Andy's new job at Slashable was less demanding than her Runway stint, but only marginally so. She had expected that, but she had not expected to be required to develop and articulate her opinions on various concepts she only had a passing familiarity with, from privacy rights to corporate monopoly, on deadline. Every minute announcement from the tech giants had to be analyzed. Every growth spurt by a promising new startup had to have an angle. Everything had to prove or refute a point. Above all, everything had to predict something about the future.
Slashable's readers were the upper crust of the technological elite: young, white, male, intelligent, liberal, often unconsciously misogynistic, with alarmingly strong views. Airing her half-baked notions on minimum wages in her college newspaper was one thing; standing her ground against well-researched, well-articulated, monstrously long criticism on her piece titled "Crowdfunding Startups: A New Order?" was entirely another.
I see a great deal of myself in you.
Andy didn't curl up and die, for all that she was tempted to. Instead, she pored over obscure books in the nights. She read everywhere, on the subway, on breaks, while waiting for a startup founder to show up in a cafe. She ran things down by Paul in longwinded emails. His replies were even longer: patient, snobbish emails about the differences between communism and socialism, between patents and copyrights, and print and online publishing. On occasion, Andy managed to surprise him with her newfound knowledge, but that was the shining exception rather than the rule.
She loved to sneak in vague literary allusions in her technology pieces, and Paul caught nearly every one of them. Soon he was critiquing all her pieces. She tried to guess what he liked. He loved "a sea of bubbling tweets, drab little nuggets of routine and personal taste", but had hated what had followed -- "but possessing truth and even great beauty if one knew how to read the swirling patterns that transcend gender, age, citizenship and status". Over the last year, he had morphed from an elitist acquaintance, to her best critic, to something resembling a best friend, to someone whose opinion she valued above anyone else's. She called him more often that she called her parents.
Predictably, Andy didn't have much of a social life, except for Lily and Seb. She met Lily a few times over drinks, but their conversations were far too cautious to hold any interest to either of them. Neither of them was determined to break down the wariness that had somehow crept in between them, but they kept meeting and saying desultory, inconsequential anecdotes to each other, more for the sake of their past friendship than any future one.
She had eaten at Seb's overcrowded apartment a few times, and had gone rock climbing with him and Nick once. Seb was nothing like her over-energetic, ambitious coworkers, obsessed with the technology world. Andy rather liked that world, but only for ten hours a day. Seb liked nothing better than playing with Nick and going to school everyday and teaching math, disturbingly content with a job that couldn't be paying much. Andy came to look forward to the quiet home-made dinners, often joined by various teacher friends of his.
Nick, on the rare days when they met and he wasn't ill, had taken to Andy as something between an aunt and a long lost sister. He was a polite, shy child, a lot like his father, and loved to climb on to tables and buildings.
After a month's silence from the direction of Elias-Clarke, Andy found an invitation in her office mail to a Charity Ball, along with a piece of stationary that read "dress well".
Andy supposed she ought to hate Miranda. There was something wrong, something unhealthy about not hating her. She called to mind her days on Lily's couch and the faces of the interviewers. And that awful train station. The images came, but she couldn't quite summon righteous outrage. All she managed was righteous curiosity. Where was this note written from? The townhouse study or the office desk? What had caused that look of utter exhaustion on the night of Andy's visit? The only thing on Page Six was a shiny new sculptor boyfriend, who looked like he was sculpted, too.
Andy ran her thumb over the cursive letters. The note was handwritten and perfumed.
She started when her phone rang.
"Andy, sorry to bother you. I know you're probably busy--"
Andy immediately heard the suppressed urgency in Seb's voice. He had never called her at work before. In fact, he seldom called her at all.
"What is it? Is everyth-- Is it Nick?"
"He-- Oh god, Andy. Can you come now? Please? I'm-- This isn't like that other time--"
Sometimes Andy envied Seb for his quiet, gentle way of living, but not today. She envied him for nothing today. When she scrambled out of the taxi, he was coherent but still on the phone. She found him huddled in a chair outside the ICU.
"He'll be fine," Andy said, hugging him. "When did you come here?"
There were no tears in Seb's face. There was no shock, only terror and pain. It was as if he had always expected this to happen, just not today.
"Three. We-- He was at school and they called me. He'd been so good all week. We went rock climbing to that place again and he didn't throw up once--"
It was five now.
