Naomi's awoken by something touching her cheek; when her senses arrive, she realises it was a kiss.
"Happy Valentine's Day," says a raspy voice to her right.
Oh. That's today.
Her eyes flutter open and she shifts, turning to face Emily. Emily's still beautiful, even in the morning with last night's make-up smudged around her eyes—they'd tumbled into bed before they could think to take it off—and her hair all tousled. Her fringe is getting long, not quite long enough to tuck behind her ears but starting to fall in her eyes, and Naomi reaches out a hand and brushes it away from Emily's forehead, then brushes the sleep from Emily's eyes.
"Morning," Naomi says, because it's weird to wish someone a happy Valentine's Day when she's spent her entire life being opposed to the day on principle. Still, it's harder to be morally indignant about enforced romance when she's got a girl in her bed—a girl she's in love with, no less, and even after months with Emily the concept still strikes Naomi as a little strange, even when it's familiar and right, because, fuck. Love.
"Some girlfriend you are. I know we said no presents, but you're not even going to wish me a happy Valentine's Day?"
"Of course," Naomi says, but instead she gives her a kiss and says, "I love you." It's better that way, it means more, and Emily seems to agree because she starts smiling in that pure, uncomplicated way she has.
"You're still coming to the Valentine's Ball though, aren't you?"
Naomi groans. "Maybe you haven't noticed, but our track record with college balls is not that great."
Emily cracks a smile. "No fistfights with my sister this time, I promise."
"Can you really make any promises on her behalf?" Naomi gets out of bed and starts fumbling around for clothes—there must be some clean ones somewhere, hiding under all the ones they discarded last night—because that way she doesn't have to look at Emily when she adds, "Let's give it a miss. There must be something more fun that we can do tonight."
"You said you'd go." There's the sound of covers being rumpled and when Naomi glances back at the bed, Emily's sitting up and staring at her, unimpressed. "I told Katie we'd be there. Come on, you know she just got dumped last week. Be nice."
"Because she's always such a fucking delight to me."
Emily purses her lips. "It's her first Valentine's Day without a boyfriend. I can't just leave her alone."
Having finally found some clothes that are clean, Naomi shrugs on a t-shirt. "My idea of a romantic evening doesn't really involve your sister, you know."
"Yeah, and nor does mine. But we might as well go; you don't even give a shit about the day anyway."
"No, but you do, don't you?" Naomi replies, and Emily says nothing, which is her way of saying yes. "So why don't we skip the stupid dance and do something better, eh?"
"I don't know, like shooting ourselves in the face? Joint suicide, you know. Very romantic."
Emily's face flits between expressions like she's trying to stop her lips from quirking up into a smile. Naomi sits down on Emily's side of the bed and kisses her, long and slow, and she can feel the exact moment that Emily's resolve weakens and she starts kissing back, hands tangling in Naomi's hair. Maybe it would be easier to just go along with Emily's plan and go to the fucking ball, but even though she's mostly negotiated an awkward truce with Katie (which involves them pretending they don't hate each other for Emily's sake, and Emily pretending she doesn't notice when the facade happens to slip) and Katie'll probably have some MDMA anyway to make the night bearable, it still sounds beyond lame. And she wants to keep Emily happy, but, well—there are other ways to do that.
They pull apart and Naomi says, "Let's get some breakfast, yeah?" before going in for another quick kiss. "Happy Valentine's Day, Ems."
Naomi's mum is in the kitchen when they finally get downstairs—it takes them a while, due to Emily pulling Naomi's clothes off again and molesting her, not that Naomi's complaining or anything—so there's already toast and coffee there for them, but it also means they have to put up with parental company. Fun.
"Hello, hello," Naomi's mum says, sounding considerably more than cheery than Naomi feels (which is saying something, seeing as Naomi's just got laid). "Any special plans for tonight?" She winks conspiratorially, and Naomi considers the merits of expiring right there on the spot. She settles for rolling her eyes instead.
"Probably not," Emily says, shooting Naomi a look which says that even if Naomi did just make her come twice, she's not dropping the subject.
"Well, maybe," Naomi says. She tucks into her breakfast and glances at Emily, smirking around her piece of toast when she sees that her curiosity is piqued. It's not like her plan is fully formed yet, or even anything more substantial than a vague amorphous idea that'll probably coalesce into something rubbish or nothing at all, but she's going to do something. She has to.
"The college ball, is it?" her mum asks. Naomi frowns; she hasn't mentioned it to her mum, which means that Emily must have done. "Funny to have a ball on a Sunday."
"Yeah, well, that's Doug for you. Apparently it doesn't count if it's not on the proper day." Naomi rolls her eyes. "Anyway, no. Something better than that."
"First I'm hearing of it," Emily says, one eyebrow raised.
"Yeah, well, it's a surprise, isn't it?"
Emily starts to smile and fuck, now she really does have to come up with something good. She's always been shit at romance, and if she falls back on the clichés Emily would probably laugh in her face (if Naomi didn't die of shame first). And it's not like Naomi has much practice, because they never really went on dates, they always just... were. She prefers it this way, special things happening organically instead of being forced, but they've been settling into—not a rut, but a routine, and special things seem to be happening less frequently. Not that it's not all special, being with Emily, but lately it's been this low-level, comfortable niceness, not blow-your-fucking-mind amazingness. Maybe they need to make something happen.
"You've got a letter, by the way," Naomi's mum says, sliding a white envelope across the table. "Came yesterday, but you missed it. Looks like a uni thing. London School of Economics, very exciting."
Emily looks at her, smiling. "Go on, open it."
"Don't you want to know if you got in?"
"Not particularly." It's not really true, of course; she hates not knowing, but it's always better than knowing for certain that she got rejected. If she lets the curiosity fester until she can no longer stand it, then at least there's always a relief in finding out, whatever the outcome. That, and she hates having an audience for things like this; she's found that one out the hard way.
"I'll open it, if you like," Emily says, and although she doesn't exactly snatch the letter out of Naomi's hand, she inches towards it enough that Naomi moves it out of her way. "They'd be stupid not to let you in."
"They can't accept everybody."
"Well, no, but you're exactly the sort of person they'd want. Straight As and everything, and your personal statement was brilliant..."
"My personal statement was shit, I wrote it in about an hour. Just forget it, okay? It doesn't matter. I'll open it later."
"Okay." Emily shrugs. "So why don't you tell me more about your epic Valentines plans for me?"
"Oh, you know. Long-stemmed roses, giant teddy bears, all your favourite things. Moonlit serenading, if I can swing it."
"Now that I would pay to see," Emily says, smirking, then adds, "I still want to know."
"I told you, it's a surprise." At this rate it's going to be a surprise for Naomi as well as for Emily, but she has faith in her ability to blag things. It's got her through enough exams in her lifetime, and right now this day's starting to feel like the same thing.
"I just think I should be prepared, that's all. In case it turns out to be shit."
"Bitch," Naomi says, smiling, and Emily grins back.
"Nice to see you two getting along," Naomi's mum remarks, her eyes twinkling like she's fucking Dumbledore or someone. It's weird, times like this—them all sitting there, so fucking domestic, with Emily just another part of the family. Sometimes Naomi forgets that there was a time before all this normalcy, a million years ago when every part of her life was a source of such great tragic angst. It seems so stupid now that she spent so much time worrying what everyone would think, because of course it turned out that no one gave a shit. Her mum hadn't cared, naturally—the morning after the now-infamous Love Ball, Emily had come down to breakfast with Naomi, the whole thing obvious to anyone with half a brain (because who comes home with someone from a Love Ball and doesn't sleep with them, honestly?) and Naomi's mum had been... supportive. Really fucking nice, actually. Thrilled, even. It was all a bit embarrassing.
Not like Emily's parents. Naomi's heard the story enough times that she's started to feel like she was there herself: when Emily didn't get home until the next morning Rob Fitch nearly came down like a ton of bricks on JJ ("I'd kill him, but it'd be like fighting a girl") until Emily pointed out who she'd actually been with. (Like that had been any great surprise, really.) It was only when Katie stepped in, offering the opinion that maybe Naomi wasn't a complete raging bitch, hell-bent on corrupting their precious little girl, that everybody finally calmed down, at least temporarily.
Fucking Katie, though. If eight months with Emily has flown by, eight months with Katie fucking Fitch as practically her sister-in-law has felt like a lifetime. Nosy fucking cow, she is; apparently she thinks that being Emily's sister means it's her God-given right to insert herself into Emily's business at every available opportunity. The fact that they've only ever come to physical blows once is a miracle, especially considering some of the shit that had gone on.
"Earth to Naomi," Emily says, waving her hand in front of Naomi's face. "Are you going to open that letter or what?"
"Nah." She stuffs it into a pocket and hopes the matter will be put to rest. (She knows it won't be.)
"You'll have to open it at some point, you know."
"Believe it or not, I was actually planning to eventually."
"Fine." Emily rolls her eyes. "Be like that."
A strange sort of tension settles in the air, and Naomi slumps in her seat. She doesn't want to argue with Emily—and most of the time, they don't, which Naomi thinks is a pretty good achievement considering how long they've been together—but whenever the topic of The Future comes up, something in Naomi shuts down and refuses to deal while all Emily wants to do is talk about it. It started back in September when they would sit on Naomi's bed with a pile of prospectuses strewn around them, the big question of what they would do in a year mostly ignored in favour of drinking cheap wine and feeling each other up. And then deadlines loomed, applications were thrown together and enough shit happened in the interim that Naomi managed to slip back into denial with ease.
A couple of seconds pass in silence and Naomi's mum must sense the weirdness, because she changes the subject.
"Have I told you about this new organisation I'm getting involved in? It's very interesting—they do such good work..."
"Jesus Christ, I'm not listening to this again," Naomi mutters. She glances at Emily and hopes to convey a silent apology—she's always been better at that kind. "Come on, Ems, we're going out."
"Thought you wanted to do something today?"
"Only if you tell me what we're doing first."
"Have you really lasted seventeen years without being introduced to the concept of a surprise?"
Emily folds her arms, unimpressed. "I don't like surprises. Ever since mine and Katie's eighth birthday party where we had this horrible clown pop up from nowhere. I cried for about an hour, and Katie kicked him in the shins for upsetting me. Dad had to pay him extra."
Naomi swallows a laugh and says, "If I promise there are no clowns involved, will you give it a rest?"
But Emily doesn't let up, not for the whole bus ride to the train station, and it's only when they arrive at Temple Meads and Naomi can't avoid Emily seeing that the tickets say 'London' that Emily shuts up, apparently smug about her fine detective work.
They're in luck; they only have to wait twelve minutes for the next train and when they get on it they manage to find seats next to each other at a table. Naomi watches the station disappear into the distance as the train pulls away, picking up speed until it's rattling along at full pace and the station is gone. She always feels slightly strange sitting backwards on a train, only getting to see things as she leaves them behind, and so she turns away from the window to face Emily. Emily's fingers find hers under the table and Naomi smiles as their hands clasp. She doesn't need anything more than this. They don't need anything more than this.
