Chapter 1: speaking in metaphors
As Emily slips out of consciousness, her only thought is, Am I dying?
Somewhere far off is a steady beeping, getting closer and closer until Emily's eyelids flutter open and, a moment later, the scene swims into focus. The place is unfamiliar, but Emily immediately recognises it for what it is: a hospital. The beeping increases ever so slightly and she realises that it's her heartbeat on a monitor, and that means something bad happened.
Right, the crash.
It was stupid, really, and all Emily's own fault. Naomi had pointed out that Emily could barely even balance on a push bike, she didn't trust her with a moped, and of course Emily hadn't fucking listened and hopped on as soon as Naomi had her back turned, and now--
Well, now she's lying in a hospital bed, and she hurts all over.
She turns her head when she realises her mother's talking to her, but it hurts her neck and she lets her head fall back onto the pillow. Her mum's fussing, but Emily pays no attention to her exact words; it takes too much effort to listen. She lets her mum plump her pillow and make worried faces at her while she looks around, and that's when Emily sees Katie, sitting on a chair and looking tiny and pale. Emily manages a small smile and Katie visibly relaxes, looking relieved now that she knows Emily's going to be okay.
Their mum stops nattering on and looks suddenly serious, her jaw set.
"What is it?" Emily says, her voice coming out stronger than she expected.
"Now, Emily, I hate to start up on this again," she says in this kindly voice that always means trouble, "especially when you're like this, but I really hope that after this incident we can be on the same page."
"What page is that?"
"Look what she's done to you now." There's no need to ask who 'she' is; there's only one person in Emily's life that her mother refuses to name. "I've been trying, you know I have, but obviously my first impression was right. She's bad for you, Emily. I hope you can see that now."
The sudden pain in Emily's head has nothing to do with the crash. "I nearly died, and all you care about is who I'm seeing? Fuck's sake--"
Katie stands up then and before Emily can start raising her voice, Katie says, "Hey, Mum, it's been a long day, yeah? You should go and rest, I'll stay with Ems."
Emily thinks she sees them share a look like they're some sort of team, like once their mum's gone Katie's going to start up in her place, finding a new angle to attack Naomi, but it's not like that. Their mum leaves and Katie settles back in her chair, giving Emily a small smile.
"Suppose you're going to miss the first day of college, then," Katie says. "Lucky."
"I think I'd rather not be in this state, actually," Emily says, and Katie smiles again.
"You know if we keep showing up to college all beaten up, people are going to think our parents are like, abusive or something."
"Yeah, well, they fucking are sometimes."
Katie shrugs. "She's just scared. Seeing you like this, you know."
"Is it bad?" Emily realises for the first time that she doesn't actually know exactly what's wrong with her, and apparently there aren't any doctors around to fucking tell her.
"You'll live," Katie says. "I think they just want to keep you in for observation in case you have a concussion or something. Broken leg, though. You'd better make sure James doesn't nick your crutches."
Emily pulls the edge of the covers off to see her right leg in plaster, suddenly noticing how itchy it is. "Suppose it could be worse," she says, and Katie nods.
"Yeah. I'm glad you're still in one piece."
A nurse bustles in and, seeing that Emily's awake, starts explaining the extent of her injuries, including the cracked rib and punctured lung that Katie had neglected to mention. Emily tries to take it all in, but then the nurse gives her some pain medication and it all becomes a bit hazy.
The nurse leaves again, busy with all his rounds, and Emily turns back to Katie.
"Where's Naomi?" She must have brought Emily here, and Emily knows there's no way Naomi would leave voluntarily.
All Katie does is shrug, and when Emily glares at her she says, "Mum told her to fuck off. Said she'd done enough damage already."
"Yeah, well, maybe Mum has a point."
"I mean, it's kind of her fault you're in the hospital, isn't it? Maybe you should stick to dating people who don't nearly get you killed." Katie folds her arms. "It's not a gay thing, it's a Naomi thing."
Emily sighs. She knows that she'd hate it if her family had started treating her like a delicate flower just because she's in hospital, but this is too much.
"Look, I want to see her," she says, and Katie starts to protest. "Just fucking bring her in, all right?"
"You think Mum's going to allow that?"
"I don't care, I want to see her. Katie, please do this for me." She looks at her imploringly and eventually Katie rolls her eyes.
"Fine. I still don't like her, but I'll see what I can do."
Emily dozes on and off while her family--now joined by her dad and James--sit around and look at her like they're scared she might break any minute (more than she already has). Every now and then Emily glances at Katie, who shrugs her shoulders as if to say that there's no way she can possibly bring Naomi to her while everyone is hanging around and fussing over her.
Still, she doesn't seem to be putting in a whole lot of effort.
It's not until the next day--the day before their second year at college starts--that Katie manages to clear everyone out while it's still visiting hours. Emily doesn't know how she managed it, she probably shouted at everyone that Emily needed rest, but they slink off and a few moments later, Naomi's head emerges round the door.
"Hi," she says, and Emily feels her heart rate quicken--fucking hears it too, on the stupid monitor--and she can't stop the smile from spreading across her face.
"Hi yourself," she says, and smiles even more broadly as Naomi approaches the bed, a little bit tentatively like she's shy or something. Emily doesn't know why she would be, unless maybe whatever her mum said to her really jangled her.
"I'm glad you're okay," Naomi says. "And, you know, I'm sorry I wasn't here. I mean, I was, but then your mum..."
"I thought she was getting better about the whole us thing," Emily says. "But I guess not. I'm sorry."
"She can be quite scary, you know," Naomi says conversationally, and she perches on the side of Emily's bed, taking her hand with both of hers and squeezing tight. She doesn't let go.
"She'll come around, I'm sure of it," Emily says. "I think she's just scared, especially with all this." She gestures down at her cast and sees something in Naomi's expression, something like a pang of guilt. "I'm sorry," Emily says again. "You told me not to ride that stupid thing."
"I think you need to promise to never get onto any sort of moving vehicle ever again," Naomi says. "Or at least one that you're steering."
Emily smiles. "Okay, I promise. You can ferry me around everywhere."
Naomi's grip on Emily's hand loosens a little, and she shrugs, smiling slightly. "You know I'm happy to do that." She laughs a little. "God, you've turned me into such a fucking sap."
"Am I meant to apologise for that? Because I'm not going to."
Sighing a little, Naomi shifts where she's sitting until she's lying down next to Emily, squished together on the too-small bed. She takes Emily's hand again and starts stroking light circles on her palm; it tickles a little, but Emily doesn't want her to stop.
"When are you going to get out of here?" Naomi asks. "I don't much fancy having to sneak around your bloody family every time I want to see you."
"A few days, I think," Emily says. "Maybe less. You'll have to, I don't know, collect my homework for me for the first few days of college."
"We only take one subject together."
"Well, whatever. I don't really care."
They lie in silence for a while, and it's nice, just being like this. No pressure to be someone she's not, like there is whenever her family's around. Not that she's started pretending, but every time she so much as mentions Naomi's name she has to endure her mother's stormy looks. She's stopped actually saying anything--her version of "trying"--but the displeasure on her face is evident for all to see.
And now, it's all going to be so much worse, and just because Emily thought it might be fun to try riding Naomi's moped herself.
"I'm such a fucking idiot," she says with a sigh, and Naomi leans over and kisses her lightly.
"You really are," she says, smiling, and then her expression gets suddenly serious. "I'm just glad you're okay. It was scary, you know, watching you..." She shrugs, and continues in a whisper, "I don't know what I'd do without you."
Emily kisses her, the touch lingering. "You don't ever have to worry about that."
Chapter 2: our only disguise
The dye runs in the sink, black patterns swirling against the white porcelain. Katie watches as it drains away, then lifts her head to stare at herself in the mirror.
She looks different, obviously, but it still comes as a shock. Then again, she's spent most of the last few months staring at herself in the mirror and feeling like she doesn't know the girl that's staring back.
She runs a brush through her hair, starts blowdrying it to get the full effect, and once she's done she starts turning round, looking at herself from different angles and trying to decide whether this was a good idea after all. She was aiming for sophistication, but she's not sure whether she ended up looking like some kind of ridiculous depressing goth freak instead. Maybe she shouldn't have gone so dark straight away.
It's a bit drastic, but she needed a change. The last thing she could do was turn up to college tomorrow looking exactly the same as she did when she left. (Not that she could look exactly the same--the bruises have faded by now, the scrape on her chin healed--but she has to look like a new person, because, well, that's what she is.
When she goes to bed that night it takes her ages to finally drift off to sleep, mostly because she keeps trying to keep herself awake. Obviously she needs her sleep, the last thing she wants is to turn up tomorrow looking tired, but she wants to put it off for as long as humanly possible. She wonders if she could get away with pretending to be ill, but with Emily still in hospital she doubts anyone would pay any attention to her ailments unless she like, broke a bone herself. And she's not quite thatdesperate, thank you very much.
Morning arrives much too soon, and before Katie knows it she's walking up to the main doors of Roundview, staring up at the building, unable to believe all that's happened since this time last year. If anyone had told her--well, she would've said they were fucking mental to think that all of this could possibly happen.
They're in a different classroom this year, her form, and when she finds it everyone's milling around outside, waiting for the bell to ring. The first person she notices is Effy, slouched against the wall and looking supremely bored, as fucking usual, and though there are a couple of people hanging around her, most noticeably Freddie, she doesn't seem to be listening to a word anyone says.
And then she turns her head and looks at Katie, and Katie feels her chest constrict.
Something changes in Effy's expression, but Katie doesn't dwell on it. Slowly, deliberately, Katie looks Effy up and down and as soon as Effy opens her mouth to speak, Katie's gaze passes over her, deliberately blanking her as she surveys the crowd and waits until her gaze alights on someone, anyone she can latch on to.
She spots someone in the crowd.
"Hi, JJ," she says, and okay, he's not exactly her number one top choice of someone to talk to, but everyone else looking either fucking hostile or like they can't wait to see what Effy will say, he'll fucking do.
"Oh! H-hi, Katie," he says, his eyes practically falling out of his head in surprise or whatever.
Effy's voice cuts through the silence that results from Katie and JJ's exchange. "I like your hair, Katie."
Katie glares at her, feeling her heart beat faster, because what the fuck is she supposed to do with that? "Whatever," she says, and then the bell rings. "Come on, JJ, let's go."
He glances around like he's not really sure what's going on, but she looks at him so pointedly that he says, "Right, sure," and follows after her, sitting down at the table next to her.
Everyone else files into the classroom after them, and once everyone's sitting down, Katie looks around. It's strange, the way things have changed. Effy and Freddie are sitting next to each other, but considering the way that they threw Katie under a bus just so they could be together, they hardly look happy. They're not smiling, not looking at each other--and this is meant to be true fucking love. Some chance.
Freddie, slumped in his seat, keeps looking over at Cook--who's sat next to Naomi, talking and joking with her, the two of them apparently getting along well--with some sort of weird expression on his face. Katie doesn't know what happened with them, and she definitely doesn't fucking care, but she thinks it's weird that there might still be some sort of rift there. She heard rumours about a boat, and thought that they'd started to fix things.
Katie glances at Effy again, and this time she finds Effy looking back. Katie rolls her eyes and turns back to JJ, smiling just to pretend that she's having a good time at least, and even though he looks kind of confused, he smiles back. Somewhere in the background Kieran is talking, trying to explain something or other about what they have to do this year at college, but Katie doesn't take in any of the words that leave his mouth.
"So, how was your summer?" she asks JJ, and he laughs a little.
"Strange," he says after a while. "Very, very strange. How was yours?"
"Kind of strange as well," she says, because it's better than telling the truth, which is that it was mostly very boring. She spent most of it cooped up indoors like some sort of recluse, apart from on the odd occasion when Emily invited her out with her and Naomi, and even then Katie only tagged along so Emily would stop giving her that pitying look all the fucking time.
She realises with some surprise that she's actually glad to be back at college, if only because now her life at least resembles something like normalcy. It may all be different this time around, but it's familiar enough that there's something kind of comforting about being back.
The bell rings again, marking the end of registration, and when Katie glances at the timetable she's been given she sees that she has History first period. It's only when she's halfway to the classroom that she realises that she's walking the same way as JJ, and sure enough they're in the same class. He looks surprised when she sits down in the chair next to him, but whatever, Katie doesn't have a lot of choice--he's not the only person in the class she knows, but he's the only person that doesn't look at her like she's some sort of freakshow.
He starts pulling his folder out of his bag, along with one of those ancient Fruit Pastilles pencil cases that Katie hasn't seen in years, and he looks at her, a little puzzled.
"I don't think you've ever voluntarily spent this much time with me, Katie," he says. "I-I mean, don't get me wrong, it's fine, I'm just surprised."
It makes Katie feel a little guilty; it's not like she ever meant to ignore him or anything, it's just that he's a bit weird and Katie had so much other stuff going on with Emily and Freddie and Effy that JJ was never more than this slightly odd presence in the background.
"Sorry," she says. "I guess some things change. Or people do. Whatever."
He nods. Katie doesn't really think he'd ever actually understand, but maybe she underestimated him.
They don't say much for the rest of the lesson; Katie's mindful of the fact that Emily got her a B in her AS Level and she wants to live up to that, so she makes an effort to actually listen to what the teacher's saying instead of doodling in her textbook like she normally would.
JJ's clever; maybe Katie can persuade him to lend her his notes or look over her coursework or something like that.
Katie only realises how few friends she has when she's standing outside the cafeteria, peering in and trying to scope out someone to sit with. She refuses to take her lunch and like, sit in the toilets by herself like some giant loser, but she's running out of options. Emily isn't here, and Katie's hardly friends with Naomi even if she did help out with getting her into the hospital. And Katie would sit with Panda and Thomas, they're all right, but Effy's with them--not even saying anything, by the look of it, just glancing over to where Freddie and Cook and JJ are sitting and sharing all these tortured looks with Freddie. The whole thing is completely absurd.
With a deep breath she takes the plunge, buying her lunch and sitting down at an empty table, telling herself over and over in her head that nobody's looking and anyway, she doesn't care. To busy herself she takes out her phone and texts Emily, asking how she's doing.
When she looks up, she sees that it's JJ. There's something different about his smile, and Katie realises he's showing his teeth.
"You got your braces off," she says. "I mean, hi."
"Oh," he says, "yes," and then he starts blathering on about his orthodontist. Katie tunes out until he changes the subject and says, "You should come and sit with us."
"What, with you and Freddie? No thanks."
"Oh," he says, and Katie wonders how he possibly could have forgotten the way Freddie fucked her over. "Right, I get it. Sorry." He sits down opposite her and frowns. "It's funny, isn't it, the way we're all... disparate now. Fractured."
"Yeah," Katie says, nodding in agreement, but even though their weird little group seems smashed to pieces it looks like Freddie and Cook have made up. She gestures in their general direction and asks, "What happened with those two? Are they friends again? I heard something about a boat."
JJ starts nodding a lot. "Yes, yes, there was definitely a boat involved, although we didn't get very far on it. Which is just as well, really, because they probably would have ended up killing each other if they'd spent very long in such close confines."
"So they're friends again?"
JJ shrugs. "It's all a bit tentative, really. I don't know how long it can stay like that, but it's quite nice for the time being. Sort of like the old days, you know, with Cook giving me all kinds of advice that I have no idea how to follow."
Katie laughs. "Like what?"
"Well, for starters he says that my new life goal should be to have sex with a girl who is not a lesbian, and does actually like me."
"Yeah? How's that working out for you so far?"
He looks forlorn. "So far, not well at all."
Shrugging, Katie says, "To be honest, JJ, sex is kind of overrated."
"Are you sure? Because in my albeit limited experience--"
"I really don't want to hear about your experience." The last thing Katie needs is that image in her mind.
Cook approaches then, clapping JJ on the shoulder and giving Katie his trademark leer. "How goes it, J?"
"I was just telling Katie about my new life goal, but she says that sex is overrated."
"Overrated?" He looks at Katie like he's honestly shocked. "Someone can't be seeing to your needs, babe, but if you ever fancy it I know I could change your mind." He waggles his eyebrows suggestively and Katie feels like she's going to throw up.
"Fuck off, you probably have syphilis or something."
"Only one case of chlamydia," JJ helpfully supplies, "but that was a year ago. I'm sure it's cleared up now."
Cook slaps him over the head. "J, what have I told you about keeping secrets?"
Katie laughs and laughs. Maybe this year of college won't be such a nightmare after all, she thinks--and then she sees Effy, across the cafeteria, looking at her, and her laughter dies in her throat.
Chapter 3: hankering
Effy takes a long drag of spliff, then tilts her head back and exhales slowly, the stream of smoke drifting up towards the ceiling. She looks beautiful, even with that bored expression on her face that she seems to be wearing a lot lately. "Let's go out."
Mid-way through lighting a cigarette, Freddie pauses. "I thought we could stay in tonight."
"There's nothing to do in this fucking shed of yours."
Freddie shrugs, grinning. "I can come up with a few ideas." His smile falters when Effy gives him a sidelong glance and rolls her eyes.
"We should get fucked up," she says. "You know, actually have some fun."
"I can still think of other ways to have fun," he says hopefully. He's not entirely sure why he's trying to protest the idea of going out, it's just that every time they've done that over the summer, he's not been able to shake the idea that Effy wishes he was someone different. Someone like Cook. But she chose Freddie, didn't she, and even if she wants to turn their thing into a copy of what she had with Cook, the fact that she chose Freddie means something. All he can do is try to hold onto that, even when though feels like it's in constant danger of slipping away.
But it's not just that Effy seems to want to pretend that Freddie is Cook--she seems to want to pretend that she's someone different too, or at least that's what Freddie thinks. It's like she's got a mask on, but even though Freddie can see the mask as clear as day, it doesn't mean he really knows what's beneath. Sometimes he thinks he does, catches occasional glimpses of the real Effy, but he doesn't know for sure. All he can rely on is this feeling in his gut, this conviction that on some level he knows her deep down. One time he tried to explain it to Karen, but all she did was laugh and tell him he was high--which was true, but he didn't think that changed things.
(Sometimes Freddie thinks he doesn't really know anything at all.)
Effy unfolds her long legs and stands up, stretching. "Coming?"
Freddie shrugs. "You're really not going to stay?"
Without a word, Effy turns and pushes the door open.
"Wait," Freddie says, and she stops moving but doesn't turn around. "Effy. This is--"
"This isn't working," she says, turning around and pinning him with her gaze. "Is it?"
"I think it could," he says, frowning slightly, but she doesn't look convinced.
"But it's not."
"Suppose not." He hadn't really known what it would be like, being with Effy, but whatever his fantasies were, none of them were like this--fraught and awkward and full of invisible barriers. He tries to smile. "Maybe we just need to get over ourselves, you know?"
"Maybe we need to get over each other."
Freddie stands up and crosses the distance between them, but before he can say anything, Effy interrupts.
"You want me to be someone I'm not."
"Don't be stupid," he says, but kindly. "All I want is for you to be yourself. Can't you see that?"
She looks at the floor and when she speaks, her voice sounds hoarse. "I don't know who that is."
Taking her hand, he tries to comfort her, but she pulls away from him and when she looks up, the mask is back. "Goodbye," she says, and there's something awfully final about that word.
There's a light drizzle in the air. Freddie walks with his head bowed, feeling the cold rain trickle down the back of his neck. All the streets look the same; he pays no attention to the direction he's walking, but when he finds himself outside Keith's pub, he's not surprised.
When he steps inside, glad to be in the warmth once again, he sees Cook standing by the bar, chatting up some blonde girl that might be the same one Cook was talking to on his birthday last week. Freddie nods in their general direction and Cook notices him, leaving the blonde girl by the bar and striding over.
"All right, Fred? Can I get you a pint?"
"Sure," Freddie says in a quiet voice. "Thanks."
Cook yells over at Christina and then says, "What's up with you, then? You've got a face like a slapped arse."
Freddie takes the pint that Christina brings for him and sits down at a table near the window. It's grey out, raining a little harder now than it had been earlier. Cook plunks himself down opposite Freddie.
"You going to say anything or just sit here moping?"
Exasperated, Freddie turns to Cook and huffs. "It's Effy, all right? I don't want to talk about it."
"Say no more," Cook says, nodding wisely, and Freddie takes another long gulp of his beer just so he doesn't start sniping at Cook. It's not Cook's fault, Freddie thinks--not anybody's fault, really, except maybe Effy's, or even his own.
Cook twists round in his seat and yells at Christina to bring them shots, then turns back to Freddie, grinning. "Come on, mate, we'll get fucked up. Just you and me, just like the good old days."
"I tired of the good old days, Cook. I fucking hated them. And I'm not going to start looking after you again."
"Yeah, all right, I'm not asking you to," Cook says. "Just suggesting you drown your sorrows, that's all. You look like you need it."
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
For a moment Cook's silent, except for the tapping of his foot. Eventually he says, "Over, is it?"
Freddie shrugs. "No. Yeah. God, I don't even fucking know."
"Never lets you know where you stand, does she, that girl?"
"No," Freddie says. He's almost at the bottom of his pint already; he barely tasted it. "Look, I said I don't want to talk about it, okay?" It would probably only start to get weird if he did; they're sort of friends again, now, but that's really only happened because they've steadily refused to acknowledge Effy in each other's presence. She just starts fights; that's all she ever does.
They drink steadily, pint after pint supplied for them by Keith, on the house. Cook tells Keith something of Freddie's problems and Keith starts regaling them with his own tales of heartbreak (replete with plenty of nasty details about sex that nobody needs to hear), which makes Freddie feel vaguely ill. But he appreciates the beer and the opportunity to not talk about Effy, as well as Cook's solid presence by his side, so he doesn't tell Keith to shut up.
Freddie's problem is his tendency to be a maudlin drunk, and after his third pint he's slightly buzzed and even more depressed than he had been when he got here. That's when he starts complaining.
"She just doesn't appreciate me, you know?" he says. "I mean, I love her, and she acts like that doesn't even matter, like it doesn't count for anything."
"She's a bitch," Cook says flatly, and Freddie gets a sudden to hit him--but he doesn't, because Cook's right.
"Yeah," Freddie says, and tries it out himself. "She's a bitch." He feels a pang of guilt when he says it, and when he repeats it again it seems even less true.
"Come on, Fred," Cook says. "Let's play darts. Let some of that aggression out, you know."
Freddie doesn't feel terribly aggressive, but he stands up anyway and follows Cook over to the dartboard.
"Look," Cook says, sounding improbably cheerful as he pulls the darts out of the dartboard, "you're better off without that cunt, yeah? You just have to realise all the things you hate about her."
"But I don't hate her," Freddie says. "That's the point."
"No, right, she's dead annoying. I mean, all right, I'll start. She can never fucking make her mind up." He throws the darts at the board, punctuating the sentence, and Freddie finds himself nodding. Cook picks the darts out of the board again, not bothering to add up the score, and hands them to Freddie. "Your turn, Freds."
"Okay," Freddie says, but when he thinks of Effy it's difficult to think of anything but what he likes. "All right, all right. I suppose it would be nice if sometimes she said what she's thinking." He throws the darts at the board; one of them hits the metal and bounces off, but Cook applauds him anyway.
"See, that's the spirit," Cook says, and he quickly grabs them some more drinks before taking another turn. "Sometimes she's fucking unenthusiastic in the sack."
"Really?" Freddie says. "I mean, with me..."
Cook glares at him, clenching his jaw, and throws the darts at the board with unnecessary force.
"She doesn't let anyone see the real her," Freddie says, and then he adds, "and then she accuses other people of wanting her to be someone she's not."
"Right, exactly," Cook says. "Good one."
They continue on in this vein for some time, throwing darts and insults in between drinks--it's not long before they move on to shots--and after a while, Freddie starts laughing. He downs a shot of tequila, then waves his arms in a flourish.q
"She fucking hit Katie with a rock and left her to die," he says, and throws the darts in the general direction of the dartboard. "Who fucking does that?"
"She's a basket case, mate," Cook says. "Completely fucking mental."
Freddie grasps Cook's shoulder, more to keep himself steady than anything. "You're not wrong," he says, and he grins at Cook. "Thanks, man."
Cook nods and pulls him into a rough hug.
They go outside for a smoke, the night air a shock as it hits Freddie. He slumps against the wall and finds himself sliding down until he's sitting on the cold pavement.
"I still fucking love her, though," he says, running a hand through his hair. "Jesus."
Cook sits down beside him and hands him a fag. "Yeah, I know. Me too, mate."
Chapter 4: girl overboard
The song ends and Pandora stops still, feeling dizzy as she watches the room spin. Lots of people are watching her--Pandora's an ace dancer; she always clears the floor because no one can compete, except maybe Doug, and he doesn't tend to show up at these sorts of parties--but she finds Thomas's face in the crowd and he's smiling, looking proper lush and lovely. She walks over to him and gives him a kiss, but she pulls away quickly because she's feeling a bit gloopy and weird from all the bopping around and she doesn't want to throw up all over him. That would be well embarrassing.
She tries to find the bathroom, but she's never been in this house before--doesn't even know whose it is, she just followed Effy here like usual--so it takes her a couple of tries to find the right room. The first door she tries she walks in on a couple of people lying on a bed and snogging, and she nearly apologises and rushes out before she realises it's Emily and Naomi.
"Hi!" she says, and waves madly when it takes them a while to realise she's there. "Good party, eh? Whizzer!"
"Get the fuck out of here, Panda," Naomi says.
"Oh! Sorry, sorry. Looking for the bathroom," she says, backing out of the room, and she tries the next door on the left. It's the actual bathroom this time, which is just as well because Pandora suddenly feels even more sick, what with Cook surfing Effy right up against the sink.
"Jesus, Panda," Effy says, and Cook turns around, surprised at first but he breaks into a grin when he sees her.
"All right, babes," he says, but he stops smiling when Effy roughly shoves him off. "'Scuse me," he says, but Effy ignores him.
"Fuck off, Cook," she says, staring straight at Pandora, and he zips his fly with a disgruntled look and buggers off.
"I need to throw up," Pandora says, and Effy just nods. Neither of them moves; the contents of Panda's stomach seem to be keeping down, and she doesn't want to lean over the toilet if she doesn't have to.
Eventually Effy says, "Panda..." but Pandora interrupts her before she can start on with whatever excuses or whatever she has to say.
"What are you doing with him?" Pandora says, the words all bursting out faster than she can keep track of them. "I thought you were done with wankers, that's what you said, but Cook's a wanker and you were doing sex with him. I don't get you, Effy."
Leaning against the sink, Effy shrugs and fishes a cigarette out of her bag and lights it. After a moment she pulls out another cigarette and offers it to Pandora, but Pandora doesn't want anything from Effy except maybe a flipping clue.
"It's no big deal," Effy says. "It's just sex."
"But that's stupid, Eff. Sometimes you're stupid. Sex that's meant to be no big deal always becomes a bigger deal than sex that is a big deal."
Effy looks at her sharply and flicks the ash off her fag. "It's not your boyfriend I'm fucking, so I don't see why you care."
"But he's not your boyfriend either." Panda's starting to get teary, and that always makes Effy look at her pityingly. "He makes you go all sad and crumpled and I don't like it, Eff, I don't like it."
Effy says nothing; she doesn't even look at her, instead stares up at the ceiling, but when Panda looks up too there's nothing interesting there, so Effy's probably just avoiding looking at her. After a while Effy shrugs and says, "Do you still like him? Is that it?"
"No," Pandora says quickly. "I'm in love with Tommo, silly."
"Right," Effy says. "That's why you spent months fucking Cook, is it?"
"This isn't about me," Panda says quietly, and she sits down on the edge of the bathtub, eyes fixed on the floor. "Just 'cause I'm a useless thicko who surfs the wrong boys doesn't mean you should, too."
Sitting down cross-legged on the floor, Effy looks up at Panda, saying nothing until Panda meets her eyes. "Hey," she says in a soft voice, "you're right. I'm not happy with Cook."
Pandora nods and says, "What about Freddie? You were all googly-eyed over him. For a bit, anyway."
"Freddie didn't make me happy, either."
"Oh," says Panda, and she tries to smile because she thinks Effy needs it. "Well, maybe you'd be happier if you were just by yourself, you know. Mum always says that abstinence makes the heart grow fonder."
"I think you're a bit mixed up," Effy says, smiling for the first time.
"Probably," Panda admits. "I usually am. But you could still try it."
Effy shrugs, looking all sad again. "No one's happier alone, Panda."
She might be right; after all, Pandora's much happier now she has Thomas than she ever was when she was just some weirdo and no one wanted to make the monkey with two backs with her. But even though being with Thomas is ninety percent ace, half the time it's a bit weird and sad, no matter how hard they pretend that everything's marvy.
"We should do something fun," Pandora says, trying to perk up. Whenever she starts to get sad she pretends that she's happy, and if she acts happy long enough then it's almost like she is happy, and that makes her forget what she was sad about.
"Like what?" Effy says. "I've got some of my mum's new pills, but they don't have much of a kick."
"No, silly, proper fun, like the sort of fun you have when you're a kid."
