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Her First Cigarette

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Ema stared at the last cut she had to do for the day. It was well past sunset, it would take her an hour or two more, and the rush to buy half-priced bento at the convenience store would follow. Her creative spark was almost gone, and she was running on pure doggedness, trying to make sure that tomorrow wouldn't be harsher.

There was a donut Aoi left on her desk. Aoi, her high school friend, worked with a careful familiarity with her. This wasn't a traditional office, but even still Ema was self-conscious about the boundary between professional and personal relationships. Her drawing hand twitched; she was too stressed to draw any further.

She trudged to the office rooftop.

Iguchi Yumi was there, smoking alone, her puffs decorating the nighttime sky. For a moment she looked graceful, as if a camera was trained on her, as if she were a model and not an animator. She angled her head at Ema's direction as she closed the door.

"Yasuharacchi," she said, beckoning her with a hand. Not willing to be awkward with a senior, Ema followed, donut dangling from her right hand like refuse picked up from the street.

"Good evening," Ema said, for lack of anything better to say.

Iguchi made a grandiose gesture. "What's so good about the evening, you say? I have one more troublesome cut to work on, the hardest of the bunch. You?"

Ema smiled meekly. "Me too."

"Oooh! What an occasion." Iguchi looked down on the street. A salaryman was crawling into a taxi, which sped off. "Hey, do you smoke?"

"I don't." The curtness hung in the air like a rude gesture. Ema softened the blow: "I've never known why people do it at all."

"Funny, that. I was also curious when I was your age," Iguchi said. "Actually, what's your age? I might have been younger. Anyway. To me, it was just because it looked freaking cool."

"Cool?" Ema said, taking a step back as Iguchi waved her cigarette around.

"I mean, I was crushing on an older guy in school and he would secretly smoke in the shed. And that's super-bad, because sheds have all these stuff around that could go boom and all. I used to tail him all the time and he'd stand by a window, puffing smoke. Like this." She took a long drag, and puffed.

"I see," Ema said. "What about now? Do you like it?"

"It's fine," Iguchi said. "Nicotine takes some of your stress away, kills your lungs, and so on. It's a little romantic. I'm pretty stressed out, you know. Not to say others aren't just as stressed, mind you. It's just how I cope."

"So that's why a lot of people here do it," Ema said. She watched the smoke, entranced by its seemingly random trail. She might be asked to draw a cut like that in the future. "But why is it just you here?"

"Most of them hang in the balcony," Iguchi said. "The stairs are too much for their weak lungs. I like it here, view's great, and I get privacy most of the time."

Ema felt conscious about herself. "Sorry."

"You did nothing wrong, Yasuharacchi." Iguchi stuffed her cigarette into a portable ashtray. "Wanna try?"

Ema made a pained smile. Could she really refuse? "If it's okay with you."

Iguchi shook her head. "Eh, it's totally okay with me. I'm asking if you're okay with it."

"But..." Ema looked at the two sticks half-out of the pack. "I want to try, please."

The cigarette felt alien in her mouth. The faint smell and taste prodded at her senses. She, Yasuhara Ema, wallflower and key animator by profession, was going to smoke for the first time.

"I'm lighting up," Iguchi said. She inhaled and blew with her usual theatrics.

"Umm..." Ema found it hard to speak with a cigarette in her mouth. Was Iguchi just going to stand there?

"Don't worry, I didn't forget you." Iguchi leaned forward, cupping Ema's chin in her hand. Their cigarettes touched, Ema's igniting. She inhaled through the mouth as she was told, trying not to think about her senior's mischievous face coming too close for comfort. Her lungs swirled with a novel substance, light and minty and somehow robust, dangerous. Intoxicating.

She coughed it out. "That's embarrassing!" she said.

"I've always wanted to try that, and you're too cute to pass it up," Iguchi said. Her perpetual sardonic smile folded over and became a face of concern. "You fine?"

"I thought I was going to suffocate," Ema said, pouting.

"That, my friend, is smoking. It gets better once you get used to it."

"I don't know..." Ema said. "I don't think I'm the type to smoke. It hurts a little to breathe."

"Then don't do it," Iguchi said. "Here, give me that." She took Ema's cigarette and extinguished it in her portable ashtray. "It's actually pretty bad. Don't do it just because I look cool doing it. I'm cool for other reasons."

"Sorry," Ema repeated, the word turning to ash in her mouth.

Iguchi smiled. "Don't be. You can be honest around me. All this seniority stuff is going to do me in more than all the smoking in the world could."

"Ema."

Iguchi blinked. "Hmm?"

"Call me Ema, not Yasuharacchi." Ema averted her eyes. "I actually hate the name."

"E-ma," Iguchi pronounced the name with obvious delight. "Sure."

Ema looked away. "I have to go now."

"Without eating your donut?"

"Oh," Ema said, almost forgetting the donut in her hand. She offered it to Iguchi. "It's yours."

Iguchi chuckled. "This is a little funny, donuts after a smoke. Why don't we split it? Just stay for a while longer. I could use some company for a change."

Ema thought about her work, about Iguchi's story, and the smoke she had just had. "Okay."