"You want to have a look around campus when we get there?" Emily asks.
"You mean LSE?"
"Yeah. You didn't go to the open day."
Naomi shrugs. "I dunno. We'll see what happens." She squeezes Emily's hand and tries to pretend that she's not clinging on for dear life. Her whole life she'd been wishing away the present, wanting nothing more than to get the fuck out of Bristol and properly start her life somewhere new. And then Emily happened, and the future stopped being something to look forward to and started being something to fear and apprehend. "There are probably better things to do. We can go round UCL again if you like, try and find Jeremy Bentham's body."
Emily raises an eyebrow. "I'm going to spend the next three years there, we don't have to go now. Anyway, this is Valentine's Day. I'm not sure pickled philosophers really rank very high on the romance scale."
"So you do want the whole cheesy hearts and flowers deal, is that it?"
"If you hate Valentine's Day so much, you didn't have to do anything."
Naomi shifts in her seat, uncomfortable. "I don't hate it."
"Yes, you do. Enforced romance invented by greetings card companies."
"Actually, it was invented by the Roman Catholics and appropriated by greetings card companies."
"See, you hate it."
"Well, we're not doing the whole commercial thing, are we? It's more like..." She bites her lip. "We're like, deconstructing romance, all right?"
For a moment Emily looks like she's desperately trying not to laugh, but she can't hold it in and eventually cracks up. When she catches her breath she says, "You're a pretentious fucking wanker, you know that?"
"Yeah, whatever. You love me really."
"Yeah, I do. Fuck knows why."
Emily settles her head on Naomi's shoulder and Naomi sighs, content. They don't talk much, just sit there in comfortable silence while Emily flicks through an old issue of Heat and Naomi tries not to think about how much she wants a cigarette.
The train pulls in to Paddington around lunchtime. Naomi's been to London a few times before, mostly when she was younger and her mum used to take her along to marches: stop the war, save the environment, human rights, animal rights, whatever. (She still goes on protests, of course, but they're her causes now.) It's weird being there and not having anything specific to do, let alone anything to get riled up about. They find a tube map and stare at it for a good minute, harried locals bumping into them all the time, but inspiration fails to strike.
"Probably should have thought this through," Naomi admits. "We can always go back and go to the ball if you like."
"Don't be stupid, we'll find somewhere to go." Emily glances at the board and points at the Piccadilly line. "Oxford Street. Or... Leicester Square. Covent Garden, maybe?"
"I dunno," Naomi says. "Could do." Her eyes search the map again, trying to figure something out, and then her eyes alight on a prospective destination. "No, I know," she says, and, taking Emily's hand, she leads her over to the Hammersmith & City line.
It's warm on the tube—not as hot as it would be in the summer, or if it was packed, but Naomi's still a little uncomfortable in her coat. There are seats empty, but they stand instead at the end of the carriage, occasionally stumbling into each other when the train lurches.
"Careful," Naomi says when Emily nearly loses her footing—she's not quite tall enough to reach the rail—and she wraps her free arm around Emily's waist to steady her. Emily kisses her, as a thank you or just for the sake of it, then leans into Naomi, head resting on her shoulder.
"Just so you know, I don't care what we do today," she says, and even through the rumbling of the train Naomi can feel the vibrations of Emily's voice in her body. "Whatever we do will probably be better than the college ball."
"I thought you wanted to go?"
Emily's smile is guilty when she raises her head to look at Naomi. "Well, I felt like I had to," she says with a shrug. "You know, Katie. But if I happen to have been whisked away somewhere else through no fault of my own, well, I can't be held responsible."
Laughing, Naomi says, "And what about Katie? She'll probably kill you for abandoning her. Or, no, she'll kill me."
"Fuck it, I can take her." Emily pauses, then adds in a quiet voice like she doesn't quite believe it, "It's not my fault her life practically fell apart. Or that she still hasn't got it back together again."
"Of course not." Naomi squeezes Emily a little tighter. Between losing her boyfriend and her popularity, not to mention the dreadful humiliation of having a sister who's a big gay lesbian, it hasn't been a great year for Katie. "She just can't handle not being the together one, you know? But just think, a few months and you'll only ever have to see her at holidays."
"Right," Emily says. "Yeah. Uni."
It's like a cloud settles around them, but at that moment they arrive at King's Cross and the commotion of getting off the train and fighting their way onto another one is just about enough to dissipate the spectre of university that threatens to loom over them. Because getting away from Katie is one thing, but the possibility of being away from each other is something else entirely. The letter from LSE, still unopened, lies in the bottom of Naomi's bag, but even though it could settle things once and for all, she can't bring herself to open it and find out.
The train pulls in at Camden Town station and Naomi smiles at Emily, giving her a little push towards the doors.
It's a nice day when they step out into the sunlight—nicer than it has any right to be in February, especially considering the snow last year. Global fucking warming, Naomi thinks, and maybe she's turning into her mother, but it's true. Still, for today at least she's glad for the sunshine and can't quite summon up any righteous, environmentalist indignation.
It takes them a while to find Camden Market, following the general swell of pedestrian traffic down the road until they reach the open-air section of the market. For a Sunday, it's packed; the population of England always seems to double whenever the sun comes out for more than two consecutive minutes, as everyone rushes outside to make the most of it. They're jostled from every side as they stroll from stall to stall, idly window shopping, and Emily slips a hand through Naomi's as if she's a child afraid that they'll get separated.
Naomi smiles to herself. She never used to be one for public displays of affection, but then she wasn't a lot of things before she met Emily and she likes the way she's changed—even when it involves liking stupid sappy things that she would've rolled her eyes at before. (Sometimes she pretends that she's just as cynical as she ever was, but Emily always sees right through her. She doesn't mind.)
They happen upon a stall with some amazing jackets and Naomi's resolve not to spend ridiculous amounts of money that she doesn't have—which, admittedly, was not that strong in the first place—goes out the window. She finds a stripy jacket that Emily admits is "better than that flowered monstrosity you won't let me burn", and once she buys one thing the dam bursts and they start shopping with the sort of fervour Katie usually has. They move inside to the covered part of the market, grabbing lunch from the Moroccan place on the way, and Emily ends up getting distracted by a tarot card reader. It costs two weeks' EMA and is complete bollocks, but Emily decides she wants her fortune told and whatever, it's Valentine's Day, so Naomi humours her. She even manages to keep a straight face when the so-called mystic predicts a tall, handsome man in Emily's future.
"Leaving me for Freddie, are you?"
"Well, I didn't want to have to break it to you today... "
Naomi looks at Emily then, and it's not like she's jealous or even remotely worried, because really, but still she says, "I love you, you know."
"So I've heard," Emily says, getting this stupid grin on her face that shows her dimples—and it makes Naomi kind of ridiculously pleased, being able to make Emily look like that, all flushed and happy, any time she wants. She loves that it's so simple, this call and response that's as natural as breathing.
Most of the shops in the market are completely ridiculous—they wander into a cyber punk shop just to gawp at the insane clothes, and Naomi's outfit gets eyed disdainfully by a girl wearing some kind of neon rubber contraption, which Emily seems to think is hilarious—and they wind up in a shop full of bizarre furniture. Even though they definitely can't afford anything in there, they end up lingering.
"When I get my own place I'm definitely coming back here," Emily says, eyeing a giant purple chair longingly. "Or when we do, whatever."
"We?" Naomi glances at Emily, but Emily's still looking at the chair, suddenly studying it avidly like she doesn't want to look Naomi in the eye.
"I meant... hypothetically speaking, obviously. Just making conversation." Emily looks back at her, a faint blush visible on her cheeks even in the dim, reddish light of the shop. "Don't you ever think about the future?"
Naomi takes a breath, wondering how she can shut this conversation down or at least steer it in a different direction. "Try not to."
"You don't think about, I don't know, settling down, having kids?"
"Jesus, Ems, at least wait until you hit eighteen before you get broody."
"I didn't mean it like that." She folds her arms and walks a little way away, stopping in front of a display of mirrors that are made out of driftwood or bones or something. "You'll probably be busy off saving the world or something, anyway."
"Damn, I thought I'd been discreet hiding my secret superhero identity." Naomi walks behind Emily and wraps her arms around her waist, kissing her cheek. "But, yeah, that's the plan."
Except Naomi doesn't really have a plan at all, and she's tired of people talking about it. At the moment it seems like all anyone cares about is what happens next, and she'd much rather concentrate on what's happening now. Sometimes she thinks the only person with less of a plan is Effy—even Cook's been trying to get his act together, talking about making something of himself—and maybe that's why they've been hanging out a lot lately. With Effy, there are no expectations; nothing beyond where they're going that night and the precise flavour of fucked-up they're going to get. And if conversation with Effy does turn to the future, well, at least she understands.
A couple of weeks ago they were hanging out and Effy's dealer, whoever he was, hadn't come through, so the two of them ended up sat on a wall outside, having a smoke and bemoaning the lack of pills in whatever fucking club they were at. The others were inside but Naomi didn't feel like dancing, even with Emily drunk and happy about getting in to UCL.
"You don't fancy going inside?" Naomi asked, more for something to say than anything else, but Effy just shrugged. They'd been friends long enough for Naomi to be getting good at interpreting Effy's silences, and she suspected this one was about Freddie's presence inside the club. They'd broken up again, although Naomi'd lost track of the precise twists and turns of Effy and Freddie's ridiculous, tortured, on-again off-again love affair. She knew they'd get back together eventually, and then probably split up again, and then there'd be some drama with Cook—it was a tired cycle long ago, but there were no signs of anyone breaking it any time soon.
"Sometimes I wonder if Emily and I can last," Naomi said, trying in a roundabout way to prompt Effy to talk about Freddie—because while she knew Effy would balk at a direct question, she thought that if she opened up about Emily, it might prompt Effy to talk about her relationship—but Effy wasn't easy like that, and she kept the conversation on Emily.
"Is this about Oxford?" Effy said, and she took another drag of her cigarette. "She forgave you. That's what people should do, forgive each other." It was the same monotone she always used, but with a tinge of sadness that most of the time she tried to hide. Naomi wondered how Effy had fucked up this time, and why Freddie couldn't forgive her, but she knew Effy wouldn't spill.
"Doesn't always feel like she's forgiven me, though." Fuck it, apparently she was talking. "Plus, you know, couples fall apart." She thought of her mum and Keiran; she still didn't know exactly what went wrong there, she just knew that her mum's smile was a little more strained now, and Keiran didn't call on her in Politics lessons anymore. "Nobody stays together these days."
Effy was quiet for a moment, then said, "One of my brother's mates had to go all the way to New York to find the girl he loved. They're shacking up in Birmingham now."