"We weren't friends when we were kids," Effy says, and Pandora wonders if Effy ever had proper fun when she was younger or if she was like this since she was a baby.
"I know, but that doesn't mean we can't do something now. We should, dunno, go to a theme park or something. Forget about stupid boys. Alton Towers is proper mental, once on a school trip there I ate so much candyfloss that I threw up when I was on Nemesis and all my sick was blue."
"You're really selling it, Panda," Effy says, but she has a bit of a smile on her face, and that makes Pandora properly smile in return.
"It'll be fun, promise," Panda says. "We can bunk off and go tomorrow."
"All right," Effy says, and she stands up, offering Panda her hand and pulling her up too.
"Hos before bros," Pandora says. "Whizzer!"
Chapter 5: amends
The sun beats down on the car, surprisingly warm for October. It's ages since the air conditioning stopped working and Effy's dad never got around to fixing it, so she rolls down the window, relaxing as the breeze whips her hair away from her face. In the passenger seat, Pandora is babbling on; Effy isn't really paying attention, but she thinks Panda's playing a game of I Spy and hasn't yet noticed that Effy isn't joining in.
It feels good to be on the road.
Alton Towers is quite far away, but Pandora insisted on going there and Effy doesn't mind the long drive; anything is better than sitting in a stuffy classroom, too close to people she loves and loathes in equal measure.
"Eff, aren't you going to play?" Pandora asks, and Effy glances at her.
"No," she says flatly.
"Suit yourself," Panda mutters, but she doesn't sulk for very long. She taps her fingers on the dashboard and hums for a bit, and then without asking Effy she switches on the radio, messing around with the tuning until she finds Radio One and starts singing along. "We gotta fight, fight, fight, fight, fight for this love..."
"Shut up, Panda," Effy says, but she doesn't switch the radio off.
"What's got into you, then?" Pandora asks, slumping in her seat. "This is meant to be fun, yeah, and you're being well boring."
Effy looks over at Pandora for a second and sighs, before turning the volume up. "Fine, whatever. Sing along."
For the rest of the car journey Pandora sings along to all the songs she knows as well as all the ones she doesn't, making up the words when she doesn't know them and pausing only to stuff Haribo Starmix in her mouth. Every now and then Effy glances over, just for a second, and finds herself smiling.
The park isn't too busy when they get there, given that it's a school day in early October and hardly peak time. It means they don't have to queue for very long for any of the rides, which is a relief--not because Effy minds waiting, but because Pandora is always impatient anyway, and even more so when she's in the throes of a sugar high.
The first ride Pandora drags them onto is Air, the one that's meant to make you feel like you're flying. Effy stares at the ground directly below them as they make the first ascent, sharply conscious of the fact that only a harness stands between her and certain death. They teeter before the first drop and she imagines the harness failing, plummeting her to the ground.
"Splat," she whispers, but before Pandora can do anything more than shoot her a quizzical look, they're off--but it's nothing like flying. Flying wouldn't feel so much like being caged in.
Panda looks windswept and breathless when the ride pulls to a stop and they're returned to a seating position. "Let's go again!" she says but Effy shakes her head, already walking away. As roller coasters go it was fun enough, she supposes, but she wants to try something new. She wants to find something that scares her.
Pandora insists on buying the souvenir photo, and when she shows it to Effy, Effy can't help but smile. In the picture, Pandora's hair is all over the place, her mouth open in a scream, while Effy, by her side, is as unruffled as ever.
"That just about sums us up, doesn't it," Effy says, and Pandora laughs.
"Come on, Eff, Nemesis next. Look, the queue's not that long!" She grabs Effy's hand and starts running over. Effy allows herself to be dragged along, but she eyes the roller coaster with suspicion; this was the one Pandora said she threw up on, and Effy knows Panda's already eaten a ridiculous amount of sweets today. It doesn't sound like a winning combination.
Nemesis, Effy likes a little better than Air; she likes the way her legs dangle and her stomach flips on the loops. It's faster, more of a thrill, and she closes her eyes against the rush of wind and tries to imagine the roller coaster coming unstuck and going hurtling through the sky. When the ride stops and she opens her eyes it's a shock to come back to earth. She steps down on to the platform, feels the cold metal under her feet, and it's then that she glances down at realises that something's wrong.
"I've lost my shoe," she says, disbelieving. She repeats it, louder. "I've lost my shoe."
"Bugger," Pandora says. "Must have flown off. It's probably in the lake now, the red one. I don't think it's actual blood, though. Maybe you could ask if they'll fish through it for you."
"Never mind," Effy says with a shrug. "It's just a shoe." She takes the other one off too, and kicks it away.
"Well, at least now you're matching," Pandora says, smiling hopefully, and Effy finds herself laughing and laughing. It's not even that funny, but the laughter bubbles up inside her and there's nothing she can do but let it out. Pandora starts laughing as well and Effy takes her hand, squeezing hard. She's glad she came.
When they want to head to the other end of the park, they take the cable car, managing to get one to themselves. Pandora sits, looking a bit worried--Effy doesn't know how she was so excited for the roller coasters, and so apparently scared by this--but Effy stands, rocking the car gently from side to side.
"Stop it, Eff," Pandora says, but Effy rocks harder, grinning at Panda, until Panda snaps, "I mean it."
"Sorry," Effy whispers, and she sits down opposite Pandora. "This was a good idea, you know."
Pandora lights up. "Was it? You mean that?"
Pandora looks terribly pleased. "See, I told you we don't need any stupid boys."
"You have a boyfriend."
"That's not the point," Pandora says. She looks up at Effy. "Are you going to stop doing it with Cook?"
"Haven't decided," Effy says slowly, and she fixes Pandora with her gaze. "I never got it, you and Cook, but it's simple, isn't it?"
"What's simple?" Pandora says, shifting uncomfortably where she sits, making the car rock again. "I don't know what the bloody Nora you're on about."
"You like him," Effy says.
"I like Thomas. I mean I love him, stupid."
Effy shrugs. "Sometimes we like the people we shouldn't. That's just the way it is."
"But how do you stop yourself from liking someone?"
"No idea," Effy says, just as the cable car pulls in to the station. "Come on, Panda. Which ride next?"
They head towards Oblivion.
By the time Effy has driven back home, she's exhausted, as is Pandora, who's curled up on the passenger seat, asleep. It's not that late, still light outside, but it's been a long day. Effy pulls in to Pandora's quiet cul-de-sac and stops just outside her house. She shakes Pandora awake.
"Remember to tell your mum you were in college, right? Don't accidentally show her the photos or anything."
Pandora, still sleepy, nods. "Right, yeah," she mumbles. "Whizzer. Do you want to come in and have some tea?"
"No." Effy shakes her head. "There's something I need to do, something I've been putting off."
Pandora nods and smiles, climbing out of the car and waving when she gets to the doorway. Effy raises her hand in a half-wave, before driving off.
She takes a wrong turning on the way and gets lost, spending ten minutes or so driving around the suburbs of Bristol before she finds the road she wants. She parks the car a little way away and tries to remember the right house number, ringing the bell when she thinks she's got it. Part of her hopes she's got the wrong house and can turn around and leave, pretending that she did her best, but then the door opens and Effy sees that she got the right house after all.
"What the fuck do you want?" Katie says.
Effy opens her mouth, and after a couple of seconds of silence, she says, "Katie..."
Katie bristles, squaring her shoulders. "Look, I don't know why the fuck you're here, yeah, but I suggest you leave. Now. Because I sure as fuck don't want you here and neither does anyone else, so get lost."
"Katie," Effy says again, a bit more loudly this time, but even though she's been busy thinking about her mistakes all day, she doesn't know how to communicate that. She casts around for something to say, and eventually stumbles upon, "You look good."
"Yeah, well, so sorry you didn't actually manage to scar me for life, despite your best efforts," Katie spits. "Look, I told you to fuck off, yeah? It wasn't a suggestion, babe. I meant it."
"Right," Effy says. "Okay."
"Let's get this straight, yeah. I hate you and you hate me, so if you stay out of my fucking face I'll stay out of yours."
Effy stares at her for a long time but Katie manages to stand her ground, even if there is something unsure in her eyes. "Never mind," Effy says, and she turns away.
The house is quiet when Effy gets in, and none of the lights are on. She doubts the car will have been missed. She quietly pads upstairs and peers into her mum's room; the curtains are closed but Effy can make out the shape of her mother asleep on the bed.
"Night, Mum," she says, but there's no response.
Effy goes back downstairs again. The kitchen is a tip, dirty plates piled high by the sink, but she doesn't have the energy to sort it out now. She sits down at the table and pulls some things out of her bag: a lighter and a pack of fags, the ticket to Alton Towers, her phone. For a moment she closes her eyes, imagining the rush of a roller coaster.
When she opens her eyes again, the room is still.
Maybe she'll ring Katie and try again to say what she meant. Or maybe she'll ring Tony, and ask him to come home.
She smokes a cigarette, and another. The phone lies on the table beside her, untouched, as the room grows dim.
Chapter 6: talk of romance
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"I'm fairly sure this is one of the signs of the apocalypse," Naomi says. On the TV screen are two blond twins with improbably high hair, wearing gaudy suits and failing spectacularly to sing a Ricky Martin song in tune. "Pestilence, probably." Naomi would be inclined to think that she's hallucinating, but she is sadly sober, as she has been for most of the last few weeks. The last time Naomi and Emily got drunk at a party and started messing around in a bedroom, Naomi had ended up hurting Emily's still-healing rib. Since then they'd started staying in, which is why Naomi's sitting in the Fitches' living room and suffering through The X Factor.
At least Emily's parents and irritating brother are out.
"I can switch over if you'd rather watch Bruce Forsyth make some terrible jokes for a bit."
"No, it's fine," Naomi says with a theatrical sigh. "Honestly, the things I do for you. I hope you realise I'm expecting repayment in sexual favours."
Emily smiles. "You know it's kind of hard for me to manoeuvre in my current condition."
"That's all right," Naomi says. "I'm keeping a tally."
Laughing softly, Emily rests her head against Naomi's shoulder. "Not long till the cast's off, anyway."
"I can hardly wait," she says in a joking tone, but she means it. She's hated seeing Emily injured, hobbling around on crutches--although in the last couple of weeks Emily's got the hang of using crutches and started recklessly swinging around, like she doesn't even care if she gets hurt again--and she can't wait to go back to normal again. It's been sort of like their lives have been on hold while Emily gets better, and having less opportunity to go out and have fun has meant more opportunity to stay in and talk about things. Things like university, and the future, and every time that Naomi's wanted to point out that they've not even been together for four months yet, she remembers watching in horror as Emily crashed her moped, and she makes herself bite her tongue.
She shakes her head; she doesn't want to think about it today.
On the telly they start repeating clips from all the performances, and the whole thing is just as hideous as it was the first time around.
"Oh my God," Naomi says, rubbing her temples. "Please turn it off."
"You mean to say that you don't want any more John and Edward in your life?" Emily says. "I'm shocked. Shocked."
Naomi nearly elbows her in the ribs, before she remembers that she shouldn't be doing that sort of thing. "I mean it, Em, I'd rather eat my own head than watch any more of this."
"It wasn't that bad."
For a moment Naomi considers, trying to find a silver lining, then shrugs. "I suppose the girl on before was quite fit." When Emily raises her eyebrows in surprise, Naomi feels her face growing hot. "What? You don't agree?"
"No, it's just, that's the first time you've ever acknowledged that you fancy a girl who isn't me."
"Oh," Naomi says. She hadn't realised. "Well, sorry. I guess you're not that special after all."
"Whatever," Emily says with an exaggerated shrug. "If this means you've like, resolved your whole sexual identity crisis, I'm quite relieved. It was getting boring."
"Fuck off. It's not like it's that long since you were saying you're not gay, and you're about as heterosexual as John Barrowman," Naomi says, and Emily laughs.
The programme is nearly over, and Dermot O'Leary starts telling everyone that they can switch over to ITV2 for The Xtra Factor, as if the last two hours haven't been torture enough. Naomi leans over Emily, trying not to squash her rib, and grabs the remote control, pressing the off button with perhaps more force than is strictly necessary. She sighs in relief.
"I feel like I need to recite some Shakespeare or something to regrow all the brain cells I just lost."
"Brain cells don't grow back once they're dead."
Fuck, that's depressing. "It's just an expression."
"All right, then," Emily say, sitting back and looking at expectantly at Naomi. "Impress me with your knowledge of Shakespeare."
"Yeah, seriously. I'm waiting."
"Fine." Naomi takes a deep breath and wonders if she can remember all the words to her favourite sonnet.
"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips' red
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white
But no such roses see I in her cheeks
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath which from my mistress reeks--"
"That's delightful," Emily says. "You really know how to charm a girl."
"I haven't finished yet," Naomi says, and she continues.
"I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound
I grant I never saw a goddess go
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied by false compare."
For a moment, Emily says nothing, just sits there lost in thought.
"See," Naomi says, "it is romantic. But it's about real love--realistic love--not this, like, bullshit overblown Romeo and Juliet love, you know."
"I like Romeo and Juliet," Emily says. "I mean, okay, it doesn't exactly end happily ever after, but don't you think love should be like that? You know, two people against the world, so in love they'd rather die than be apart?"
Naomi shrugs. "But that's not real life, is it? Romeo and Juliet wouldn't have lasted." Emily frowns at her, obviously annoyed, and Naomi can't figure out what she's done wrong.
"Look, I know they only knew each other for about a week--"
"Four days," Naomi says.
"Whatever. The point is, that's what love's meant to feel like. Not that whole, 'well, I guess my girlfriend's breath smells but she's all right anyway' thing."
"That's not what the poem's about," Naomi says, trying and failing not to get angry. "Can we fucking drop this? Or, you know, at the very least stop pretending we're talking about Shakespeare."
"Fine," Emily says, folding her arms, but it's obvious she's still fuming. Naomi sighs; she doesn't know how it's possible that this evening was more fun when they were watching Simon Cowell being a dick on TV.
"Hey," Naomi says, leaning over and kissing Emily softly on the lips. "I love you, okay? And, all right, I wouldn't commit suicide if you died tomorrow, but that's just because I'd be too busy checking really thoroughly that you were actually dead."
The beginnings of a smile starts to form on Emily's lips. "Can we rewind this conversation ten minutes and you can just compare me to a summer's day instead?"
"I don't know that one," Naomi says, and when Emily starts to frown she hastily adds, "I mean, thou art more fair and more temperate."
"That's better," Emily says, and she cuddles up to Naomi, kissing her lightly along her jaw. The position's a bit awkward, with Emily's cast getting in the way, but Naomi doesn't care. They kiss for a few minutes, and then, reluctantly, Naomi pulls away.
"I should probably go," she says. "Your parents will be back soon."
"I don't care," Emily says, pulling her closer. "Just stay for a little longer."
"Okay," Naomi says, kissing her lightly. "I'll stay, just for a while longer."
The sonnet quoted is #130, and if I fucked it up it's because I did it from memory and can't be bothered to get my Complete Works out to check. :D "Romeo and Juliet wouldn't have lasted" is shamelessly stolen from The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan.
If you're outside the UK and unfamiliar with our delightful X Factor contestants, allow me to introduce you to the phenomenon that is JEDWARD. (I am so, so sorry.) The other contestant referred to is Lucie Jones.
Chapter 7: another way to make it right
Around eleven o'clock, they get back to the house. It's quiet when they get in, in a way the place rarely is; James is staying the night at his friend Gordon McPherson's house, and the girls have probably taken themselves off to bed already. At least, Katie's been keeping more sensible hours for the last few months, but Emily's more of a wildcard now. She could be out, Jenna thinks, but she doesn't voice her concern. Best not to worry Rob about such matters.
He yawns and stretches. "Well, I'm off to bed. You coming up, love?" He gives her a cheeky wink.
"In a bit, darling," she says, forcing a smile. She can feel the beginnings of a headache coming on, no doubt due to the wine she drank at dinner.
"All right." He gives her a kiss, then pulls away, smiling. "Happy anniversary, love. Eighteen years, eh? Who'd have thought it?"
Not me, Jenna thinks, but she says nothing as she watches him disappear upstairs. She walks into the living room, hoping to sit down and relax for a couple minutes, but as soon as she steps into the room, she freezes.
Emily is on the sofa, curled up asleep with that girl, Naomi. Jenna feels her heart stop, but she says nothing, just watches them as they lie there. Emily looks... peaceful, almost. Just about every time she's seen Emily over the past few months, they've both been angry, so it's strange to see her so peaceful and unguarded.
After a few moments Emily stirs, but she doesn't notice Jenna standing there. She smiles, and kisses Naomi awake, then murmurs something that Jenna can't hear. Naomi smiles as well, and then she glances up, spotting Jenna, and jumps about a mile in the air. Emily whips her head round too, different expressions flitting across her face in quick succession: shock, guilt, defiance.
"Emily," Jenna says, and she tries not to sound too stern but Emily snaps at her anyway.
"What," she says, folding her arms and staring at Jenna defiantly.
"I'd better go," Naomi says, motioning towards Emily as if to give her a kiss but, after glancing at Jenna, thinking the better of it.
"Don't," Emily says.
"I really should," Naomi says, standing up and trying to avoid looking directly at Jenna.
"Yes, I think that would be best," Jenna says, and Naomi gives her a strange look as she walks past; she looks like she's two seconds away from rolling her eyes, but trying her hardest to refrain.
"Emily," Jenna says again, "I think we ought to have a conversation. Things can't go on like this."
"I'm going to bed," Emily says churlishly, but Jenna has to hand her her crutches in order for her to get to her feet. "There's not even any point in talking, because you never listen anyway."
"Now, that's not true," Jenna says, and she tries to place a hand on Emily's arm, but Emily resists. "Come on, Emily. I mean it. We have to sort this out."
"I'm tired," Emily says.
"I don't care. We're going to sit in the kitchen, and we're going to talk about this."
"Fine," Emily says with a dramatic sigh. "But I'm pretty sure you've already made your feelings on the subject perfectly clear." She hobbles to the kitchen, Jenna following behind, and sits down at the table. Jenna's headache is coming on stronger than before, and she really needs an aspirin, but this is more important right now.
"Now, listen," Jenna says. "I'm tired of arguing about this. It's all we've been doing for the last few months. And I know you think I'm some sort of ogre, but let me tell you, I just have your best interests at heart."
Emily looks at her sceptically. "Funny, it doesn't seem like that."
Jenna sighs. It's been a long summer, and even now it's nearly November, things haven't got any better. It was difficult enough with Katie nearly being killed by that awful Stonem girl, but having both her little girls in the hospital within months of each other has been more trying than Jenna can comprehend. And having Emily's rebellion, or whatever it's supposed to be, on top of that, has only made it worse. It's amazing that Jenna hasn't been driven to drink.
"Now, Emily, this behaviour has got to stop. I'm not talking about Naomi, I'm talking about you. You used to be the good one, the quiet one, but you've changed. I hardly recognise you any more. Every time we speak, you argue with me. And you're out all hours of the night, and I have no idea where you go."
Emily looks guilty and confused, like she'd thought that that had gone undetected.
"Yes, Emily, don't think I don't know. When it was you and Katie going out to parties or whatever, I could turn a blind eye, because I trust you to look after each other, but now... I worry about you, Emily."
"You don't need to," Emily says. "I mean it. I'm fine."
"I only worry because I care, Emily. It may not seem like it, but I want you to be happy, and if I've been hard on you it's only because you've changed, and that's concerned me."
"But I haven't changed," Emily says. "I'm the same person I've always been, Mum. But I'm gay, and that's not going to change any time soon."
Nodding slowly, Jenna tries to find the right words. "I saw the way you looked at her just now, and you looked happy. I haven't seen you look that happy in a long time."
Emily smiles. "I am happy. Mum, I love her, I really do."
"Yes, well," Jenna says with a sigh, "that has become clear to me." She's honestly surprised; Emily has been miserable for months, constantly argumentative, moping whenever she was home, just like a rebellious teenager that Jenna had hoped her girls would never turn into.
She looks squarely at Emily. "I can't say that this is my favourite thing in the world, Emily. It's not what I wanted for you." Ever since she first found out that she was having twin girls, Jenna's been mentally mapping out their future for them. She'd imagined them meeting twin boys, falling in love, having a joint wedding. It would have been beautiful; the fairytale that Jenna's own life never quite turned into.
"I know," Emily says, "but it's what I want."
Jenna nods. "I know what it's like, falling in love at that age. And I have to warn you, Emily, that things don't always turn out how you expect them to. What seems like love now doesn't always last."
Emily shrugs, and says, "This is going to. I know it will."
"Girls your age don't always know what real love is."
"You weren't that older than me when you met Dad," Emily says, and Jenna smiles tightly.
"Yes, well, there's an exception to every rule, isn't there."
"Right," Emily says, looking at Jenna curiously. "Does this mean you're going to actually accept Naomi now? Have you changed your mind?"
"I want us to be friends, Emily. I haven't liked the way things have been since the summer. But if I'm going to try, that means you have to as well. You need to start acting like an adult if you want me to treat you like one."
Emily nods slowly, and smiles shyly. "I probably could have come out in a slightly less obnoxious way."
"And I could have dealt with it better."
"Yeah," Emily says. She looks confused, like she can't quite believe that this is happening. "Okay. Well, we'll call it a truce, then?"
"Okay," Jenna says, and she stands up. "I think it's time both of us went to bed, don't you?"
"Yeah," Emily says, nodding in agreement, and then she gets up and gives Jenna a quick hug. "Night, Mum."
"Good night, Emily."
Jenna watches as Emily leaves the room, going upstairs to bed. Her headache still hasn't abated; she could still do with some aspirin, but she feels drained, and she doesn't think she has the energy to go upstairs to the medicine cabinet. She pours herself a glass of wine instead.
Chapter 8: gunpowder, treason, and plot
Naomi can feel the cold down to her bones, and they've only been standing outside in the cold for about fifteen minutes, waiting for the festivities to start. The bonfire hasn't even been lit yet, but Naomi doesn't know what the hold-up is; it seems like there's some sort of problem with the Guy having gone missing. She winds her scarf around her neck another time and wishes she hadn't worn her stupid fingerless gloves.
"What's going on?" Emily is on tiptoes beside her, jumping up and down as she tries to see over the heads of the crowd. Ever since she got her cast off a week ago she's been revelling in the movement of her legs; it's kind of ridiculously adorable.
"No idea," Naomi says. There's a surprising amount of people here--she didn't think that many would be interested in coming to a fireworks display held by Roundview College, but then again, she's here, and she never comes to college events. But Emily made her, and Naomi was powerless to say no, especially when Emily was so good about making up all the sexual favours that Naomi joked she was owed.
Emily sighs and stops trying to see what's going on, instead wrapping her arms around Naomi and cuddling close.
"Good plan," Naomi says. "Huddling together for warmth."
For a while they stand there, content; it's nice, nicer than it has been between them for the past couple of days. Not that things have been bad exactly, but the occasional bickering has escalated a little, becoming slightly more tense. It's not been hugely noticeable, and sometimes Naomi thinks she's been imagining things, just making stuff up. It's only when they talk about a couple of things, and the rest of the time it's fine.
After a moment Emily says, "So, are you going to come over for dinner tomorrow?"
Naomi tenses up; she'd been hoping that tonight at least they wouldn't have to deal with this. All she wanted was to enjoy a few fireworks, not have this conversation again. "I told you I don't want to," she says. "Your mum hates me."
"She's making an effort," Emily says. "We all are. And that means you have to, as well."
"I don't have to do anything," Naomi says. She doesn't see why she should have to sit through an excruciating dinner with a bunch of people who most of the time are openly hostile towards her. The last time she met Emily's mum she was accused of screwing Emily up, and even though Katie has stopped being deliberately nasty to her, every time she looks at her her dislike is plain enough to see.
"I want you to," Emily says. "Please."
Naomi tries to bite her tongue; she wants to point out just how much she's been doing for Emily lately, but she knows that that would only prompt another argument, and they're already in the midst of one. Naomi looks at Emily. "Can we not talk about it right now?"
"Why not?" Emily asks. "It's not like anything else is going on."
Naomi opens her mouth to retaliate, but at that moment there's a great uproar from the crowd. Craning her neck to see, Naomi realises that someone's found the Guy that went missing--or, rather, someone found a replacement, and managed to stick it on top of the pile of wood. The replacement Guy is unmistakeably an effigy of Doug, doing something unspeakable to an inflatable sheep. The gathered crowd of students laughs; Naomi rolls her eyes. She can hear Doug protesting, and then she sees him running towards the bonfire; it looks like he's about to climb up the bonfire to pull it down, but someone that Naomi can't quite make out sets light to the bonfire and Doug can do nothing but watch as it goes up in flames.
"I still think we should talk about this," Emily says. "It's meant to be tomorrow."
"I've told you, Em, I'm not going. It'll be a disaster."
"It'll be a disaster if you don't come."
"Fuck's sake," Naomi says. "Can we fucking drop it already?"
Emily folds her arms and tries to stare her down, obviously unimpressed. "Can you seriously not just do this one thing for me?"
"No," Naomi says flatly, and she turns around and walks away; she's fucking freezing, and the only thing that could make this pathetic bonfire worse is another petty argument with Emily. She hears Emily running after her--for a moment Naomi wishes she was still on crutches--but she doesn't look back, not even when Emily calls her name, and eventually Emily stops chasing her. Naomi keeps walking, head down, away from the Roundview football pitch where the event is being held.
"Hi," someone says, and Naomi looks up to see Effy standing there, looking at her curiously. She's holding a ridiculously large bag.
"Hi," Naomi says, stopping in her tracks.
"Where's Emily?" Effy asks.
Naomi shrugs. "Not here."
"Cool," Effy says. "You want to get out of here?"
They walk for a while without saying anything. There's a light mist swirling through the streets, and with the sound of fireworks exploding in the distance and the smell of bonfire smoke, Naomi feels like she's in a warzone. It's been ages since she's spent any time with Effy, but even though it's been a while, there's something easy and comfortable about the silence.
"What's in the bag?" Naomi asks after a while.
"Fireworks," Effy says. When she doesn't offer any more explanation, Naomi looks questioningly at her, and Effy continues. "Cook and I had a contest to see who could cause the most disruption to the fireworks display. You probably saw his Guy."
"So you managed to steal all the fireworks?"
"I think I win."
"You probably do," Naomi says. "So what's the prize?"
With a smile, Effy says, "Sex."
Naomi snorts. "Why am I not surprised?" She looks at Effy and says, "Isn't that kind of pointless, anyway? Whoever wins, you both get the prize."
"That's the point," Effy says, and then she gestures towards her bag. "You want to light some of these?"
"Sure," Naomi says, shrugging. "I haven't got anything better to do tonight."
"Not even make up with your girlfriend?"
"No," Naomi says. She's not quite sure why she sounds so bitter. "Shouldn't you be off collecting your prize?"
Effy shrugs. "I'd rather do this."
"Good," Naomi says, and they keep walking, all the way to Effy's house. Nobody appears to be home when they get there, but Effy glances upstairs for a second like maybe she's wondering if someone's upstairs. Naomi doesn't ask about it.
Effy finds them a bottle of vodka and some deckchairs and they settle outside, the bag of fireworks momentarily forgotten while they pass the bottle of vodka between them. There's a packet of cigarettes in Naomi's packet and she shakes two out, lighting them both and passing one to Effy, who accepts it with a nod.
"You and Cook are back together, then?" Naomi asks. "Or not together, but fucking or whatever."
Effy shrugs. "Not exactly. On and off."
"What about Freddie?"
"What about him?"
"I thought you two were together."
"Well, we're not." Effy pauses, takes a swig of vodka. "Not any more."
"So you're back with Cook? Is that really a good idea?" Naomi frowns. "I mean, Cook is... he's the guy you sleep with when you're being fucking stupid, yeah? Not just you, I mean, but Panda as well. Probably every girl he's ever fucked has regretted it."
"That's the point," Effy says quietly, then she shoots Naomi a curious look. "What would you know about it, anyway?"
Naomi feels her face grow hot; she's never actually told anyone about it, not even Emily, and it seems like Cook must have kept quiet about it too. "We nearly... I mean, we didn't actually, but we nearly went there. It was just after I slept with Emily for the first time. So, you know. Mistake."
Effy's expression doesn't give away any particular reaction. At length, she says, "Whatever," and it's clear she wants it to be the end of the conversation.
"I just think you should stop fucking around with tossers, that's all," Naomi says.
"I thought you were friends with him."
"Well, yeah, but he's still a tosser."
"What about Emily, then?" Effy asks, and Naomi hates her a bit for steering the conversation around to that. "She probably wouldn't approve of you hanging around with me."
It's true. They used to be quite good friends, Naomi and Effy, or at least it looked like they were heading in that direction, and then the rock incident happened and Naomi had been forced to choose sides. Not that Emily had spelled it out in those exact terms, but she didn't need to; it was obvious that Naomi couldn't remain impartial, and there was no question as to where her loyalties lay.
