Jimmy, graduating from college with three As and a packed suitcase, ready to go take on the world at large. And he's not even hers, so there's no bloody telling if it's something he'd even be interested in, but it feels right

She forces herself--enables herself, really--to think about what happens next, and that's when she realizes that she's not alone at the airport, but the person standing next to her is Katie, and it's hard to tell who holds who when he disappears through security.

She throws out the remaining wine in the morning, brushes her teeth until her gums bleed and her headache recedes, and then stares at herself in the mirror until she's convinced herself that it wasn't a fucking omen, that life-changing shit doesn't happen when catatonically drunk, and that in any event, she has a whole lot of future between now and fourteen years from now that can't just be glossed over.

She goes downstairs and sits down with her mum after that.

"You look--" her mum starts saying and then almost smiles. "I don't think I can lie, really. You look bloody awful."

"How do you convince someone that you should be with them? That they should be with you?"

Her mum takes a deep breath and then sighs. "Katie will let you know, if and when she's ready to be convinced."

At Naomi's near sob in response, her mum just shifts over and gives her a one-armed hug. "Oh, Naomi. You've always been so ridiculously easy to read, I don't know what you were thinking."

"I don't either," she confesses, and then lets herself cry and be held for a change.

----

She goes to bed sober and sleeps for nearly fourteen hours.

Her phone wakes her up, and she fuzzily reaches for it with one hand.

"Hello?"

"We need to talk, so anytime you feel like not being such a fucking pussy anymore, hiding in Bristol like some spineless twat, would be wonderful, yeah," Katie says, and hangs up before Naomi has any time to respond.

Naomi can't help but smile.

----

There's not really a card for the occasion "sorry I completely screwed up both our lives, except not really" and so she just shows up, hands in pockets, trying not to fidget when Katie just looks at her for a long moment before softening with a sigh.

"Jimmy misses you; he should be waking up from his nap soon."

Naomi almost turns to the stairs automatically but then forces herself to stop. "No."

"What do you mean, no," Katie repeats, sounding shocked, and Naomi shakes her head forcefully.

"I refuse to continue hiding behind your kid, okay? This is--what I did is about us, not him."

Katie purses her lips but doesn't say anything for a few seconds. "I'll go put the kettle on," is what finally comes out, and Naomi nods assent before following her into the living room.

----

"So," Katie finally says, when they've both got mugs to clutch--and clutching them they are, Naomi notes wryly, almost like they're bloody shields of some kind. "I'm going to guess that you're not here to take it back, then."

"No," Naomi responds softly after a second. "If you want me to fuck off, you're going to have to actually tell me, Katie. I'm not--I'm sorry for how I did things, how I put all of this on you without any warning, but I'm not sorry that I did."

"Right," Katie says, brusquely, and then takes a long sip of tea.

"So?" Naomi asks, when nothing else is forthcoming.

"I've been talking to a picture of my dead husband for the past three nights," Katie responds, and when she looks up and meets Naomi's eyes, she's not quite smiling, even though the statement came out with a fair bit of humor. "It's a first, I think, but--"

"Has it helped?" Naomi asks, and Katie laughs wryly.

"He's got some thoughts on girl-on-girl, but they're not what I'd fucking call helpful, yeah."

Naomi smiles and looks down at her tea. "I don't--I mean, I know how much he means to you, and I don't--"

"Naomi. How about we just agree that we're friends, yeah, and leave everything that's fucking obvious about this aside for now." Katie still looks like she's going to toss any second, but at least that sounded like her a fair bit, and it's a relief. 

"All right. I fancy being with you. Think you're up for it?"

"That's--Jesus Christ, this is a bit more complicated than that, don't you think?" Katie responds after a beat, but laughs helplessly anyway.

Can't things ever be complicated? Naomi thinks, or remembers, rather, and it's enough to make her stop hiding behind humor.

"It's very complicated, but I want you to know that you're not the only one who's been thinking. I've thought loads, okay, and I'm--I'm not here for thewrong reasons. Believe me, I can think of many, but the only reason I'm here and asking you to consider this is because it's what I honestly want to be doing."

Katie doesn't say anything until she's finished drinking her tea, and then puts her mug down decisively. "If--" she says emphatically, "and believe me,it's a big if--"

"Noted," Naomi interjects, until Katie glares at her and she looks away.

"If we do this, it's on my terms."

"It's not a fucking heist, Katie," Naomi says after a moment. "What do you mean, terms?"

"I mean, I'm the one with the four year old who's going to be distraught if we completely fuck everything up, Naomi. That's what I mean."

Naomi lowers her head with a sigh. "I don't want to hurt him. The last thing I want is to hurt him. You know I care about him deeply."

"Yeah," Katie says, softly, and then tentatively reaches; puts a hand on Naomi's knee. "I won't pretend that that's not one of the main reasons we're even having this conversation, babe. Okay?"

"So what, then?" Naomi asks, looking up--searching Katie's eyes to see if anything is getting through yet. "Are you worried that I don't care about you enough? That I'm actually dumb enough to think that if we both just love Jim, the rest of it will work itself out?"

Katie rubs at her cheek for a second and then shrugs. "I've known you for too long to be able to believe that this isn't at least a little bit about Emily."

"I thought it was, too, at first," Naomi confesses, and then smiles wryly when Katie can't quite hide the surprise on her face. "But you know what? I barely know Emily. All I know is--some girl I loved a decade ago. You're right in front of me, Kay, and I know more about you than I ever did about her."

"Yeah, and? I mean, whatever, that doesn't mean that you're like, into me or whatever--"

"Katie," Naomi says, and closes her eyes with a smile. "The only reason you're asking these questions is because we are friends, and it wouldn't be appropriate for me to let on just how fucking hot I think you are, okay?"

Katie snorts in response, but her cheeks color just enough for Naomi to know--for the first time--that she's not totally ambivalent to the idea. "Well, great, bully for you. You're not fucking blind."

"Far from it," Naomi says; smiles, and leans forward just a little more, until there's only inches between them. "Remember when you went on that first date, and dropped Jimmy off at my flat?" Katie nods tentatively after a moment and Naomi's smile widens into a grin; not deliberately lecherous, but just kind of helpless. "I can't even tell you how many times that dress has figured in my sexual fantasies since. And not because of the dress, Kay; because of how well you wore it."

"Yeah, well," Katie says after clearing her throat, and Naomi smirks a little. "That doesn't change that I've never so much as like, thought about nailinga girl."

"So? That doesn't matter," Naomi says, and when Katie looks at her skeptically she just shrugs. "What matters is what you're thinking now that youare."

"You act like it's so easy," Katie reprimands after a second, and then almost glares. "If it is, you're just a cunt who needlessly jerked my sister around for almost a full year."

"Figuring it out was easy, Katie. Accepting it is what's hard."

Katie doesn't say anything, and after another beat, Naomi covers the hand that's still on her knee.

"I--for fuck's sake. I wish I could talk to Emily about this," Katie mutters after a second, and Naomi feels a brief pang of sympathy.

"After ripping my head off, she'd be telling you the same things," she says, and squeezes Katie's hand before getting up to make some tea.

----

Jimmy jumps up into her arms when he spots her and she realizes guiltily, stupidly, that she hasn't not seen him for longer than two days in monthsnow. There's already obligations there, even if she and Katie haven't worked anything out, and the look on Katie's face when she lifts him and hugs him tightly means that she's not the only one who's realized it.

"Stay for dinner?" Katie asks, quietly, and Naomi nods before heading into the play area with Jimmy.

----

She leaves shortly after dinner, unlike all the other times she's stayed, and Jimmy looks almost as sad as she feels about how things have changed so suddenly.

Katie knits her heart back together with just five words. "She'll be back tomorrow, okay?"

"Yeah," Naomi manages, and bends over to give Jimmy a fist bump. "We'll finish that drawing we started on, okay?"

"Okay," he agrees, and ducks around Katie to head back into the living room.

Naomi straightens awkwardly and almost says something stupid like 'thanks' but Katie cuts her off with a finger pressed against her lips. It sends her mind racing, until Katie's words cut through all the clutter and get right to the point.

"The best I can do, yeah, is promise you that I'll like, have an open mind. I mean, I dated a fucking wanker that I didn't even like having dinner with because I thought it would be good for my son to have someone else around; by that measure..." She trails off and looks down at the ground with adeep sigh before lowering her hand again.

Naomi takes a deep breath. "It's--I mean, Katie, all I need to know is that you're not going to cut me out of your lives completely."

"You stupid twat," Katie says, after a long moment, and when she looks up she's got tears in her eyes. "You think that there's only something at stake for you here? What the fuck do you think Jim and I would do without you, huh?"

She's allowed herself to think about touching Katie far too much in the past week, after months of denial, for it not to result in unexpected things like this: she can't help but reach and pull Katie into a hug, ignoring how Katie stiffens until she relaxes with a sigh and they just lean heavily against each other for a moment.

"See you tomorrow," Katie finally says, and Naomi just smiles as the door closes behind her, before slumping against it and taking a few deep breaths.

It's more than she'd hoped for. It's--

She goes home.

----

They spend time together, and it's like it was before, albeit with an undercurrent of awareness that makes completely normal moments--fingers brushing past each other when passing the salt, eyes locking on opposite sides of the room when Jimmy's being a particularly inspired four year old--incredibly tense and almost overwhelming for both of them; or maybe just for her, but if she's going to continue hoping for the best, that can't be the truth.

Sometimes, she thinks Katie might be looking at her when she's doing something with Jimmy, but she doesn't dare turn around to catch her at it, because it's too uncertain; having an open mind hasn't resulted in anything, not even a conversation, and Naomi realizes after a week of feeling so tightly wound that she might snap any second that she just doesn't have the courage to push it again, to put herself out there some more.

They're letting her stay around. It's what she asked for, more than anything, and everything else will either happen or she'll have to learn to live with how things are now.

But then sometimes, when she makes Katie laugh unexpectedly, when Jimmy spontaneously climbs all over her just to kiss her scar before going to bed, her chest almost bursts with happiness, and it convinces her completely that all they need is time.

She's willing to give it to them, and doesn't leave the UK for an entire month.

----

Later, she'll remember it as the moment where everything changed, though at the time it feels at best like a sign that things might change.

She comes back from the park with Jimmy and they watch old Transformers cartoons on telly together while Katie's off at a meeting with someone named Alex about a fashion show a few months in the future.

She doesn't wake up until someone's brushing some hair out of her face, and then very carefully opens her eyes.

The look on Katie's face is inscrutable, but powerful, somehow. When something jabs into her stomach, she looks down and realizes Jimmy's fallen asleep on top of her, is tugging at the edges of her blouse with tiny fists while generally dead to the world, mouth wide open.

"Sorry," Naomi whispers. "This'll throw off his sleep cycle completely, won't it?" The hand she's kept on his back the entire time is so warm, like his entire body is; a small furnace, covering her.

Katie doesn't say anything in response; just sits down on the coffee table and looks at Naomi with eyes that are so sad that Naomi feels a lump well up in her throat out of nowhere.

"This isn't how I pictured things," Katie finally says, voice rough and broken.

"I know, hon," Naomi says, and rubs a slow circle on Jimmy's back, watching Katie carefully the entire time.

"I--" Katie says, and then sighs deeply. "Make me believe in it, then. Convince me that this is how things are supposed to be."

"What--" Naomi says, and Katie looks at her with a wry smile.

"Whatever it is you think we can be; how about you fucking share with the class, yeah?"

Naomi nods carefully slowly after a second, and then laughs unexpectedly when Jimmy's fingers dig into her side. When she looks down, he's awake and grinning.

"Brat," she tells him and Katie's smile turns sincere, less distraught by everything.

"You're really tall, Nae," Jimmy tells her after a moment, looking up with sleepy eyes, and then squeals when Katie picks him up and carries him off to the kitchen for a snack.

----

On Thursday, they're sat on the sofa watching Project Runway together when Katie abruptly says, "You were the first."

Naomi just looks over for a moment until Katie sighs and pulls her knees up to her chest, curves into the corner of the sofa a little more.

"Before you," she finally says, "nobody had ever noticed Emily before they'd noticed me."

Naomi frowns. "I don't--"

"It was the first day of middle school, and I remember thinking that you looked rather fucking fierce, yeah, and we might be friends. And Emily was fidgeting behind me somewhere and, whatever, just being a total inept loser, and you looked right past me, at her," Katie finishes and then shrugs helplessly. "I couldn't really believe it at the time, I mean, nobody noticed Emily unless I pointed her out, and then you finally did look at me and just sort of--well, I'm sure someone's told you you've got an excellent bitch face by now."

Naomi smiles and then carefully says, "It must've made quite an impression. I don't remember the first time I saw you or Emily at all."

"It was an experience," Katie says, almost neutrally, and then sighs. "And a pretty fucking stupid reason to despise someone for another five years."

"I don't know," Naomi responds after a moment. "I think you would've strangled me had you ever seen me outside of uniform either way."

"Naomi," Katie says, sounding like she's talking to Jimmy and Naomi bites her lip not to smile. "If you'd been my friend since we were fucking thirteen, do you really think you would've turned into such a fashion disaster?"

"You would've chewed off your own arm before letting that happen, I'm sure," Naomi agrees; the somewhat pleased grin it produces on Katie's face is so fucking endearing that she looks back at the telly abruptly and mentally counts to five, tries to dislodge the desire to kiss her the best she can.

"Guess I'll have to make up for lost time," Katie says teasingly, just seconds later, and Naomi almost says something dumb like, I'd never notice Emily first now, but maybe it's better to just not mention Emily at all.

----

There's many things Naomi is doing deliberately, to emphasize that this could work, to try and make Katie believe, but sometimes the things that seem to have the greatest impact are the ones she does simply because they feel right.

Every night, when dinner's been had and Jimmy's settled on the couch, she watches as Katie cleans up the kitchen and misses the first five minutes ofBlue Peter--pre-recorded, of course, but Jimmy believes wholeheartedly that if they don't start it at half six sharp he'll miss it. She offers to help once, but gets strong-armed into the living room with a, "Get out of my fucking space, Naomi" that she doesn't really know how to dismiss. It doesn't stop Jimmy from looking over at the kitchen anxiously, and he only really settles in to watch the show when Katie, still wiping her hands on a towel, perches down on the sofa's end for a moment and looks at the telly.

After three more nights of Jimmy's wistful--and he's four, really, God only knows where he's gotten that look--glance towards the kitchen and Katie's hurried cleaning job, she blocks the doorway to the kitchen when Katie's on her way back in with the plates.

"Move," Katie says, already frowning, and Naomi doesn't exactly know at what point in time Katie's glare has become the single most amusing, affectionate thing in the world to her, but really, with how often she's a recipient it's probably inevitable that she'd try to spin it into something goodrather than bad.

"Katie, give me the plates," she says, softly, and when Katie just straightens and glares at her some more, she rolls her eyes and lowers her voice. "I know--we haven't exactly talked about anything, but that doesn't mean I'm not here right now, and that kid wants you to watch Blue Peter with him in ways you wouldn't believe."

"Why can't he just watch with you?" Katie asks, stubbornly, but when Naomi stares her down a little longer, she throws a quick look at Jimmy over her shoulder, who's watching both of them with bouncing legs and a bit lip, and shoves the plates over at Naomi.

When she's rinsed them all and is ready to wipe off the placemats and take the booster off Jimmy's chair, she walks in on them, almost balled together on the couch, and Jimmy doesn't stop talking and pointing at things for even two minutes, his excited chatter only punctuated by Katie's frequent, muffled laughter.

She has to tear her eyes away after a moment, and then lingers in the kitchen doorway, waits for the coffee to percolate, until Katie meets her eyes and--it's not quite a thanks, but the way they soften and linger is probably better than that, in some ways.

----

Sometimes, after Blue Peter, they go out for a walk together, leaving Jimmy with one of Katie's neighbors for just half an hour or so.

It's usually a silent walk in which Naomi focuses on the way the colours in the sky all blend together as the sun starts setting, the way that shadows are cast on Katie's face in a way that feels almost metaphorical sometimes; but then the clouds pass by, and everything she can see is suddenly so brightly and powerfully lit that she has to look away from Katie quickly, not quite ready to reveal just how much she's feeling these days.

She wants to say something, in those moments where Katie's illuminated so well, but can only think of moronic things to say that would be appropriate--your skin is flawless; what's your secret?--or completely truthful, sensible things that would be inappropriate--fading daylight brings out all the feelings in your eyes, and I've never wanted to kiss you more.

Instead, she stays silent; considers buying a dog, realizes she doesn't want it for herself, but loves the sight of families with children, chasing after overexcited terriers and labs, thinks of Jimmy hugging a puppy and hates that Katie won't just let her do this, because some part of her is convinced that this, just being with them--so relatively unimportant, so limited, so private, and so wonderful--is what she's truly meant to be doing.

Fuck saving the world.

The universe alerts her to the fact that she's getting ahead of herself in a rather literal way; Katie stumbles, hard, and Naomi can just about manage to hold her upright by her waist. She catches a whiff of Katie's perfume, finds herself inches away from a spot on Katie's neck that her lips almost ache to brush past, and then just closes her eyes; straightens, feels Katie straighten with her.

"Not exactly walking shoes, are they," Naomi says, after a beat, looking down at Katie's three inch heels; the way the little stilettos are digging into the the sandy path that circles through and around the park.

"Didn't realize I was training for a fucking marathon," Katie retorts, brushing off her skirt and then holding on to Naomi's arm while pulling her shoe back on, squeezing it back around her heel in a way that looks almost painful, but by the time her foot's back down on the ground, it's like the entire moment never happened--everywhere but low in Naomi's gut, that is, as it won't stop thrumming with barely contained wanting.

It's something she can't remember feeling so acutely in years.

They fall back into silence when they start walking again, and it's only after another two turns that Naomi suddenly realizes they're holding hands. She tightens her fingers involuntarily and Katie gasps softly, before looking down at their joined hands with all the surprise Naomi felt a moment earlier.

She pulls it back abruptly, but Naomi hangs on.

"I'm all right with bandaging the four year old's knees, but you're a bit too old for unnecessary scrapes," she says, and after a second, Katie relents; lets their hands dangle.

It's dark by the time they return.

----

"How come Mark doesn't come anymore?" Jimmy asks one afternoon, as they're building a huge Lego fortress in his play area.

The question's a complete surprise--leave it to the kid to cut through all the bullshit--and Naomi almost laughs in response, but then just clears her throat, swallows it down. "I don't know, Jim; you've got to ask your Mum."

"I did," he says, sounding thoughtful. "She said it's because she's too busy for dating."

"Ah," Naomi says with a smile.

"But then I heard her talking to Aunt Emily on the phone and she said that--"

"Jim, were you supposed to be listening to that conversation?" Naomi interjects, and he looks up at her guiltily before sticking his lip out in a pout.

"No, but she came to my play area," he says, righteous indignation almost pouring out of him, and she levels him with a serious, judging look.

"Well, shame on her, in that case."

Jimmy puts another tower structure on the play mat and Naomi helps him press it into place, before they sit back and look at their work.

"Nae, what's 'boring wankshite' mean?"

She can't help laughing, and by the time she finally gets around to telling him it's very bad and he shouldn't be saying it to anyone else, he's laughing too. It's probably not the most effective lesson, but then he didn't pick it up from her, so she's probably off the hook.

----

 

"What's it like then? Being with girls?" Katie asks when they're out in the park, sitting on a bench with the stroller somewhat carefully placed betweenthem, and Jimmy's on a slide; Naomi stops staring at him intently when she realizes Katie is doing it for her and just closes her eyes.

She smirks at the question. "I don't know, Katie--what's it like being with boys?"

"Bit of a bloody crapshoot, isn't it," Katie says after a moment and when Naomi tilts her head just enough to look at her, Katie rolls her eyes. "James lived up to his reputation; not many other people did. Unless you consider boring Freddie's reputation, in which case, well."

"You know what my favorite thing about Cook was?" Naomi says after a moment and when Katie shakes her head, Naomi smiles. "Knew how to take no for an answer. I don't think--I mean, I didn't even think of him as a friend until I told him I wasn't going to shag him, but he was a great guy."

Katie smiles knowingly. "I think that you and I might've been the only people to know that. But it's the truth, isn't it?" she responds, pausing just long enough to yell at Jimmy that he needs to use both hands on the bars, and then she looks into the distance. "I was well gone and all over him that New Year's eve when everyone thinks we hooked up the first time. He ended up carrying me to his house and tucked me into bed; slept on the bloody floorand then looked up at me in the morning when I wasn't so incredibly fucked up anymore, and went, 'If you still want to fuck now, just take off your knickers, love'."

Naomi laughs. "You're joking."

"No," Katie says with a laugh. "So obviously, I told him where he could fucking stick his offer and he shrugged and said, 'All right. Want some coffee before you go?', which of course only pissed me off more, and well, sometimes being well fucking annoyed with someone is all it takes, I guess."

"That is--ha, well," Naomi says and laughs. "What a lovely story; Jimmy will be so pleased to find out his Mummy was a bit of an addled slut, but at least Daddy had some morals."

Katie just rolls her eyes and then looks back at the playground. "Your turn."

"Cook and I never shagged, you know that."

"No; you and Emily. She's never shared," Katie says after a moment and Naomi takes a deep breath before sitting up more fully and turning to faceKatie.

"Are you asking this as part of your original question, or because it's my turn to share?"

Katie shrugs. "Whatever. I'm just curious. I mean, not about the details, gross, but how--"

"It was right after the student elections, when your man had comfortably humiliated me in front of the entire school, and I'd cried my eyes out for an entire day before calling the only person I could think of who would be on my side no matter what," Naomi says, abruptly, and then sighs. "Emily took me out to a lake somewhere and we got drunk; or well, I got drunk, she got high, and there was just something about the moment that made me say fuck it."

"Sounds romantic," Katie says, in an odd tone of voice, and Naomi smiles.

"Suppose it was, until I hightailed it out of there without even waking her up the next morning."

"Jesus. I don't even know where to start on that," Katie says, and then they both laugh.

"What I'm offering you is a lot more than that, Katie," Naomi finally says, and just looks at Katie for a moment until Katie looks away. "Unless you're afan of the fuck and run, in which case, I'm rather brilliant at it."

Katie laughs, but when she speaks her voice is unexpectedly rough. "Charming. You really are a winner."

Naomi just smiles and then gets up to get Jimmy, because if there's one thing that Emily taught her, it's that too much at once is the single biggest deterrent to success.

----

They drink, sometimes, just because Katie once said, "Never again am I fucking not drinking for that long; my head felt like it was going to explode for about two days after that booze party in your flat" and Naomi had concurred.

It's very adult drinking, though, compared to what they used to do. They'll have coffee with Baileys after Jimmy's gone to bed, and will chase that withjust one or two shots of whiskey straight just because it seems like an appropriately responsible way to drink when they're technically still babysittinga four year old. And then there's that general awareness that leads to them taking turns at actually getting slightly pissed, because neither of themwant to get stuck in a situation where they're both too out of it to give Jimmy a glass of water, or God forbid, a lift to accidents and emergency if something awful happens.

It does make for interesting evenings, though, imbalanced drinking--after the fifth shot of whiskey, Naomi feels almost cornered by the way Katie's assessing her from the other end of the sofa.

"What?" Her tongue feels a little heavy, a little fuzzy, but nothing like how it used to feel constantly when she was a teenager. It's probably a sign thatthey're learning, or something.

"You never answered my question; just dodged it completely with one of your completely not funny smart-arse remarks, yeah," Katie says, and it'swith this evil little smirk that Naomi can't quite place.

"What question's that--where I got this bottle? I thought I answered that," she says after a beat, genuinely confused, and Katie chuckles.

"No, my earlier question."

There's something about the way Katie's phrasing things; it's probably meant to be teasing, but instead it's coming across as oddly intimate, andNaomi carefully shoves the bottle of whiskey away from her before she can get drunker, and dumber. "No idea what you're on about, love," she says,and then looks away when Katie just stretches slowly before curling up against the armrest again.

"Sex with girls. What's it like, yeah?"

It takes Naomi a few seconds to respond; when she finally does, it's with an accusatory finger. "You got me drunk, and now you're taking advantage ofthe state I'm in to--to--"

"God's sake, it's just a question."

"Why do you want to know?" Naomi asks in response, and it's not quite with clarity of mind, but after she's asked it she realizes it's probably a good question. "Thought you weren't into all that."

"I'm having an open mind, Naomi," Katie says, a little more sharply, and Naomi grins stupidly.

"Don't think pussy's something you can have an open mind about, Katiekins. Either you like it, or you don't."

Katie's lips press together forcefully and Naomi smiles, feeling oddly victorious given that Katie's blatant heterosexuality is not helping her cause at all, but then such is the power of liquor; it makes everything wrong seem right again.

"I've snogged girls before, yeah," Katie finally says, in a very different tone of voice, and Naomi can't quite ram the brakes on the visual it inspires; just bites her lip and closes her eyes, rides it out for all it's worth, and then blinks back to attention when Katie goes, "Emily doesn't fucking know, and I don't think she has to at this point."

"What makes you think she'd care?" Naomi asks, and looks at Katie curiously.

Katie just laughs. "Jesus almighty, your blind spot regarding my sister has only gotten bigger with time, hasn't it. 'course she'd care. It'd be all like, butthen why were you such a cunt to me in college, Katie, if you're not straight yourself?"

"I think that's a relatively fair question," Naomi says, tentatively, and then reaches for the whiskey again anyway because she can't quite keep track ofwhat's going on.

"Maybe I don't want to tell her that I snogged a few girls just to see what the fuck was wrong with her," Katie responds after a beat, and then rubs at her face. "I mean, I'm pretty sure I was hoping to find out it was fucking nasty, because it would give me something real to threaten her with."

"Don't be gay, because you'll think it's gross, trust me?" Naomi says with a shaky laugh and Katie just snorts.

"I wasn't exactly thinking straight, okay."

"No, apparently you were not," Naomi says, daintily lifting her shot glass in a mock toast before passing the bottle to Katie. "Have one; I'm sure you'll be fine."

Katie takes a shot straight from the bottle and then puts it down on the floor next to the sofa before leveling Naomi with another one of those looks that she just feels--somewhere, really, and she shifts under its intensity until Katie talks again. "Why aren't you asking what I thought of it?"

Naomi shrugs. "Sounds like it wasn't kissing for the right reason."

"Yeah, but it was still with girls."

"Katie," Naomi says, and then swallows a nervous laugh. "Kissing a girl isn't a big deal, okay? I snogged your sister constantly for almost an entire year in which I still managed to tell myself that I wasn't gay."

"So what changed?" Katie finally asks, and the importance of the question just about manages to sift through the dull fog that's clouding Naomi's cognitive reasoning skills. "I mean, how did you go from, this fucking girl's stalking me to, all right, I'll kiss her when I'm incredibly fucked up, to, I'll love her for the rest of my bloody life?"

Naomi shrugs. "I woke up one morning and realized that I'd rather be kissing a girl who loved me that much than a bloke who just wanted to see my tits in the next five minutes."

"It's that fucking easy?" Katie says, sounding incredibly sceptical, and Naomi can't keep it up any longer.

"No, of course not. Emily just--she worked her way in, okay? And by the time we finally had sex a second time, I couldn't think of anything I'd rather be doing." She pauses and pushes her fringe behind an ear, sighing when it immediately falls forward again. "As it turns out, though--I'm not straight."

"Yeah," Katie repeats, dully, and then rubs at her eyes. 

Naomi takes a deep breath. "It's fucking wonderful. Okay? If you want a description, someone to sell this to you; it's fucking wonderful. Is it better than shagging blokes? Sometimes. Depends on the girl, I think; on the moment, on how much you want it, and how much she cares," Naomi says softly; closes her eyes and tips her head back, thinks about a girl in Cyprus who broke her down and built her back up again, sent her back to the UK with a mission all those years ago. "I'm sure you can picture the mechanics, you're not that bloody daft, and anyway, they're not the point. The point is, with the right girl, it's capable of being just about anything."

Katie doesn't respond for a long time, and when Naomi finally looks over, it's to see that Katie's crying, quietly.

"Hey--I'm sorry," she says, clumsily, before tentatively reaching over to put a hand on Katie's knee. "I didn't, I mean--"

"I know you probably don't want to hear this, but I miss him so fucking much sometimes it just--" Katie says, and then shakes her head, starts crying a little harder, and Naomi scoots down the sofa the rest of the way, pulls Katie into a firm hug and lets her.

When Katie's calmed down just a bit, she wipes her eyes on the collar of Naomi's shirt, and Naomi almost smiles before pulling back, one hand still lingering on Katie's back. "I need you to understand something," she finally says, softly, and watches as Katie takes a deep breath.

Katie finally looks at her with bleary eyes and a modicum of shame and it's just so out of place that Naomi can't help it; reaches out and brushes Katie's fringe back, cups her cheek, feels her tremble. "I would happily fuck off to Africa for the rest of my bloody life if it would bring him back, Kay. Okay? Don't ever apologize to me because you're not here voluntarily. It's--"

Katie releases a shuddering sob and then clings to the collar of Naomi's shirt before shaking her head, laughing helplessly. "Jesus fucking Christ. If you become any more understanding or wonderful I'm going to start thinking the real Naomi's been like, fucking abducted by aliens or something."

"Well, we wouldn't want that," Naomi replies, with a smile, before clearing her throat and sitting up a bit more. "Allow me to bring it back down to an appropriately prurient and obnoxious level; as a final selling point, you should know I'm rather fucking marvelous at all the things girls do to each other, so if you think you're interested, you could do a lot worse for yourself."

"You're so fucking arrogant," Katie laughs and then rubs at her face, shifts back until Naomi's forced to lower her hand and move to her own corner ofthe sofa again.

"Is it still arrogant if it's, you know, just true?" Naomi responds, suppressing a grin, and then laughs when Katie swats at her leg, before conjuring up arather devilish smile out of nowhere; it makes the dimples in her cheeks stand out, her eyes crinkle, and Christ, it hits Naomi out of nowhere--she's not just attracted, she's a little bit smitten.

"See, and all these years I thought someone was just fucking torturing my sister that summer after we graduated from college, but I guess those sounds were--"

"Oh, Christ," Naomi says, and feels herself blush instantly. "I'm so sorry. She always swore to me that you were at work, for what it's worth, or I never would have--"

"I'm joking, you twat," Katie says; laughs again, but after a second her eyes soften a bit, until they're just sort of goofily looking at each other. Naomi'sthe first one to avert her eyes, because the lump in her throat, the throbbing pulse in her gut, all of it is making her want to do things that Katie hasn't okay-ed yet, even if they haven't been outright dismissed.

"Do you think you could ever be with me and not constantly think of Emily?" Katie finally asks, and Naomi suddenly realizes acutely that this entire day--if not the entire past few months--have led up to this point, that this is the real question that Katie's been dying to ask, and she takes a second to organize her thoughts because if ever there were a test she needed to pass in one go, this is it.

"Katie," she says, and then looks down at her hands for a second before forcing herself to look at Katie instead. "I have spent almost every day of my life with you in the past three months, and the only times I've thought of Emily is when someone has asked a question about her. You two--I don't know how people even still look at you and conclude you're twins, because to me you couldn't be more different as people, and at this point in my life, there is only one of you that I'm interested in knowing."

"But--" Katie says and Naomi shakes her head.

"Emily is--was--" she starts, and then sighs, swallows hard before she can continue. "I've only had one real relationship my entire life, and it was obviously traumatic enough to make me cling to the idea that I could've somehow fixed things had I just been a better person." She runs a hand through her hair before taking a deep breath. "But what I've come to understand in the past few months is that I don't want to be that better person forher, Katie. I want to be it--"

"It's okay, you don't have to explain," Katie says, softly, and offers a tentative smile when Naomi hazards a careful look in her way. "I mostly meant, you know, if we ever fuck, wouldn't you just--"

"Oh, God, there's no way I wouldn't remember who I was with. You've got a much better arse, for starters," Naomi supplies, still mildly bolstered by seven shots of whiskey, but when Katie flushes in response she suddenly feels incredibly sober, alive almost. "Tony and I once drew up a list, in one of my less than gallant moments of complete and utter wastefulness, and I think your biggest downfall at the time was definitely your personality, though clearly these days, Emily is giving you a run for your money in the utter bitch department."

Katie laughs. "Jesus. How long ago--"

"I think I was twenty," Naomi says with a smile,before sitting up and stretching her legs. "It's not like I haven't always seen Emily's flaws, Katie; nobody's just ever given me a reason to stop forgiving her for them."

"She's not going to be happy about this," Katie murmurs after a moment.

"Is there something for her not to be happy about, then?" Naomi asks, and feels her heart pound in her ears so slowly that Katie's response sounds muffled, murky at best.

"I'm--" is all that comes out at first, but then she levels Naomi with a careful, considering look, and the way her face shifts from guarded to painfully open almost breaks Naomi's resolve to give her time, space, whatever else she needs. "I think there might be."

It's a struggle to stay put, but then she can't really bear the look on Katie's face--the nervous way in which she's obviously waiting for something else to happen when it probably still shouldn't. "Let me guess; finally had a fabulous sex dream about me, eh?"

"I don't know why I bother with you sometimes," Katie says after a moment, sighing, and then pelting a pillow at Naomi's head.

She ducks it, barely, and then laughs. "Was I at least really good at oral? I don't want you basing your feelings on anything that isn't one hundred percent accurate, you know, so--"

The next pillow hits, and she picks up her own and tosses it back. Before they know they're both laughing so hard that a sleepy Jimmy shows up inthe doorway. "You're being stupid," he informs both of them, and after a sharing a brief look with Naomi, Katie lobs a pillow at him as well.

"Spoilsport," Naomi tells him, when he looks completely baffled at what they're doing, but then slowly a devious grin--so much like Cook, it's unreal--forms on his face and he takes a running leap onto the couch before grabbing the nearest pillow and whacking Naomi with it.

It takes about an hour to wear him back out enough to go to bed, and Naomi watches in the doorway as Katie tucks him back in. "His teacher's going to love me tomorrow," Katie says dryly, as she joins Naomi for just a second to watch him sleep, and then pulls the door closed.

"Who cares. It was completely worth it," Naomi responds, and then gives in to impulse, just once; kisses Katie's forehead, and then goes home.

----

Sometimes, she starts to think she's getting it right, because in the moments where they're alone there's suddenly a whole lot less talking and a lot more looking.

She pretends not to notice Katie staring at her; then starts abruptly when Katie reaches out and tugs at a lock of her hair.

"No longer than this, okay?" is all she says, but it's so unexpectedly something that Naomi almost turns her head and kisses Katie's fingers.

Instead, she just nods and carefully keeps her eyes trained on the telly; tells herself she's getting it right, wonders how much longer she'll have to wait to find out, one way or the other.

----

She's never had a whole fucking lot of patience anyway, and what's left of it leaves her abruptly when her libido decides to wake up, for what feels likethe first time in years.

She wakes up every morning from tiring, furious dreams that are taking over most of her waking days as well, and it's turning her into a right cunt all over again, all the frustration she can't possibly just dispel by giving in to the urge to touch herself the minute her alarm goes off.

Katie has no idea why she's so fucking cranky but is putting up with it to an unparalleled extent; it makes Naomi want to be exceptionally annoying, just to get a rise out of her, because it's patently fucking unfair, really--here she is, losing her mind one day at a time, and Katie's just plodding along,the perfect bloody mum, perfect bloody whatever.

If Katie were having these dreams, they sure as fuck wouldn't be sat on a sofa together, watching University Challenge because Naomi's still a little resentful that she never made the team, even though she would've hated every last one of the twats who represented LSE in her year to an almost unimaginable extent.

The show is annoying her because she knows fuck all about classical music; it's too hot in Katie's flat and the smell of dinner, still lingering, is making her nauseous; she can't stop her legs from wriggling, and finally just gets up and goes outside for a cigarette.

Katie looks like she wants to ask what the hell is going on, but knows better.

It annoys her even more, and so when the show's over she goes home. Drinks two glasses of Tanqueray without tonic, and then finally sprawls out onher mattress, closes her eyes, and thinks of England.

It doesn't help at all.

----

The breaking point arrives just days later, when she's finally managed to find the right way to irritate the piss out of Katie; it's more than a little bit satisfying.

"Stop hovering," Katie tells her, but she just smirks before hopping up on the kitchen counter. "God, you are driving me fucking crazy."

"What, I'm just--would you like to shout at me from the other room?"

Katie rolls her eyes and washes her hands before pouring some olive oil in a skillet. "Don't be an arse, just stay out of my way, will you?"

Naomi shrugs and steals a slice of pepper from the plate Katie's chopped up earlier; chews on it loudly and grins when Katie just shoots her a look. "Sorry. Can't help that it's crunchy."

"Whatever. How was work?" Katie asks, only a little awkwardly, and Naomi just shrugs in response; steals another slice of pepper until Katie swats at her hand.

"Tedious. Lots of phonecalls, not many results." She waits for Katie to turn around again and the snags another piece of pepper. "And what about you, Mrs. Cook? Design anything red carpet-worthy today?"

The skillet sizzles loudly as Katie drops the seasoned chicken in it and then spits oil at her, and she winces momentarily before spreading the chicken around the pan with a spatula. "Yeah, I fucking wish; got a call from Jimmy's school today. Apparently he's getting picked on by the other kids."

"Really?" Naomi asks and frowns. "Badly? Or--"

"They suggested," Katie says, sounding incredibly unimpressed with whoever was dumb enough to relate the message to her," that I have his fatherwork on toughening him up a little bit, because he's just too nice and they're walking all over him. The other lads are."

"What sexist horseshit," Naomi spits after a second. "Obviously also coming from someone who's never been in a scrap with you. Jesus."

"Yeah, I took a minute of my life to explain that Jimmy doesn't have a father and that perhaps, as a teacher, she could fucking work on not having abunch of bullies make my son's life miserable."

"Too right," Naomi agrees, and moves for another piece of pepper. 

"Fucking stop that; we're not going to have anything to eat if you keep at it. Jesus. Did you not have lunch?" Katie asks, and when Naomi shakes her head after a second she goes to the fridge with a sigh and gets out a small pudding cup.

"Wow, thanks Mum, I thought I only got these on days I'd been extra good!" Naomi exclaims before peeling back the label and digging in. When Katiestares at her, completely unamused, she brings the spoon to her mouth and licks it clean, very very slowly, until it's just sticking up in the air horizontally. "Is this a metaphor, or a simile?"

"Sometimes, I remember why I hated you so much," Katie responds, before reaching up to the spice rack and rummaging around in it for a minute.

"Hell, I don't think you ever hated me, Katie," Naomi says, and slowly eats some more pudding. "Just hated that I wasn't impressed by you."

"Whatever; you have no idea how fucking irritating you were as a teenager, do you?" Katie responds after a second with a smile that isn't quite nice. "We're like, in the middle of bloody History, and you feel the need to launch into a ten minute speech--like, fucking rehearsed speech--on the risks of voting for the BNP. Like that's going to help me learn about Nazis or pass my bloody A-levels."

Naomi laughs. "I could explain the correlation to you again, if you like; clearly it didn't quite sink in all those years ago, but then your head was particularly full of rubbish when you were seventeen."

"Fuck off," Katie responds, and reaches for the pepper plate. "God damn it, I told you to stop eating them."

"There's enough left," Naomi says, with a shrug. "Whatever. I'll eat less if I have to. Got my puddin', after all."

"That's not the fucking point; whose kitchen is this?"

"Oh, all right," Naomi concedes, raising her hands and hopping off the counter. "Geez. I'll go spend some time with the Cook that appreciates my quick wit and expansive knowledge."

"Stop being such a retard. Jesus," Katie says, and then pulls on Naomi's arm before she can leave. "And don't fucking go before getting the new kitchen roll down."

"Tsk," Naomi responds, dryly. "A please would--"

"Kitchen roll, or you can fuck right off home," Katie snaps and Naomi laughs--stands on her toes to get the small cabinet above the fridge open andfeels around until she can feel plastic wrapping.

"What's it like, being short?" she asks; bites her lip to not start laughing. "I imagine it's well annoying."

"Kind of like being around you?" Katie retorts without turning around and Naomi grins.

"Well; with that kind of attitude, I don't think you've earned the kitchen roll, Katie."

"Just bloody put it on the counter, I'll put it up myself later," Katie mutters and covers one of the pans with a lid before bending down and checking onthe oven.

Later, Naomi will blame being distracted by--well, the view--for what happens next, but truthfully, it's just an impulse to be dickish, like most of her impulses have been lately. "No, I don't think so. You can either apologize, or come get it yourself."

Katie gets up, looking equal parts baffled and irritated. "Are you serious?"

Naomi shrugs with a smile before holding the kitchen roll up over her head and Katie just stares at her for a long moment before turning around androlling her eyes.

"Fucking child," she mutters and Naomi almost laughs, but instead steps in closer, until she's only inches behind Katie, holding the roll behind her back.

"Ironic, coming from someone child-sized," she says, and Katie starts before making a grab for the roll.

Naomi isn't quite quick enough, or maybe there some sort of height disadvantage, but after a second they're both holding it, Katie cussing and trying not to laugh and Naomi just laughing, until Katie takes one more step and they're so close together that she just can't--.

Fuck it, she thinks, in the heartbeat before their mouths meet.

The kitchen roll clatters to the ground after a second and Naomi braces herself, expecting another shove and slap imminently, but it doesn't come. Instead, Katie kisses back tentatively, until Naomi grins against Katie's lips and goes, "come on, then" and then, suddenly, they're just full-onsnogging in the kitchen.

It's when Katie moans softly that Naomi snaps out of what they're doing and pulls away, slowly and hesitantly, with one last quick peck to Katie's lips.Katie doesn't look up immediately, just touches her lips with her fingertips and then finally takes a deep breath.

"You fucking planned that," she accuses before taking a step back and muttering 'shit' when the pasta starts boiling over.

"I--really did not," Naomi manages, after a second, and then leans against the refrigerator for a second. "Though it seems your husband was right."

Katie scoffs and drains the pasta quickly. "About what?"

"Apparently, tit does work," Naomi says with a faint smile and then heads back into the living room, winking at Katie on her way out of the kitchen.

Jimmy looks at her curiously. "Your face is red."

"Ate too many peppers. Got to be careful with those, Jim."

He nods seriously after a second and she curls up on the sofa. Two seconds later, he's clambered over and settled on her chest.

"Are the other boys mean to you, buddy?" she asks after a second, when he's fully engrossed in the Mouse on the Motorcycle again.

He shakes his head after a second and then looks at her. "Sometimes they take my toys, but it's okay. I always get them back."

"Yeah, but it's not okay that they just take them. You should tell them no, okay?"

Jimmy sighs after a second. "Can I just make them ask first?"