"That's not everyone, though, is it? How do you keep yourself from fucking it up?"
Effy smiled at her, that complicated smile that Naomi could never quite figure out; every time she thought she had a grasp on it, it seemed to change and mean something new. "I'll let you know if I find out, yeah?"
Yeah. It was a stupid question to ask Effy, anyway. (Stupid question to ask anyone, she thought.)
"You're lucky, you know," Effy said, and Naomi half-smiled at her, not knowing what to say. Because she knew it was true, knew that even though neither she nor Emily were perfect individually, they were better together, and a lot of people didn't get to have that. Still, it didn't stop it from being fucking scary half the time, and it didn't stop Naomi from fucking up.
They didn't get more time to talk because Emily came out of the club, looking for Naomi. Emily was significantly drunker than Naomi was, and when she stumbled into a kiss, Naomi tasted cherry and knew that she'd been doing shots.
"Dance with me," Emily said. "We're celebrating."
"Fine, but you're buying me a drink first. I need to catch up."
"If I have to," Emily said, looking so happy that Naomi couldn't help but kiss her again. She took Emily's hand—she needed to keep her steady—and half-waved back at Effy, who was lighting another fag.
"Good luck," Effy said, that sadness in her voice again. Naomi wondered if Effy thought that they'd make it, but knew she'd never ask.
They don't buy any furniture; it's too soon for a commitment, and besides, they have no way of taking it home on the train.
"Do you really want kids?" Naomi's not sure how she feels about it, doesn't even really like having the topic brought up, but now she needs to know.
Emily rolls her eyes. "I don't know. Not yet, anyway. Jesus."
"Good." Naomi feels a little lighter, a little more normal. "Just checking."
"Did you think I was going to start talking about sperm donors or something?" Emily looks at her like she's crazy, which is perhaps not unwarranted. "It's not like I was about to start planning the logistics or anything. I just meant, you know, maybe we have a future. And that'd be nice."
Naomi squeezes Emily's hand in lieu of responding and changes the subject. "Come on, I think we've done Camden Market. Where to next?"
Night falls early over London, the creep of dusk soon replaced by neon and streetlights. They've wandered far, taken the tube to wherever they please, and they end up by Tower Bridge, footsore and hungry. They dine at Wagamama, and after the meal they don't linger. It's colder when they get outside, but after a bit of walking and a bit of vodka—Emily stashed some in her bag that morning, smart girl—they're warm enough. It's beautiful by the river, the slow light of boats cutting across smooth, inky water, all the rubbish and pollution in the river obscured by shadows.
"We should steal a boat," Emily says. "Sail off down the Thames."
"And go where? Out on the open sea?"
"Yeah, end up in Norway."
"I've always wanted to go to Norway," Naomi says, laughing at Emily's bemused expression. "Yeah, stay in Hammerfest and see the Aurora."
"Sounds nice. We should do that someday." Emily looks up at Naomi and they share a smile. "I mean it."
"We will," Naomi says. "We'll go everywhere. And we won't let anyone stop us." She's still annoyed that they never made it to Cyprus last summer. Not that they needed a holiday, really—even rainy old Bristol can be transformed by the high of new love—but she feels like they're owed a trip, owed something. There's still so much they haven't done.
Naomi loses track of how long they spend walking; it's not the sort of night where time matters. They amble along the south side of the river, past Tate Modern and on the other bank, St Paul's, with no particular destination in mind, just a vague wish to prolong the evening. The last train back to Bristol's probably leaving around now and they're miles from Paddington, but Naomi doesn't want to think about it and neither of them brings it up.
Emily stops suddenly and tugs at Naomi's hand, nodding in the direction of the fence by her side.
"What?" Naomi says, and Emily grins in that impish way that means she's up to something.
"I've got an idea," she says. "Let's go in."
"What? Christ." Naomi takes another look at where they are and is surprised to find it looks familiar. "This... is this Battersea Power Station?"
"And you want to break in?"
Emily shrugs. "It's something to do, isn't it? Unless you want to go home instead."
"You're mental," Naomi says, shaking her head, but Emily can't stop smiling and there's something infectious about that. "Fine, okay. If we get arrested or, I dunno, kill ourselves, I'm blaming you, all right?"
The metal fence is too high for them to climb over, especially for a midget like Emily, but they walk round the perimeter and eventually come across a wooden gate. It's as tall as the fence but part of it's broken, providing a foothold that lets them get over. Emily climbs up first and Naomi follows, dropping down on the ground with a small thud. Emily grins at her and they crack up, high on adrenaline, or maybe at this stage they're just a bit drunk.
Naomi's still sober enough that she's a bit on edge, convinced that it shouldn't be this easy—that there are probably security guards lurking in the darkness, waiting to pounce. But they see no sign of life, and when they scurry across the large expanse of open ground that leads to the power station itself, no one stops them. The power station's open, easy to get into except for a series of metal barriers surrounding the outside.
"Shit," Emily whispers, "how are we going to get past these?" There's a load of plastic tags holding the barriers together, and they're too high to climb over. Emily pulls at one of them, but all she succeeds in doing is making a racket that Naomi shushes straight away. "Never mind, let's go back."
But Naomi has a brainwave, and she rummages around in her bag until she finds what she wants: her lighter. She flicks it open and grins at Emily in the light of the small flame.
"You," Emily says, "are a fucking genius."
Before long all the tags on one barrier are melted and they can push it aside, slipping into the station before a security guard can materialise out of thin air and catch them.
Inside is nothing like Naomi imagined, not that she's ever spent a great deal of time contemplating the interiors of disused power stations. It's surprisingly light inside, with spotlights and strip lighting all along the walls.
It's almost eerie, how bright it is, considering the place hasn't been running in years and years.
It looks like a building site, everything coated in a thick layer of dust and grime, random boxes and bits of metal scattered around the place. Some of the walls look like they're falling down, or it's just the plaster crumbling. For a listed building, one that's supposed to be done up and turned into something exciting one day, it doesn't look like anyone's cared for it in ages.
Emily tugs at Naomi's sleeve. "Come on, let's explore. I want to see if we can get onto the roof."
"Are you serious?" Naomi says, but Emily's already off, heading towards a door on the opposite wall. There's nothing for Naomi to do but follow her; she's already feeling a bit uneasy, like she's suddenly found herself in the middle of some low-budget horror film and some axe murderer is waiting around the corner. Jesus, she doesn't know when she got this jumpy. She rolls her eyes, telling herself to get it together, and follows Emily.
"Shit, it's locked," Emily says, rattling the handle. "D'you reckon we can pick it?" She shoves her shoulder against it but somehow it fails to move under her negligible weight.
"With what? I'm not losing my bank card in here."
"Fine, we'll find another way up."
But they don't, not for ages. There are a million staircases in the place but every single one they find is either locked or blocked in some way, and Emily insists they try them all.
"Em, no one's been here in thirty years. Of course it's all locked up. Let's just go, yeah? It's been fun."
Emily stops trying the handle of the latest door and sighs. She sits down on the floor in the middle of years' worth of filth, and pulls the vodka bottle out of her bag, taking a swig before passing it to Naomi.
"I really wanted to get up there," she says, leaning her head back against the door. "Would've been something to tell people, you know?" She smiles ruefully up at Naomi, then her eyes must alight on something in the corner, because she looks past her, grin broadening, and scrambles to her feet.
She points at something behind Naomi. "Bingo."
Naomi spins round and fuck, that cannot be what Emily's pointing at. Except it blatantly is, because Emily desperately wants to get up to the next level, and a rickety old ladder would accomplish exactly that.
"Doesn't exactly look safe, Em." And that's a fucking understatement: it's completely unsupported, just propped against the upper level at a slight angle, and even from here it looks unstable.
"Well, I'll go up first, and if I go tumbling to my death you can stand at the bottom and catch me, all right?"
Naomi folds her arms. "You're lighter than me. What if it'll hold your weight but not mine?"
"Fine, then you go first and I'll catch you." She shrugs. "What do you want to say when people ask you what we did: 'we sort of broke into Battersea Power Station and then left before we did anything interesting'?"
"You're very strange, you know." Naomi throws her a sidelong glance. "Most people just celebrate Valentine's Day by having lots of sex, not clambering around old abandoned buildings."
Emily grins wickedly. "Yeah, well, that part comes later."
Naomi bites down a smile; she is, officially, still annoyed. "All right, all right, fucking peer pressure. This had better be worth it."
"Don't worry," Emily says, and she kisses Naomi until Naomi can no longer pretend she's not smiling. "It will be."
And so Naomi goes first up the ladder. It's higher than she thought, which she only discovers when she's near the top and makes the mistake of looking down, but she manages to reach the top unscathed. Emily climbs up next, a lot more quickly than Naomi did—but then Emily's always been like that, braver than she looks. She dusts herself off once she reaches the top, and when she looks back down below she doesn't even flinch.
"Where next, then?" Naomi asks, because apparently Emily's taken charge on this date (if that's what it can even be called, because really). Not that Naomi minds, because none of her non-existent plans would ever be as cool as this (and okay, it is cool; now they're up here she kind of wants to poke around) and anyway, in her experience following Emily's lead has only ever resulted in good things.
"Dunno," Emily says. "Let's see if there are more stairs."
They head down a brightly-lit corridor—Naomi can't help but wonder how much energy is wasted lighting a building this big that no one ever goes in, and tries to figure out how she can complain to the government about it without revealing that she broke in—which seems to be full of offices. One of them contains a plaque dedicated to Margaret Thatcher; Naomi scowls at it and shuts the door fast. They look in a few more rooms but none of them seem particularly interesting, so they carry on down the corridor until they find a flight of stairs. There are no locks up here—the security guards must have assumed that anyone breaking in would be foiled by all the ones downstairs, which, ha—so they get up, no problems. After a couple more flights Naomi's legs are a bit tired; she's not exactly an athlete, and they've been walking all day.
"Let's pause a bit, eh?"
"Yeah, all right." Emily leans against the wall and glances down the hallway. "Maybe there's something more interesting in one of the rooms up here."
There isn't, or at least not in the first three rooms they look in; they're mostly empty, with a few dusty old bits of furniture scattered about. But the fourth room they check is packed with filing cabinets, and when Naomi pulls one open at random she discovers that they're full of blueprints, haphazardly stuffed in until they're almost spilling out. She picks a few out at random and glances at them, but they don't make any sense to her, they just look pretty.
"Cool." Emily takes one from her and peers at it, turning it around like she's trying to figure it out. "Wonder where it's for."
"Dunno. Here, I suppose. Or some secret underground government lair, one or the other."
Emily laughs. "Yeah, 'cause the government would keep all their top secret building plans in some falling-apart power station that anyone can break into."
"Probably would," Naomi says darkly. "Fuckers. Pretty cool though, aren't they? We should nick some."
"And do what with them?"