"I don't care what she thinks," Naomi says, even though it's a blatant lie and she knows Effy will see through it. "She doesn't get to pick my friends."
"I did nearly kill her sister, though," Effy says.
"Too bad you didn't finish the job."
"Don't say that," Effy says in a quiet voice, and then she shakes her head. "What were you fighting about, anyway?"
"It's stupid," Naomi says. "She wants me to go to dinner and fucking meet her family, even though I've met half of them already and can safely say they're bitches."
"Freddie tried to get me to come round to a family dinner once," Effy says. "One of the many reasons I dumped him." She smiles ironically, then looks at the bottle in her hand. "Fuck, we're out of vodka already."
"Jesus," Naomi says. "I don't even feel drunk."
"I'll get some more," Effy says, "and then you can tell me what's really the matter." Naomi starts to protest, but Effy just disappears into the house, returning a few minutes later with a bottle of whiskey.
"My emergency stash," Effy says. "It was Tony's. He left a few bottles behind when he moved out. I don't dip in very often."
"Is this a special occasion, then?"
Effy shrugs. "It can be."
"Fuck it, then," Naomi says. "Let's have some fireworks."
They spend a while messing around with the fireworks that Effy stole, trying to stick them in the ground, and it's only when she's running away from a lit fuse that Naomi realises how drunk she is. She stumbles and falls, giggling, watching from the ground as the rocket shoots up into the sky and explodes with a burst of crimson and green. They light a few more, blue and gold and purple, and then they settle back in their chairs, still looking up at the sky. Naomi can hear the distant whoosh and bang of other fireworks, but she can see the lights. She sighs.
"Sometimes I wish I could get out of here, you know," she says. "Just like, quit college, cancel my fucking university applications and buy a plane ticket to Thailand or wherever and just fuck off."
"So why don't you?" Effy asks. Naomi thinks Effy might be the only person she knows who wouldn't think it unreasonable.
"Have you met my girlfriend?" Naomi says with a laugh.
"A bit clingy, that one," Effy says with a wry smile, but then she shrugs. "It means she cares."
"I know," Naomi says. "I mean, I really do know. But it's like--she fucking made me apply to Cambridge, even though I'd rather go to Oxford, just because that's where she wants to go and she wants us to be together. I mean, who does that?"
"Who agrees to that?" Effy says. "Hold a fucking gun to your head, did she?"
"Fuck off," Naomi says sullenly. She goes to light another cigarette but she's all out. "It's hard enough to resist her puppy dog eyes in the first place, okay, it's fucking impossible to do so when she's all sad and injured."
Effy looks distinctly unimpressed. "It's still your own fucking fault, though," she says, and Naomi sighs.
"Yeah, I know."
Chapter 9: the harm principle
The college corridors are busy, full of students hurrying to their next lessons, or dawdling as they try to decide how to spend a free period. Thomas squeezes Pandora's hand so they don't get separated in the rush, and Pandora turns and gives him a brilliant smile. In moments like this, everything seems so easy and straightforward that Thomas wonders why he ever questions things at all.
The crowd thins out a little and they manage to fight their way through to the social sciences department where Pandora has Philosophy next lesson. They're almost at Pandora's classroom when Panda grabs him and kisses him fiercely; all he can do is close his eyes and try to remember how to breathe.
A moment or two later Pandora pulls away, her face red and flushed with something like embarrassment.
"What was that for, Panda?" he asks. He cannot complain about being kissed like that, but such things are usually reserved for times when they are alone, behind closed door, not the middle of a busy corridor.
"Aren't I allowed to show you how much I love you?" Pandora asks, a little unconvincingly, and Thomas glances around, trying to figure out what prompted Pandora's display.
That is when he sees Cook, standing at the other end of the corridor and looking at them with a scowl.
"Don't look at him, silly," Panda says, tilting his head down until he looks away and meets her gaze. "Doughnuts, remember?"
"Doughnuts," he says, nodding, and he manages a smile. Things are supposed to be different now, or the same as they were before, and he sees that Pandora is trying. That means that Thomas must try too.
"Right, well, best be off to Philosophy," Pandora says. "We're starting On Liberty today. Flipping Mill, he was a right banana."
"Have fun," Thomas says, and she gives him a goofy smile before disappearing into the classroom. He turns around, his spirits a little lifted, and then he sees Cook, still standing and staring at them.
"Is there a reason why you are still here?" Thomas asks, walking up to Cook, who just shrugs.
"We are not friends."
Cook shoves his hands in his pocket. "I wanted to say I'm sorry, all right? I shouldn't have fucked your bird behind your back."
"No," Thomas says, "you should not." Truthfully, though, he blames Pandora more than he blames Cook; this sort of behaviour seems par for the course with Cook, whereas he expected better from Pandora. She was the one who truly let him down, but he is trying his very best to forgive her. Bygones, he believes they are called. He says none of this to Cook, however.
"You're a good bloke, Thomas," Cook says. "Better than me, you know? You deserve her."
"She is not a prize given to the best person," Thomas says, frowning slightly.
"No, 'course not. I mean, she deserves you as well."
Thomas nods slightly, just once, but he does not quite feel inclined to accept Cook's apology just yet. "I stood up for you," he says. "When Johnny White threatened you, I stood up for you. You are a bad friend to repay me like this."
Cook ducks his head, looking chagrined. "Yeah, you're right. I fucking owe you, mate. Big time."
"Pandora tells me you are still sleeping with Effy. Considering Freddie's feelings, it seems you are a bad friend to him as well."
Cook looks up then, furious. "Yeah, well, no one asked you, did they?" he says, and he casts around wildly like he's looking for something to throw or hit. Thomas stays still, looking at him steadily while he waits for Cook to calm down.
"Are you fucking right about everything?" Cook asks eventually, and Thomas smiles.
"I am right about a great number of things," he says, and Cook lets out a bark of laughter.
"Jesus fucking Christ, mate."
Still smiling, Thomas says, "I accept your apology," and he holds out his hand for Cook to shake. Cook looks at it curiously for a moment, then shakes it.
"I don't fucking get you," he says. "Are we good?"
Thomas shrugs. "It seems we are."
The club night is a success, but Thomas feels strangely separated from his fellow revellers; he watches as they drink and dance and fail to be discreet in not-so-dark corners, but he is unmoved. Pandora has cleared a space on the dancefloor, either oblivious to the bizarre looks people throw her or enjoying them all the same. Lost to the music, she pays no attention to Thomas and does not notice when he slips away, out of the club and into the fresh air outside. The cold cuts him to the bone and he wishes he had another jacket, but not enough that he wants to go back inside and into the warmth.
He spots JJ sitting on the pavement, looking forlorn. The ground is wet from a light rainfall earlier that day, but JJ does not seem particularly bothered by it, even though he looks as cold as Thomas feels.
"Hello, JJ," Thomas says, crouching down beside him.
"Oh," JJ says. "Hi." He gives Thomas a lopsided smile.
"It's freezing out here." Thomas is shivering already, and he's only been outside for a minute or two.
"Yes, yes it is," JJ says. "Great club night, Thomas, I just, I just needed some fresh air. It was very hot in there. Lots of... bodies."
"I know how you feel," Thomas says. His knees are starting to hurt from crouching; he sits down on the damp pavement and hopes it won't soak through his jeans. He's still not used to this country. He's settled here, but it's still not quite home. Trying to get his mind off his own problems, he asks JJ, "Is there something wrong? You do not look very happy."
"Just the usual, really," JJ says, and he looks like he's trying to play it off like it's not a big deal. "Freddie and Cook are sort of fighting again, which didn't take long, and, and, I don't know." He shrugs. "Also, I think I would quite like a girlfriend. Everyone else seems to have one. I mean, even the girl I lost my virginity to has one, and that's quite embarrassing when you think about it."
"Sometimes having a girlfriend is not quite as wonderful as it ought to be," Thomas says.
"Oh." JJ furrows his brow. "I'm not sure that makes me feel any better, really."
"But, overall," Thomas says, trying to be positive, "it is worth it."
"Ah," JJ says, nodding. "So, you and Pandora, then--how is it? Did you manage to start afresh?"
"Not really," Thomas admits. He stares up at the sky, but he can only see a handful of stars. He misses them. "We are trying, but things change. And when they have changed, it is very difficult to pretend that they haven't."
"It's a bit like that with Cook and Freddie, I think," JJ says. "I--I mean, not in a romantic sense, obviously, or at least I don't think so anyway, because they'd probably tell me about that, but it's hard to go back to being the three musketeers when they're still in love with the same girl."
"Are you not in love with her as well?" Thomas asks. "I heard about the race."
"I don't think so," JJ says. "I spoke to Emily about it once, a few weeks ago now, and she said it was very easy to confuse having a crush with being in love, and I probably just fancied Effy. And then I said that was probably true, because for a while after I slept with Emily I thought that maybe I was in love with her, but then Freddie told me I wasn't, so I think it's the same thing with Effy. But when I told Emily that it all got a bit awkward."
Thomas smiles. "I can see why. Do you still like her?"
"A bit. Is that wrong? I mean, you know, because she's a lesbian."
Laughing a little, Thomas says, "I don't think so. She is very pretty."
"Yes," JJ agrees. "Katie is, too, which makes sense really, considering they're twins." He blushes slightly and changes the subject. "I do hope you and Pandora make it. I mean, it must be difficult to get over what she did, but she does seem to love you."
Thomas nods slowly. "Yes, she does, but it is difficult." He shrugs. "I am no saint. Sometimes I look at other girls. But acting on it..."
"Acting on it's different, isn't it?"
"Yes," Thomas agrees. "But if she really liked him..." He tails off; it's not a train of thought he likes to entertain, but it's been niggling for months now.
"But I thought it was just about intercourse?"
"I don't know," Thomas says. "But if she really liked him--even if she didn't act on it, would that not be just as bad?"
JJ looks a little confused, and Thomas realises that, on reflection, JJ is probably not the best person to talk to about such matters, nice though he is. He ought to talk to Emily, Thomas thinks, or someone who might understand. Suddenly, he feels tired. It helps no one to dwell on such matters.
"Did you say Freddie and Cook are fighting again?"
"Yes," JJ says with a sigh. "I heard you tried to talk some sense into Cook, but I don't think things like that really help a great deal. And the thing is, I don't think Effy even wants either of them, so I don't know why they don't just get over her already. All it does is ruin everything, and I'm tired of it."
"Sometimes I think it would be nice to go back to a year ago," Thomas says. "Everything seemed better then."
JJ nods solemnly. Despite the cold, they sit there for a while longer; Thomas doesn't count the minutes. It's late, and he's tired, but he doesn't want to go back home, and doesn't want to go back inside either. They say nothing until Pandora comes bounding out of the club, looking very drunk.
"There you are!" she says, clinging on to him when he stands up and moves over to meet her. She's like a dead weight in his arms. Behind her is Effy, carefully surveying the proceedings.
"Look after her, Thomas," she says. "She needs you."
Chapter 10: such a rush
Ringing a doorbell shouldn't be especially stressful. JJ knows this, intellectually, but the last time he rang this particular doorbell, it started a slippery slope that ended up with him incredibly drunk on potato moonshine, throwing up in the college toilets while his date to the Love Ball publicly declared her love to someone else. It wasn't JJ's favourite night. And while he doesn't expect this evening to be similarly disastrous--all he and Emily are doing are practising for their Oxbridge interviews; surely not a lot can go wrong--he feels a bit of trepidation as he stands outside her front door.
Eventually, he rings the doorbell, and after a moment or two, Mrs Fitch answers the door. Behind her, he can see Emily running down the stairs, looking disappointed that she didn't manage to answer the door first.
"Hello, JJ," Mrs Fitch says, looking slightly confused by his presence there.
"Hi," he says, giving her an awkward little wave; he can feel his throat tensing up just like it did the last time he met her. Perhaps his initial risk assessments were a little off.
Before he can incriminate himself further, Emily grabs his arm and says to her mum, "I said I'd help JJ practise for his Oxford interview." They start to head upstairs, but Mrs Fitch interrupts them.
"Emily, you know I don't like you having boys in your room."
Emily gives her a disparaging look that JJ suspects she learnt from Naomi. "Christ's sake, Mum, you know that's not an issue."
Mrs Fitch frowns at them. "Well, okay. Make sure it isn't."
Emily rolls her eyes and tugs on JJ's arm. "Come on, JJ."
"Right, right, yes," JJ says, and he turns to Mrs Fitch. "Don't worry, nothing untoward will happen. Emily's made it quite clear that nothing like that will happen again."
"Shut up, JJ," Emily says, and she practically drags him up to her room.
"Sorry," he says, once she's shut the door behind them. "I put my foot in it again, didn't I."
"Just a little bit," she says, but he doesn't think she looks too annoyed.
"Sorry," he says again. "Cook's been trying to teach me to know when to shut up, but it's a bit of a work in progress, I'm afraid."
"It's okay," she says, with a bit of a smile. "Don't worry about it. She's actually been all right, lately." She sits down on the bed on her side of the room, the side with all the posters of ladies and the giant rainbow flag over the bed, and she makes space for him on the bed. He can't help but think of the last time they were on a bed together, and he feels his face growing hot.
"Is everything all right?" Emily asks, and he nods his head.
"Yes, yes, everything's fine. Good. Dandy, even." He takes a breath and tries to calm down. This is exactly what he doesn't want to happen when he has his interview, but then his interviewer isn't going to be someone he's had sex with, so he'll probably be all right. He hopes so, anyway. "Er, shall we get started?"
They run through some interview questions and JJ tries to practise keeping focused without going off on tangents, which is difficult, because History is one of his favourite things and when Emily starts asking him about what he's learning about World War II, he finds himself going into minute detail about the fighter planes and Emily has to try and steer him back to the question in hand.
He's in the middle of explaining a complicated point about Poland when the door opens and Katie comes in.
"Oh," she says. "Hi, JJ. Didn't realise you were here."
"Hi," he says, smiling widely. "We're just doing some practise for our Oxbridge interviews, but I'm not sure if I actually feel any more prepared."
Katie waves a hand dismissively. "You'll be fine. You're both, like, mega geniuses." She starts rifling through her wardrobe and after a while, she picks out an outfit. "I need you to fuck off though, 'cause I need to change."
"What for?" Emily asks. "And we were here first, so change in the fucking bathroom."
"I've got a date," Katie says, and at that proclamation Emily looks as surprised as JJ feels. "And Mum's in the bathroom, so I need to change in here, all right."
"Who are you going out with?" Emily asks. "You didn't say anything about a date."
"I don't need to ask your permission, do I? It's with this guy from Media Studies. Mike. You don't know him."
"Is he the one you said was a tosser?"
"Probably," Katie says. "What's your point?"
"You're going to fuck him even though you think he's a tosser?"
"I didn't say I was going to fuck him, I said I was going out with him."
"Yeah, well it's basically the same thing with you."
JJ feels like his head is going to explode.
"I'll avert my eyes," he says, and they both stare at him like they forgot he was even there. "If you need to change." He clamps both hands over his face, squeezing his eyes shut, and he hears Katie laugh.
"You could teach some fucking manners to our brother."
There's the rustle of clothing and JJ tries very, very hard to remember what he was saying about the war before Katie came in, because all sorts of made-up images are flooding into his brain, even without any visual stimulus.
After a minute or two Katie, still sounding amused, says, "All right, it's safe to look," and JJ opens his eyes.
"Wow," he says. "I mean, you look very nice. I mean--"
"JJ," Emily says, snapping his attention back to her. "Let's get back to History, yeah?" She looks at him curiously and he nods, trying to keep focused on the questions she throws at him instead of on Katie, who's busy doing whatever it is girls do to their hair.
Katie eventually leaves, and as soon as the door closes with a click behind her, Emily stares at him, eyebrows raised. "Oh my God."
"What?" JJ asks.
"You like her," Emily says, sounding vaguely disbelieving and a little bit accusatory.
"What? Yes. I mean no. I mean--yes, we're friends, and I do tend to like my friends, but--"
"But you fancy her."
"No," he says. "Yes. Maybe. I don't know!"
"JJ," Emily says, "you're getting locked on. And I'm not going to flash you this time."
The memory is enough to snap him out of it. "Right," he says. "Sorry."
"I don't mind," Emily says, although she still seems to be looking at him a bit strangely. "I mean, every other boy she's ever dated has been a twat, so frankly it would be an upgrade."
"Really?" he says, then, "Hey, Freddie's not a twat. He's my friend."
"He cheated on her."
"Oh," JJ says, nodding. "Yes, that. I suppose he is a bit of a twat after all." Then he realises the rest of what she said, and says, "Do you really think I'd be an upgrade? I mean, if she liked me, which she obviously doesn't, and, and why would she, anyway? I'm nothing like the boys she goes out with."
Emily shrugs. "Maybe not, but like I said, the boys she goes out with are all wankers. She'll probably realise that eventually. I thought she was starting to realise it already, after Freddie, but I suppose not." She smiles. "When she does, though, she'll realise she wants someone nice."
JJ isn't convinced; he's spent his entire adolescent life having crushes on girls who definitely don't like him back, and he can't think of any reason why Katie would be any different. She's not entirely the person that JJ thought she was when he first met her, just like none of them are really the same people they were back then, but even though they're sort of friends now, and sometimes Katie laughs at him in a nice way now, he doesn't think he'd ever be able to escape being in the friend zone.
(He's not entirely sure he'd know what to do if he did.)
"It's okay," he says, trying to cheer himself up more than anything. "I'm quite used to this, after all. Par for the course. I'm sure I'll get over it eventually."
Emily frowns at him. "Hey, don't say that. I know what it's like to like someone who doesn't like you back. You just have to persevere, and sometimes they see sense in the end. You shouldn't give up."
"Are you saying I should tell her how I feel? Because in my limited experience, that's never really been a success."
"And in my limited experience, it has." She pauses. "Eventually. It might take a while."
Emily shrugs. "It took me about two years."
"Oh," JJ says. "Well, in two years I'll be at university, so I think I'll go back to my old plan of trying to ignore it and hope it goes away."
After a moment, Emily says, "Do you want me to speak to her about it?"
"No." JJ shakes his head. "No, no, definitely not." He thinks about it for a minute and then says, "Wouldn't it be a bit weird, anyway? I mean, because of you and me."
Emily looks a little embarrassed; she picks at the fabric of the duvet cover and doesn't look him in the eye. "That was a million years ago, JJ, and it was just as friends. It's ancient history now."
"Well, not really," JJ says. "It was only a few months ago, and--oh, oh, right, yes, ancient history, like it never happened."
Emily nods. "Good."
He feels suddenly awkward. They never talked about it since it happened, apart from when Emily told him never to tell anyone, and he sees now that there's a good reason for that, namely the aforementioned awkwardness. He wonders if she regrets it, but he doesn't ask, because that would probably make it even worse.
They try to go back to rehearsing their interview technique but neither of them are particularly interested in it, and when Emily finds a bottle of vodka that Katie stashed away, they stop talking about History altogether. Somehow the conversation degenerates into JJ trying to persuade Emily into watching Battlestar Galactica, but he doesn't have a whole lot of success; he has to endure a whole lot of her calling him a geek until he Googles pictures of Six and she shuts up.
Awkward history aside, he likes having her as a friend.
It gets late, and Katie hasn't come home yet. JJ would quite like to wait and see her again, just to see how her date went, but when he says as much to Emily she smiles at him sadly.
"She might not be back for a while," she says. "Maybe not until the morning."
"But she did say she wasn't going to sleep with him. I do distinctly remember that part."
She shrugs. "I'm sorry, JJ. I still don't think you should give up."
"Okay," he says, but he knows that he will. "I should probably leave, then."
He says goodbye and leaves the house, walking with his head down against the wind. It's not quite officially winter yet, but it's still freezing cold.
He hasn't got very far when he hears a voice. "JJ?"
Looking up, he sees that it's Katie, home from her date. He can't see the boy she was with.
"Oh, hi," he says. "Good date?"
She shrugs. "It was all right. A bit shit, actually."
"Sorry to hear that," he says, frowning slightly. For a moment they look at each other, and then he shrugs. "I should probably get home. See you at college tomorrow."
"Yeah. Bye, JJ," she says, and she walks past him to her house.
He only glances back once, and she's not looking his way.
Chapter 11: just because you feel good
Freddie's fist flies out of nowhere, hitting Cook square between the eyes. He goes reeling, the force and the sharp burst of pain knocking him backwards, but although he staggers, he isn't knocked off his feet. He can feel blood blossoming at the point of impact, a thick line trickling down the side of his nose.
When he stands up straight again--more or less straight, anyway, he's had enough tequila that he's swaying slightly--he laughs.
"Fuck's sake, mate," he says, "you really meant that."
"Too fucking right I meant it, Cook." Freddie looks fucking furious; every time the lights in the club flash, Cook sees his face twisted with anger. He brandishes his fist again but doesn't strike; instead, he grabs Cook by the collar and shoves him against the wall, hard. Cook's seen him angry before, had his fair share of fist fights with him, even, but he's never seen Freddie look so fucking murderous.
Probably a mistake to tell Freddie that he's been fucking Effy, then.
Fucking tequila, Cook thinks. Or maybe it was the drugs--he can't remember exactly what he took. Maybe that fucking STUN shit has made its way onto the market, he doesn't fucking know.
"I can't believe you'd do this to me," Freddie says, and then he laughs. "What the fuck am I saying? Of course you'd fucking do this to me. It's what you always do, isn't it."
Cook shrugs as best he can with Freddie holding him by the shoulders. "Look, Fred, she wants it, I want it. What do you expect me to do? She's not yours any more."
"She doesn't even want it," Freddie snaps back. "She's fucking you because she doesn't want to, don't you get it?"
"Oh, and she secretly wants you, is that right? You had her, and she left you. Fucking deal with it already."
Freddie's shoulders slump and he lets go of Cook. "I thought you wanted us to be mates again," he says, staring at him accusingly. "We can't be fucking friends if it's just going to be a rehash of last year, all right? I'm sick of it." He storms off, pushing his way through the crowd of dancing people who don't even look at him twice. Cook stares after him, but there's no point in following, not when he's being such a cunt.
Cook pinches the bridge of his nose, and when he pulls his hand away his fingers are bloody.
"Fuck's sake," he says to no one in particular--not that anyone would be able to hear over the thumping of the bass. He's not in the mood to party any more, not now he's gone and fucked everything up and Fred's disappeared, but he's still wasted. Can't imagine fucking going home, not that 'home' even feels like that. He never stays in that poky room for long unless he's sleeping.
He pushes through the crowd in the same direction that Freddie went, towards the exit. It's packed in there, just the way Cook likes it; he nearly gets an elbow in his face, does have someone grab his arse, and by the time he's made it out of the surge he's laughing again.
The night air wakes him up a bit, stings his eyes, and he realises he's desperate for a smoke. There's a pack of fags in his pocket, nearly empty, and he shakes one out, but when he tries to light it it's no good, his lighter's conked out.
"Fucking hell," he mutters around the cigarette that's still between his lips, and he throws the lighter in the general direction of a nearby bin. It bounces off the top of it before hitting a car. Cook doesn't bother checking to see if it's left a scratch.
"Need a light?"
It's fucking Effy. He can't see her--she's standing in the shadows, just outside the glow of the streetlamp--but he knows that voice all right. She never even fucking speaks, but Cook would still know that voice anywhere. Even if he went years without seeing her, he'd still know that fucking voice.
"Yeah, all right," he says, wandering over to where she's standing, just inside an alleyway. She flips the lighter, the small flame illuminating her face, and Cook sees then that she's smiling, that smile that means fucking mischief and corruption. Once his cigarette's lit he takes a long drag, feeling the burn before he exhales right into her face. She doesn't flinch.
"You been fighting, Cook?" She runs her forefinger down his face, into the streak of blood that hasn't dried yet, then puts her finger into her mouth, sucks it clean, and pulls it out with a soft pop.
Then she kisses him.
He can't resist, never fucking could. There's something about the way she grabs his head and pulls him towards her, something about the hard press of her lips that just fucking does him in. He kisses back roughly, pushing her up against the wall hard--that's the way she's always fucking liked it, and she smiles at him now, wild and devious.
"Fuck me," she says, just quiet like, and Cook's already shoving at the flimsy material of her dress when he realises something, and he stops.
"Nah, babe," he says. "Ain't worth it."
She looks at him in disbelief. "Are you joking?" Before he can answer she leans forward, kissing him again, but he pulls away.
"I said no, princess."
Anger flares in her eyes and she pulls him closer, one hand around his neck while the other finds his crotch, palms at his cock through the fabric. He feels himself growing hard under her touch and suddenly it's a lot more difficult to step away.
Effy looks at him, one eyebrow raised. "Seems to me you want it."
He prises her hand away from his neck and steps away, leaning against the opposite wall of the alleyway. "I told you it's not worth it," he says.
"You've changed your tune."
"Yeah, well, there's no point, is there? You're just fucking around, you don't care. I'd rather have Freddie as my friend than you as... whatever the fuck this is." It's only just hit him, right here in this moment, but it's true. Life was better before he met her--before they met her, and everything went to shit. Freddie's the one that's meant to stop blokes punching him in clubs, he's not meant to do it himself.
"Knock some sense into you, did he?" A flicker of surprise crosses her face, but a moment later her expression is still. "You can't stay away for long," she says, her eyes boring straight through him. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and shrugs.
"Fucking watch me, babe." He starts to walk away, but he hasn't gone far when he hears her voice, so small he thinks he's imagined it at first.
"Why?" he repeats. "You've fucked up everything, you know that?" He shrugs; maybe that's not fair, but he doesn't care. "I don't give a fuck if you want to ruin all your relationships, babe, but don't fuck with other people's, yeah? I mean, who's next? Ems and Naomi seem happy, why don't you try and come between them."
She looks hurt, but only for a brief moment. She shrugs and says, "Wouldn't be possible," sounding more like her old self than before.
"Whatever," he says, and he starts to walk away again. He gets out onto the street, and then he hears her fucking voice again, louder this time.
"Naomi was right about you."
He spins round; she's shrouded in darkness, the glowing tip of her cigarette the only thing visible in the alley. "The fuck are you on about?"
"She said you're the person that people fuck--or people nearly fuck--when they're being stupid." She pauses for a moment, then says, "I doubt anyone's ever fucked you without regretting it."
"Yeah, well, fuck you," he says, walking away again. This time she doesn't say anything else to make him turn back.
Chapter 12: party's over
Coming out to the club was a total fucking mistake, Katie realises. She doesn't even know why she bothered, except that it's been a while since she had a proper night out and Emily practically begged her to go with them, her and fucking Naomi, celebrating because they'd just done their Cambridge interviews, and Katie thought she'd go just to shut Emily up and stop her feeling so fucking sorry for Katie. It's not like she needs her pity, even if things have been shit lately.
But it was a total waste. Everyone was there--everyone she might like to see, plus everyone she definitely didn't want to see, even if some of them seemed to disappear after a while. Emily and Naomi left her so they could like, slut it up on the dancefloor just like they do every time they're out, and the only guy that even asked Katie if he could buy her a drink was JJ, and if even he's taking pity on her she might as well just like, off herself already, because clearly there's nothing to live for.
So she leaves, because it's that or hang around looking like a total fucking loser, and she's done enough of that in the last few months to last her a lifetime, thank you very much.
Outside in the cold, she realises she's drunker than she thought at first--too much Archers, which she drank too quickly and JJ was too happy to buy for her. She stumbles a little bit as she walks down the street, trying to find a cab, but it's too early for them to start queuing up and she doesn't know where the nearest taxi rank is. After stumbling a bit too hard she takes her heels off, because the last thing she needs is the humiliation of falling over in front of--well, in front of not many people at all, it's kind of deserted, but she still doesn't want to.
She picks her shoes up and happens to glance to her left, into an alley, and she realises with a shock that someone's there, leaning against the wall and smoking. At first only the tip of their cigarette is visible, but then her eyes adjust and she realises it's Effy.
"Christ," she says, and Effy snaps her head round to look at Katie. She looks upset--not like she's been crying; Katie can't imagine Effy doing that--and like she's been caught.
"What are you looking at?" Effy says, and her voice sounds so shaky that Katie realises that maybe she has been crying after all.
"Nothing," she says, then, "Sorry," even though she doesn't know what she's saying sorry for.
Effy ducks her head like she's waiting for Katie to go away. For a moment Katie looks at her, feeling like she ought to say something, but she has no idea what. So she turns and leaves, feeling rattled, the same way she feels whenever she sees Effy--all wrong and out of sorts, like she's been woken from a dream too abruptly.
She walks a few paces down the street, keeping an eye out for a taxi but finding none. She doesn't have the numbers of any firms either, so she's probably going to end up walking all the way home, barefoot. She sighs. Fucking typical the night would end like this, with her alone and freezing cold and having to make the trek all the way home by herself. She could probably get like, raped and murdered and no one would even notice.
Fuck, she's drunk.
She glances up sharply. Up ahead is Cook, grinning at her like an idiot. His nose is bloody.
"What you doing out here by yourself then, love?" he asks, strolling up to her, but she shrugs off his question.