"That works, I think," Naomi says, slowly, and then ruffles his hair. "And if they don't ask, just tell them that I'll pay them visit, okay?"

"To bring them their own toys?" Jimmy asks, clearly confused, and Naomi hears Katie's muffled laughter from the kitchen.

"Yeah, something like that," she says and kisses his forehead. "Just make them ask, okay Jimbo? Everyone wins that way."

Katie looks at her with a faint smile throughout most of dinner, and then finally says, "I can't really complain when I'm quite sure his father would've just given him some pointers on how to land the first punch."

"I'm saving those for when he's five," Naomi replies, and raises her eyebrows at Katie briefly, who then just looks away with a blush.

----

She doesn't push it.

Katie ends up being the one to bring it back up, later that night, watching Newsnight on the sofa together.

"I still think you planned that," she says, and when Naomi just looks at her for a moment she rolls her eyes. "Don't start with me. You've been in one hell of a strange mood all day."

"Believe what you want, Kay," Naomi says after a second and then rests her elbow on the armrest, props her head against her hand and looks back atthe telly.

"So?" Katie asks, a few moments later.

"So what?"

"Was it like--" Katie starts saying and then frowns so much that Naomi takes pity on her.

"Hey," she says, and pats the sofa next to her. "C'mere."

"Why?" Katie asks warily.

"Because," Naomi starts, "I don't think it's a question you've ever had to ask, and you don't have to start now, okay?"

"Yeah, okay, but why am I moving?" Katie asks after a beat.

"Because I am actually planning something now?" Naomi says in response, and then laughs when Katie looks at her darkly before scooting over. "I figure the best way to get you to stop wondering is through repeated excellence, really."

"Don't flatter yourself," Katie mumbles, but after a second sits up on her knees and pulls on the back of Naomi's neck until they're almost nose to nose. "If this is going to be good, again, it'll be because of me."

"Sure," Naomi says easily, trying not to laugh; it turns out to be pretty easy when the small twitch in Katie's lips only makes her want to kiss themagain.

They kiss twice more, even later in the evening, and after the second time, Katie's no longer frowning when she pulls away; instead, she just looks faintly amused. "It's fucking late. You should go home, if you're going."

"I'm fine here," Naomi says, and offers a tentative smile. "Aren't I?"

"Yeah, sure--whatever," Katie responds after a second.

It'll do for a start.

Chapter Text

At first, all she can think to do is cry.

She doesn't want to; wants to hang on to her anger because it's easier, she's learned, to just stay mad at people; really fucking mad at the universe, for forcing her to deal with shit that she's done nothing to deserve. 

She thinks about her karma as stacks of Jimmy's building blocks, really, and the bad stack stopped growing when she was nineteen for the most part. It doesn't matter that she can't envision the good parts exactly, or knows what counts as good.

She was a good wife. A good mother.

It doesn't seem to have made any fucking difference at all.

Katie isn't a crier, and it took her almost 3 months--after the initial shock, the horror that she can barely remember because apparently, or so a therapist told her, the brain sometimes just takes control and shoves things that it knows it can't handle aside--to shed some actual tears, when Jimmy accidentally knocked one of James' pictures off a table and the frame shattered into a million pieces.

Jimmy had cried. She'd wept until her eyes stung while sweeping them up, before wrapping him up in his coat and taking him for a long walk.

She hadn't cried again until that morning in Naomi's bed, when she'd somehow, stupidly, sleepily, forgotten. It seems unreal that it's possible, to forgetthat the better half of your life isn't ever going to be there anymore, but apparently, she wanted to fool herself even after all that time, and alcohol just about let her.

Naomi had been solid that morning. It's one of the few things she remembers thinking, that Naomi had been unexpectedly fucking solid and hadn't said anything that she wouldn't have been able to handle, any of the fucking moronic things that Emily had told her in those first few weeks after, like you're strong, Katie, you can do this is anything short of duh and fuck you at the same time.

She loves her sister, but Naomi has turned out to be the solid one.

She didn't see it coming, the way the rug was completely pulled out from under her again, and now that it's all over and done with, and she's crying on her bed with her wedding photo album--the only worthwhile pictures of the event aren't even fucking in it, because they're of James stripping out of his tux while eating cake without a fork, completely drunk out of his fucking mind long after everyone assumed they'd gone to bed--on her lap, she can't even really bring herself to open it.

Not until she's done crying, and done feeling sorry for herself, and then she flips to pictures of the bridal party, which doesn't even contain Naomi, for God's sake, because she hadn't known how to not make that the fucking weirdest thing of all time, what with Naomi still being so obviously in pain every time Emily and Effy did anything together, not to mention her fucking pointless, useless relationship with Effy's brother.

She finds a picture of Naomi and Cook, laughing and holding champagne together; his arm around her back and their heads almost touching, they're leaning together that heavily. 

He always was the only one who knew how to get her to lighten the fuck up, Katie thinks, and then wonders how he feels about this, about--

She puts the album away in her closet again, where it's been gathering dust for the better part of four years now, and then checks on Jimmy, who, of course, is out like a light. She's got maybe six more hours before the inevitable "When's Nae coming back" that he'll throw out there when he realizes it's a Thursday and she's not coming over.

Katie's not a crier, but someone seems to be bending over backwards to make that change.

----

She makes too much dinner on Thursday and ends up angrily throwing it out.

Naomi's somewhere in the back her mind, reminding her of the starving African children, and she breaks a mug while washing the dishes.

Jimmy picks up on her mood with little effort, but doesn't do much of anything other than hug her a little tighter when she picks him up to take him tobed. "She'll be back soon, ok?" he says, so confidently that it's almost like knows more than she does, and Katie has to swallow hard before kissing his forehead, pulling the blankets up to his chest and smoothing out his hair until it stops sticking up strangely. [The cowlick is definitely his father's; Katie's hair has always parted evenly, even during an unfortunate period when they were five and their mum had decided to give them both short bobsto see if Emily's hair wouldn't also start curling.]

The only thing she can bloody find to drink in the house is gin. It's like a fucking omen.

She gets ridiculously drunk and then sometime around midnight goes to check on Jimmy, and then finds the picture of his father; carrying Jim on his back, laughing about something, and Jesus. Jesus, she misses him so much, and hates him for leaving her in this lurch where she is actually fucking thinking about--

She takes the picture downstairs and puts it on the coffee table; finishes the rest of the gin, and then finally looks at it, says, "What am I going to do, James?" like he's going to bloody respond to her, and the more she looks at the picture, the more she thinks about Jimmy's fourth birthday party and the way Naomi had lugged him everywhere without a second of complaining while she herself had been off losing her mind about fucking party hats and cake.

There's things she knows, like that Naomi's invaluable to him. To them. To both of them, to their little family, and may even be a fucking part of it.

It doesn't mean that she wants to--and she can't even really bring herself to go there, just thinks about Emily and Naomi snogging all those years ago, the way Naomi had visibly towered over her sister even when they were sitting down and Emily had just clung to her, let her do whatever she wanted.

It had looked fucking odd to her, in a way that Emily and Effy never had--and she remembers catching them at it, almost fucking in a club one night after Naomi had flitted off minutes earlier, the way in which Emily seemed completely fucking oblivious to just how hard Effy stared at her, but they'd fucking fit together, and it had made sense.

Naomi had been--more than Emily needed. She still doesn't know how to put it to Naomi in those terms without sounding like a total cunt, but Emily had always been in desperate need of stability, someone calm and reliable who would hold her hand when things got rough; not someone flighty and emotional, incredibly passionate about fucking everything but completely undependable, and after eight years of watching Naomi waste her life, shestill can't help but be slightly relieved that her sister, at some point, figured out just about enough about herself to say no. Naomi never would have, and it would've destroyed them both.

And now, that offer--all of it, the many things she's thought about Naomi throughout the years, some of which are opinions she's had to revise and others that still set her fucking teeth on edge--is hers, if she wants it. Like she'd have any idea what to do with it.

She stares at a picture of her old family--clenches down on a swell of tears at the thought--and thinks about all the men she's dated, how they all fit together, what the common thread was. Danny Guillermo barely even fucking counted; she'd been a stupid twat who had just wanted a rich, popular, and older boyfriend. Freddie--had been something of an accident, a bit of a fucking mistake to help her get over being accessory-less and him over Effy, and they'd somehow managed to stay friends even though he'd bored her to fucking tears and she's quite sure she made him cry from time totime just on account of who she was back then.

She'd fucked three lads in her first year at LCF, one of them after the first time she'd shagged Cook, and they're barely worth considering. She doesn't remember the first one's name; the second one was her friend Patrick, who two years later came out of the closet to nobody's great fucking surprise, and the third one was a bloke who did something with metal or pottery or something over at the Arts institute, and had nailed approximately half the female student body by the time the year had been through.

Out of the six of them there's only one worth mentioning, and when she thinks back on her relationship with Cook, she can't help but laugh, because half of it had been fighting about absolutely fucking nothing and the rest of it had been nothing but laughter. They'd driven each other fucking insane, with him completely exasperated at how needy and difficult she was and her completely baffled by how fucking dumb and obnoxious he could be.

And then there were those times--like when he bloody took her to go see Girls Aloud for her 20th birthday, only after she swore to him that she'd never fucking tell any of his mates--where she just loved him so fucking much that it all had made sense, the way they fit together; even the way she'd frequently told him he was a retarded cocksucker with shit for brains when he'd stumble home drunk at three am and insisted on waking her up for a bit of a middle-of-night snogging session, falling asleep with his head on her tits right around the time she was actually getting into it.

Everyone thinks they grew up well together, and the truth is that they had, but only when Jimmy had happened. She'd punched him in the chest whenshe'd realized, and he'd pulled her in close and hugged her until she'd stopped kicking at him and just said, "We'll work it out, yeah? I hope he's got your eyes."

He'd gotten what he wanted after another seven months, but even before then, there hadn't been a whole lot of drunken almost-sex or drunken anythinganymore. She'd missed it, but it had made sense, and after a few months of being actual grown-ups, when she was just barely starting to show and the wedding ring had stopped feeling like it was damn near cutting off the circulation to her finger, he'd kissed the top of her head and said, "Can you fucking believe this is our lives? I mean, how fucking lucky are we?" 

She'd almost fucked him through the sofa, completely sober, because with just five words he'd made her completely unwanted, shocking and frightening new life the best thing that had ever happened to her. 

That had been what worked. She can't think of anything else that would. Least of all--

The gin's gone by the time she's done remembering, and it's not done much of anything at all, because five hours later, she still misses him more than anyone can understand, and Naomi's still a stupid fucking twat with a completely fucked up idea of what might work; like she can just fucking trade in one Fitch for another and just--fuck her. Fuck her completely, with her ridiculous attachment to some snogging that took place a fucking decade ago, and it hadn't even ever looked right.

She thinks about how James used to kiss her--almost bending her back in half because of how much he wanted it, forcefully and without pause whenshe started letting him--and suddenly hates her sister a whole fucking lot for just not being enough in the first place, because if she had been, thisnever would've happened.

----

By the fifth night, it's almost become a ritual.

She gets drunk, gets the picture, but instead of just looking at it she's now actually talking. It's not sensible, much, but things come out that surprise her, like she can't even sort things out in her head anymore but they've got to be spoken before she can understand what she's thinking.

The thing that shocks her the most is when she thinks, "I miss you" but ends up saying "I miss her".

James isn't looking at her directly in the picture and it helps, just enough. He'd always got on well with Naomi; they'd understood each other in a very distinct way, and had bonded over something that happened between them in college that James had always refused to elaborate on beyond saying that "it just hadn't been a go-er", but not a go-er had resulted in a relatively comfortable and surprisingly close friendship all those years.

She remembers when Naomi had just come back from Africa, the way Emily had floundered helplessly and Cook had sometimes dragged her toNaomi's, or dragged Naomi out to do stuff with them. She'd stayed in the background, aware enough of her history with Naomi to realize it wasn't her place to help, but the very gentle way that Cook had talked to her--there had been no touching in those early few weeks, not until Emily had fucked, ... well, fucked everything up is about right--without being a patronizing cunt about it had changed something in the way she'd seen him.

They'd been dating for a while already then, but she'd not wanted to put it into words before, not really, where things were going. They never really did have that talk; he'd called her from work one day, said he'd be exceptionally late and would miss dinner, and she'd promised him she'd keep a plate of leftovers in the microwave for him when he got in, and he'd said, "thanks babe, love you", all rushed and distracted by traffic and she'd said "we're out of condoms, can you pick some up?" and that had been that.

The first time she'd said it to him had been different; a bit more calculated, maybe, because they'd just fucked and he was still laughing a little breathlessly about that thing she'd done with her hips and she'd shut him up with a kiss and said, "Don't be a cunt, James" and he'd shamelessly grinned at her in response. The "I love you" had just slipped out, and he'd looked incredibly chuffed about it the rest of the day.

It's the look she searches her mind for--that, and the look on his face when he first held Jimmy, one hand on her arm and one already reaching for the loudly-crying, clearly upset baby--when she tries to remember him, tries to capture everything about their relationship in just one moment.

They'd been happy together. And that's better than a lot of people got, at the end of the day.

When she thinks about happiness in the now, two thoughts are paramount, and she brings the picture back up to Jimmy's room with a sense of resignation. It wakes him up momentarily and after a second of hesitating, she scoots him over and gets into bed with him.

"It's too early," he mumbles and she presses a kiss to his temple rather than responding directly.

She barely sleeps all night; can't stop thinking about what happens next, and by the time she finally grabs the phone she's come all the way around toangry again. It's a different kind of anger, though, and she feels better after making the call. Like maybe, it was the right thing to do.

----

She'd promised to have an open mind. It doesn't turn out to be easy when, after just a few minutes of considering what that means, her mind turns outto be full with all sorts of shit already.

The initial contemplation is technical. She's not repulsed by the idea of kissing a girl. It's--whatever. She's done it before, and there hadn't been anything particularly wrong with it, so that's not even really a hurdle to cross.

The problem is that it's not abstract, not girl, but rather, someone she's known for ten years and who has been a very constant and very platonic part of her life that entire time. There's things that flash through her mind when she permits them, for just seconds at a time, because it's a fucking lot tohandle--but foremost is the fact that when she thinks about Naomi, she can't help also thinking of Emily or Tony, and neither of those thoughts lead toher wanting to do kissing of any kind.

One day, she wakes up and critically looks at herself in the mirror, and only after doing it for maybe ten minutes does she realize that she's just looking for substantial differences. They are there; there's a lot of them these days--and she resents Emily for most of them, because Emily's never fucking been pregnant and there's not an awful lot she can do about how that's changed her body. 

She thinks about her sister, pictures her and how the shape of her face has changed with time, almost like wearing glasses full-time has had a permanently lingering effect.

They don't look very much alike anymore, she concludes, and it helps. [She's not quite ready to consider what it helps, but some part of her stops despising Emily for existing, and when Naomi refuses to let go of her hand on a walk later that day, she finds she doesn't even really care that much, if they are holding hands.]

She has questions she wants to ask, but can't think of ways to ask them without pushing things too far too fast. Naomi's giving her a lot of space--almost too much, sometimes--to work this out, and it's surprisingly considerate; she's not sure she'd have it in her to be this passive if their roles were reversed.

Then, one day, she walks in on James sleeping on Naomi's chest, and something about the sight--it's the hand, she'll think later, the hand on his back--just redecorates her thought patterns entirely; shifts them around until suddenly it's not so much a question of keeping an open mind, but knowing what to do with it.

She's kissed girls before; and now, sometimes, looking as Naomi's lips curve carefully up into a smile, or how she rolls those ridiculous model-esque eyes before snarking about something on the telly, she finds herself wondering what it would be like to kiss Naomi. To be subjected to all that energy that's just bursting to come out under the surface.

She's still not sure, of anything; just knows that she can't pretend that it leaves her cold entirely, the way that Naomi's just insinuated herself smack in the middle of their family in a way that, given her personality, has proven to be surprisingly unobtrusive.

----

She sees girls in various states of undress professionally; has seen more girls naked than her sister or Naomi or any other lesbian she can think of put together, and has an exceptionally hard time not looking at naked girls with a critical eye rather than an appreciative one.

It's why, when Naomi shows up shockingly bare one afternoon--and it's the bloody heatwave outside, obviously, because retarded fashion taste or not, Naomi's always covered herself up in a way that Katie considers to be obnoxiously prude--and she almost loses track of what they're talking about, it actually fucking shocks her.

She almost says it, too--you'd be so fucking gorgeous if you just made an effort, you twat--but then realizes that with everything they've already said, it would be almost cruel to say it if she's not sure what comes afterwards.

Instead, what she says is, "wear heels more often; God's sake, you've got the legs for it" and Naomi just says, "what, with these shorts?" like the completely daft cow that she is.

Katie used to find that annoying, back when they were teenagers, but apparently constant exposure resolves lots of shit.

----

Three days later, Naomi shows up in heels.

Katie finds herself unwillingly checking out her arse in passing, gets incredibly annoyed with herself, and then forgets all about it when Naomi looks ather a little hesitantly and says, "I look ridiculous, don't I; I can't bloody walk in these things."

"You look fine," Katie says, in what she hopes is a grudging tone of voice.

She drinks two beers later that evening, and tells a picture of James that she keeps in the back of her purse that she's apparently a leg girl, whatever the hell that means. She wonders if he was; voices the question out loud, and then rolls her eyes when she realizes what she's doing.

----

She hasn't had sex in over two years, which is the only reason that Naomi's fucking arrogant smug arsehole remarks about how bloody good she is atit are--well, what fucking ever

"It's been a long time, okay" proves convincing up to the point when Naomi fucking damn near fellates a spoon in front of her--eating a fucking pudding cup, Christ, she can't ever watch her son have a snack again if this keeps up--at which point she almost burns her arm on a casserole dish becauseshe's just so--

Naomi's generally doing a rather excellent job of just irritating the piss out of her, for fuck knows what reason, and maybe it's the heat or the fact thatshe's had a long fucking day, but Katie has gotten in enough scraps with people in her life to recognize when her breaking point's approaching.

The oddest thought hits her, just seconds before Naomi corners her against the stove:

If this were James, we'd either be fucking or fighting in the next three minutes.

----

Oh.

Chapter Text

It isn't easy.

The first indication of that is waking up the next day and finding Katie looking at her a little warily.

"What," she asks and twists her head around until her neck cracks, loudly. "Christ, I'm too old to sleep on sofas like this."

"Yeah, well, I'm not ready for you to sleep anywhere else," Katie says after a beat, and Naomi rolls her eyes.

"Did I ask?"

"Whatever," Katie says and swings off the couch; disappears upstairs.

Neither of them are morning people. It's a problem.

----

It's not just the mornings that become complicated, but they're where it all starts.

After two more minutes of sitting on the sofa, feeling absolutely wrecked, Naomi decides to get up and then pauses--half off the sofa, half on, and only actually gets up when Jimmy comes downstairs and around the corner.

"You're still here," he says, sounding surprised, and she feels herself flush even though he's fucking four, and it's not like she's done anything that--she mentally slaps herself and just smiles at him.

"Fell asleep on the sofa, Jim. What do you eat in the mornings?"

"Toast," he says, confidently, and then sits down on the sofa next to her in his jammies. "And juice. I have to have juice," he confesses when Naomi looks at him for another moment.

She smiles and kisses him on the head. "Toast and juice it is. I'll just be in the kitchen, okay?"

She's already starting up the coffee maker when the telly clicks on behind her, set to tune into CBeebies the night before when Katie turned it off, and it's the sound of whatever bloody children's show is on--she thinks it might be Shaun the Sheep—that causes her to miss Katie's return.

"Oh," Katie says, and then hovers in the doorway. "Right."

"Yeah, I haven't quite yet figured out how to fucking evaporate when I'm unwanted somewhere," Naomi says, intending it as a joke but it comes out a bit crabby; she didn't exactly sleep well and Katie's being a right cunt for no conceivable reason.

It seems to do the trick, for now. Katie sighs and goes to stand by the toaster, waiting for Jimmy's bread to pop back up, with a vaguely contrite, "sorry" after a few seconds.

"Katie--things don't have to change all at once, okay?" Naomi says after a few seconds without turning around, pouring coffee for both of them with almost shaky hands.

"Yeah, okay," Katie agrees after a moment, and then the toaster dings. They prepare breakfast silently, but working next to each other rather efficiently for a first go at it, and Naomi flashes to some point in the future, where she makes breakfast for both of them and Katie just swings by with a kiss before receiving a coffee thermos and hurrying Jim to school ; or even in reverse, with her lingering for a longer kiss until Jimmy hollers that they're going to be late, and--

Katie hands her a glass of juice with an impatient look on her face. "Here. Make sure he drinks all of it."

Maybe someday, Naomi thinks with a sigh, and takes her own coffee back to the sofa as well.

----

She heads home after breakfast, without a kiss, and then spends most of the day puttering around her own house, scowling at everything in sight.

She considers calling Tony, but it's too much; she's not cruel enough to whine about pulling and then getting mixed signals to someone she's subjected to the exact same thing, and for bloody half a decade, at that.

It leaves one other choice, and after a few minutes of flicking through her Blackberry she realizes that she might not have the number she needs; instead turns on her laptop, finding what she's looking for on Google within seconds.

Some girl answers with a cheerful "Elizabeth Stonem Photography" and Naomi smothers down some laughter before clearing her throat.

"Is Elizabeth in?"

"Yes, she is; may I ask who's calling?"

"Her wife's ex-girlfriend," Naomi says, cheerfully, and swears she hears a mug or something clatter to the ground. Credit to the girl, it's follow by a mostly neutral, "One second" and then there's some furious whispering in the background.

"Stop trying to kill my assistant," Effy says after a few more seconds, and Naomi laughs.

"Sorry. Couldn't resist, Elizabeth."

Effy silently rolls her eyes or something, and then there's the click of a lighter. "Are you in dire need of photography?"

"Is anyone?" Naomi responds, and Effy chuckles softly before exhaling. "No, this is a personal call."

"I may still have to charge you for it, if it turns out to be a waste of my time."

"I spent most of last night snogging Katie, and then just about managed to avoid being thrown out on my arse this morning," Naomi says quickly, and Effy laughs.

"You've just earned yourself a free call. Next day panic?"

Naomi rubs at her forehead. "Christ, I'm not sure; maybe things just looked different in daylight. I can't say I don't understand what that's like, I mean--"

"She's not seventeen, Nae," Effy says, and Naomi smiles wryly before lighting her own cigarette. "And, dare I suggest you just ask her?"

"Oh, thanks; here I am, wanting to whine about my feelings, and you're giving me sound advice. Some friend you are," Naomi retorts, and Effy snorts.

"Girl talk, then. Was it nice? Everything you'd dreamed of?"

She thinks back to the kissing unwillingly; the way Katie's hands had settled on her shoulders, squeezing at the pace of the kiss; the way she'd been surprised into opening her mouth a little more, just feeling the tip of Katie's tongue brush past hers; the way that when she'd done something particularly well--lightly sucked on Katie's lip, teethed it gently--Katie had almost hummed against her.

"It was--well, fuck me, I don't think I've gotten so much out of just kissing someone since--" she starts saying, unthinkingly, and then laughs wryly. "Jesus. I'm sorry, talk about an unfortunate comparison."

"It's okay," Effy says lightly. "Might be best not to tell Tony, though."

"I feel like such a shithead, but honest to God, who would plan something like this?"

Naomi sighs, and then stubs out her cigarette. "She just snuck up on me. Out of fucking nowhere."

Effy's silent for a moment and then laughs sharply. "Can I tell you something that nobody else knows?"

"Sure."

Effy takes a deep breath and then goes, 'mm' before starting to talk. "The first time I snogged Emily, I did it primarily to make a point, and then she obviously got rather violently pissy with me because she had all these feelings for you and how dare I just disregard them. Then it happened again, and then you apparently bollocksed something up majorly because next thing I know we're in bed together--"

"Jesus, Ef, I don't fucking want to hear this," Naomi interjects but Effy ignores her.

"And then we shagged, ongoingly, for a few weeks if not a few months, until finally she called the whole damn thing off because it's not fair to you, or to her, and then I wake up the next morning and find myself missing her. I literally went out and shagged Cook about five minutes later, thinking it would go away, but there it was; I thought I was just having sex with a girl for kicks, why the fuck not, and then she fucking left and I noticed that she did."

"Why did we both put up with her for so long?" Naomi asks after a moment, and Effy laughs low.

"That wasn't my point. What I meant was, you can't ever tell, not with the ones that matter."

"Christ. The Dalai Lama of dating has spoken," Naomi says with an eye-roll after a second, but the words settle in her chest comfortably, curl around her heart in a way that seems fitting.

"I'm sorry; who called who, again?" Effy retorts.

She feels marginally better when they hang up and opens up a Word document; writes down a few pointers for herself in the coming months:

-- stay patient

-- talk to each other

-- buy nice things when you fuck up

She starts with step 3, and heads over to Katie's with a bottle of rose in the early evening.

----

They manage to have a more or less normal evening together, watching an old Pixar movie with dinner, and Naomi waits literally about five seconds until Jimmy's been put to bed before starting with step 2; step 1 won't help in this instance.

"Talk to me," she says, when Katie's come back downstairs, and Katie starts in the doorway before closing the door behind her and leaning against it.

"About what?"

"About--what changed from last night to this morning," Naomi says, and then sighs; sits back on the sofa and folds her hands in her lap. "I'm--I mean, I'm a bit of an expert at the next day freak-out, so--"

"Naomi," Katie says, softly, and then shakes her head. "It was just a lot, okay? It was fine when it happened, and then I woke up the next morning and my best friend's got her head in my lap, and her lipstick's smudged to hell because I've been kissing it off."

"Okay," Naomi says, carefully, and then gets up; takes a few tentative steps towards the door until she's in front of Katie. "And--what made you think that you couldn't just tell me that? That it wasn't also, well, a bit fucking strange for me?"

Katie sighs, clenches and unclenches her fist just for a moment, and then averts her eyes. "I know I could've handled it better."

"It's honestly okay," Naomi promises and then laughs. "Though if you're going to throw me out with all the dignity of a drunken one-night-stand a second time, may I request that we actually do the standing?"

Katie rolls her eyes. "I'll work on it, okay? I just--"

"I've always found that the best way to stop me from being a twat is to make sure I can't speak," Naomi suggests, and after a second laughs when Katie just covers her mouth with a hand, before raising her middle finger.

They polish off the rose in about an hour; talk about their days, and when Katie manages to do particular justice to some horrid Vivienne Westwood piece she's been asked to critique for a fashion magazine, Naomi laughs and slips an arm around her shoulders without thinking.

Katie settles into it after a second, and Naomi mentally congratulates herself on a well-construed course of action, as the three step plan clearly worked.

----

Everything is different, but not in ways that Naomi would've predicted.

Katie veers from being relatively okay, kind of normal, to being an absolute fucking nightmare, and one night, unable to sleep because it feels like a mistake all over again, Naomi has an errant thought along the lines of perhaps this means we secretly fancied each other in college, because it's the only time I can remember wanting to throttle her this much.

She laughs out loud in the dark and then sighs deeply; wonders what kind of conversation takes them to a better place than this, or if there's even anything she can say at all.

----

The phone rings.

"Come over tonight," Katie says, before Naomi's even had a chance to say hello, and she yawns unintentionally in response.

"Katie, for fuck's sake, it's not even half eight yet; are you that worried I'm not eating?"

Katie's silent for a moment and then rushes out the following: "No, but I will be feeding you, and you better fucking appreciate how long I'm going to be standing in the kitchen for you today, and wear something nice, okay? This is weird enough without you looking like a goddamned garden gnome for absolutely no fucking reason, so put on one of your suits if you must or a dress I made you or whatever, just fucking look nice. And don't wear lipstick, because apparently you shouldn't, though that better as fuck not mean never again because I fucking well like lipstick."

"Uh," Naomi says, and then almost slaps herself in the face just to come up with something more encouraging. "Okay, sure; I'll be dressed to the nines with little make-up."

"And bring breath mints," Katie says, after another awkward pause, and then hangs up.

Naomi flops back down onto her mattress for a moment and then has to squeeze her eyes shut and clench her teeth together to contain the sudden burst of happiness that hits her; her neighbors probably wouldn't appreciate triumphant shouting before nine in the morning.

----

"Where's Jimmy?" she asks, and doesn't get a response for a long time because Katie critically--very critically--examines what she's wearing.

"What size is that jacket," she finally asks somewhat stiltedly and Naomi blinks at her before shrugging out of it.

"I don't know--ten?"

"You're an eight. Fucking--" Katie starts saying and then stops herself. "If you wear clothing that fits you, you only resemble the homeless in five ways rather than six. Perhaps you could remember that, in the future."

Naomi rolls her eyes. "Jesus. Fine, no jacket."

Katie opens the door further with a "Jimmy's at a sitter" and then takes the jacket; hangs it on the coat rack with rushed, awkward movements, and then stares at Naomi some more.

"Right. Well, I bought wine. And breath mints," Naomi says, handing both over, after another pause.

"Dinner'll be ready in fifteen," Katie responds, and then walks back into the kitchen.

Naomi takes a deep breath and tentatively follows after her.

----

The rest of the evening is spent in absolute silence.

"Thanks for dinner; t'was lovely," Naomi says, awkwardly, and Katie mumbles back, "yeah, whatever" with about as much enthusiasm as someone visiting the dentist.

They couldn't possibly be making Katie's tiny two-seater sofa look bigger, either.

There's only so much time they can spend together while pretending that there isn't a fucking massive elephant in the room, though, and after the eighth or so covert look from Katie, Naomi just sighs.

"We don't have to fuck tonight, all right?"

Katie stiffens and turns to her with an almost angry look on her face. "Of course we fucking don't. Is that what you think this is about?"

"Um, well," Naomi says, suddenly feeling like a total idiot; her cheeks flare up without permission. "Yeah, I mean--wasn't this like, courtship?"

"It was a date," Katie says, emphatically. "The only thing I'm wondering is why you haven't like, fucking kissed me or anything yet."

Naomi laughs tiredly and then scoots over, tips Katie's chin up. "Here's a hint. I'm not a bloke, okay? And if there's some sort of bloody formula to this that I'm meant to be following, I obviously don't know about it. So next time you want something, just--"

The rest of her admonition is muffled against Katie's lips, and she moans in surprise when Katie wastes no time licking at hers until they part; the next kiss is deep and not at all tentative and not exactly the clearest signal towards no sex tonight that she could be getting. After a few minutes of it, slow, hot kissing that is punctuated by Katie's tongue brushing past hers cleverly, she feels herself grow incredibly wet.

"Wait," she finally says, softly, before sitting back and exhaling slowly.

The only thing that helps a little is that Katie looks equally surprised by how quickly things escalated, and Naomi twists around and falls back on the couch after a second. "Jesus. What was that about not having sex tonight? Did I imagine that?"

"No," Katie replies, but it's with a short, breathless laugh, and Naomi blinks rapidly a few times before sitting up on her elbows.

"It'd be nice if everything else was this easy, wouldn't it," she says, and just about manages a smile when Katie runs her hands through her hair and nods, just once.

----

It's much later; Naomi's almost asleep when Katie laughs.

"What?" she asks; can't quite contain a soft smile at seeing Katie this relaxed, because it's very rare for her to let go even a little, but suddenly there's a lightness around her, a lack of gravity, that is incredibly compelling.

"Just--thinking, really. James would've loved this," Katie says, and her eyes crinkle a little bit as she looks at Naomi almost fondly.

"What, you with a girl?" Naomi says and grins. "Geez, Katie; way to honor the dead, by remembering them as relentless perverts."

"Well, it's the truth, innit?" Katie says, shifting around on the sofa until she's lying down on it more fully, her feet in Naomi's lap. "And besides, you're not just a girl; you're the only other girl who ever turned him down in college. I mean, I can just about imagine him now; it'd be all well done, love, and probably take some pictures for us, yeah?"

Her imitation is uncanny and Naomi laughs. "He was something else, wasn't he."

"Yeah, he was," Katie says with a sigh and soft smile, wriggling her feet for a second before closing her eyes again.

----

She wakes up to something tickling her cheek and fuzzily blinks a few times.

“C’mon,” Katie says, softly, and reaches for her hand.

She follows mindlessly, only realizing that she’s never seen Katie’s bedroom when she’s in it.

“I’m—” she starts to say, but then stops when Katie hands her a large t-shirt—far too large for Katie—and says, “I’m going to the loo; change, yeah?”

She slips into the shirt with only a small bit of hesitation and then sits down on the edge of the bed, unsure of what’s expected of her, and she misses Katie’s return because of a rather spectacular yawn.

“Do you—what side's yours, normally?” Katie asks awkwardly, and Naomi turns to look at the pillows; sees that Katie sleeps on the right, and moves around to the other side of the bed wordlessly.

Katie pulls the covers back and then they’re settled. Stiff like boards, trying desperately to not even incline towards each other, though obviously the mattress dips a little towards the middle.

Naomi dozes and is awakened again when Katie laughs softly.  “This is fucking retarded; not like I haven’t shared a bed with you before.”

“Was just once,” Naomi mumbles, but then rolls onto her side, reaches for Katie’s hand blindly and tangles their fingers together.  “Can talk about it tomorrow, ‘kay.”

She feels something—lips against her forehead, through her fringe—just seconds before she falls asleep, and holds on tightly, just because she can.

----

It seems to clear the air between them, even if only temporarily.

When Naomi leans in for a kiss hello in the morning, Katie rolls over and reaches for the breath mints, almost crams one into her mouth, but then permits the kiss seconds later anyway.

"God, you're such a cunt," Naomi says, afterwards, and then pelts a breath mint at her.

Katie just rolls her eyes. "Whatever; the smell of last night's dinner fucking would've ruined how good that was, and you know it."

It's the most backhanded compliment Naomi's probably ever gotten, but she can't help but perk up at it a little. "So you liked it."

Katie shoves her in the shoulder. "Fuck's sake. Don't be stupid."

"No, I mean--you've never really, I don't know," Naomi says, but can't really stop a grin from spreading. "I know I'm good at it. That's not the same as you liking it."

"I like you so much better when you don't talk," Katie sighs after a long moment, and the way her hand lingers on Naomi's upper arm makes that seem like an invitation.

She's got her hand up Katie's shirt when the alarm goes off, and just pulls away from the kiss with a sigh. "Ah, real life. How I've missed you."

"Welcome to life with a child," Katie says dryly, but then smiles softly. "Stupid cunt. I can't believe you had to ask."

"You're not all that easy to read sometimes," Naomi confesses after a second, and Katie's smile turns into a small frown.

"Yeah, and you think you are?"

"Fair enough," Naomi says, and then tweaks Katie's nose before rolling out of bed.

"I'll consider that permission to snog you wherever and whenever."

"Uh--" Katie starts saying, but then stops herself. "Whatever. It's not like some part of me hasn't been dying to punch you in the face for years, so go for it."

When they meet up in the kitchen and Katie shoves a plate of toast with jam in Naomi's hands, she gets a kiss first and a "fucking get going already, we're running late" second.

It's not quite the fantasy, but perhaps it's getting there.

----

She sleeps over more often; not in a planned way, and not every night--no matter how much she might want to, to her own surprise--because ten years of friendship can't change that this is all incredibly brittle and new.

"You'll let me know, right, if I'm in your space too much?" she asks Katie one night, when they're brushing their teeth.

"You really think you wouldn't be able to tell?" Katie mumbles, mouthful of foam, and Naomi pokes her in the cheek on instinct, watches as she involuntarily spits toothpaste all over the sink.

Then grins.

"Fucking child," Katie snaps, before taking a sip of water and rinsing out her mouth.

"Mmhmm," Naomi cheerfully agrees, before bending over to rinse and spit herself.

Katie splashes a handful of water in her eyes; manages to not laugh, somehow, not even when Naomi straightens, blinking like a fish and tugging her soaking wet fringe to the side.

"I suppose I had that coming," she says after a second, and Katie then finally laughs before leaning in for a kiss. Naomi just about manages to toss her toothbrush in the general direction of the holder before Katie presses her up against the sink, kisses her until her entire mouth tingles with two different flavours of mint.

"You don't bother me," Katie says, later, in the dark, when they're facing away from each other in bed, and Naomi twists just enough to be able to focus. "Though I swear to God, if your fucktard sense of humor passes on to Jimmy, I'm setting your wardrobe on fire."

"I'm surprised you feel you need an excuse to set my wardrobe on fire," Naomi responds, and after a second Katie snorts.

"I can't sew fast enough to replace everything you own at once, all right? Give me time," she says, and then reaches behind her for Naomi's hand.

----

Two days later, Jimmy throws a tantrum when Katie's on the phone, finishing up some work.

They're legendary, so Naomi's heard about them, but has somehow managed to never be around when one actually takes place, and it's an eye-opener.

She's never really had to be stern with him before and it's a struggle, especially when just letting him watch fifteen more minutes of telly would solve the problem, and after the second screaming fit, when Katie's cut her phone call short, Naomi looks at her a little helplessly.

"Why don't you just--" Katie starts saying, and then looks back at Jimmy before lifting him up and carrying him to his room.

Naomi can't help but feel like she's failed some sort of test, and starts apologizing when Katie comes back downstairs.

"You'll grow into it, I'm sure," Katie sighs after a second, and then smiles wryly. "Still want to be a part of this family now that he's shown his true face?"

She says it very casually, as a joke, but Naomi's heart stops for an entire beat at how much is implied in those words. When she doesn't respond immediately, Katie straightens and her face hardens. "Right, well, I've got work left to do, so maybe you ought to go home."

"Katie, I didn't mean--"

"I know you didn't," Katie says, and after another second squeezes Naomi's thigh. "But you did."

There's not really any arguing with that.

----

Jimmy, despite being the main reason they're here at all, turns into the thing that they fight about the most.

The other arguments are insignificant; bickering about where Naomi put the cups after washing them, whinging about Katie being a moody twat, and the occasional mostly-internalized frustrated bitching session about how, despite being nearly twenty eight years old, she's gotten as far into Katie's knickers as she imagines she would've got at age fifteen. Or maybe fourteen, in Katie's case, but it's frustrating nonetheless.

Jimmy, though, is more important than all of those things--even the sex, Naomi will grudgingly agree--and when they argue about him, it's almost frightening.

----

"What are we going to tell Jimmy?" Katie asks one night, after dinner. "He's starting to ask questions about why you sometimes sleep here and things like that."

"I'm fine with whatever you decide," Naomi says with a shrug, and then smiles. "Have fun backtracking on that whole I'm not like Aunt Em thing, though."

"Jesus, can you try to take this a little more seriously?" Katie responds, drying a plate with such annoyed, fast moments that Naomi snaps out of her attempt at levity immediately. "It's not like I'm not throwing his entire world upside down."

"Sorry," Naomi offers contritely before putting another plate in the drying rack. "I just, well, whatever. I'm sure you'll figure out the right way to broach this, Katie. You're a good parent."

"I just want your fucking input, okay," Katie says with a frown. "Is that too much to ask for?"

"He's your son, Katie. Tell him what you want."

Katie stills dangerously before carefully putting the plate she's drying onto its proper shelf. "Is that how this is going to be from now on? You're there for all the fun shit, but when he actually needs parenting, I'm still on my own?"

"That's not what I meant. All I'm saying is that we barely even know what we're doing here, and I don't want him to start, I don't know, thinking of me as--."

"As what?"

"As his parent, okay?" Naomi confesses. "Jesus Christ, Katie, we've only just--I mean, I just don't know if I'm ready for that."

"Yeah, well," Katie spits and flings the dishtowel back onto the sink before stalking off. "You should've thought about that before fucking getting involved with me."

----

There are some things that the three step plan doesn't fix.

Step four turns out to involve a lot of yelling.

"What the fuck did you think this would turn into?" Katie shouts and Naomi flinches away from her, sits down on the sofa as far away as she can. "I'm not looking for--like, someone to fucking make out with from time to time, okay? Who then fucks off when reality sets in, and I need help or Jimmy turns out to not be such a fucking angel after all."

"I obviously know that but Jesus, there've got to be degrees; I mean, we haven't even fucked yet," Naomi argues after a few seconds, and Katie's eyes narrow dangerously in response.

"Right. So if I let you fuck me, you'll consider whether or not you're fucking mature enough to be a real part of my family? Hm? If I just put out a little, you'll see if you can find it in your heart to not--"

"Thanks," Naomi interjects, sharply. "Thanks for putting it in those terms; real fucking comforting, that."

Katie doesn't say anything in response but looks literally angry enough to start throwing things any minute now, and Naomi forces down any corresponding anger--and really, it's hurt, at how unfairly Katie's pegged her interests, or what her motivation in all of this is--just for the sake of not waking up the four year old upstairs.

"Look, can't we just keep this--can't we just see how we go, for now?" she finally says with a deep sigh before lowering her eyes. "I'm not ready for marriage, okay? I don't think there's anything wrong with just--not committing to too much too fast. I'm just not at a place where--"

"Jesus. He's four, Naomi--how could you possibly have thought you weren't committing to--" Katie starts, sounding so fucking frustrated that Naomi hates herself a little for still not being any better at this. "God. If this is all you have to offer us, why don't you just fuck back off to Africa, or something?"

"Oh, come on. I didn't mean--"

"Thanks for reminding me of why I never thought you were fucking good enough for her," Katie snaps.

It's such a low blow that Naomi almost slaps her. Instead, she just gets up and leaves.

----

Katie shows up at her door six hours later.

"I'm not in the mood, okay?" Naomi says, warily, and almost closes the door again but

Katie slams it open the rest of the way.

"Yeah? Well, I had to fucking find a babysitter with next to no notice, and I'm paying out of the arse for it, so I'm not fucking going anywhere until you've let me apologize."

Naomi shrugs and heads back inside. "Suit yourself."

Katie almost trips over the suitcase, and then just stares at Naomi woundedly. "Are you fucking kidding me?"

"Feel free to take it incredibly personally," Naomi responds after a moment, and can't help a slightly ironic smile, even though she knows it'll just piss Katie off, "but I do recall telling you that I'd be at a congress for the next five days. Before you told me how unworthy I was, and all that."

"Oh," Katie says, and all the fight drains out of her just like that. She slumps against Naomi's desk and sighs deeply, digs her nails into her own thighs before shaking her head. "I'm sorry; I shouldn't have said that--"

"We've both said things we shouldn't have said, I think," Naomi offers, when it hits her that she's got a plan to respect, and nowhere is there a step that says make Katie grovel when she fucks up for a change.

"Did we rush into this?" Katie asks after a moment, and she sounds so unsure of herself that it's hurting Naomi just to listen.

She can't help a laugh, though. "Rush? I don't think I've ever had to work so fucking hard at getting laid in my life, Katie."