"Anything, I dunno." She shrugs again, rolls her eyes. "Make art."
Emily steps closer, close enough for Naomi to feel her breath, and her fingers dance up Naomi's arm. "You know, I can think of something else we can make right now." She kisses Naomi, soft and slow, so Naomi's in no doubt what she's on about. Naomi tries to kiss back for a second, but she can't help bursting out laughing.
"You're so fucking cheesy, Em."
"Yeah, well, fuck it. It's Valentine's Day."
"Knew I should have gone with the whole hearts and flowers thing. Unless it's the building plans which are turning you on, in which case you're obviously beyond help."
"Shut up," Emily says, almost growls, and she kisses Naomi into submission, until her back hits one of the filing cabinets with a clang. Emily's hands get frantic, pushing aside Naomi's clothing without taking it off, and all Naomi can do is grip on tight to Emily and gasp through the kisses. It doesn't take long for Emily to find her way through Naomi's layers to her skin, one hand under Naomi's bra, cupping her breast while she works her other hand under Naomi's skirt. Her fingers slip past Naomi's knickers and Naomi gasps when Emily makes contact and starts stroking her with practised art. Remembering to breathe is the only thing Naomi can do; that and keep steady, but fuck, her legs were already weak from all the climbing, she doesn't think she can survive this. Her legs threaten to buckle but Emily holds her up, whispering, "I've got you, I've got you," through hot kisses on her neck, and it doesn't matter that Naomi feels the words instead of understand them, as long as Emily keeps doing that.
Then she's overwhelmed, comes apart as her orgasm shatters through her and then her knees do give out; she slides down to the floor, Emily's hands guiding her down so she doesn't land hard.
"Fuck, Em," she says, "fuck," and then Emily's kneeling down beside her, peppering kisses on her cheek and jaw while Naomi's breath returns. It doesn't get old, this; never will, she thinks fiercely, and fuck the future, she'd never give this up for the world. She finds Emily's mouth and kisses her, and so what if she's still oxygen-starved, breathing is overrated compared to this.
Around midnight, Naomi and Emily make it up to the roof; it's not difficult to get up there, just more stairs and then they're out in the cold night air. Despite the balmy day it's fucking freezing now, but there's more exercise to warm them up; one of the chimneys has scaffolding all around its base and as soon as Emily sees it, she's desperate to get up there. Naomi doesn't really fancy the climb but she's in the mood to indulge Emily, and even though she's knackered when they get to the top, it's worth it. The view is stunning: all of London laid out before them, landmarks picked out in lights. The London Eye is a red circle across the river, and off to the right Naomi can see the soft illumination of Westminster.
They stand for a bit and look out at the city, Naomi circling her hands around Emily's waist and resting a chin on her shoulder. "It's beautiful," she murmurs, and places a soft kiss on Emily's cheek. "You know all the best places."
"This was a bit of a fluke, really."
"Stroke of genius, more like. Better than the fucking Valentine's Ball, anyway."
Emily hums her agreement and they stay like that for a while, watching the leisurely movement of the boats of the Thames and the rush of headlights below, until Naomi feels Emily shiver. She grabs their bags, taking out the clothes they bought in Camden, and demands they put them all on, because there's no point in coming out here only to freeze to death.
"I suppose we're going to have to huddle together for warmth too." Emily grins as she pulls on another jacket and wraps a scarf around her neck, and when they're both looking thoroughly ridiculous they settle down at the base of the chimney, cuddled up close.
"Pass the vodka," Naomi says, holding out her hand. "The Russians really did have the right idea, didn't they?" She takes a swig and hands the bottle back to Emily, who drinks as well.
"Yeah, and think of it like this: we're practising for Norway."
"Maybe we can go to a sauna next and practise for Cyprus."
For a while they sit in comfortable silence, passing the vodka bottle back and forth, and when Emily rolls a joint they share that as well. It's nice, Naomi thinks, having a moment to just be still; sometimes it feels like this year is racing by at breakneck speed, the days all lined up then knocked down like dominoes, no way to stop it. Even though it seems like forever since the lake, or since the Love Ball, time's flown by—it's like she's suddenly found herself here at this moment, with no idea how it got to be February already and powerless to slow everything down.
"What are you thinking?" Emily asks, but Naomi shakes her head; she doesn't want to trouble Emily with this, not today, not yet.
"Nothing." She smiles, a little sadly, and changes the subject. "Shame you can't really see the stars." A few hazy clouds have rolled in, but even so there's too much light pollution for the sky above London to seem truly black; by the horizon it's purple-orange, stained by streetlights, and straight above it's dark, but not completely, not the kind of blackness you can lose yourself in. When she was younger Naomi used to go with her mum to celebrate the Solstice at Stonehenge, and there the night sky was the blackest she'd ever seen it, but full of so many stars and a moon so bright you didn't need artificial light to see. There, her mum taught her about the stars, and even though Naomi's never believed in astrology she loved learning about the constellations, lying flat on her back and playing join-the-dots in the sky.
She grew too old for it, of course, just like she grew too old for all of her mum's ridiculous hippie crap, but something about the night air makes her nostalgic. She tells Emily about the stars, imagining where they'd be and tracing the patterns with her finger. Orion's belt she can just about make out, and Emily smiles, pleased with herself when she sees it too. Naomi has to guess the rest, making up where the Plough and the Scale would be, but Emily listens intently, smiling when Naomi struggles to remember one and squeezing her hand when Naomi falters and comes to a stop, embarrassed that she's been rambling.
"We're not going to make it back tonight, are we?" Naomi says. She doesn't mind; now that she's out here she feels like she could stay here forever, one moment drawn out endlessly. She doesn't think she'd ever get bored.
"No," Emily replies. "Do we even have to go back at all?"
"Not if you don't want to."
Emily laughs. "God, my family would throw a fit."
"My mum probably wouldn't even notice."
Emily leans back and takes another drag of spliff. "I wonder how the ball went? No texts from Katie, so she's probably doing all right."
"That or she's too wounded by your abandoning her to even speak to you."
"Don't," Emily says, looking hurt. "I know she can be a bitch, but she's all right really. On occasion. When she feels like it. She's just... Katie. I dunno, I wish you two would get along better."
"We have tried. And maybe we will someday." Naomi doesn't really believe it's possible, not without one or both of them undergoing a complete personality transplant, but she knows Emily's hopeful and she doesn't want to disappoint her. "Let's not talk about her, okay? Remember, romantic Valentine's plans don't include your sister."
"Yeah, okay." Emily kisses Naomi and snuggles a little closer. "Maybe next year we can come here a lot. I mean, not a lot, we don't want it to get boring, but it might be nice sometimes."
Naomi says nothing, just murmurs noncommittally. She doesn't want to have to say it, not now.
"Naomi? Don't you think?" Emily shifts slightly so she can look at Naomi, and as soon as Emily turns her gaze on her, Naomi knows she has to spill. Fuck.
"No. I mean—shit." She takes a deep breath, the cold air harsh in her lungs. "I'm sorry, but I'm not going to be here next year, Em. I didn't get in to LSE."
"What? But you—you haven't even opened the letter yet. You might have got in."
Naomi disentangles herself from Emily's grasp and reaches for her bag; it doesn't take long for her to find the envelope, which she hands to Emily. It's ripped open; Emily's face falls when she sees it, but still she takes it from Naomi and unfolds the letter inside, one sheet of A4 that basically says, "No thanks."
"Oh," Emily says, blinking, and she hands the letter back. "When did you...?"
"At the restaurant, when you were in the toilet. I just—I couldn't wait. Sorry, I should've said."
"You didn't—" Emily frowns at her, her eyes accusing. "All night you've been fine. You haven't seemed upset at all."
Naomi shrugs. "There's nothing I can do now. No point in moping through Valentine's Day, is there?"
"Suppose not," Emily says, but it seems inevitable now. She asks the next logical question, the one Naomi's been trying not to think about all night. "So, where then?"
It would be easier to say she doesn't know yet, that she's still deciding, but she doesn't want to lie to Emily—even if she did want to, she couldn't.
"Durham," she says simply, trying not to meet Emily's gaze. It had always been her second choice anyway (well, third, but then Oxford went out the window) and she's already got an offer from Van Mildert college—AAA, which she's bound to get—which means she doesn't have to wait anymore, not knowing.
"Durham? That's... about as far away from London as you can get and still be in the same country."
"Three hours on the train," Naomi admits. "I already checked."
"Great," Emily says, and then she lapses into silence. Naomi wishes she would talk, would say anything, but she knows better than to ask. She just waits while Emily turns it over in her mind, rearranging the picture of their future, something Naomi has spent the last few hours desperately trying not to do.
"I could go to Leeds," Emily says finally. "I haven't applied to any further up north than that, but we'll still be closer. Or you could go to Leicester instead and I'll go to Nottingham, that's not far at all."
"I'm not living in fucking Leicester," Naomi says, her voice sullen. "Have you seen the place? And anyway, you're going to UCL. You've been talking about it for months."
"I've been talking about us in London," Emily says, but it's not true; as soon as she picked up the prospectus she wanted to go there, and Naomi won't let her change her mind. Even if it means... well, whatever it means.
"Look, I know it's... not ideal. But you can't change your plans for me, you just can't. You don't want to go to Leeds or Nottingham, they were just back-up choices. You want to go to UCL, so you should go. End of story."
"Don't tell me what I want," Emily mumbles, then adds, "You're all right with that, are you? Being three hours away?"
"No," Naomi says quietly, "but it's what we should do."
"We'll never see each other."
"Of course we will." Naomi's voice sounds horrible and fake, like she's trying to be encouraging but can't even convince herself.
They fall into silence again as London continues to rush around them, uncaring, and then Emily says—barely whispers it, really—"What if we don't make it?"
"Well, at least your mum would be happy with that turn of events." Naomi hates herself for turning it into a joke, but it's all she can do.
"Yeah, me young, gay and single in London," Emily says. "She'd be thrilled."
Neither of them can quite bring themselves to laugh.
"We'll be okay," Naomi says, then repeats it again more fiercely. "We have to be." But there's no rule that demands it, and Naomi knows it; people break up all the time, even people in love, for reasons much less significant than distance.
On the other hand, some people stay together—especially people in love.
"Em, trust me. We've been through a lot, you know?" Naomi says.
"Yeah, I know. I've not exactly forgotten, Naomi." Emily takes another swig of vodka, but it's Naomi that winces.
It wasn't Naomi's finest hour. In fact, out of a lifetime of fuck-ups it probably ranked up there as the worst.