"Nothing. Fuck off."
"Hey, no need to be like that now. Let's get you home, yeah?"
"Whatever." She keeps walking and he falls into step beside her. For a few minutes they walk in silence, and it's surprisingly comfortable; he doesn't make any sort of comment or judgement about her being alone, at least.
After a while, he says, in a casual sort of way, "You see Effy back there?"
She glances at him sharply. "Yeah. Why?"
"Nothing, babe, nothing." He looks up at the sky, keeps walking along with his hands shoved in his pockets. Eventually he says, "How'd she look?"
"I dunno," Katie says. "Upset, I suppose. Did something happen?"
He shakes his head. "Nah, it didn't. That's the thing." He doesn't expand on it any more than that.
"You're still like, properly in love with her, aren't you?" Katie asks.
He shrugs, still not meeting her eyes. "That girl just gets under your skin, you know? I don't know what it is about her." He laughs suddenly; it sounds loud in the empty street. "JJ said she was fit and mysterious. Just about sums her up, don't it?"
"JJ said that?" Katie doesn't know why that vaguely bothers her. Last year he'd followed Effy around like a puppy, just like Freddie and Cook had, but Katie figured he was just going along with the crowd.
For a while they walk through the dark streets, past the smattering of Christmas lights that adorn some of the houses. They don't say much else until they reach Katie's road. Katie points out her house when they get to it and says, "Well, thanks for walking me home." She pauses, then adds, "You know I'm not going to shag you, right?"
"All right, babe, I wasn't asking." He looks affronted. "Not that I wouldn't, you know, but I can tell when it's not that sort of thing."
"Right," she says. "Sorry."
Smiling a little sympathetically, he says, "Blokes expect that from you, don't they?"
"Yeah," she says. "Well, not so much any more, really."
"For the record, I thought what Freddie did to you was shit." He smiles and pats her arm in a friendly sort of way. "Cheer up, babe. You're fucking class, you know that? You'll find someone. Someone who appreciates you."
Returning his smile, she says, "Yeah. Maybe we all will."
When she reaches her bedroom she snaps on the light, surprised when a muffled sound of protest emanates from Emily's bed.
"You're back already?" Katie says, frowning at Emily. "I thought I left before you."
"I took a taxi." Emily squints at Katie's feet; when Katie looks down, she realises they're filthy. "Did you walk?"
Katie nearly asks how the fuck Emily found the one taxi in Bristol, but she doesn't bother--all of a sudden she realises how tired she is, and there's no need to pick a fight. She drops the shoes she's been carrying and starts to change into her pyjamas, too tired to clean her feet or even take her makeup off. Whatever, she doesn't care. Just when she's ready for bed and about to turn the light off, she glances at Emily again and realises her eyes are red.
"Em, have you been crying?"
"Switch the light off, Katie, I want to go to sleep."
Katie does as she's asked and climbs into bed, but she doesn't drop the subject. "You were all right when I left. What happened?"
"Nothing." Her voice sounds scratchy. "You probably don't care. I told Naomi I thought I fucked the Cambridge interview up, and she wasn't very sympathetic."
"She's a bitch." The words come out by instinct, and Katie only realises too late that it's probably not what Emily wants to hear.
"She's not," Emily says, sounding pissed off. "It's just--sometimes I feel like I love her more than she loves me, and every time I try to bring us closer she slips away."
"So give her some space," Katie says. "Trust me, yeah. She's like a boy, and boys don't like it when you're too clingy. You try too hard, Em. Just don't call her for a couple of days and make her realise what she's missing."
"But if I didn't try hard she wouldn't have gone out with me in the first place."
"So? It's not last year. Things change."
"Yeah," Emily says. "Yeah, I suppose they do."
"And the interview was probably fine," Katie says. "You always do well, you know? You're the good twin."
Emily laughs. "I don't think I've been the good twin since I became the gay twin."
"Yeah, well, maybe I'll lez out too, take all the pressure off you."
Emily laughs harder and Katie finds herself smiling too; it's been a while since she's known how to cheer Emily up--years, probably--and she's glad they've still got that.
"Would you?" Emily says, and it takes Katie a moment to realise what she's asking.
"Fuck off, Em, it was a joke."
"So you wouldn't?"
"Course I fucking wouldn't," she says. She's never even considered it for a moment. "Christ."
"I was just asking," Emily says. "So how was your night? Can't have been worse than mine."
"I dunno," Katie says. It started off shit, but by the time she got back home it hadn't seemed so bad. Then she remembers the one thing that unnerved her most. "I saw Effy."
If she could see Emily through the dark, she'd probably be frowning. "Did she say anything?"
"No, she just--she looked sad. I think she might have been crying." She can still picture her now, standing in the alley, alone. "Serves her right."
"Katie," Emily says, in a gentle voice that she doesn't usually use with her, "I know what she did was awful, but you have to let it go. I mean, if you still care about Freddie--"
"I don't," Katie snaps. "I just--I can't just forgive her, all right? She's never even fucking apologised." She rubs at her eyes; she doesn't even know why she's fucking thinking about Effy now, why she thinks about her ever.
"I know," Emily says. "But you do this a lot. Talk about her. I don't think it's good for you."
"Yeah, well, neither was getting hit over the head with a fucking rock." She sighs. "Look, it doesn't even matter. I was actually all right before we started talking about her. I mean, Cook walked me home and he was actually really nice to me, and--"
"Cook? Do you like him?"
"No, not like that. But it's like, not a lot of people are nice to me these days, they either feel sorry for me or treat me like some sort of freak. And he wasn't like that." It strikes Katie that she's still pretty drunk. "Fuck, I don't normally talk about this sort of stuff, do I."
"No, but I'm glad you are." Emily shifts where she's lying in bed and when Katie turns over, she can just make out Emily looking at her through the dark. "You know you can talk to me about stuff, Katie."
"Yeah, well, you went on and on about Naomi, I thought I'd bore you in return with my own problems."
Emily smiles. "Night, Katie."
It's not like the old twin thing they used to have, but Katie thinks it might be better.
Chapter 13: christmas
Katie watches The Snowman on Christmas Eve, just like she had done every year for as long as she can remember. It used to make her feel like a kid again, watching the same programme she watches every Christmas ever since she was little, but now it just makes her feel old. She's changed too much, and it's disorienting to realise that not everything has, because some things are just the same.
For the first time Katie cries at the end, when the Snowman has melted and the little boy realises he's alone.
Pandora goes to midnight mass with her mother. It's the only time she goes to church any more--she usually conveniently misses church on Sundays because she's sleeping over at Effy's, and Pandora's mum has some whacko idea that Effy's a good influence or something so she doesn't need church if she's with her, but on Christmas her mum insists. She doesn't mind it really, wishing Jesus a happy birthday when it's all dark and creepy outside, and it reminds her of that time in primary school when they let her take part in the nativity play. She wanted to be an angel but they had too many of them so she ended up being the donkey instead--but at least that meant she was special, because there were a million angels but only one donkey, and she had the most important job and everything.
Sometimes Panda thinks the stage might be her calling.
They sing carols and it's actually quite fun, 'cause her mum gets really into it and starts being all silly, and that makes Pandora silly too. Usually her mum would tell her to calm down when she gets like that but it's Christmas, so it's allowed, and later they'll get drunk on eggnog and her mum won't even tell her off. You have to have fun on Christmas because otherwise it's not really celebrating, and if you don't properly celebrate Jesus's birthday then you'll be on his naughty list and not get any presents.
She wishes she could see Tommo today, though. They said happy Christmas yesterday and he gave her a necklace like her old one because it broke, and it was lovely and brill and almost like that very first week, before Pandora flipped it all up. And it was nice, but Panda didn't know if it that meant it would be nice forever or just for Christmas.
JJ spends Christmas morning with his mum. They were meant to go and visit his grandma down in Cornwall but his mum said she wasn't up to the drive, so it's just the two of them and some sad Christmas crackers and the Queen's speech. JJ wears his green cracker hat all day, even though it looks a bit funny perched on top of his hair, and he puts together the model planes his mum bought him even though he's got the Spitfire already. Still, it's good to have spares in case there are any future rage incidents, he'll just have to remember to store them in different places so they don't both get hit.
The evening he spends with his dad's new family. He hates these split Christmases, especially because his dad always wants to make the most of their time together and that means JJ can't watch the Doctor Who Christmas special without coming across as rude, and that's annoying because the Doctor's regenerating and he wants to see what Eleven's like. His dad doesn't understand this sort of thing, he just asks JJ a series of jokey questions about girls and acts like JJ's not a complete autistic spazz while his new wife sits there awkwardly because she doesn't really know how to deal with JJ.
He's thankful when the day is over.
Cook gets absolutely blinding drunk, courtesy of his Uncle Keith. He works his way through all the beers on tap--free of charge, obviously, because he's family and it's Christmas--getting proper fucking festive. There are celebrations going on at the pub but Cook doesn't stay long; he heads outside sometime in the middle of the afternoon for a smoke, even though it's fucking freezing outside and raining to boot, and then he gets an idea in his head.
He ends up on Freddie's doorstep at about four o'clock, pressing the doorbell hard until someone fucking answers the door. It's noisy inside, he can hear laughter and music and shit, but someone comes eventually, and it's Freddie.
"Cook? What the fuck are you doing here? It's Christmas Day."
"Merry Christmas to you too, Fred. Can't a bloke see his best mate on Christmas?"
"Is that what we are again?" Freddie says, glancing back inside. "Look, mate, all my family's here. I don't want any trouble."
"Yeah, nor do I. I just want to celebrate, mate, no fights or nothing." He knows that the last time he saw Freddie he got a fist in his face for his troubles, but everything's different now. "I promise I won't even hit on any of cousins," he says, and Freddie kind of smiles.
"All right, fine. Come in."
Later, once Cook's stuffed with so much Christmas pudding he doesn't think he can move, he and Freddie chill out in the shed, and it's almost like old times. Freddie passes him some spliff and after a while, once they're both high, Cook says, "I stopped seeing her, you know."
Freddie doesn't bother to ask who he's talking about. "You did?"
"Yeah. Look, mate, I miss when it was just you, me, and JJ. We don't need her."
Freddie nods, smiling. "Yeah, you're right. We used to have fun, yeah? She's not worth it."
"Too fucking right," Cook says. For once, he thinks that things might actually change.
Effy plays Connect Four with Tony while their mum lies on the sofa, passed out in front of the telly. Too much mulled wine. No one's watching the TV, but neither of them makes a move to switch it off; it makes a pleasant enough distraction in the background, and if it wasn't on maybe they'd realise how quiet it was.
Tony keeps looking at Effy in a concerned sort of way, and not just because she's winning. Eventually he says, "Isn't there someone else you'd rather be with today?"
"No," she says flatly, because for once it's the truth. Not that being at home is so fucking great, but she can't think of anyone who's presence would make it more bearable.
"What about those boys you were running around with last year? Where are they?"
"Not here," Effy says, and she wishes she knew more about Tony's life now so she could retaliate with some questions of her own. "They're gone."
"Good. You can do better," Tony says, then he glances over to where Anthea's lying on the sofa. "We need to do something about Mum."
Effy gives him a disparaging look. "You got any suggestions, genius?"
Tony shrugs. "Get Dad back?"
"Dad's a wanker. Don't think it would help."
"You're probably right," he says, sounding more cheerful than he ought, and he drops a red disc into the grid. "Four in a row. I win." He smiles brilliantly, and Effy finds herself reluctantly smiling back.
"This is shit," she says. "Let's go out."
"Anywhere. I don't care."
Emily manages to sneak out sometime in the evening, when her mum and Katie are too engrossed in watching the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special and her dad's too drunk to notice that she's missing. They might be slightly more comfortable acknowledging Naomi's existence now, but her mum's always banging on about Christmas being a family time and Emily knows she wouldn't let her go if she actually asked.
She cycles over to Naomi's and knocks on the door, holding up a sprig of mistletoe when the door opens.
Naomi cracks up when she sees it. "Mistletoe? Really? You're so fucking cheesy, Em."
"I don't care." Emily smiles and gives her a kiss, lingering even though it's cold outside.
"What if my mum had answered the door? Would you have snogged her instead?"
"Maybe I would," Emily says, trying and failing to keep a straight face.
It's cosy inside. They lie on Naomi's bed, lit only by the coloured fairy lights draped around the room, and after they've swapped their proper presents Naomi reaches onto the bedside table and grabs an envelope, which she hands to Emily.
"I got you something else," she says, but before Emily has the chance to open it she says, "I got into Cambridge. So, you know, we can be together."
"That's great," Emily says. "I mean, I always sort of thought you didn't really want to go."
"Yeah, well, I want to be with you, so." She gives her a half-smile and says, "Have you heard?"
"Not yet," Emily says. It's a lie; she got the letter yesterday, telling her that her application had been pooled and she'd have a second interview in January. It's not a rejection, but she doesn't want to tell Naomi and ruin the moment.
"I'm sure you've got a place," Naomi says. "You're the cleverest person I know."
Emily says nothing; instead, she kisses Naomi, and tries to make them both forget.
Chapter 14: destroy everything you touch
The lights are too bright, shards of colour that slice through the darkness and pierce her vision. Everything is too sharp, oversaturated, the music deafening. Effy can't entirely remember where she is--a party at someone's massive house, an invitation she accepted blindly--can't entirely remember what she's taken. MDMA, maybe, or something masquerading as such, chased down with copious amounts of vodka.
It's the only way to live.
She flows through the party, watching. It's New Year's Eve, and there are still Christmas decorations up, garlands of tinsel catching the light. People are dancing, the crowd a pulsating mass; it's impossible to identify individual forms as the crowd swells around her. For a while she dances, oblivious to everything surrounding her, but after some time it's not enough, she needs someone to press up against. A coloured light swings through the darkness and alights upon a familiar face: Cook.
He said it was over, but she's never taken him at his word. She doesn't really think he could ever stay away.
He's facing away from her when she goes over; she slides her arms around his waist and says, "Cook," in his ear, starts kissing a trail down his jaw. For a moment he seems content, then he twists round and pulls her arm away.
"Fuck's sake," he says, but the music's so loud Effy can barely hear him. Louder, he says, "What the fuck?"
"Tell me you don't want it," she says with a smile, moving in again, but he shoves her away.
"I said I don't want it, all right? Go and find someone else to molest, Effy."
At first she tries to think of some way to persuade him to change his mind, but she knows a lost cause when she sees one, knows that the easiest way to protect a bruised ego is to detach. "Fine," she says coldly, "Don't change your mind," but all he does is sneer at her.
Effy turns away and almost immediately collides with someone else. She mutters an apology that probably can't be heard above the music and when she glances at who she knocked into, she sees that it's Emily.
Emily is such a funny little thing when she's drunk. She's alone, from the looks of it--Naomi is nowhere to be seen--but she seems content, swaying slightly to the music that most people are grinding to, a dreamy smile on her face.
"Emily," Effy says, but she has nothing to follow it up with, nothing in particular to say. "It's good to see you," she says eventually, and Emily says nothing in response. It's the first time they've exchanged words in months; Emily has always given her a frosty reception ever since the hospital, but today she doesn't seem to acknowledge Effy as the girl who ruined her sister's life, who injured her and, worse, left her alone to die. Tonight, Emily seems content; she's probably as high as Effy is, and not for the first time in her life, Effy has reason to be thankful for narcotics. She can't imagine anyone getting through life without them; or maybe she just can't imagine getting through her life without them.
Emily's nothing like her sister, Effy thinks. It's a wonder anyone ever mixed them up.
A weight of guilt presses on Effy as she thinks of Katie, remembering that night in the woods. The guilt cuts through the narcotic haze, squeezes at her insides, and she knows she has to do something, anything to alleviate it.
"I'm sorry," she says to Emily, but Emily doesn't seem to hear; she's vaguely dancing, paying little attention to what's going on around her. Effy has to grab her arm to catch her attention. "I mean it, Emily," she says, suddenly desperate for Emily to understand, but Emily says nothing, looks confused.
"What?" she shouts over the music, and Effy, despairing, kisses her.
Emily tastes like cherry vodka and two flavours of lipgloss, and she's still under Effy's touch. It only lasts a second, a fleeting moment where Effy tries to make Emily understand, until something brings it juddering to a halt: a hand on Effy's shoulder, roughly pulling her away, shoving her against the nearest wall. She focuses on the eyes before her, and realises that it's Naomi.
"What the fuck do you think you're playing at?" Naomi says. "That's my fucking girlfriend." She raises her fist, holds it close to Effy's face, and Effy looks at it curiously.
"You're holding it wrong."
"What?" Naomi says, her arm sagging slightly.
"Your fist. You're meant to put your thumb on the outside. That way you won't break it against my face."
"Oh," Naomi says, and she lets her fist fall. "I've never actually hit someone before."
"I'm shocked," Effy says, and that makes Naomi glare at her harder than before.
"Fuck you," Naomi says. "What the fuck were you doing with Emily?"
"Trying to make a point," Effy says, although she's already starting to forget what point it was. "Hit me. Go on, I deserve it."
Naomi doesn't move, so Effy surges forward and kisses her too, for no other reason than to provoke something.
Naomi pulls away after a second and slaps Effy, hard, right across her cheek. It stings; it'll probably leave a mark.
"You have a fucking problem," Naomi says, and Effy nods.
"I know," she says. Fuck, her head is messed up. She remembers something, something she said to Cook, and then she smiles. "I knew I could never come between you and Emily. No one could."
Naomi narrows her eyes. "I don't know what the fuck is up with you tonight, but if you're going to be like this just fuck off, all right?" She turns and takes Emily's hand; Emily still looks confused, and even as Naomi pulls her away, she turns to glance back at Effy.
Effy turns away and wanders through the house, feeling like she's looking for something without knowing what. The house is enormous, room upon room packed full of people and noise. Upstairs is a bit quieter; Effy tries a few doors and comes across some people fucking in one room, more people doing lines of coke in the bathroom--she doesn't even have to say anything, and they let her take some--and then in the last room, she finds someone sitting on the bed, alone.
She glances up when Effy enters and Effy sees that she has tear stains on her cheeks.
"What do you want?" Katie snaps, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. "Fuck off."
Effy shuts the door behind her with a soft click, but she doesn't step any further into the room; she stands there with her hands behind her back, holding onto the door handle, feeling as though she's rooted to the spot.
"Why are you crying?" she asks softly, but Katie ignores her.
"Who hit you?"
So there is a mark. Effy can picture it, a bright red handprint across her cheek.
"Why do you care?" Effy asks, and Katie rolls her eyes.
"So I can shake their fucking hand."
"It was Naomi."
"Oh," Katie says, lapsing into silence. She looks small, smaller than she is, and Effy feels the same rush of sympathy and regret she gets every time she sees Katie's face.
"I'm sorry," Effy says eventually, and once the words are out she wonders why it took her so long to find them, and to find Katie at a point where she would listen. She wonders how it seemed so hard before. "For the rock. For everything."
"Oh," Katie says again, looking genuinely surprised for a moment until her expression changes into annoynce. "Took you fucking long enough to say so. Seven months, Christ's sake."
"I know," Effy says. "I'm sorry for that too." She looks at Katie, really looks at her, and it's only when she sees Katie flinching that she looks away. "You look good, you know," Effy says, then, in an undertone, adds, "I mean, the marks have all faded now."
"Yeah, well, I'm sorry you didn't manage to fucking like, scar me for life," Katie says. "Despite your best efforts."
"I didn't mean--"
"I don't care what you fucking meant," Katie says, "it's what you fucking did that matters. You fucking--did you really not care if I died? I know you were tripping or whatever, but you fucking left me there."
Effy doesn't know what else she can say; doesn't know if there is anything that she could possibly say to make it all right. "It was the most fucked up thing I've ever done," she says. "And I've done a lot."
Katie stares at her for a moment then shrugs, the action obviously very deliberate. "Whatever. I don't fucking care any more. I thought I told you to stay out of my fucking face?"
"Haven't I done that?" Effy says, and she starts to feel anger building up inside her, starting as a slight twinge before it grows and grows. "You're not completely innocent, you know. You choked me. I was scared."
"You came on to my boyfriend."
Nodding, Effy says nothing; it wouldn't matter how far back they traced the blame, it would still all come back to Effy in the end.
For a moment Katie looks at Effy as though she's waiting for a response, but when none comes she shrugs again. "Whatever, I don't even care. Let's fucking forget about it, okay? I'm sick of feeling like this defines my fucking life," she says. "You know what my New Year's resolution is? To stop giving a shit about you."
"Okay," Effy says, and then she glances at the clock on the far wall. "Two minutes until you have to start."
"What?" Katie says, but Effy is through with talking. She never liked doing it; she stopped for a year, once, and sometimes she misses it, choosing not to talk, misses the power it gave her. She crosses the room to where Katie's sitting on the bed, takes her face in both her hands and kisses her--hard, so Katie knows she means it.
For a brief, shining moment, it feels like absolution.
The moment passes in limbo, Katie failing to respond, but then she kisses back, just for a second, before pulling away again.
"What the fuck," Katie says, but Effy swallows the words with her mouth again, pushing Katie downwards onto the bed. For a minute she thinks of nothing but Katie underneath her, kissing her back, her hands pulling uselessly at Effy's dress, until she distantly hears chanting coming from downstairs--the countdown to midnight. Cheering erupts, and it's like in that instant something changes: Katie shoves Effy off her, surprisingly strong, and scrambles to her feet.
"I told you to fucking stay away from me," she says, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, and she slams the door behind her, leaving Effy staring after her, on the bed, alone.
Chapter 15: sunrise
It's a long walk home from the house party, and Naomi isn't even entirely sure how to get back. The house--practically a mansion, really; Naomi doesn't know which tosser owned the place, but they must be fucking loaded--is somewhere on the outskirts of Bristol, and it takes her and Emily several wrong turns before they find a street they actually recognise. The sun is just starting to peek above the horizon. It's been a long night.
Naomi's still drunk enough that she doesn't really mind the cold, but Emily's shivering slightly beside her. She wishes she had a jacket she could lend her, or a scarf or anything, but she makes do with quickening her pace in the hope they'll get home faster.
"You know this is the third decade we've seen," Naomi says. So far 2010 doesn't seem to be much different to the decade just gone, although it's sort of hard to judge, only seven hours in.
"Well, that makes me feel old." Emily slips her hand in Naomi's and squeezes. "Any resolutions for a new decade?"
"I'm pretty sure I'm already perfect, Ems," Naomi says. "I don't need to change."
"Oh," Emily says, and Naomi frowns.
"That was a joke. You can usually tell when I'm joking, right?"
"Yes," Emily says, sighing. "It's just, I don't know, I thought maybe things could be a bit different now. You know, between us."
Naomi nods, and for a while she says nothing. The thing is, there has been something off about their relationship lately; nothing major, nothing that can be pointed at as being the one big issue dividing them, but the stupid fights keep piling up, a little harder to get over each time. She doesn't want it to be this way, but she's not sure how to make a change. All she knows is that making a stupid resolution is a guarantee for failure.
Eventually, she simply says, "I don't know how to change things."
"No," Emily says, "nor do I. But you want to, right? Sometimes I feel like I don't even know if you want to make this work."
"Of course I do," Naomi says, but the truth is, that's a realisation that's only come recently. "I mean, seeing you with Effy was just like..."
"You got jealous," Emily says, and when Naomi glances over at her she looks ridiculously happy about the fact, starts swinging their hands a little higher.
"Yeah, I suppose," Naomi says.
"I can't believe you hit her over me," Emily says, still smiling. "Very gallant."
"Yeah, I noticed you didn't exactly rush to my defence when she tried it on with me."
"I spent my entire childhood beating Katie up, so I'd probably have an unfair advantage if I actually tried to hurt Effy." She shakes her head. "I don't think it would really help, anyway. I mean, she seems to want people to hurt her, when what she probably needs is someone who understands her."
Naomi's surprised; for ages she assumed Emily still harboured resentments towards Effy for the incident with Katie and the rock--certainly she's been cold to Effy every time she's seen her, and has refused to talk--so she's not sure when this changed.
"Have you forgiven her?" she asks, and Emily shrugs.
"I don't know. I can't stay angry forever. Besides, I think it's Katie's place to forgive her, not mine."
Naomi nods. "If it helps, I really think she's sorry. She seemed sorry, last time we talked."
"Well, sometimes." Naomi doesn't know why she feels guilty about it; it's not like she needs Emily's permission. "We're sort of friends, you know."
"Oh, I didn't realise." Emily's frowning slightly. "When was the last time you spoke to her?"
Naomi casts her mind back; apart from a few brief conversations at college, shared smoke breaks and the like, there's only really been one occasion. "Bonfire Night," she says. "After we had that stupid fight--which I'm still sorry about, by the way--I went back to her house and we watched fireworks and got drunk and bitched about stuff."
"Stuff like me?"
"Stuff like lots of things," Naomi says. "Like how Effy's a massive twat for stringing along a couple of stupid boys who love her a lot more than she loves them." Emily looks at her pointedly and Naomi, feeling uncomfortable, says, "And, yeah, a bit about you. I'm sorry."
"Well, that's just great," Emily says, and she lets go of Naomi's hand, starting to walk a bit faster.
"Em, don't be like that. It's just--sometimes I need someone to talk to, you know?"
Emily stops walking and turns to face Naomi. Her face looks eerie in the glow of a streetlight. "Why can't you talk to me?"
"Are you saying you've never complained about me to Katie, or fucking JJ, or Thomas or anyone? I don't... have people. You do." She shrugs. "And Effy gets me. Why do you even have a problem with this?"
"I just think that if we have problems, which we obviously do, we should talk to each other," Emily says.
"Well, that's what we're doing now," Naomi says. "Look, this is ridiculous. I'm sick of this stupid fighting. You know I love you, right?"
"Yes," Emily says. "I don't know, it's just--something about Effy. I don't even know what it is."
Naomi shrugs. "Yeah, I know what you mean. But I really do love you, yeah? I want to make this work."
"So do I," Emily says. "And you know, that could always be your New Year's resolution. Remembering to tell me that you love me."
Naomi laughs, and then she realises that Emily is probably serious. "Okay, okay. I can probably keep that one. I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you. That's got to be about a week's worth already."
"You know it doesn't work like that," Emily says, but she's smiling now. She takes Naomi's hand and starts swinging it again, and for the first time in a while, Naomi feels hopeful. She thinks that if they actually try, they might be able to make this work after all.
On the day of Emily's second interview at Cambridge, Naomi walks her to the train station. She looks nervous, Emily does; she's chewing on her bottom lip and Naomi can see the cogs in her head turning.
"Look, don't overthink it, all right? You'll get all confused and mixed up and end up saying the wrong thing. Just relax and treat it like you're just going to have a conversation with someone."
"A conversation that decides my whole future," Emily says.
"Yeah, you're thinking about it completely the wrong way. All they're going to do is ask you about the stuff you've been studying, you know, and you talk about that all the time to me. Just tell them what you tell me about how much Tess of the D'Urbervilles makes you want to stab your eyes out and that you think Angel Clare's a complete cunt, and you'll be fine."
"Do they let people study English degrees if they don't like Hardy?" Emily asks. "Oh God, they're going to reject me. This is going to be a nightmare, you know that? They're going to reject me, and then we won't go to the same university together, and then we'll break up, and then--"
Naomi shuts her up by kissing her, right there in the middle of the street.
"I said you were going to be fine, all right? Stop worrying." She takes Emily's hand and squeezes it. "Look, even if it does all go tits up and you don't get in, that's not going to make a difference to us, all right? We can cope."
Emily frowns at her. "Can we? I mean, I want us to be able to, but if we're at opposite ends of the country--"
"This country is quite small, you know," Naomi says. "You know how you always accuse me of being a terrible know-it-all? Yeah, well, that's because I'm right about everything, and I'm definitely right about this. So shut up and get on the fucking train, all right?"
"All right," Emily says, and they walk the rest of the way to the train station together. Naomi leaves Emily at the barriers, giving her another kiss for good luck and murmuring that she loves her. Emily goes a bit pink, and smiles.
"Okay, I'm going to do this," she says, before turning and going out on to the platform. Naomi watches her until she disappears from view, and sends her a text wishing her good luck again. She really wants Emily to get in.
A few days later, Emily knocks on Naomi's door. It's a Thursday, the one day Naomi and Emily both don't start college until eleven, but Emily comes round at ten.
When Naomi asks her what's up, all she does is hand Naomi an envelope and pushes past her to the kitchen, where she sits down and starts drumming her fingers on the table. Naomi sits down opposite her, staring at the envelope in her hand. The postmark is from Cambridge, and the envelope's still unopened.
"You came here before you opened it?" Naomi asks. "Don't you want to know if you got in or not?"
"I can't open it," Emily says. "You'll have to."
"Couldn't you have got Katie to do it? I mean, I doubt she'd hesitate, and you wouldn't have to cycle fifteen minutes to find her."
"Don't you want to know if I got in? Just open the fucking thing."