She sat down with her phone, alternately reading work emails and searching the internet for Nick's fresh symptoms, fever and hallucination, although Seb's description had been more graphic and far more terrifying. He had calmed down a little after she told him what the hallucination had likely been all about, but the calm had soon given way to restlessness. He paced the corridor back and forth and often stood staring into space.
A woman in a doctor's coat came out at last. She gestured to Seb.
"He'll live," she said. "He's one of the bravest children I've met."
Seb simply stared at her, so Andy spoke up. "What's wrong?"
"Blood infection. Can I speak to you alone?" She had addressed Seb, who seemed to come out of his reverie. "Andy is fine, she can hear anything."
Andy threw him a grateful look, and the doctor continued. "Nick has to stay here for a few days. His organs might become infected. As you know, he's failed tests for several diseases. I have a proposal for you."
The next weeks tried Andy's ability to juggle as much as Miranda ever had. Paul had come over, and he and Seb practically lived at the hospital, while Andy ferried their things back and forth. She sometimes wondered how she had been drawn into these people's lives. It was like falling in love; she was in the middle of it before she knew it was happening.
Nick's doctor had suggested that they sequence his DNA. It would reveal things about his genetic information and they might find out variations -- mutations, she had said -- of other illnesses in his family that might shed light on his particular problem. Seeing how Seb had lit up, the doctor had been quick to point out that the chances of actually finding the cause of his illness among thousands of minor variations of other illnesses were slim.
Slim, but not zero.
Andy didn't try to imagine what it would be like to have her own child go through something like this. Instead, she simply lent a hand where she could. It was a lot like coping with Miranda, actually, although she hated herself for the callous comparison. You didn't understand what was happening; you simply stayed firm, competent, almost disinterested, and kept your wits about you at all times.
For all that Andy loved Nick, she was not nearly as invested in him as Seb was, so unlike Seb, she noticed things at the hospital. She noticed, for instance, that Donna, a nurse, read Nick a story every day. She noticed that the doctors referred to Nick as Patient M when Seb and Paul weren't around. Patient M, another nameless child with a mystery disease, now discussed in medical conferences. Some of the nurses confided in her because she was not family. One of them, Felice, dreamed about Nick all the time.
Andy had started writing down what she knew about Nick's treatment. Both an archive and an outlet, she hoped it would help Seb some day if Nick lived to fall sick another time.
The day after Nick was discharged, Andy left work early to agonize over two different dresses for hours, having blown two weeks' salary into them. It was the evening of the Charity Ball. She shouldn't be going. She had promised Nick yesterday that she would watch a movie with him because Seb had to work late, forgetting for a few hours the perfumed note in her handbag. She had remembered later and had called to apologize wretchedly. Nick had said he didn't mind, but Andy knew he had bought the DVD before he'd fallen sick this time. It was about climbing the Everest.
Zipping up the Audrey Hepburn-ish gown for the last time with an air of resigned fatality, Andy decided that she had no chance in this pursuit anyway. If it was a pursuit, which it wasn't. She had carefully avoided thinking about it from the beginning, since there wasn't much to think about except decidedly prurient anatomical descriptions. It wasn't as though she was attracted to Miranda's mind, which was nothing but spite and knives. The Audrey Hepburn gown would have to do. Her makeup was ultra light, her heels were nowhere as high as Miranda's were likely to be, and her hair was held up in a somewhat severe bunch. Classic and youthful.
A battle went on in her head while the taxi snaked through the New York traffic. It went on while she paid the driver and walked into the large, victorian room full of well-dressed strangers. It raged when she spotted Miranda in a shimmering gray dress that rippled and waved from hem to neck as she moved through the room, nodding and smiling, apparently oblivious of the limelight she spilled in her wake as men and women turned from their conversations to stare or greet.
She must have spotted Andy before Andy saw her because there was no recognition in her face as their eyes met across the room. She did not start, or smile, or nod. What had Andy expected? But even Miranda couldn't take away the fact that Andy was here on her invitation. Andy glowed every time she remembered it.
It was all wrong. She was supposed to be with Nick now. She had disappointed him, and deserved to feel guilty. It was all wrong, cheap, but then Miranda had crossed the room and was air-kissing her, and here, wrapped in a bubble of Miranda's perfume and beauty, Andy didn't feel cheap at all. She felt confused, guilty and impossibly happy.