Katie sighs and looks like she's going to bitch some more, but then ends up smiling as well. "No doubts, then? And I don't mean about wanting to fuck me, I mean: duh. Just--are you sure that this--me, him--is what you want?"

"We've fought for a good two thirds of the time we've known each other. Did you really think it'd stop just because, you know, I'd like to see you naked sometime before I die?"

Katie laughs and takes a few steps forward, until she's stood right in front of Naomi; then, after just a second of hesitation, sits down on her lap, straddling her legs, and flicks her in the cheek. "You think you've got all the answers, don't you."

"I don't,"Naomi says softly, and then lowers her head. "The few I have found, though--they've all involved both you and Jimmy; try to remember that the next time you scare the hell out of me, okay?"

Katie tips her chin back up after a second and presses a soft kiss to her forehead. "You know what always makes me feel better, after you're a complete twat about something?"

Naomi smiles unwillingly. "Throwing something at my skull?"

"No," Katie says, rolling her eyes. "Though I'll consider it for next time."

"What, then," Naomi asks, and Katie just smiles.

"The fact that fighting isn't the only thing we're fucking brilliant at, yeah."

----

Sometimes, the only way she can tell that they're moving forward, rather than falling further and further out of sync, is by focusing on the way that Katie kisses her.

It's just about enough to stop her from pulling her hair out.

----

They try to talk, like adults.

"I--kissing is one thing, Katie, but I need to know that it won't just--" Naomi starts saying, incredibly awkwardly, and watches as Katie slumps down next to her.

"You've got to understand, it's not that it's just you, or that you're a girl. I haven't slept with anyone in years, and the last person I slept with was--" she responds, quietly, and Naomi involuntarily shifts in closer, just puts a hand on her shoulder that Katie then covers with her own. "I mean, I know you understand this. I reckon it's not all that different from how you feel about being in a--"

"What is it, Katie?" Naomi asks, when Katie refuses to continue, but Katie just clamps her lips together and shakes her head. "I mean. Is this a relationship? Or is it still just an experiment?"

"Experiments don't have a drawer in my dresser for night clothes, nor do they keep a toothbrush and a spare laptop at my house, Naomi," Katie says, looking down at her lap, and then sighs. "I can't believe I have to explain this to you. You really were dropped on your head as a child, weren't you."

"So this--we're serious about this," Naomi asks, tentatively, and Katie drops her hand back down to her lap after a second.

"I obviously am having an incredibly hard time speaking for you," Katie responds, and Naomi leans in closer; brushes a bit of hair out of Katie's face before kissing her cheek.

"Maybe, I just needed to hear it, okay? We're almost thirty. It's hard to conceive of a serious relationship that doesn't involve fucking when we've both been doing it for well over a decade. I just didn't want to--"

"Want to what?" Katie interjects, sounding incredibly tired and Naomi feels her chest sink at the acute awareness of how much harder she's made all of this by just not asking questions in the first place.

"I didn't want to hope for too much, okay?" she confesses, and when Katie looks at her in surprise, she shrugs helplessly. "I know I keep bringing up sex, and it matters, but Jesus, Katie. I'm already so far into this that it would devastate me to have you change your mind. How don't you get that?"

Katie smiles after a few moments; it's sad, but it's something. "Because I've always thought of you as reckless and incredibly stupid, but also brave. When you're not being a coward, that is. I just didn't think I had to--"

"You don't know me like this," Naomi urges, and then tangles her hand in Katie's hair. "You just don't, okay? You know everything about me, but this? This hasn't been an issue for me in longer than I can remember, and you're damn fucking right that I'm a little out of my depth."

"I'm not going anywhere. Nor am I going to make you go anywhere. Stupid fucking congress aside," Katie says, slowly, and then almost smiles again. "And if you honestly think that I'm never going to put out, clearly you weren't listening to the rumours in college."

"I'd make a joke about how I was too busy running away from your sister, but--"

"You were a coward around her your entire life, Naomi. Don't be one around me," Katie interjects, firmly, and after a second Naomi just nods.

They get up in tandem just moments later, and Naomi flicks her hair out of her eyes with a sigh. "I need a haircut, I think--"

"First smart thing you've said all fucking day."

"--and then I need to apologize to this kid who means the world to me, because I'm sure all the fucking shouting was incredibly impressive and not in a good way."

Katie smiles after a beat. "We can go pick him up right now, if you like."

"Have I successfully apologized to his mother, then?"

"For now," Katie says, airily, but reaches for Naomi's hands seconds later; holds it all the way to the tube, where the barrier forces them to let go.

----

In relative terms, apologizing to Katie turns out to have been easy, because at least Naomi had been able to throw the full weight of her expansive vocabulary at that scenario. She's going to have to figure out something else with Jimmy, though, who's looking back and forth between them incredibly sadly for a long moment and then finally settles on Naomi.

"Why were you yelling?" he asks, looking like he's going to cry if she doesn't assure him that it's not a big deal.

Katie won't even look at her as she fumbles for a response, and maybe it's a better lesson than most, because she never wants to be put in this position again.

----

She's gone for ten days, in the end, because one congress results in an invitation to a second one, and she spends the entire time at the airport in Frankfurt, going from congress A to B, trying to compose an email to Katie that somehow gets across just how much Katie's winning. The point is, she can't really put into words what she's beating to get there; just knows that every sentence starts and ends with you're in first, and then finally ends up discarding the entire effort because maybe, it doesn't matter so much, whether it's said or not.

They talk daily. Katie gives her a brief update on Jimmy--now bully-free, after a spectacularly well-placed first punch that resulted in a two-hour long trip to A&E with a nosebleed that wouldn't stop--and after that they just--Naomi can't even really say, just knows that they have long, winding conversations about nothing.

She rushes through her entire work day to get to the phone, and only feels like she's actually woken up when they're done talking.

"Fucking hell, ten days is a long time," Katie says, on the ninth, and Naomi feels the puzzle pieces of her professional life shift again at just those words.

"It's too long, I think," she says, and Katie makes a noncommittal noise in response that assures her that the path she's considering embarking on will work for them.

----

They kiss almost hungrily, Naomi's luggage left forgotten on the steps beside them, and only after a minute of it Katie seems to remember that she's got neighbours; pulls Naomi into the house by her collar and then nudges the suitcase inside with her foot, until it topples over into the hallway.

"Hi," Naomi says, and Katie looks at her for a moment before running both of her hands through Naomi's hair, fucking it up completely, but then tangling in the ends at the back and pulling her down for another kiss. Naomi loses herself in it completely, and it's an absolute shocker when Katie pulls back and says, "So when are you fucking off again, then?"

"I don't--I don't know," Naomi says after a few moments, blinking rapidly to try and clear her thoughts. "I mean, it's mostly up to me; I have to volunteer to go further than Westminster."

"And can you not volunteer indefinitely?"

It seems like a much more important question than the context it's been given, snogging in the hallway, and Naomi leans against the wall for a moment, takes a deep breath. "I'd have to find something else to do, if I wanted to be more England-based permanently."

"Right," Katie says, and there's something about the way her mouth sets that reminds Naomi of her decision, of what led to it in the first place.

"I've missed you both," she says, and Katie's face relaxes for just a few seconds until she shoves at Naomi's shoulder.

"Yeah, and? Aren't you going to say anything?"

"About what?" Naomi asks.

"Tell me I look nice," Katie says, sharply, and gestures down at her clothing.

"What?" Naomi asks, completely surprised.

"I fucking like, made this, okay? For you. I thought you'd like it."

Naomi blinks, slowly, and scans down the unbuttoned asymmetric jacket, the tight camisole underneath, ending at a flowing white skirt that's just sheer enough to--well, she scans back up, at that point. "You--what? No, I mean, I think you look wonderful. You've got incredible talent and great taste, you don't need me to tell you that."

"Don't I?" Katie repeats and then purses her lips, before snapping, "I'm not fucking Emily, okay? I spend a lot of time thinking about what I wear and if you're going to make me feel good about myself--"

"Katie. You look fucking amazing," Naomi cuts her off, and then motions for Katie to turn around; she does, with a scowl, and Naomi smirks before looking at her arse so blatantly that Katie eventually turns back around and shoves her in the shoulder.

"You're such a twat. Jesus. Would it fucking kill you to just--"

"You've never looked more fuckable. I mean that," Naomi says, sincerely, and bites her lip when she realizes that her eyes are now involuntarily straying to Katie's low-cut top, or rather, her tits.

"Yeah, well. Thanks," Katie says, growing very red very slowly, until she finally rolls her eyes. "Worse than a fucking teenage boy, I swear to God."

Naomi grins. "Just trying to make this a familiar experience, sweetheart."

----

Jimmy takes a running leap into her arms when she clears her throat outside of his play area, and something about it just--

"I'm sorry I've been such a tee-double-you-ay-tee about things, okay?" she says to Katie, before pressing a kiss to Jimmy's head. "I'd be effing privileged to have a substantial role in this little man's life."

Katie rolls her eyes. "God, you already do. Calling it the p-word doesn't actually change anything, you horse."

It seems like such a logical conclusion that Naomi more than a little simple for not having come to it herself.

----

Months pass; summer shifts into winter, and those walks they used to take back when everything seemed damn near impossible would be idiotic to embark on now, when the best they can manage is bundling up and taking Jimmy out to the park on Sundays, because being not-quite-five apparently means being completely immune to English weather.

"Wish that applied to us," Naomi says with a shiver and Katie tugs her in closer, wraps a too-short arm most of the way around her back.

"I don't know what the fuck season you think that coat is for, but it's obviously not for English winter," Katie says after a moment.

"Do you make coats?" Naomi asks, curiously, and Katie snorts.

"Sometimes, I go shopping, yeah?"

"Oh, right," Naomi says, slapping herself in the forehead. "How could I forget, what with the six times you've dragged me out to do it in the past half year. You torturer."

"Whatever," Katie says lightly. "You've never looked better. Fuck, look at those trousers on you; your arse looks like--" She cuts off abruptly and Naomi swallows a laugh, but can't really help herself anyway.

"Like it would bounce pennies off it?"

"Pennies don't bounce," Katie retorts, and Naomi just grins.

"Didn't realize you were that interested in what does and does not bounce off my arse, Katie. Perhaps we can experiment later."

"Christ," Katie mutters, and heads over to get Jimmy as the first few drops of rain start coming down. Naomi covertly tries to look over her own shoulder at her arse, but after a few seconds--and Katie's obvious laughter a few feet over--she concludes she's just going to have to take Katie's word for it.

----

Emily and Effy visit on a Sunday.

Katie damn near has a heart attack, because they only gave her two hours notice, already over on the train from Bristol.

"You--are you sure you haven't like, left any bras lying around anywhere," she asks for the third time. "Because Jesus, with your flat tits, I really couldn't--"

"Okay, Katie, hon, honestly," Naomi interjects, and flicks Katie's chin up. "There's no need to be insulting, okay? Your house doesn't look like the Playboy mansion and it's not like the girls have any reason to go up to your bedroom in the first place."

Katie exhales after a few seconds and then says, "Right. Well. I don't suppose you've also got something very comforting to say about the silly things that come out of the mouths of babes?"

Naomi presses a kiss to Katie's forehead. "I don't think he'll let us down, yeah? He's got a habit of being an absolute darling at all the right times; such as when people are over. He saves the muck for us."

Katie snorts and just leans forward for a second, presses her forehead against Naomi's chest, and then takes a deep breath. "All right. We can do this. And they're so fucking self-involved that I reckon we could fuck in front of them and they still wouldn't notice. Right?"

Katie's clearly forgotten about Effy, but then it doesn't matter, as Effy has been something of an unconditional ally; somehow completely okay with this situation despite how bizarre it is, and a frequent counsel on patience when Naomi's pants threaten to overrule her common sense completely. [The last time, her dry "Assaulting someone while they're asleep is almost by definition not sexy, Naomi," had made Naomi laugh for about ten minutes, until Charles had come to look at her curiously.]

Only when the door opens and Emily is there does it hit her that she hasn't thought about Emily at all in about six months. The kiss hello and the brief hug that follows are shockingly natural, and some of the surprise on Emily's face must also be showing on her own.

"I see you haven't been hit in the head with a frying pan yet," Effy murmurs when they hug, and Naomi swats at her side before chuckling.

"Good to see you, Lizzy," she says, smartly, and laughs when Effy rolls her eyes dramatically in response.

Everything goes swimmingly, insofar as the most awkward situation in the world with only one person unaware of why it's awkward can go swimmingly, until Jimmy shuffles into the living room holding an old ambulance that has seen better days. "It won't make the siren noise," he says, and heads over to Naomi almost immediately.

Katie impressively manages to not stop talking to Emily, whose face is slowly drawn to what's happening anyway, and Naomi just leans down. "At all, Jim, or does it just sound like it's not working well?"

Jim shrugs after a second and hands the ambulance over, and then crawls up on the couch next to Naomi, leans into her side as she turns the ambulance over and looks to see if it's battery-operated or not. Emily's gaze is almost tangible, and when Naomi explains that they need to replace the battery and she'll go out and get a new one tomorrow, it sharpens to such an extent that Naomi almost pushes Jimmy away when he leans in for a quick kiss with a "thanks, Nae" before heading back into the play area.

"They get on well," Katie says, after a beat, and Naomi almost starts laughing because it comes out so strangled that perhaps it would've been better if she'd said nothing at all.

"Yeah, he seems to have really taken to you," Emily responds a moment later, and then Effy clears her throat.

"I'm feeling significantly too healthy all of a sudden; Campbell, fancy finding some carcinogens outside?"

Naomi almost says "I love you", but manages to keep that just keep her mouth shut until they're already outside, leaning against Katie's building.

"She's not going to take this well, is she," Naomi says after they've already smoked silently once, and Effy's shoulders almost slump. Almost.

"I thought that--" Effy starts saying, and then shakes her head. "No, she's not."

"So when do we tell her?"

"I don't think we do, Naomi," Effy says after another moment, and suddenly Naomi feels nothing short of pity for Effy, who has to be in the worst situation of all of them.

She gives the hug freely, but is still surprised when it's returned so forcefully, and in an almost mockery of the last time they had a conversation of these lines, she ends up whispering, "I'm sorry" and Effy responds with a sighed, "I know".

----

The tension in the room is almost unbearable when they get back; Katie looks pissy enough to strangle her sister and Emily looks indignant enough to put up a proper fight.

"What's going on?" Effy asks, mostly curiously, and it deflates Emily a little.

"Nothing, really; I was just--wondering if Katie's seeing anyone," she responds, rather mutedly.

"Cue the Cold War?" Effy asks with raised eyebrows.

Katie rolls her eyes. "Yeah, I'm sure you and Tony always get on swimmingly."

"I find that being incredibly high whenever I'm near him helps ," Effy says, dryly, and Naomi snorts.

"How is Tony?" Emily asks after a second, and looks at Naomi with a blatant mixture of curiosity and pity. "Any chance of you two working it out after all?"

Naomi ignores the look. "Last I heard, he's seeing Michelle again."

Effy looks up in surprise at that. "As in, Michelle Michelle? Sodding bastard; I can't believe he didn't tell me."

"Mm," Naomi says with a smile. "She's apparently either gotten divorced, or is in the middle of it, or at the very least considering it. He seems convinced that with enough sexual stimulus, he'll be able to steer her onto the path of righteousness."

Effy laughs. "Jesus."

"Anyone else, then?" Emily asks. "I mean, if Tony's definitely off the table."

It takes Naomi a second to smile, and then it's so fucking pained that she knows she's not fooling anyone, but fuck Emily forever, with her completely transparent attempts at fishing for information. "No. You know me, Emily; I do much better when I'm not held back by other people."

It's a low blow and when Emily averts her eyes seconds later, she feels anything but triumphant. Katie clears her throat and says, "Right then. Shall I get Jimmy? I think it's finally not pissing down anymore and a walk would do us all good."

Effy just raises her eyebrows at Naomi, who refuses to apologize or even acknowledge what just happened, because that would mean having a conversation she never wants to have with Emily.

"I'll get his coat," she says instead, and brushes past Emily on the way to the hallway without saying anything.

----

Effy's hand at the small of Emily's back seems to be unwinding things second by second, and a few whispered phrases later Emily sighs, tangles their hands together, and Naomi just watches them walk in complete sync out in front of them.

"I wonder if we look like that," Katie says, and when Naomi starts in response she blushes. "Sorry. Thinking out loud."

"I doubt it. You walk incredibly fast for a short person, and I've got a hard time keeping up," she says, and looks away from Effy and Emily; still going strong after all these years, though these days she wonders if she should apologize to Effy for it, rather than congratulate her.

"I can't believe what you said to her," Katie says softly after a moment. "I mean, I don't think she quite--"

"I know she didn't deserve that," Naomi interjects, and then sighs deeply. "But, for fuck's sake, I shouldn't have to put up with her being so bloody condescending about my life either, now should I?"

"She means well."

"Yeah? Is that what you thought when she told you that you shouldn't be so alone, that there'll be someone else out there for you?"

Katie laughs. "Actually, she told me that it wasn't very appropriate or nice, using you as a substitute parent simply because you're around."

"Jesus," Naomi sighs. "So close, yet so far. Why can't she just stop fucking--"

"Emily loves incredibly blindly, when she does," Katie just says, and there's something about the way she just can't not defend her sister that's both irritating and lovely.

"Do you?"

"I've grown up a bit more, I think," Katie says after a second, and it's not said with any regret, just resigned awareness.

It's the moment Naomi first considers that she might be in trouble.

----

The mood's definitely a bit destroyed when they get back to Katie's, and Naomi can't say she's not relieved to be bowing out early because of a flight to Rome the next day. She excuses herself to the bathroom in order to run up to Katie's bedroom and leave a note under the pillow, but is then confronted with Katie in the doorway, closing it behind her.

"I'm going to strangle her, I swear to God," Katie says, and then takes two huge steps forward before kissing Naomi deeply and a little frustratedly.

"It's just a few more hours, yeah?" Naomi says after a second, settling her hands at the base of Katie's back.

"Yeah. And I'd rather fucking spend them with you than with the dating Nazi downstairs."

Naomi smiles. "I'll be back in three days, and she'll have fucked off back to Scotland, and things will be--"

"I know," Katie says, sighing deeply and getting up on her toes for one last kiss before smoothing Naomi's shirt down, tugging on the collar. "Fly safe. And don't fucking drunkenly call me at three in the morning just to let me know that I've got great tits and you'd like to stick your face--"

"Jesus. One time, Katie," Naomi laughs, and Katie just grins before patting her on the cheek.

Emily looks at them both quizzically when they make it back downstairs, but doesn't otherwise comment.

"It was good to see you, Em," Naomi manages, somehow, and Emily smiles a little sadly before extending a hug; it's one of the odd, tentative ones from the past decade, and Naomi has to bite her lip to not say anything unwarranted a second time in one night.

Effy's hug is more legitimate, and more meaningful. "You won't have to wait much longer if the way she's looking at you is any indication," she says, lowly, before pulling back, and Naomi blinks stupidly before blushing. Effy just laughs and heads back into the living room.

"Bye, Jim," she says last, and leans down just far enough so he can wrap his arms around her neck and kiss her cheek.

"Back soon, yeah?" he says, and she laughs before straightening.

"Always," she says, looking at his mum.

----

She's learned from the last trip; or maybe the one before that. In any event, she's learning, and as soon as she pulls back from the kiss she takes a step back.

"You look nice," she says, after looking Katie up and down, and then laughs.

"What?"

"No, I'm sorry; I just--Emily once wore your clothing to school, for God knows what reason, but I distinctly remember telling her that she looked nice from the neck down."

Katie snorts. "What was wrong with her face?"

"You-levels of make-up, mostly," Naomi says, and then brushes a finger past Katie's cheek. "Old you. Neither of you ever needed it."

Katie smiles for another moment, but then the smile fades. "Do you--you've got to think one of us is prettier than the other."

"Katie--" Naomi starts saying but Katie just shakes her head.

"I'm not being vain, okay? I just--with Emily visiting and everything, there is still so much shit between you two that like, sometimes I honestly just can't--"

It's been months, and Naomi decides to act on impulse for a change; the kind of thing Katie apparently likes about her, by her own admission, so what the fuck.

There's not much stopping her from being forward. "Give me your hand."

"What the fuck--"

"Just give it to me," Naomi repeats, and when Katie does, she slips both of their hands under the waistband of her skirt.

"What the fuck--" Katie starts saying again, but when Naomi leans in and kisses her, hard, Katie doesn't immediately pull away; maybe it's just shock, but Katie's hand lingers long enough for the kiss to undo Naomi completely, and when she can tell by the way her nipples are hardening that it's happened, she feels Katie gasp in surprise.

"That's all it takes. So stop asking fucking stupid questions," she finishes, trying not to sound out of breath or look flushed but it's a lost battle. It honestly is all it takes, and sometimes Katie doesn't even need to be touching her; just a look will send her to a depth of frustration she didn't realize she could reach.

Katie looks at her own fingers with an expression that Naomi can't decipher and then takes a deep breath. "Right, well. Whatever. Fine."

"Is it?"

"Just--" Katie says and then wipes her fingers off on her skirt. It shouldn't feel like a rejection, but it does, and Naomi can't help but flinch. "I need to check on dinner."

"Yeah, you go right ahead," Naomi says, not even bothering to hide her frustration, and when Katie looks at her a little aggrieved she just looks on back until Katie backs down and heads towards the kitchen.

It's not really winning when it leaves her throbbing and miserable in the hallway, though.

----

The rest of the evening is stilted, and it's gotten to a point where Naomi acutely regrets her ridiculous move from earlier in the day, but there's no real way to apologize for it--"sorry for shoving your hand down my knickers, won't happen again" just doesn't really do the moment justice.

It's only when they're changing for bed that Katie suddenly rails on her again. "What the fuck is wrong with you? In the fucking hallway? I haven't seen you in a week, goddammit, and I missed you and that's how you fucking choose to--"

"Katie, I am losing my fucking mind here, okay? I can't even put into words how badly I want you, but somehow you still think this is all about your sister and I just don't know what the hell else I can tell you. Maybe I just figured that a demonstration would cut through all the crap, yeah?"

Katie bristles, visibly. "Stop talking about it like it's some fucking like, common thing to do between us. Jesus fucking Christ. We're building up to it, yeah?"

"At what fucking pace?" Naomi snaps back. "I mean, am I going to get to touch you sometime before I turn thirty, or should I just resign myself to waiting until wanking doesn't cut it for you anymore, either?"

"I fucking hate you so much sometimes; Jesus, I don't know why I was looking forward to you coming back, you selfish bitch," Katie spits and then angrily kicks off her shoes.

"I'm selfish? You're the one who won't fucking let me do what I want to do, like it's some sort of fucking crime that I fancy fucking your brains out."

"I let you do plenty," Katie retorts and Naomi just laughs, rolls her eyes. "What; if it's all been so fucking shit, why don't you just fucking pack up and--"

"I'm not having some sort of sexless relationship for the rest of my life, okay?" Naomi snaps. "I understand you needed some time but you've had it, so fucking make up your mind already. Either you fuck me, or someone else does. Jesus Christ, it's not like I haven't had offers."

Katie slaps her, hard, and then shoves her onto the bed so fast that Naomi can barely understand what's happening, and then Katie's on her. "Fuck you," she hisses, and bites at Naomi's bottom lip until it actually fucking hurts.

Naomi yanks away, tips her head back and grins. "How about you back that sentiment up with some deeds for a change, Katiekins?"

Their teeth clash together with the force of the kiss, and Katie's pulling on her hair so hard that Naomi can barely even move, has to angle her neck away to desperately suck in some air; only when she manages, almost panting next to Katie's lips before brushing past them again, does Katie finally relent a little, sitting up long enough just to glare at Naomi before whipping her top off.

"If you even think about fucking comparing me to what Emily looked like when she was fucking seventeen, I am throwing you out on your arse," she bites out after a second, and Naomi almost laughs, but it would be a big mistake.

"The fuck is the matter with you--Jesus Christ, I can barely even remember what Emily--" she starts saying and then just looks at Katie's tits and frowns. "Just—stop talking, Katie. Just fucking stop talking, okay?"

"Whatever," Katie mutters and almost crosses her arms, but Naomi sits up and kisses her sternum, hard, before tangling one hand into her hair and bringing the other one down to her breast, just cupping it for a second before finding the nipple and circling it. "God, of course you're a tease--I don't even know why I'm fucking surprised," Katie snipes and Naomi closes her eyes and grins before bending down more and sucking Katie's nipple into her mouth, slowly.

Katie inhales sharply, and then arches her back, forcing Naomi to lean forward to stay with her. It breaks their balance completely and they topple onto the floor.

"You fucking oaf," Katie bitches somewhere beneath her and Naomi starts laughing helplessly. "This has got to be the worst sex of my fucking--"

It trails off into a moan when Naomi settles properly, sucks on Katie's neck unexpectedly hard, and it's only when Katie's knee presses up, sliding between her own legs, that she realizes she's probably never been this ridiculously wet.

It's enough to make her sit up for a second and just look at Katie, to trail a finger down her face.

"What," Katie asks, warily, but looking prettily flushed and a slight rock of their hips reveals that Naomi's not the only one getting something out of this.

"Just wanted to say, bite down on your hand if you're going to be tempted to scream my name, yeah. We've got a four year old to think about," Naomi says, grinning unrepentantly until Katie rolls her eyes and pulls her back down into a kiss.

----

"God, your hair," Katie says afterwards and tries to pet it down with a bit of a frown.

"Fuck my hair," Naomi mumbles lazily and stretches slowly, licks her lips. "That could've gone worse."

Katie snorts laughter and then can't seem to stop a silly smile anyway. "Well, Emily did always say that if I just got to know you better, I'd probably find something to like."

Naomi rolls her eyes and then blearily sits up. "Jesus, can we agree to stay on the bed next time? I've got bruises in places that I don't think have ever seen daylight before now."

"Twat," Katie says, affectionately, and then sits up as well. "We should probably put some clothes on; you never know when he's going to wake up and need something."

Naomi hauls herself up by the mattress and then tosses Katie a thong and a camisole before slipping back into her long-sleeved shirt and frowning. "Hmm. Not only do I not know where the hell my knickers are, but I don't think they're in a state where I can put them back on."

"Borrow some," Katie says before getting up as well and flopping down on the bed, looking ridiculously sated.

"Got anything that isn't a thong?"

"Ugh. Just get under the covers, then," Katie sighs, lifting them up, and Naomi finishes buttoning up her shirt before sliding in next to her.

They manage to neck for another five minutes before Jimmy knocks on the door with a loud, "Mum, I'm thirsty."

Katie rolls her eyes. "Told you."

"Oh, don't whine. He at least had the decency to wait until after you came. Twice."

Naomi's grin only widens when Katie blushes before flipping her off.

"I'll be back," she finally says with a sigh, kissing Naomi one last time, and then disappearing into the hallway for a whispered conversation with Jimmy.

Naomi's already mostly asleep by the time she gets back, but feels the bed dip, and pulls Katie in closer without words.

Katie tangles their hands together with a sigh, and they drift off within minutes.

Chapter Text

It would be easy to pretend that finally fucking fixed everything.

Instead, if the fix could be narrowed down to just one moment, one action, it would probably be found in the first five minutes of the next day, before Naomi even fully knows she's conscious.

She wakes up spooning someone for the first time in her life, and that slow, gradual ascent into awareness is almost disgustingly pleasant; Katie is soft and warm, molded to her in ways that start a mellow burn in parts of her body that are otherwise still exceptionally satisfied. Without even bothering to open her eyes first, Naomi presses a few soft, slow kisses to the back of Katie's neck; waits for her to stir, to accept or decline, to make them leave this moment or to permit them both to stay in it just a little longer.

When Katie reacts, at last, she just reaches for Naomi's hand, currently pressed against her stomach, and knots their fingers together again before sighing with so much pleasure that Naomi grins against her shoulder before kissing it, too.

"I can't believe it, sometimes," Katie finally says after long moments of just lying there, and when Naomi finally blinks, Katie turns in her arms and looks at her with a soft, careful expression on her face. "You know?"

"What," Naomi says, eyes almost involuntarily drawn to Katie's lips, the way in which they're almost smiling, if only Naomi would just give them that last final push. She's getting better at it, at making Katie laugh.

"That this is working," Katie says, in a scratchy voice that Naomi hasn't heard before; it's not her morning voice, which is rough and tired, and it takes her only another few seconds to realize that it's something else--more sated, and more worn. It's incredibly fucking sexy, whatever it is, and that's the only reason she almost forgets to respond.

"Is it? Working?" she finally asks, and doesn't even really wait for a response; just lets her eyes drift shut again before leaning forward just enough to suggest a kiss, but she stops herself short of instigating it.

"I think so," Katie responds, and then closes the remaining distance swiftly, perhaps in too much of a rush, because it takes them a few minutes to slow it down, to bring it back to a level where they're just kissing for the sake of kissing.

It's nice that even that, though, starts something that turns out to be almost impossible to ignore, and with a quick push onto her elbows and a look at the alarm,

Naomi blows her fringe out of her eyes as Katie rolls onto her back.

"We have time, don't worry," Katie says, before her lips stretch into an almost impish smile and she reaches for Naomi's shoulders, pulls down on them hard.

It's the complete truth.

----

The vainer part of Naomi would like to believe that a few--and good—orgasms dislodged the more cunt-like aspects of Katie's personality permanently, but maybe something much more significant than that happened. Whatever it is, it means that she's not only welcomed into the kitchen to help with breakfast, but in the middle of flipping over eggs--another first, Naomi thinks, and can't help but think that she had to earn those--she pulls Naomi in closer by the edge of her shirt and kisses her, softly.

"Ewwww," it sounds, loudly, behind them, and Naomi stiffens and straightens so abruptly that Katie almost trips forward.

Naomi takes a deep breath before turning around. "Ew what, Jim?"

"You're kissing," he proclaims, loudly, and then hugs the doorpost, grins at both of them. "That's gross."

"Um, actually it's rather--" Naomi starts saying after a few seconds of silence before Katie shuts her up with a gentle hand to her arm, and then, without turning around, says:

"Remember when I told you that your dad and I loved each other an awful lot and we'd kiss sometimes just because that's what grown-ups do when they love each other a lot?"

"Uh huh," Jimmy says after a second.

"Right, well--" Katie starts saying, and then pauses.

Naomi tries valiantly not to laugh. "Would you like me to talk about the joys of promiscuity now, since you brought the L-word into this?"

"Shut up," Katie hisses and then just flips the omelette over, turns around with a sigh. "Okay, well, sometimes grown-ups also kiss when they like each other a lot. Like when they date, you know?"

"Oh," Jimmy says and bites his lip, hard, and then makes a face that's so hilariously Katie that Naomi has to look away altogether. "I still think it's gross."

"That's okay, Jim, but it's not gross for us, yeah?" Katie says after a second. It's completely quiet for another long moment in which Naomi starts wishing the floor would just disappear beneath her.

"If you're dating, are we going to sleep over at Nae's more often?"

Katie shoots Naomi a questioning glance, who just shrugs and goes, "I don't see why you couldn't."

"Why do you want to sleep there, Jim?" Katie asks in turn.

"Because she has an awesome rocket ship lamp," Jimmy says, very seriously, and then bounds back into the living room.

When they finally look at each other, a moment later, Katie loses it first, but it's a close call.

----

She goes home after breakfast, but this time it's with clearly visible regret on Katie's face, and Naomi kisses her softly on the lips until it fades, until Katie just rolls her eyes and pushes at her shoulders instead.

She manages to stay away for almost six hours, but then can't resist; stops to buy flowers on the way, like some daft sappy fool, but the look on Katie's face when she hands them over with a mocking curtsey is almost worth it, really.

"What are these?"

"No idea," Naomi confesses, and Katie just laughs and pulls her down for a long, welcoming kiss.

They play a toddler-approved version of Go Fish with Jimmy, who manages to beat them both without any assistance, and it's ridiculous, really, the way Naomi's almost proud of him for managing.

"He's going to be a genius someday," she says, when he's conked out on the sofa and Katie's just gently picking him up to carry him up to bed.

"I'd say 'just like his father', but I don't want you to hurt yourself laughing," Katie retorts in passing, and Naomi smiles; heads into the kitchen and looks around the fridge to see what they're meant to be cooking for dinner tonight.

Katie joins her after a few moments and laughs. "What the hell are you making?"

"Cottage pie," Naomi says, and then blinks at the mince. "Was--that not what you were hoping to make?"

"No, you dip; I've got everything in the house for lasagna."

"And cottage pie," Naomi says, and then laughs when Katie just rolls her eyes and hops up on the counter. "Oh dear, are you going to annoy me until I kiss you now?"

"Unlike some people, I'm fine with just asking," Katie replies primly, and then leans over just far enough to turn the kettle on before crossing her leg and watching as

Naomi butchers her way through a few potatoes. "Jesus. Your mum's not a star in the kitchen, is she."

"Is yours?" Naomi asks.

Katie snorts. "No. I've been on a diet of unmentionable horrors since I was born, really. The only way Emily and I survived living there was by learning how to cook full-bodied lunches for ourselves when we were like, twelve."

"You're a better cook than she is," Naomi says after a second, and then almost slices off her thumb. "Christ. Don't you have a peeler or something?"

"Ugh, move over, you baby. Go do something that you can handle, like taking the cling film off the mince," Katie says, and then hops off the counter, nudges Naomi aside.

"I was hoping to cook for you for a change," Naomi mutters after a few seconds and Katie carefully puts down the knife, then runs a hand up the back of Naomi's shirt until she shivers.

"Attempt noted and appreciated, babes, but I've recently learned I rather like your fingers, so let's not risk them, yeah?" It's probably meant as a joke, but the look on Katie's face a second later is most definitely not, and Naomi's always been shit at impulse control.

It takes them at least forty-five minutes to mash five potatoes.

----

In the end, all she ends up doing is setting the table, getting Jimmy out of bed to watch a Shaun the Sheep rerun, and correcting Katie's milk/butter proportions, but Katie's "thanks for helping" seems sincere enough. It's not quite enough to stop some latent insecurities from preying, though.

"I'm not particularly domestic," she notes, when they've dried all the dishes and she's putting the wine glasses in the tall cabinet. "I hope that that's not--"

"Naomi," Katie says, and it's unexpectedly serious, because she can literally count on one hand the number of times Katie has casually used her name. "I don't know if this is like, a lesbian thing or something, but I was married to a bloke who could barely remember to take his muddy shoes off when entering the house for years. Don't worry about it, okay?"

"Right, but, I just mean--" she says, and then frowns. "This, I--God, you know? I haven't been in like, a real relationship with anyone, ever, really, and you--well, you've said it yourself, you're not exactly in a position where it's okay for me to just muck about and get used to--things."

Katie rubs some hand lotion onto her palms and then frowns, just a bit. "What's this really about, then? I doubt it's your lack of culinary skills."

"Just--I'm not going to be great at everything, immediately, and I need to know that--"

"By everything, you mean Jimmy, I suppose," Katie says with a sigh and then looks at Naomi with an almost apologetic expression on her face. "Look, the only person I've had a real serious relationship with was my husband and my kid's father, and I know I fucked up, expecting you to just step in his shoes, okay? Obviously, that's not--"

"The thing is--if we make this work, Katie, it's not like it won't go there eventually, you know? And I can't help but feel that we ought to explain to him in a little more detail just what we're doing here, but hell, I wouldn't know how to tell an adult, let alone a four year old."

Katie shoots her an incredulous look. "Yeah, and how much fucking experience do you think I have telling my kid that I'm seeing someone? I'm not exactly looking forward to this either, okay, especially not since whatever we tell him, we'll also have to persuade him to not tell his aunt or grandparents."

"We," Naomi repeats, and Katie just shoots her a look.

"I got your message, okay? I'm fine carrying the conversation but don't think you won't at least be present for it. He knows you, and I'm sure he'll have questions for you as well. He's in that phase right now; everything is fucking why or how."

"Yeah, okay; that makes sense," Naomi concedes with a sigh. "I just, I don't know. I'm sure I'll completely bollocks it up somehow, or say something you won't agree with, or--I don't fucking know."

Katie sighs and looks out the window. "Look... all parenting is trial and error. It's not like I suddenly got a fucking encyclopaedia on how to deal with a baby implanted in my head when he popped out. You make mistakes every day, and then you learn from those."

"Right," Naomi says softly, and then tentatively puts a hand on Katie's back. "I'm not--just, don't expect too much."

"Babe," Katie starts after a few seconds, before turning around with a wry smile. "The only thing I expect from you is for you to not pretend to be deaf, dumb and blind about what being with me entails, yeah?"

"Okay," Naomi says, and then sighs, shoves her hands in her pockets. "Christ, I hate bloody saying these things out loud. I mean, it's not like I'm afraid of dealing with Jim, but--"

"If you weren't a little, you wouldn't be here, you moron," Katie says, but so kindly that it's almost a compliment, somehow. "It shows you give a shit."

"Yeah, well. Duh," Naomi finally says, managing a small smile, and when Katie lifts up on her toes, kisses the corner of her mouth in a lingering, accepting way, the smile widens without permission.

"On the upside, you can't be any fucking worse at parenting than you are at peeling potatoes. Take comfort, yeah," Katie says a moment later with a teasing smile.

Naomi can't quite decide whether to flip her off or roll her eyes; in the end, all the manages to do is laugh when Katie pokes her in the side.

----

They're changing the sheets in Katie's bedroom when it occurs to Naomi to ask.

"Hey," is all she manages at first, but Katie looks up sharply at the word, almost like she's expecting the start of something bad; and maybe that's just real life, because things have been so fucking good for a month now that yeah, it's getting a little surreal. "Jim turns five in a few weeks, doesn't he."

Katie's lips quirk momentarily. "That's not a question, cause you fucking well know he does."

"I'm--I've been thinking," Naomi says, tucking the fitted sheet around the upper right hand corner of the mattress. "It seems a bit silly to buy him another cuddly toy when I'm here, you know?"

"Mm," Katie just says, tugging a pillow into a pillowcase and then dropping it onto the dresser before moving on to the next one.

Naomi settles on the mattress, crosses her legs and watches. "What are you getting him?"

Katie's look is perturbed. "Are you hoping to steal something off my gift list?"

"Would it still be stealing if you, you know, let me have a gander and pick something a tad more meaningful than a cuddly toy?"

Katie takes the last pillow with her when she climbs onto the bed, straddles Naomi's thighs, and then gently whacks her in the face with it. "Two things. If you want to go shopping for his birthday together, then just say so, and secondly, if you don't get him a cuddly toy, he'll be madly upset."

Naomi pushes the pillow aside, reaches for Katie's hands. "You're joking. I thought boys would outgrow those things."

Katie just smiles at her for a moment. "Sometimes, you're so good with him instinctively that I completely forget what an idiot you are."

"Hey, that's a tad uncalled for," Naomi protests, and Katie flexes their fingers, leans forward until she's almost in kissing range.

"Jimmy doesn't have a lot in his life that's stable and predictable, yeah? I work odd hours, you're in and out, his dad's--" Katie says, and then sighs deeply, doesn't continue until Naomi's squeezed their hands together, locked them in place. "Every

year, about a week before his birthday, when I tell him that his birthday is coming, he spends at least an hour on my lap, guessing what animal he's getting from you this year."

"Oh," Naomi exhales softly. "I had no idea."

"Obviously," Katie agrees, and then leans down that extra inch, until they're softly kissing. When she pulls back, it's with a faint smile. "I promised James I'd get him started on footy when he turned five. So, I'm going to get him a ball and those shin things and the shoes and what not."

Naomi can't really help a silly grin at the idea of Jimmy--still more of a waddler than a runner--chasing after a ball, in an unintentionally oversized shirt on baby cleats, or even better, the idea of Katie aggressively cheering him on on the sidelines, standing on a muddy field in her Jimmy Choos. "We'll have to get you some trainers as well, madam. Your usual footwear isn't exactly soccer mom material."

Katie sits back up after a second and then runs a hand down Naomi's cheek. "I thought maybe this was something you could do with him. I mean, I'm sure you're a huge Rovers fan--"

"Bigger than someone who reputedly shagged half the team? Surely you jest," Naomi interjects, and then laughs when Katie very, very slowly flips her off.

"You don't have to, but I'm totally fucking unathletic and still don't understand the offside rule even after years of watching Liverpool matches with James, so--"

"Katie," Naomi says, sitting up and squeezing Katie into a tight hug. "It'll be my pleasure to take him to his practices. Just come to his games, yeah? There's nothing worse than playing a sport and not having your mum show up to watch your games."

Katie's hand runs through her hair after a moment. "What sport am I picturing here?"

"Hockey," Naomi sullenly confesses, and then feels more than hears Katie's laughter.

"Well, since that at least involves skirts, I suppose there's dykier things you could've been doing."

"There's always dykier things I could be doing," Naomi says, and then slips her hands up Katie's top. "Don't you know that by now?"

----

They have a pre-birthday party the night before, just the three of them, with Jimmy on Katie's lap and across the table from Naomi, blowing out a small cupcake with five candles sticking out of them in a way that's surely going to be a fire hazard.

He hadn't quite understood why they were doing this, and later, settled in bed together rather anxiously, Naomi realizes it was probably more for them than for him.

"He'll be too excited to spill," Katie says, softly, before burrowing in even a little closer. "I mean, that's what I'm banking on. ADHD off the charts, which'll be tiring, but at least my sister won't explode."

"Effy knows," Naomi sighs in response, and Katie sits up for a second to stare at her. "Look, I needed to talk to someone who wouldn't lose their shit completely. Ef's--Effy, you know?"

Katie sinks back down with a sigh moments later. "We're putting her in a rather shit position by not telling Emily, aren't we."

"Emily's putting her in a rather shit position by being a shit," Naomi corrects, and Katie snorts laughter before running a hand up Naomi's stomach.

"If she finds out, yeah, I'd like to handle it myself. You'll just make things worse; I know how she thinks and she needs to hear from me that this is what I want."

"Trust me," Naomi says, pressing a kiss to Katie's head. "My cowardly retreat will happily be both swift and voluntary."

"Does it hurt? That she--" Katie starts asking, but then trails off.

Naomi pulls her in closer, almost painfully close at this point, and then sighs. "When she sees you, she sees herself. I think it shorts her brain out completely to see us together, and I mean as friends, not as anything more. College has always been more--relevant for Emily, and the idea of us being friends and she and I barely talking..."

"Do you ever wish things were different?"

"Sure," Naomi says, and ignores how Katie stiffens against her. "I wish Emily was less of a cow, because you could've used some support in figuring all of this out. And I wish that I felt she was going to respond better than I think she will, once she finds out, but ... that's about it, really."