"Thought you were meant to be the brave one," Naomi says, but she can't blame Emily for being scared, not about this. It's not just her education; no matter how reassuring Naomi tries to be, neither of them can deny that there's a sense that if they don't end up in the same place, they're doomed. They can barely hold it together as it is.
"Just do it," Emily says.
"Fine." Naomi tears open the envelope, and takes out the piece of paper, scanning it quickly. "Oh."
"Well?" Emily says, but Naomi doesn't reply. She folds the paper back up and slides it across the table "Just tell me," Emily says again, but eventually she picks it up, takes a deep breath and unfolds the letter.
"Oh," she says, her voice small.
"I'm really sorry, Em," Naomi says, crossing to the other side of the table and pulling her into a hug. "It doesn't matter, yeah? It'll be okay."
Emily looks at her; thankfully she's not crying, she just looks annoyed. "How is it going to be okay? I didn't get in. And now you're going when you don't even want to, and I'll probably end up at Durham or somewhere, if I even get in, and do you know how long it takes to get the train from Durham to Cambridge?"
"Well, nor do I, but it's probably fucking ages." She leans on the table, head in her hands. When she speaks again, her voice is muffled. "I don't even care about not going to Cambridge, I care about not being with you."
Naomi almost corrects her, because she knows Emily was desperate to go to Cambridge, she remembers how much she'd loved walking around the colleges when they went to the Open Day, but she knows it wouldn't be the right thing to say now. She rubs circles on Emily's back and says, "Well then, you're being fucking stupid, because I'm not going anywhere. I mean it."
"You can't make promises like that," Emily says. "What if--"
"I don't care what if," Naomi says. "Look, I know I'm a twat and I'm not very good at the whole relationship thing, but I promise I'm not going anywhere. Okay?"
Emily looks up at her, and after a moment she manages a weak smile. "Yeah, okay."
Chapter 16: the taste of your behaviour
Three times it happens.
The first time, Katie's drunk. It's a school night--not that that's ever stopped her before--and for the first time in ages, maybe the first time ever, she goes out by herself. She hates to do it normally, but she needs to get out of the fucking house and there's no one in the world whose company would make her feel better. Certainly not Emily, and how fucking tragic is it that the only person who might go out with her now is her fucking sister?
The club is dark, empty. She didn't want to go to the sort of place that would be packed; the fewer people that might see her, the better, and she doesn't want to run into anyone she knows. She just wants to get away from everything--other people, and herself too. Lately she's sick of feeling alone, being trapped inside her mind; she just wants to fucking crawl out of her head, and the closest she can come to that is by downing vodka shots like it's the end of the world. It's not like the bar staff will stop her; there's a fucking recession on and nobody in the place, so they won't refuse her money. There's three floors of music and barely enough people to fill one.
She goes downstairs where it's emptiest, probably because they're playing terrible 80s music, and after a couple more quick drinks--tequila this time, although they haven't got any limes--she hits the dancefloor. There are only like, six people dancing, tops, but it makes no difference. That stupid Tainted Love song comes on and Katie can already feel herself loosen up, almost feels like she's not really there, and that's what she was looking for, numbness bordering on bliss.
After a while, countless minutes of weightless dancing, someone starts dancing behind her, slipping their arms around her and dancing with her, bouncing to some approximation of the beat. Katie barely notices, just keeps dancing, and it's only when she glances down and notices how slender the arms are that she realises it's a girl, and she stops abruptly, spins round to face whoever it is.
The lights alternate between dim and blinding, but when they flash blue, Katie sees that it's Effy.
"What the fuck?" Katie says, and Effy obviously hears her, even over the music, because her expression, happy just a moment before, suddenly goes blank in that way Effy has that means that she's furious. Katie storms off the dancefloor, wanting nothing more than to get away, and the nearest place of refuge she can find is the toilets.
They're empty, thank God, no one there to see Katie fall apart. She splashes some water on her face but it doesn't help, doesn't make her feel better at all, and when the door opens and Effy walks in--well, then she feels even worse.
"What the fuck are you doing here?" Katie says, before Effy can get a word in. "Get the fuck out."
"It's a free country," Effy says, and her expression is so fucking still that Katie wonders if she even feels anything at all. At that moment, she thinks they must be polar opposites, because these days Katie just feels too fucking much.
"Have you got something to say?" Katie says, not that she even wants to hear it. "Like, I don't think I could make it any clearer, but I never want to see your fucking face for as long as I live."
"You kissed me back," Effy says. "New Year's Eve."
"I also shoved you off me and stormed out of the room, in case you've forgotten that part. It was like, two minutes when I was drunk. You really think that means something?"
Effy shrugs. "Maybe. Maybe not. I guess we'll see what the test is."
"What?" Katie says, and before she can do anything else Effy is upon her, kissing her again, pressing her up against the sinks so she's got nowhere to go. Katie tries to push her off, but she gives in after a couple of seconds, lets Effy kiss her, and then a couple seconds more and she's kissing Effy back. It's just like New Year's Eve, exactly the same as that night. Katie feels something hot curl in her belly, something like desire or shame.
She pushes Effy then, but not off her, just back, back until she's got Effy pressed up against the wall. She pauses, just to catch her breath, but it's a mistake--she looks at Effy then, meets her eyes, and Effy actually smiles. Laughs a little bit too, and then she says, just softly, "I knew you wanted it, Katie."
"Shut the fuck up," Katie says, but words are no good, so she does the only other thing she can think of and kisses Effy again, hard, scraping her teeth against Effy's bottom lip and feeling a thrill of satisfaction when she hears Effy gasp.
Effy retaliates by hiking up Katie's skirt, dragging her nails across Katie's skin. It's Katie that gasps then, but she doesn't stop it, not even though she knows full well that this is a mistake, it shouldn't be happening, Katie's not that person. Except a tiny part of her thinks that maybe she is, because when Effy pulls down her tights and slips her fingers under Katie's knickers, Katie actually moans into Effy's mouth. Her faces flushes out of embarrassment and she feels a surge of anger towards Effy, even when what Effy's doing to her is driving her insane. She grabs Effy's hand and starts guiding her fingers, thinking vaguely that she needs to do anything she can to end this as soon as possible, because this is not a moment she wants to prolong. They're in fucking public, for starters; anyone could walk in and witness Katie's humiliation.
She's not sure how Effy manages to seize all the control in this situation when she's the one pinned to the wall.
With her free hand, Katie starts fumbling under Effy top, raking her fingernails down the expanse of skin, and she tries to kiss her as roughly as before, but her breath's coming in short gasps and she needs the air. It's not long before Katie's shuddering against Effy's hand, grabbing hold of Effy just so her legs don't give out, and the full weight of shame hits her. As soon as she can properly stand without toppling over, she pulls herself together and walks away.
"Hey," Effy says, and when Katie doesn't turn back she grabs her arm, pulling her around to face her. "Are you all right?" she says, and it's so absurd, absolutely the last thing that Katie expected to hear, that Katie just laughs.
She laughs, and she snatches her arm away from Effy, and this time when she walks away, Effy says nothing.
The second time, Katie's sober, and that makes it worse.
It's about a week later and Katie's in college. She's not meant to have a free period but whatever, she doesn't think she's made it to a single General Studies lesson this year and she's not about to start now, even though she could do with something tedious to distract her from the thoughts that keep forming in her brain despite her best efforts to dispel them. The college is quiet and she's at a loose end. There's the common room, but it's always full of wankers, and it's not like she's going to go to the fucking library and do some homework or something. She's not that much of a loser yet.
She goes to the toilets to fix her makeup, because at least that's something to do, and that's where Effy corners her.
"Hey," Effy says, but that's all--she doesn't try to talk this time, doesn't bother asking Katie stupid questions about why she ran off, why she always runs off.
"What?" Katie asks, and Effy replies with a kiss.
It's softer this time, not as urgent, and that makes it worse in so many ways--because it means Effy thinks she can just take this, that she doesn't have to force it, and the worst thing of all is that Katie lets her. It still feels like that, letting Effy do something; it's the only way Katie can think about it, that it's not something she's doing herself, it's just something that happens.
She pulls away and wants to say something like stop, but instead she just says, "Not out here," and pulls Effy into one of the empty stalls. Almost as soon as the door is locked behind them, someone comes into the room, a couple of people, gossiping as they do their makeup or whatever. Katie holds her breath, leaning against Effy and squeezing her eyes shut against Effy's shoulder, hardly able to believe what a near miss they had. They need to stop doing this in places where they might get caught.
No, Katie thinks as the girls finally leave and the door bangs shut behind them, they need to stop doing this altogether. It's fucking weird and it's wrong and she's not the gay one, so she doesn't understand why she likes it so much, even when she's hating it. Because she's hating it? She doesn't even fucking know. She knows she hates Effy, or she thinks she does, but still she lets Effy see her when she's breathless and sweaty, biting down on Effy's skin just to stifle a moan, and none of it makes any fucking sense at all.
The only semblance of control she can retain is to always leave Effy hanging, pretending that it's some sort of punishment or whatever, but even that is starting to slip away.
The third time, Katie swears it'll be the last.
She's walking home from college, taking the shortcut through the park. The night's drawing in and it's a bit too dark for her to feel safe, but it's fucking freezing, a hint of frost in the air, and she doesn't want to take the long way home. So she hurries along, trying to look confident instead of vulnerable, until she sees someone sitting on a bench and she stops.
"Fuck's sake," she mutters to herself, and she's tempted to just walk on by like she hasn't seen anything, but Effy is watching her, almost like she's been waiting, and she taps the bench beside her, motioning for Katie to sit down.
Katie does as she's asked, despite the million reasons not to.
Effy takes some spliff out of her pocket and rolls a joint. When she's done she places it between Katie's lips and lights it, smiling as Katie takes a drag. Not a nasty smile like every other time she's smiled at Katie, but a nice one, and Katie doesn't know what to do with that. She turns her face up to the sky and exhales, watching as the smoke disappears into the twilight.
After a minute or so of silence Effy prises the spliff from Katie's fingers and says, "I thought we should talk."
"You thought we should talk? Didn't you once like, stop talking for an entire year?"
"I started again," Effy deadpans, and Katie almost smiles.
"Yeah, well, there's nothing to talk about. I don't even know why I'm doing this."
"It's simple, isn't it?" Effy says. "You do it because it feels good."
"But it doesn't," Katie says, and part of her can't even believe she's having this conversation at all. "Not afterwards." As soon as she says it she regrets it, because Effy looks at her so sadly that she can't bear it. She can't stand to look at her so she kisses her instead, hating herself for doing so, and when Effy takes her hand and leads her into the shadows of the trees, she follows. She fucks Effy up against a tree, nothing passive about what she's doing this time.
When Effy comes, she gasps Katie's name.
Katie snaps back into the real world and steps away, staring at Effy in disbelief. "I still haven't forgiven you," she says, and even in the darkness she can see Effy's expression harden.
"Katie, I've apologised," Effy says. "I'm sorry I hit you with a fucking rock, okay? I don't know what else you want me to do."
"It's not even about that. I mean, it is, but it's like--all I wanted was to be your fucking friend, you know? And you always hated me. Didn't even try to hide it."
Effy stands up a little straighter, making Katie feel even smaller than she usually does. "Don't act like you ever gave a shit about me as person, Katie. You just wanted to earn cool points, or whatever bullshit it is that you trade in."
When Katie opens her mouth to protest, she can't think of a single thing to say. She slumps a little and eventually says, "Yeah, well, maybe we're both terrible people," and she's surprised when Effy actually smiles.
"That's why we work."
Katie shakes her head. "We don't fucking work." She turns her back on Effy and walks off, conscious of the lack of footsteps following her.
It's definitely going to be the last time.
Chapter 17: falling down
Emily pushes her way through the tide of people coming at her; she wants to get to the library to get started on her Psychology coursework, but apparently everyone else in the college is late for fourth lesson and wants to get past her. She'll never get a seat in the library at this rate.
Out of nowhere a hand grabs her and pulls her through the crowd until they're outside the main building and Emily can catch her breath. She looks up at the person whose hand she was holding and sees that it's Effy.
"Hey," Effy says.
Emily isn't sure if she's meant to know what's going on. She hasn't spoken to Effy since New Year's, and even then she didn't so much speak to her as get molested by her.
"Hi," she says eventually, frowning at Effy. "What do you want?" She always feels slightly strange and self-conscious around Effy, the way she did on the very first day she met her. Before they started college Katie had spent ages telling Emily that she was probably going to end up being best friends with Effy Stonem, and while it was obvious from the beginning that that would never happen, Emily could see why she'd want someone like Effy as an ally. And then Effy had called her a doormat, and after everything else that happened--well, talking to Effy was just a bit weird.
"I need to speak to Katie," Effy says.
"Okay, well, you know I'm not her, right?" Emily says. "If you want to talk to her, then talk to her."
"She's ignoring me," Effy says, all matter-of-fact like she doesn't even care. Maybe she doesn't care, but if that was the case Emily doesn't know why she'd be asking after her.
"I'm not surprised, after what happened."
"She told you what happened?"
"Effy, everyone knows about Gobbler's End. It's hardly a secret."
"Right," Effy says. "I thought you were referring to something else."
Emily's confused now; intrigued, too. "What else would I be referring to?"
For a moment Effy says nothing, and Emily thinks she can see her calculating what to say next. Eventually she says, "We fucked," and Emily laughs.
"Fine, whatever, don't tell me. But I can't help you. If she doesn't want to speak to you, that's her decision."
"Just tell her it's important," Effy says, and for the briefest moment Emily thinks she can see something like desperation in Effy's expression, but it passes. Moments like those--chinks in her armour--don't happen often, but each time they do, Emily realises all over again that Effy isn't really this ice queen she pretends to be, she's just a lost little girl, not so different to how Emily feels herself sometimes.
Maybe that's why, lately, Emily's been finding it difficult to hold on to her anger over Gobbler's End.
"If you tell me what happened, maybe I'd be able to talk to her about it."
"I told you," Effy says. "We fucked. Three times."
"Katie's not gay," Emily says. She doesn't know why Effy insists on playing these stupid games. "She'd never sleep with you."
"If you say so," Effy says, shrugging, and she turns to go.
"Wait," Emily says. If Effy's here, talking to her, she may as well get some answers while they're at it. "What the fuck was that on New Year's Eve? Why did you kiss me?"
Effy arches an eyebrow, and Emily can't help but feel like she's made a mistake by asking. "You remember that?" Effy says. "It was a month ago."
"Of course I remember," Emily says, and judging by Effy's expression--amusement, intrigue--that's definitely the wrong thing to say.
"You still think about it, Emily?"
"No," Emily says, but she knows she sounds defensive. "I mean, maybe sometimes. It's not like--I just want to know why."
"You do still think about it," Effy says.
"Interesting." Effy tilts her head to one side and surveys Emily for a moment. There's something relaxed about her demeanour, like she's now back on familiar territory. "You and Katie aren't completely unalike."
"What?" Emily says, but Effy interrupts by leaning down and kissing her, just for a moment, and when she pulls back, Effy smiles.
"Something else to think about."
"Stop fucking around," Emily says, but Effy just shrugs.
"I still need to talk to your sister."
"Yeah, good luck with that." Emily hitches her bag onto her shoulder and walks away, hating that she's ever thought of Effy at all.
Emily spends the evening with Naomi, but there's something off about it. It's been like that a lot lately, no matter how much they've repeated that they want to try, but for some reason Naomi seems particularly sullen this evening, and Emily can't figure out why. Naomi doesn't pay much attention to her, just makes some excuse that she needs to finish reading Measure for Measure for college. Apparently finishing the play that night is of more importance than actually spending time with her girlfriend.
"You don't even have English tomorrow," Emily says, and Naomi pauses in the middle of making notes in the margin, looking up at Emily.
"I've got to get it done."
"Fine," Emily says, and she picks up her bag. "Obviously there's no point in me sticking around if you're going to be like this."
"I didn't say you should leave."
"What, I should just sit here while you ignore me?"
"Do whatever you like," Naomi says, returning to her book.
"Okay, well, we can read it together if you really have to work."
"No," Naomi says, not even bothering to disguise her annoyance. "I just mean, it's more of an individual thing, you know? I need to make notes."
Emily sits there for a while, watching her. It's a bit like being back at secondary school, when she used to sit behind Naomi in one of their lessons and watch as she worked much more diligently than anyone else in the class, frowning in concentration at her textbooks and constantly trying to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear that would never stay put. She can't believe how long it's been since then, how much has changed.
It's not really how she imagined it to be.
Back then she'd thought about it so often, what it would be like to really be with Naomi, and the reality doesn't really match up to the fantasy. Some things are better--the sex is much more imaginative than her fifteen year-old self had been able to picture--but other things are just different. Back then she'd thought that love would be perfect, and now she's starting to realise that it's just not.
The same lock of Naomi's hair is falling in her eyes and Emily reaches out and tucks it behind her ear, smiling when Naomi glances up at her and says, "Thanks," her voice softer now.
"Come on, forget about your reading," Emily says. "You've got plenty of time to do it later."
Naomi starts to protest but Emily swallows her words with a kiss, and slowly pushes Naomi down on to the bed. Just for a moment she pulls away, just so she can look at Naomi; she seems a bit less sullen now, a bit happier, and Emily's glad that they still have this at least. It's something to hold on to.
When they're done and Emily's lying naked under the sheets, Naomi curled around her, she presses a kiss to Naomi's shoulder and murmurs, "I love you, you know." It sounds shaky, and Emily realises she's still a bit rattled from seeing Effy earlier that day.
Naomi hums vaguely in reply, and Emily can't tell if it's a simple acknowledgment or evasion.
In the morning, Naomi lightly shakes Emily awake before the alarm goes off.
"Hey," Naomi says, once Emily's more or less managed to open her eyes. "What were you dreaming about?"
"I don't know," Emily says, grouchy from having been woken early, and she rubs her eyes as she tries to remember. She's never been very good at remembering her dreams, and now she's awake the images are slipping away into incoherence.
"Was it a sex dream?"
"I don't know," Emily says again. She tries to recall the sensations of the dream but it's all a haze. "Maybe," she says, but Naomi doesn't return her smile.
"Great." Naomi rolls on to her back and stares up at the ceiling, but she doesn't say anything else.
"What?" Emily asks. "Was I talking in my sleep?" She knows she's done it before; Katie used to spend her mornings laughing at the stupid stuff Emily had said in the night.
"You said someone's name, that's all," Naomi replies, and Emily's known her long enough to know when she's faking nonchalance. "It sounded like Effy."
"That's stupid," Emily says, but she knows she can't deny something she doesn't even remember. "Are you seriously upset about this?"
"Just surprised." Naomi's still not looking at her, still faking that stupid casual indifference. "Do you like her, then?"
"Naomi." Emily pulls on Naomi's arm, tries to get her to turn around. "Naomi, look at me. You're being ridiculous."
Naomi does turn around and look at her then. "You'll notice that I'm not asking if you're in love with her. I'm not stupid. Just--do you fancy her? Tell me."
"I don't know." Emily realises it's the wrong answer and tries to amend it. "No. I mean, objectively--"
"Objectively she's pretty," Naomi says. "Obviously. I'm asking what you think of her subjectively."
Emily runs her hands through her hair, trying and mostly failing to keep calm. "You know this is stupid, right? Even if I did have a sex dream about her, that doesn't mean anything. Christ's sake, I once had a sex dream about Stephen Fry. Do you think I want to bang him too?"
Naomi looks at her for a second, then bursts out laughing. "Stephen Fry?"
"Fuck off," Emily says, but she can't help laughing too. "I fell asleep in front of QI."
Once Naomi's stopped laughing--which takes a good long while--she says, "Okay, okay. It's just that I saw you talking to Effy yesterday." She grows serious. "And you didn't mention anything, so I was wondering what's going on."
"Oh. You saw us--just talking?"
"Well, I also witnessed the part where she kissed you." Naomi shrugs and says, "I'm not stupid. I know you didn't kiss her back, I saw you."
"So why are you asking if I like her?"
"I don't know. Because you didn't say anything about it, and then with the dream and everything..." She trails off. "Look, I trust you, okay? And it's not a big deal. I mean, you're allowed to look at other girls; it's hardly the same thing as shagging them. Just don't hide stuff, okay?"
"Okay," Emily says. After a while she continues, "Well, subjectively, I suppose I think she's attractive. But, I mean, it's Effy. She's so..." Emily spreads her hands wide, unable to articulate the complicated, tangled mess of emotions that's bound up in that concept, but Naomi nods anyway.
"Yeah, I know."
The alarm clock rings. Emily can scarcely believe the day has only just begun.
Chapter 18: words that i can't say
For the first time in her life, Katie is starting to realise why some people hate Valentine's Day.
It's bad enough having to watch the shops fill up with heart-shaped reminders of her own loneliness, but it's even worse having to watch other people going around being all happy. Her dad brings her mum flowers in the morning, and it's the first time her mum's looked really genuinely happy in ages, and Emily has plans to spend the evening with Naomi. Katie doesn't know if they've solved all their problems yet, but at least they have each other. Katie has no one. The only person that bought her a card was her mother, and that's so depressing that Katie doesn't even want to contemplate it.
For fuck's sake, the last person Katie had sex with, not that it even counts, was Effy, and that's just--whatever, she's over it, it never really happened. It was just temporary insanity. People get that, right? But now Katie realises how fucking stupid it was, how unlike her, she's never going to let it happen again.
It's just that she misses having someone, and she can remember now why she settled for all those idiot boyfriends who were never good enough for her, because at least having a boyfriend who's a total wanker is better than having no boyfriend at all. Still, a couple of months ago when she tried to get back into that mentality and dated a couple of random guys from college, she couldn't get into it and she quickly dumped them.
It probably is actually better that way, it's just that Valentine's Day is so fucking depressing. At least it's a Sunday, so no one else has to witness what a loser she is.
In the evening she decides to just like, be a total Bridget Jones cliché and rent a sappy romantic comedy and eat a ton of ice cream and just wallow, because if she's going to feel sorry for herself she may as well do it fucking properly. Emily gives her this pitying look when she leaves, and that's the worst of all, that even her complete loser of a sister thinks she's tragic.
Even though it's raining, she walks to Blockbuster, getting drenched in the process due to her umbrella being an absolute pile of shit. She looks a mess, she knows it, and as she's standing there looking at the shelves she starts to wish she hadn't bothered coming. Eventually she picks out 27 Dresses because she likes Katherine Heigl on Grey's Anatomy, and whatever, she hasn't seen it before and at least it's something to watch.
When she walks out of the shop, fighting with her umbrella to get it upright, she hears someone calling her name. Spinning around to see who's calling her, her eyes alight on JJ coming up the street and waving at her.
"Hi, Katie," he says again once he's reached her, and even though Katie's suddenly conscious of how much she looks like a drowned rat, he doesn't seem to notice.
"Hi," she says. "Weird coincidence."
His eyes open really wide and he starts to stutter. "Yes, very weird. Strange. Peculiar, in fact." He pauses, and then says, "Emily told me you'd be here."
"Why would she do that?" Fucking great. Not only does her sister feel sorry for her, but fucking JJ apparently does as well. And Katie likes JJ, but there's like, a social hierarchy and she can't believe how far she's fallen. It's all Effy's fault.
"She thought you might some company, and, well, I'd like some company, so that seemed like a good match. If you like you can come over to mine and we could watch your DVD together." He smiles, and it seems less like him taking pity on her and more like something he actually wants to do.
"It's probably not your sort of film, really," she says. "There aren't any like, spaceships in it."
"I don't only watch films involving spaceships."
"Do you watch films involving girls running around trying to get married?"
"It'll be a new experience for me," he says, smiling so hopefully that Katie can't help but smile a bit too.
"Okay," she says. "Might be nice to spend Valentine's Day just with a friend."
For a moment he looks confused or something, and then his expression clears and he nods. "Right, yes, friends. Just good friends. Okay."
The walk to JJ's house isn't that far, and he manages to sort her umbrella out so that it's no longer turned inside out, so she doesn't get any more wet than she is already. Once she's at his house she glances at herself in the hallway mirror and sees what a state she is, with her makeup running and her hair starting to frizz, but all JJ does is smile again and offer her a towel. She dries her hair a bit in his bathroom and then just ends up taking all her makeup off, because obviously she didn't think to bring her makeup bag with her to the fucking video shop.
But JJ doesn't like, recoil with horror when he sees her without her makeup on--probably doesn't even notice, she thinks--and for the first time today she actually feels kind of relaxed. She sits down next to him on his bed and he puts his arm around her--no stupid yawning pretence or anything, he just does it--and it's actually nice, having a bit of a cuddle with a boy in his bedroom without there being any expectations for anything more.
"I got us a bottle of wine, by the way," JJ says, reaching around to his bedside table. "Or, well, I took it from downstairs, but Mum ended up catching me. She said it's all right though, but that we probably shouldn't drink the whole thing."
Katie smiles. "You need to get better at nicking your parent's booze. I think my mum's like, convinced she's a functioning alcoholic because her stash of vodka keeps disappearing and she never actually remembers drinking it."
"Well, I don't really drink much anyway, although Cook told me that everyone at university has to drink a lot, so I should get into the habit. I'm trying to acquire the taste."
"I don't think I've ever met anyone like you, JJ," Katie says.
"That's probably true," JJ replies. "I'm quite unusual."
He frowns a bit, and Katie tries to tell him that that's not what she meant, but she doesn't know how to say it. Instead she sits in silence while he presses play on the DVD.
The film is all right, nothing hugely special but Katie likes it all the same. What she likes more are the ridiculous puzzled faces that JJ keeps making at the TV, like he's understand perfectly if the film were about aliens trying to destroy New York or whatever, but normal people doing real life things are completely unfathomable.
"How does she know so many people who are getting married and want her as a bridesmaid?" he asks. "Twenty-seven seems to be an awful lot."
"It's just a film, yeah. You don't have to take it so seriously."
"Oh, okay," he says. "I just think that even a Hollywood romantic comedy ought to make sense."
"Maybe you should pretend that like, Katherine Heigl is secretly a cyborg or whatever."
"Which one's she?"
Katie raises her eyebrows. "She's like, the main one."
"Oh." JJ thinks about it for a moment, and then he breaks into a smile. "That actually makes it a much better movie."
He looks so pleased that Katie can't help but laugh.
The films ends, and Katie said, "Well, this was actually fun. Thanks for asking me over, JJ."
"No problem," he says, smiling, and then his expression turns into a frown. "Wait, does this mean you're leaving now?"
"No," Katie says. "I mean, unless you want me to go now."
"No, no, not at all. I'd like it if you stayed." He pours her a bit more wine as if to make his point, and then says, "I'd say we could watch another film, but you'd probably hate all of mine."
"Probably," Katie says, laughing. She looks at him then, really looks at him, and for some reason she's surprised--surprised that even though they've kind of been friends for a while now, she's never really appreciated him before. Maybe because she's never spent much time alone with him.
She leans in and kisses him on the cheek, just to say thank you or whatever. Because she has had a good time, much better than she anticipated this evening being. He goes pink, a smile spreading across his face.
"Oh," he says. "What was that for?"
"Sorry, I just--"
"No, don't--don't apologise, I mean, it wasn't a bad thing. It was quite nice, actually."
"Yeah, I suppose it was," Katie says, and she kisses him again, on the mouth this time, just for a second. And she's as surprised as he looks, because--because it's JJ, and she shouldn't have liked it as much as she did.
Except she doesn't fucking know why she apparently shouldn't; that's just some bullshit from last year when she decided stuff like who she fancied based on who was the biggest wanker, or whatever. She'd never thought as JJ as anything but a friend, but now...
Well, this year her ideas of who she should be with are completely upside down, and if she's going to start fancying weird people it's better if they're people like JJ than people like Effy. JJ's actually a nice person, for starters.
They kiss again, for longer this time, Katie's noticing stuff like how his lips are really soft, and he has this nice soapy-clean smell that she likes, and mostly she just feels like she's with someone actually decent for a change. She doesn't quite know what to do with it; she's used to just like, fucking for the sake of it, because it's better than having a conversation, and she doesn't think it would ever be like that with JJ.
She doesn't even know why she's thinking about fucking him, definitely didn't expect anything like this when she ran into him earlier in the evening, but the longer they kiss the more right it feels, the more sense it makes. It's not even that she's drunk or anything, just nicely tipsy enough that it doesn't really matter.
She pulls away for a moment just to pull JJ's hoodie over his head, and he looks at her, surprised. "Oh," he says, "are we going to--?"
"Shut up," she says, kissing him again, and then she starts tugging at his t-shirt. He pulls apart from her and takes his t-shirt off, but then he gets a bit shy and leans back, keeping his hands to himself.
"It's okay," she says, taking his hands and pulling them towards her so he can peel her top off. He fumbles with her bra for a minute until she helps him out, and then it's not long until all their clothes are off and they're under the covers, kissing some more.
"Have you got a condom?" she asks, and he nods.
"Oh, yes," he says, sounding a bit breathless, and he starts to fumble with the drawer of his bedside table. "Cook tell me to always be prepared, although I haven't actually had much cause to use them yet." He looks a bit pink, but Katie's not sure if that's due to him being embarrassed or out of breath.