The Oxford interviews were stressful: in the daytime, trying to prove to a bunch of academics that she actually was as clever as everyone had spent her life telling her, and in the evening, trying to prove to herself that she could easily make friends at uni. And though the first part had proved difficult, due to one particularly evil interviewer than may or may not have been the devil incarnate, the second thing had actually been all right. She found a group of people to hang around with that for the most part weren't complete twats, and on the second evening when someone whipped out a bottle of tequila, she'd had fun. She had some stories to tell, after all; the Gobbler's End one went down particularly well, even if most people didn't quite seem to believe that Effy actually had hit Katie on the head with a rock.
And there was Josh. Naomi must have spent too long hanging out with tossers, because Josh was a novelty: a boy who actually had a brain, and a sense of humour, and decent interpersonal skills. He was attractive, too; a bit on the gangly side, maybe, not great skin, but he had a nice smile which he had a habit of using a lot when talking to Naomi. He was applying for English, and on the night with the tequila they had a long conversation about Virginia Woolf while the others—a bunch of scientists, plus one memorably wanky classicist—rolled their eyes at them and played spin-the-bottle instead.
The problem came when it got late and Naomi started itching for a cigarette. She was the only one in their group that smoked—she might have stared at them all like they'd sprouted second heads, she can't quite remember—so she went down by herself, out into the college courtyard. She shivered at the cold; she'd forgotten her coat and hadn't yet drunk enough to not feel the chill of the December night. Her fingers were numb and it took her several tries and a lot of swearing to light her fag, but she got there eventually and the first drag was a relief. She hadn't realised how tense she was.
Then, after a minute of standing there shivering, there was a voice at her side saying, "You look cold." She turned around and there was Josh, holding out a jacket and smiling that stupid smile of his. He draped the jacket around her shoulders and she pulled it tight around herself, returning the smile as she thanked him. And then—she wasn't sure how it happened, the whole thing was hazy, but then they were kissing, slow and deep, and while Naomi was vaguely aware of the strangeness of having to tilt her head up to kiss, she didn't quite process what it meant, and nor did she stop. The cigarette slipped from her fingers and fell to the ground, forgotten.
The next day, she blew her interview.
When she got back to Bristol it felt like she'd been gone for three months, not three days. She should've applied to fucking Cambridge, where the interviews only last a day and there are no tall boys around to give you coats when you're cold and drunk and stupid. Emily was waiting at the train station, standing on tiptoes to see Naomi as she stepped off the train—Naomi spotted Emily first and got the urge to turn right back onto the train, but it terminated at this station and there was nowhere else to go—and when they first locked eyes, Emily fucking beamed like it was the greatest day of her life.
It wasn't. Naomi told her straight away.
It's funny, but Naomi's most vivid memories of Emily aren't the happy ones. Their first night together, the one by the lake, is barely more than a blur, but Naomi can picture Emily's exact expression every time she's fucked up and really let her down, can see it replay in slow-motion when she closes her eyes. (The count must be up to three or four times by now; Naomi's most fervent wish is that it won't ever get any higher.)
For three days Naomi gave Emily the space that she'd asked for (before turning and walking away, shoulders hunched like she was crying, or trying not to), and then she started the process of making amends.
When Naomi finally summoned up the courage to ring the doorbell—which took a good long while, because there wasn't a scarier place in the world than outside the Fitches' front door—Katie answered. Naomi's heart sank, which was a surprise, because she didn't think it could get any lower.
"What do you want?" Katie spat, and Naomi tried not to flinch. "You should know you're not welcome here."
"Please, Katie, I just want to speak to Emily."
"Don't you think you've done enough damage already?"
Naomi bit her tongue; God knew she'd love to go off on Katie, but it wouldn't exactly help her cause, and besides, she deserved Katie's ire. And how fucked up was it that Katie was the one being supportive of Emily, and Naomi the one to hurt her? These weren't their roles, and Naomi couldn't help but feel a brief flash of hatred for Katie—or maybe it was jealousy, because Katie would always have a place in Emily's life no matter what she did, and the same couldn't be said for Naomi.
"Can't I just talk to her? Katie, I swear..."
Katie squared her shoulders and crossed her arms; Naomi supposed it was better than raising her fists. "She's not here. Yeah, she said she was going out—to some lezza club, whatever it's called. She's going to find someone else. Didn't seem that upset actually, she's glad to be rid of you."
"You're lying," Naomi said quietly, but she couldn't be sure. It wouldn't be the first time Emily had responded to her problems by getting off her face.
"I'm not, actually. If you wanted to see her, maybe you shouldn't have fucked some pathetic Oxford nerd boy."
"I didn't sleep with him." It was the truth, but still Naomi felt her face flush with shame, even as she boggled that Emily had actually confided in Katie. She knew they'd been getting along better after Katie had more or less got over the gay thing, but she had no idea that they were, apparently, close. Naomi had always been competing with Katie for Emily's attention, but she'd never once contemplated that she might lose.
"Congratulations on your self-restraint," Katie said. "Now get the fuck out of here, because I don't ever want to see your ugly face again."
"Katie, we're in the same class. You'll see me tomorrow."
"I'd better fucking not!"
They must have been making a racket—or specifically, Katie must have been, because Naomi could hardly encourage her voice to rise above a whisper—because at that point Emily interrupted, obviously drawn downstairs by the noise.
"What's going on, Katie?"
Katie turned and directed the full brunt of her anger towards Emily instead. "You useless fucking cow, I'm trying to get rid of her for you!"
Emily didn't reply to Katie, but edged past her and struggled out a smile for Naomi. "Hi." Even in the dark of evening, silhouetted against the hallway light, Naomi could see that Emily's eyes were bloodshot and her cheeks were damp with tears.
"Can we talk?" Naomi said, and Emily nodded. She stepped outside—Katie slammed the door behind her in a huff—and for a minute or two they walked in silence, pausing only when they reached a bus stop and Emily sat down. The bench was one of those slanted ones that you can barely perch on, hardly more comfortable than standing, but Naomi settled next to Emily and broke the silence.
"I'm sorry," she said, and it was nothing she hadn't said before, but she didn't think the words could ever be repeated enough.
"I know you are," Emily said, staring at her shoes, "but that doesn't make it easy to forget."
"No, I know," Naomi said, and fell back on another refrain. "It won't happen again, obviously."
Emily shrugged. "But what if it does? Three fucking days, and you couldn't even stay faithful?"
"Ems, it was stupid. I fucked up. But I know how to learn from my mistakes."
Emily looked at her then, and Naomi had never seen her eyes look so sad. "Do you?"
"Yes. Em, I promise."
"I don't know. See, that's the thing, I just don't know anymore." She paused and scuffed her shoe on the ground, and Naomi realised for the first time that Emily was shivering. "I thought I was enough for you, you know? I didn't think you needed boys as well, I though you only needed me."
"Come on, it's not like that at all. And I do."
Naomi looked at Emily, who seemed so defeated that Naomi wondered if this could possibly be the end. She hadn't let herself think it before, but now she felt the prospect looming, and she couldn't shake it. "Em," she said, and her voice was hoarse, "I know I hurt you, and God knows I'd take it back if I could, but is it really worth breaking up over? It was just a kiss."
"Well, in that case, why don't you go and snog whoever the fuck you want? Clearly it doesn't matter."
"No, I mean—of course it matters. I'm sorry." She looked at Emily and wondered what she could possibly say to make it better. "Please. I love you."
Emily stood up and folded her arms, but Naomi thought—hoped—it was due to the cold, and not defiance. "I can't just magically make myself forgive you, just like that."
Naomi nodded glumly. "No, I know. But you could—could you try?"
Emily stared at her for a long moment, then, shrugging, said, "Yeah. Yeah, I suppose."
True to her word, Emily had tried, and it took a while but they got past it; they dealt with it, and they stuck together. They dealt with everything—old resentments, new resentments, all their accidental fuck-ups. It hadn't been easy, there'd been friction, but they made it through. It's what they always do; the alternative just isn't an option.
"You really think we'll be all right?" Emily asks, looking at Naomi like she's completely lost.
Naomi shrugs. "Terms aren't long. Trains exist. Plus phones, and the internet, and, I don't know, carrier pigeons if all else fails. We'll be okay, I promise." She's starting to believe it. "Ems, we'll be fine. You're not getting rid of me that easily."
"No," Emily says, and even though it looks like a struggle, she smiles. "I wouldn't want to."
But things fall apart. It's not what they planned, but things change; they go to uni, their lives get busier, and with each passing day London and Durham get further and further apart. Plans fall by the wayside. Naomi's meant to go down to London during Freshers Week, before all their work starts, but there are too many people to meet, too many societies to join and never go to again, too many pub crawls to get wasted on—for both of them. Naomi gets a job at the Student Union, and that complicates things further. The visit gets postponed once, then twice, then cancelled completely to be rescheduled at a later date that never seems to arrive. They'll find another time, they say on snatched phonecalls between lectures, but they never do. The universe conspires against them, or maybe they don't conspire against the universe hard enough.
They still talk—sometimes at cross-purposes, but at least they're conversations. One time Naomi talks for at least half an hour about her course, and it's only when she hangs up that she realises she doesn't have the remotest idea what Emily said to her. Other times, they phone but never really talk at all. They try to keep things alive, but it's difficult at a distance. Turns out phone sex is just glorified wanking.
The only way Naomi gets to see Emily is online, but a bunch of blurry photos of Emily drunk in Popstarz doesn't really make Naomi feel any better. Not that she begrudges Emily having fun—and it's not like she doesn't go out and have a good time herself—but she wonders what the point is in fun if it's not something they share.
Eventually they both figure out Skype—it takes Emily a while, either because she's useless at computers or she just keeps putting it off—and that's better. They get to talk and see each other, and even though the video stream is crap and pixellated, Naomi can see things she couldn't see in photos, like that Emily's changed. It's not just that her hair's different (a little shorter; a little redder), but she looks happy and relaxed and free, like now she's out on her own she can finally be her own person. Being away from Katie has been good for her, but even though it's selfish, Naomi can't help but think it would be nice to have a bit more evidence that Emily's being away from Naomi had been bad for her. She says she misses Naomi, and they talk about visiting for real this time, but then Emily's friends call her away—it's someone's birthday, and there are shenanigans to be had.
And that's what it's like, that first term: the timing is never right. Most of the time there's enough going on to distract Naomi, and the weeks slip by fast enough that she's sure Christmas will be upon them in a flash, and then they'll be back in Bristol, together again, no more excuses.
It's November when it happens, an evening like any other. A bunch of them are in the college bar, no epic plans for the night, just a couple of drinks and a few games of pool. She's getting quite good at pool, Naomi, although after two cider and blacks she's a little unsteady and her occasional tendency to miss has become more like a habit. Her phone rings as she's taking a shot and she pockets the white.
"Shit," she says, but when she sees her phone, she brightens. "It's the missus," she says with a smile, and turns to her opponent, her new friend Mark. "Don't think this is over, I'll be back to kick your ass later."