Katie relaxes in degrees after that, and Naomi's almost asleep when she finally says something else.  "Thanks for making sure I've never had to do one of his birthdays alone, yeah?"

"Thanks for letting me make sure."

----

At the party, Naomi keeps her distance; wishes that she were Effy, almost, who at least has the excuse of being the designated picture-taker to keep at a distance, and that's a thought that makes her wonder how much of Effy's career choice was interest and how much of it was just a natural desire to stay out of shit. As it is, she mostly occupies her time with keeping the kids from pinning each other with donkey tails and making sure there's enough cold soda out to keep the entire RAF hydrated, and the day passes relatively quickly.

The highlight for Jimmy is when Uncle James calls from Australia, at fuck knows what time of night, clearly pissed but, in Katie's words, "at least he remembered this year".

Jimmy's super-excited by it all, wants to know if he's seen any kangoroos--just 'roos' for now--because he got one from Nae and it has space for a baby. James is too drunk to really follow, but amiably agrees that there are many and one day he'll show them to Jimmy. The fond look on Emily's face at the exchange is almost enough to remind Naomi that she does like Emily as a person, most of the time, and it renews her desire to keep the peace.

It's only when they're cleaning that she finally has a moment alone with Emily, who for once doesn't seem to be intent on starting a fight, just helps fold up the tablecloth with quick, efficient movements that make Naomi think about Katie and her hands and she just about manages not to blush, but it's a close call. It's still nice, though, being able to spend five minutes with Emily without it either hurting or annoying the hell out of her, and she makes a mental note to ask Effy if she's said anything to make things better, somehow.

----

The day ends cheerfully.

"Are you better with balls than Katie is?" Emily asks with a teasing smile, when they're all slumped down on the sofa with two bottles of wine, and Naomi snorts unwillingly.

"Nice one, Em. Very classy."

Effy bursts out laughing a moment later and then shakes her head, goes, "I'm sorry, it just reminded me of something--I really shouldn't say what, though--"

Katie looks at her for a moment and then her eyes bug out and she covers her mouth. "Oh, God. I thought that was just--"

They look at each other helplessly and then start laughing so hard that Katie drops her wine glass and Effy has tears in her eyes. Naomi raises her eyebrows at Emily, who shrugs, and then gets up to get a cloth from the kitchen to dab up the wine.

"I just meant that someone ought to practice with him, and Katie has the coordination of a drunken goose, so," Emily says cheerfully, when Effy's wiping at her eyes and Katie's taking a few deep breaths.

"I'm all right. I've more experience with smaller balls, but--" Naomi starts saying and Katie laughs again with a pained look on her face.

"Fucking stop, you're killing me."

"I'll do what I can, in any event. You know I travel loads," Naomi finally says to Emily, with a shrug. "But I'm happy to help out when I'm here."

Emily, for once, doesn't say anything caustic in return. Just smiles, after a brief look at Effy, and says, "Yeah, you are."

They head back to their hotel a half hour later, and for the sake of appearances, Naomi heads out with them; smokes a fag while circling the block, and then finds Katie in the doorway, waiting to let her back in.

"I quite like this sneaking around; makes me feel young, you know?" she says after they've settled on the sofa and are finishing off the remaining half bottle of wine.

"Ugh. That's the last thing I feel right now," Katie grumbles and then snuggles in closer, before pilfering the wine.

"Want to tell me what was wrong with you and Effy earlier? ... do I even want to know?"

"No," Katie assures her with another laugh. "Just--shared memories."

"Ah," Naomi says, and then exhales slowly, tips her head back onto the sofa. "Can we--tell him that birthdays have been cancelled by the government next year? You know; mandatory abstinence, or something?"

"You grouch. It went fine. I had a rather good day, all things considered," Katie says, toying with a button on Naomi's shirt.

"I feel like Effy might've told Emily to chill the hell out. Or am I imagining things?"

Katie rolls onto her back, deposits her head in Naomi's lap and produces a saintly smile. "How nice must that be; to be with someone who listens to you, and doesn't just yap on about fuck knows what."

"I know, right," Naomi says, with a wink. "I'm rather envious, I must say."

----

Sometimes it shocks her, how much she wants.

It seems like a long time ago now that she'd first had the ridiculous impulse to just go for it, but not once in the early thought process had she ever thought that she'd end up in a place like this: watching early morning light peek around the curtains just enough to cast some shadows on Katie's back, the way it flexes occasionally as she's slowly waking up.

She can barely stop herself from running her lips down Katie's spine before rolling her over, kissing over to her stomach and then further down, and it's shocking, really, because she never even had these inclinations with Emily.

Maybe, she thinks, trailing a finger down the curve of Katie's hip, until it brushes up against the sheet and she has to retreat again; maybe, I'm just not meant for all things sweet.

It's a surprisingly non-devastating thought, and when Katie makes a small noise before shifting back, until they're almost touching front to back, she closes her eyes and waits; finds out just how much of what she wants to do in the next thirty minutes or so she can picture.

"The fuck's that look?" Katie asks sleepily, and when Naomi opens her eyes, slowly,

Katie's right in front of her, looking a little curious, but mostly just--

"Nothing," she says, and starts working down the mental list she made, starting with Katie's lips.

----

Charles e-mails with a job in Shanghai, and only when she tells him she'll do it does she realize she doesn't particularly feel like going.

Katie looks at her curiously, sorting through a set of swatches she's brought home, and after a moment Naomi just twists her lips and sighs. "China for two weeks."

"You look mighty chuffed," Katie comments dryly. "Not a big fan of China?"

"No, China's lovely, actually--food's fucking brilliant, fascinating culture," Naomi responds and then just fishes around her purse for her cigarettes, lights one carefully slowly before exhaling.

"So what?" Katie asks, in a curious tone of voice.

"I'm not entirely sure," Naomi says long minutes later, after she's smoked most of the cigarette.

"I'd say it's a good thing, if being in England isn't giving you hives like it normally does," Katie replies, very neutrally, but something about the way her eyes stay fixated on the swatches is as big a tell as she's going to get.

"My job isn't the most suitable for relationships, is it."

"That's why you have it," Katie responds, a little sharply. "Or have I just been fucking imagining things all these years?"

Naomi doesn't bother responding, just smokes the rest of the fag silently before stubbing it out and getting a beer from the fridge.

"I don't have to do this," she finally says, and Katie puts the swatches down and looks at her.

"I'm not going to ask you not to, okay?"

"So you'd be all right with what, having me around maybe half the time? Getting called away to do God knows what a few times a year when I'm meant to be around?"

Katie's eyes drop to the table and then she gestures for the beer, takes a few sips and then passes it back. "I'm not going to ask you to quit your job, because you probably would, and then you'd resent me for asking for the rest of our fucking lives, okay?"

"That's not exactly an 'I'm fine with it', now is it," Naomi observes and then stares at Katie long enough for it to become uncomfortable, but Katie doesn't look away.

"It's a question of priorities, Naomi. And if you're too thick to understand what I'd like yours to be, in the long run, I don't know why we're even fucking having this conversation," she finally says, and then gathers up the swatches before disappearing into the office.

Naomi drinks two more beers before finally heading home to her own apartment for the first time in two weeks, and then stares at her excessive collection of luggage; kicks at a suitcase, and doesn't feel any better at all.

----

"If Emily asked you to quit your job, would you do it?" she asks, and it stays ominously silent on the line for a long time.

"I can't imagine Katie actually coming out and doing that," Effy responds, slowly, and Naomi sighs.

"She didn't. I just, you know, got reminded that family and my work don't mix, and she didn't go out of her way to assure me that they could."

"And you were expecting something else?" Effy asks.

"Just answer my fucking question, will you?"

"I don't think it's comparable."

"I know it's not but--"

"Is your job still making you happy?" Effy interjects and Naomi drops her forehead onto her keyboard, mashing two hours of work apart.

"It's what I've always wanted, Ef. It's not so simple as--"

"Maybe you've been wanting the wrong things all this time. Gotta go."

"Bitch," Naomi mumbles, when Effy hangs up immediately afterwards, as if she wasn't going to have the last word anyway.

----

After some torturous instructions to Katie--about as computer-adept as Naomi's mum, as it turns out--they figure out how to use the webcam, and mid-afternoon China time turns out to work well for early morning UK time. She talks to both of them daily, only for about five minutes, and what ends up prompting the decision for her is the fact that Jimmy scored his first goal--at practice, but still--and she would've normally been there, but is now stuck hearing about it from China.

"I took some pictures, don't worry," Katie says with a faint smile, without an ounce of judgment or regret, just as a plain fact. You weren't here, but don't worry, I thought of you.

She thinks of her father, who was never there, and her mother, who had more or less done what she could most of the time, and realizes that the worst thing she can imagine happening is Jimmy growing up to be as closed off and miserable as she herself was for years.

By the end of the evening, she's got 17 new bookmarks, all with job offers in London that she thinks she could live with and would happily live with if it means seeing the second goal in person.

----

A stuffed panda--for the future--and some ridiculously lovely silk that Katie stares at with some astonishment before biting down on her lip, hard.

"I'm not completely useless," Naomi says after a moment, with a mild frown. "I mean, maybe I am, but I thought you'd--"

"Jesus, you idiot," Katie says and hugs her so tightly that it's like she was gone for years as opposed to two weeks.

It reaffirms that she's doing the right thing--for herself, for them--in a way that another discussion never could have.

----

All in all, it's an intensely average moment.

She's been back from China for about two weeks, and they're stretched out on the sofa together; Katie with a sketch pad and a frown on her face, glasses almost tumbling off her nose, and Naomi's flipping through an OECD report on tied aid and its influence on child labour in Western African states.

"Your socks are fucking tickling me," Katie mumbles at some point, not looking up from the pad, and when Naomi glances up it's to find Katie squirming away from her feet, covered in these ridiculously oversized wool socks that her mum got from a friend who went on a trek to Nepal or something. They're cosy, but ludicrous, and apparently scratchy.

She smiles before wiggling her toes into Katie's side a little more deliberately, until Katie reaches for her ankle and digs her nails in. Naomi goes back to her work with a smile, and it's not much, really, the way Katie's hand just lingers on her ankle, strokes up and down it a few times.

"Now you're scratching me," Naomi observes, blandly, and Katie glances down for a moment, then sighs and pulls both socks off before putting her hand back on Naomi's leg and just staring at her.

"Better, you fucking baby?"

Naomi blows a kiss with a wink and then flips the page; finds a bunch of statistics that can't possibly be accurate, based on what the IMF concluded about the same region six months prior, and feels her entire forehead contract into a frown the more she reads.

She doesn't notice she's being stared at until two pages further along, when with a final, "Fuck's sake" she just crosses out the entire conclusion and tosses the working paper down on the floor with a disgusted sigh.

Katie's fond smile is unexpected, as is the sudden awareness that she's still just gently brushing her fingers up and down Naomi's calf, not really suggesting anything but just touching in a way that she doesn't normally.

"That didn't look good," she finally says, in a very soft and low tone of voice that makes the hair on Naomi's arms stand on end; like a sudden confrontation with the put-upon sex that Katie worked at developing for years as a teenager, but naturally, spontaneously.

"I think I'm going to have to go to Switzerland to bash some heads together," she responds, somehow having to clear her throat afterward, and that's when Katie's hand withdraws. Naomi just sits back and watches as Katie reaches for her glasses—a move that shouldn't be amass with quiet intensity but it is, somehow, the careful and deliberate way in which she folds them, puts them on her sketch pad, and then stretches until she can put both items on the coffee table.

She doesn't even realize that she's holding her breath until it escapes her in a rush when Katie sits up on her knees and shifts forward, until she's hovering over Naomi and they can feel each other breathe, deliberately slowly on Naomi's part because she doesn't think she's ever quite been this unsure of what's going on. There's an almost obtuse sense of nervous excitement, because it feels like something big is happening.

For a second, it seems like Katie's going to say something, but then she just closes her eyes and leans down for a kiss. The air whooshes out of Naomi's lungs a second time in as many minutes, disappears into the kiss as Katie slowly deepens it, until every tender, careful stroke of her tongue resonates so hard that it feels like Naomi's insides are caving in.

There's words for this, Naomi thinks abstractly, but they're not coming to her, not when Katie's lowering herself a little more and suddenly they're touching everywhere, just pressed together so tightly that, were it not scientifically impossible, Naomi would brace herself for the moment when they just melt into each other, become completely inseparable.

What finally undoes her is the way Katie reaches up with one hand and carefully cups her cheek, brushes her thumb up and over a scar that Naomi sometimes forgets she has, but that suddenly feels like it's so important a part of her that she pulls away from the kiss, forces her eyes open and just watches what Katie's doing.

Katie stares back for a long moment, and it takes Naomi a beat to recognize the look in her eyes because she hasn't seen it in so long, especially not without any lingering hints of sadness or guilt, but when she does she turns her head and kisses Katie's palm softly, offers a tentative smile.

Katie's eyes smile back first, and the rest of her follows just seconds before they're kissing again. This time it's not meaningful, but hungry; like somehow, with just one look, they've cleared out all the stale air that was making this--and she doesn't know what to call it, tender, passionate, something--impossible before.

"I want you," Katie whispers against her mouth, moments later, sounding equal parts sure and astounded, and Naomi slips her hands up the back of Katie's shirt, presses against her back tightly, keeps her in place, keeps them both steady.

"So have me, then," she finally responds, with a nip to Katie's lips, and closes her eyes as Katie starts taking, over and over again.

----

Katie doesn't have to say it out loud, but the speed at which they're both nearing thirty is messing with her head in ways that Naomi's attention--undivided, almost single-minded these days, to the point where she has started to wonder if it's possible she's a sex addict--just doesn't seem to eradicate altogether.

One evening, after Naomi's cleaned up the kitchen, she finds Katie looking out the window in the living room, looking incredibly tired.

She just stands next to her silently, and after a moment Katie shifts, just enough to lean her head against Naomi's shoulder, before sighing deeply. "I feel like--this isn't where I'm supposed to be, you know? James and I didn't exactly have a plan, but we had steps, and thirty involved owning a house somewhere, ... just being permanent."

"You've got time for that still; the house, I mean," Naomi says, after a moment, and Katie almost shudders in response.

"One year isn't a whole lot; and anyway, it's not the same. I don't mean anything--"

"I know, Kay," Naomi assures her, and then decides to ruin the surprise, simply because it might help. "I've--been meaning to tell you. This isn't wholly related, but if you're wondering about, well, permanence.... I've applied for a position at the Foreign Office. It would keep me in London virtually always."

Katie doesn't respond, but relaxes after a moment, and reaches for Naomi's hand in a way that probably says more than words could. They don't deal in gratitude, much, but maybe that's because it's not necessary to be grateful for offers freely extended.

----

By the time Katie's 29th birthday actually rolls around--and it takes Naomi at least five minutes to remember that it's also Emily's birthday; she can't help but laugh at how things have changed--she's already known for two weeks, but has opted not to say anything; instead, has been anticipating this moment, where she can just leave the contract sat out on the kitchen table, resting against the vase of lilacs she'd run halfway around London to find.

On her way out, trying to slip away before Katie even wakes up, she runs into Jimmy and shushes him. "I'll be back later, okay?"

He blinks at her with sleepy eyes. "Okay..." he says and then yawns wide, and she ruffles his hair for a second, before he wanders off into the living room to watch some morning cartoons.

Katie calls at ten and sounds like she's both mightily pissed off and incredibly pleased. "You stupid cunt, you could've told me."

"Happy birthday," Naomi says in response, and when Katie sniffles loudly, she smiles.

----

They head down to Bristol for the twins' birthday a few days after it actually takes place. Naomi rolls her eyes at the idea of still having joined parties, but more because the celebration she and Katie had together was undoubtedly better than whatever Rob and Jenna have planned for them.

"I thought you'd be organizing this," she tells Katie on the train on the way over, and Katie rolls her eyes.

"I'm not in bloody uni anymore, Christ. This mostly just makes my parents happy, or they'd never seen us at the same time aside from Christmas."

That simple mention brings Naomi back to reality, settles a solid ball of lead in Naomi's chest, and she can't help a frown until Katie rubs at her thigh.

"We'll have two. Okay?"

It's a proper compromise; what's worrying is that it doesn't feel like it'll be enough.

----

She ends up Tony's plus one almost by definition; hugs him tight and then whispers a 'sorry' against his neck before they start walking towards the Fitches' together.

"It's fine; just like years past, isn't it?" he says, almost smiling, and she bites back whatever retort she can think of simply because he probably deserves to be a little bitter, at least for now.

"I'm shitting myself. I mean, Rob and Jenna are fucking mental and scary enough when I've got nothing to do with them, but I didn't think I'd ever be getting the speech again and I'm not all that pleased about it being in my future."

"The speech?" Tony asks, wrapping an arm around her back almost automatically and it's unexpectedly nice, the way she can lean into him--something that she can't do with Katie without falling over--and it still feels like the old days, before things got strained.

"Yeah, the my daughter's a precious virgin and I don't care that you're a lady, you will not be touching her under my roof or anywhere else, do you hear me? one."

Tony laughs uproariously. "You're joking."

"Yeah, bit uncalled for, especially since your sister had already amply taken care of Emily's virginity at that point," Naomi says, biting her lip to stop from grinning.

"Anyway, I can't wait to hear what Rob has in mind for Katie; I think virginity's out of the question but I'm sure he'll think of something."

"Should've just stayed with me, Campbell. Anthea wouldn't notice if you'd set my bloody hair on fire most of the time.”

She almost responds with "Whatever, it's worth it" but it seems too blunt, really, and instead just nudges him in the side. "Have I not proven to you yet that I've got catastrophically shit taste in partners? Really, it's a compliment that you've managed to escape me, Ant."

He lets her off the hook with a chuckle. It's why she loves him so much.

----

"Katie, you must try to find a nice young lad. You're still so attractive for a mum, you know that, sweetheart. I believe they've got a word for it these days, the youngsters do--"

Just outside the kitchen, Naomi bites down on her hand to start laughing and deliberately opts to not look at Effy, standing behind her with a few cake plates, because they'd give themselves away. Instead, she just shushes Effy and waits for Katie's response.

"Mum, honestly, I'm fine, okay? I'm well busy with work and Jimmy's a handful, and besides, most men are pigs, you know that. I'm sure it'll work itself out eventually."

Jenna makes some sort of sighing noise and then reaches for Katie's face, twists it left and right with a mild frown on her face. "I think it might be time for you to switch to a more intensive regimen, darling. Those crow's feet aren't going to go away by themselves."

Katie somehow manages to just smile and nod in response and then Jenna heads back into the living room, probably to torment Emily along similar lines, and Naomi and Effy slip into the kitchen.

"Well done; I thought for sure there'd be blood before the end of that conversation," Naomi says, teasingly, and Katie flips her off.

"I've got it easy, trust me. Twenty quid says Emily's getting the but darling, you'd look so much better with contacts in speech right now," she mumbles a moment later, and then takes the plates from Effy, rinses them off.

"Not touching that bet with a ten foot pole," Effy comments dryly and then looks at the kitchen door. "Think she'll throw a fit if we smoke in the doorway?"

"Whatever," Katie says and then tosses a dishtowel at Naomi. "Here, make yourself useful, you lump."

Naomi just rolls her eyes at Effy and then gamely starts drying. "Crow's feet, huh?"

"If you ever want to see me naked again, I advise you to shut up," Katie retorts, and then shoots an apologetic look at Effy. "Sorry."

"No, by all means," Effy says, sounding amused.

"My point was that I think your mum's batty; I can't see any," Naomi continues.

"Perhaps if you looked a little higher; I don't think they're on her tits, Naomi," Effy retorts dryly, before following up with a "sorry" of her own.

"Oh, she's got your number," Katie laughs and then splashes some suds at Naomi's face.

"Whatever. I shan't apologize for knowing a good thing when I see it, nor for wishing to see it again and again," Naomi says, as pompously as possible, and then kisses Katie on the head unthinkingly when she predictably gets flipped off.

"Guys," Effy says, warningly, and they immediately shoot apart again, leaving a good few inches of space between them even though the sink's too small for it.

"Effy, babe--do you promise you'll still love me even if I don't get contacts?" it sounds behind them, mere moments later, and Naomi can't even look at Katie, can't really do anything but dry meticulously until her heart stops racing.

"I don't know, I'll have to think about it," Effy says before flicking the fag outside and then taking a step closer, kissing Emily on the nose. "Same old, same old?"

"I don't know why she doesn't just play a recording these days," Emily grumbles and then nudges Naomi in the shoulder. "Tony also just SOS-ed you; apparently my dad's trying to convince him to the join the gym again."

"Oh, Christ," Naomi says, with a somewhat pained laugh. "I'll go rescue him. When are the lads due in, by the way?"

"Around dinner time," Katie responds and then looks at her sister. "Come on then, fucking help me dry."

Emily rolls her eyes but takes the towel from Naomi, who lingers in the doorway just long enough to mouth 'thanks' to Effy.

----

Freddie comes stag, predictably so--"I've got too many girlfriends to bring just one" he says, with a smile--and JJ and Zoe are the last to show up, somewhere around the time when Tony and Rob have figured out the grill together and Jenna's cornered Naomi with some make-up tips.

"It's like she already knows, for God's sake," she mutters to Katie later, when they're sharing a beer on the grass, watching Emily help Jimmy color something. "Is this only going to get worse once I'm openly part of the family?"

"You'll have to learn to live with it, babe," Katie responds.

"For the best tits in the world... well, I suppose," Naomi grins and then laughs when Katie shoves her so hard that she almost tips over.

----

It's much later, and Rob and Jenna have gone to bed--just two hours after Jimmy did--but the 'kids' have managed a bit longer, staying sat out in the garden, drinking and reminiscing.

The latter, though fun, can't help but be incredibly awkward, and it's not a surprise that Emily stays silent for most of it until the subject changes to Cook. Naomi's sat next to Tony, on the opposite end of their messy circle, but can still easily see the way Katie stiffens at a mention of his name, just for a second before she forces herself past it.

Naomi's about to do something--move closer, offer a hug--when Tony grabs hold of her waist and keeps her in place, with a softly mumbled "don't"--and then Freddie slips an arm around Katie's shoulders and hugs her tight, continuing a story about how he and Cook once almost burned down JJ's bedroom in a failed home-made bong experiment, until everyone's laughing again.

Naomi only stares at Freddie's arm for a long moment before finally dragging her eyes away and relaxing again, but apparently even that moment was too much, because as she and Tony head home--ridiculously, inevitably--Katie follows them into the hallway and looks at her with a discerning expression on her face.

"Tony, can you--" she starts saying and Tony holds up his hand, slips out the front door and waits out on the street.

"What," Naomi asks, still a little sullenly, and Katie rolls her eyes.

"He's a friend, yeah. Not even a close one anymore. And he's James' friend."

"Yeah, well, you shagged him for--"

"Would you like me to act like this every time you talk to my fucking sister, then?" Katie interjects and Naomi flinches.

"Sorry," she finally sighs. "Fuck, it's not even that, really--I just can't fucking stand that we can't--"

Katie looks over her shoulder, but there's not a single sign of movement in the living room or elsewhere in the house, and then pulls Naomi down into a kiss so deep and so full of pent-up frustration that Naomi's lungs lock up at the force of it.

"Don't be a twat," Katie finally says when she pulls away, and Naomi bends her neck, follows her down and initiates another kiss, this one even hotter than the last, and when she ends it, reluctantly, they're both breathing heavy.

"Sorry," Naomi whispers, pressing another kiss against Katie's lips, and Katie moans softly before deepening that one, too.

"Fuck, you've got to go," she finally says, pushing gently at Naomi's shoulders, until Naomi grabs her hands and tangles their fingers together.

She steals one last kiss but then takes a few steps back, fingertips lingering against Katie's until they drift apart, and only then does she manage a faint smile. "See you tomorrow?"

"Oh, you will," Katie agrees, swallowing hard, and Naomi has to tear her eyes away before heading out on the street to where Tony's waiting for her with a mild blush on his cheeks.

"Don't say anything," she warns him and he laughs.

"Sorry. It's just girls kissing girls; I'm only human."

----

Something hits her window repeatedly; a faint ticking noise, and it just about wakes her up from dozing until she goes and looks.

She laughs when she opens up the curtain and gets her Blackberry; only then notices that she somehow slept through two phone calls. "Oh Romeo, Romeo?"

"Jesus Christ, you're fucking deaf," Katie snaps, and Naomi laughs again when she hugs her coat around herself tighter. "It's fucking cold, yeah. Are you going to let me in?"

It's the most ridiculously teenaged thing ever; she can't even remember ever doing anything this dumb with Emily back in the day, but then again, there's probably a good reason for that. She's sure she would've just rolled her eyes thirteen years ago, but now she finds herself bounding down the stairs and quietly opening the front door, equal parts amused and faintly excited.

"Set an alarm, yeah," Katie says, before pulling Naomi down for a kiss. "I've got to get back before Jim wakes up; didn't know what to tell my parents about where I was going."

"Right, hang--stop kissing me, Jesus," Naomi whispers loudly and then fumbles with her phone, sets the alarm for either half four or five--she can't really tell what with Katie still pressing kisses against her throat, her chin--and then laughs when Katie latches onto her neck almost immediately after she hits 'okay'. "God--can you just wait until we get back to my room? I'm a bit too old for my mother to find me half-dressed in the hallway with some girl."

Katie's laughter is muffled against her neck but she relents, just lets Naomi take her by the hand and pull her upstairs, where sheds her coat.

"Jesus. What if someone--" Naomi starts saying but then can't even continue without swallowing. "I'm sorry, is it my birthday?"

"God," Katie snaps, kicking off her heels, but not bothering removing the thigh-highs or her underwear yet. "Don't you ever stop talking?"

"Sure, sometimes, when I'm--" Naomi starts saying but Katie cuts off her reply with a deep, thorough kiss that derails Naomi's train of thought completely, until she's being walked backwards to her bed. Her knees buckle when they hit the edge, and when she falls backwards, half-sitting almost, Katie slips onto her lap almost immediately. The contrast of the few inches of bare skin she can feel to the satin glide of the thigh-highs is ridiculously distracting, and only when Katie tangles a hand in Naomi's hair does she remember she has hands of her own, could be touching all sorts of things.

Katie's kisses are relentless; starved, almost, as if they haven't had sex for months as opposed to a mere twenty-four hours, but then they were some of the most stressful hours of her life, and whatever, it's not like she minds; it's how they talk best, stupidly enough, and thigh-highs be damned, nothing is fucking hotter than Katie not only needing her like this but actually giving in to that need.

"Slow down," she mumbles into the kiss, wrapping a hand around Katie's lower back and pecking her lips a few times. "I'm all for this, yeah, but slow down."

"Fuck's sake," Katie sighs and then ducks her head, just presses sporadic kisses to Naomi's collarbone until they're not breathing quite so heavily anymore. "I don't even know what I'm doing here. Twenty nine years old and bloody sneaking around like some horny teenager."

"No objections from me, obviously," Naomi says, waggling her eyebrows once, and Katie smiles briefly before sighing.

"I just got--I mean, you're right. It fucking sucks that we can't be like Emily and Effy, because it's my fucking birthday too. I don't want to have to sit twelve feet away from you because we don't want to give anyone the wrong idea."

"We'll tell them," Naomi says, pressing a kiss to Katie's neck; then another, until she's kissed all the way around to her mouth, and the kiss that follows is slow, much more evenly paced but no less needy, and when Katie shifts just a little Naomi can feel how wet she is. "God, how long have you been thinking about coming over?"

"About an hour," Katie confesses, the light from outside just about illustrative enough to let Naomi see her cheeks color. "I--um, first like, took care of business myself, but even that didn't really help. I've been completely wound up ever since you left, basically."

"Don't fucking wait so long next time," Naomi finally says, and then lets Katie push her further onto the bed; pulls her Katie firmly on top, until their legs are scissored together and Katie's just gently rolling her hips forward to match the pace of yet another endlessly deep kiss.

When Naomi flips them over, Katie makes a sound of protest but Naomi bites down on her lip, tugs at it, and then grins. "It is your birthday. Though I will thank you forever for wearing that."

"Perve," Katie says, affectionately, and Naomi can't resist kissing her nose, just once, before shifting just enough to create a little space between them, just enough to start running her hand up and down Katie's side.

"Any particular wishes?" she asks before dipping her head, sucking softly on the space below Katie's jawline, kissing down her neck teasingly.

"Ugh, just do your thing," Katie says, running her hand absently through Naomi's hair, and it's such a Katie thing to say that Naomi feels happiness burst inside her chest completely unexpectedly. She almost lifts up just to say that--how do you make me so happy even when you're being a twat?--but Katie's wriggling beneath her rather impatiently. There's plenty of time for all of that, questions and confessions, and her lips in any event seem to have a mind of their own.

----

The first time Katie had undressed in front of her deliberately--she can still visualize her own hands working buttons open, pushing triangles of fabric aside--there had been this look of barely hidden insecurity in Katie's eyes, but it had proven entirely unnecessary. Naomi had been immediately fascinated by the faint stretch marks, hadn't been able to stop touching and kissing them; had sunk down on her knees in front of Katie and just stayed there for long minutes, until Katie had laughed breathlessly and ruffled her hair with an "Okay, okay, I get the fucking point, Jesus."

Katie might've thought she'd been faking it, but even now, she can't help but linger halfway for a moment, watching as Katie's stomach muscles flex and relax. It's such a ridiculous thing to find hot, but she can't spend more than half a minute touching or looking at Katie's abdomen without getting insanely turned on.

Katie tolerates her near-obsession most of the time, but the impatient push of hands on her head indicate that tonight won't be one of those times, and she acquiesces; kisses further down, settles between Katie's legs and feels stockinged legs wrap around her back, crossing for just a second before they stretch out again.

----

It doesn't take much; Katie trembles and then arches beneath her after just minutes, and Naomi shifts up as quickly as she can, watches carefully for the exact moment Katie breaks, and focuses on it hard enough that she knows she won't ever forget this moment, run of the mill as it may have been, because every part of it had just been perfectly, ridiculously them.

Katie takes a few deep breaths, then finally just sighs as Naomi reaches up and haphazardly fixing Katie's hair, moving it out of her face.

"You don't normally stop," Katie says after a few seconds, sounding incredibly drowsy and sated, and then looks up a little curiously. "Was there something--"

"You just looked particularly lovely, is all," Naomi responds softly, and then can't help a soppy smile.

Katie looks like she's trying for a frown or a snarky retort, but then caves in; smiles back with a completely ineffective roll of the eyes, before smoothing her fingertip over Naomi's shoulder blades. "Shit, I'm sorry; I completely clawed you up, didn't I."

"Don't be," Naomi says, and tries not to moan when Katie's fingertips linger, deliberately stroke up and down a few times. "I rather like knowing that I'm fucking you up that badly."

Katie snorts and blushes simultaneously. "Maybe I'm just easy, you conceited twerp."

"Whatever; nobody's ever given me as many reasons to be conceited as you have," Naomi tells her, quite seriously, but she can't help following it up with a grin. "You're the shag of a lifetime, Ms. Cook."

"I know, right? Glad you noticed, babe," Katie says after a second, managing to keep a straight face, and Naomi laughs before kissing her again.

----

They're still at it, kissing deeply and purposefully when the alarm goes off. It scares the hell out of both of them, and it takes them at least twenty seconds to find Naomi's phone and shut it off. Even then, though, Naomi just tosses it off the bed, leans back over Katie and says, "Five more minutes, yeah? Then you can go, should go, I mean, fuck's sake, as far as I'm concerned you can stay but--" and Katie doesn't even bother responding, just trails her hand further up Naomi's thigh, until Naomi's babbling trails off into a moan.

Five minutes end up being twenty--then thirty because they can't find Katie's bra, and she finally just ends up going home without it. Naomi watches her take off through the window, amazingly near-running in her heels, and can't help but think that it's probably a good thing they didn't actually do this as teenagers, because it probably would've killed her, had it been a regular thing.

----

Being with Katie turns into an unintended process of self-discovery which doesn't end with them sorting themselves out; rather, that one small step kickstarts a whole new type of awareness that builds and builds for months.

She learns things about herself, like that she's not an inherently jealous person at all and that was just something to do with Emily, because following Katie to her studio, holding Jimmy's hand and walking five paces behind her simply because Katie's in some sort of deadline stupor--and it makes her stalk, angrily plant her heels into the pavement like it's done something to hurt her personally--she realizes that half of London is at best appreciating, at worst mentally undressing her partner, and she finds she doesn't care at all.

Instead, her mind lingers on the word partner, and when Katie's got the locks undone and is impatiently gesturing them to come inside, Naomi lets go of Jimmy's hand and waits just long enough for him to toddle off into the main room before pressing Katie against the door and kissing her, hard and fast and with barely hidden intent that will have both of them on edge for the rest of the day.

"Fucking hell. What was that for?" Katie asks, wiping a bit of lipstick off Naomi's mouth when they detach with a wet pop, and Naomi just shrugs helplessly.

"You look--I don't know," she finally says, and then just lets her eyes roam for a second until Katie's expression softens and she smiles, for just a beat.

"You've got a memory for the important things, don't you," she says, and even though that's not really the point at all, Naomi can't help but smile back.

She learns other things, like that she's growing to be quietly confident in her own ability to make this work, simply because Katie lets her know where they stand. She learns that she never really got a proper chance to be young and in--well, something--because all the feelings in the world weighed down heavily on her the entire time she spent with Emily; first because fleeing was exhausting, then because denial was even worse, and even when they eventually got together, the longing for more in Emily's eyes never once faded far enough for Naomi to feel certain of anything.

Katie, on the other hand, makes breathing easier; somehow knows how exactly to lighten a mood that seems overly serious, or how to let it play out when it's just right.

Sometimes, they fuck incredibly slowly and Katie will stare her down the entire time, regardless of who's on top or who's touching who, and it makes Naomi want to start rambling about everything she's thinking, so much at once that her throat locks up over it. It's so heady, that unexpected rush of feeling that flays her when Katie really looks, that the most she can do is bite her lip and close her eyes when it becomes too much. When she opens them again, though, Katie will invariably be smiling; once, she says something like, "me too, yeah?" and Naomi stops trying to cover up what

she's feeling so much.

Other times, they neck like randy teenagers. Jimmy will be in bed, they'll pop in a DVD or something, and because nobody's ever told her how to properly do this, Naomi just can't figure out a subtle way to say, hey, maybe we can kiss a little. Instead, all she's got is this incredibly obvious arm-around-the-shoulder thing, or sometimes just an arm-on-the-back-of-the-sofa thing, and if anyone tried either on her--especially at this age--she'd probably start laughing. But Katie just bears it; the faint upward twitch of the corner of her mouth all that gives her away, really, before she shifts in closer and lets Naomi's arm settle, responding easily to the small tug on her upper arm that means now, please.

Naomi pulls away first most of the time, flushed and heavy, and reaches for the remote just seconds too slowly, because Katie always tosses it to the other end of the sofa before levelling her with a teasingly serious look. It'll be all, "I'm watching this, yeah" or "Don't get your hopes up", and Naomi will grumble faintly before falling back against the sofa, which just makes Katie laugh and settle against her. All of it makes her feel lighter than air, really, and she can't say why, just knows that she appreciates this--the levity, the way that Katie really shouldn't be the first person she's with to make her feel this relaxed but somehow is, the way that Katie's managed to hold on to what made her fun in the first place despite having many reasons to lose sight of it--in ways she can't verbalize.

The last thing she learns is that she hates Emily a little, for nearly convincing her that something can't be the stuff of dreams and grandeur unless it hurts constantly. It means she's incredibly slow to catch on to the fact that she's happy.

----

When she finally clues in, though, the next step is rather obvious and terrifying at once.

"Katie," she asks, and Katie looks up from her sketchpad, peers over her glasses before pushing them up and Naomi smiles almost instinctively. "I've been wanting to ask."

"Hm?" Katie responds absently, pencil twirling between her fingers impatiently.

"I know you don't want to tell your family, but--the next time you go to Bristol, do--" She stops and frowns. "Well, would you mind letting my mum see Jimmy? She's heard a lot, and--"

Katie puts the pencil down after a few seconds and then smiles faintly. "Are you introducing me to your mother, babe?"

Naomi shifts, increasingly uncomfortable the longer Katie just stares at her with that half-smile. "She--I mean, I can't think of anyone more likely to just roll with this, you know? To not balk at how fucked up it is when you think about it. I don't know. She's put up with me being miserable for so long that I think it's only fair that I show her that..."

"That what?" Katie asks, and Naomi shrugs.

"That I've found a place where I'm not so miserable."

Katie's lips twitch briefly and she picks up her pencil again before responding. "All right. ... I am kind of curious to see if it's hereditary, so why not."

"If what is?" Naomi asks, knowing full well she's being set up for something, but it doesn't really matter what with the way Katie's cheeks just barely dimple as she responds.

"Horrible taste."

Naomi throws a pillow in her general direction.

----

People make the comparison all the time, mostly unwillingly.

Naomi spends most of the morning silently pleading with her mother that she won't.

Somehow, she can't imagine it turning out in Katie's favor often, not even when Katie's on her best behavior, because Katie doesn't go walking through life looking she really just needs someone to hold her hand and make things all right; Katie looks like she would kick you in the nuts if you got in her way, and it doesn't elicit the same kind of inherent willingness to like.

She almost sighs in relief when after introductions and a little fawning over Jimmy, her mum just says, "You designed that dress that Naomi wore to that AIDS benefit two years ago, didn't you? It was stunning."

Best Behavior Katie blushes in response, before saying, "Naomi made it work; without her, it was just a dress."

"Tell me about the process, would you?" her mum asks, and when she and Katie settle at the kitchen table--tea already poured and waiting--Naomi considers the existence of God for about two seconds.

Then, she just takes Jimmy by the hand and shows him her old bedroom.

"It's too pink," he says with a scowl before sitting on her bed and bouncing experimentally.

"Yeah, I know," Naomi agrees after a second, and then gets on her knees and digs out a box she hasn't looked at in eight years.

"Wha's that?" Jimmy asks; repeats it until he's got the T in after a look from Naomi, and she sits down next to him with three books and a folder.

"Once upon a time, I knew a very sick boy, and he liked it when I read to him," she says, after a moment, and Jimmy looks at her with a frown.

"I like when you read, too," he says.

"I know. I thought you'd like the books he liked. What do you think?"

Jimmy looks at them sceptically for a moment before shrugging his little shoulders and scooting further up the bed. "Okay, but use voices this time, okay? It's no good unless you use voices."

Katie finds them half an hour later, with Jimmy borderline asleep and Naomi flipping the page in a worn copy of The BFG with tears in her eyes.

"Your mum's amazing," she says, softly, and then settles on the bed next to Naomi--looks at the book curiously and then at the picture she's using as a bookmark, and just makes herself tall enough to kiss Naomi's cheek, once. "And so are you, babe."

"Shh," Naomi says, and smiles at Katie when Jimmy sits back up a second later and looks around confused. "We were just getting to the good part, weren't we, little man?"

He nods after a second, and then squirms over Naomi's lap until he's between them.

----

Katie heads home to have dinner with her folks after a few hours, and after giving her mum a very heartfelt hug when she just says, "I think you complement each other well" instead of any of the hundreds of things she could've said about Emily, Naomi heads out for drinks with Tony.

He looks rather awful, and she buys the first round after giving him a hug, too.

"As it turns out," he says, slowly, and then darkly puts the glass back down on the table, "I'm getting a divorce was shorthand for eventually my husband will find out about us and I will end things immediately."

"Oh, Tony, I'm sorry," she says, and then watches as his face contracts for just a second before he manages to rein it in.

"Can you just tell me what it is I'm doing wrong? I mean, not just with her--but with you?"

She takes a deep breath and looks away from him; stares out the window into the rain, and unwillingly wonders whether Katie's strangling her mum yet or if they're secretly getting along, like she suspects they do. "It's not anything you're doing. Women are just--ridiculous."

"Are they?" he asks after a moment, and she reaches for his hand but he pulls it away before she can get to it. "I don't know what world you're living in, Naomi, but I'm fucking surrounded by women who are making it work. With each other. And half of them aren't even gay. I mean, what does that say about--"

"First of all, your sister was a bit of a snot as a teenager, but she's obviously bisexual, and always has been; and as for Katie, well, what can I say. I'm a brilliant shag?" she says, and then sighs when he just shoots her a completely unimpressed look. "Tony, it's honestly not you. I spent years wishing I was in love with you because you're the perfect guy for me. I just apparently don't want the perfect guy, but that doesn't mean that someone else won't."

"Whatever," he responds and finishes the rest of his beer without comment, before running a hand through his hair--too long, she thinks, and then opts not to say anything because if anyone knows how annoying it is, it's her--and sighs. "I'm sorry, fucking hell, I know I shouldn't be taking this out on you. I've always been Michelle's first choice, unless the second made a better offer, so. I don't even know why I'm surprised."

"Think maybe you should stop seeing girls you've known the bulk of your life, Tone?" Naomi suggests, and he smiles faintly.

"Wouldn't that be going against the grain."

"I mean it, though; how about you try not perpetuating our little circle of Bristolian near-incest. I mean, just because it's worked for the rest of us doesn't mean it's actually normal, in any universe."

Tony reaches for Naomi's cider and she pushes it over with an eye-roll and a smile.

"Thieving bastard."

"An old friend's invited me to come to New York for a few weeks," he says after a moment. "It's not the anti-Bristol, exactly, but she and I weren't ever all that close..."

"Sounds like it might be healthy," Naomi says.

"Well, shit, does it involve running? Of course you think it's healthy," Tony responds with a laugh.

"How long did you think you could be my best friend without some of my awful habits rubbing off on you, Stonem?"

"I just hope they haven't permanently transferred," he says, sobering almost immediately. "I mean, you're settling in, aren't you. With Katie."

"Yeah," she says, and can't help a rather stupid, dumb smile at the thought of it--making a home, building a life, having a family. "I think I am."

"I won't pretend that it doesn't smart, you know, knowing that I never made you look like this," Tony says, not looking at her. "But--fuck me, Campbell, I just don't know how to not be happy for you. You rotten twat."

"I'm sorry," she says in response. "Please don't ever call me that again, also; what a visual. God."

"Ha. Fancy kicking my arse at pool?"

It's a rather blatant peace offering, but she'll take it. "Always."

----

She turns 29 in two weeks, and can only think of one thing she'd like to do.

"Come away with me," she proposes over milk and cookies. "For my birthday."

Katie doesn't immediately respond, just passes another cookie to Jimmy who dips it in his milk very, very slowly, to make sure it doesn't get too soggy.

"Kay, I mean it; come away with me," Naomi repeats, and Katie just raises her eyebrows.