"It's okay," she says, and she kisses him again to make him believe it. He fumbles some more with the condom and she has to help him with that too, but once it's on he seems to more or less know what he's doing; maybe he doesn't have the experience that her previous boyfriends had, but he makes up for it with enthusiasm, which is something Freddie at least never had.
It doesn't last very long, only a couple of minutes, and when he comes he seems so fucking happy, looks at her with such open affection, that she smiles.
"Wow. That was--wow," he says. Katie kisses him again once he's got his breath back, and then he says, "Wait, was that--how was it for you? Was it good?"
"Yeah," she says. "It was really nice, JJ."
"But--you didn't come, did you?"
Katie opens her mouth in surprise; she doesn't think anyone's ever actually asked her that. "Well, er, no," she says eventually. "But I mean, it's all right."
"No," JJ says, frowning at her, "it's not. But we'll just have to do something about that, won't we?"
"Uh, yeah, okay," she says, finding herself smiling. And she has to help him out, tell him what to do and guide him a bit, but it's worth it.
Totally fucking worth it.
"Wow," she says, and he looks so pleased that she laughs at him, but definitely not in a nasty way. "You're not like other boys, JJ."
"No, I know, I'm quite strange."
"I didn't mean it like that," she says. "I meant that you're special."
When Katie wakes up it takes her a moment to realise where she is, and when she does, she smiles.
"Good morning," JJ says, and Katie gives him a quick kiss. He smiles slightly, but then he says, "Is this going to be a secret?"
"Oh," she says, "I don't know. Maybe--I mean, maybe it would be a bit weird with Emily."
"But she told me to go for it with you."
"Just give me a bit of time," she says.
"Right," he says, looking unhappy. "Yes. I understand."
Chapter 19: slow fade
Thomas arrives at the bus stop just after the bus has left. He sighs; the buses only come once an hour on Sundays and it's starting to drizzle a bit, so he really doesn't want to have to wait. But it's too far to walk home in the cold, and he can't go back to Pandora's house because her mother will be back from church by now, and Pandora has said many times before that her mother does not approve of her having boyfriends. (She always says it like that, boyfriends; Thomas thinks it's just a quirk of speech and she does not really have boyfriends, plural, but sometimes he wonders.) He taps his feet to a rhythm only he can hear, and then, because he's the only person waiting, he takes a joint out of his pocket and lights it, taking a long drag.
When the spliff is smoked almost all the way down, someone sits beside him at the bus stop. He turns and glances, and sees that it's Emily.
"Hello," he says, and she smiles, but he can see that behind the smile she looks upset.
"Hi," she says, and then she looks down at her shoes. (Thomas is glad she has shoes this time; it's very cold, and he doesn't want to have to lend her his, although of course if necessary he would.)
"Is something wrong, Emily?" he asks.
"What?" She shakes her head. "No. I mean--no, not really. Everything's fine." She does not sound terribly convinced.
"You know you can tell me if something's the matter," he says, and he places a hand on her arm. She shivers slightly; evidently he is not the only person feeling the cold.
"It's stupid," she says, shrugging slightly, and then she looks up at him. "You and Panda are happy, right?"
"Of course," he says, plastering a smile on his face, but from the look Emily gives him it's clear that she sees straight through him. "How is Naomi?" he asks, just to turn the conversation around; he doesn't really wish to speak of Pandora right now.
"Fine," she says. "Really good, actually. It's just--have you ever, I don't know, looked at someone else?"
"Do you think Naomi likes someone else?"
"No, I do," she says. "Well, not really, not that much."
"Are you in love with her?" he asks.
"No," she says. "That's the point, I love Naomi, but then there's this other thing getting in the way, and I don't know how to get rid of it."
He frowns. "I don't know if it's possible," he says. He knows it's not exactly what she wants to hear, but he doesn't know what to tell her. "You cannot help who you like, and sometimes the person you like is not the same as the person you love."
"I just wish I could get over it so Naomi and I can go back to how we were," she says. "I mean, she's actually really trying for a change, but for some reason my mind keeps wandering to Effy."
"Shit, I didn't mean to actually say that." She rubs at her temples. "I'm not in love with her, you understand. It's just this stupid thing."
"Is it?" he asks. "Sometimes these things take on a life of their own."
"Are you talking about Panda and Cook?"
"She keeps saying that she no longer thinks of him, but it doesn't seem like that's true." He shoves his hands in his pockets. "I don't think she loves me any more, even though she says she does."
"I'm sorry," Emily says, patting his leg in sympathy. "Are you going to stay with her?"
"I don't know," Thomas says. He's been thinking about it for months, wondering if they can possibly make their relationship work, but he's no longer sure if they can stay together. "Do you think it's a good idea to stay with someone who's no longer in love with you?"
"I think it's best to try," Emily says. "But I suppose you reach a point where it's no longer worth it."
"That was my thought too," Thomas says. He sighs; he doesn't know when they reached that point, but it has inevitably come. "I don't want to let her go, but I think I might have to."
"At least that way you can move on," Emily says. "If you're not happy with her, you shouldn't be with her."
"Will you take your own advice?"
"No," Emily says, sounding defiant. "I mean, I don't think we're at that point yet. I still love her, she still loves me. I'll forget about Effy and we'll work out our problems. It'll all be fine."
He tries to smile encouragingly. "I hope you manage that, Emily. I really do."
Pandora doesn't cry when he tells her it's over, she just nods sadly and says, "Okay."
For a moment Thomas wishes he could take it back, but instead he turns and walks away.
Chapter 20: cacophany
The common room is packed as the students wait for Doug to make some sort of surprise announcement. He's running late, probably because he's faffing around sorting out costumes or props or whatever stupid things he thinks he needs just to tell them that Ofsted is coming to evaluate the college soon. Katie's sitting with JJ, but they're not really talking and she's trying to avoid looking at him too much. She still hasn't told Emily that she slept with him, but it's just an excuse; she doubts Emily will actually give a shit, but if Katie pretends that it still has to be a secret then it means she doesn't really have to deal with it. They haven't done anything else since Valentine's Day, and it's not like Katie's trying to avoid JJ or anything, but for some reason she doesn't feel ready to jump into something proper.
It's not that she doesn't like him, because she actually really does.
Effy walks into the room and Katie feels her chest constrict; Katie definitely has been avoiding Effy, and now Effy's walking straight towards her and Katie has nowhere to go.
"Katie," Effy says, her voice all rough and scratchy, "I need to talk to you."
"I don't think now's the best time, do you?" Katie says, squaring her shoulders. "I mean, Doug's meant to be giving a talk."
"Since when do you give a shit about what Doug has to say?"
"It might be something important," Katie says, even though she hardly believes it, "which is more than can be said for whatever it is you have to say, so like, fuck off."
Effy folds her arms and says, "You've been avoiding me, Katie."
"I'm not fucking avoiding you, I just have no reason to spend any time in your presence."
"We need to have a conversation," Effy says, and for a moment she sounds sort of desperate and needy. "Please."
"What could we possibly have to talk about?"
"Oh, I don't know," Effy says, raising her voice. "How about the fact that we fucked?"
Katie freezes; she can feel all the blood drain from her face. The room falls silent and everyone in the vicinity turns to stare at them.
"You had sex with Effy?" Emily asks, but Katie can't bring herself to answer, can't make herself say anything at all.
Naomi frowns at Emily and says, "Why do you even care?"
"I don't," Emily says, and she shuts up.
"Hold on," JJ says, "was this before or after you had sex with me?"
Cook laughs. "You shagged Katie? Nice one, mate. Well done."
Katie eventually finds her voice and says, "Shut the fuck up, Effy. You're such a fucking liar."
"I'm not lying," Effy says, perfectly calm now. She doesn't look around her at anyone else, she just keeps her gaze fixed right on Katie. "You know I'm not. So shall we talk about it, or what?"
"Fuck off. I've got nothing to say to you."
Dignity in tatters, Katie leaves the room--walking; she won't give Effy the satisfaction of seeing her run--and she nearly knocks into Doug as he enters the room wearing some sort of ridiculous Gladiator hat.
As soon as she's out of the room she breaks into a run, trying to get as far away from Effy as possible, and once she's outside the college she collapses against a wall, out of breath. Tears start pricking her eyes, but she wipes them away, telling herself furiously that she won't cry. She's so fucking sick of Effy and the way she makes her feel, the way she seems intent on humiliating her at every fucking opportunity. Katie doesn't know what she ever fucking did to deserve this.
When she hears someone say her name she almost has a heart attack until she realises that it's JJ.
"Oh," she says. "Hi." She takes a deep breath and tries to pretend that she's not on the verge of tears. She doesn't want anyone to see her like this, but at least with JJ she knows he's not going to laugh or anything.
"Hi," he says, and he leans against the wall next to her. "So. Was it true what Effy said? Did you sleep with her?"
"Um, yeah," she says, staring straight at the ground so she doesn't have to look him in the eye. "But it was before us."
"Okay," he says, and when she does venture a glance at him, he's nodding. "I--I don't quite understand why."
"Have you ever just like, fucked someone out of complete self-loathing?"
"Well, no," he says. "But I'm friends with Cook, so I am familiar with the concept."
"Right," she says. "Well, yeah. But I mean, it's over."
"So it was just one time?"
She scratches at her nose and says, "Um, three, actually."
"Oh," he says. "So it was--a thing?"
"Not really. It was stupid, and it's never going to happen again. I mean, she's like--she's fucking insane, for starters."
He nods some more, and then says, "Okay. Well, here's the thing. I like you, Katie. Quite a lot, actually. And I think we'd be good together, and I'd like to be your boyfriend, if you'd like that as well. Just--just don't go messing me around." He comes to the end of his speech and nods once more.
Katie smiles at him and shrugs. "Okay."
"Yeah, okay," she says. "If you like me, why don't you ask me out on a date?"
"Oh," JJ says. "Okay. Would you like to go on a date with me?"
"Yeah, I would. Tomorrow, yeah? Pick me up at seven."
"Okay. And--where should I take you?"
Katie raises her eyebrows. "Do I have to tell you everything myself? Get Cook or someone to tell you what to do on a date."
JJ furrows his brow. "I don't think Cook really takes girls on dates. He just shags them."
"Yeah, well, if you play your cards right maybe there'll be some of that too."
"Really? I'd--I'd like that." He pauses. "Am I allowed to kiss you now, or does that have to wait until the date too? I'm not entirely clear on the protocol."
She laughs, and when he smiles hopefully at her, she kisses him. It's almost enough to make her forget what just happened in the common room, or at least not care quite so much, but then she hears a voice.
"Oh." It's Effy, standing there watching them. Just for a moment, she looks vulnerable, but then she says, "Don't mind me," and walks off.
Katie turns back to JJ, taking a deep breath to calm herself. "Seven, yeah? Don't be late."
Katie's mind is a whirl for the rest of the day, and that evening she's uncommunicative at dinner, picking at her food and not listening to her dad blather on about the gym or whatever. Whenever she glances across the table Emily gives her a weird look. She's probably feeling the same way Katie felt when she first caught Emily snogging Naomi at that party a whole lifetime ago, except the difference is that Emily's actually gay and Katie's not, she just did something stupid. She can't bear Emily looking at her like this, all concerned and hurt at the same time, so she stares down at her plate and refuses to meet her eye.
"Is something wrong, Katie?" her mum asks eventually, when her dad's stopped talking long enough for her to get a word in edgeways.
"No, Mum," she says, rolling her eyes.
"Now, don't be like that. You're very quiet today, Katie. Are you sure nothing's upsetting you?"
"I said I'm fine." She tries to make it sound final and her mum gives up questioning her, but then fucking James pipes up.
"Gordon McPherson's sister Amelia McPherson goes to Roundview and he said that she heard that Katie fucked Effy Stonem."
Katie drops her fork; it's the only sound that can be heard at the table, because everyone else is deadly silent, staring straight at her.
"Don't be stupid," she says, trying and failing to sound defiant. "Why would I do that? I don't even like girls, and I definitely don't like Effy Stonem."
No one says anything in reply, they all just stare at her, and then Emily eventually says, "Obviously she was getting confused with me."
"That's what I thought at first, too," James said. "I told Gordon that you're the gay one, but he said it was definitely Katie."
"Obviously it wasn't," Katie says, kicking him under the table for good measure.
"Katie, Emily, are either of you going to explain what's going on?" their mum asks. "That girl assaulted you, Katie. Tell me neither of you are involved with her."
"Of course not," Katie says quickly.
"It's just a stupid made-up rumour, Mum," Emily says. "Neither of us like her."
"And I'm not gay," Katie says. "I have a boyfriend, actually."
Katie's mum's expression completely changes; a look of huge relief crosses her face. "That's wonderful, Katie." It's kind of patronising, actually.
"So who is the lucky fella?" her dad asks; he looks relieved to be back on to a less distressing topic of conversation.
"It's, um, JJ," she says.
"Emily's JJ?" her mum asks.
"He's not mine," Emily says, sounding exasperated.
"Oh, right, I remember," their dad says, frowning at the memory. "Bit of a funny chap, isn't he? Not quite right in the head."
Katie nearly shouts at him; instead, she grips onto the table tight and says, "Yeah, well, he's kind of autistic, if you must know, but he's fine really."
"Isn't that one of those fancy made-up words for when someone's just a bit dim?"
"He's going to Oxford, actually," Katie says, glaring at him, "so clearly he's much cleverer than you." She pushes her chair back with a loud scrape and storms out of the room, marching upstairs to her bedroom. Her fucking parents. This must have been what it was like for Emily when she first came out to them.
Shortly after the door closes behind her, it opens again and Emily walks in, sitting down on her bed opposite Katie.
"Hey," she says, with a slight shrug. "They're all fucking idiots."
Emily smiles at her. "So, you and JJ? I'm happy for you."
"Thanks," Katie says. "He's nice."
"Yeah, he is." Emily pauses for a while and then says, "So what was that about Effy? Was it true what she said?"
At first Katie considers lying, but there's probably no point in keeping it a secret from Emily. She shrugs and says, "Um, yeah."
"Oh." Emily's eyes widen with surprise. "I didn't actually believe it."
"It was stupid, yeah. It just... happened."
"What, you accidentally slept with her?"
"No! I don't know, it was stupid, and the first time I was drunk--"
"You slept with her more than once?"
Katie feels like throwing something. "Shut the fuck up, okay? She just like, infects everyone else with her crazy and makes them think they want her when the actually don't, you know?"
"Yeah, I know." Emily gets up from where she's sitting and settles on the end of Katie's bed. "She, er. She kissed me."
"Twice, actually. Once on New Year's Eve, then a couple of weeks ago." She sighs. "I actually keep thinking about it. So, yeah, I know what she's like."
Katie knew Effy was fucked up, but she never quite realised the extent. "Why would she try to fuck with you? I mean, I get it with me, but what did you ever do to her?"
"I think she's just lonely. Maybe if she liked you but you wouldn't talk to her, she saw me as a substitute or something. I don't know."
Katie thinks she could go mad trying to figure Effy out. "Whatever," she says after a while, trying to pretend that she doesn't care. "I don't actually give a fuck about her any more."
She feels like a fraud. Cook said one time that Effy got under people's skin; Katie doesn't know how, but it's happened to her.
Chapter 21: chaos theory
As soon as Emily rings the doorbell to Effy's house, she feels like she's made a mistake. It would be easy enough to turn and walk away--no one answers the door for a good long while--but she finds herself rooted to the same spot on Effy's doorstep out of pure masochism.
She presses the doorbell again, for longer this time, and just when she removes her finger from the button, the door swings open. It's Effy, standing there in a long t-shirt and apparently not much else, her hair unkempt. She's probably still hungover from the night before.
"Hi," Emily says, but Effy doesn't respond, just raises her eyebrows at her. "Can I come in?"
Effy stands aside and waves her in, but Emily ends up lingering in the hallway.
"Is there somewhere we can talk?"
Effy shrugs and says, "Kitchen."
"We won't be disturbed, will we?" The question comes out wrong; she doesn't mean to imply that they'll be doing anything, she just wants to talk in private. This whole thing has gone on long enough, and there's stuff she needs to say.
"Don't worry," Effy says. "Mum's out."
"What if she comes back?"
"I meant that she's asleep."
"Oh," Emily says, surprised. It's three in the afternoon. "What if she wakes up?"
"She took some pills," Effy says, walking past her into the kitchen and settling on one of the chairs. "I wouldn't be surprised if one of these days she takes too many." She says it casually, like she's just making conversation, but Emily knows that it's not like Effy doesn't care. She just doesn't know how to show it.
A packet of cigarettes lies on the table; Effy offers it to Emily, and when Emily shakes her head in refusal Effy takes one herself. Emily finds herself watching a little too closely as Effy places the cigarette between her lips and lights it.
Effy turns her head slightly when she exhales, but she keeps her eyes on Emily. "So. What did you want to talk about?"
"I think you can probably guess," Emily says. She didn't mean to mumble so much but something about Effy makes her nervous.
"Come on, Emily. You're going to have to do better than that," Effy says, and the look she gives Emily is kind of condescending.
"All right. I want to know why you kissed me."
After a pause, Effy says, "Interesting. I thought you were going to ask about Katie."
"Just answer the question."
"Technically, you didn't ask me a question," Effy says, and when Emily just glares at her she sighs and says, "It was a joke. I was high."
"The first time, maybe, but not the second. What the fuck was that about?"
Effy's silent for a long time, and then she says, "I don't have an answer for you, Emily."
"But you can't just do stuff like that for no reason." Emily leans back in her chair and folds her arms. "Do you just get off on fucking with other people's lives?"
"No," Effy says quietly, staring down at the table, and for once she actually looks contrite. "Honestly, I didn't ever think I could come between you and Naomi, but apparently I was wrong."
"And you're proud of that fact?"
"Disappointed, actually." She looks straight at Emily, and says, "I'm sorry."
Emily hadn't actually expected an apology, and now she's got one she doesn't know what to do with it. It's not enough; it doesn't fix anything. When she speaks, she knows she sounds bitter. "You're very good at getting people to fall in love with you, aren't you?"
At that, Effy actually looks surprised. "Not really. I'm good at getting people to want me, but none of that's love." She gives Emily a wry smile and says, "You're not in love with me, are you?"
"Of course not."
"But you fancy me."
Effy shrugs, but she doesn't deny it. Her cigarette is smoked almost down to the filter; she stubs it out in an ashtray that's almost full and then gets up from the table, crossing round to Emily's side, and leans against it, staring down at Emily.
"The question is," Effy says, "what are you going to do about it?"
Emily stands up too, but Effy's still staring down at her, being about a foot taller. "Why are you doing this?" Emily asks. "You don't even want me."
Effy shrugs. "You know me; I'd fuck anyone. It's your choice."
For a moment, Emily can actually feel her resolve wavering. She knew it was a fucking stupid idea to come here, to face Effy, to expect anything like answers. The whole thing is like a trap she set for herself.
She squares her shoulders and says, "I don't know what the fuck is going on with you and Katie, but I'd never do anything with someone who's involved with my sister."
"Also, you have a girlfriend."
Emily feels her breath catch in her throat. "That goes without saying," she says, but she finds herself leaning closer to Effy, slowly, some inexorable force pulling her towards her--
She snaps out of it.
"I should go," she says, practically falling over herself and she scrambles towards the door.
She stops and turns back, making sure she keeps her distance this time. She can't risk something like this almost happening again; it would be stupid to throw everything away on an impulse.
Effy looks at her sadly and says, "I shouldn't have brought you into my bullshit. It wasn't about you."
"It was about Katie, wasn't it? You like her."
Effy lights another cigarette, avoiding the question. "She's with JJ now, isn't she?"
"Well," Effy says, with a smile that is obviously fake, "I hope they're happy together."
The first thing Emily does when she leaves Effy's house is cycle straight to Naomi's. It must be obvious from Emily's expression that something is wrong, because as soon as Naomi opens the door, she frowns.
"Nothing," Emily says, trying to smile. "I mean, um--can we go somewhere to talk?"
Naomi looks up at the sky and says, "It looks like rain. Why don't you come in?"
"Right, okay." They go up to Naomi's room but it feels wrong for Emily to make herself at home there; she ends up standing by the door while Naomi sits on the bed and stares at her.
"Seriously, what's up?" Naomi asks.
"I went to see Effy," Emily says in a rush. "But, I mean, nothing happened."
Naomi stares at for a while, and then says, "Okay? I think I must be missing something here."
"Well, okay, something nearly happened. I nearly kissed her."
Naomi's eyes widen slightly, and when she finally speaks it sounds like she's trying extra hard to keep calm. "Why exactly would you do that? Or even nearly do that." She gives a disbelieving laugh. "Fuck's sake, Em, I know you said you thought she was attractive, but I didn't realise you had a thing for her."
"You said you nearly kissed her. What's the matter, I'm semi-functioning now so you've moved onto the next lonely, fucked-up girl to fix?"
"That's not fair." Emily joins Naomi on the bed and takes her hand; Naomi doesn't look terribly impressed by it, but at least she doesn't pull away. "Look, I promise it's nothing. I love you, you know that? That's why I didn't do anything with her."
"It doesn't really make a difference if you still wanted to."
"It's not like I'm in love with her," Emily says, gripping Naomi's hand a little tighter. "It's just... physical. Crazy teenage hormones, or something."
"So? Your hormones are still part of who you are."
"Please, Naomi. I'm trying to do the right thing here."
"I know you are," Naomi says, and she sighs. Looking into Emily's eyes, she says, "Look, Em, I've tried, and I know you have too, but don't you think it's time we both admit that this isn't working?"
Emily feels as though she's been drenched in cold water; for a moment, she forgets how to breathe. "Because of this?"
"No," Naomi says, shrugging. "Partly, I suppose. Maybe this is just a sign that you're, I don't know, moving on."
"But I'm not."
"I don't know, Em. How long have you liked me? Like, years? Maybe this was just some stupid teenage crush that got improbably prolonged, and now it's fading."
Emily lets go of Naomi's hand, but only so she can brush away the tears that are threatening to spill from her eyes. "Look, if you're not in love with any more, just say it, but don't act like this is my fault. God, I always knew I loved you more than you loved me."
"Excuse me? I'm not the one going around nearly snogging other people."
"Yeah, nearly." Emily raises her voice, getting angry now. "I didn't actually, because I have too much respect for our relationship, but I guess that was stupid of me."
"I don't want this to be over," Naomi says. "I just think there's no escaping the fact that it is. Maybe we could try and hold on for a few months until we go to university and fall apart then because we never see each other, but I really don't see this ending any other way." She takes a deep breath and says, "I don't even want to go to Cambridge, anyway. I know it's my fault for agreeing when you asked, but... that's what it's like with us. We both try so hard because we want to stay together, but we still end up fucking it all up."
"What, so we should just cut our losses now?"
Naomi shrugs. "I think we have enough resentments already, and I don't want to end up hating you."
Emily nods and lets out a few shaky breaths. "I still love you, Naomi. I can't believe that's not enough."
"I know. I just... I think it's meant to be easier than this, you know?"
"Yeah, maybe. But don't you think it's worth fighting for?"
"I think I'm just tired," Naomi says. "And I think some time apart would be good for us."
"You're probably right," Emily says, even though she's not at all sure that that's true. She's been wrapped up in Naomi for so long--Naomi's right, it has been years--and she can't imagine not having Naomi in her life. She tries to picture it, but she can't. "Do you mean just temporarily, or--?"
"Right, okay," she says, trying and probably failing to put on a brave face as she gets up and walks towards the door. "Well, see you."
"Bye," Naomi says in a small voice. Emily nearly turns back and kisses her, but she knows that if she did so, nothing could persuade her to leave. And deep down, she suspects that Naomi's right about the whole thing.
She usually is.
Chapter 22: nowhere else
Gina's in the kitchen when the doorbell rings; she's so engrossed with implementing her new recycling system--it could revolutionise the way they live their lives, it really could--that she almost doesn't hear it at first, and it's only when it rings again that her head snaps up and she realises what the sound is. She isn't expecting any guests.
When she opens the door to see who it is, she doesn't recognise the girl that's shivering on her doorstep. Must be one of Naomi's friends, but she doesn't know which; Naomi doesn't tend to talk about or see anyone except Emily. She's tall, the girl is, and pretty, even though she looks a bit bedraggled.
"Oh, hello," Gina says. "We haven't met, have we?"
The girl shakes her head and, apparently with some difficulty, says, "No. Can I speak to Naomi?"
"I'm afraid she's not in, sweetie." Gina smiles sympathetically; the girl looks like she might be in some sort of trouble. She isn't wearing a coat, and even though it's Spring now, it's still chilly outside. "Would you like to come in and have a cup of tea? She should be back in a bit."
"No, it's okay," the girl says, and she starts to turn to leave.
"Maybe I could give her a message?"
The girl hesitates. In a scratchy voice, she says, "Tell her I'm sorry."
"I didn't catch your name, love," Gina says. "Who should I say?"
"Effy," she says. "Tell her Effy's sorry."
Before Gina can say anything else or inquire further, Effy flees.
A couple of hours later, Naomi comes home. Gina doesn't see her, she just hears her stomp up to her room without saying hello and shut the door a little louder than necessary. She's been like this for a couple of days--even more of a moody teenager than usual--and it must be something to do with whatever this Effy girl is sorry for, but of course Naomi hasn't said anything about it. Gina's always the last person to know what's going on in her daughter's life. Naomi probably wouldn't have bothered telling her she likes girls if Gina hadn't found her in bed with one--not that that had been a great surprise, really.
And now something's definitely wrong.
Gina goes up to Naomi's room and quietly knocks on the door. There's some sort of depressing music emanating from the room, and that's never a good sign. When there's no reply she knocks again, louder, and this time she's answered by Naomi saying, "Leave me alone, Mum."
"Darling, is everything okay?" she calls through the door. "Your friend came round earlier."
The music shuts off and Naomi opens the door; she looks like she's been crying. "Who did?"
"Effy, I think she said her name was. She wouldn't stay, but she said that she was sorry. Sounds like you must know what that was about, although I haven't the foggiest."
Naomi doesn't bother to explain, she just nods, and when Gina doesn't move, she says, "Was there something else you wanted to say?"
"Sweetie, why don't you tell me what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," she says, and she goes to shut the door but Gina sticks her foot in the way.
"I can see that you've been crying, Naomi. Come on, tell your mum what's upsetting you." Gina steers Naomi inside the room until they're both sitting on the bed, but when she tries to put her arm around Naomi, Naomi shrugs it off.
For a while Naomi is quiet, and then she says, "Emily and I broke up."
"Ah." Now Effy's appearance at the door makes a little more sense. "And Effy--"
"It wasn't even about Effy, not really." Naomi sighs and rubs at her eyes, looking frustrated. "I was the one to break it off, anyway, so I shouldn't even be sad about it. It's stupid, really."
"Hey, it's not stupid." This time when Gina puts her arm around Naomi, she doesn't get pushed away. "If it wasn't Effy that came between you, then what was it?"
"I don't know," Naomi says, and Gina can't tell who Naomi's angry at. "I think I'm just crap at relationships. I wanted it work and it just... didn't, you know? Like, no one really did anything wrong, but we'd still end up fighting over stupid stuff and I just, I couldn't take it any more. And she said she wasn't in love with Effy, but I don't see how she could really love me if Effy was even on her radar." She starts crying again, gasping for breath. Gina squeezes her close and makes comforting noises until the sobs subside and Naomi says, "God, I'm such a mess."
"You're allowed to be a mess, you know," Gina says. "It's just what it's like, having your heart broken. You'll hurt for a while, maybe even a long time, and then one day you'll find you hurt less."
"But what if I don't?"
"You will, I promise. I know it feels like the end of the world now, but it won't always."
Naomi sniffles for a bit, then says, "Do you think I made a mistake?"
"Sweetie, I can't tell you that." Gina smooths the hair away from Naomi's forehead; it's getting long now, the longest it's been since Naomi was about twelve. "Were you happy with her?"
"I don't know," Naomi says. "Sometimes." She straightens up a little and says, "I think I wish it could have worked out, but I don't want to get back together if it's just going to be like this again, and it probably would be."
"Sounds like it's for the best, then."
"So why do I feel like shit?"
"It's just the way it is." Gina can still remember the first time she had her heart broken when she was around Naomi's age, and even though the situation was different--Naomi's dad had been cheating on Gina for a while, and he found out she was pregnant he just up and left--the feelings were the same. It's always the same, whether there's a villain or not. "But you know what? Someday you'll find someone who does make you happy."
"Who says? You haven't." Naomi looks up as soon as she's said it. "Sorry."
"No, you're right," Gina says. It's been a few months since her relationship with Kieran fizzled out, but it no longer stings. Naomi gets that sceptical look on her face, and she carries on. "There's absolutely no guarantee that you'll find your soulmate and fall in love and live happily ever after. But that doesn't mean your whole life's going to be shit forever. It is actually possible to be single and happy, you know."
Naomi wipes her eyes with her sleeve and actually manages to smile. "Yeah, you're right. I'll get over it."