Andy knew, even as she leaned back from the air-kiss, that only a small part of her guilt had to do with today. The rest of it had to do with her confusion. Andy had always been sure. She wasn't, now. She didn't know what she would have chosen if Seb had called her today, just before this event, perhaps while she was fixing her hair in that taxi, instead of that frightening night a month ago. She would have gone to him, wouldn't she? She would have immediately asked the driver to turn around, go to the opposite end of the city, and please hurry. Wouldn't she?
She didn't know.
It was a terrible suspicion to carry.
"Andrea." Andy tried to remember Seb's panic, forced herself to remember Nick crumpled on the hospital bed, but all she saw was Miranda's face looking expectantly at her, and all she heard was the proprietary stress on the second syllable of her name. She bit down hard on the inside of her lip, but there was nothing she could do about the answering laughter in her eyes.
Miranda's companion wandered away when it became clear that he was abandoned. Miranda's posture was stiff, entirely at odds with her gaze, which ran up and down Andy's body, lingering thoughtfully in places. Andy gulped down her champagne for cover.
"How wonderful to have you back in New York," Miranda said, turning her counterfeit smile on Andy, as if their last conversation had never happened.
"How are you?" Andy said, refusing to take the bait.
"Why, Andrea, is that how people speak in Boston?"
Perhaps it was the champagne, although Andy's glass was nearly full. Perhaps it was the way Miranda drawled her name, with the hint of breath that made Andy swallow, or perhaps it was the mocking smile that Andy wanted to wipe from her face.
"I owe you thanks by the way," Andy said, watching Miranda carefully. "If you hadn't made me leave New York, I'd have never gotten this dream job. Or a wonderful, wonderful husband." She held up a hand theatrically, her smile blinding, her body preening, the gesture both innocent and inviting, and the ring caught the light. "So, thank you."
All movements stilled in Miranda. Andy knew in that moment, as Miranda's eyes followed the ring as she dropped her hand slowly, as an unfamiliar, savage pleasure raced through her, as Miranda's gaze came up to hers with a startling expression in them, that the ring, an impulsive but heavy trinket, was worth thrice its weight in platinum.
"You are welcome, I'm sure," Miranda murmured after a pause, her voice too low for Andy to catch its cadence. Andy felt that she could go home now and count the evening a ringing victory. She looked around at the well-dressed crowd and wondered if it would be considered entirely improper if she pulled Miranda into a dance now.
Miranda lifted a champagne flute off a passing tray, towards Andy. "Congratulations," she said, with no trace of a smile, fake or not.
Andy considered her move. Could she really afford to lose her job all over again? She supposed she should have thought of that before she had paraded the ring. She felt drunk, but not from the champagne, which had nothing on Miranda. Her guilt and confusion were distant memories. She had already won the evening, and she had already hit rock bottom once, thanks to this woman currently scanning the crowd even as her body was turned to Andy, probably picking out her next target. What was Andy afraid of now?
She clinked her glass with Miranda's. "I lied," she whispered and took a sip.
For a split second, it looked as though she might go home with champagne glass pieces in her face tonight. But Andy met the death glare, breathless in her knowledge that every fresh evidence of Miranda's anger was her triumph. As if sensing this, Miranda suddenly turned and swept off, dropping the flute gracefully on a table without a break in momentum.
Andy felt the growing distance between them like a breath of cold air. She remembered a phone call, and her guilt, and her awful uncertainty. She remembered the white hand resting on the desk and the lavish curves of the letters on the handwritten note. There really was nothing to decide.
She dropped her glass on the same table, and moved through the crowd in the wake of the silver coiffure, until she came to a restroom and the door shut behind her. Miranda was removing her lipstick, probably about to reapply it. They eyed each other warily in the mirror.
"Are you going to threaten me again?" Andy said.
"Oh my. How one presumes," Miranda said, looking up. Something glittered in her eyes. Not fury, not the fleeting confusion Andy had witnessed minutes ago. "Besides, you are already out of a job."
Andy's mouth fell open. She thrust her purse on the counter next to Miranda and rummaged for her cellphone, spilling the contents in her haste. Miranda ignored her while Andy grabbed the phone and scanned her email and messages. There was nothing of interest there. She looked at Miranda, who was fixing her already perfectly fixed hair. The amusement was unmistakable this time. Andy dumped the contents back in the purse, furious at herself.
