This just came to me today and wouldn't let me work on anything else I'm supposed to be working on until it was written. I think I may, in the future, expand on one or possibly all of these ideas, so if anyone has a favorite they'd like to see fleshed out, let me know! Oh, and the title/lyrics are by Brand New, not moi.

Secondhand Smoke

I. You are so fragile and thin

Emma stops eating after the shooting.

It's not an intentional thing; she doesn't set out to avoid the foods she used to love, like chocolate and smoothies and all kinds of edible innocence. But her stomach clenches every time she even thinks of filling it; her system shuts itself down at the idea of being nourished.

Her mother cooks her dinner to take her mind off things and she forces herself to take a few bites. Chewing slowly, deliberately, she tells herself that she feels fine, that it doesn't taste like ashes. Eating is healthy and healthy is normal and normal is living and Rick is not.

She throws up in the bathroom with the shower pounding to muffle the sound and will never look at Spike's meatloaf the same now that she's seen it in reverse.

A few weeks pass. Emma buys clothes that are too loose and wraps her body in them like a shield or a mourning shroud. Her waistline continues to shrink, her ribs start to protrude oddly, and she does not let anyone close enough to feel the difference.

Sean looks at her oddly whenever they pass in the hallways and the already-existing knots in her stomach tighten painfully as their eyes connect. She's careful to keep her gaze on the floor and to take roundabout routes to classes, but eventually, as all things do, he catches up with her.

"You have to eat something, Em," he commands without preamble, having looped his fingers around her bony wrist and pulled her into an empty room.

"How can I eat?" she fires back, because she is so full of anger and he's always been good at handling whatever she throws at him. "How does anyone expect me to eat and smile and do my homework when Rick never can again?"

Saying his name aloud unleashes the torrent she's been holding in and without warning, Sean has a sobbing, gasping mess of a girl in his arms. Emma cries until there are no more tears left, until all the sorrow and guilt that have been residing in her gut have streamed out and she is gloriously, exhaustedly, empty.

"You're okay, you're okay," Sean whispers, soothing words that mean nothing and everything at the same time, and she thinks she might finally have room to let them sink in and take root. "Just let it all out. Everything will be okay."

II. Standing trial for your sins

There is a struggle between Sean and Rick and then there is a shot – a short, staccato bang that makes everyone jump and Rick's body jerk in a strange way – and then there is silence.

Emma and Toby don't know what to say and Rick opens his mouth but only pained, shallow gasps come out and Sean is shaking too badly to make any sense at all. His palms are warm from clutching the smoking gun's metal and all he can feel is relief that it is not Emma's blood on his hands.

Later, they all clamor to tell the story to anyone who will listen. Emma marches up to groups of reporters and Toby speaks quietly but confidently to the guidance counselor and Sean stares Rick's mother's lawyer in the eye and they all have the same sad song to sing: "It was self defense."

Sean knows better than anyone, it is a kill or be killed world, but he hates the stuttering, stumbling boy for making him choose. He hates him because his mother refuses to acknowledge what her only child became and there is a trial and he is put on display as if he is the one who deserves judgment.

It's a tiring process, being morphed into a monster by the lawyer of a ghost, and Sean can barely find the energy to drag himself home and loosen his tie and fall asleep with his head in Emma's lap. Understanding, she laces their fingers together and begins her nightly procedure of fitting his tattered pieces back into place.

She can see how heavily the guilt weighs on him and she tries to shift the blame, but her small hands can barely wrap around it. "You saved my life," she takes to reminding him at the oddest intervals, when they are standing in line for a movie or in between third and fourth period.

It takes five weeks for a verdict to be handed down, and Sean scoffs under his breath as the head juror reads it. If there is one thing he will ever be again, it is innocent. Still, forgiveness is forgiveness, and Rick's mother may not have it and Rick may be unable to give it, but twelve strangers' opinions make it official and he begins to breathe a little easier.

That night, when their fingers interlock, he tugs her hand gently to his mouth and presses a kiss to her knuckles. "You saved my life, too, you know," he tells her, and wonders how it took him so long to see that her warm smile is all the redemption he's ever needed.

III. Holding onto yourself the best you can

Three days after Rick dies, his body is lowered into the ground amidst a small crowd of family. Sean attends the funeral and tosses a handful of dirt and a heartful of regret onto the coffin's lid and then he buys a bus ticket to Wasaga Beach.

He stops only once on his way out of town, gaining entry into the Nelson household for the first time in years so he can look Emma in the eye while he says good-bye. He assures her it won't be a permanent thing, but his eyes are somber and he confides that the ocean makes him feel alive and he needs to make sure he still is.

At school, things get worse instead of better, and Emma would have laughed at that a month ago because she wouldn't have thought it was possible. People avoid her gaze, skirt her path in the halls, do their best not to come in any contact with her lest tragedy be contagious.

The only one who doesn't have any problem touching her is Jay. Maybe it's his penchant for danger, maybe he just likes the thrill of rebellion, but his hands are warm and real on her skin, his lips a reminder that yes, Emma Nelson, you can still feel some things. You are not dead.

Somewhere deep down, buried beneath even the nightmares of Rick she tucks away in her mind like a secret, she knows that it is wrong, wrong, wrong. But then Jay twists his fingers just the right way or tangles their tongues together and all she cares about is the fact that she is alive.

"Think about what you're doing!" Sean shouts at her, because he has driven a hundred plus miles to wish her a happy birthday only to find her making out with Degrassi's resident jackass. "Jay can't possibly make you happy."