Chapter 23: hurricane
JJ hardly sees Katie for a week, apart from at college, and even then she looks stressed out. One time she snaps at him in History, but that's probably because he tries to correct her on a point she's written down; Freddie always tells him that people don't like to be corrected, but JJ isn't sure why it's apparently better to let people carry on in ignorance. Still, it's definitely his fault that she snaps at him, and that's not a good thing. He tries to concentrate on the rest of the lesson but he's too busy trying to figure out if he might have done anything else to annoy her. Also, he keeps getting distracted by her breasts.
When the lesson is over she picks up her bag and walks off without even saying anything to him, which he thinks is probably a bit unfair, or maybe just a sign that he's accidentally done something to make her all distant. Nobody ever bothered to tell him that being in a relationship is actually quite tricky, although maybe it's just him being a spazz and normal people find it easier. He should probably ask Freddie, although he thinks that might be a bit weird, on account of the fact that he's going out with Freddie ex.
While he's thinking all this he chases after Katie, because it seems like the easiest solution right now would be just to ask her. She looks surprised when he catches up to her, but then she gives him a lovely smile and JJ thinks that possibly he was just being a bit silly.
"Hi," JJ says, shrugging slightly. "There's an excellent possibility that I'm just being a paranoid idiot, but... are you avoiding me?"
"What?" Katie looks genuinely confused; possibly she doesn't know what he's talking about, or maybe she'd just forgotten that he exists.
"You've hardly spoken to me. Is everything all right?"
Katie shakes her head. "Shit. No, I'm fine, and it's nothing to do with you, I promise." She stands on tiptoes and kisses him, right there in the middle of college. JJ can feel his ears going pink. "It's just Emily, you know?"
"Sorry, what about Emily?"
Katie stares at him in disbelief. "Naomi broke up with her. How did you not know that?"
"Nobody told me," he says. He's disappointed to hear the news; he always thought they were good together, even if Naomi did used to give him dirty looks occasionally. "You've been a bit distracted, you know."
"Yeah, sorry," Katie says. "Em's kind of gone off the deep end. She cried for about four days solid, then Dad was fucking idiotic enough to say that maybe she could get a boyfriend now, and she went completely mental. She went out and got so fucked up that when she came back she threw up all over my bed. While I was in it!"
JJ starts to laugh, but he stops immediately when Katie hits him on the arm. She's stronger than she looks.
"It's not funny," Katie says. "She's a fucking mess, and it's up to me to pick up the pieces."
"Okay," JJ says. "Well, maybe we could do something nice for her. She could come with us to that club night Thomas is putting on tonight."
"I don't think taking her somewhere she can drink herself to death is really the answer, babe."
"Oh," JJ says, "fair point. But if she's going to go out anyway, don't you think we'd better supervise?"
Katie shrugs. "I'm not going to let her go out, all right? It's a recipe for disaster."
JJ decides to go out anyway, with Cook and Freddie, and they end up in the annoyingly long queue for Thomas's club, waiting for him to show so they can get in.
"Just the lads," Cook says, draping his arms around Freddie and JJ's shoulders and looking ridiculously pleased about the fact. Possibly he's already a bit drunk. "Not that I'm not over the fucking moon that you're finally getting some on a regular basis, J."
JJ goes to say something in reply but he's interrupted by Katie, pushing through the queue and dragging Emily along with her.
"Change of plan," she says sheepishly.
Emily lights up when she sees JJ and drapes her arms around him, kissing him on the cheek. "JJ! I'm so happy you're with Katie," she slurs. "She talks about you all the time."
"Er, is she drunk?" JJ asks Katie, who nods and pulls Emily away from him, looking exasperated.
"She managed to drink like, half a bottle of vodka at home when I wasn't looking. I couldn't keep her in without fucking bars on the windows or something, and if Mum found out she was like this..."
"Don't worry, we'll look after her," JJ says. He glances back at Freddie and Cook; Freddie looks completely disinterested, while Cook looks like he's getting all sorts of untoward ideas. JJ'll probably have to look after him as well.
Once inside, JJ tries to embark on a mission to keep Emily from going completely off the rails, by buying her non-alcoholic drinks and hoping she won't notice, but he isn't terribly successful. She's very small, and that means it's easy for her to slip away from him and go unnoticed in the crowd; he can't even spot her by her hair, because the lights are all blue and that makes red show up as black. Katie doesn't do any better at keeping track of her, and after a while she looks incredibly stressed.
"This was the stupidest fucking idea in the world." Katie has to yell over the music for JJ to hear her. He finds himself nodding in agreement before he realises that he probably ought to try and be reassuring.
"I'm sure it'll be fine," he says, and when she looks confused he repeats it, louder. At that point the lights swing round and he spots Emily in the middle of the dancefloor, dancing by herself, and he points at her. "Look, she's fine. She looks like she's enjoying herself."
"Just as long as she doesn't end up puking everywhere again," Katie says, but she looks a bit more relaxed. If JJ were a normal person he'd probably ask her to dance at this point, but he's an absolute nightmare on the dancefloor and he knows that Katie isn't fond of being humiliated in public, so he offers to get her another drink instead. She asks for vodka and cranberry, and he smiles, starting to feel a little more in control.
It all goes horribly wrong when he returns from the bar.
Katie's dancing now, but Emily's disappeared. He pushes through the crowd to hand Katie her drink, and when she rewards him with a kiss he almost forgets about Emily--or, he wants to, but he can't, so reluctantly he pulls away from Katie and goes off to search for her sister. If he didn't, Katie would only be annoyed with him later.
There are entirely too many people in this place--JJ starts to wonder if maybe it's a safety hazard, but he doesn't think it would be very wise to tell Thomas that he ought to turn people away--which makes looking for Emily difficult, but eventually JJ spots her hiding away in a dark corner of the club.
When he realises what she's doing, his eyes nearly fall out of his head.
When he realises who she's doing it with, he practically faints.
Because that's definitely, definitely, absolutely one hundred per cent, no doubt about it, definitely. They're kissing and groping and he's pretty sure there's a hand under a skirt, and it's not right, because Emily loves Naomi, and--
JJ's getting locked on.
He feels a hand on his arm and he grabs it, spinning around to find out that it's Cook.
"You all right, J?"
"No," he gasps. "Absolutely not." He gestures at where Emily and Effy are and says, "What do I do?"
A grin spreads over Cook's face when he sees what they're doing. "Sit back and enjoy the show, mate."
"But--no. This is exactly the sort of thing that Katie didn't want Emily doing, but it's also the sort of thing that Emily would tell me to keep secret, and I don't know what to do!"
Cook tears his eyes away from them and grows serious. "Personally, I don't think it's any of Katie's business who her sister fucks, but it's your decision, JJ."
"Right, yes," JJ says, nodding. He has to tell her, because she'd go mental if he didn't and she ever found out about it. He turns back to the corner just to make sure that it's definitely, definitely Emily and Effy and he hasn't made some horrible mistake, but--they're gone.
"Oh, bobbins," he says. Cook gives him a funny look, but there's no time to explain; JJ rushes off to find Katie, fighting his way through the throng of people on the dancefloor until he reaches her and manages to pull her to one side.
"I saw Emily." He watches Katie's eyes narrow like she knows he's going to tell her something bad. "She was with Effy. They were..." He struggles to get the word out; he's getting locked on again just thinking about it.
"They were what, JJ?"
"Fornicating." He manages to spit the word out eventually. "Or at least, I think they were. I don't know--it was dark, and I'm not entirely sure what that would even involve, but there was definite kissing going on at the very least."
Katie looks angry, more angry than he's ever seen her look before. "So where the fuck are they?"
"I don't know. They disappeared."
"Christ on a fucking bike, if she's actually gone off to fuck Effy I will kill her," Katie says. "I'll fucking kill both of them!"
"Maybe we can still find them," JJ says, and Katie nods, suddenly energised. He follows behind as she rushes outside, her head snapping round as she searches the street in both directions.
JJ sees them a second after Katie does, only catching a glimpse as Effy bundles Emily into a taxi that quickly drives off.
"Fuck," Katie said, and she no longer sounds angry but defeated. "What the fuck are they doing?" She takes out her mobile and tries to ring both their numbers, but gets no reply. JJ takes the phone from her so she doesn't end up smashing it on the pavement, and when he pulls her in for a hug, she starts to cry.
There's no possible way this can end well.
Chapter 24: a slave to make-believing
Emily wakes up to a massive hangover. It hits her straight away, as soon as her eyes flutter open and her vision's assaulted by morning sunlight filtering through curtains--curtains she doesn't recognise. She rolls over in the bed that's much bigger than hers, and when she looks at the opposite wall she sees a painting made out of sex words. She doesn't have to have been in this particular bedroom before to know who it must belong to.
Even with a great effort she can't quite manage to sit up; instead she settles for leaning on her elbows while she looks around the room. There's no one in there except herself, no sign of Effy, and now would probably be an excellent time to grab her stuff if only she didn't feel like someone with a sledgehammer and an epic grudge against her was trying to crack open her skull. She flops down again and presses the heels of her hands over her eyes, fervently wishing she was anywhere but here.
The door opens and Effy enters the room, holding two mugs. She smiles at Emily when she sees that she's awake and hands her one of the mugs, sipping from the other one herself and sitting cross-legged on the end of the bed. Emily makes more of an effort to sit up this time, and even manages it without spilling the tea. When the duvet falls away she realises she's not wearing the clothes she had on last night, but instead is wearing a long t-shirt that must be Effy's.
She wishes she had a better recollection of what happened. Too much fucking vodka; she vaguely remembers leaving the club, but everything after that is black.
"How are you feeling?" Effy asks.
"Shit," Emily says. "But embarrassed, mostly. This was such a fucking mistake." She needs to learn how to deal with all her Naomi-shaped problems without getting wasted and sleeping with someone she shouldn't.
Effy gives her a half-smile and says, "You know we didn't have sex, right?"
Emily stares at her. "We didn't?"
"You were practically unconscious when I got you back here. I may be fucked up, but I draw the line at rape." She shrugs and says, "Besides, I'm trying this new thing where I don't sleep with people if there's a good chance that one or both of us would regret it in the morning."
"But we definitely kissed in the club, right?"
Effy nods. "It took me a while to come to my senses, but when you practically fell on top of me I realised it was time to go."
"Oh," Emily says; she's not entirely sure what to say to Effy, because she's too busy being enormously relieved. She's still embarrassed, but she's already feeling better. "So how are you finding it so far, keeping it in your pants?"
"Frustrating," Effy deadpans, and Emily cracks a smile.
"Well, you know," Emily says, "thanks for making sure I didn't make a complete tit out of myself last night."
"Oh, I'm pretty sure you did," Effy says, "but it's no worse than anything I've ever done. Doesn't even touch it, in fact."
Emily refrains from making a joke about hitting someone with a rock, but she's kind of amazed that she even considers doing so. She spent so long hating Effy for it--longer than even Katie did, apparently--that she almost can't believe she's managed to let go. But Effy deserves to be forgiven.
"You like Katie a lot, don't you?" Emily asks, not even caring that it's a bit of a non sequitur, and she sees Effy stiffen slightly at the mention of Katie's name.
All Effy does is shrug in response. "It doesn't matter, because she's with JJ."
"Well, yeah, she is, but--"
"I'm not going to split any more people up," Effy says with finality. "You know, I used to use my powers for good, not evil."
Emily furrows her brow. "So what changed?"
Effy's silent for a moment, then says, "Honestly, I don't know."
Chapter 25: the road unravelled
Effy's high when she goes to see Katie. Not completely off her tits, but she's been smoking spliff all afternoon and it must be that which made her think it would be a good idea to pay a visit to Katie, because she can't think of any other reason.
It's a good thing that it's not either of Katie's parents who open the door, because if they found her on their doorstep, high and wanting to speak to Katie, they'd probably think she was going to attack her again. Instead it's Katie who answers the door, and Effy can see her expression slip when she sees who it is, like a second ago she felt like she had no troubles in the world, and now they've all arrived on her doorstep.
Effy wishes she could remember why she came.
"Hi." Katie sounds confused rather than hostile. "What are you doing here?"
For a moment Effy tries to think of an excuse, but as she hasn't even got anything to apologise for any more, she settles for the truth. "I don't really know." Just as she's contemplating leaving--this hadn't been a good idea--Katie stops her.
"All right, well, I've been meaning to ask--" She pauses for a moment, then looks Effy straight in the eye. "The other week, you and Emily. You didn't sleep with her, did you? Because she said you didn't, but then she also said she couldn't remember, so I just wanted to check."
Katie exhales, visibly relieved. "Okay, well... thanks for looking after her, I suppose."
"No problem," Effy says. "If I'd known you were there, I would have let you take her home."
"Yeah, well, she's doing a bit better now. Less, like, epic heartbreak, more concentrating on revision."
Katie smiles, then she glances over her shoulder and says, "Look, I'd better go, I'm sort of in the middle of something."
"Oh. What are you doing?"
She gets another smile on her face, wider than before; she looks happier than Effy's seen her in a while. "We're, like, baking."
"Well, okay, we're making vodka jelly, but it's kind of a covert operation because James is around."
"Sounds like fun." Effy's tempted to ask if she can join them, but she doesn't expect an invitation to be forthcoming.
"Yeah, it is," Katie says, and when there's the sound of footsteps she turns around and says, "Oh, hey, babe."
It's JJ, of course; Effy doesn't know why she'd assumed Katie was with Emily. She watches as Katie gives JJ a quick kiss, and thinks that it would actually be cute if it didn't make her feel like shit.
"Hi, Effy," JJ says, but although he sounds friendly enough he looks a bit suspicious. Effy wonders what Katie told him about them. Fuck, she doesn't even know what Katie thinks about it; they've never spoken about the fact that they fucked three times back in January, and now it looks like Katie's carrying on like it never happened. There's nothing wrong with meaningless sex, Effy's had plenty of it herself, but with Katie it hadn't felt meaningless like with all the others.
"I should go," Effy says, and maybe she's imagining it, but for a second when she looks at Katie she thinks she sees something like regret.
"Yeah, okay," Katie says, and Effy nods; she's probably past the point where Katie might run after her and change her mind. Still Effy wants to kiss her, just to see, but JJ's right there and it isn't fair on him. Isn't fair on any of them, really.
Effy turns and walks away, not quite as quickly as she wants to. She wanders through the streets of Bristol for a while without any particular destination in mind, and she ends up by the harbour. The sun is starting to set; Effy sits for a while and watches the shifting colours reflect on the water. She takes out a cigarette, but when she tries her lighter half a dozen times it refuses to light, and she tosses it into the river in frustration.
She looks round and sees Pandora a few feet away, walking towards her. "Haven't got a light, have you?" she asks, and Panda settles down beside her and fishes her lighter out of her pocket.
"Are you all right, Eff?" Panda asks. Effy just shrugs and hands her a cigarette, which Pandora takes with a smile. But it's never easy to shut Pandora up, and after a minute she says, "You look really sad, Eff."
"That's because I am." She stares out across the harbour to avoid looking Pandora in the eye.
Effy finds herself smiling, it's that ridiculous. "How do you get over someone who doesn't want you like you want them?"
"I don't flipping know," Panda says, her eyes wide. "You're asking the wrong person. Anyway, Eff, everyone wants you."
"Not everyone," Effy says. She's starting to wish she hadn't brought it up; the only thing worse than feeling sorry for yourself is having other people feel sorry for you.
"It's Katie, isn't it?" Pandora says. "I'm not completely stupid, Eff. You've been all mopey ever since you told everyone you surfed her. And you could have told me, even though I'm useless and can't do anything to help, 'cause you're meant to tell your friends stuff like that."
"You never told me about Cook," Effy says, and Pandora looks a little contrite.
"You still could've told me about Katie. You love her, don't you?"
"Don't be stupid," Effy says, even as she's wondering if it could possibly be true. "Who would ever love Katie Fitch?"
"Well, JJ for starters, and Emily as well, although not like that, obviously, that would be a bit weird, but--"
"Shut up, Panda," Effy says, but Pandora's undeterred.
"You could always tell her."
"Have you told Cook you've in love with him? I mean, that's why Thomas broke up with you, isn't it?"
"Don't be stupid," Pandora says. "I'm not in love with Cook."
"Perhaps we should both mind own our business, then."
"Fine," Pandora says, and she gets up and walks away. Effy swears under her breath, but she doesn't call her back.
The sun's almost completely slipped below the horizon by now, but Effy can't stand the thought of going home. She can't stand the thought of getting fucked up either, because while it sounds tempting to forget, she finds it less and less effective these days. She wants to go back and see Katie again, even though she's still got nothing to say to her, but JJ might still be there--or, worse, he might not be there to act as a buffer, and Effy might do something she'll regret. So instead she walks back home only to get the car, and then she starts to drive.
It's late when she gets to Cardiff, and she struggles to find Tony's road in the darkness. She's only seen the place he's living in this year once, but she manages to find it eventually. She gets the house number wrong on the first try and the girl that answers the door, looking annoyed to be disturbed so late, directs her to the house next door. Apparently Tony's well known on this street, and the way she speaks his name suggests it's not for good reasons.
Effy's greeted by another unfamiliar face when she gets the right house, but the boy smiles when she says she's Tony's sister and directs her inside to the tiny living room where a bunch of people, including Tony, are sitting watching a DVD and drinking.
Tony smiles when he sees her, and for the first time in a while Effy actually feels a little lighter. Smiling back isn't too much of a struggle.
"Everything okay, Effy?" he asks.
"Fine," she says. "Just thought I'd drop in."
"You want to talk?" he asks, but she shakes her head.
He doesn't ask her any more questions, and Effy's relieved that he at least knows when not to push it. He clears a bit of space on the sofa beside him and invites her to sit down, and then he introduces all his friends. She feels a little out of place, and gets a pang of nostalgia for the time when Tony's friends were people she knew too. Nobody says much to her, which is how she prefers it, but she still can't help resenting Ellie and Bryn and Naz for not being Cassie and Sid and Michelle.
After a couple of episodes of The Mighty Boosh, Effy asks if she can crash for the night.
"Course you can," Tony says. "You can sleep in my bed." He takes her up to his room, and once they're alone he says, "Is everything really okay? Nothing's wrong with Mum, is it?"
"She's fine." Effy sits down on his bed and looks at the photo frame that's on his bedside table. There's a picture of him and a girl Effy doesn't know. "New girlfriend?"
"Clare," he says, but he doesn't elaborate. "You really just thought you'd drive to Cardiff to pop in?"
"Yeah, well, you never come home."
He looks exasperated, but he still sounds patient when he speaks. "Seriously, tell me. Boy trouble?"
"Not as such," Effy says. "I'd really just like to sleep."
He shrugs, and Effy knows that means he's given in.
For a long time she lies awake in Tony's bed, staring up at the unfamiliar ceiling. Running away was stupid, she realises that, and she'll go home tomorrow, but it's surprising how putting a bit of distance between herself and Katie has actually helped, at least a little. The further she is from Katie, the easier it is to pretend she doesn't exist.
Chapter 26: past imperfect
The weird thing is that after a while, it doesn't hurt so much.
At first it's this constant pain that Naomi can physically feel, and part of her is surprised that the absence of something can feel so vivid and sharp. She doesn't want to call it loneliness, because she was lonely before Emily and it was never this bad; back then, it was just a dull sort of ache that you could forget about most of the time, and she'd do anything to have that back. She always thought it was kind of stupid and melodramatic when people talked about having their hearts broken, but she gets it now, because that's what it feels like.
And then it fades. It flares up again when she hears about Emily snogging Effy in the middle of a club, but when she asks Effy about it point blank the next day, she says it didn't go any further than kissing--and anyway, Naomi realises that she hasn't got the right to be angry about stuff like that, not any more, not when it was Naomi's choice. She was the one who ended it.
Naomi doesn't exactly know how it happens, how it goes from being the worst pain imaginable to being actually sort of bearable, but she's aware of when it happens. She's sitting in English during one of the last lessons before they go on study leave, re-reading Dulce Et Decorum Est for the millionth time while the teacher reminds everyone what the Latin translates to, and when she happens to glance up and look at Emily, she finds herself smiling. Only for a second, before Emily looks up and catches her eye and Naomi looks down at the poem again, but there it is.
It's probably just that reading about the First World War put things in perspective a bit. Breaking up with your first girlfriend doesn't seem quite as bad as being gassed.
After the lesson ends, Naomi's nearly out the door when Emily catches up with her.
"Hey," Emily says, putting her hand on Naomi's arm to stop her, and Naomi freezes right there in the doorway. People bump into her and she has to stand aside to let them pass, waiting until everyone's gone, including the teacher, and it's just her and Emily in an empty classroom.
"Hi," Naomi says eventually, feeling suddenly awkward. It's the first time in weeks that they've exchanged words and right now it seems like neither of them knows what to say.
"You smiled at me earlier," Emily says, and she looks so nervous that it takes Naomi back to when they'd just started college, and Emily was still shy. It seems like a lifetime ago.
"So?" Naomi doesn't mean to come off so belligerent, it's just that talking to Emily again has kind of thrown her.
"Nothing," Emily says. "I just thought--"
"It was just a smile," Naomi says. "I was smiling because I like Wilfred Owen."
"Yeah, he's really cheerful."
Naomi leans against one of the desks, folding her arms. "Did you actually have something to say?"
Emily hesitates for a moment then simply says, "I've missed you."
"Jesus," Naomi says, and she gets the same instinct to run that she always used to get around Emily, back when she was in serious denial. But, well, things are how they used to be, and anyway, Emily would stop her before she got to the door. "Don't do this."
"Don't do what?" Emily says, shrugging. "Naomi, I--"
"Fuck's sake, Em. Don't make this harder than it already is, okay?" Naomi wonders how ten minutes earlier she'd thought she might be getting over this, because having Emily here, speaking to her, is sucking all the air out of the room.
Emily takes a couple of steps closer. "Look, if this is about Effy, I want you to know I'm over it. Completely."
"It was never about her," Naomi says. "Look, I've got to go."
"Don't you think we should talk about this?" Emily says.
"There's nothing to talk about. Nothing's changed." Emily keeps getting closer to her, making Naomi feel more and more boxed in. She doesn't want to actually run away, but it looks like she might have to.
"Look," Emily says, "I gave you space, I gave you time. Katie said that if I took a step back, you'd realise how much you'd miss me."
"You're taking advice from your sister now?"
"Why wouldn't I? She's actually in a relationship that's good for her."
That may be true, but Naomi thinks it hardly makes Katie Fitch some great expert on relationships now. "What do you want me to say?" she asks.
"I want you to admit that you miss me too."
"What if I don't?"
Naomi shrugs. "I was smiling earlier because I felt like I was getting over you." She watches Emily's expression crumple and feels a pang of guilt. "I don't mean to be a bitch, Em, I just--"
"You just manage it without trying."
Naomi rolls her eyes. "If I'm such a bitch, why the fuck do you want to get back together with me?"
"Fuck knows, but I still love you," Emily says. She pauses for a second, and then she's on top of Naomi, trying to kiss her, and Naomi scrambles so far back on the table that she falls off the other side, landing on the floor with a crash. Emily stands on the other side of the table looking somewhere between embarrassed and pissed off.
"Jesus, I didn't know I was that repulsive."
Naomi gets to her feet and dusts herself off. "You're not," she says, and when Emily starts to look a bit pleased she has to hastily backtrack. "I just--I can't do this, okay? I mean, it was hard enough the first time. I can't do it again."
"Right," Emily says. "Sorry, I didn't know that being with me was such a chore."
"That's not what I meant. I was fucking heartbroken, all right? I'm not putting myself through that again, not when I know that it's never going to work."
"Who says it's not going to work? I mean, I know we've got uni coming up, but I'll--I'll get the train down to Cambridge every weekend, I promise," Emily says. "I don't care how much it costs. Or, I don't know, UEA is my insurance offer, and that's much closer. If I fuck up my exams and only get Bs--"
"Jesus, Emily. Listen to yourself. What the fuck are you on about?" Naomi always knew that Emily could be dedicated to the point of stubbornness, but this is absurd. "I'm telling you, it's not happening. Were you even happy when you were with me?"
"How can you ask that? Of course I was."
"Come on, I was a shit girlfriend. I dicked you around, we argued all the time. And then when I finally started making an effort, that was when you started fancying someone else."
Emily stares at her, obviously unimpressed. "I thought you said this wasn't about Effy."
"It's not," Naomi says. "It's just... I don't know, it seems like you love chasing after me, but then when we're actually together I don't live up to the image you had of me when you were like, fifteen and used to stare at me in Maths but never actually talked to me."
"That's bullshit, Naomi. Don't try to tell me how I feel."
"Okay, fine. But, I mean, look at us." She gestures at the space between them. "This is hardly the foundation of a solid relationship."
"But it could be, if only you stopped trying to fight it." Emily shrugs. "I don't understand why you're so opposed to being happy."
"I'm not. Obviously I want to be happy. But based on past experience, I don't think I can be happy with you." She picks up her bag from where she dropped it on the floor. "I'm sorry, Em, but I already told you--I don't want to be heartbroken over you again."
"So next time try not breaking up with me."
"There's not going to be a next time," Naomi says. When she leaves the room, she doesn't look back.
She finds Effy outside, leaning against a wall with casual grace and smoking. When Naomi joins her, Effy raises a questioning eyebrow.
"What's up with you, then?"
"Emily wants to get back together," Naomi says, finding her own pack of cigarettes at the bottom of her bag. "But I think she got the message this time."
"I don't understand why you two can't work it out."
Naomi takes a long drag of her cigarette, holding it for ages before she exhales. "Nor do I."
"Do you still love her?"
Naomi shrugs; she doesn't know why the question seems so complicated. "I think she's always going to be special to me, but she has to be special in the past. You know? Like, you get nostalgic about things that happened when you were a kid, but you don't actually want to be five again. It's like that."
Effy nods, and then says, "Life was easier before the Fitches."
"Yeah," Naomi says, laughing a little. "Jesus, what's up with you and Katie, anyway?"
"Nothing," Effy says. She looks like she regrets bringing it up.
"Fuck. Are you in love with her? That's possibly even more pathetic than being in love with Freddie."
Effy gives her a sidelong glance, and then bursts out laughing. "I don't know how I manage it."
"As trainwrecks go, you're pretty spectacular."
"I've made it an art form."
They share a smile, and for the first time in ages Naomi starts to feel something like hope. She's probably going to be okay, she thinks. Maybe Effy will too.
Chapter 27: in a graveyard
When Cook wakes up, it takes him a while to get his bearings and remember where he is. His eyes are all crusted over with sleep and his whole body feels heavy and stiff, and in the faraway distance, someone's calling his name. Once his eyes have struggled open he peers around, and even though his vision's blurry he can recognise the shapes as belonging to Freddie's shed. And the voice, that belongs to Freddie too, standing in the doorway. Cook blinks a couple of times, his vision clearing, and when he looks at Freddie again he sees that he's proper fucking pissed off.
"What the fuck, mate?" Freddie says. "What are you doing here?"
It's a difficult question for so early in the morning. Or is it morning? "What time is it?" he asks, and that just sets Freddie off.
"If you're wondering when your exam started, it was four hours ago. You missed it." Freddie sits down in the other chair opposite where Cook's sitting, and he stares at Cook all judgemental like. "I thought you weren't going to do this any more. Taking responsibility, remember? If you carry on at this rate you're going to kill yourself."
Cook's memory is so shot he's surprised he can remember his own fucking name, but what Freddie said jogs something, and things start to fall into place. He rummages in his pockets and finds a piece of paper that's all crumpled up into a ball, and he throws it at Freddie, who frowns as he reads it.
"Shit." Freddie looks up at him once he's scanned the page. "Mate, I'm so sorry."
"Yeah, well. My dad dies and someone only bothers to send me a letter about it three fucking weeks after the fact. Think that qualifies as an excuse for a bender, don't you?"
"Yeah," Freddie says, and he shrugs. "It's shit. Losing a parent, I mean."
Cook nods. He can still remember when Freddie's mum died, all those years ago. Freddie had gone dead quiet for a few weeks, and now, Cook wonders how he'd done it, keeping everything locked in. The only time he'd shown any emotion was when some cunt from school had made a crack about her, and Freddie punched him.
Cook feels like punching everybody right now. Probably did, last night. He brushes a hand across his face and realises it's dried blood crusted on his skin, but he can't remember enough about last night to tell if it's his or anyone else's. Who even gives a fuck, anyway. If he went out like his dad, done in during a bar fight when a broken bottle slashed his neck, well, that'd just fucking fit. Live fast, and all that bullshit. Cooks aren't built for lasting into old age; it's not in their fucking nature.
He stumbles to his feet, nearly fucking falling over in the process. Might still be drunk.
"You all right?" Freddie asks. "You can stay here if you want."
"Nah, I'm fine," Cook says, and he walks out before Freddie can say anything else. He doesn't need any fucking sympathy; there's nothing to even be sympathetic about. Cook's dad was a twat, proper fucking scum, and the world's better off without him. So the last thing Cook needs it Freddie like, pretending this is the same thing as when his mum died, because it's just not.