"Like you could," he says. She flips him off and answers the phone, heading outside to be able to hear better. The reception's shit in her room so she settles on one of the steps by the lake (it's more of a pond, really, but college pride deems it a lake), and although it's cold out, the cider and her Durham hoodie keep her warm enough.
"What's up, Ems?" she asks. "How goes it?"
"Hi," Emily says, then hesitates for a bit. "Um, all right, suppose. Well, I mean—how are you?"
Naomi takes a breath and considers. "Got a seventy-two in my International Relations essay, finished all my reading for tomorrow, and now I'm speaking to my lovely girlfriend. Also, a bit drunk. I'd say it's a pretty good day."
"Shit," Emily says. "I mean, that's great. I mean—shit."
"What's up, Ems?" Naomi's starting to get an inkling that something's wrong. "Everything okay?"
"Not really," Emily says, then, quieter, "no."
Naomi's tipsy-happy haze vanishes in an instant. She hasn't heard Emily sound like this, so quiet and defeated, since—God, she doesn't even want to think about it. "Tell me," she says, not even sure what she's preparing for.
There's silence on the line for a bit, but Naomi knows Emily's not gone anywhere. She waits for her to talk, and it takes a while, but eventually she does.
"I can't do this anymore."
"What?" She can't have sobered up after all, because Naomi has no clue what those words mean. She tries to parse the sentence, but she just meets a massive wall. "What are you talking about?"
"Us, Naomi. I can't do us." Emily's voice catches on the last word.
"What?" Apparently it's the only word left in her vocabulary. "I mean—what?"
"I'm sorry, I—"
Naomi finds another word and chokes it out. "Why?"
"It's too hard." Emily sounds small and far away, and Naomi hates that that's exactly what she is. "It's too hard to... to be with you, but not be able to be with you. Eight weeks, it's been. Did you know that?"
"No," Naomi replies, honestly surprised that it's been that long. How has it been that long?
"I can't bear it," Emily says. "It feels like longer."
Naomi's brain kicks into gear as it finally dawns on her what's happening. Fight or flight. Well, that's not a difficult choice to make.
"Tomorrow," she says, "I'll come to London tomorrow. Tonight, even, if I can get a train at this time." It's past nine; she probably can't, but she says it anyway.
"I've got work to do tomorrow."
"And I've got lectures, but who the fuck cares?" She takes a deep breath, "Look, no more excuses, we'll make it happen. We can't—we can't just give up because we're busy."
"But we're always busy, and we're always far away." Emily sounds weary, like she's already made up her mind and has arguments to counter anything Naomi might say. "Even if you do come down, what then? You can't stay."
"No, but I..." She casts around to find a way to finish that sentence, but she finds nothing.
Emily is quiet as well, and after a minute Naomi thinks she can hear her sniffling. Questions start swimming in Naomi's mind, and she hates herself for it, but she has to ask.
"Did you meet someone, is that it? Tell me."
"No," Emily says, "it's not like that. I'm just tired, Naomi. I'm tired of feeling miserable all the time, and I'm tired of feeling guilty if I'm not, if I'm having fun."
"You're allowed to have fun."
"I know, but it's not like having fun with you."
"No." Naomi sighs; she knows what it's like. "It's only three weeks until the holidays. Can't we last until then?"
"But what about after?"
"We'll do better next term. Make a proper effort."
It feels like Naomi's chest is closing up, like she's been submerged in cold water. Getting words out is nearly impossible, but she manages. "Emily, what about all the promises we made? Did you just... stop loving me? Is that it?"
There's no reply for a moment, and when it finally does come, Naomi can barely hear it over the rushing of blood in her ears.
"I just want a chance to be happy. I can't... I need a clean break. I can't hold on to things from before."
"Breaking up will make you happy?"
"I dunno. But I'm not happy now, and I can't see another way." Emily takes a deep breath. "Can you?"
Naomi pulls the phone away from her ear and looks at it for a long moment, hoping for an answer to that question to dawn on her, but her mind's a great roaring blank. She hangs up; for a while she contemplates throwing the phone into the blackness of the lake, maybe smashing it on the paving slabs beside her, but what the fuck would that achieve? Nothing, just another stupid thing to regret in the morning. She goes back to her room—it takes her ages fumbling with her key, her hands are shaking that much—and when she's inside she goes to her bedside cabinet and digs out an old scrap of paper. It's still crumpled, no matter how many times she's smoothed it out, but the biro hasn't faded. When she climbs into bed she places it on the pillow beside her, and even though it's too dark to read, it's not like she'd ever forget what it says. Emily slept here :-) She wishes it were true.
The first thing she thinks when she wakes up is that she should have fought harder, and for a good long while she stares at her phone planning to do exactly that, but she doesn't know what she can possibly say to change things. It obviously wasn't a snap decision for Emily, and if she thought about it that hard, Naomi doesn't know how she could argue themselves back together. She tries to cry—it made her feel better last night, clutching that stupid note and sobbing until it was soaked through and fell apart in her hands, bits of pulp sticking to her face—but the tears won't come now, just a great yawning emptiness like an abyss she'll never reach the bottom of, no matter how long she falls. She rings her mum instead, thinking that maybe it'll help to talk about it, but words of sympathy aren't really what she's looking for and the conversation doesn't last long.
Not wanting either food or company, she skips breakfast, but she attends lectures as usual and even manages to take notes that more or less make sense. It's weird how easy it is, once she's back in the rhythm of university life, to pretend that nothing's happened—because even though there's this quiet sadness slowly gnawing away at her, it's not really that different to before. Just another day without Emily. There's a different quality to the absence now, but factually it's the same: Naomi, alone. When she tells her friends she shrugs it off, and even though they're not that close yet, they know her well enough to not talk about it. She'll deal. What the fuck is new, anyway? Back to normal after a weird eighteen-month deviation from her usual loner status.
She feels a bit vindictive when she changes her Facebook status back to 'single'. A bit upset, too, but Mark's there when she does it, so she doesn't say anything. Definitely doesn't cry. They have a rematch of their game of pool and she's a bit more drunk this time, a bit less co-ordinated. He lets her win.
The next day her mum drives all the way up to Durham just to give her a hug, not even caring about her carbon footprint or anything. Normally Naomi'd be embarrassed by that sort of thing, but they've been getting on a lot better now they don't live under the same roof, and besides, Naomi really needs a hug. Her mum brings wine as well and they get drunk; Naomi tries to rant about that bitch who broke her heart, but she can't get into it and just ends up crying a bit more instead.
By the end of term the pain has dulled a little, but when she gets back to Bristol it returns, sharper than before. Her bedroom holds too many memories. Her bed had become their bed, because it's not like they could ever stay at Emily's house, and her room still smells a bit like Emily, still feels like her too. Some of her things are still there, all mixed up with Naomi's stuff to the point where she doesn't even know what belongs to who.
The first night back, Effy rings. It's been a while.
"I heard you broke up with Emily," she says. "Bummer."
Naomi inhales, manages to say, "Yeah."
"Let's go out and get completely slaughtered."
It's the best invitation she's had in a while.
Pandora's there as well when Naomi goes to meet them outside the club. "Hi," she says when Naomi approaches, and, "Sorry."
Naomi just shrugs; she's had people saying that for three weeks and she's still not sure how to respond.
"Well," Panda carries on, because apparently she still hasn't mastered the art of keeping her mouth shut, "this'll be fun, eh? Go girls! Except—bugger—not all girls, obviously, not the rubbish ones, just—Eff, does this mean we're not friends with Emily anymore?"
"Shut up, Panda," Effy says, not taking her eyes off Naomi.
"You don't have to pick sides, Jesus," Naomi mutters. She's glad university basically split up the group before their breakup did—except, of course, if it weren't for university, there'd be no breakup. And, shit, she's thinking about Emily again.
Panda's still babbling. "Good—that's good, because I mean, Emily's—"
"Shut up, Panda," Effy says again, eyes still on Naomi.
"What about Emily?" Naomi asks.
"Nothing," Effy says, like that's the end of it.
"Right." Panda smiles meekly. "Nothing."
The club's not one Naomi's been to before, and she hates it immediately: too hot and dark and crowded, and not to mention the music's shit. But it's better than staying at home, and if she gets completely off her tits she won't even notice. Effy hands her a pill and she swallows it without even looking. Who the fuck cares what it is, as long as it does the job.
Naomi gets a drink, downs it, gets another, and then she feels numb enough—a different kind of numb to how she's been feeling, the good kind, the kind where she doesn't give a fuck about anything—that she starts dancing. She's uncoordinated and still holding her drink (splashing most of it around, whatever, anyone who cares can go fuck themselves), but this feels good, finally, music pounding so loud it's not even sound any more, just a beat that she feels deep in her bones. People grab her, but she doesn't care—they're not faces, not hands, just something to push against. She's breathless, sweating, spinning on air, until something catches her eye—someone; no, two people; two people never identical, even less so now, but people get mistaken even though Naomi never would—and there it is, the crash, earth.
It's just a profile. Just a profile, one she's studied endlessly, staring at in bed, tracing the lines with fingers, with kisses. She'd never forget, not in three weeks or three years, not in three lifetimes.
She turns before Emily can, stumbling off the dancefloor, and then she sees Effy, two giant eyes staring out of the dark, and something in her snaps, because of course. Effy doesn't protest when Naomi grabs her, does nothing as Naomi drags her to the toilets (nearly empty; a miracle) and slams her into the wall.
"What the fuck?" they both say in unison, and Naomi laughs out of sheer frustration.
"Emily's here," she says, bites out the words.
A beat. "Interesting."
"You planned this, didn't you? Fucking cunt. What gives you the right?"
Effy stares back at her, so calm it's unnerving. "You're still in love with her." It's not a question. Like Effy would ever ask a question; it's the same thing as admitting you don't know.
Her grip on Effy loosens a little. "You don't just stop loving someone because you break up."
"No," Effy says. "I know."
"Fuck off." Anger spills over again. "You were never in love with Freddie in the first place."
Effy looks at her for a long time, until Naomi lets go of her completely. Effy holds out her hand. Naomi hadn't even noticed her reaching for anything, but two pills lie in her palm.
"No," Naomi says, not because she doesn't want one, but because she doesn't want to have to take anything from Effy, maybe ever again.
"Whatever." Effy swallows them both, and when she leaves the toilets she doesn't look back. It's then that Naomi notices a handful of people staring, but she can't bring herself to care. Vaguely she thinks about going home, but sleep seems like years away and once she's back in the club the music takes hold again and she figures that another drink can't hurt.
The crowd at the bar is huge and Naomi's not flashing enough cleavage to bypass the queue. She tries to push through anyway—she really wants another fucking drink—but she ends up elbowing someone and when he turns around she sees that it's JJ.
"Bugger," he says. "I mean, hi, Naomi."
"It's okay, JJ, I know she's here."
"Yes," he says, "she's here. I-I mean, there are lots of shes here, I'd estimate that sixty percent of the patronage is female, which is surprising if you consider—"
She rolls her eyes. "You know I'm talking about Emily."