"Where to? On one of your jungle journeys? I'd rather--"

"Anywhere. Okay? All three of us." When Katie still doesn't look particularly interested, Naomi reaches for her hand and tries to explain the best way she know show. "I've--I've been everywhere, all right, but it's never been for the right reasons, or with the right people. I know you've got work, and I know Jimmy's got school, but those are just details. I want to be able to say that I've just once gone abroad and it wasn't because I was--"

"Nowhere where we'd need vaccinations, or where we might get eaten by like, a fucking dragon or something. Okay?" Katie interjects, and Naomi finds herself suddenly having to swallow hard.

"I'll make a plan," she finally says, when she thinks she can, and then feels her heart flip in her chest all over again when Jimmy wordlessly hands her a pre-dipped cookie with a very serious expression on his face.

"That's a perfect one," he tells her, and she says, "Yeah, it is", before taking a bite.

----

The world hasn't seemed this large, this endless, this fucking exciting since she was sixteen and couldn't wait to get out of Bristol, because there hadn't been a goddamned thing for her to stay around for.

She revels in it, and when she's narrowed it down to three choices, she outlines every one of them to Katie in bed, one every night for three nights, with so much enthusiasm that, after three nights, Katie can't even really resist anymore, and in the middle of kissing and casual touching that won't stay casual much longer, they settle on Croatia, because it's got something for all of them, or perhaps just because Katie makes a rather encouraging noise at the exact time when Naomi happens to mutter it against her neck.

It doesn't really matter.

----

It's taken two days of persuasion, but Katie's toned down to factor 15 and with a somewhat caustic look in Naomi's direction, settles on the towel without further complaint.

Naomi just laughs and takes Jimmy by the hand, and by the time Katie switches over to her front they've already got a fairly solid sand castle built; Jimmy asks for a photo of it and Katie instructs them to pose by their handiwork, and Jimmy settles on Naomi's lap so swiftly before pointing at the tower that still needs to be a little higher that she can't really help the completely stupid look on her face when Katie snaps the picture.

They look at it later, after a cosy Italian meal out on the waterfront, where the waitress is completely taken with Jimmy even though their ability to communicate confines itself to "spaghetti". Jimmy's been tucked in, and they spend the rest of the evening out on the balcony, polishing off a bottle of wine and watching the sun finally set.

Katie hands the camera over wordlessly, and she's completely taken aback by the adoring look on her face. When she looks back up, it's almost mirrored on Katie's, and she feels her eyes well up unexpectedly before shutting the camera off again.

Katie doesn't say anything for a long time; just runs a hand down Naomi's arm, pressing their palms together at the end. But then, finally, with a deep, grudging sigh: "Fine. We can go explore that fucking cave tomorrow, okay?"

"I really don't care if we do, hon," Naomi responds, after a few minutes, and when Katie looks like she's going to snarkily point out that it's all Naomi's talked about for days--Dante was there!--she just smiles and shakes her head. "Sometimes, I'm just not in touch with what will make me happy, okay?"

The sun's set by the time Katie finally speaks again. "When we get back, I'm telling Emily."

"All right," Naomi says, carefully, but it's not surprising that Katie clings to her incredibly tight when they finally settle in bed--as if this can't possibly last much longer, and not just because cold, dreary England awaits them.

----

"Just don't, okay?" Effy urges, a third time, and Naomi sits back with a sigh.

"Ef, you're going to have to give us a reason."

"Or what? You'll just bloody call her next, blurt it out over the phone?"

"No, of course not," Katie snaps. "Ef, I know you've been with her for a long time, but she's still my fucking sister, okay?"

"I know that," Effy says, sharply, and Naomi can't honestly remember Effy sounding more brusque about something than she does now. "Look. Christ. There's just--reasons why this is the worst possible time, okay? You've already failed to fill her in for most of the year; a few more months won't hurt."

"Months?" Katie repeats, sounding completely put out, and Naomi puts a hand on her back, presses down until Katie swallows the rest of her complaint.

"We live in fucking Scotland; I'm sure you can manage," Effy says, and then sighs.

"God, you guys, please. I've kept this a secret for how long now? And trust me, I will pay the price for that eventually, so when I ask you to just trust me on this, can you please just--"

"Yeah, Ef. Sorry to push," Naomi says, and shakes her head at Katie.

"Whatever." Seconds later, Katie stalks off to the kitchen.

Effy sighs loudly on the other end of the line. "I'm sorry if--"

"No, I'm sorry," Naomi says, firmly. "I never should've gotten you involved in this--"

"Just do me this one favor, and we'll call it even, okay?" Effy says, and Naomi agrees before hanging up.

Katie's shoulders are so tense that for a second she's not even sure if she should approach, but when she cautiously wraps a hand around Katie's waist, Katie relaxes into her almost immediately.

"What the fuck was that about?" she asks, sounding more worried than upset.

"I don't--"

"I mean, is Emily ill? Why the hell would--"

"Katie, I don't know, and it's not none of our business, okay? If Effy had wanted to tell us she would have."

Katie rubs at her eyes but then covers Naomi's arms with her own, staring out the kitchen window all the time. "Fuck's sake, I just want to get this done with, you know?"

"I don't think a little more time will make it any worse, to be fair," Naomi responds softly.

"No, you're right. It's going to be a giant fucking nightmare either way."

"We'll deal with it, Kay," Naomi says.

Katie doesn't respond. Instead, she untangles after another moment and announces she's going to take a bath, and Naomi stands in the kitchen by herself for ten long minutes, willing herself to believe that it doesn't mean anything, that Katie wouldn't just assure her that things will be fine.

----

She's lived out of luggage for so long that packing is an almost automatic process, but unpacking even an overnight bag, knowing it won't have to be re-packed any time soon, still feels thoroughly foreign.

"I'm running out of space," Katie says one evening, when they're on the sofa, and Naomi takes a sip of wine before raising her eyebrows. "Every time you've stayed over lately, you've left whatever clothing you had on you here. I'm running out of hanging space."

"Oh," Naomi says, and then frowns. "I'm not quite sure if this is a hint or if you're just saying something."

"I think what I mean is that I need more room," Katie says, gently, and then folds her legs up under her body, finishes off the last bit of her wine. "I don't want to push things, and so don't think that I am necessarily asking you to move in, but since you virtually fucking have already, we need someplace larger."

Naomi narrows her eyes for a moment before smiling. "Sometimes, I wish one of us was mental, you know? Like Emily, who would just blurt out an invitation and then deal with the aftermath."

Katie snorts. "Well, go for it."

"I have this... rather large, mostly unused apartment. It comes with a lot of storage," Naomi says after a long moment, and raises her eyebrows after.

Katie leans in for a kiss. "As charming a non-offer as that was, you seem to be forgetting that my family doesn't know about our--"

"Ah," Naomi says, and frowns again. "Yeah, fuck. You're right."

"Don't think I didn't appreciate it, though," Katie says, and takes the next swallow of wine straight from the bottle. "I think I'm going to see if I can find a house, somewhere further north; you know, let Jimmy play football in the garden so I can stop worrying if he's going to get run over by a souped-up Vauxhall anytime in the near future."

"That sounds like a good idea, even ignoring your closet space," Naomi says after a moment.

"And you'd come with us?"

"What, to look for the property? Sure," Naomi says, and then laughs when Katie levels her with an incredibly impatient look. "How about you not be a coward, Kay, and actually ask."

"Fine. I'm tired of you fucking carting your shit back and forth and cluttering up my fucking bathroom with things you swear you'll be taking home eventually. So let's just get a bigger place, and--"

"You're completely ridiculous," Naomi interjects, and kisses Katie's muffled protests away.

----

The little things clue her into the large changes.

Jimmy refuses to eat his peas and Katie won't be home for hours, and only after Naomi's sent him up to his room and has put the remains of his dinner in the fridge does she realize that she totally managed without any help, and unthinkingly did exactly what Katie would've done in the same circumstance.

She's not proud, exactly, when she tells Katie later that evening, who just rolls her eyes and says, "It's always the fucking peas, innit." Maybe it's more like relief, that this is turning out to be a natural process after all.

She stops worrying about whether or not she can be everything they need her to be, and looks at the calendar on the fridge for so long the next morning that Katie ends up snapping her fingers loudly just to get Naomi's attention.

"You that interested in the daycare cycle?"

"No," Naomi says, after a long beat, and then hesitates. "The parents evening, actually."

"Oh," Katie says after a long pause. "Right, that is this week."

"Can..." Naomi starts saying, and then has to clear her throat. "What happens at those, exactly?"

Katie looks at her for a long moment. "Come find out."

"All right," Naomi says after a second, and then finishes her cereal silently.

The extent of gratitude Katie feels becomes clear later that night, when Naomi has to plead for her to stop, barely managing to get the words out because of her thundering heart rate and the complete lack of air in her lungs. Katie bites down on her thigh moments later, soothes the bite mark with a kiss, and Naomi laughs tiredly when she finally can.

"Jesus, Kay, what the fuck?"

"Nothing," Katie says, and then smiles, presses a soft kiss to Naomi's stomach before shifting up further. "Sometimes I just actually like you, yeah?"

When Naomi rolls her eyes, Katie laughs and kisses her again and again, teasing, small kisses that eventually break through Naomi's resolve to not laugh, and when she does, Katie looks so fucking pleased with herself that the only thing she can think to do is kiss her again.

----

It's been a month since Croatia, and almost nine months since they started--she can't even really think of it as shagging anymore, because that's just one small part of what they do, albeit a very enjoyable and necessary one.

She casually suggests going out to dinner, and Katie purses her lips without looking up. "Babe, this is a really bad time of year."

"You're just attending," Naomi retorts, and Katie shoots her a look that doesn't need a verbal you imbecile attached to it.

"Just order some bloody Chinese or something, if you're that keen on eating something I haven't made," she mumbles a moment later, and Naomi--torn between being the tool who wants to celebrate almost nine months or just relenting—crankily sits back down on the sofa.

It's silent for a long moment, Jimmy's cars crashing into each other aside, and then Katie clears her throat. "It's a plus one."

"What is?"

"The fashion show. I'm not presenting, yeah, but I'm helping Alex with his show because his usual assistant's on maternity leave; I'm considering it repayment of having been a tutee or whatever. And he's got me two tickets."

"Ah," Naomi says, and gets up with a sigh for the takeaway menus.

"So--I know you like, won't understand anything, and God, you are not dressing yourself, but I was going to take Patrick but he's seeing some guy who works for Stella and he's already got an in, and Matthieu is doing accessories for Paul Smith, so--"

"--so, since everyone else alive is unavailable, I'm welcome to join you? You flatterer," Naomi says, not bothering to hide her amusement.

Katie rolls her eyes. "You can also not come. I just thought--"

"Promise me extremely sarcastic running commentary and I will happily spend our nine month anniversary at the London Fashion Show."

Katie looks up so sharply that her glasses fall off her nose and then scoffs rather unconvincingly. "Christ, that's not a real thing. Who the hell celebrates nine months?"

"As your son would say: awesome people," Naomi informs her as seriously as possible. "Won Ton Soup? Yay, nay?"

"Just get whatever; you know what I like," Katie responds, failing miserably at sounding put out--as if the blush on her cheeks isn't giving her up to begin with.

----

The tie falls to the floor with one last tug and Naomi finds herself shoved backwards until she's lounging on the stairs, feet askew on the floor.

"You didn't tell me there'd be an open bar, I would've been so much more enthusiastic knowing I was going to be seeing hideous skirt upon skirt while completely pissed," she says teasingly, in between kisses, and after a second Katie starts laughing, too. It's probably just the champagne, but they've been giddy and ridiculously flirtatious--which she never is--for hours, and something's going to have to give really soon if the look on Katie's face is any indication.

"Fuck's sake, I can't straddle you in this dress," Katie says, a moment later, and then moves as if to tear the seam, but Naomi grabs her hand.

"Don't be ridiculous--it must have a zipper... it's not actually painted on, is it?"

"Whatever--just--" Katie says, and then just leans forward again, hovers over Naomi and braces herself on her arms. "Do what you can."

"You hussy," Naomi says with a laugh, but gamely slides her hand up Katie's thigh anyway.

It's not taking much; after just a few minutes of kissing and slow, deliberate stroking,

Katie slumps on top of her and sighs. "Better," she says, and then laughs helplessly.

"Jesus, thanks for reminding me why it's actually a good thing that you usually dress yourself; I have been dying to get out of there for hours now."

"That's--almost sweet, darling," Naomi responds with a chuckle, as Katie sits up and kisses her lips, just a peck, before smiling. "Keep working at it, I'm sure you'll eventually find some way to actually make me feel good."

Katie's smile turns sly. "Are you suggesting I don't already know several ways to make you feel good?"

Naomi grins. "Insert your own joke about oral ability here?"

"Ugh," Katie says, rolling her eyes. "Get up; I want to get out of this bloody dress."

They almost run up the stairs, shushing each other the entire time, until finally Katie closes the bedroom door behind them, tugging Naomi forward by her waistband.

"Happy nine months, you ingrate," she says, with an almost fond smile, and then looks Naomi up and down one more; appreciatively slowly, to the point where Naomi almost blushes. "Fuck, I'm a fucking genius."

"If I promise to keep telling you over and over that your brilliance is stunningly unparalleled, can I perhaps entice you to stop staring and start doing?"

There's some benefits to dating someone in fashion, Naomi thinks; open bars, free clothing, but most importantly, she's never known anyone who can undo buttons faster than Katie can.

----

The house is lovely.

Katie gives her a tour when Jimmy's still at daycare, and drags her from empty room to empty room.

"And, I thought--an office. Well, your office," she says, at the last one, after just a moment of hesitation, and Naomi manages to fight the urge to snog the hell out of her for almost five seconds.

"You're not worried?" she asks, when they're back in what will be the living room, sat on the floor together just staring up at the ceiling--some damp stains that will need painting, but there's no structural damage and it's actually all rather exciting, the chance to make something pre-existing theirs.

"About what, buying property?" Katie responds.

"No, about--" Naomi starts to say, but then doesn't quite know how to finish.

"A few months ago, I said that I didn't think this was where I was supposed to be. Do you remember?" Katie says softly after an extended moment; it's not exactly the most promising start, and Naomi looks away deliberately. "And then much more recently, you said something moronic about not knowing about the things that make you happy, or whatever."

Naomi can't help laughing. "Yeah, and?"

"And," Katie says, slowly, and then smiles. "Maybe we have something in common after all."

Chapter Text

Everything's in place. More or less.

They sink down on the sofa together, crack open a bottle of Merlot, and drink silently.

"That painting's so crooked," Naomi says after a moment. "Look at it."

They glance at each other for a second and then start laughing.

"I'm never moving again," Katie announces with a deep sigh.

Naomi can think of about twelve witty responses and one true one. "I don't think you'll have to."

They fall asleep on the sofa, and only wake up when Jimmy climbs on top of them the next morning.

----

Naomi only hesitates for about five seconds before calling the sitter, who recognizes her name after just one repeat, and then cheerfully announces her availability, wink almost implied in the, "don't worry, it's no bother at all having him here."

Katie's home late and after a few minutes of wandering around the house, looking up at the ceiling somewhat miserably because it's quite clear who's going to be in charge of painting it, eventually, Naomi decides to just change into something more comfortable. She wakes up when Katie kisses her, and looks at her sweatpants with a raised eyebrow.

"God's sake, they're comfy."

"They could fit three of you," Katie observes, and pulls on the waistband demonstratively.

"Maybe I just like them oversized so you're free to do that, you know, whenever."

"Mmhm," Katie says, and then snaps the elastic back. "Is Jim in the garden?"

"No, at Melanie's," Naomi says and then shrugs when Katie looks at her in surprise. "I don't know. I wanted a night alone, maybe." When Katie continues staring at her, she rolls her eyes. "And, fine, Tony gave me some spliff the last time I saw him and I'd like to get totally fucked up without having to worry about explaining why we both have demon eyes to the kid."

Katie laughs. "There, that sounds like the truth."

"It's blueberry flavored, apparently. He's got a mate who brings it in from Amsterdam, says it's absolutely fucking mindblowing."

"And how long has it been since you've smoked up?" Katie asks, not quite containing a grin.

"Christ, we're not that old."

"Less than, what, five years?"

"I hate you," Naomi mutters, and then purses her lips when Katie just laughs.

"I reckon I've still got some papers. Somewhere."

Naomi's lips twitch unwillingly. "From when? Before Jimmy's birth?"

"You underestimate us," Katie says and then smiles faintly. "Probably the weekend before--before the party, actually."

"Such role models," Naomi says, staunchly, and then digs the baggie out of her pocket, drops it down Katie's bra. "Really, if I hadn't been here all these years--"

"Oh, shut up," Katie laughs and then gets back up. "I'll go check James' desk, okay? Be right back."

----

The weed's indeed excellent, and they're incredibly fucking high, in their underwear on the floor next to the bed, with Naomi sort of propped up against it and Katie on her lap, staring at the ceiling with a vacant expression on her face.

After a long run of silence, Katie shifts a little, rubs at Naomi's calf, and then mumbles something that almost sounds like, "I miss Cook, sometimes."

Naomi just ruffles her hair. "Of course you do. You loved him very much."

Katie tilts her head back to look at her with unfocused eyes and then reaches up to pinch her in the cheek. "Cock, you idiot. Not Cook."

"Ohhhhhh," Naomi says, and blinks; thinks brogues and strap-ons completely unwillingly and then realizes that it's possible that she's giggling.

"Christ," Katie says, but it's not very admonishing when she's grinning stupidly herself.

"In what sense? Do you miss it, I mean?"

Katie snorts laughter. "Of all the stupid questions--what do you think? I don't fucking miss seeing it."

"I don't know; I could get a rather inappropriate placed tattoo, if that's what--" She trails off when Katie jabs her in the side rather hard, but then they're both laughing again.

"Don't lesbians like, have gear or something?"

"Gear? It's not fucking mountaineering."

Katie rolls her eyes. "What the fuck, how should I know--I'm not the one who's been shagging girls since age 17."

"I've never, uh--" Naomi says and then blushes to her own mortification. "Well, Christ, it's not a fucking requirement, okay? I've never got around to it."

"But you're not like, opposed to it?" Katie asks, fingers trailing to the back of Naomi's knee, and she squirms.

"I don't ... well, no, I don't think I am," she says, slowly.

"'cause I'm not saying that I'm not like, happy with the other stuff, I just--"

Naomi chuckles. "Katie, I've shagged significantly more blokes than girls, okay? Don't worry."

Katie takes a deep breath and then settles again. "All right. Get it sorted, then."

Naomi almost asks when this became her responsibility, exactly, but when Katie rolls over onto her stomach and raises an eyebrow at Naomi's knickers, it seems like a rather silly thing to be wondering about.

----

The discussion arrives unannounced, really; it's just like any other dinner, with both of them bemoaning that Jimmy just won't eat, and trying to carry on a normal conversation because sometimes ignoring him completely is the only thing that works.

"Patrick told me that the open auditions for the next Project Runway start soon," Katie says, and Naomi stares at Jimmy until he pouts and sticks his fork into some noodles.

"Whereabouts?"

"You just send a tape, you know, a biography and like, here's what I make and so on. If I had time I'd totally do it."

"Why wouldn't y--Jim. You can't just have cheese. Either you have some cheese with the pasta, or you don't have cheese." Jimmy doesn't respond, just sulks with his hand almost in the grated Parmesan, until she says, "I mean it" and he pulls it back with a sigh.

"If I have two more pastas, can I have more cheese?"

Katie hides a smile behind her hand. "Angelic, isn't he."

Naomi makes a face.

----

Later that night, Naomi props herself up on an elbow. "I think you should do it."

"Do what?"

"Audition," Naomi says, smiling when Katie scowls at her for a second but can't keep it up when Naomi's fingers run down her side, teasingly. "I think you're brilliant—for television, that is; I'm still not sure about your clothing--"

"Oh, shut up," Katie says and shoves Naomi's hand away. "I was obviously joking when I said it."

"Yeah, so?" Naomi says; shifts around until she can kiss Katie's shoulder, who sighs impatiently but then twists her neck away a little anyway, making space for Naomi to move closer.

"So--I can't just, fuck off to the United States for however long. What would I do with Jim?"

Naomi's lips still and she clears her throat. "I'm right here, you know."

"Naomi," Katie sighs and shifts down, kisses her softly before pulling back. "I don't think I can convince my parents and my sister that they don't have to worry about Jimmy because my friend will be watching him."

"Oh," Naomi says, and rolls onto her back. "Yeah. You're probably right."

"Whatever. Heidi's kind of a bitch anyway," Katie says after a beat, and puts her head on Naomi's shoulder a little tentatively, until Naomi sighs and wraps an arm around her shoulders.

"I don't think we can hold off on telling people--"

"I know," Katie says, sharply. "I'll talk to Effy soon, okay? Find out what the hell is going on with them."

They lie together silently until Katie shifts up and looks at Naomi a little accusingly.

"And for the record, fuck you, Campbell; like, what, just because I point out an obvious flaw in your stupid plan, I don't get any?"

Naomi tries not to laugh for a whole three seconds; ends up doing it in a kiss, until Katie's laughing as well.

----

"He could stay with your parents," Naomi says over breakfast.

"No," Katie says, shoots Naomi a look that means drop it and Naomi rolls her eyes before finishing her cereal.

----

"Or maybe in Scotland, with the lesbians," she suggests over dinner.

"First of all, calling them that is ridiculous, and second of all, which part of no are you having difficulty with?"

"Whatever," Naomi mutters after a second, before getting up and putting her plate in the sink.

"Whatever," Jimmy echoes, and Naomi turns around just in time to see Katie hide a smile; the glare's back in place when they lock eyes.

----

"I really think--"

"Oh, for God's sake," Katie snaps. "I'll do it, all right? The first person to have issues with you having Jimmy, you get to talk to."

"I'm sure nobody will care," Naomi says after a beat. "I mean, everyone knows that we're close, and you can tell people some bollocks about not being able to get him out of school or whatever, and it'll be fine."

"Right, well, fine, then. I guess I'm auditioning," Katie says, and then bites her lip for a long moment.

"It's okay to be a little excited," Naomi says dryly, and watches as Katie's face breaks into the kind of grin she hasn't really seen on her since they were teenagers; since they abhorred each other.

It's funny how time changes things, she thinks, even as Katie pulls her into a crushing hug seconds later and they almost roll off the bed together again, just barely stopping on the edge.

"We've gotten much better at that," Naomi exhales with a soft laugh, before pressing a kiss to Katie's chin. "Not breaking our necks, I mean."

Katie presses up on her elbows, hovers over her with an unexpectedly soft smile. "We've gotten much better at lots of shit, wouldn't you say?"

----

Katie refuses to let her participate in making the audition tape.

"No, I mean it. It's going to be fucking ridiculous, all hammed up, you know what Americans are like--and anyway, seeing your face would just make me laugh," she says, entirely affectionately while making Jimmy's packed lunch. "I'll sort it out, okay? My minions can help me."

"Minions," Naomi grins. "Geez. What do you call me when I'm not around?"

"Wouldn't you like to know," Katie says with a smug little smile; it lasts until Naomi prods her in the side with an exaggerated scowl.

----

Jimmy turns six.

Rob and Jenna manage to entertain all twelve kids without issue, and it means that for once, Katie doesn't transform into a completely paranoid freak, but instead sits back and watches her son's birthday with something akin to enjoyment. It would be the best party yet, if everyone else was having a good time, too.

Emily and Effy, however, look completely strung out--in different but equal ways--when they finally arrive, hours after the party has started. There's nothing particularly weird about how they greet Naomi and Katie, though Effy's hug is perhaps a bit unusually tight, but it's only when Naomi catches Katie's eye and raises her eyebrows that she becomes convinced that she's not just imagining it; Katie looks after Emily with such a blatant look of concern that Naomi actually feels compelled to tell her to let it be, for now, and that they can talk after the party.

When Jimmy's sugar high has worn off and they've waved Rob and Jenna off back to Bristol, she finally finds the time to slip out for a fag with Effy, who hasn't stopped looking out of sorts all day.

They smoke together quietly; one cigarette, then almost an entire second one, until Naomi can't stand the silence anymore.

"You can tell Katie, or you can tell me, but we need a reason, Ef. We don't want to keep lying to her about this, and I frankly would think that you'd be relieved if we stopped," she finally says, when it becomes clear Effy isn't going to talk.

"Two months after Emily's last birthday, we found out she was pregnant," Effy says softly. Naomi almost says congratulations, but then does some quick math and realizes that Emily would be showing by now, if they were in order. "We've been trying for almost two years, and it finally took."

"What--" Naomi asks, and then just waits, watches as Effy looks away and bites her lip.

"Three weeks before your phone call, she miscarried. It was the second time, but she'd almost made it through the entire third trimester so we didn't think it--" Effy swallows and stops talking.

"Oh, Jesus, Ef. I'm--"

"It's fine," Effy interjects, in a painfully neutral tone of voice. "You wanted a reason. You got--"

"Oh, fuck off," Naomi says, flicking her cigarette away, and then pulls Effy into a hug. "Who do you think you're talking to?"

Effy cries silently; the only way that Naomi can even tell is because her shoulders--and she's still so thin, too thin almost--are shaking, but she pulls herself back together within about a minute, just releases a huge shudder and then wipes at her eyes, twice. "Things aren't so good between us. I don't--it's not anybody's business, but the last thing we need right now is more things to fight about. Can you respect that?"

"I'll talk to Katie. Okay?" Naomi says, and presses a kiss to Effy's forehead. "Fuck's sake. I'm so sorry. You two would be wonderful parents."

Effy lips flicker in and out of a smile. "We have some good examples to live up to, don't we."

----

Once back inside, Naomi pulls Katie aside in the hallway.

"What--" Katie starts to say, and Naomi shushes her.

"Did you know they've been trying to get pregnant?"

The surprised look on Katie's face is more than enough answer, as is the way it shifts quickly into dismay.

"I'll clean up, hon. Spend some time with Ems alone, yeah? Get drunk, eat some ice cream or something."

Katie nods and takes one step back into the living room, but then turns around and hugs Naomi so tight that she can't breathe for a second.

"I know," she says softly, and closes her eyes until Katie pulls away.

----

Life becomes entirely routine.

Naomi's appalled and relieved at how much she fucking loves it: going to work at the same time each day more or less, sometimes walking Jimmy to school first, sometimes watching Katie do it instead, sometimes opting for a morning off simply because she wants to lie in bed and listen to Katie bitch about her leaving crumbs everywhere, other times opting for a morning off because Katie's got a deadline and Jimmy's at home sick.

Every day when she's on the Tube in rush hour, her crankiness lasts only as long as it takes her to remember that she's got a place to go to now, to look forward to going to.

Sometimes, she hears the executives around her whinging to their secretaries about jet lag and frequent flier miles, and can barely even remember what her life was like then--it feels like a decade-long haze that she only recently woke up from.

Every day when she gets home--home--she's smiling, and one day Katie just looks at her with a questioning expression on her face.

"Isn't your job like, deadly dull?"

"Oh, yeah," Naomi says, finishing up a carrot and then pushing the entire cutting board over to Katie's side of the counter.

"So--why do you always look so goddamned happy when you get home?"

Naomi shrugs, feels the smile widen. "I figure one of us has got to stop being such a negative tart if we're not going to drive each other mental."

Katie scoffs. "Compared to you I'm normally a ray of fucking sunshine. Are you on drugs or something?"

"Or something," Naomi responds, and then abandons the pretence of cooking altogether, just lifts Katie up on the counter and kisses her until Jimmy skids around the corner and makes an exaggerated ewwww noise.

----

The phone call comes on a Sunday afternoon; they've taken Jimmy to the zoo, and it's hard to tell who's enjoying it more--Jimmy or Naomi--but when Katie excuses herself for a second, making a manic face at Naomi while walking backwards away from the sea lions, and Naomi tries to keep watching her face but Jimmy's tugging at her arm rather insistently.

"Look--it's flying!" he says and she turns her head, watches as the sea lion flips backwards in the air and catches a frisbee.

"That's awesome, right?" she says and Jimmy nods excitedly, pulling on her hand so hard it almost hurts.

It's only seconds later when she gets squeezed from behind in something resembling a running tackle.

"You got it?" she manages to ask, and turns around to find Katie crying and nodding and smiling and looking completely fucked up; the happiest Naomi has ever seen her, and it's rather wonderful.

"What's wrong?" Jimmy asks next to them, looking worried, and Katie bends down, picks him up, and hugs him to her so tightly that Naomi wishes she had a camera--it's not a moment she'll ever forget.

"I'm going to be on telly," Katie says, and Jimmy twists around until he can look at Naomi, who just nods to confirm they're not fibbing.

"Are you going to be on Blue Peter?" Jimmy asks, and Katie laughs.

"Nooo. I'm not good enough to be on Blue Peter."

Jimmy frowns for a moment, but then smiles. "That's okay. It's still cool."

"Very cool," Naomi agrees, and kisses Katie by the sea lions, to the sounds of whistles and Jimmy's ewwws.

----

It doesn't seem real until Katie's packed suitcase is stood in the corner of the bedroom, and they're both looking at it from bed.

"I didn't even realize you had suitcases," Naomi says, and tries not to sigh.

"It's only four weeks, babe." Katie shifts and then pulls on Naomi's chin, kisses her softly. "You'll hardly know I'm gone."

Naomi rolls her eyes. "Have you met yourself?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just, I don't know. You're rather--unforgettable, I think."

Katie fights a smile. "I'll choose to take that as a compliment, yeah?"

Naomi considers a joke for a minute, and then can't quite bring herself to make it; feels her chest tighten at the idea of a whole month, just her and Jim, with him constantly wondering when exactly his mum is going to be on telly. "Kay, give me a break; what the fuck else would it be?"

Katie looks at her, blinking rapidly. "Fucking hell," she says after a moment, in a thick voice, and then they have to stop talking altogether, because there is just too much and not enough to say in words.

----

Jimmy holds her hand at Departures, and waves excitedly until Katie's gone through security, but then pulls on Naomi's hand. "When's she coming back?"

"Four weeks, Jimbo," Naomi says, and he looks up at her and frowns.

"That's too long."

"We'll be all right, won't we?"

He nods after a second, but then looks up with a very worried expression. "You're the one who leaves. Mum always stays. Why is she going this time?"

"It's just this once, and she's doing it so she can be on telly, and get better at her job."

"But she's already awesome at her job," Jim counters, and Naomi tries valiantly not to smile.

"You and I know that, but now other people will too, when they see what she can do."

"Okay," Jim says after a second, and then eyeballs Naomi until she almost flinches away from him. "But you're not leaving, right?"

"No," Naomi says, and tangles their fingers together. "I'm not going anywhere."

----

They make do.

Katie's absence is like a hole in their household; Naomi fights hard to stay as bright as Katie manages to be around Jimmy, but it's just not in her, and in the end they end up bonding primarily over a shared sulk resulting from Katie's absence.

Katie calls the first night, says it's their lunch break, and asks how things are going.

"I'm a shit parent," Naomi says grumpily. "I made him cry twice today."

"How?" Katie asks, obviously trying not to laugh.

"I didn't let him miss school, and then he got upset because he wanted you to watch

Blue's Clues with him and I said that he couldn't."

"Oh, yeah. You're a real failure," Katie says, and after a second Naomi laughs.

"I'm not feeding him peas the entire time you're gone. Fuck it."

Katie laughs. "Look at you, completely failing to man up. Wee bit pathetic, Naomi."

"Whatever; I don't even care that we both need you here."

The line stays silent after that, until Katie hisses, "You cunt, I'm surrounded by my direct competition, who are now all going to think I'm some ridiculous crybaby", followed by a desperate sniff.

"Please. Two minutes in your presence and they'll know the truth," Naomi responds, and then smiles, knows Katie's rolling her eyes, trying not to be chuffed. "Want your kid?"

"Yes please," she says, simply and eagerly, and Naomi has to take a deep breath before she says something else dumb, sets Katie off crying again.

----

In week two, Jimmy loses a trainer somewhere, and cries until Naomi promises she'll find him new ones, better ones. Going out shopping had been the one thing she thought she wouldn't miss about Katie being gone, but as it is, she's got Jimmy in one hand and a purse in the other and is heading out on the tube anyway.

"What color, Jim?" she asks him when he's looking around the carriage, legs bouncing off the seat, and he scrunches up his nose for a moment.

"Blue," is the answer, as she expected it would be, and flicks on her iPhone to look up a few addresses that might sell fun trainers for kids near Oxford Street while they head further into London.

In the end, they end up at a Schuh with a decent-sized kid section, and Jimmy tries on three different pairs of shoes before looking at Naomi for an opinion.

"They're all nice," Naomi says, and shrugs. "Your choice, Jim."

"I don't know," he says, with a deep sigh, and then kicks his feet up.

"Want to think about it for an hour?" Naomi offers, and Jimmy shakes his head.

"I want you to help me pick."

"All right..." Naomi says, and takes the first pair--a blue pair of classic Adidas--off his feet. "Well, these make your feet look really big, but they've got a neat profile on the bottom, and I like the white stripes."

"Me too," Jimmy says, but then holds up the blue/orange Tigers. "But I also like orange. And this stripe is more awesome."

"But the soles are really thin. If you walk on a lot of rocks--"

"I don't walk on rocks," Jim counters, and Naomi laughs.

"All right. So those are cooler than the Adidas ones, right?"

He nods.

"And what about the Nikes?" she asks.

He looks at them for a moment and then sighs. "Tom McKensie has ones like that."

"Okay, and we don't want that. So the Tigers?"

"Yeah, I think so," Jim says, biting his lip, and then nods.

"Good job," Naomi says, and then holds up the winning shoes for the saleslady to go ring up.

"Your son is absolutely lovely," she says, and Naomi verges on elaborating or explaining, but then Jimmy just reaches for her hand and tugs on it impatiently and all she can manage in the end is a smile.

She doesn't let Katie know, when she calls that night; thinks maybe this is just one of those things she'll remember for herself, and it'll be meaningful indefinitely because of it.

----

In week three, Effy calls.

"Emily thinks you're--well, I don't want to be rude, but the basic gist of it is that she'd like to make sure Jimmy's still alive."

Naomi rolls her eyes. "Christ. When are you due in?"

"I'll be in Bristol; haven't seen Tony since he's been to the US--"

"Ooh, how was that?"

"Lovely, apparently," Effy says dryly, and then laughs. "Nevermind, long story."

"So it's just me and your wife?" Naomi asks carefully, and Effy's "yeah" is so apologetic sounding that Naomi decides to man up for the occasion.

"Well, things have been better of late, between me and her, I mean. I'll bear her idiotic dating questions and--Ef, Katie's telling her as soon as she gets back. We just can't--"

"No, you're completely right," Effy says, and then sighs deeply. "It's been too long.

And it's not your problem, how I handled it."

"Don't be silly; of course it will be. Haven't you figured out that we're just fodder in their relationship, at the end of the day?"

Effy laughs. "God, that's horrible."

"It's why we stick together, Lizzy."

Effy hangs up and Naomi goes up to Jimmy's bedroom; watches him hole up under the covers, picture of his parents on his nightstand.

"Story time?" Jim asks, and Naomi smiles softly.

"We've figured out you can read, you know."

"So? It's better when you do," he says, and she gets Matilda out; reads the first two chapters until he puts a hand on the book and looks at her.

"I want a picture of you."

"A picture--"

"For the collection," Jimmy says, and points at his nightstand.

"Okay," Naomi manages after a few beats, and Jimmy takes his hand away and nudges her.

"What does she do next?"

Naomi hands the book over. "I'm tired, Jim. Why don't you tell me?"

She watches him stumble over the longer words, but in the end he gets them all, and when she tells him he did awesome, he beams at her in a way that trips her heart up completely.

"I love you, little man," she says, tucking the covers around him, and he smiles sleepily.

"You too, Nae," he responds, and she watches him drift off for about five minutes, wondering why she hasn't told him before now, if it's this easy.

----

Emily looks equal parts anxious, tired, and apologetic about being there, and Naomi's resolve to be civil but distant wavers significantly.

"You okay?" she asks, holding the door open, and Emily produces a faint smile.

"Thought I'd be asking you that."

"Yeah, well--you've had a rough few months, if not years, haven't you," Naomi says softly, and Emily's face tightens, before she exhales slowly.

"Things have been better, yeah," she responds, and then shakes it off. "But really--how are things going here? According to Katie he's hitting the terrible twos at age six, so--"

"We're fine," Naomi assures her. "The trick is not to feed him peas."

Emily laughs. "Geez. I hear parenting isn't supposed to be that simple."

Naomi almost slips up, but catches herself just in time. "Yeah, Katie's lucked out with this one."

"And with you," Emily says, with a smile. "Really--there's being a good neighbour, and then there's--"

"Em, honestly," Naomi says, and counts to five in her head. "She would've done the same for me, yeah? And Jimmy knows me well, and I live nearby. It's absolutely no hardship."

"Okay," Emily says, after a moment, and then smiles. "So where's Jim?"

----

She walks in on the conversation just seconds too late. And it's ironic, really, that they'd worried about Jimmy accidentally giving them up when he was four and didn't talk all that much, but that she hadn't considered what he might say for a second now that he's six and a relentless chatterbox.

"--but it's okay because Nae came downstairs with me and helped me fix it."

"Downstairs?" Emily asks, sounding confused. "I thought this was your morning cartoons, Jim."

"Uh huh," he says, and Naomi freezes in the doorway, clutching the duster almost ridiculously hard as Emily's face slowly moves from denial to complete and total comprehension.

"Jim--does she normally sleep here?"

Jimmy looks at Emily like she's gone nuts. "Duh," he says, and if it wasn't the worst moment of her life, she'd laugh at the clearest hint of Katie she's seen on him in a while.

"When your mum's here? In the guest room, you mean?"

Jimmy's frown deepens. "Do you make Aunt Effy sleep in the guest room?"

"Jim," Naomi says, or croaks, rather. "How about you go brush your teeth, pal?"

"All right," he says after a few seconds, and then pauses in the hallway. "Nae, did I do something bad?"

She shakes her head at him and then looks at Emily, who won't look at her. "I'll be up in a bit, okay?"

Jimmy nods and disappears upstairs, and Naomi waits. Waits for a long time, and then finally says, "Emily--" but is stopped by Emily's hand.

"Just--" Emily says, and then takes a shuddering breath. "Don't talk to me."

Naomi makes it to the bathroom just in time to swoon with acute, relentless nausea, hitting her hip hard against the sink; clutches at her phone and is about to dial Katie when she realizes she can't, because with the time difference they're probably still taping, and then she just feels helpless tears well up because the other people she could call--Effy, Tony, her mum--wouldn't be able to say a goddamned thing to make this better, at all.

She drinks two glasses of water and brushes her teeth before heading over to Jimmy's room; he's already in bed in his pyjamas, waiting to be tucked in.

"Is it not okay? That you sleep in Mum's bed?" he asks, and she just about manages a smile.

"No, of course it is, kiddo. I think you just surprised Aunt Em, that's all."

"Okay," he says, somewhat doubtfully, and she kisses him on the nose.

"It'll be fine, okay?"

She doesn't really know who she's assuring.

----

Emily's pacing when she gets back downstairs, twenty minutes later, like the coward she apparently can't stop being around Emily no matter how much everything else changes.

"Em," Naomi says, and then sighs. "Jesus, I'm not even the one you should be talking to about this, but please fucking say something."

"Say something?" Emily responds lowly, and then laughs. "God, if you knew what I was thinking, you really wouldn't be inviting me to do that."

"I didn't like, force your sister into this, okay? It just sort of--"

"Oh, give me a fucking break. Katie, with a girl? I don't even know how you fucking managed this, but you're going to have to get me really fucking drunk if you want me to start believing this was her idea."

"It wasn't," Naomi says softly, and then sighs. "It wasn't--like, Jesus, Em, I didn't plan for this, okay?"

"It's sick," Emily snaps at her, eyes welling up but it's clearly with anger, not with grief.

"What the fuck do you--" Naomi starts saying, but she doesn't get any further.

"You think I haven't known all these years? That you still look at me in a way that you shouldn't? That you can't stand that I'm with Effy, that you fucked Tony on and on because he's the only sodding idiot alive who would've stayed with you even though you were clearly in love with someone else?"

Naomi takes a staggered step back. "Emily, what--"

"I pitied you, okay? I felt guilty, for loving someone else more than I loved you, and I figured that if I just gave you enough fucking time--"

"I have no idea--" Naomi manages to interject, even though she feels like she can hardly breathe.

"You must think I'm really fucking stupid," and Emily shudders visibly, and then just looks like she's going to throw up. "I never thought you'd sink this low, though. Is it that easy to pretend that she's me, then? Does it make you fucking feel better?"

It's then that Jimmy appears at the bottom of the stairs, looking like he's going to cry.  "Stop yelling. It's not okay, you shouldn't yell at each other," he says with a trembling lip, and it snaps Naomi out of it completely.

Emily takes a step towards the staircase but Naomi yanks her back by the arm. "No. This isn't your business."

"The hell it isn't; he's my--"

"Think of me what you want, but that kid is my whole fucking life, and I swear to God, Emily, if you try to do anything to take them away from me, I will--" Naomi hisses into her ear, keeping her voice as low as she can, and then just shakes her head, pushes past Emily into the hallway, touches Jimmy on the shoulder once she's next to him.

"It's okay, Jim; we're just disagreeing about something. Let's go back to bed, all right?"

"You woke me up," he says, sleepily and a bit accusatory, and something about the way his little face contracts at it reminds her so much Emily, furiously threatening her downstairs, that she feels her stomach sink just a little bit lower. "I was almost asleep and then you were yelling."

"I'm very sorry," she tells him, and then sits down on the edge of his bed while he clambers back into it. "I'll tell Aunt Emily that this isn't a zoo, okay?"

He giggles. "If this were a zoo, what animal would you be?"

"I don't know, Jim. What do you think?" she asks, brushing his hair out of his face and pulling the covers up to his chest.

"One of those ice bears," he says after a moment, and then pulls at her hair. "They have hair like this, too."

"Fur," she corrects with a smile. "And what about you?"

"A TIGER," he exclaims after a few seconds, and claws at her, with a small 'rarrr' noise that makes her laugh.

"Awesome," she assures him, and he giggles again before smiling.

"Mum's also a bear. But she's a normal bear. Not an ice bear, like you." He looks at her with a frown a second later. "That makes sense, right? If you're a bear then she should be one too."

Naomi bites her lip, hard, dispelling any urge to cry completely. "Yeah, I think so. Though if that's true, how did we end up with a tiger?"

"Magic," he says with a grin, and she kisses him on the forehead before turning off the light.