He buys more beer on the way home, snapping a can of Stella open before he's even out of the shop. Hair of the dog is the only way to deal with shit like this, and he demolishes two cans by the time he gets back to his room. Not that it'll be his room for much longer, and he doesn't fucking know what he's going to do when he's left college, but he can't think about that now. One thing at a time.
When he gets to his corridor, there's someone waiting outside his room. It's Pandora, sitting with her back against his door; she looks up when he approaches, and smiles.
"Cookie!" she says. "There you are."
"Not that it ain't smashing to see you, but what you doing here?"
"You missed General Studies--and it was well hard, I mean, I don't have a bollocking clue about anything really--so I got a bit worried. I rang you, but you never answered, silly."
Shit, that means he probably lost his phone, or else it got nicked. He pats his pockets; it's definitely not there.
He shrugs. "Well, as you can see, love, I'm just dandy."
"What happened to your face?"
"Somebody's fist, probably," he says with a smile. "Not a fucking clue, honestly. Must have been a top night, though, 'cause I can't remember a thing."
"You're not all right, are you?" She touches his face, and he winces.
"Don't you worry about me, Panda pop."
"But I do worry," she says. "I mean, sometimes. You should tell me. I mean, I know I'm useless, but I'm not completely."
At first he says nothing, but once he's dug his key out of his pocket and opened the door, letting her in first, he decides to talk. No point in keeping secrets, really.
"My dad died," he says, and as soon as he does so he wishes he still had the letter that he left at Freddies, because it's so much easier to tell people that way. "Fucking ages ago as well, but they only just bothered to tell me. Forgot he had family, apparently."
Pandora doesn't even say anything, just wraps him up in a big hug, and that gets to him more than anything else. He pulls away and wipes at his eyes, turning away so she doesn't see him.
"Did you miss the funeral?" she asks in a quiet voice, and Cook nods, still with his back to her. She touches his shoulder and says, "Do you want to go and see him?"
"Well, like, not him, but his grave, you know? It might help."
He lets out a long breath and then says, "Yeah, all right. Sounds like a plan. Just let me shower first, yeah?"
The graveyard where Cook's dad is buried is all overgrown; Cook's dad's grave stands out, looking all shiny and new and wrong. Cook perches on a grave opposite it, staring at it for a long time and trying to feel something other than numbness. The grave only says 'COOK', no dates or anything, and it seems weirdly like Cook is staring at his own grave, but that doesn't make him feel much of anything either. All the rage from last night has disappeared, and now he just feels empty.
Pandora sits a little way off on a bench, and after a while Cook joins her.
"Did it help?" she asks, and he shrugs.
"I dunno. Not really. It doesn't really change anything, does it?"
"No, not really," she says. "It's just a bit weird, isn't it?"
"Too right, babe." The graveyard's on a bit of a hill, and he squints at the bleak landscape beyond. It's not like he hasn't been here before, but it all seems unfamiliar now.
They sit in silence for a while, and then Pandora says, "My dad died when I was eight."
"Yeah?" Cook knew she only lived with her mum, but he never realised her dad wasn't around. Just goes to show how little he knows his friends, really. He could've fucking asked at some point, but he never did.
"Yeah. Just before Christmas. Mum went all loopy for a bit, and then she found Jesus. She told me I should look for him too but I never managed to find him."
"Probably hiding down the back of the sofa, eh?" Cook says, and he grins lopsidedly at her.
"No, I looked there and all."
Cook laughs, throwing his head back and proper howling. "You're fucking mint, you know that, Panda?"
She goes a bit pink. "So what I mean is, it's well rubbish at first, but it gets better after a while, and then it's kind of like it never happened at all. It's funny, isn't it?"
"Yeah." He digs in his pockets for some cigarettes, but he's only got one left. "Want to share?" he asks, and when Pandora nods he lights it and hands it over. "Sorry about your dad, yeah. He was probably better than mine was."
"I dunno," Pandora says. "He was always nice to me, but after he died Mum got a bit drunk at Christmas and cried and said he was a bad man. She never said why, though."
"Fucking hell," Cook says. "We're probably better off without them, ain't we? Fucking dads. I tell you what, I'm never having kids. The world don't need any more fucked up brats running around, and you know if I had kids they wouldn't be nice ones, not like yours would be."
She shoves his shoulder, but only playfully, and he grins. "You and me, we had some proper fun, didn't we? Not just in the bedroom department, either. I'm sorry I fucked up your relationship with Thomas, yeah. He's a good bloke."
"It's not your fault," she says quietly. "I didn't have to keep going back to you."
"So why did you, then?" he asks. "Just because, you know, today we're sharing."
"I dunno." She smiles shyly. "I reckon you're nicer than people think."
"Trust me, babe, I'm not."
Pandora drops the cigarette on the ground and crushes it under her shoe, and then she kisses him.
She tastes like smoke and something sweeter, and it's not like he's never kissed her before, but it's been a while and somehow it's different this time.
"Fuck me," he says, once she's pulled away a moment later.
"No, I mean, you're proper fucking lovely, you know that?" It's not even a new revelation, really; back when they'd been fucking around because he was so fucking miserable about Effy, things had been nice with Panda. Fun and simple, and he'd used to think that she was a consolation prize, but it hadn't been like that, not really.
"Thanks," she says, and she's still blushing slightly.
"But you don't really want me, babe," he says. "I'm a fucking car crash."
"No, you're all right."
He grins, and kisses her again, just quickly. "Well, I think I'm getting there."
Chapter 28: closer
It's starting to get dark outside, but Katie isn't desperate to get home. She's spent the afternoon with JJ, but she scarpered once he starting dropping hints that they ought to do some A Level revision, and if she gets home she'll have Emily to face, trying to get her to do the same thing. And it's not like she doesn't care, but she's never going to be a fucking brainiac like everyone else she knows, and some evenings she just needs to relax. She'll get enough UCAS points to get into university, but there's no point in killing herself over it.
She walks by the harbour, glad of the cool breeze on a balmy evening like this. The summer looks like it might actually be a warm one, although the weather people always say that and it's practically never true. Probably it'll start raining as soon as exams are over; that's usually how it goes. But for now, she's enjoying it, and she's enjoying the thought of a whole long summer stretching out before her. Even if it does rain for weeks on end, it'll still be better than last year, because now she has JJ, and when exams are over they can just like, chill at the park and drink and not have to worry about anything, and it'll be lovely. She can't wait.
A little way off she sees someone standing and looking out over the water, and after a second she realises that she knows that figure. It's Effy. Her breath hitches and her first thought is that she should turn around and walk the other way, but then she remembers that it isn't six months ago, and she doesn't have to be afraid of her, or whatever it was that she used to feel about Effy. Katie never did exactly manage to get a handle on what she felt about Effy, but it doesn't matter now.
Effy glances up just as Katie approaches, and she smiles for a second before her expression turns still again. "Hi," Effy says.
"Yeah, hi," Katie says. "What are you doing here?"
"Nothing much," Effy says. "You?"
"Avoiding revision, you know. Probably going to fail anyway, so there's not much point."
"I don't think you'll fail."
Katie shrugs. "Not like any of the unis I've applied to have particularly high standards, anyway."
Effy smiles, then takes a joint out of her pocket. "Spliff?"
"Sure." They sit down and Effy passes Katie the joint, lighting it for her. She almost looks nervous, Effy does, but Katie's not really sure why. She's never seemed nervous around her before, not when they were fucking or whatever, although Katie's probably just remembering it wrongly. She hardly even remembers it at all, and it's not like she thinks about it ever.
"How's JJ?" Effy asks after a while, but she doesn't look at Katie when she asks.
"He's good," Katie says, smiling. They spent most of the day just like, cuddling and talking, and she's never really had a boyfriend like that before, one she actually liked having conversations with.
"You're happy, yeah?" Effy says.
"Yeah," Katie says, and it sounds kind of weird, saying it out loud. "Yeah, I'm happy."
"I'm glad," Effy says. "I really mean it, you know."
Katie nods. She doesn't really know what to say; it's not like they're friends now, but Katie doesn't hate her any more. Something still feels unfinished with them though, probably because they never really talked about what happened between them--and Katie knows that's her fault.
"Hey," she says, staring at the ground in front of her instead of focusing on Effy. "I know we never like, talked about what happened. You know, in January. And I know you wanted to, so." She hazards a glance at Effy; she's not really sure she wants to have this conversation, mostly because she has no clue how it'll turn out.
"Oh," Effy says, then she takes a deep breath. "You never really wanted me, did you?"
"I don't know," Katie says. "I was kind of messed up."
"Right." Effy looks at her, then in a quiet voice says, "I love you."
"Oh." No one's actually ever said that to Katie before apart from family, or no one's meant it, and she doesn't know what to do with it. "Right," she says, and she knows it's hopelessly inadequate, but she doesn't know what else she can say.
Effy smiles, but in a defeated sort of way. "It's okay, Katie. I know you don't feel the same."
"I don't really know what I feel," Katie says, but she thinks maybe if she talks it through, it'll start to make sense. "I mean, I'm with JJ, and he makes me happy, you know? But it wasn't like I never--I mean, I always said that we, you know, had sex because I was fucked up and angry, but... I don't know. Sometimes I think about you."
"You do?" There's a little glint of hope in Effy's eyes, and it kind of breaks Katie's heart.
"Yeah, but I mean, it's you. I don't mean to be nasty, but you sort of fuck everything up. I don't think you mean to, but I'm sorry, you do."
"No, I know," Effy says. "It's the only thing I'm good at."
"Well, that's not true." Katie looks at her, kind of despairing because she doesn't know what to say to make things right between them. "I think maybe I sort of like you, but you kind of make me go completely mental and I just, I don't know."
Effy nods. "I get it, Katie. I know I couldn't make anyone happy, and you should be with someone who can."
"Right, but... well, I mean, are you okay?"
"Not really," Effy says with a shrug, and she hesitates for a moment like maybe she's trying to find the right words. "I... don't think I know how to be happy. And I think that's maybe something I need to learn by myself, without bringing anyone else into it."
"Yeah, okay," Katie says. "I hope you manage to figure it out, I do." She places her hand on Effy's and squeezes it, smiling slightly at the look of slight surprise on Effy's face when she glances down at their hands.
"Thanks," Effy says, and she lets out a shaky breath. "Fuck, I don't normally do this. Talk to people, I mean. About myself."
"Maybe that's like, the first step," Katie says. "I don't really know. Probably we should have talked about this before."
"Sorry I was such a twat and avoided you."
Effy smiles. "Well, I'm sorry I broadcasted it to everyone. That was pretty fucked up."
"Considering some of the things you've done, it's not that bad." Katie smiles at her and squeezes her hand again. "Maybe we could be friends, yeah? I mean, if you want."
"Yeah, that would be nice," Effy says, nodding. "Proper friends this time, not like how we were at the beginning of college."
"Yeah, proper friends. Okay." Katie pauses, then asks, "Are you going to be all right?" She doesn't want to sound pitying, because it's not like she feels sorry for Effy exactly, but she wants Effy to be okay, she really does.
"I think I will be, yeah," Effy says.
"Good." There's something else Katie wants to say, something that she doesn't quite know how to phrase, probably because her hand is still on Effy's and it's kind of distracting her; that, and the way Effy looks in the twilight, all lovely and blue. "You know, sometimes I feel like maybe if things were different, then... things would be different. Between us, I mean." She shakes her head; that didn't even begin to make sense. "I just mean that I do like you, but I spent a lot of time hating you as well, and that made things weird."
Effy smiles slightly. "And you don't hate me any more?"
"No. But I love JJ. So it's like..." She spreads her hands. "You know?"
"Yeah," Effy says. "It wouldn't work, anyway. Not with me being such a mess."
"Right. I mean, sorry, but it's true."
Effy laughs, and Katie feels her chest expand at the sound. Fuck, this is confusing. But that's just it, really, because with JJ it's not--and Katie's kind of stupid, but she's smart enough to know that she needs to stick with the person where it's easy and uncomplicated and lovely all the time. She thinks Effy gets that too.
They sit there for a while longer in silence, just smoking, as the night draws in and it starts to get chilly. After a while Katie stands up and says, "I should probably go," and Effy stands up too.
"Okay," she says, and for a moment they face each other, standing around awkwardly, and then Katie wraps Effy into a hug.
Effy looks shaken when they separate, and just as Katie's wondering whether it was a mistake, Effy grabs Katie's top and pulls her into a kiss that leaves them both breathless.
"Sorry," Effy whispers, then, "It doesn't change anything, does it?"
"No," Katie says, the word sticking in her throat, but it's not entirely true; all it does is fill her with regret.
Chapter 29: summertime
Naomi walks out of her last exam, Politics, with the satisfaction of knowing that she nailed it, but that it wouldn't matter anyway if she hadn't. She checks her phone instinctively and sees that Effy's texted her.
"Congrats on finishing. Want to celebrate?"
Naomi laughs; it's only eleven a.m., but she doesn't suppose any time is too early for Effy to start drinking. She calls her back and asks, "What did you have in mind?"
"We're going to the beach," Effy says. "Camping. Thought you might like to come."
"You know, everyone."
"Jesus," Naomi says. "You do remember what happened the last time we all went camping, right?"
"It'll be different this time. I mean, we've all changed. Besides, shrooms don't grow near the beach."
"Plenty of rocks around, though."
"Fuck off," Effy says, laughing. "Come on, it'll be a laugh."
Naomi sits down on a low wall outside the college and lights a fag. "Is Emily going?" She tries to say it casually, but she knows Effy'll see right through her.
"Yeah," Effy says. "Like I said, everyone's going. Even Thomas, and he knows about Panda and Cook. So really, you've got no excuse."
Naomi exhales, closing her eyes and trying to imagine it. She doesn't even know how they all became friends, and it's an even bigger mystery that she thinks she's going to miss them. "Fuck it," she says. "I don't actually have to talk to her, right?"
"You never know, maybe the two of you will be able to work things out."
"Doubtful," Naomi says, but then she shrugs. Exams are over and summer's officially here; it couldn't hurt to see them all one last time. "Whatever. Fine, I'm in."
The car journey is painful; physically, because there are four of them squished into the back seat, but also because Emily keeps catching her eye, even though they're on opposite ends of the row with Katie and JJ in between them, being all obnoxiously coupley. Effy keeps glancing at them in the rearview mirror and Naomi feels like she couldn't possibly roll her eyes hard enough, because really. This whole thing is completely absurd, and Naomi can't believe they were all stupid enough to agree to it.
Once they're at the beach and they all pile out of the car it's a bit better, because at least Naomi has space to breathe. The weather is actually warm and sunny, one of the few nice days that England'll have all summer, but the beach isn't too busy. There are a handful of annoying kids running around--it's the afternoon, school must be out--but the place isn't heavy. They find a nice spot and get the drinks out, and Naomi actually starts sort of enjoying herself. She hasn't seen much of them, not since she ended things with Emily, but it's nice to be back all together, just like old times. Or, well, she's not sure if they've known each other long enough to have 'old times'; it's like college has gone by in a rush, but so much has happened that it seems like a lifetime since seeing Emily at that stupid assembly on the first day.
"All right then," Cook says, looking around the group. "Best moment in college?"
Nobody says anything.
"Fuck me, it hasn't all been bad, has it?" he says. "Come on, we had some laughs."
"Yeah, we did," Naomi says. Her eyes flick across to Emily, and they share a small smile. Naomi doesn't think she's going to regret leaving Bristol behind, but, well--there are definitely some things she'll miss.
"Yeah," Katie says. "I was particularly fond of the time you fuckers left me to die in the woods." They all laugh--and how fucking bizarre is it that they're at the point where it's a joke--except for Effy, who just looks sad, and stands up abruptly.
"I'll get the barbecue started," Effy says, wandering a little way away from the group, and Naomi gets up and joins her.
"Drinks and sausages?" she asks, glancing over her shoulder to check that the others can't hear. "Is this some stupid plan to like, get Katie to like you back?"
Effy gives her a disparaging look. "No."
"All right, good," Naomi says with a shrug. "I'm just saying, I think she's pretty happy with JJ."
"I know that," Effy says. "If you must know, I'm trying to get the fuck over her."
"Okay." Naomi looks over at the others again, but she averts her eyes when she sees that Emily's looking at her. "Christ, I shouldn't have come. Emily keeps fucking staring at me."
"Best get a restraining order."
"Fuck off," Naomi says. "Fine, we're both pathetic. I don't mind admitting it."
Effy laughs, and passes Naomi a bottle of vodka. "It doesn't count as drowning your sorrows if you do it with friends."
"I'm actually coping quite well," Naomi says, but she takes the vodka all the same, relishing the burn as she takes a swig.
"Me too, actually," Effy says after a moment. "Well, considering."
"It makes a difference knowing we'll be going our separate ways soon, doesn't it?"
Effy nods. "There are some people I'll miss, though," she says, and they share a smile.
The early evening passes in a pleasant, hazy blur of vodka and spliff, and maybe it's just because she sort of high, but Naomi realises that she actually feels fond of this bunch of twats, even the ones she doesn't really know or never really thought she liked. She still isn't sure how she managed to fall into this group of friends, but now she has done, she's definitely going to miss them. Some of them, this'll probably be the last time she'll ever see them, because she knows they won't all keep in touch. She wants to say something, but she's not sure how to do that without it sounding stupid and cheesy, so she keeps mostly quiet instead and just enjoys being there, enjoys the stupid laughter and the kind of pathetic fire they've got going and the scent of the sea breeze.
A bit later, when the sun's starting to go down, they start to disperse a bit. Naomi takes a blanket and sits up in the dunes, watching the sunset, and after a while she's joined by Emily, who's holding two ice cream cones.
"Hi," she says. "I found an ice cream van."
"So I see."
"I thought you might like one," Emily says, shrugging slightly. "Sorry."
Naomi nearly points out that it's starting to get a bit cold, but she bites her tongue. There's no need to be like that, she thinks, which just goes to show how much Emily has rubbed off on her. "Thanks," she says, shifting over slightly so there's enough room on the blanket for Emily to sit down.
"Sorry, it's a bit drippy," Emily says as she hands Naomi one of the 99s. Naomi licks at the ice cream, and when she's caught all the drips she glances at Emily and realises that Emily's staring at her mouth. After a second, Emily snaps back into focus and looks away. "Sorry," she says again.
"Don't worry about it," Naomi says. There's no point picking a fight.
"I didn't come to try and persuade you to get back together with me," Emily says. "I mean, you made it pretty clear that that ship has sailed."
"Good," Naomi says, then she winces. "Shit, I didn't mean to sound like that."
"It's okay, I get it. I was more invested than you were; it happens. And it's not like it particularly came as a surprise, anyway."
Naomi can't quite believe Emily still thinks of it that way. "That's not true, Em. I loved you."
"Past tense," Emily notes, and she gets an expression on her face like maybe she wishes she'd brought vodka instead of ice cream to this conversation.
"I don't know," Naomi says. "I mean, it's not that easy to just draw a line under it, you know? But--you fucking meant everything to me, Em."
Emily takes a long, shaky breath, and then says, "I wish we could have made it work. I really do."
"Me too," Naomi says, and she squeezes Emily's hand for a moment.
Emily looks at their clasped hands for a second, before slowly letting go. "Well," she says, "the upside is that I'm actually really looking to university now."
"I'm glad. I think university will suit you, you know. I can just picture you like, joining the LGBT society and plastering campus with those fucking Stonewall stickers and whatever."
Emily laughs. "Well, I learned activism from the best." She pauses, then says, "It'll be good, though. I mean, I think I need to broaden my horizons, meet new people."
"Good point. It is getting a bit incestuous here."
They sit in silence for a bit while they finish their ice creams, and it's probably the best things have been between them for ages. It's nice to just sit there without things being all tense and fraught, and it reminds Naomi of why she fell for Emily in the first place. It's not quite enough to make her want to try again--they still haven't resolved all their issues, and she's not sure they ever will--but she's glad that they've got to this place, at least.
"How about you?" Emily asks. "Are you looking forward to formal dinners and wearing ridiculous gowns and all the rest of it at Cambridge?"
At first Naomi hesitates, but there's probably no reason why she shouldn't tell Emily. "Um, no, actually. I mean, I'm not going."
"Yeah, I turned down my offer, decided to take a gap year instead so I could go travelling. That was always my plan before there was us, you know."
"Oh," Emily says. "So you're leaving? For a whole year?"
"Yeah. I've got a plane ticket to Thailand that leaves in two weeks." When Emily doesn't reply, Naomi says, "You said you weren't trying to get back together with me."
"No, I wasn't," Emily says. "It's just a bit weird to think that you'll be so far away."
"Yeah, I know."
They lapse into silence once again, watching the changing colours of the sky, and then Emily says, "We had fun though, didn't we?"
Naomi smiles. "We did. When it was good, it was fucking amazing."
Emily looks at her then, the sort of look that used to make Naomi's heart flip over and kind of still does. And then she leans closer and, ever so softly, brushes her lips against Naomi's.
Naomi makes a sound in the back of her throat, and then says, "Em, what are you doing?"
"I thought... one last time? To draw a line under it." She smiles shyly and says, "I know you haven't changed your mind, and that's okay. When you get back you know where I'll be, but I can't promise I'll be waiting for you."
"Right, okay," Naomi says, and she tries to remember all the bad times just to strengthen her resolve. She knows she's made the right decision, but when Emily kisses her again she doesn't pull away. One last time can't hurt. Just for tonight, she'll succumb to Emily's hands and lips and skin once again.
They end how they began, under the stars.
Chapter 30: horizons
As the sun is rising, Effy wakes to the gentle lapping of waves and the sound of someone snoring in the distance. She opens her eyes to see a cloudless sky stretching before her like endless possibilities. Sitting up, she surveys the scene: her friends scattered about, some in tents and some outside on blankets, some curled up as couples and others contentedly alone. The sea is impossibly blue.
The first to rise, she's careful not to wake the others as she stands up, stretches, and walks out to the water. Not yet warmed by the sun, the sand is cool between her toes, and she relishes the feeling, the way the fine grains bury her feet with each step. She nears the water and the sand becomes wet, pleasantly squelchy, and when the first wave in the shallows washes over her, she shivers.
It may be the first time she's thought it in so many words, but it feels good to be alive.
She turns back and watches the others, her disparate group of friends who she somehow managed to bring together for one last time. It feels like an achievement, however fleeting it might be.
Someone stirs, and when they come closer, Effy sees that it's Katie. She walks towards her, but stops just before the water.
"Hi," Katie says. She sounds sleepy, and that fact alone does something funny to Effy's chest. She frowns and says, "Is it cold?"
Effy hadn't really noticed, but when she thinks about it for a moment she says, "A little."
Katie stares dubiously at a wave that comes a little too close, but then she shrugs and walks out to meet Effy anyway, hissing as she first steps in. "It's fucking freezing, babe," she says, and Effy just smiles.
"You get used to it."
"Yeah, whatever," Katie says, but after hopping around a bit she seems to get used to the waves splashing around her ankles. After a bit she says, "This is nice, you know. A nice place, and it's been fun and everything."
"A good idea, then," Effy says. "I thought it might be a disaster, but either way I figured it was better to end college with a bang."
Katie nods. "Yeah, it could have been a nightmare. I mean, considering everything."
"And yet somehow we've all managed to turn into mature adults."
Laughing, Katie says, "I wouldn't quite go that far."
"Maybe not," Effy says, but still, they seem different, even if it's only in small ways. These days, she feels less like she's teetering on the edge of an abyss; it's still there, but she feels like she's taken a few steps back at least.
"Listen," Katie says, "I just--are you all right? I mean, with everything. It's just like, I've never actually broken anyone heart before or anything, so I was wondering how you're doing. I mean like, no one's actually been in love with me before, so." She ducks her head, and even in the dawn light Effy can see that her cheeks are pink from blushing.
"I wouldn't be so sure," Effy says. "JJ seems pretty smitten."
Katie glances up. "You reckon?"
"Yeah, I do," Effy says. "And don't worry about me. I'm fine." She means it, too. It still hurts, but in a way that feels like there's an end in sight.
"Good," Katie says. "You know, on that first day of college all I wanted was to be your mate. I never once imagined all of this."
"Me neither." Effy wonders what she would have done on that first day if she'd known what was coming, whether she'd have turned right around and stayed home, or gone through with it all anyway. It's the same thing as asking whether it's all been worth it, and she probably won't know the answer to that question until she has a few years' worth of hindsight. But perhaps, after all, the answer will be yes.
"So like, what's next for you after the summer?" Katie asks. "When we were baring our souls or whatever the other day I never got a chance to ask. Uni, yeah?"
Effy nods. "London."
"Cool, I can just see you there. I bet you'll have a banging time."
Effy says nothing; she's been so wrapped up in the present that despite getting her uni applications in, she never really planned for the future. It always seemed so far off, and now she's on the cusp of it she doesn't really feel ready. Diverting the subject away from her, she asks, "How about you, then?"
Katie glances back inland for a moment and smiles; when Effy looks over too, she sees JJ wandering towards them.
"We're both going to Oxford, actually," Katie says, and when JJ reaches them she slips her hand in his. "Obviously I'm not going to like the real Oxford, I'm nowhere near that clever, but you'll let your thicko girlfriend come and visit, won't you?"
"Yes, of course," he says. "I'm quite fond of my thicko girlfriend, really."
Katie smiles, and that look on her face--that's the look that Effy wishes could be hers, just once. She looks away, down at her feet, and only then does she realise that she's been standing still for too long and sinking into the sand. She moves her feet, and as she does so she glances back at the beach. A figure is coming down from the dunes; from the hair, it's unmistakeably Emily. Katie notices too, and frowns.
"Where's she been?"
"Think she was with Naomi," Effy says. "I heard heavy breathing last night."
"Christ, I thought that was over?" Katie shakes her head, and they all watch as Emily walks a little way along the beach, finally stopping and sitting back against a large rock. "I'd better see if she's all right." She walks off, leaving Effy and JJ standing alone together in the sea.
"You should tell her you love her," Effy says to JJ once Katie's out of earshot. "If you do, I mean. She'd like to hear it."
JJ scratches the back of his neck. "Oh. Well, I do, so I might. Thanks." He pauses, then says, "She told me about you and her, and what you said, and I thought it would be a good idea to acknowledge that to you but now it's a bit awkward and I don't know what to say. Um."
"Sometimes, JJ, it's better to say nothing at all."
With Katie checking up on Emily, Effy thinks it might be a good idea to see how Naomi's doing; she wanders inland and heads for the dunes, eventually finding Naomi sitting on a blanket by herself, her arms wrapped around her knees.
"Hey." Effy sits down without an invitation, but Naomi doesn't seem to mind. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Naomi says, but her smile feels a little forced.
"You and Emily, then?"
Naomi looks embarrassed as she laughs. "Jesus, did you hear us?"
"I don't think anyone else noticed," Effy says, "although I may have just told Katie and JJ."
"Thanks a lot," Naomi says, but she doesn't really seem to mind.
"So, are you getting back together?"
"I think if we were, she wouldn't just have left me here, although it serves me right." She sighs. "I don't really want to, anyway, I'm just getting nostalgic."
"It'll probably be easier once you have a bit of space away from her."
"Do you think so?" Naomi asks.
"It's more like a wild hope." Effy starts tracing nonsense patterns in the sand with her fingertip, and although she can feel Naomi looking at her, she avoids her gaze. "I think if you don't see someone for a long time, you'll just start to forget."
"Yeah, what about absence making the heart grow fonder?"
"A meaningless platitude," Effy says, although she doesn't actually know whether that's true. She hopes she can forget about Katie, that this whole stupid thing can die, but at the same time things feel unfinished between them. It's probably just wishful thinking, and Naomi would roll her eyes at her if she knew, but Effy can't help but wonder whether they might find each other again, somewhere down the line.
It's a nice thought, anyway.
"You know what?" Naomi says. "You should come with me."
Effy frowns. "To Cambridge?"
"Change of plan, actually. I'm taking a gap year. Going to see the world, you know?" She smiles hopefully. "Might be nice to have some company."
"You'd really want me to go with you?"
"Why not?" Naomi asks. "Less lonely that way, and probably a lot more fun. And if at some point we want our own space we can have it, no problem. What do you reckon?"
Effy stares out at the sea, trying to imagine it. Compared to the greyness and bustle of London, the tedium of lectures and seminars, it sounds tempting: endless possibilities, the open road. She feels like she could get lost in London, whereas the chance to travel sounds like freedom.
"Mum probably wouldn't notice if I stole her credit card to fund it," Effy says slowly. "Where are you off to first?"
"Thailand," Naomi says. "But from there, who knows."
"Can we go to Australia? I always liked the idea of all that open space."
"And all those spiders the size of small children," Naomi says, laughing, and she shrugs. "We can go anywhere you like."
Effy likes the sound of anywhere. She lies back on the blanket and stares up at the sky, still cloudless and so very blue. "Anywhere," she says. "Okay, yeah. I'm in."