"Ah," he says. "Yes." He gets that look he always gets when Naomi mentions Emily's name to him, all guilty and embarrassed like he thinks that she still cares that he slept with Emily a million years ago. She doesn't; she did, ages ago, but it didn't take her long to get over it—and, God, that's a skill she still wishes she had.
"It's okay," she repeats, even though she's fairly certain that things will never be okay ever again. "You can be friends with her. This is obviously how it's going to be. Picking sides."
"If it helps," JJ says, "I think she still—"
But at that moment the barman takes Naomi's order, and she's doesn't think vodka's ever been so vital to her existence. JJ's words go unheard; she doubts they were important, anyway.
The time it takes her to down her drink would be embarrassingly short if she were sober enough to have a concept of shame. She finds Effy and Panda's faces in the crowd and heads over, and even though she still sort of hates Effy, she finds herself drawn to them. By this point she's pretty wasted, but the drugs don't seem to be working, not like they are for Effy, because while Effy's dancing, a blissed-out expression on her face, Naomi feels like seven hundred shades of shit.
"Got any more?" she asks, then yells it again over the music, tugging on Effy's arm, but if Effy replies Naomi doesn't hear it, because there's Emily again, closer this time, looking right at her, and something in Naomi breaks. She can't face Emily, can't look at her; she turns away and finds she's still holding onto Effy, and fuck knows why—those eyes aren't anything like Emily's, Emily would never stare like that—but still she kisses Effy in a fury, crashing their mouths together. It's hardly what she wants, but it's something at least, something to feel instead of that swallowing darkness.
It doesn't last long; they pull apart, Effy starts dancing again like she barely even registered it happening, and Emily's gone. She might as well have never been there.
"Fuck," Naomi says, yells it again and it's so loud there that no one hears. She realises how hot it is, how packed, how many writhing bodies are pressed up against her, and she feels sick. Getting out requires effort, pushing past the rising mass of people, but she gets there eventually, finds the door and gasps against the cold shock of air.
The street lurches as she walks—whose bastarding idea was it to wear heels, really?—but she keeps on, shivering and stumbling until she hears a voice behind her, quiet and raspy.
She doesn't have to look to see who it is, but she turns anyway and faces Emily. She's through with this, through with this bullshit and feeling so fucking wrecked.
"What the fuck do you want from me, Emily?"
Emily looks at her, so small and lost, nothing like the blossoming girl Naomi thought she'd turned into. "Nothing," she says, her voice catching.
"Well then," Naomi says, more venom in the words that she'd expected. Emily ducks her head and doesn't even give Naomi one last glance before she turns away.
It's funny how things work out. Naomi spends the rest of the holidays revising for her January exams and making excuses every time someone invites her out (which is less often than they used to). And then she goes back, and uni is almost like a sanctuary because here at least she has good reason not to see Emily, as well as enough going on that she's distracted from her misery most of the time.
Four days she's back before Bristol reinserts itself into her life in the most annoying way possible. Her phone rings, and it takes her a full five seconds to figure out who the hell 'Katie' is, because the fact that Katie fucking Fitch might ring doesn't even enter her head.
Once she answers the phone, though, there's no mistaking her. No one else would speak to Naomi in quite that way.
"What the fuck are you going to do, Naomi?" Katie says, before Naomi can even get in a 'hello'. "Jesus Christ, you'd better fucking sort this out."
"Sort... what? What the fuck are you on about?"
"Jesus fuck, isn't it obvious? Shit, no wonder my sister dumped you, you're such a fucking moron."
For a moment Naomi considers hanging up, because the only upside of being single is no longer having to deal with Katie Fitch, but to be honest the only entertainment she has this evening is fucking Plato, and, well, she's intrigued. Or maybe just a masochist.
"Did you ring me up just to insult me? Or did you actually have something to say?"
She hears Katie take a great exasperated breath, and then when she speaks again she sounds a little calmer.
"I can't believe I'm even saying this, but I need your help. It's all your fucking fault, anyway."
"Christ, I'm getting there, all right? Thing is, Emily is fucking miserable, has been for weeks—moped all through fucking Christmas, it was a nightmare—and you're obviously the only person who can change that. So you'd better fucking get on it."
"You do know that she broke up with me, right?"
"Yeah, so what?"
"So I think that suggests she doesn't actually want to be with me anymore."
"Of course she fucking does, you twat. God knows why, but she does."
Naomi pauses; she doesn't really know what to say. It can't be true, it doesn't make sense. She's thought about it a lot (hasn't stopped thinking about it, truth be told; her friends have all been fed up with her being in a perpetual sulk, telling her that most people don't take this long to get over a break-up) and she thought she had it all figured out. It was an excuse, the distance, just something for Emily to blame because it's kinder than saying she just doesn't care anymore, or it sounds like it's less her fault.
"She's probably upset about something else," Naomi says eventually. "If she still loved me she wouldn't have finished with me."
"You really are dense, you know that?" Katie says, her voice rising again. "She's fucking heartbroken. Didn't you see her face that night at the club?"
Naomi did, of course, but fuck if she can remember; she was more fucked up than she'd thought at the time and now all she has is a vague recollection of yelling at Emily and snogging someone she shouldn't. But she doesn't say that to Katie, instead says, "Did she actually tell you this?"
"She doesn't have to, I'm her sister. I know these things."
"Yeah, you're the fucking expert on Emily Fitch."
"It's not just me, everyone knows." Katie sighs. "Just like everyone knows you're not over her already. It's pretty fucking obvious, Naomi. Boring, as well."
Naomi shrugs, not that Katie can see. "Why aren't you saying all this to her instead?"
"You think I haven't tried? You're my last fucking resort, I wouldn't call you otherwise."
"Look, I could talk to her," Naomi says—she doesn't add that she doesn't want to, doesn't think she can put herself through that again—"but it wouldn't do any good. Nothing's changed."
Katie sighs. "Fucking hell, Naomi, are you actually mentally retarded? Then make things change."
"You'd fucking better, all right? If she's still being a miserable cow when she's home for Easter you'll have me to answer to." With that she hangs up, leaving Naomi to stare into the distance and wonder what the fuck she's supposed to think now. Because it's not like she's come to terms with things as they are, she'd never be able to get used to not having Emily in her life, but she's more or less coping. And this—this is like someone reaching into a wound that has just started stitching together again, and ripping it open. Maybe that was the point, and all Katie was trying to do was hurt her more. Occam's Razor. Katie's always hated her; Naomi'd be amazed if Katie did anything but celebrate when she heard they'd broken up.
Still, it's not that easy to dismiss; the phonecall lingers on Naomi's mind, and maybe it's the stress of the exam period sending her crazy, but it starts to sound almost plausible.
She gets an idea, and it's probably completely fucking mental but she thinks that maybe it's worth a shot. Better than the alternative, anyway, and better than not knowing.
The idea is, in measure, really fucking stupid. Naomi decides that when she's on the train, going through with it despite all her misgivings (which are many and varied and very, very vocal, shouting down the tiny little hopeful part of her brain which hasn't quite given up yet). She's talked to Katie a couple of times since that first phonecall to explain her plans, each time reassessing Katie's motivations—with Katie's every encouragement she grew increasingly suspicious, even as things started falling into place—and now Naomi has just about decided that this is all one giant prank.
Except, if this was a prank, wouldn't Katie want to be around to witness it?
She sends Katie a text—it takes a while, there's never any fucking signal on trains—one last time, just to make sure. You sure this is a good idea? She's not got any plans? The response comes quickly: Don't fucking chicken out. She'll be there.
It doesn't really help to assuage Naomi's fears, but fuck it, she's on the train already, she can't exactly turn around now. (She could, a small part of her thinks, she could always get off at Birmingham, get the next train back to Durham and save herself the heartache.) But sometimes it's easier to just keep moving in the same direction, so she stays put. After a while, she texts Katie again. If you're having me on I'll kill you, cunt. It makes her feel a little better.
When the train gets in to King's Cross it's gone eight o'clock. Naomi starts to get nervous; it's too late, surely, she should have skipped her last lecture and got an earlier train. Why does Durham have to be so fucking far away?
The tube is pretty crowded when she gets on, and warm too, even though this year February remembered it was meant to still be winter and it's freezing outside. She ends up standing squished between a bunch of people that have the indecency to be extremely tall and block her view of the tube map. Just as well the journey's simple and she has it all memorised; only two stops along the Victoria line, off at Warren Street. From there it's not far to Ramsay Hall, and she's memorised that journey too thanks to Google Maps—didn't want to leave anything up to chance, because she's too busy freaking the fuck out to be able to deal with getting lost on top of that.
She finds it, thank God. Strange to think that this unfamiliar building is where Emily is now, that she's been living here for the best part of five months and Naomi's never even seen it before. It looks like any other hall of residence, nothing special, but she wonders whether Emily's attached to it, whether she's accidentally called it 'home' yet. Probably has—and that's the worst thought of all, that Emily has this whole new life now and there's no place for Naomi in it.
The door is locked, of course. She knows this, knows from Katie that you need a key fob to get in (Katie's been there before, but not Naomi—how did Katie find the time to visit, when she didn't?). So Naomi lurks and slips in past a student, saying "All right?" to him so he thinks that they must know each other, must have talked at some freshers party and he was too wasted to remember. She has to repeat the trick a couple of times to get through some more internal doors, and then eventually she finds herself on the third floor standing outside room 308, and this is it. Fuck, this is it.
Suddenly it strikes her that maybe she should have bought a present or flowers or whatever, because it's Valentine's Day and that's supposed to mean something. Still, too late now, and it's not like Emily would give a fuck anyway. Not like a stupid bunch of flowers would make a difference.
Taking a deep breath, she knocks, steeling herself for a reply and finding herself lost when one doesn't come. Shit, she thinks, Christ on a fucking bike, Katie was having her on: Emily's out on some romantic date, probably showing some new girl Battersea (she hopes they get hypothermia and die) and Katie is off somewhere imagining this and crying with laughter. Anger floods through her and she knocks again, harder, desperate to make it not true, and when there's still no answer Naomi shouts "Emily!", not caring who the fuck hears her.
Naomi spins around and there, standing in the doorway of the room opposite, is Emily. She's holding a huge glass of white wine and behind her in the room are four or five other girls, a pile of make-up spread between them on the bed, obviously getting ready for a night out.
"What are you doing here?" Emily says—she doesn't sound angry or upset, just honestly curious—and when Naomi doesn't say anything in reply, she puts down her wine glass, shuts the door behind her and points to her own room. "Go in, it's open."