Emily's watching them from the corridor with an indecipherable expression on her face. Naomi ignores her completely and heads back downstairs, and then hears the front door slam a minute later.

----

Effy shows up three hours later.

"I hear you're a fucking pervert; any idea what Emily's on about?"

Naomi almost laughs. "Cat's out of the bag, Ef."

"Ah," Effy says, and sighs. "Jesus. Where did she go?"

"No idea," Naomi says. "I figure you can just, you know, ring your bell, and she'll come running."

Effy's gaze sharpens just for a few seconds. "I know she's not right, but lay off her. It's my fault she feels completely blindsided by this, and well, can you blame her?"

Naomi sighs and leans against the wall heavily. "No. Of course I can't. I just--fuck, Ef, I wish Katie were here. They could duke it out amongst themselves. She's certainly never going to believe me when I tell her this isn't about her."

"She'll have to, eventually," Effy says, darkly, and then shakes her head. "Christ. I know we're friends and all, but sometimes I really wish you'd have just never come back from Africa. No offense."

"None taken," Naomi says, and watches as Effy heads back down the street, punching buttons on a mobile phone just seconds before lighting a cigarette. It's like watching a vacuum in time and space, almost, and meanwhile there she is, fucking wearing an apron and cleaning the kitchen with an almost manic determination because a menial task is about all that's keeping her mind from snapping in half.

Found her, will be in touch, Effy's text follows an hour later, and Naomi heads up to Jimmy's room; settles in the rocking chair Katie used to read to him in, and only falls asleep when it's already light out.

----

Tony comes to visit, by request, and Naomi basically has a meltdown the minute he's in the house.

He strokes her hair and lets her cry it out and then guides her into the living room, sits down on the sofa with her.

"It'll work itself out; you surely know that," he says, and Naomi rolls onto her back, looks up at him with an eyeroll.

"What gave you that impression? Your sister's relentless calm in the face of disaster?"

Tony almost flinches and then smiles wryly. "I see you're a bit out of the loop. My sister is currently losing her mind up in Scotland, alone, because her partner of give or take thirteen years decided she needed a bit of space what with everything that's happened."

Naomi sighs and feels a new wave of tears come up. "Fuck, Ant, I had no idea. I'm so sorry."

"They'll sort it out; from experience, Effy is exceptionally good at apologies when she has to be, and she'll make this one better than all the rest, I'm sure," he says, soothingly, and then clasps Naomi's shoulder. "Have you told Katie yet?"

"No," she says, and sighs. "I didn't think there was any point; I mean, what is she going to do from New York?"

"It's probably for the best. How's it going, anyway? The show?"

"She can't say," Naomi says, with a sigh. "But judging by her mood in the past two days, the happy days are over."

"Still, that means she made it pretty far," Tony says, and Naomi nods.

"What about you? How was your New York adventure?"

Tony's face softens so abruptly that Naomi feels a pang on regret, at never having been able to give him enough where he looks this happy and relaxed, but just like that it's gone. "Good. Very good. I mean, it's complicated, but I think--well, we're working something out, I think."

"You and..."

"Cassie," he says, with a faint smile. "It's weird, really, but not all that strange; after my accident, you know, when I got hit by the bus, she was probably the only one who didn't expect me to be okay after I got all my motor functions and memories back. I think she understood, in a roundabout way, that some things only look okay."

"Effy called her proper mental and a bit of a space cadet," Naomi confesses, and Tony laughs.

"Yeah, I suppose that used to be accurate. She's grown up a bit; just like the rest of us."

"Most of us, anyway," Naomi says, and sits up. "Fuck's sake, I can't even get completely pissed; wouldn't be so good for the six year old. Being an adult blows, Ant."

He laughs. "On the bright side, at least you've got a constant excuse to play Snakes and Ladders if you're so inclined--that's got to count for something, right?"

"Oh, that's subtle," Naomi says, with a laugh, and then gets off the sofa. "If you find the six year old, I'll find the game, okay?"

"Deal," Tony says, and for just about three seconds, Naomi feels better.

----

Katie returns on a Saturday; navigating the Tube with Jimmy is a total clusterfuck, and she's knackered by the time they spot Katie popping out of the customs area, looking completely exhausted.

It's ridiculous how much they both perk up when they see each other, Naomi thinks, and then gives in to it; meets Katie halfway and hugs her so tightly that Katie ends up going, "Jesus, I can't breathe" and only then does she take a step back--let Katie pick up Jimmy, and something in her world settles, just in that minute.

"You two okay?" Katie asks, looking curious, and Naomi nods even as Jimmy says, "Don't leave again."

"I won't," Katie says, and kisses him on the nose.

----

Selfishly, ridiculously, Naomi postpones the discussion.

They make love first, twice, and only when Katie reaches up with a tired hand and pulls Naomi's hair behind her ear does she realize she really can't not say anything.

"What's wrong?" Katie asks, watching her face fall, and Naomi takes a deep breath.

"Emily knows," she confesses, and feels Katie stiffen--her fingers stopping in their trail down Naomi's neck completely, hovering in place on her pulse. "Jimmy inadvertently told her that we slept in the same bed pretty much always, and it didn't take much for her to piece things together after that."

"How long ago?" Katie asks, letting her hand fall back onto the duvet, and Naomi rolls onto her back.

"A week."

"And you didn't--"

"No. What would you have done?" Naomi shifts until she can look at Katie from the corner of her eyes. "I didn't want to fuck up a once in a lifetime thing for you, okay? Not when you can deal with her now, when you're here."

"Christ," Katie says, and Naomi watches as her eyes tear up, as she rubs at them.

"Hey," she offers, and touches Katie's shoulder tentatively. "Don't be upset--"

"I'm not, I'm fucking exhausted, and I didn't need to hear this right now, okay?"

"I didn't want to make the same mistake Effy made for months on end and lie to you about it."

Katie laughs brokenly. "Oh, yeah. Because this is all Effy's fault. It's not like we're both functional adults, and could've just bloody told her when it first became an issue."

It stings. "We agreed that we'd follow Effy's lead on this, didn't we?"

"Yeah, we did," Katie says, and pinches her nose. "Fuck, she's never going to forgive me for this."

"Surely--" Naomi starts to say, and Katie levels her with a piercing look that she doesn't really understand, but it shuts her up.

"You never understood us; don't start pretending that you do now, yeah?"

"Oh, thanks. That's not at all condescending." Naomi shakes her head, shifts onto her side. "I may not understand, but I know enough to know that this--you two being all torn apart over this, it's going to be the end of us. Isn't it?"

Katie blanches. "What a fucking horrible thing to--Jesus, I haven't even spoken to her yet--"

"That's not exactly a denial, now is it," Naomi observes, and wonders how her voice sounds so fucking cold when the rest of her feels like it's going to obliterate into a million pieces.

"She'll fucking come around, okay? I've never--Emily always comes to see things my way, it's how things fucking work," Katie responds, almost desperately, and Naomi closes her eyes, swallows hard.

"Yeah. But what if just this once, she doesn't, Katie? What if she never comes around?" Naomi asks, even though she doesn't think she wants to know the answer.

Katie doesn't say anything; just pulls the covers up to her chin and rolls onto her side, and Naomi falls onto her back after a minute.

"Good to see we've come such a long way since college, really. That's incredibly fucking encouraging," she says, and then gets out of bed, slams the bedroom door when Katie still refuses to respond to her.

Chapter Text

It's not until she's back in Glasgow that she dares to consider the bigger picture of what Naomi has told her; how her infatuation, and where it appears to be going, is going to affect the rest of them.

Emily looks beyond thrilled to see her--kisses her hello, hugs her tight, and then says, "Guess what?" in a tone of voice that almost shatters Effy's heart in just one go.

"You're sure?" she asks, wondering how it is that something she didn't ever think she wanted now makes her voice crack, ridiculously and unwantedly, and when Emily nods, there's not really words for what she's feeling at all anymore.

Fred darts out between their legs, and Toby sniffs at Effy's hand until he's determined she's fit to be there, and she stares at Emily's stomach and realizes this is surreal, all of it. The timing, the tidings, and what it all means.

It's not really a choice, that first time, to not say anything. "Can we celebrate?" she asks, and Emily laughs and takes off her glasses, pulls Effy in closer by her coat, and kisses her so hard that Effy's ears start to ring.

"Of course we can," she says.

And so they do.

----

When Naomi calls, sounding incredibly surprised that she's somehow managed to pull off some snogging, and much less so that Katie threw her out without any finesse the next morning, Effy mentally starts a countdown timer.

"She was joking, right?" her assistant, Karen, asks.

"What?" Effy asks, and has to focus hard before she even hears the question.

"About being your wife's ex-girlfriend?"

Effy smiles faintly. "She really wasn't."

"And you're friends?" Karen blinks and then laughs shakily. "Wow, that must get complicated sometimes."

"Sometimes," Effy agrees, and realizes she can't say anything to Emily--shouldn't, anyway--until Katie's made up her mind, one way or the other.

----

She gets the call at work, and almost gets hit by a car trying to catch a bus to the hospital immediately.

Emily isn't crying, not when she first gets there, and she forces herself to not start, either.

"Do they have any idea--"

"No," Emily says shortly, so wan that Effy can barely stand looking at her. "It might be stress. It could be anything. It's apparently not uncommon if you've had difficulties."

For the first time in a long time, Effy wishes she was someone else; wishes that Katie was here, maybe, because she'd be able to offer Emily the kind of support she needed, by being empathetic, and visibly equally upset. But then Emily reaches for her hand, knots their fingers together so tightly that it hurts, and her face crumples.

Effy does what she can, on the edge of the bed, feeling emptier than she ever has.

----

They go on.

Emily refuses to discuss pregnancy for about a month, but then rolls over in bed one morning and says, "I'm not interested in giving up this easily. Are you?"

There's all sorts of reasons to say yes--Emily's health, their sanity--but the determined look on her face is incredibly compelling.

"No," she says, firmly, and when they make love it seems more ridiculous than ever that it's just not happening as it should be.

----

"It'll happen when it happens," she tells Naomi, who is whinging about the lack of sex, and Effy would find it all very funny if not for Emily's endless doctor's appointments and the increasingly long silences over dinner.

"Well, Christ, I'd like for that to be sometime prior to menopause, so I'll actually enjoy it."

"Naomi--she's giving you a shot. Katie isn't even the slightest bit gay, and she's giving this a go because she loves you. Why can't you just be happy that you've got that much?" Effy finally snaps, exasperated, and the line is ominously silent for a long moment.

"Are you all right?" Naomi finally asks.

"Yeah, sorry--it's been a long few weeks," Effy says.

"A simple 'stop your moaning' would've sufficed. And anyway, I got a hand up her shirt a few days ago, so I suppose not all is lost."

Effy laughs, almost. "I remember when that used to feel like an accomplishment."

"Oh, fuck you," Naomi says, amiably enough, and hangs up.

Effy looks at a calendar full of red crosses, and wonders what the fuck possessed her to draw them in red; it seems like inviting trouble.

----

They walk the dogs, in the streaming rain, and Emily reaches for her hand.

"I'm worried about Katie," she says, out of nowhere, but that's not unfamiliar; Effy's gotten used to Emily thinking about Katie in the background almost constantly over the years.

"Why?"

"She--seems so isolated. When I ask her how she's doing, it's always just work, and then the occasional mention of doing something with Naomi, but--really, you know, it's Katie. That's no way to live."

"If it makes her happy--"

"Miss I Haven't Not Had a Boyfriend Since I was Seven?" Emily asks, raising an eyebrow, before whistling for Toby to come back to the path.

"People change, Emily," Effy says, carefully, and then wonders if perhaps this is the time to bring it up.

"Yeah, well. Not this much. I mean, the idea of Katie being permanently alone is almost as ridiculous as Naomi settling down and having a family, wouldn't you say?"

Effy tries not to sigh; curls her fist around Fred's leash and realizes that this is all going to end incredibly poorly, even though it's none of their business.

----

"Em--" Effy starts, but Emily shakes her head.

"Don't you start with me too. It's bloody ridiculous, the way she's using Naomi as a co-parent just because she happens to be around. And what the fuck is that going to do for Jimmy, in the end? Naomi's not reliable. Jesus, she's never in the fucking country, and you think it's a good idea for my sister and our nephew to start depending on her for anything?"

Effy changes gears and says nothing.

"I get not--not moving on, I mean, there's more of that around us than I like, obviously," Emily says, incredibly bitterly, "but I don't see how that can ever excuse exploiting a friendship like she's doing."

"Maybe it's by mutual agreement," Effy says, neutrally.

"Oh, of course. Because the girl who couldn't bring herself to care enough about your wonderful brother to stay in this fucking country is overwhelmingly interested in making my sister's life easier. Do you not remember how much they used to loathe each other?"

Effy bites down on the inside of her cheek and then turns to look at Emily, briefly. "I also remember how much you used to love Naomi. Are you implying that's not changed, either?"

"Oh, thanks, that's real bloody fair," Emily sighs, and slumps against the car door.

"Just observing."

"If you honestly think that I still haven't figured out that she never could've made me happy the way you do, or given me the life that I obviously want for myself, you're an idiot, babe."

"And yet you can't accept that maybe, it helps her, being around Katie and Jimmy and--"

"Even if it does, it's still not fucking good for either of them. Friendship can't replace love."

The entire rest of the drive home is spent in somewhat uncomfortable silence, filled entirely by the things Emily doesn't know, and Effy can't quite bring herself to bring up, not when Naomi is completely right about how well they're going to be received.

----

They talk about it while cooking.

Effy's chopping up an onion when Emily says, "What is your limit?"

"For what?" she asks, and feels the first prick of tears, but ignores it--runs the tap, goes back to it.

"How long can we try before it starts--being a problem?"

Effy carefully puts down her knife and then looks at Emily. "I didn't realize this was something optional for you."

Emily stiffens and then deflates, all in the span of a second. "It's not."

"So we try. Until something says we can't anymore," Effy says.

Emily swallows hard, and then looks up with such a helpless expression that Effy

wonders where, exactly, she went wrong this time. "And what then?"

"I don't know, Em. We find a plan B."

The stare Emily directs at Effy's mid-section is so resentful that Effy forces herself to ignore it; goes back to her onion and cuts open her thumb, feels it sting vindictively for minutes after Emily's rinsed it off and covered it with a plaster.

----

They're in the car, on the way back from the hospital; Emily's leaning heavily against the door, and Effy's feeling so faint that she doesn't really know what to say.

"Why won't you just try?" Emily finally whispers, forehead pressed against the window, and Effy sighs.

"I thought we'd--"

"It's fucking ridiculous. So you want to be a parent, but only if I give birth?"

"It's not that simple," Effy says, and idles in front of a red light. "I--Emily, if I thought this could work out for us, you know I'd offer, but I really just don't have any desire to be pregnant. None. And I feel like it would just end poorly."

"Yeah. Because this is going so swimmingly," Emily says, sounding choked up, and then rubs at her face.

"If you are the one who wants to have the baby, I don't see how me offering--"

"Jesus," Emily says, and then whips her head around. "How can you be so cold? It's our baby, Effy. It's not my baby. If that's how you honestly feel, I'm not sure I want to have a child with you."

Effy says nothing.

Two minutes later, at the next stop light, Emily says, "I need some air" and heads out the car.

Effy stares down at her own stomach, and wonders how long she can keep being right without it costing her her marriage.

----

Effy buys flowers, and a book of baby names, and says, "I do want this. Just because I don't want to be pregnant doesn't mean that I don't--"

"I'm sorry," Emily says, and cries.

They're exhausted.

----

Jimmy turns five, and on the way over, Effy says, "Do me a favor, and don't pick another fight with Katie about how she's living her life today, yeah?"

Emily smiles wryly. "How is it that you manage to make me sound like I'm a crazy shrew for being worried about my sister's happiness?"

"Em, please. There's been too much fighting lately already--"

"I know. And you were right, you know. It's none of my business. Katie seems—all right, better than she has in a long time, lately. It's--I'll leave it alone."

Effy almost sighs in relief, but ends up just gripping Emily's hand tightly.

----

They watch Katie and Jimmy together, and after a while Emily gets up abruptly and leaves the room.

Effy follows her, and then hugs her from behind when she can see her shoulders shake.

"I'm not--I know this is a horrible thing to say, but she didn't even want him, Effy. How can something like that turn out so well and how can we still not--"

"Shh," Effy says, and squeezes tighter, as there's just nothing else to say.

----

In the hotel, afterwards, Emily plays with her fingers as she smokes out on the balcony, and then finally kisses her neck.

"Katie seemed--better. Like she's finally over it, I mean, as far as she'll ever be. Or was that just me?"

Effy thinks about Naomi's shy smiles, the brief but frequent touches in passing, and Jimmy's obvious happiness at having not one but two parents, and kisses Emily's forehead.

"No. Not just you."

She goes down on Emily later that night; lingers on her stomach, presses her lips against it and mouths please, because there's only so much more of this they can take.

----

Effy's painting a kitchen cabinet when Emily comes back, and turns around and scans up and down quickly.

"Short--I like it," she says, and expects to be kissed in turn, as she normally would be, but instead the small frown at the bridge of Emily's nose just isn't going anywhere and she purses her lips, stares for a moment.

"I was browsing through the most recent issue of Hello! at Aveda; it was all about the London Fashion Show, and--Katie took Naomi," she says, slowly.

Effy tries not to stiffen, but carefully puts down the paintbrush and hops on the counter instead.  "Naomi doesn't strike me as the type to be interested," she says, neutrally, and Emily

nods.

"No, exactly. That's why it's--well, whatever. I just wonder why she didn't tell me. She'd normally take the opportunity to make a crack about Naomi and fashion, you know?"

"Hm," Effy says, and shrugs. "Maybe she's over that."

"My sister? Not being a twat?" Emily responds, sceptically, and then finally breaks out of it--laughs. "You're funny, babe."

Effy smiles. "Maybe Naomi suddenly gained an interest in fashion."

"Ugh. I don't get it at all, you know? Them being friends. And I recognized the cut on Naomi's jacket; Katie made it for her. Sometimes, if I didn't know better--" Emily starts saying, and then shakes herself out of it. "Well, nevermind."

"I really like your hair," Effy says, after a pregnant pause, and then finally gets her kiss.

It doesn't quite feel as good as it should, though.

----

The contrast with the last time is almost hypnotic.

Emily runs to the bathroom shortly after breakfast and throws up everything she ate, and Effy thinks virus rather than pregnant because that's just how things have gone.

Then, she feels her forehead, which is neither hot nor clammy, and they frown at each other.

"I don't think we should be frightened, rather than interested," Effy finally says, and Emily sags into her arms, stares at the tiles in the bathroom.

"How can we possibly be anything else?" she finally responds.

The next day, and the day after that, she throws up again, and Effy brings home a pregnancy test from work, when it finally seems like they're not going to be disappointed.

----

They don't dare open the book with the baby names in the first two months, but then in the third, Effy puts it on the nightstand and waits for Emily to do something.

"I think we should call him James," Emily says, late at night, curled up into Effy's arm, who very carefully stays away from her stomach, until Emily reaches for her hand and forces her to touch it somehow.

It's almost too much, but then Emily's words register, and Effy feels a bubble of laughter burst somewhere in her chest. "What if it's a girl?"

"It's not," Emily says, confidently, and presses a kiss to Effy's neck. "I can just tell."

They haven't been this relaxed about it in a long time, and Effy wonders if maybe, Emily's going to be open-minded after all, if everything's going this well.

"We should go see Katie's new place sometime soon," she says, after a moment, and Emily looks up at her curiously.

"I thought we'd hold off until Jimmy's birthday--the drive, and everything..."

"Right," Effy says, and wonders how else to start this conversation. "Well, it's probably for the best. I think Naomi's planning on taking them on a vacation sometime next month."

Emily blinks, slowly. "That's an odd way to put it."

"What do you mean?"

"Taking them? Wouldn't you just say she's going with them?"

Effy smiles faintly. "I would, if she wasn't paying for everything."

"Wow," Emily says, and lies back down. "That's--generous."

"She has a lot of money she's not doing anything; the hazard bonuses and all that,"

Effy responds, and waits for Emily to stiffen, but it doesn't happen.

"They're really close, aren't they?" is all she says, and when she shifts, Effy's hand connects with her stomach firmly, and the moment closes.

She just can't do it, not beyond, "Yeah, I guess", which will do absolutely nothing to steer this conversation along.

----

It's month four.

She wakes up abruptly when her knee, pressed against Emily's thighs, brushes past a portion of the sheets that feel sticky and slippery, and feels her heart jump into her throat almost immediately.

"Em," she says, urgently, and when Emily rolls over, she holds her breath and turns the light back on.

"No," Emily says--it's all she says, and just that once.

The rest of what comes out isn't even close to words.

----

"We don't have to go," Effy says, and looks at Emily as she shrinks even further into herself.

"I've told you--it's fine. He's turning six. It's not like it's going to suddenly be--"

"I meant because of all the people who don't know, Em," Effy says. "We don't exactly look--"

"Maybe I'm tired, yeah? Of just being with you, and not having anyone to talk to who doesn't look at me like I--"

"Like you what?" Effy asks, flatly.

"Like I killed their baby," Emily says.

Effy takes a deep breath. "Emily, what the fuck--I obviously don't feel that way at all; if anything, I--"

"Yeah, well," Emily says, and rolls away from her. "It would be nice if I had any fucking idea how you did feel about this, Effy, because I just don't, and sometimes I think you don't give a shit at all."

Effy doesn't sleep. Hasn't been able to in weeks, because every time she falls asleep she dreams about the mattress dissolving into a bath of blood, swallowing them both whole.

----

Naomi holds her, tight, and then forces Emily to talk to someone about it as well, finally, and on the drive home, after the first two hours, Emily reaches for Effy's hand and tangles their fingers together.

"I'm not sure I can do this again," she says, and Effy exhales slowly. "But I want a baby, Effy, and if you're not--if you're still not willing to do this for us, I just don't know--"

The words hang in the air between them, and Effy's fingers grow deadly cold before she pulls them away, changes gears.

----

Emily hangs up the phone and hovers in the doorway.

"Katie's going to New York," she says, and Effy looks up from the negatives she's scanning.

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Project Runway." It's hard to tell how Emily feels; the mixture of disapproval and pride so incomprehensible that Effy opts to just sit back and wait. "I told her we'd take Jimmy, but she turned us down."

"Who's taking him instead?" Effy asks, as if she doesn't know.

"Who do you think?" Emily responds, and then bites her lip. "I--there's--oh, nevermind. I'm sure it'll be fine."

Effy hears bombs exploding in her head, but doesn't know how to stop them from detonating.

----

It's not fine.

She finds Emily in a pub two blocks from Katie's house, on what looks like her third shot of tequila, and if anything is a bad sign it's that--she hasn't had a drop of hard liquor since they realized they were having difficulties conceiving, and this just screams defeat.

"How long have you known?" is all Emily asks when Effy sits down next to her.

"About a year. As long as it's been a issue for Naomi, really. But they've been together for about a year, so it's--"

"Just stop," Emily says, and sighs; downs another shot.

"I should have told you," Effy says, softly. "There was just never a good time."

"They should have told me," Emily interjects, sharply, and then finally directs a look at Effy that almost tears her apart. "You? You should've just stayed out of it altogether."

"Yeah, I should have," Effy says, and then can't help a wan smile. "The extent of my involvement, sadly, is more befitting you than me."

"Effy, I swear--"

"Sorry, poor joke," Effy concedes, and then sighs. "I--how do you feel about it?"

Emily laughs. "Are you serious?"

"We've been--worried," Effy admits, and Emily slams down the shot glass on the bar so quickly that she actually jumps in response.

"Worried. About my reaction--what, so you've been sitting around this entire year talking about poor, judgmental Emily and how she can't handle a fucking thing? Is that what this is?"

"No, of course--"

"I can't believe--after everything you and I have been through in the past two years, you thought this, this fucking ridiculous non-event was something I couldn't handle?"

Effy rubs at her face. "Em, you should've seen yourself around them; the way you glared at Naomi for having a bond with Jimmy, for--"

"I don't have to explain my behaviour to someone who obviously doesn't think I'm capable of being an adult about this situation," Emily says, coldly, and then gets up. "I'm going to the hotel. Perhaps you can bunk with your confidante, because I really don't want to see you tonight."

Effy finishes the fourth shot, already poured, and ends up taking a train back to Bristol.

"I really fucked up," she tells Tony.

"I've got loads of gin that I won't ever drink," he responds.

She thinks to the fourth James with every glass, and then finally cries herself to sleep on the sofa after Tony's gone up to bed.

----

They don't talk about that, or anything, for four days, until Emily drops a plate while doing the dishes and shards splinter all over the floor.

"I think you should call Katie," Effy says, when the porcelain stops ringing, and Emily cuts herself on a shard of the plate in response.

"Do you? Wow. I'm really glad that you think I should talk to my sister about this, because my sister obviously didn't think she had to talk to me," Emily snaps, and Effy sighs; gets the first aid kit, and sits down next to Emily on the floor.

"I can't say I'm sorry, or that I was wrong, more than I have."

"No. And sadly, I can't make you think more of me than you do," Emily responds, and it's so incongruous, how Effy's disinfecting her hand even while they're having this conversation; how she's wrapping a bandage around it while saying, "So where does that leave us?"

Emily flexes her fingers and disintegrates, almost at once. "I don't know, Effy. I want a child, and most of the time I can't tell if you're just humouring me or if you're in this with me. I can't have a child--"

"Em, you don't--"

"Don't I?" Emily says, wanly, and holds out her hand again, palm upwards. "I can't, and you won't, even though you know it would solve most of our problems. But more than anything, I want a partner who trusts me, who thinks highly enough of me to tell me things I probably don't want to hear, and instead I have one who kept someone else's secret for a year because she doesn't. I want--"

Effy ties off the bandage and sits back, closes her eyes. "I really don't know how to make this right. It was a process of--at first there wasn't enough to tell you about; then I thought Katie should do it herself, and then when they finally told me they were going to, it was just after..."

"They're just excuses, Effy," Emily says, and then takes a deep breath. "I'm going to visit Liz and Phoebe for a while. Do some thinking. And then we'll--"

"Don't--" Effy says, and then can't get more words out; just shakes her head and gets up. "Don't say it."

"I never really understood this," Emily says, after a moment, and then looks up so sadly that Effy's heart cracks. "But sometimes, loving someone just really isn't enough, is it?"

Are we even now? Effy thinks, and leaves the room.

----

Tony had suggested a big gesture.

It takes Effy a while to come up with one that wouldn't betray either herself or just disappoint Emily.

In the end, the project takes two weeks to complete, and Emily's still in Southampton, without a single sign of coming home, though Liz has called once a week to assure Effy that she was still in the running, so to speak, and Emily was doing okay.

She loads the dogs into the car and drives down, taking only one break, and glares at Phoebe when the door opens, cutting off any smart-arse remarks about how horrendous she probably looks. "My wife?"

"Uh, in the living room," Phoebe says, meekly, and then opens the door. "You're not like, planning on dragging her back over your shoulder, like some sort of demented cave-woman, are you?"

Effy stares at her. "You know, I've been meaning to tell you this for about eight years now--"

"Oh?"

"You're the single most fucking annoying person I know."

Emily laughs in the next room, and when Effy rounds the corner, she's faintly smiling still. "We had bets on how long it would take you to crack."

"And?"

"I won," Emily says, simply.

"Obviously," Effy responds, and then sits down next the sofa. "Come home, please?"

"Is it still? Home?" Emily asks, carefully, and Effy feels the sting of new tears; dismisses them.

"Don't be daft," she says, and then presses her finger against Emily's sternum; feels the second small key that's rested there, and Emily's slow, steady heartbeat. "It always was, even if I wasn't--"

"Not now, okay?"

"Okay," Effy says, and gets up; holds out a hand, and hangs on tightly when it's taken.

----

Emily cries at the room, and only hours later tells Effy that having a nursery ready doesn't actually solve their bigger problems.

"I've never been good with words, but you thinking that I don't care about—our family is every bit as stupid as me thinking you couldn't handle your sister and Naomi being in a relationship."

"So basically, you're saying we're compatible," Emily says, with a faint smile.

"Just a bit," Effy agrees, and gets a real kiss--soft, loving--for her trouble.

It's a start.

----

Emily refuses to call Katie, and Effy can't bring herself to call Naomi more than a few times, simply because it still feels like choosing the wrong side.

"You're her friend," Emily finally says, over breakfast. "I don't care, you know, so feel free to stop pretending you're talking to Tony once a week now."

Effy almost blushes. "I just didn't want to--"

"Effy, the reason we're in this mess is because you didn't trust me, not because you're friends with Naomi, or with Katie, or with anyone."

"The fact that you refuse to talk to either of them is--"

"Understandable, I think, given that it was their responsibility to tell me in the first place," Emily says, archly, and Effy sighs.

"And how long until you stop punishing Katie?"

"Until I'm sure I can talk to her without just yelling what the fuck over and over again," Emily responds, and then flips the page, gets out a pen for the crossword. "So, fuck only knows."

Effy can't help it; she laughs.

----

Weeks pass, and sometimes Effy forgets that things are not quite okay, but little things tip her off; Emily's stiffening as they pass babies in strollers, or the way she sometimes starts her sentences with, "Katie would--" and then cuts them off abruptly, as if Katie's dead.

Naomi sounds tired, incredibly tired, and Effy feels almost guilty for choosing her own relationship over theirs, but is firm about it anyway.

"I can't get in the middle again," she says, and Naomi sighs.

"Not sure there's a middle to get into, Ef."

Effy takes a deep breath. "You do what you have to, Naomi. That's what relationships are about. You do what you have to to make it through, together. So just--fucking be an adult about it, just once, and give Katie what she needs."

Naomi hangs up, and when Effy looks up, Emily's in the doorway.

"Trouble?" she asks, carefully, and Effy looks at her for a long moment.

"I can hardly tell you if you're still pretending that neither of them are alive, Em."

"Yeah, well," Emily says, and sits down on the other side of the desk. "It's not like pretending is actually going to kill them, so--what's going on?"

Effy relaxes, for the first time in months, and says, "I don't actually know, but I'm sure Katie would tell you if you called and asked."

"Yeah--maybe," Emily says, and almost smiles.

----

She hears from Tony, of all people. Some part of her is pissed that Naomi didn't bother telling her herself, but then Tony only heard from Gina, so God only know what state Naomi is in; the anger gives way to concern almost immediately, and all she can do is rub at her face for a minute before finding Emily in her office, dog asleep by her chair.

"Hey," Emily says, offering a faint smile.

Effy drops the phone on the desk, and grabs both of Emily's shoulders, presses a kiss to her forehead before squeezing gently. "Call your sister."

"Ef, why--" Emily starts saying, her shoulders immediately tensing up, but Effy rubs her thumbs against them until Emily sighs and relaxes against her.

"Naomi's gone. And I think Katie needs someone right now. So be the bigger person, will you?"

It takes nearly a minute, but then Emily hesitantly reaches for the phone, before dialling her sister's number from memory, softly saying, "I'm sorry" as soon as Katie picks up.

Effy whistles for the other dog and takes them for a long walk, and comes back home to find Emily--a little red-eyed, but not looking worse for the wear--waiting in the kitchen with tea. She clips the dogs off their leashes and then sits down next to her, reaches for both of her hands and looks at her seriously.

"I've been thinking. About where we go next, I mean. And I'm not saying it's the same, but I think it might just be right for us."

Emily stares down at their hands and then smiles, a little watery but sincere. "You're not just saying that because--"

"No," Effy assures her, before tangling their fingers together . "I know I haven't always--made it clear, Em, but you're not the only one who--"

She doesn't get a chance to say more before Emily kisses her, then pulls her into a hug that's so tight that she can barely breathe.

"Thank you," Emily murmurs into her neck, and then laughs at the, "For what, the weeks of research you'll get to do? Nerd" that Effy responds with.

The tea's cold by the time one of the dogs licks Effy's knee, and she almost gets sucked back into reality, but then Emily's hands slip under her shirt and with just one look, the real world fucks off into the distance again, where they manage to keep it most of the time they're together.

Emily doesn't say the words; just mouths them, punctuates them with a soft smile that's reserved for Effy alone, and then closes them off with a soft, slow kiss that somehow makes Effy's heart kickstart, speed up and slow down all at once.

"Bed?" Effy suggests when they pull apart, and Emily laughs.

"Since when have we needed a bed?"

"Don't ever change," Effy responds, seriously, and then pulls Emily onto her lap; the kitchen chair teeters dangerously, but much like everything else, they somehow manage to make it work.

Chapter Text

Katie calls Emily the day after she's returned from the US.

Naomi hugs Jimmy tightly when the yelling reaches such a pitch that even two floors up they can't pretend it isn't happening.

She doesn't ask how it went. Doesn't have to.

----

Effy calls a week later.

"Are--has she come back home?" Naomi asks, tentatively.

"Duh," Effy says, but it's not nearly as lightly as she aims for, and Naomi can't help sighing in relief.

"Christ, I honestly don't know what I would've--"

"Don't worry about it. My mistakes," Effy says, calmly.

"Katie--Katie won't even speak about that one time they talked, what happened; do you have any idea?"

"No," Effy says, quietly, and then follows it immediately with a, "Hang on" that has Naomi standing in the kitchen like an idiot, not saying anything but clutching a mobile phone anyway. "Just give them time. Emily's shit at holding grudges, and Katie loves her so much that this can't last forever."

"I'm not sure we have time. We're not--we're not you, Ef," Naomi says and it's horrible, to have to make the comparison once again, to realize that it's still overshadowing everything else in her life.

"That might not be the--" Effy starts to say and then sighs. "Look, I've got to go; as far as she's concerned, I'm talking to Tony, and we never talk this long."

"Yeah, of course," Naomi says, pinches the bridge of her nose. "Thanks anyway. I appreciate--"

"No problem," Effy says, and hangs up.

----

She finds Katie crying next to her sketch pad a few days Effy's non-helpful phone call, and doesn't really know what to say; "things'll get better" seems so hollow, and she honestly doesn't know if they will.

"I'm sorry," she says instead.

"For what?" Katie responds, and wipes at her eyes. "Making me happy?"

"Well, no, not that, exactly..."

"So fuck you, then. And fuck her too," Katie snaps, and stalks off towards the back of the house, where Jimmy's building a Lego castle.

----

Things get bad, but she doesn't even notice just how bad they are until Jimmy sits down next to her on the sofa one afternoon and looks at her very seriously.

"Mum's sad. You should make it better," he tells her, and then pats her on the leg before scooting off and getting his football. "Can we practice?"

She doesn't know how to respond; just follows him into the garden and tells him he's doing good.

At least someone is.

----

They make love in the early morning, with a bit of dawn light filtering in the window, and Katie strains up towards Naomi's fingers but just can't quite get there.

"It's funny," Naomi says, when they've finally given up, and the frustration that has settled between them like a physical entity has grown just a bit larger.

"What is?" Katie asks, already completely not amused, but Naomi just can't help herself.

"I thought the big concern was me thinking about your sister during sex. If only we'd known, right?"

Katie doesn't dignify it with a response; just stares at Naomi until she mumbles sorry, and then gets up altogether, leaving Naomi alone in a bed that almost doesn't feel like hers anymore.

----

The frequent silences, increasingly more unnatural, are killing her.

She grows restless; sometimes finds herself flicking to National Geographic even though there's not anything terribly interesting on just because it shows abroad, and then turns the telly off with a weary sigh after a few minutes because, well, watching hasn't ever changed a goddamned thing.

She suspects that Katie can tell, but doesn't say anything; maybe just because she once said that that isn't what love is about, and they're almost desperate to prove to each other that this isn't less than that.

Maybe, that in and of itself makes the point for them.

----

Finally, something gives, and Katie sighs over a bowl of oatmeal, stirs it aimlessly.

"I'm sorry."

"About what?" Naomi asks, and even Jimmy stops eating--looks at them cautiously, because it's the most they've said to each other at meal time in about three days now.

"I'm sorry that I care this much, okay? About what she thinks. About--her not approving."

"Katie," Naomi says, softly, and then sighs. "That doesn't matter. I wish you'd just--"

"Yeah, well," Katie says, and shrugs. "I don't know what to say."

"Right," Naomi says, and she convinces herself it's progress, of some kind.

"You're being stupid," Jimmy comments, a few minutes later, and then shoves away from the table, glaring at both of them.

They smile at each other a moment later.

"Fuck's sake," Katie says, sounding a bit embarrassed, and reaches for Naomi's hand.

"I know, he sure told us," Naomi agrees, and interlocks their fingers; squeezes tightly.

----

They mend, a little.

Katie doesn't really stop being sad, but Naomi understands wounds that just won't heal, and lets it be--focuses on things she can do, like mowing the lawn without being asked to, and taking a picture of Jimmy scoring a goal at his football match when Katie's cheering too loudly to bother.

"We're going to be okay," she reminds herself, in the mirror, and then jumps when Katie chuckles somewhere behind her.

"Pep talks? You didn't strike me as the type."

"Whatever. Sometimes it helps, you know? Saying things out loud."

Katie stands behind her, and peers over her shoulder, then takes a deep breath and says, "I know Emily has a right to be upset but the fact that she won't talk to me at all just means she's being a stupid cunt."

"Better?" Naomi asks, trying not to smile.

"A little," Katie concedes, and kisses her neck.

----

It's been about a month since Katie's return when it happens.

Her boss--who she doesn't think of by his first name, because he's not Charles, not even close--knocks on her office door and she looks up, spots an oddly pleased look on his face.

"You've heard about the Sudan efforts," he finally says, and Naomi nods after a second. "How would you like to be a part of it?"

"I--" she says and then has to stop, put her pen down slowly. "In what capacity?"

"The Cabinet has just let us know that we'll be sending someone from our office there to oversee the fact-finding mission, in cooperation with the French and the Germans."

"On behalf of the UN, or what?" she asks and he shakes his head.

"Independently; apparently the Prime Ministers are serious about committing to transparent governance, this time," he says with a wry smile, and for the first time ever she almost likes him.

"So I'd have free hand," she concludes, and he nods after a second.

It's an unreal opportunity. The yes burns at the tip of her tongue but stays there, for now, pulled back by a picture of Jimmy on her desk. "How long would I be gone for?"

"Hard to say at this point," her boss responds and shrugs. "You know how it is. The facts either permit themselves to be found, or they don't."

"I'll have to discuss this at home," she finally says, delicately, and he nods.

"We can send someone else; probably ought to send someone more senior, but I remember from your CV that you've got extensive Africa experience and it might come in helpful."

She barely gets any work done the rest of the day; just stares out the window and wonders if it's still running if it's on a set course, and towards something. Wonders how Katie would feel about the distinction.

----

They fuck as soon as she comes home; she feels an instant stab of guilt about delaying the conversation they need to have, but there's only so many people who would say no to, "Jimmy's at a friend's; take off that hideous skirt", especially when directed at them by their partners, just wearing an oversized men's shirt, leaning over the balustrade on the first floor with an impatient look on their faces.

Afterwards--men's shirt tossed onto the dresser, hideous skirt by the door--she can't help bringing it up, even though Katie's just about fallen asleep and well, it's a fucking horrible time to be doing it, but she's aching to take the job, needs to know it would be okay.

"I got an interesting offer at work today," she says, softly, running her fingers up and down Katie's arm.

The stiffening is unmistakable.

It doesn't bode well.

----

Katie slams a cupboard. "I thought you were done with it. Wasn't that the whole fucking point of my birthday present? You telling me that I could stop worrying, that you'd stop being one third of what I fucking need you to be?"

"It's a one off thing, Katie," Naomi snaps back and sits down at the table heavily.

"You're turning this into a far bigger deal than you have to--"

"Oh, am I? And how the fuck would you feel if I suddenly told you not to worry, but I was just going to bugger off to do the New York fashion show, and then the Paris one, and then the Rome one?"

"Why--which part of one off do you not understand?"

"The part where you seem to think I've not known you for most of my fucking life, Naomi," Katie yells, and then pours water out of the kettle so shakily that she burns her fucking hand.

It's enough to stop the yelling; Naomi gets up for a wet cloth without comment and presses it on Katie's hand, then sighs deeply and rests her chin on Katie's shoulder. "I'm--we need to calm down."

"I am calm," Katie says, before taking a deep breath and deliberately lowering her voice. "I just thought--we had an agreement on this. Maybe we never talked about it, but I'm pretty fucking sure that at some point we managed to figure out that family and globe-trotting don't go together."

"I don't think you're being fair," Naomi says with a frown. "I mean, I didn't object for a second when we discussed Project Runway; in fact, I bloody pushed you to do it."

"Four weeks of my life," Katie replies, stubbornly. "Not my entire bloody career."

"This is--I'm not joining back up with Charles, okay. How is it not the same?" Naomi asks and Katie sighs before levelling Naomi with an almost incredulous, but mostly sad look.

"It just isn't. Because I know you, and there's always going to be some crisis somewhere, some fucking children to be protected from crooked employers, some hospitals to be built somewhere, and where do Jimmy and I figure on that list, huh?" Katie shakes her head. "If you start again, you won't stop."

"Katie," Naomi says, and to her own surprise she has to swallow hard before she can continue. "If I honestly have to tell you how important--"

"Just telling us isn't enough," Katie interrupts, quietly, and gets up from the table before Naomi can reply. "Especially not with the way things have been lately."

----

She apologizes the best way she knows how, and tells her boss no the next day.

"Once in a lifetime gig, Naomi; are you absolutely sure?"

She looks at Katie, sleeping with one arm hanging off the bed, and thinks about Jimmy, already settled in for his cartoons, waiting for one of them to join him, and she pushes any thoughts of doing anything else away.

"I'm positive; send someone more senior, yeah?" she says and hangs up.

----

The courting begins a day later.

----

"I'm thinking about going up there," Katie says, after dinner, while they're doing the dishes.

"Where?" Naomi asks.

"Scotland, duh."

"Oh," Naomi says, and almost drops a plate.

"What, you think I shouldn't?"

She thinks about Emily, sitting on the floor next to the front door, hand through cat flap, and then wonders how much they all underestimated that she'd changed, a lot, since then. "I honestly don't know, Katie. You and Em--it's never been like how Effy and I understand either of you, you know?"

"Yeah, well, I don't know her like this, either," Katie says, and then sighs. "I just—why won't she just yell at me about it? If she'd just get it out of her system, or give me a chance to explain, or--fuck, Naomi, I don't even know what she cares about. If it's us, or that we didn't tell her, or--"

"I assume it's all of the above, really," Naomi says, and hangs the dishtowel back up, leans against the counter. "I mean, she--didn't exactly yell at me about not telling her, but I imagine that's an issue as well."