"I don't care!" she screams back, just as angry. "You left, Sean, not me, so you don't get to criticize how I'm picking up the pieces."

That stops his yelling, because her voice cracks on his name and he realizes that she's not entirely at fault. "You're right," he admits, defeated. "I left, Em. I thought it was what I needed to do to be okay. But as soon as I got there, I figured out that the ocean didn't make me feel alive anymore. It's you."

Her heart swells with his words. If she thought skipping class and sneaking around with Jay made her feel alive, then she doesn't have a description for the feelings Sean stirs inside of her. It's like being made whole when she didn't even know a part of her was missing.

"Emma?" he asks, tentatively, when his confession has garnered no response. "You wanna say something? Now would be a great time to jump in."

She's wasted too much time on words that don't do her thoughts justice, she thinks. Instead, she closes the distance between them and wraps her arms around his neck so that their hearts are aligned within their chests and beating in perfect harmony.

IV. You are the smell before rain

The day of Rick's funeral, the skies open up and a downpour is released onto the world below. Emma lays in bed and listens to the rain pounding against her window like a plea and pretends to be asleep when her mother checks on her. It rains for a solid week and sometime between days two and five, Sean moves back home without leaving her so much as a note.

When the sun finally deigns to shine again, Emma waits until it has set and everyone in her house is fast asleep, and then she tiptoes out and sneaks into the cemetery. Kneeling at the tomb, she traces the engraved letters with her fingers, waiting for this invocation of his name to conjure up the truth of Rick.

She goes back night after night, as if the epitaph is a map that will give her the answers she needs. Two months later, she still hasn't found what she's looking for, and she's supposed to be driving to school but she takes a left instead and doesn't allow herself to think about the direction she's now heading in.

The sky is dark and cloudy, a storm obviously brewing, and she doesn't know if that's a bad omen or just somewhat appropriate. Sean is on the beach anyway, incoming squall be damned, and her feet don't make a sound on the sand as she approaches him from behind but he turns around just the same.

"I thought I felt a change in the weather," he greets her, one corner of his mouth lifting like the arms of a warm embrace. "How're you doing, Em?"

Like a puppet on a string, she feels her own lips curving into a smile. "Coping," she lies neatly, and is relieved when he doesn't call her on it. "How are you?"

He takes a moment to roll the adjective around on his tongue before releasing it into the air between them. "Good," he says, and it surprises both of them how easily it comes to him. "I'm doing really good. My parents have helped me out a lot with, you know, everything. I got into University for the fall."

"Wow." Nodding, she tries to think of something else to add, but her mind is suddenly a blank slate. As if from a great distance, she hears the truth spilling out of her mouth, "I'm not coping at all. I'm failing classes. I can't breathe in my house. I don't know what to do with myself."

Sean doesn't hesitate, not even for a second, and years later, she'll always think of that as the first reason on the long list of why she loves him. He takes her hand, clasps it in his, and she thinks, Yes. I'm home. With his free hand, he tilts her chin upward and directs her gaze to the sky.

The clouds quiver with the water they've been holding in, and then the dam breaks and rain falls in fat droplets around them, spattering their skin, and Sean lifts her up and spins her around until she is breathless with laughter and she wonders how she ever forgot how beautiful the world could be.

V. You are the blood in my veins

Emma makes a surprised noise when the gun goes off, a half-gasp, half-moan sound that will echo in Sean's nightmares for weeks to come, and then she drops to the floor.

He catches her before her head connects with the tiles, but it's too little of a heroic act and far, far too late. Dropping to his knees, he cradles her in his lap, gathering her splayed limbs like a selfish child would gather all their favorite toys close to their chest so that no one else could enjoy them.

"Get help!" he screams out, and he doesn't know who he's yelling at or who finally listens but the paramedics arrive and pry him away from her and inject a needle into his arm and he doesn't really remember anything after that.

When he regains consciousness, Toby is by his bedside, and he learns that Rick has been arrested and Jimmy is dead and Emma almost was but is hanging on. He demands to see her and sends up a prayer that it is Toby who was elected to watch over him, because Toby is easy to convince and even easier to scare.

She's awake and alone, both things he didn't expect. She sort of smiles when she recognizes him, a light goes on in her eyes, but she doesn't say anything. She only moves herself over to the far side of the bed and gestures to the space she's made for him.

Sean crawls in beside her, thinking he shouldn't be this lucky, to have her alive and well and curling up against his body like he is her home base. He doesn't deserve it, after almost letting her go earlier. But he isn't selfless enough to walk away from the gift she is offering.

"I think … I want to tell you this now," Emma speaks up, her voice hoarse and scratchy. There's a tube snaking down her throat and he feels choked on her behalf. "I love you. Just in case … just in case. I really do love you, Sean."

He closes his eyes against the heavy prospect of what she's not saying. "I don't want to hear your deathbed confessions, Em," he tells her. "Not for another eighty or so years, okay?"

"You're supposed to say it back," she reprimands him dryly.

Her tone makes him laugh and it should be weird, to hear his own laughter as he lies in a hospital bed with the girl he loves, who has a bullet hole in her abdomen, but it somehow just feels right. "I love you, too," he says dutifully. "And I'm going to stay here with you until you're one hundred percent better. And then I think we should go to prom."

Emma's hand moves across his chest, her palm splayed flat against his heart as she soaks up the slow and steady rhythm of him, tries to infuse herself with his strength. "It's a date," she agrees, and it might be her imagination or wishful thinking or the medicine finally kicking in, but breathing gets a little easier.