Emily's room is about the same size as Naomi's at Van Mildert, but a bit older and shabbier, and with the ugliest carpet Naomi's even seen. Naomi glances at the noticeboard opposite Emily's bed and sees that amongst the posters and photos there's a familiar blueprint, and she feels a flutter of something in her stomach that she can't quite describe, probably because it's been so long. There's not much room to manoeuvre, especially as it's a bit of a mess, so she ends up standing awkwardly by the desk while Emily enters after her, her back to the door. Naomi's not sure if she meant to trap her in, but that's how she suddenly feels, like the air's too close and there's no escape. She still hasn't managed to find any words.
"Why are you here?" Emily asks again. "I mean, I don't mind."
Naomi shrugs. "I thought we should talk. Or, Katie thought we should talk." She tries again. "Katie thought we should talk, and I agreed."
"Do you want to go somewhere?" Emily smiles a little. "We could go back to Battersea. That was pretty cool."
"No," Naomi says. "I mean, it's cold outside. Here is fine."
"All right," Emily says, and they stare at each other for a while. Naomi's spent so long practising what she was going to say, figuring out the exact right words to win Emily back, but it all seems trite and stupid now and she's going to have to wing it—except, with Emily standing right there, she can't think of a single thing to say, can't even function around her.
"You didn't want to talk at Christmas, either," Emily remarks. "I wanted to, you know, but you just fucked off."
"I didn't know you'd be there," Naomi says. "And Effy gave me something, fuck knows what... Plus, you'd broken up with me."
"Right." Emily grimaces. "Sorry."
"You should be," Naomi says, surprising herself. She grips the edge of the desk and finds the words come tumbling out without any thought or order. She only realises how angry she is when the words come spilling out. "You chased me for so long, Em. You chased me, and I was having none of it, which I think we both agree now was fucking stupid of me. So now... now I'm chasing you. It's been, what, months, and I can't get used to this, Emily, I can't. And I don't want to. I don't want to learn how to be without you." She takes a breath and finds that there are tears stinging her eyes; she wipes them away furiously. "You fucking... you made me fall in love with you, you changed me, and then you left. You fucking left, Em. How could you?"
Silence hangs around them, stretching the atmosphere taut. "I didn't want to," Emily says, her voice scratchy like she has to force it out. She looks—Christ, Naomi hates seeing her like this, like she's broken, hates that she had even a part in that, even if this time for once it's Emily's fucking fault.
"But you did."
Emily takes a step forward, but only one; there's still a distance between them, probably always will be. "Maybe things just aren't meant to work out. You know, first love. It's never the same thing as last love, is it? No one stays with their first girlfriend, they just don't."
"That's statistics, Em, it's not a fucking rule. Look, if you don't want to be with me anymore, if you don't love me anymore, fine, just say it. But don't stand there and act like it's inevitable, like there's nothing we can do. You're meant to be the brave one."
"Maybe I'm being the brave one by walking away."
She can hardly bear to look at Emily anymore; she runs a hand through her hair just as an excuse to avert her gaze. "You don't want this, then? You don't want me anymore? Fuck's sake, just say it."
Emily takes another step forward, just a little one. "Naomi, I..."
"You don't get it, do you? I do want you. More than anything. I could never stop... But I can't bear it, Naomi. Being away from you is like—it's like being back at school, pining after you, but never being able to have you the way I wanted to. I—I used to sit behind you in Maths, did you know that? And I used to get there early every day, rush all the way from French or History or wherever, just so I could see you arrive." She shrugs, helpless. "Back then, it was worth it—it wasn't much, but it was enough. But now... I can't go back to getting scraps of you now I know what it's like to have all of you. So I thought that if I can't go back, I'd have to move on."
Naomi nods; it makes a stupid kind of sense, she supposes. (And she did know that Emily sat behind her in Maths; she saw her every fucking day and never had a word to say to her. So many times she's wondered if it would have been different if she'd just turned around and said hello, if they would have had longer, if it would have made them stronger.)
"But it didn't work, did it?" Naomi asks, because that's really all she came here to find out. "You didn't move on?"
Emily shrugs. "What the fuck do you think?"
Naomi opens her mouth to say something, but they're past that point. Words can only go so far until they become superfluous, meaningless, and anyway, they already know, they know. Naomi steps forward, closes the gap between them—smaller than she thought—and kisses Emily, their motion only stopped by the door and Emily flush up against it. God, Naomi's missed this. They return to it like breathing, like there's nothing on Earth more natural and nothing that makes more sense, the whole world beginning and ending with them. Naomi grips Emily tight, because holding on is the only thing she knows how to do, and she's glad for the door, the only thing keeping them upright. Emily's hands tangle in Naomi's hair and she deepens the kiss, pulls Naomi closer and closer until there's nothing between them and Naomi can't breathe, but the last thing she wants to do is stop. She doesn't need air, not when she has this, not when Emily's lips are so soft and her tongue so greedy—and oh, Naomi wants her to take everything, will happily give it all.
And Naomi can't handle it anymore, because at once it's everything but not enough. She wants all of Emily, every inch of her inside and out, and suddenly she's confused about why they're still standing, and why they're still clothed. Reluctantly, just for a second, she backs off.
"No," Emily gasps, and pulls her back like she's starving for her, her mouth so eager. So Naomi keeps kissing, scrabbles at Emily's top until it's mostly hitched up, the smooth expanse of Emily's stomach hers for the taking. Her hands roam up Emily's body and when she feels the flutter of taut stomach muscles under her fingertips she can't help but smile into the kiss. Emily gets the idea and pulls apart for a moment, just once second for them to lock eyes and for Naomi to help her out of her top.
"Hi," Naomi says, and finally she gets to see Emily smile again.
"There's a bed over there," Emily says, before going in for another kiss. Naomi stumbles backwards, not making it far until the back of her knees hit the bed and Emily pushes her down so she's seated. Emily straddles her lap and starts tugging off Naomi's clothes; Naomi shrugs off her jacket and then Emily's hands are on her, pulling her t-shirt over her head, then her other top, and it's all so frustrating that Naomi can't believe she had to wear so many fucking layers.
She kisses Emily again, along her jaw to her neck, sucking on Emily's pulse point until she moans, and then Emily's mouth finds hers, kissing harder this time, and they fall back on the bed, fumbling until the rest of their clothes are off. There's hardly any space to move in this cramped single bed but Naomi manages to roll over until she's on top of Emily without them falling off, and then her mouth's back on Emily, kissing her neck, her collarbone, licking a trail between her tits. Mouth on one breast, palm on the other, she feels Emily's nipples harden; she bites down gently and feels Emily's moan vibrate in her chest.
And it's almost like the first time, even if there's no breeze cooling their sweat or hard ground beneath them, because Naomi feels everything newly, sharply, the same giddy rush she felt back then when everything was a revelation. Except she's bolder now than she ever was back then, because she knows this, knows Emily's body as well as her own—has stopped even thinking of them as separate entities, because there's a synchronicity in this that makes them the same.
She kisses the smooth plane of Emily's stomach and moves lower down, ghosting a breath over Emily's inner thigh that makes her shiver, then Emily's fingers thread through her hair again and she's moaning breathless encouragements.
"Fuck me," Emily gasps, "God," and Naomi's through with teasing; she tastes Emily for the first time in too long—God, she never wants to go that long without this, doesn't know how she lasted a single second—and fuck, Emily's wet, cunt slick with desire, and the way she moans, Jesus. Naomi'd actually forgotten until it all comes flooding back now, every detail of Emily vivid. She slips a finger inside Emily, then another, and it doesn't take long to find the right rhythm for her fingers or her tongue, licking at Emily's clit, sucking, alternating strokes until Emily is breathless, gasping, moaning. She knows when Emily's about to come, can hear it in the pitch of her voice and feel it in the buck of her hips, and if she were feeling cruel she'd stave off the inevitable, tease her until she's screaming in frustration, but not this time, not this time. She tongues Emily's clit, just the right pressure, quickens the thrust of her fingers, and then Emily's coming, clenching hard around the last few strokes of Naomi's fingers until her orgasm subsides. Naomi licks her fingers clean then kisses Emily back to consciousness, feeling her breathing even out.
"Fuck," Emily says, "you—fuck. I've missed this."
"Me too." She traces nonsense patterns on Emily's skin, marvelling at the feeling, and Emily looks at her like it's the first time she's seen her.
"Hi," Emily says, a slight smile tugging at her lips. "I'm glad you're here."
When Naomi wakes, it takes her a moment to orient herself. She feels constricted in a way she can't quite puzzle out, and it's only when she blinks her eyes open that she realises where she is. Her back is pushed up against the wall and Emily's still-sleeping form is in her arms, their hands loosely clasped across Emily's stomach. Smiling, she presses a kiss into Emily's shoulder, and then another and another until Emily stirs.
"Morning," she whispers. She can't see Emily's face from this angle but she remembers Emily's sleepy morning smile, the way the corners of her mouth would quirk up as soon as she saw Naomi, before she'd even properly woken up, and she pictures that smile now. It feels like that first summer again, that simple untold bliss, where all that exists is the two of them and that's all that matters.
"I missed you," she says when Emily doesn't speak, but then Emily shifts round awkwardly—there really isn't enough room in this bed—and when she sees Emily's expression, sees that regret, Naomi has to take a breath just to steady herself.
"Naomi," Emily begins, and she sighs like she doesn't know how to continue. "Last night was... You know I missed this too. Missed you. And I want this, more than anything I want this, but I don't see how."
"There's actually more stuff that I meant to say last night," Naomi admits, mouth twisting into a smile. "You know, before I got distracted by all the sex. Stuff that, I dunno, will hopefully make a difference."
"Yeah, my... circumstances changed. Or, I mean, I changed them."
Emily furrows her brow. "What are you on about?"
"I can't be without you, it's as simple as that. So I've been looking into transferring unis. And, well, LSE must have realised what a heinous mistake they made now they can see how well I'm doing at Durham, because they accepted me. Starting September, obviously."
"You...?" A smile spreads over Emily's face, but it quickly turns back into a frown. "Wait, no. You shouldn't change your plans for me, that's what you told me last year."
"Ems, I hate to break it to you, because I know you think I'm flawless, but on occasion I can actually be a massive fucking idiot."
"I actually knew that already."
Emily gives an awkward half-shrug. "I know it wasn't originally your first choice, but you shouldn't just leave Durham. You love it there."
"Yeah, I do. But rumour has it there's something in London that I love even more."
Emily grins. "You're talking about LSE, I take it."
"Obviously. What else?" Naomi bites her lip. "Look, I know September's a while off and it's not going to fix things straight away, but we can hang in there for a few months, can't we?"
"Yeah. I mean, we've survived worse."
"Exactly." Naomi takes Emily's hand and kisses her palm, then her wrist, feels Emily's pulse quicken under her lips. "No more objections?"
"Good, because it's non-negotiable, Ems. You're going to have to put up with me."
Emily leans over and kisses her slowly, like they have all the time in the world. "Well, all right then. I suppose I'll manage."