"Right, so I should go explain," Katie says, straightening, and Naomi bites the inside of her cheek; tries not to say anything, but Katie catches her out anyway. "Or--what's that face?"

"I just--we didn't actually do anything wrong, you know? I don't think you need to go grovel."

Katie looks at her for a long moment and then shakes her head. "You're such a fucking child sometimes. Who cares who was wrong?"

Naomi shrugs. "I do. I don't think we owe her that much."

Katie rolls her eyes. "Yeah, well, there's a reason I'm not talking to you about this."

It hurts, more than she can put into words, and she ends up wordlessly just heading back into the living room, to the Cook that hasn't ever told her she's not measuring up.

----

The silences have been replaced by frequent apologies.

"I'm sorry," Katie says, later that night, and leans into Naomi's side. "I'm just--I don't think you'll ever understand, what it's like to have a sister, and--"

"I've known you two for forever, Katie; even if I can't relate, I've obviously seen it enough to know that you and Em are a package deal, so to suggest that it doesn't--"

"No," Katie interjects, and shakes her head. "That's not what I mean, but you really don't seem to realize just how hard it's been to even--decide to be with you. She thinks of you as hers, Naomi, and to be honest, up until recently, so did I. Even though we were friends, even though you barely even spoke to her in those last few years, you always will be a part of her life and what I'm doing, here--"

"It's not about her. It's not about her, Katie," Naomi urges, and then feels tears well up out of nowhere. "I mean, is it? It's not for me, but apparently that doesn't matter, not when--"

Katie kisses her forcefully and closes her eyes afterwards, takes a deep breath. "It'll always be a little bit about her, at least until she learns to accept this. I know it's not fair, but that's what it is. Okay?"

It really isn't, but agreeing is all she can do, the only thing that can be said at this point that won't make things worse.

----

"I think I'm going to call you Shiva, Destroyer of Relationships from now on," Tony says, in a tone of voice that's far too jovial for Naomi's liking, and her silence in response is telling. "What, it was a joke--in poor taste, perhaps, but you used to like that about me."

"I don't know what I'm going to do, Tone. They won't stop asking me to go, and they've now got me doing research on a fact-finding mission that I promised Katie I wouldn't even go on. I've never been so--" She can't even finish her sentence; has to swallow hard before she says something that'll hurt not only Tony, but probably Katie as well. There are just things she can't admit to anyone, least of all herself, and the only thing that makes it even remotely okay is the fact that Jimmy's colouring two seats over and looking at her curiously, with a faintly disapproving expression on his face already.

"It's not always sugar, Naomi. I mean, from what I know about Effy and Emily—every month of peace has been followed by two of pointless fighting, for years now. It's what you do when you care; you pick on little things and tear them wide open."

"I don't think her sister is a little thing," Naomi says, and then sighs. "And Christ, that's not even the point. I just--maybe I need a little break, you know? Is that so bad?"

Tony doesn't say anything in response, and after a few more beats, all Naomi can think to say is, "I've got to go; dinner to be made."

There's a whole conversation about responsibilities they're not having in response, and Naomi cuts up an onion while thinking about numbers and figures and child soldiers and raped women and a torn countryside.

Katie finds her crying helplessly, knife on the counter, a few minutes later, and holds her without asking.

It should be an easy choice, but it's not.

----

"Why won't she at least take Katie's phone calls?" she asks Effy, who sighs.

"I've--tried to push it a little, but she's still very upset, Naomi. I think there's been enough yelling, don't you?"

Naomi rubs at her forehead. "I don't even want to fucking talk about this anymore, but it's all that's going on, isn't it. I mean, I'd like to just hear how you're doing, without it being all about my--about Katie, but that's not going to happen now."

"We're fine, actually. Toby killed a bird and dropped it on our bed a few days ago," Effy says, after a slight pause, and then laughs softly. "Emily screamed so loud that Fred wouldn't stop barking at me for about ten minutes afterwards, because apparently Emily screaming is usually my fault."

"Heh," Naomi says, and then closes her eyes. "Thought the infallible twosome didn't fight all that much."

"We don't," Effy says, amiably, and after a second Naomi starts laughing.

"I hate you, and also know for a fact that you're having me on, because Emily doesn't scream--" Naomi starts saying, and then spots Katie in the doorway, dangerously still. "Well, nevermind."

"Hmm," Effy responds, still sounding very amused, and then says, "I'll call next week. Just take it one day at a time, okay? Don't run because it isn't easy right now; that matters fuck all in the long run."

"I'm working on it," Naomi says, and watches as Katie's shoulders pull together, as she takes a step back into the living room.

She hangs up as quickly as she can, and follows her out there. "Hey, what--it was just a joke, Effy was just being a twat. I didn't mean anything by it, geez, I can't even remember if--"

"Stop talking," Katie says, softly, and shudders. "Please, just stop talking."

"Katie," Naomi says, helplessly, and sits down on the table, looks up at Katie and wonders how things go so wrong so quickly.

"You're still thinking of leaving, aren't you?" Katie asks, and something inside Naomi's heart shatters at hearing it out loud.

"It's not--"

"Just don't," Katie says, a little more sharply, and then looks past Naomi into the garden. "Don't say it's not leaving, because we both know better than that."

----

Naomi sleeps on the sofa that night, and gets woken up when Jimmy pushes on her feet, making room for himself.

"Mum told me you're both sad because Aunt Em isn't being supp--nice about you and Mum," he says, very seriously, and Naomi sits up, shifts until she can pull him onto her lap.

"She just needs a bit of time, Jim, but we miss her, and would like her to be happy for us."

"Does she not like you?" Jimmy asks, sounding very concerned. "Because if she doesn't, we should make a list."

"A list?"

"Yeah, of things that are good about you. We'll leave off the bad stuff, and send it to her, so she can see that you're good and that you like me and Mum and aren't going anywhere."

Naomi can't think of anything to say in response, and just kisses his hair, holds him until his stomach growls and he twists around, looking so fucking cute that she gets up with a sigh and makes him breakfast, even though he can get it for himself.

----

She ends up taking the assignment, when they assure her it's only three months, and she can come back to England once a month, and then spends two weeks trying to think of a way to tell Katie, to make clear that it's purely a career decision, that it's got nothing to do with them, and that she'll never do it again.

She's not a great liar, though, and in the end she ends up saying nothing, watching Katie flip through old photo albums full of pictures of twins looking like twins.

She ends up leaving one open on the coffee table, to a picture of Emily and Naomi--one that Effy took years ago, and Naomi assumed that Emily was the one  who'd retained it up until now, but apparently Katie's the record keeper.

They look happy. It's a fucking different life, but it's the only other time she's ever looked happy, and there's no telling what Katie thinks of, looking at that picture—two people she cares about now caring about each other in the past.

It feels like a warning. It's too late, in any event, because Emily's already gone, and Naomi's got two more weeks in which to make sure she's got somewhere to come back to.

----

In the end, Katie finds her passport--dug out from a box of travel crap--with its new visa in it because she stupidly left it out on her desk one night, and throws it at her over breakfast.

"You weren't even going to fucking tell me?" Katie yells, sounding completely exasperated.

"Jim, go to your room for a second, will you?" Naomi tells him, as calmly as she can, and he directs an accusatory stare at her before slipping of his chair and heading up the stairs.

"What the fuck is wrong with you, Naomi? Didn't--" Katie can barely even get enough air in her lungs to continue yelling, and then bursts into helpless tears a second later. "Are you just--are you punishing me? For not being as fun as you'd like me to be, for this not being as simple as you need it to be?"

"Katie, please, sweetheart--" Naomi says and then gets up, tries to hug her, but Katie pushes her away and shakes her head, eyes angry and swollen.

"I can't believe this. Emily warned me, you know, she honestly did, but guess what—I fucking defended you, I said you wouldn't just bail on me as soon as things got hard, and this is how you repay me."

"I'm coming back, Jesus, it's just for three fucking months, and you know what? Maybe we can use some time apart, okay? Maybe if I'm not here, you'll sort things out with Emily and it'll be--"

"I fucking need you here, okay?" Katie snaps, and then rubs at her face, starts crying harder. "Jesus, I can't believe I have to say these things. I can't believe I'm going to have to ask you to stay, and even then, you still wouldn't--"

"Please," Naomi says, and realizes only then that she's crying, too. "Don't make this into more than what it is. It's just a job, Katie, and I'm not abandoning anything, I'm just--"

Katie pushes past her and heads up the stairs, and all Naomi can do is sit back down and watch her go.

----

They don't talk about anything at all again until she's getting out of bed the next morning and Katie rolls over and looks at her for a long time and then finally looks up at the ceiling.

"You're really doing this, then," she says, sounding completely drained, and Naomi feels her guts twist unpleasantly.

"Katie, I don't think--you know I love the travel, and I've completely given it up for you, but something like this isn't going to come around again."

"You're--you're somebody's fucking parent now, you know? You owe him your safety. He needs to know you're coming back all right," Katie says, and looks away, biting her lip. She's so wan that Naomi almost feels like she's a disease here, taking Katie down a peg just one day at a time, but still she tries.

"I'm going to be staying in a UN camp, surrounded by peacekeeping forces, in an area that hasn't been at war in about seven years now. I really am more likely to get run over by a fucking bus in Kensington, Katie, or I wouldn't have accepted. I know that I have obligations here, and--"

"Fine, so maybe it's not dangerous. But what am I supposed to tell Emily, if you fuck off to Africa again right after she's found out?" Katie rubs at her forehead and then looks at Naomi with a pleading expression on her face. "Don't you get that it's way too much like--"

"Why are we talking about Emily again?" Naomi asks, throwing her hands up in the air. "So what if she thinks I'm not worth the air she breathes? What the fuck does that matter? It's you I'm with, so unless you agree with her--"

"Of course I don't, but she's my fucking sister, okay?" Katie says, sounding incredibly exasperated. "What do you expect me to say? That I don't care if I never talk to her again, if she hates me for being with you?"

"No, but I damn well expect you at least pretend that you haven't already picked a side at the end of the day, Katie," Naomi snaps, and then stares at Katie until Katie looks away. "So let me ask you again--what if she doesn't change her mind? Do we stand even a single fucking chance?"

"Emily isn't the point," Katie responds, low, after a few seconds, and then straightens; stares back. "But if you must know; maybe it wouldn't be so hard for me to just ignore her if you'd give me just one fucking reason to think you were staying around. Ever think of that?"

Naomi feels her stomach twist abruptly, and actually has to reach for the dresser to stay steady; she's suddenly, randomly, completely faint.

"I think we've both said too much. I'm taking Jimmy to the park, and we'll talk about this later," Katie says, sounding every bit as fucked up as Naomi feels, and she just nods, watches as Katie closes the door behind her before sinking down against the wall.

It's just a coincidence, really, that her suitcase is under the bed; that she can see it from where she's sat.

----

The last five days feel final; ties being cut with every single day, until Naomi feels guilty to even be in Jimmy's presence, even though she doesn't want to be leaving so much as just escaping, just for a bit, just this once.

Katie irons her white blouses, the ones with the short sleeves, and leaves them in a stack on the dresser. It doesn't signify anything other than that there's no point in putting them in the dresser anymore, where they won't be staying for much longer.

They sleep on opposite sides of the bed, and every morning, Naomi watches Katie wake up slowly, whispering, "Please don't do this" over and over again.

It's hopeless.

----

The last conversation they have about it, and anything at all, takes place in the hallway, with Katie shaking her head, crying more than Naomi ever wanted her to, and it's over something so fucking meaningless, so unnecessary, that she hates herself for not being able to give it up.

It's her freedom. It's the one thing that's kept her sane since she was sixteen, the only thing she's ever been able to rely on, and the idea that it's not there anymore--

Everyone she knows is disappointed in her; her mum said, "Oh, no, tell me you're not running again", and Tony said, laughing sharply, "Tell Katie to call me; I've got quite a lot of experience at being left behind, perhaps we can start a support group", and all of it has made her feel like a shit, but nothing more than Jimmy's sad, "Is this because I told Aunt Emily?" the night before, because it isn't.

It really isn't.

And then it totally is, just like everything has been, and everything will go on being.

"Katie, please, this isn't about us," Naomi pleads, one last time, and watches as Katie turns around and rubs at her face, shoulders shaking silently. "I'm doing this for me, okay? You said once that you'd never be with someone who tried to hold you back like this, well--"

"James sold fucking insurance in a few counties in the north west, Naomi," Katie cuts her off, almost yelling now, and then turns around; Naomi's heart clenches at the tears running down her cheeks, but only for a second because Katie is furious. "I didn't have to worry about where he was at all hours of the day, if maybe his fucking noble efforts were going to get him killed sooner than later, and he didn't fucking do it after Jimmy was born at all anymore because he knew I needed him here."

Naomi leans back against the wall heavily and digs her nails into her palms. "And what about what I need? How does that figure into this?"

"You've always known what the consequence of choosing us was," Katie says and sniffs, wipes her eyes on her sleeve until her mascara's dragged across her cheeks and Naomi closes her eyes, because this is not how she wants to remember her. "If you honestly don't think that's enough for you..."

She nods slowly and bends down, reaches for her suitcase and lifts it up. "And what will you tell Jimmy?"

"Don't worry," Katie says after a beat, her voice so raspy that Naomi almost doesn't understand her at all, but the words stay with her for a lifetime. "I won't tell him that there are things out there that are more important to you than he is."

She drops her keys in the letterbox after closing the door and reminds herself that it's not her place to cry, that she hasn't earned that.

Chapter Text

On the flight over, all she can think about is Jimmy, and how she could've used Katie's help in explaining to him what was happening, but of course Katie's version of things doesn't correspond to reality at all, because to Katie gone is just gone, and there's no scope for ties stringing all around the world in that.

He'd said, "So you're going on a trip tomorrow, right?" and she'd said "yes" and he'd said "You used to do that a lot" and that's when she'd just completely fucked it all up, really, because if he was going to offer her that out--well, who was she to not take it?

"It's a long one, but I'm coming back, and I will call you every other day, okay?" she'd said, and he'd nodded seriously after a moment, and had then asked, "How long?"

"Three months," she'd said, not quite managing to hide the way it was starting to feel more like forever, and he'd smiled and said, "My birthday's in three months" and she'd had to laugh and tell him that it was actually in seven months, but it had completely destroyed any attempt she might have made at really being honest with him.

Maybe there was no way he would've understood anyway; but then she thinks about Katie crying behind the frosted glass in the front door, and maybe the specifics were lost on him, but that--well, she'll have to make up for that, surely, because he's figured out enough by now to realize that his mum only cries when Naomi's been bad.

She closes her eyes and wonders what stuffed animal makes up for the wonderful occasion of being told she can't come back.

----

Katie answers the phone, of course she does, and it's only been a day, but it feels like a lifetime. Her "Hello?" cuts off sharply when Naomi just exhales on the line, and then she says, "I don't want to fucking--I think we've--"

It's so sad, so war-torn, that Naomi doesn't have it in her to start another fight. "I promised Jim I'd call. Regularly, actually. I didn't think you would actually consider this the end, so--"

The words stick to her throat, coat it, and Katie sighs deeply. "I made myself clear, didn't I?"

"Yeah, I guess you did," Naomi confesses, and swats at a fly; crushes it against the table, hears Katie gasp at the loud bang. "I still promised him I'd call, and I don't want to be that person that doesn't keep promises to a six year old, but I suppose it's up to you now."

Katie doesn't say anything for a long time, and then just asks, brusquely, "This time, every second day?"

"He did tell you, then."

Katie laughs, but it's so pained and bitter. "Yeah, well, you also told me you weren't going anywhere, once upon a time, so maybe seeing is believing, right?"

The phone is put down, and then she gets Jimmy, whose first question is "Are you coming back soon?"

She cries herself to sleep that night, and wakes up exhausted, without the will to do anything, let alone solve the problems of people she's never met, make peace for them, when there's apparently not going to be any for her.

----

If there was a way to stop being stubborn, Naomi would volunteer.

Instead, all she has is frequent flyer miles, and the stupid fucking notion that it would've just been wrong to cave, to give in to someone else's demands, because she's not doing anything wrong, and this is her goddamned right.

The fact that she won't doesn't mean that she's not dying to crawl home on her hands and knees, begging Katie to just forgive her, but then there's that fucking stubborn thing again, and she knows Katie well enough to know that Katie wouldn't make things that easy.

She'd be made to suffer for making the wrong choice, and then some.

The problem is that she can't imagine suffering more than this.

----

It's been two months. She's spoken to Jimmy three times a week at prearranged times, where he anxiously picks up the phone and starts every conversation with, "Are you coming home yet?"

Naomi wonders about her side of the wardrobe; if Katie's packed up all of her things yet and brought them back to her apartment, or if Naomi's not the only one who can't bear to think of it.

Then she remembers who she's talking about--Katie fucking Fitch--and realizes that there's probably a garbage bag sat in her hallway, like the last final fuck you, you quitter that she can't quite escape.

"Soon," she tells Jimmy, because by now it's starting to be true.

"Good, because Mum is sad, and you can make it better when you're here," he tells her.

"I--" she starts to say, and then feels so tears well up so abruptly that she just says, "I'll try, okay?"

"Awesome," Jim tells her, and then continues on excitedly about football practice and how he almost scored another goal, and Naomi stares at the top of her tent, blue and white and empty, and wonders what is wrong with her, where the thought of losing everything she's now lost scared her so much that she ended up just giving it up, when she could've at least tried to keep it.

"I miss you," she tells Jimmy, and hears Katie in the background, calling for dinner.

"You too, Nae," he tells her, and yells "Bye!" so happily that she wonders when it's going to sink in, that things aren't going to be the same anymore.

----

She dreams of a different Katie; one that says, "Who cares what she thinks; she lives in Scotland and she's being a cunt" to questions like and what if Emily never comes around?, one who kisses her cheek and says, "You're so bloody clever, go make Africa right" when she tells her about job opportunities; one who talks to her every second day and keeps that tether to England firmly tied.

When she wakes up, she's floating away all over again, further and further away, though it doesn't get any easier to be gone.

She calls Effy, when she thinks it might not be horribly rude to do so anymore given the time, and says, "She's ruined me, Ef."

"Of course she has," Effy says, through the tinny and emotionless connection, sounding almost robotic for it. "You can't really be surprised that you can't distance yourself from them?"

"I don't fucking know," Naomi says, and pours a second glass of gin, even though it's six in the morning, if even that. "It always worked for me in the past, distance."

"They're your family," Effy says, emphatically, and Naomi thinks back to the year she was in Africa, to when Effy's parents apparently got divorced, and realizes just from the firmness in Effy's voice that these things don't get better, not for the kids.

"I'm not the one who--"

"It doesn't matter who did what. Do you want them back, or not?"

She can't say the words out loud, but Effy appears to hear them anyway, just sighing her name in response and then hanging up.

----

"What we're doing here, it's going to change everything," Jean Pierre, the French representative, tells her, and she mockingly salutes him like she's seen all the UN peace-keeping forces do in the past few weeks. "What, you do not agree?"

"People will always find ways to hurt each other. It's what they're best at," she responds.

It's quoted back at her in a radio interview with the BBC a few weeks later: "Are we to infer that you do not actually believe in the purpose of this project, Ms. Campbell?"

"It's the best option we have," she says after a careful pause; takes another hard hit of gin in the wait and only barely feels guilty about it. "But do I honestly believe that there is any reconciliation to be found in Darfur? Well, perhaps it's just my stiff upper lip talking for me, but I anticipate the most we can hope for is truth."

Effy sends her an e-mail three days later.

Truth: you're the most articulate drunk I know.

Reconciliation: twins managed to not pull hair in their first meeting since you-know-what.

Tony Fed-Exes her more Tanqueray, with a note saying, "I anticipated you were running low; love, Lord Bastard."

She hasn't smiled in so long that it fucking hurts when she does, both times.

----

Her work in Sudan ends in exactly three months, when the fact-finding committee is done and they've forwarded everything they've got to England for the final report.

Three fucking months.

She arrives back home to her flat, throws a window open with a wince because of how fucking musty it is, and then calls UPS to let them know that the five boxes of interviews and pictures can finally be delivered.

There's two messages on her machine, when she looks.

She recognizes both numbers, and isn't surprised when both messages are silent.

Someday in the future, maybe, she'll be somewhere with Katie and Emily, and will tell them that they truly need to start putting some effort into the whole twin thing. All the way across the room, Effy would get the joke.

----

All of her clothing is hanging in her wardrobe, organized in a sectional way that she's always found needlessly anal-retentive, and it's so fucking familiar that she has to slam the door shut after just a second, has to lean against it heavily just to not fall apart completely at the sight of a bloody closet.

Three fucking months.

She hates Katie for not being willing to give her just three fucking months.

She hates herself for not being able to say no to three fucking months, for not being a big enough person to let Katie set this limit, just one time.

For not knowing how to believe that things would've gotten better.

She drinks the last of her gin and falls asleep on the floor in front of the closet, and wakes up wondering what happens next.

----

She cashes in her vacation days, takes in an entirely danger-pay-earned sabbatical, on the same day that she's finished her report, and calls Charles, who sounds incredibly sad to hear from her.

"I thought you were done chasing whatever it is you were hoping to find, Naomi," he tells her, after promising she'll be en route within the next week.

"I did, too, but now--I just need to make sure that I don't want this anymore, okay?" she says, before hanging up.

----

She's out of the country when Katie's Project Runway finally airs on Living TV; doesn't end up seeing it until she can order the DVDs, and then gets blisteringly drunk one evening and decides to go for it, in a hotel room in Los Angeles because it's a bloody Region 1 DVD and so she has to go halfway across the fucking world to get a glimpse of--

She braces herself for the credit montage, because after watching old seasons of Project Runway with Katie over and over again, almost two years ago--homework, she'd called it, "because I refuse to come across like a bigger twat than fucking Kenley", a sentiment Naomi had supported wholeheartedly--she knows that Katie's prime material for a truly sodding heart-wrenching intro: the young, talented designer who almost lost everything one fateful afternoon, but has pulled through the hard times and now manages to run a fashion empire and raise her son singlehandedly.

Leaving aside that the latter conclusion would piss her off, even though she can't really object to it anymore, not with how things are now, she's also just worried about Katie's temper, because she can't imagine anyone less likely to tolerate being painted a victim.

She takes another sip of the whiskey, all she could stomach in the mini-bar, and puts the glass down, ignores the tinkling of the ice and just listens as Katie talks about her career, the twelve months she spent working for Alexander McQueen following her graduation from the LCF, what she's been doing since then, who she's designed for--pictures of Sienna Miller and Alexa Chung fly by, then some other starlets that are too young for her to have any reason to know them--and then Katie swallows hard, visibly so, before saying, "And, when I've got time, I'm slowly working on a line of men's clothing that hopefully will be finished by the time my son's old enough to wear it."

It's all that's said on the subject. It's enough to make Naomi start sobbing.

----

There's other moments that make her crack out the vodka, the tequila, the rum, in no particular fucking order, just whatever she can reach first.

Katie's first model assignment: "Oh, thank [bleep]; tall and blonde, I know how to work with", with an almost-grin at the camera but no further explanation.

Katie's evening wear challenge: flowing, deep blue, low cleavage, and an almost sheer bottom half. Naomi's got the original version of it hanging in a closet in London. The bloody model wears it better, even though Katie scuttles after her on their way out and continues pinning things in place. She doesn't win the challenge; Naomi tosses the empty vodka in the bin, tells Michael Kors he's fucking retarded.

Katie's interview in the third episode: "Yeah, I miss home. I mean, this bloody country--I'm dying for a right proper jacket potato, you know? Tuna and cheddar, all the calories in the world. And I miss my family, obviously, but I talk to my son every single night and it's all right; he's rather thrilled at the idea of being able to see me on telly."

Katie's fight with Pablo in the fifth episode: "Jesus Christ, my, my [bleep] best friend wouldn't [bleep] wear that and she's been known to leave the house in a floral shirt covering a checkered skirt." Naomi looks down at what she's wearing, finishes the tequila, and throws the empty bottle towards the bin, missing it by about a mile.

Katie's last moment: "This was the experience of a lifetime, yeah, but more than anything it just convinced me that I'm doing what I'm meant to be doing. And I reckon I'm lucky, because I've got limitless support at home, you know, people who will stick by me even when I tell them that I'm designing a line of luxury polo shirts and sports jackets. I don't think many people would, in this industry." She trails off with a half-laugh and wipes off her tears, and then poises herself so effortlessly that Naomi almost reaches for the telly.

"I love what I do. I think that's all that matters, in the end," Katie finishes, and the credits roll.

Naomi shuts off the telly and closes her eyes, clutching the bottle of rum that she hasn't quite managed to finish, and realizes that England--sodding miserable, rainy England--is her home, even if her home in England is no longer hers.

"What the fuck am I doing," she mumbles, and falls asleep.

It's the end of it.

----

She ends up spending half her time in London and half her time out of it for the next two months, on short EU-based trips for Charles; when she's gone, she calls Jimmy every other day at six GMT.

Maybe he's too young for it, but she can't help but sit back and wait for the disillusionment to kick in; she thinks back to herself and her Mum, promising over and over again that this time they'd stay put, that they weren't moving again, and how at some point she just lost hope altogether.

"When are you coming home, Nae?" he asks, every time, and she has to swallow hard to dislodge the incredible amount of hurt that wells up with his question.

She's letting him down. It's the only thing she never wanted to do.

"I'll be back in London in five days, okay?"

"That's not home," Jimmy says, and she has nothing to say in response. Nothing at all.

"Mum, do you want to talk to Naomi?"

She's already bracing herself for the rejection; it's so expected now that she almost drops the phone when suddenly Katie's on the line.

"What are you doing?" she asks, brusquely, and Naomi just about manages a "huh?" in response before Katie continues. "Are you trying to break his heart? What the fuck are you doing, Naomi?"

"I'm--" She doesn't know how to explain, not without staking claims that she probably can't, and just sits back.

"You think phone calls alone are enough to make up for what you've done to him? Really?" Katie continues, and then sounds on the verge of tears when she adds, "I never thought you were that stupid; heartless, maybe, but--"

"We don't exactly have any formal arrangements, do we," Naomi interjects, harshly.

"I don't know how to do this; demand access to your child just because I might--"

Katie exhales with a shudder, and then says, "Well, my child is starting to get into trouble at school and the first fucking thing his teacher asked me is if there's any problems at home, if maybe I'm having some relationship issues, so either you fuck off altogether or you start acting like you actually care about what happens to him. Do you understand me?"

"I work from home every Friday," Naomi finally says. "He could come for--"

"Every Friday? Oh, please, do you think I'm fucking stupid? I know you've gone back to your old job, you--" Katie takes a deep breath, and then says, "Why don't you just let me know on the day that you're around; that way, he won't have to get his hopes up."

The line disconnects, and Naomi wonders how much of that was deserved, and how much of it was the consequence of having to deal with Jimmy's relentless certainty that they'll get back together on a daily basis, as opposed to every other phone call.

----

She calls on Friday, and Katie says that she'll drop Jim off after work.

It's the first time she's seen either of them in months, and they're both just so much more heartbreaking than she remembers.

"Hi," she tells Katie, who just stares at her for a moment and then bends down, whispers something in Jimmy's ear, who nods in response.

Seconds later, he's transferred over--taken Naomi's hand, and they watch Katie go together.

"Next week, can Mum stay for our sleepover, too?" Jimmy asks, hours later, when they're on the sofa together, watching Mulan and drinking hot chocolate.

"I don't know, Jim. You'll have to ask her."

When she tucks him in, he looks at her, and she's absolutely dismayed that there's a hint of fear in his eyes. "When are you leaving again, Nae?"

He's almost seven.

"I'm not," she says, and realizes she means it when he relaxes instantly, falls asleep just a moment later.

----

It's not exactly joint custody, though after the fifth week when she's called on a Friday, Katie says, "Fine, I fucking get it" and starts dropping him off automatically.

"How is--school?" she asks Katie, on the sixth week, and Katie shrugs after a second.

"He can't concentrate so well. Apparently we're to blame."

"Right," Naomi responds, and looks over her shoulder at Jimmy disappearing around the corner, to his bedroom.

"I've got plans, so if you're all done--" Katie starts to say, and Naomi looks at her dress, feels the air constrict in her lungs almost automatically.

"Well. That didn't take you long," she finally says, when the only other things she can think of saying are please don't and stop punishing me, and Katie's eyes flash with hurt.

"I want him on Sunday, so I'll be back for him tomorrow," she responds, flatly.

"Oh, that's grand," Naomi says, leaning against the door and rolling her eyes. "Is he your ammunition now, Katie? If I don't walk the line exactly right, I don't get to have him?"

Katie laughs, sharply. "If that were true, you wouldn't ever have him at all."

She can't help but watch Katie's retreat; the elegant heels that she's used to seeing kicked off all around her, the stockings that she sometimes kept on and sometimes peeled off just to drive Katie insane, and wonders if this is going to be Emily all over again, except worse, because she can't help but feel that with just one tiny measure of sanity on both of their parts, Katie's the one she could've kept.

----

Tony visits, and notes with a bit of amusement that she's finally turned her apartment into a home.

"Not that the decor isn't uber-Fitch, but--are those masks nailed into the walls, Naomi?" he asks, with a faint half-smile. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were settling down."

"One of those can make your penis shrivel to the size of a penny if I do the appropriate rain dance while wearing it," she tells him, prodding him in the side, and he laughs.

They cook a meal together--nobody makes fun of the way she's peeling the potatoes, butchering them one at a time, and there's a sharp pang of regret at it--and when the gratin is slowly melting in the oven, Tony tilts his head and smiles. "I think--I'm joining you, in the land of the tied-down, that is."

"Really," Naomi says, and to her own surprise her happiness for him is genuine. "New York girl who doesn't eat and is kind of a nutter?"

Tony laughs and rubs at his cheek. "Well, she eats now, obviously, and I can't really say anything in response to that other ... accusation, other than that I'm going to strangle Effy."

"I'd like to meet her," Naomi says, simply, and the way that Tony relaxes and smiles across from her is almost a reward unto itself.

"She's coming to Bristol in a bit; spending some time with me there. You should come visit. I think you'll--well, you'll probably find her unapologetically odd and annoying, but she's--" He trails off, looking a bit flustered, and Naomi smiles faintly.

"And what's the long term plan? Are you moving to the US, or is she moving here?"

Tony shrugs. "Haven't gotten that far, though obviously it's easier for her to come back than the reverse."

"Ant, it's never easy to come back; not when you've been gone for a long time," she says, without thinking, and then watches as Tony's eyes turn sad and worried. "Oh, fucking hell, I didn't mean for that to be a--"

"Try to talk to her, will you?" he interjects, softly. "It might not be impossible--"

"It is," she says, and goes to check on the gratin.

----

Jimmy makes his own way over on the next weekend, and stays very quiet for most of the night, until he finally scoots in closer and settles his head against Naomi's arm.

"What's wrong, little man?" she asks, and turns the telly off, looks down at him.

"Uncle Freddie's been over a lot," Jimmy says sullenly. "I don't like him. He thinks I'm stupid, and talks about my dad all the time."

"He was your dad's best friend," Naomi says, softly, and Jimmy stares up at her angrily.

"Mum was my dad's best friend. I don't care about Uncle Freddie."

"Right, well, your mum needs her friends, doesn't she?" Naomi asks, and Jimmy shrugs aggressively. "Jim--"

"Why can't she just have you? I like you, you don't think I'm stupid, and you made her laugh. Why don't you live with us anymore, Naomi?"

"Jimmy," she says, pulling away in shock more than anything, and a second later he's thrown his empty mug to the floor and has run off to his bedroom.

She sits on the sofa for a very long time, staring out the window, until the words Uncle Freddie's been over a lot stop feeling like a direct affront.

----

She pulls Katie aside the next day, and says, "We really need to talk; he's--maybe he needs to talk to a therapist, or something, but he's not doing so well."

"You think I don't know that?" Katie asks, angrily, and then presses her lips together, shakes her head. "I burned dinner the other day, and he told me that if I cooked nicer meals you wouldn't have left me."

It's almost funny, except for the part where it's horrible. "If only it were that simple."

Katie's eyes close for a moment and then she sighs. "Fine. We'll talk about it."

"Bring Freddie, if you like," Naomi says, forcing the words past the lump in her throat.

Katie directs a completely baffled look at her in response, but then takes Jimmy's bag from her, and they're off together.

----

The conversation is a nightmare.

It's the same fight they've been having silently for months now. Katie's verse is "if you hadn't left, this wouldn't be happening" and Naomi's chorus is "if you hadn't made it impossible for me to come back, it wouldn't be, either".

In the end, they drink the rest of the coffee in silence, and Katie sighs deeply. "Maybe we're the ones who need therapy. Not him."

"Yeah, that'll be grand; I'll get to explain that I really don't have a twin fetish, it just looks that way from afar," Naomi mutters, and after a second Katie rubs her eyes.

"I've been talking to Emily; things have been--well, they're getting there," she says, and Naomi stares at her for a long moment.

"Seems like you made the right choice after all then," she finally concludes, and almost manages a smile. "Don't worry, Katie; I proved her right, didn't I? No hard feelings."

Katie doesn't say anything, and after a moment Naomi tosses a note on the table, heads out into the rainy wet streets, until she's swallowed up by the Tube and wonders if this really is the best she can do, never really managing to get away just because she loves the kid so much.

----

It's a total fucking coincidence, but then maybe it's not, because it's a bar three streets from Naomi's bloody office and Emily lives in fucking Glasgow.

If it's not a total fucking coincidence, she has a pretty good idea of what it is, and can't help but laugh bitterly in anticipation before sitting down across from her.

"Are you the cavalry, then?" she asks.

Emily has the decency to at least look mildly uncomfortable. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry. I know that I'm to blame in part for the way things are now."

"The way things are," Naomi repeats, before flagging down a waiter and ordering a Jack and Coke with a wink to Emily. "How's that, then?"

"She's miserable, Nae," Emily says, rather bravely given how well her efforts have been received thus far, but Naomi's not in the mood to appreciate it. "She's doing rotten, and Jimmy's suffering for it, too."

"Thought Uncle Freddie was making everything better."

"Freddie's never been more than a friend. You know that," Emily responds softly and Naomi takes a first, grateful sip of the drink that's appeared in front of her.

"Really. Well, I guess this goes to show how well you know your sister."

"They're not together, okay?" Emily states emphatically and then folds her hands together, looks at the table. "I don't think she wants--"

"Could you just, for once in your fucking life, not?" Naomi interjects, and when Emily looks at her in confusion. "Really. Is it so much to bloody ask for?"

"I don't know--" Emily starts saying and Naomi just laughs.

"How many times, hm?" she asks, before taking another quick sip of her drink; it reminds her that she fucking hates whiskey and coke, and the joke's probably on her again all over. "How many times are you going to completely fuck up my life before it's enough for you?"

"Naomi..." Emily responds, in that hurt, wounded voice that used to break Naomi's resolve completely, but now all it does is make her finish her drink a little quicker.

"At least I could say that I was still in love with you. What the fuck's your excuse for just not knowing when to let something go?"

She doesn't wait for a response; slides the glass back onto the table and picks up her purse before walking out.

----

When she gets back home, Emily's half-conversation really sinks in, and the idea that Katie's doing just as shit as she is makes this all seem so incredibly pointless.

She ends up drafting three different emails, all saying the same thing, but there's so many spelling mistakes in the last one--it's honest and drunk--that she ends up discarding them all, and just finishes off the remainder of the alcohol in the house at a gradual speed before falling asleep on top of the laptop.

She sleeps for almost two days.

The doorbell wakes her up, and she tugs on a robe and stumbles towards the front door; opens to find Effy there with some coffee and breakfast in a bag.

"'m not in the mood to be told that I'm an arsehole, okay."

"I left Emily at Katie's for a reason," Effy retorts, and Naomi smiles completely unwillingly for the first time in ages.

----

"You ought to have put her on a bloody leash years ago," Naomi says, after the coffee's done just about enough to make her capable of talking again.

"You used to know that she always means well," Effy counters, and Naomi fingers her croissant aimlessly before taking a heartless bite.

"Does that make it okay, then?"

"No," Effy says with a smile. "But for what it's worth, she was telling the truth. Katie's not doing so great. It's not a stretch to say that you've quite clearly broken her heart, and she's not getting over it."

"Just don't, okay?" Naomi says and rubs at her forehead. "It's been months, and we've seen each other regularly, and it's the same thing all over again. Too much has happened. How the hell can I even, I mean--I don't see how I could possibly--"

"I think what you're missing, here," Effy notes, before taking a huge bite off a bagel and chewing it slowly, "is that you want to apologize."

"It doesn't help, you know. Knowing you were wrong," Naomi says after a moment, and pushes her plate away from her. "It only makes it harder."

"It might help her," Effy replies when she's done eating, and Naomi almost cries in relief when she leaves it at that, just produces a pack of fags and a lighter and sits back in her chair.

----

In the end, she can't say any of the thing she so desperately wants to, and instead just fires off the following.

Just so we're clear: he'll never just be your responsibility again, not unless you tell me to fuck off, so if you think we can both be adults about this I'd like to just figure out a way to help him cope with this the best way he can. I don't think both of us pretending that everything is fine is going to cut it much longer, because he's almost seven, and at that age I knew enough to realize that when my mum said she'd had a fight with her "friend", we'd be moving on again soon. He's too clever for us lying to not hurt him, so let's not.

And for the record, I'm not leaving London again, even if you do tell me that this isn't my business.

Katie doesn't respond for a few days, and Naomi almost bites off her fingernails just waiting for some sort of response, reduced to a neurotic seventeen year old with a crush almost by default--except there's so much more at stake here, and she hopes that Katie proves to be the person she's been in love with for all this time when it really counts.

Finally, Katie shows up at her door, holding a packaged salad, and says, "Figured you're eating like shit again, now that nobody's feeding you."

"I'm very predictable," Naomi says, softly, but when she takes the salad Katie's face relaxes minutely.

----

They agree they need to tell him together, and explain to him that he's basically got two houses for the time being, and that if anything changes they'll need to tell him together as well.

"And what can change, exactly?" Naomi finally asks, stubbing out a cigarette.

Katie exhales slowly, and then shrugs. "I could remarry."

It's like a stab wound, somewhere in her ribs, a place not clearly visible but no less painful. "Really. Is that in the cards, then?"

"Hardly," Katie admits after a moment, but then sighs. "But you know me. I don't believe in giving up."

"Except on me, apparently," Naomi blurts out, before she can stop herself, and Katie stiffens abruptly.

"I'm not the one who walked away, Naomi," she finally says, calmly.

"Right."

Katie doesn't continue; just finishes her cigarette and crushes it out, and then picks up her purse. "I like the masks," she finally says, and then sighs. "Why didn't you ever put them up in--well, nevermind."

"Clearly, because I wasn't ever planning on staying. Isn't that what you want to believe?"

"I--" Katie starts to say, and then shakes her head, smiles sadly. "Let's not do this, okay? I want to be better than this."

"I was better than this," Naomi says, sharply. "When my partner trusted me to do the right thing, and let me make mistakes that I could make up for."

"Naomi..." Katie says, so tired-sounding that Naomi's last fragment of resolve to make a change splinters and fades.

"Yeah, I'm sorry. You--you were very clear on my choices, or lack thereof."

"I'm going to go now," Katie says, and it's only when Naomi gets up to open the door for her that she gets a good look at Katie's face; tired, drawn, alone.

"Things don't have to be like this," she says, softly, and Katie looks up at her with such a broken expression that she almost flinches, but then just stiffens when Katie touches her cheek, brushes a single nail past her scar.

"If you still don't understand that I wasn't trying to punish you, I don't see how they can be different."

Katie doesn't stalk so much as shuffle these days. It's so fucking wrong that Naomi wishes she had more liquor, but instead calls Effy, and says, "I need a break. I know Emily probably doesn't want to see me, but can I--"

"She's off to see her uni roommates next weekend. Come on up," Effy says, and Naomi sighs in relief.

----

"We talk in circles," she says, sitting on a bench, and watching Fred and Toby chase after sticks that Effy throws with remarkable accuracy. "We just have the same arguments over and over again, even when all we're trying to do is talk about Jimmy."

"You still think this is because of Emily, don't you," Effy responds, and hands over a lit fag. Naomi inhales deeply and then shrugs.

"Yes, no, a little--I don't know. I know that Katie was completely out of sorts because of Emily, and it probably made her--well, it didn't improve her mental health any."

"In that first conversation," Effy says, slowly, "Emily ran through the highlight reel of all the ways in which you were likely to fuck Katie over, in the long run."

"Just the highlights, huh?" Naomi says, with a laugh, before she shakes her head.

"Yeah, it only took about twenty minutes," Effy says, with a faint smile, and flicks away a bit of ash, whistles for the dogs. "The main part of it was that you'd leave when things get tough."

"Right," Naomi says. "Which is, well, well out of order for someone who's not really known me since I was seventeen."

"Obviously," Effy agrees. "But did it ever occur to you that all she did was confirm Katie's underlying fears about your relationship?"

"Katie's not--" that insecure, Naomi starts to say, but then swallows the words, and sighs deeply instead.

"It wasn't about Emily, you sodding fool," Effy says, kindly.

"I didn't leave because of Katie, either," Naomi counters. "It really was just a job, and--"

"Don't be absurd. You wanted to get away," Effy interjects.

"I was coming back," Naomi stresses. "It was just three fucking months, and I was never planning on staying gone longer than that."

"Three months is a long time," Effy says, and stares into the distance. "Three months is enough to change someone's life, more than enough for something to fall apart completely."

Naomi finishes the cigarette in silence and then throws a stick out for Toby, watches his tail wag as he chases after it. "So you agree that there's nothing to be done here."

Effy laughs. "It's like the deaf leading the blind, I swear."

"What?"

"Naomi," Effy says, and gets up. "If none of you are going to actually listen to me, I really wish you'd stop fucking asking me for advice. Feel free to pass that on to Katie as well."

----

Effy's lethal with a knife, Naomi discovers, and has potatoes peeled in less time than it takes for Naomi to even boil the kettle.

That's when the door opens and closes, and a loud, "Babe, there's like three inches of mud in the hallway; I thought I told you to put the Turkish wrestling thing on hold until after I got back?"

Naomi laughs unwillingly and Effy raises her eyebrows, holds up one finger and disappears around the corner.

A few minutes later, when Naomi's washing her hands, Emily shows up and lingers uneasily in the doorway to her own kitchen. "Hey," she says, awkwardly, and after a second Naomi hazards a glance.

"Sorry I'm invading your space."

"That's all right," Emily says, relaxing by degrees, and then looks around the kitchen. "Are you preparing a meal or conducting a scientific experiment in here?"

Naomi smiles. "Reckon we were both hoping a Fitch would show up to take over."

"Amen," Effy says, and gives Emily a kiss on the cheek before looking at Naomi. "White or red?"

"White," Naomi says, and Effy and Emily exchange a glance before saying, "No Pinot"

in tandem.

"What's wrong with Pinot?" Naomi asks, and after a second Effy laughs and disappears into the basement.

Emily moves in closer and shushes Naomi to the side, in a more subtle imitation of Katie's kitchen territoriality and she hops on the counter almost immediately, watches Emily work quietly and efficiently, and then sighs deeply.

"She misses you," Emily says, and then smiles faintly, before looking outside. "She's not quite at a point where she'll admit it, but I--well, we've always known more about each other than we're comfortable with, Katie and I."

Naomi doesn't really know to respond. "I don't see--well. I mean. Why are you telling me this?"

Emily dries her hands slowly, and then takes a deep breath. "I have to--apologize for how I went off on you when you first told me. I honestly think it was the shock of it more than anything, but Katie's made it clear in the months since that I couldn't have been more wrong, about you, or her."

"Right," Naomi says, softly, and then directs a look at Effy, who raises her eyebrows but obediently heads into the living room with a bottle of wine.

"I might not have known about--well, exactly what was going on," Emily says, wryly, "but I do know Katie and the idea that anyone could force her to do anything is, well--"

"Ludicrous," Naomi adds, and Emily nods. "So, what--you're..."

"I'd like to--help fix what I helped break. If you let me," Emily says, softly.

"Okay," Naomi says, slowly and warily.

"And if you promise me that I'm absolutely, positively wrong about you."

Naomi laughs. "Em, you don't fucking know me at all."

"Good," Emily says, and then reaches for the knife; holds it up and says, "Even now, every time Effy helps me cook, I'm convinced that today's going to be the day she'll finally cut half of her hand off."

"She doesn't seem like the type to slip up," Naomi says, "though I'll confess she's quite terrifying around knives."

"Don't be silly," Emily says, reaching for a carrot before looking up seriously. "Everyone slips up sometimes, Naomi. It's how you deal with it that counts."

----

At the end of the day, Emily's advice is simple.

"Katie's got all the wit of a mule about her when she's like this, so you have to be forceful and completely unsubtle; don't give her room to doubt, and be what made her like you in the first place."

"In other words," Effy adds, topping up their wine, "be an ever-present arsehole, and she'll run out of ways to tell you to fuck off."

"I can handle that," Naomi says, with a laugh, and watches as Emily's arm slips around Effy's back, realizes that she's done envying them forever.

She hugs Emily goodbye tentatively, when it's time to make the trip back down, and says, "I'm really sorry about everything that's happened in the past--however long. You and Effy--"

"We're fine," Emily assures her, and kisses her cheek, the one with the scar. "And so will you be."

The train ride back to London takes hours. She uses them to plan.

----

In many ways, there's a bizarre throwback to her first attempt to court Katie, except she doesn't bother with the subtlety this time around.

When Katie drops Jimmy off the next Friday, she makes a simple choice. "Stay for a bit, would you?"

Katie looks at her warily and Naomi shrugs. "I don't think it could hurt if we showed him that we don't despise each other."

"I don't want to give him false hope," Katie says, after a moment, but is already taking a step forward, into Naomi's living room.

"Neither do I," Naomi responds, and ignores the wary glance it earns her.

They have hot chocolate and biscuits together, and Jimmy seems happier than he has in ages. Katie stares at her for most of it, the silent implication that this is misleading him almost unmistakable, and when she gets up to leave, Naomi follows her to the door.

"It isn't right. He's going to think--"

"I don't want him to be wrong," Naomi says, bluntly.

Katie doesn't react for a while, and then her cheeks flush so abruptly that Naomi almost feels guilty. "Are you fucking having me on?"

"No, not even a little."

"You--" Katie says, and then shakes her head, leaves without saying anything else.

Naomi settles next to Jimmy, who snuggles into her side and says, "That was good cocoa."

"Yeah, it was," Naomi says, and looks at the door; wonders how long her reprieve will be.

----

Katie doesn't make her wait very long; comes back after four hours and says, "What the fuck?"

"I want you back," Naomi says, plainly, and Katie blanches so abruptly that she adds, "and I think you want me back, too."

"Oh, you do, do you?" Katie snaps. "And what part of me do you think was kidding about telling you to stay gone if you were going to leave?"

"You don't have to have been kidding to have been wrong, Katie."

"I just--I can't believe you," Katie spits, and before Naomi knows it she's arresting her wrist mid-air.

"We're better than this," she says, softly, and then lets Katie's hand go. It falls limply to her side, and then Katie sags against the wall.

"You shouldn't have left," she says, shaking her head. "You shouldn't have left when I asked you not to."

"Maybe not, but you shouldn't have made me stay just because--well, I don't fucking know," Naomi says, and shrugs helplessly. "Forcing me to stay with you would've fixed nothing."

"It would've proven to me that you weren't going to leave the minute things stopped being easy," Katie argues.

Naomi sighs. "Right. Because it's not like if I'd stayed this once, and only because you asked, you would've spent the rest of our lives wondering how long before I actually up and left, and for good this time."

"I don't--" Katie starts to say, and then stops.

"You didn't trust me. You didn't trust me to not quit on you both," Naomi says, and watches as the fight drains from Katie altogether.

"No, I didn't," she says, and closes her eyes.

"But I came back, just like I said I would, so you should--I mean, hell, Katie, I had nothing to come home to and I'm here anyway. How does that not prove to you that you were wrong?"

Katie shakes her head. "It's not that simple."

"If you'd given me a reason to stay, a real reason, I wouldn't have gone," Naomi stresses, and then rubs at her faces, tries not to tear up. "But all you could do was tell me that you didn't know if we'd be okay with Emily being the way she was, and--"

"Christ. It wasn't about Emily," Katie says, and Naomi almost reaches out, brushes tears away, but can't quite make her arm move. "You have to know better than that."

"And it wasn't about my work, either. You have to know better than that."

After a long moment, Katie nods.

"Go home, Kay," Naomi says softly. "I'll bring Jimmy back tomorrow, okay?"

It's the most pathetic victory ever, with the way the vanquished army disappears into the elevator, looking twice as distraught as before she'd arrived, and Naomi feels so little satisfaction at it that she ends up just sitting on the floor next to Jimmy's bed until he wakes up.

"You didn't sleep," he says, concerned. "Why not?"

"I had a lot to think about," Naomi says, and then shifts up to sit on the edge of his bed. Jimmy doesn't say anything for a long time, and then finally Naomi just looks at him. "Do you think I can make your Mum happy?"

"Totally," Jimmy says, and yawns.

"How come?"

Jimmy shrugs. "You're funny."

Naomi laughs. "And what about when I'm not funny?"

He frowns and seems to think it over seriously, but then his face brightens. "If you come back you can paint the ceiling and that will make Mum happy."

"Right, so, I'm good for jokes and chores," Naomi summarizes, and makes a face at Jimmy until he giggles.

"And you make good hot chocolate. That's very important."

"Maybe we should make a list?" she asks, and Jimmy nods after a minute, shooting off the bed and coming back with his colouring pad and a crayon.

"Don't forget about your pirate scar," he tells her, handing over a blue crayon.

"Will that makes your mum happy? My pirate scar?"

"Everyone likes pirates," Jimmy says, confidently, and Naomi laughs and kisses his head.

It makes it to the top of the list.

----

She ends up sticking the list to the top of a package of random shit she's collected while thinking of Katie on her last six months of travel, and drops it off when she brings Jimmy back.

"What's this?" Katie asks, with a bit more colour in her cheeks, and Naomi shrugs.

"Just look at it. It won't explode, don't worry."

Katie looks like she wants to say something, but ends up just accepting the box mutely, and Naomi spends an hour wandering around the nearby park, waiting for the inevitable phone call.

"It's not this easy, you twat," Katie says, sounding a little overwhelmed.

"Nothing good ever is, or so I hear."

"What do you expect me to say? Or do? You've--goddammit, Naomi," Katie says, and the loud sniff that follows it makes hope settle in Naomi's chest for the first time in months.

"Just have an open mind, Kay. If you can, just--"

Katie hangs up.

----

It's not like the last time, where an open mind led to dinner invitations and spending all sorts of time together; she only sees Katie when they're passing Jimmy back and forth, almost like a white flag hovering between them.

Sometimes, it's like Katie wants to say something more, but she never does, and Naomi's said just about all she can. "I want you back" is about as clear as it gets, and this is just limbo, a space where Katie decides whether or not she's worth it.

"I think it'll be okay," Effy tells her, and Naomi laughs, because for once she doesn't need someone else to tell her.

"How could she resist? There's a picture of me in the Oxford next to winner; granted, it's under antonym, ..."

Effy chuckles. "According to Emily, you're definitely making progress, in that Katie can't stop bitching about you being insane and unreasonable."

"Right, well, at least she doesn't have me confused with someone else; I must be quite mad to want back with someone who abuses me so consistently," Naomi says, dryly, and then looks at a picture of Jimmy and Katie on her desktop.

"Are you sure you're not under masochist, rather than winner?"

Naomi laughs. "Perhaps both; just call me the pained victor."

Katie, on her desktop, is laughing at something she's saying, one arm on Jimmy's back, and he's digging sand up with a shovel. Naomi runs a finger down her laptop monitor, and reminds herself it's not masochistic to want happiness back.

----

Two months pass. She doesn't leave London for more than two days at a time, shows up to pick Jimmy up at all the promised times, and manages to say everything and nothing to Katie every time they meet.

"I like your hair," is what she offers in week two. It makes Katie scowl but then reach up for it anyway. "You should wear it up more often; it brings out the shape of your face."

"Thanks," Katie mumbles, and then straightens and calls for Jimmy. Naomi chalks one down for herself, and wonders if she can bring flowers on the return trip.

Instead, she brings a thermos of hot chocolate, and hands it over with a faint smile. "Jimmy assures me that I make it better than anyone, so, well, there you are. No need to feel excluded."

"Right," Katie says, and then clears her throat. "Nice coat."

"It's a size eight," Naomi says, proudly, and Katie rolls her eyes.

"Fucking obviously."

Naomi whistles on the way back to the Tube, and then laughs at herself.

----

In week five, she brings a copy of Harper's along and says, "Check out page 305."

Katie stares at her. "I have a subscription, you know."

"Yeah, and you don't read anything that isn't about couture," Naomi counters. "They used that blazer you designed last fall for one of the high street comparison pages. Apparently, French Connection made a rip-off."

Katie's eyes narrow. "Since when do you read Harper's?"

"I don't know, " Naomi says, and then smiles. "The London Fashion Show made... an impact, last year."

Katie flushes prettily and Naomi tries not to grin, but it's almost impossible when Katie glares at her, hard. "Jim's a little feverish. Sorry I didn't call and cancel, I thought he'd snap out of it overnight."

"Right," Naomi says, and wonders if maybe, she's not the only one getting something out of these doorway conversations. "Well, that's all right. I need to go shopping, anyway."

"You--" Katie starts, and then chokes on whatever follows.

"Just joking," Naomi says, easily, and then winks.

Katie looks like she's going to explode, and the urge to whistle some more proves undeniable.

----

In week seven, she tries flowers.

"They're your favourites," she says, confidently, and Katie takes them mutely. "Is Jim ready?"

"Yeah," Katie finally says, and then just shakes her head and heads back inside.

"What's incorrigible mean?" Jimmy asks, when they're settled on the Tube, heading back to Naomi's.

"Something that can't be corrected. Why?"

"Mum said that you were, um, a bad word, and then that," Jimmy confesses, and Naomi tries not to laugh.

"Well, of course I'm incorrigible. I'm always right. Why would you correct someone who's right?"

"That would be stupid," Jimmy agrees, seriously, and Naomi laughs and ruffles his hair.

----

In week eight, she brings Jimmy back without a present, and Katie stares at her expectantly.

"Sorry, box of tricks is all empty," Naomi says, holding up her palms with a faint smile.

"Whatever," Katie says, after a moment, and Naomi smiles wider.

"Don't tell me you were looking forward to another present."

Katie just stares and after a second Naomi laughs.

"I don't know--" Katie starts to say, and then shakes her head.

Naomi sobers and says, "Jim was good; had a nightmare, though, and I couldn't quite figure out what about, but maybe he can sleep with you tonight, shrug it off that way."

"Right," Katie says, and then after an awkward pause adds, "Thanks for letting me know."

"No problem," Naomi says, and for just a beat, Katie's face softens so abruptly that she almost swoons at it. Then, the moment passes, and Katie just says, "See you next week", and she's off again.

She doesn't whistle this time, but her heart beats irregularly; it finally feels like the impasse is ending.

----

In the end, Katie comes to her for a change; shows up at her door at midnight and Naomi barely has a chance to say hello before Katie shoves her further into her apartment.

"I've been fucking trying, okay?" she says, and it's so thick with anger that Naomi can barely understand. "I've been trying so fucking hard to tell myself that you were a mistake, that I just got fucked up because you love my son so fucking much and he cares about you so deeply, and it was finally almost starting to work, and then you have to go and fuck everything up again."

"I'm sor--" Naomi starts to say, and Katie shakes her head.

"Why did you have to go? Why did you have to prove me right?" The questions comes out so sadly that Naomi sits down at the kitchen table heavily and shakes her head.

"I don't know," she says, sighing deeply. "Maybe it's because I felt like I was losing you anyway, and it was easier for me to go than to wait for you to tell me to leave."

Katie shudders, just once, and then sits down as well, sinks back into the chair heavily. "And was it? Easier?"

"Of course not. I'm a fucking idiot," Naomi says, and then they're both laughing, until Katie sniffles loudly again and Naomi gets up to get some kitchen roll, kneels in front of Katie and holds it out. "If you actually choose me, really choose me, you don't ever have to worry about me leaving."

"Fucking hell," Katie says, and blows her nose. "You think I have a choice? You think there's anything else I can choose?"

Naomi doesn't dare respond, and after a second Katie throws the wad of paper onto the table and looks down at her.

"I hate how much I can't stand not being near you," she says, and Naomi's lips twitch automatically in response.

"That's better than hating being near me, isn't it?"

Katie laughs brokenly. "Why does it have to be you, you stupid cow?"

Naomi sighs and drops her head to Katie's knees, almost sure that Katie won't just shove her off. "According to your son, it's the scar; makes me irresistible."

After a second a hand tightens in her hair, and Naomi smiles just a second before

Katie says, "Your hair is so fucking tragic. You're so fucking hopeless at taking care of yourself."

"Yeah," Naomi says, and breathes slowly; tries to calm her heart, and wonders how it is that Katie finally giving her an inch is what takes away every bit of the bravado she's had in the past month. "I've come to realize that someone else is much better at it."

"If--" Katie says, and then sighs. "Christ."

"Think you can handle a few ugly African masks in your hallway, eventually?" Naomi asks after a long moment, and Katie laughs shortly.

"You have a study. Don't push your luck."

Naomi finally hazards a look at Katie's face and the uneasy hope there is almost enough to make her start crying again, but she manages to just take a deep breath and say, "I know you probably think I came back for Jimmy, but fuck, Katie, I'm sodding miserable without you."

Katie just sighs and shakes her head, and then pulls Naomi's bangs aside, leans forward for a kiss that starts out tentative and then turns desperate within seconds, until all she can do is scramble up onto her feet and lean forward, cup Katie's cheeks and kiss her back.

"This is your last chance," Katie says, sounding equal measures out of breath and scared. "Okay? I am not going through this again because something else scares the shit out of you or makes you want to take off--"

"You won't have to," Naomi says, and kisses her again, softly this time. "I promise."

Chapter Text

They don't talk about the time they've wasted.

----

For a while, they try to take it slow; dinners and movies, walks with Jimmy, trips to the cinema on Sunday afternoons for movies that Naomi will never confess to finding engrossing and Katie most definitely does not cry at.

After the fourth week of that, though, kissing deeply in the hallway, Naomi untangles Katie's hair and runs her fingers through it and says, "Why do I keep going to my apartment, hm?"

"Because we're being sensible," Katie responds, a little breathlessly, and then takes a step back, but Naomi follows.

"I'm not all that good at being sensible, and I seem to remember you once spiking a metric fuckton of brownies with MDMA at a pyjama party, so, really--"

Katie laughs and kisses her again. "What's your point?"

"Well, I'm not saying we should just shag in the hallway, though I wouldn't necessarily say no, but, who are we kidding here?"

Katie looks apprehensive for just one second, and Naomi runs fingers up her arms, smiles. "Whatever it is, just say it."

"I--may or may not have gone on a massive shopping trip after you proved to be the biggest cunt on the planet, and there's barely an inch of closet space for you here at the moment," Katie confesses. To her credit, she sounds a little ashamed, and after a second Naomi laughs.

"Well, damn you. I've gotten quite accustomed to non-wrinkly things that I don't fish off the floor."

Katie sighs. "If only you had tits, you could just wear what I bought. It'd be a vast improvement."

"I don't fucking care about closet space, Kay," Naomi says, and kisses her again, poking fingers into her sides until Katie squirms and laughs. "Just let me stay, okay?"

"Yeah, okay," Katie relents.

Three weeks later, Katie grudgingly donates a whole lot of clothing to Oxfam, and Naomi makes one last trip to her apartment before putting it up for sale.

----

Jimmy's teacher calls on a Tuesday evening, and Katie stiffens and gestures for Naomi to turn down the telly, and then worriedly asks, "Did he get into another fight?"

She's then eerily quiet for a while, and finally says, "Oh, well, okay. Thank you. That's--yeah."

When she hangs up, she stares at Naomi for a moment and then rolls her eyes. "What?"

"Apparently, Jimmy's true nature of being a docile genius is asserting itself once more."

Naomi smiles. "In other words, if we just have a lot of sex, and I mean lots of it, constantly, he'll one day become Prime Minister?"

Katie doesn't respond; just tosses a pen in Naomi's general direction and then heads into the kitchen to make coffee.

Naomi looks at the ceiling with a smile, and vows to buy paint the next day.

----

In the end, the house doesn't get painted for another year, and when it's happened they throw a party.

Effy laughs when Naomi calls. "What's wrong with It's Tuesday?"

"Well, it'll be Wednesday, and also, I'll have you know that I've had to suffer heavily over that ceiling," Naomi protests.

"Did she threaten to withdraw sex?"

"Don't think she'd survive that, honestly," Naomi says, and then winks at Katie, who shoots her an acerbic look from the other side of the room.

"Right, well, s'not the best time of year for Em, marking and all--"

"One more thing--we're inviting Rob and Jenna, and we're telling them about us."

Effy's silent for a moment and then says, far too cheerily, "Emily can take some time off work."

"I don't seem to remember them giving you a hard time, so what can they possibly do to me?" Naomi asks, perturbed, and Katie laughs on the other side of the room.

"No comment," Effy says, mysteriously, and Naomi scowls before hanging up.

----

"That's my grandson there," Rob says, very seriously, pointing a finger at her. "And he's already lost one parent, so you better stop associating with war criminals and the like, do you understand me?"

Naomi involuntarily straightens and says, "Yes, sir", studiously ignoring the way that the twins are cracking up completely on the other side of the room and Effy just looks at her sympathetically... almost.

Rob eyes her for a moment and then sighs. "Right, well, I'm a simple man, Naomi, and I won't pretend that I understand any of this funny business that my girls are interested in. I thought that James Cook was a fucking disaster when I first met him, but Katie knew what she was doing then, so I'll assume she does this time as well."

"I appreciate that," Naomi says, biting her lip, and then bites down harder when Rob just looks at her for one more moment and brightly asks, "So, when's the last time you've been to a gym? You really should work on your definition, wouldn't want bat wings, would you?" before turning to Katie and saying, "You have kept up your own arms, haven't you?"

"Absolutely, Dad," Katie says, and Emily flexes an arm next to her almost on command.

"Good, good," Rob says, and then finally Tony rescues Naomi, takes Rob outside to watch Jimmy dribble his ball, and Naomi sighs in relief.

That's when Jenna sits down next to her with a sigh and reaches for her chin. "You've got such lovely skin, dear. Must you smoke?"

"Welcome to the family," Effy says, later, when Naomi smokes with a vengeance in the yard.

"Don't talk, it'll give you wrinkles," Naomi mutters crankily.

Effy raises her eyebrows. "Who, me? Never. I just need to eat a little, Naomi. Don't get us confused. You're the one with the skin issues."

"To be honest, I thought she'd say your hair was bound to fall out if you keep it at that shade for much longer," Katie says, pecking Naomi on the cheek before stealing her fag, "but apparently you're with me."

"Well, duh," Naomi says, unintentionally, and when Katie smiles at her she forgets all about Effy, who slips back inside without comment.

"They're being very--well," Katie finally says, not quite managing to hide a smile.

"Please. My mum cried when I told her I'd sold my apartment. I think your parents are being surprisingly humane about the whole thing."

They watch Jimmy chase Rob for a moment together, and then Katie passes the fag back, squeezes Naomi's side. "We're out of ice. I'll be back in about ten, just going to make a quick run."

Naomi's heart almost stops on the spot, and she reaches for Katie's wrist. "No, don't."

"Don't what?"

"Just--fuck the ice, okay?" Naomi says, urgently, and after a second Katie's eyes widen just a bit, before she grows incredibly pale and takes a fumbling step backwards.

Naomi reaches for her and pulls her in tight, and they stand like that for at least five minutes, until finally Jimmy shouts for Katie excitedly and Katie takes a deep breath.

"It wasn't the ice, obviously," she says, rubbing at her eyes, and Naomi hesitates, hangs on to her for another second, and says, "I don't like tempting--whatever, okay?"

"I'm not going anywhere," Katie says, softly, and then kisses her quickly. "Literally and--"

"I know," Naomi responds, and reaches for her hand. "Come on, let's go give Ronaldo a high five."

Their hands fit together well, and the afternoon is lovely; sunny, warm, and by the end of it, Naomi realizes her family has tripled in size almost effortlessly, just because she let it.

"Wish your mum could've made it," Katie says, when they're washing up.

"Me too, babe," Naomi responds, and kisses Katie for the millionth time that day, just because she can.

----

Time passes; Jimmy's seventh birthday is long gone, as is his eighth, and on the night before his ninth birthday, Katie looks over at Naomi sleepily and says, "You know, seven years ago, I honestly fucking thought that he'd never really know what it was like to have a proper family."

"You would've managed," Naomi responds, and brushes a hand past her cheek. "You know that."

"Yeah, but this is so much more than managing," Katie says with a soft smile, and closes her eyes.

There's not much more to say, and when Naomi heads downstairs in the morning to find Jimmy impatiently looking around the living room, she hugs him until he struggles and calls her weird.

"They're still not in the cupboard," she tells him, and he laughs.

"Didn't look in the cupboard; I reckon they're in the car or under your bed."

"That's where Santa left things, Jim," Naomi says with a laugh. "Surely we figured you'd check both of those places."

He blushes. "Fine, so they're not under your bed. Can I have the car keys now?"

Naomi chuckles and says, "No, not until your mum says so."

Jimmy looks at her for a moment and then grins. "She's so the boss of you."

"Is not," Naomi protests.

"Then why can't you give me the keys?"

Naomi sighs. "I just--oh, nevermind, you brat."

Katie finds them pelting pillows at each other fifteen minutes later, and rolls her eyes before going to get some coffee; two minutes later, she's included into the assault.

----

Tony and Cassie get married; it's an outdoor ceremony, lots of strings of flowers everywhere, and Cassie says lovely so many fucking times that Katie at some point goes, "If I stab her with this meat fork, will that be lovely, too?" and Naomi almost snorts out a mouthful of champagne.

"I'm happy for you," she tells Tony, who pulls on her tux until it's aligned properly and then prods at her little bow tie, and then smiles.

"And when are you making Katie an honest woman?"

Naomi smiles and looks at Katie, leaning in to tell Emily something while Effy's watching Jimmy play a videogame on whatever portable thing he got for his birthday, and then looks back at Tony. "I'm not really the marrying type, you know that."

Tony just rolls his eyes. "Oh yeah, how could I forget; you may be more domesticated than any of us, but marriage, the horror."

"It's not--oh, nevermind," she says, and kicks at his shin. "Now look sharp, I think they're ready for you, big man."

It's all a bit Midsummer's Night Dream, too quaint and fairy-like for Naomi's liking, but Cassie looks absolutely delighted at everything and Tony looks absolutely delighted at her, and that does just about enough to make the day completely right.

At the reception, Katie is too drunk to dance; begs off saying, "You know what would be lovely, babes? Fucking lying down somewhere" and Naomi laughs before helping her back into the hotel, up to their room, and then gets her out of her dress before pushing her back on the bed and shifting on top of her.

"You make gay look good," Katie tells her, before breaking into a grin, and then fiddles with the buttons on the little black waistcoat that Naomi kept on.

"You make drunk look ... drunk," Naomi counters, and smiles when Katie tries to come up with something to say but ends up just laughing.

"Good on Tony, yeah?" she then says, abandoning the buttons, and just loosely slinging an arm around Naomi's back. "He's wanted this for so long, so good on him."

"And what about you?" Naomi asks, pressing a kiss to Katie's forehead that makes her laugh again. "Do you want to get married?"

Katie's laughter trickles off slowly, and then she harmlessly pushes at Naomi's shoulder, stares at her. "Is this a conversation or a joke?"

"Not sure," Naomi confesses, and then shrugs. "Whatever you want, really."

"This is fucking worse than what James came up with, which was, uh, more or less, well, let's not have him be a bastard, then; I've always wanted one of them big cake sampling sessions, what say you?."

Naomi laughs. "You must miss him; what a man."

"Sure," Katie says, and then runs a finger down Naomi's nose, sloppily, tips onto her cheeks every so often. "But not that much, these days; how could I, when I'm constantly near an even bigger twat?"

"Cheers," Naomi says, and kisses her; then laughs when Katie kisses back harder, and mumbles something about fucking ties and fucking buttons before just shoving a hand down Naomi's trousers.

The next morning, watching Katie sleep, Naomi feels incredibly lucky at having someone who seems to realize that little every day things mean a lot more than ridiculous, archaic big gestures.

----

Biological clocks start ticking.

They talk about it, twice; once with Naomi just casually mentioning a brother for Jimmy at dinner right around the time Effy and Emily's adoption papers are finally approved, which resulted in Katie almost dropping her fork and then staring at her accusingly until she'd amended it to hypothetical brother, and then a second time, in bed, much more deliberately.

"If we do it, it'll have to be soon," Naomi says, and when Katie looks at her a little confused she runs her fingers across Katie's stomach, slowly, before poking it just once.

Katie's eyes narrow but she doesn't say anything for a long time, and Naomi sighs;

realizes it's one of those times when Katie just doesn't want to put herself out there, and she's going to have to say something first.

"I love Jim, you know I do, but--it's not something I need, so it's completely up to you," she says, and waits patiently for Katie to comment.

"I don't want Jim to feel like--like he's not ours, you know? Like he's not actually part of this family anymore. I think--"

"Forget about Jim, Kay. What do you want?"

Katie sighs and rubs at her eyes. "I don't know, okay? I didn't get much of a say in this the first time. I'm not sure I'd have a kid by now if not for a fucking condom break."

"It's okay to not want more, you know," Naomi says, rolling over onto her stomach and pressing a kiss to Katie's side. "It doesn't mean you love Jim any less."

"Yeah," Katie says and takes a deep breath. "Honestly, I think I'm good. I don't--I like our lives the way they are. I feel settled for the first time in ages, and a fucking baby is just--God, you are so lucky to have missed out on his worst years."

"Oy, knock on wood; he's barely even a teenager," Naomi says with a frown and Katie smiles, brushes her hair out of her eyes.

"You need--"

Naomi bites at her fingers.

----

Two weeks later, Naomi spends an entire day that she should be doing work doing research, and leaves a note for Katie pinned to their bathroom mirror:

I've been thinking about what you said, about how Jim fits into "our" family. Feel free to tell me that I'm out of line, but here's some options:

-- parental responsibility through a court order (pro: easy, up to you; con: does not overrule family)

-- actual adoption (pro: formal, your parents would have no claim to him over me if something awful happened; con: people invading our house for 3 months to see if I'm 'appropriate')

Let me know what your thoughts are? xx

----

Katie's brief on her thoughts.

"I don't give a fuck. Whatever, just--yeah, please," she says, sounding completely choked up and then hugging Naomi so tightly that she can barely breathe.

"God, Katie, you could've--"

"It's not something you ask, okay?" Katie says, sniffling loudly just once, and then pulls away with a tremulous smile. "It's not like you would've ever said no, but now I don't have to worry about whether or not you're ready for it or if I like, made you take him on. But I don't want him ending up with my parents or Emily should anything happen to me, I mean, you're his--you are his parent, Naomi. I'm just--" She shakes her head and rubs at her eyes, inhales slowly.

"Kay..." Naomi says, with a sigh, and brushes a thumb past her cheek, catching just one stray tear. "I just didn't want to--"

"I know, okay? We're both incredibly fucking stupid, it's fine. I don't even know why I'm surprised, I mean, I should know by now that I just love 'em dumber than rocks,"

Katie says, half-heartedly rolling her eyes, before tugging Naomi down for a kiss.

It doesn't actually hit Naomi until hours later, that Katie just threw out a word they've never really used before, and then goes to find her; leans in the doorway, watches her iron Jimmy's school uniforms.

"What?" Katie asks after a minute, when Naomi just stands around, watching her hands whip the shirt around the ironing boar with such practiced ease that, well, it shouldn't be turning her on but it kind of is, ridiculously.

"Nothing, really; just wanted to say I love you too, I guess."

The iron stills for just a beat before Katie picks it back up and a cloud of steam masks her face momentarily. "Yeah, whatever. I mean, I know, okay?"

Naomi smiles. "I'm going to send Jim off to bed and then take a bath; join me when you're done?"

Katie just nods, and Naomi leaves after watching her for just another second, folding up one of Jimmy's ties with a look of fierce concentration on her face.

It's nice, finally having a word for that completely overwhelming feeling that sometimes sneaks up on her when she sees Katie doing stupid, normal things. It's about time, too.

----

"Lota," Effy says.

"Lola?"

"No, Lota," Effy repeats, and Naomi mouths it at Katie, who shrugs.

"Where's that from?"

"Brazil," Effy says after a moment, and then clears her throat. "We'll send pictures tomorrow, okay? Just--"

"Yeah, of course, go spend time with them. We'll be up next weekend, won't we?"

Katie nods and mimes a phone. "And Kay will call Em tomorrow."

"She's--" Effy says, and then falls deadly silent.

"Yeah, I know what you mean," Naomi says, and thinks about Jimmy scoring the winning goal last season and how she'd had to swallow incredibly hard to not get choked up at the look on his face.

----

"Do you think I can buy Lo--" Naomi says, and looks over at a stuffed giraffe in the corner. "No, nevermind."

"He'd never admit it, but he'd care," Katie confirms, following her gaze, and then smiles. "We'll get her some dolls; she's almost two now, she'll be fine with them."

"Is there a single non-offensive Barbie out there yet?"

Katie almost grins. "Yeah. Eco Barbie. She's fucking dull as paint and wears hemp everywhere."

"Fuck off," Naomi says, with a laugh.

"They're talking about having a Political Barbie, you know, for little girls who want to be annoying know-it-alls later on in life," Katie continues, and Naomi pinches her in the side.

"Can we at least get her something that doesn't force a gender stereotype on her?"

Katie rolls her eyes. "How about the Duplo farm?"

"Done," Naomi says, and kisses her head. "Thanks, Bitch Barbie."

----

Naomi doesn't cry much; not generally, and especially not when things are good.

Never does she cry harder, though, than when Jimmy has her go over a History assignment when he's thirteen and she spots a completely unexpected James Campbell-Cook in the top right hand corner.

"He asked me if I thought it'd be okay," Katie says, softly, and then rubs Naomi's back until she's calmed down a little. "I said I thought it would."

"Okay? Jesus Christ," Naomi finally manages, and then laughs helplessly, almost chokes on it.

"It's about fucking time, I think," Katie says moment later, the bitch, and it sets Naomi off all over again, until Katie's supposedly soothing observation that this is wrecking her make-up and that Jimmy's masterpiece is slowly turning into illegible pulp because she's weeping all over it annoys her just about enough to stop.

When she hands Jimmy back his coursework at breakfast, he looks at her a little worried.

"I thought it was lovely," Naomi says, softly, and he grins after a second.

"My essay about Churchill?"

"Yeah, absolutely. Churchill's never been more lovely," she says, and presses a kiss to his skull before he can object. "I left some notes in the margin, okay?"

"Thanks, Nae," he says, and shoves the assignment into his schoolbag before heading out the door.

----

They're preparing steaks together on the grill for Jimmy and some friends--due in after football practice--and Naomi takes a long pull from a beer before putting the bottle down and saying, "So."

"Oh, that's never led anywhere good," Katie says, looking up with a wry smile. "What have you done now, you big oaf?"

Naomi laughs despite herself. "Hey, that's--completely uncalled for."

"What, then?"

"I'm due for a promotion," Naomi says after a beat, and Katie stares at her until she continues. "And--I've now reached the salary scales where if I do get promoted, it means travel."

"Define travel," Katie says.

"From what I can tell from Michael, once, maybe twice a month; just for a few days. I've--they'll give me the EU job, if I want it."

"And what do you want?" Katie asks, carefully flipping the steaks. They sizzle and a cloud of smoke temporarily blinds Naomi, until she blows it away.

"I don't know. I've not--let myself look at the other positions. I imagine there's an Asia and an Africa in there, though."

"Once or twice a month, hm?" Katie repeats after a beat, and then there's a cacophony of noise from the front of the house as Jimmy and his mates show up.

"Jim, shoes," Naomi yells, and there's a hold-up in the train of noise as they all shrug out of their trainers.

Katie smiles. "I have you well trained, don't I."

"That's--one way of putting it," Naomi says, after a second, and then feels her forehead contract. "Look, I'm--open to talking about this, but I can't tell them to not promote me indefinitely; you understand that."

"Find out what the other choices are and tell me which one you want, okay? And then we'll talk," Katie says, after a pause, and then tips up on her toes for a quick kiss.

"In far more pressing news, I just realized we're out of ketchup. Guess who can fix that?"

Naomi just narrows her eyes, but then heads back inside for the car keys, heart about eight shades lighter.

----

Two weeks later, Naomi finds a picture in her cereal bowl of a lion in a steppe somewhere, and all it says on the back is "Just make sure you come back".

They've come ridiculously far; further than she could've even foreseen these things went, and heads back upstairs with a bounce in her step, wakes Katie up with a deep kiss and a hand sliding up her thigh at an alarming pace.

----

She's watching a wildlife documentary on the sofa with Jim, and after a moment's thought passes her beer to him.

"What--but--Mum," he says, and looks over towards Katie's workspace with a nervous glance.

"Please, I'd like to see her try; if you knew what she got up to when she was fifteen..." Naomi says, and then laughs. "It's just a beer. You might not even like--"

"No, I like beer," Jim says, quickly, and then flushes.

"All right then."

A lioness slowly circles her mate on the telly, and after a second Jimmy shifts, clears his throat. "So--you're a girl, right?"

Naomi tries very hard to not laugh, and just about manages. "Last I checked, yeah."

"Right, so--say that someone was like, taking you out, yeah? On a date, or whatever?" Jimmy asks, keeping his eyes trained on the telly and clutching at the bottle with white fingers. "What--what would you like, expect?"

"Dinner," Naomi says, and then bites down on her cheek. "And for you to not be a total prat. Hypothetical you, that is."

"Right, of course."

Naomi thinks for a second and then says, "Your Mum was a much more average girl than I've ever been, you know. You should really ask her. I'm sure there's like, nonsense about gifts and picking them up and so on that you're meant to know about."

"I can't ask my mum about how to like, get with girls," Jimmy says, looking horrified.

"Oh, you're looking to get with someone? Well, in that case," Naomi says, and gestures for the beer, "I think we better have a different conversation instead, called I Shall Not Leave This House Without Condoms."

"I've--oh my God," Jimmy says, and blanches. "I'm--we get this at school."

"Right, but since I'm not at school, I'd like to make sure that they didn't forget anything important," Naomi responds, and then takes a sip. "So. What are the five worst things that can happen to you and your bits?"

Twenty minutes later, Jimmy disappears upstairs, looking a little shell-shocked, and Katie looks around the corner, obviously amused. "You're fucking awful, you know that?"

"I figure you can head up there and give him a spiel about being a gentleman and like, doling out compliments in a bit, or something," Naomi says.

"Oh, don't get me wrong; I'm impressed. Was that the Gina message?"

Naomi laughs. "Hardly. She gave me a box of condoms and Microgynon when I turned fourteen and told me that love was a load of horseshit so I should just get as much experience as I should; think she'd just ended things with Greg at the time."

Katie sits down next to her and reaches for the beer. "Christ, at least that's something. The Fitch method of sexual education mostly just involved threatening my boyfriends."

"And look at how well that worked, right?"

"I think we're lucky," Katie says after a beat and squeezes Naomi's thigh. "There's a lot of his dad in him, but not once have I worried we'd have twelve grandchildren by the time we were fifty."

"Yeah, we've raised a good kid, haven't we," Naomi says, and finishes off the beer. "Go on, then. Tell him to how to make difficult and demanding girls like yourself happy."

"I was never difficult," Katie protests, and Naomi grins at her. "Fuck off, you're the one who had my sister jump through twelve million hoops just to sweat in your shadow.  For God's sake, difficult."

"I'd make a joke about how you're easy, but given the context--" Naomi says, with a barely hidden laugh, and Katie flips her off before heading up the stairs.

----

Her name is Claire, and when she puts together that Jimmy's mom Katie is the Katie Cook, the one who was on Project Runway all those years ago, her jaw drops.

"Oh my God, I like totally bought my brother one of your polo shirts just a month ago; they're fucking safe, you know?" she says, and then blushes furiously. "Sorry, I didn't mean to be all spastic, just wow, I've never met anyone famous or important before, and--"

"No, that's quite all right," Katie says, soothingly, and Naomi looks away so that she doesn't start laughing. "Did your brother like it?"

"Oh, totally," Claire gushes, and then looks at Jimmy. "Geez, you nerd, why didn't you tell me? I bet you can get them like totally discounted too, right?"

"Totally," Naomi agrees, with a wide smile.

Jimmy takes her home after a bit, and Katie takes one look at Naomi and starts laughing.

"You're like, totally famous, babe," Naomi tells her, widening her eyes. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Oh, fuck off; like you wouldn't have sat around preening if she'd expressed an interested in world hunger."

"She seems--very enthusiastic," Naomi responds, and after a second they both laugh again.

"Well, it can only get better; I mean--sixteen? Ugh," Katie says, and makes a face.

"Indeed," Naomi says, and leans in for a kiss that is meant to just be a tease, but turns surprisingly hungry quite quickly.

"Upstairs?" Katie asks, already fingering the bottom button of Naomi's shirt.

"Wait, wait--" Naomi says, and takes a step back.

"What?"

"Well, sorry I'm being spastic, but I've never like, shagged anyone totally important before, so--"

Katie chases her up the stairs, cursing all the way.

----

The four A's aren't really a surprise, but Jim's choice of a graduation present--well, Naomi'd first fallen completely silent, and then had felt the need to check with Katie that she wasn't offended at least five times until Katie had rolled her eyes and said, "He's your son too, you dip."

On the flight over, she feels a rush of excitement she hasn't felt at the prospect of going abroad in years; not since she herself was a teenager, and her world was confined to just one city with so few experiences that Africa was almost indeterminable. Jimmy looks a bit like that, but then at the same time, he's got what she didn't have: someone to prepare him, to guide him, and to keep him from experiencing anything that he shouldn't have to see.

"Did you ever get me a cuddly toy from here?" he asks, when the plane starts its descent, and Naomi smiles.

"No, not Ghana; the last time I was here, you weren't born yet."

Jimmy nods and looks out the window again, and then says, "Maybe we should get Lota something cute; like a lion, what do you think?"

"I think she'd like that," Naomi says, and wonders how much she would've laughed at age eighteen, if she'd been told that her best experiences abroad would be a bunch of silly family vacations and that one time when her kid asked to get just a glimpse at her life away from home.

----

The project takes two months.

"Do you--I don't want to ask Mum, but--do you think my dad would've--I don't know--" Jim starts saying, when they've just got one week left, and Naomi swallows her last bite of lunch a little harder than necessary before conjuring up a smile.

"He would've been beyond proud of you; I promise. And not just because of how well you hold your liquor, which I promise not to mention to say, anyone under 5'5" who may care, okay?"

Jim laughs. "Thanks. I reckon we're in enough trouble as it is, getting back with this much laundry."

Naomi snorts. "I'm not afraid of your mother, James."

"I am, sometimes, a little," he says with a grin and then slams his hands down on the table before getting up. "Come on. We have a school to finish building."

"Speak for yourself; I'm going to sit and ahem, deal with paperwork while you get your hands dirty," Naomi says, shrugging when he glares at her. "What; there've got to be some benefits to being ancient."

She's already walking back to the office when he catches up to her and pulls on her arm, and when she turns around he looks almost guilty. "Hey, I just wanted to say—I mean, asking about my dad, I didn't mean to--"

"Jim," she says, and rolls her eyes before smiling. "Go hammer something, you big girl."

He hugs her, briefly but tightly, and then sprints off again; she only barely manages to stop herself from reminding him of that one time he got sunstroke when he was eleven, and then just shakes her head before heading inside.

----

"Interesting colouring," Katie says, before stepping up on her toes and pecking Naomi quickly so as to not gross Jimmy out completely. "Didn't anyone tell you two that you're British?"

"Thought that law only applied to fake tan," Naomi says after a moment and steps aside so Katie can hug Jim; or rather, be hugged by Jim.

After a quick, tight squeeze Katie steps back and looks at their luggage with a frown. "If you think for one bloody minute that I'm going to spend the entire weekend doing your laundry for you, you've both clearly hit your heads on something."

Jim grins. "Told you, Nae." He grabs the heaviest bag and carries it inside for them.

After a moment of just looking--absorbing, really; updating her catalogue of mental images in a few seconds--Naomi leans against the door frame. "Just like old times, eh?"

"Why, are you here to drunkenly fuck up my life again?" Katie says with a raised eyebrow, just barely hiding a smile.

"Nah; I'll take my chances sober, this time," Naomi says, and steps in closer, pinches Katie in the sides until she squirms. "Fancy having a boarder who may or may not cook a rather excellent cottage pie and really, really enjoys oral sex?"

"I've missed you, you stupid cow," Katie says in response, and tugs her down for a real kiss.

It feels like home.