For all her reckless flirtations and imagined victories, the truth, always only one step behind her, could not be escaped for long. Miranda could snap her fingers and throw Andy to the streets again. Andy did not have a violent bone in her body. She had only ever seen people hit each other on the screen, but right now, she wanted nothing more than to do something, anything that would shake Miranda out of her mocking arrogance. A slap or a kiss; it didn't matter. She took a deep, calming breath.
"I'm going home now. And you can go to hell," she said quietly, gathering the purse and her remaining dignity, and walked past Miranda to the door. She didn't go far because Miranda turned on her then, faster than Andy would have believed possible. She pushed Andy roughly against a door and pinned her against it with a force that knocked the air out of Andy's lungs.
Andy held still, nor daring to breathe, too startled to resist. A pulse was beating in a tight crease between Miranda's brows, something she had never seen before. Miranda's mouth was reined into a hard, bitter line, inches from hers. She felt a crippling fear soak her up as she looked into Miranda's eyes. Normally the color and temperament of ice, they were a dark blue now, and they were searching Andy's gaze. Andy closed her eyes against their intensity.
She was enveloped in perfume and moisturizer and something else that was distinctly Miranda, and she was still gasping from the impact on the door. Her body was drenched in heat. How did they end up here? Wasn't there something she was happy about? Her skin burned beneath her clothes wherever Miranda's body touched hers. She tried to throw her mind back, to go back in time and catch up with this moment, but all of her consciousness was trained on Miranda's breasts and mouth, which were not pressed against her.
She only meant to brush her lips and lean back, but the contact of Miranda's mouth, when it came, sent her reeling into a kiss that wasn't so much an act of passion as one of starvation. Warm, damp, melting into an impossible softness beneath Andy's crushing lips. It was hardly enough for Andy. Miranda was trembling. Andy wanted to still Miranda's body with her own, and hold her close, but she was also desperate for every last drop of evidence of Miranda's desire. She couldn't think fast enough; she couldn't breathe, and she burned all over. She had to know everything, every thought that Miranda had thought, every rush of sensation-- Why? For how long? How much? Did she burn like Andy did? Oh God, was she drenched like Andy was?
Miranda stepped back abruptly, winded and flushed. Out of balance, Andy stumbled back into the door, staring at Miranda helplessly, too dazed to protest in words. Miranda wasn't going to leave now, was she? That would be vindication, of course, far better than getting Andy fired, infinitely more satisfying-- She saw the storm in Miranda's eyes and heard the approaching footsteps at the same instant.
It was as if she was doused in cold water. "Shit." She looked around wildly at the empty bathroom. "My lipstick's on-- on you. Fix it. I'm going in," she strode into a stall and shut the door, taking deep, deep breaths and trying not to choke.
She heard the outer door creak. Miranda said something and it closed again. Feeling extremely foolish, Andy waited a minute and walked out of the stall. Miranda was reapplying her lipstick, still flushed but rapidly reclaiming her natural paleness. She was smirking. Andy grabbed a tissue and cleared her own smudged lipstick. She was about to reapply it when Miranda spoke.
"Is *that* what you are wearing?" She eyed Andy's lipstick in distaste.
Andy ignored her and leaned towards the mirror. "For god's sake," Miranda said, her hand on Andy's. "Stop that." She let go of Andy and rummaged in her bag, picked out two lipsticks, and held the third to Andy. It was deep red, deeper than Andy usually wore. Andy took it wordlessly. Miranda leaned back against a door and watched Andy apply it. When Andy was done, she simply turned and left, leaving behind her perfume and the deep red lipstick and a pounding in Andy's heart that seemed to go on forever.
By the time Andy walked into her office the next day, she had regained all the equilibrium she had left behind her in that bathroom. Far stronger and better people had fallen to Miranda's guile. Stephen was a successful venture capitalist. Alexis, her first husband, was a media mogul. Greg, the twins' father, was a famous golf player and the only one with whom her divorce had been entirely amicable. Even her rare affairs -- at least the ones that Andy knew of -- were with men of talent and fortune. Andy would focus on her career and find a girl for herself. Or a guy. She wasn't particular. She wasn't going to burn herself with whatever game it was that Miranda was playing.
"Watch where you're going, Sachs."
Andy had walked right into Donovan, her boss. He was massaging his right shoulder.
"Sorry, sorry," she stepped away.
"It's alright. Come see me later, 'kay?"
Donavan's office was marginally bigger than the cubicle Andy shared with two coworkers.
"You worked for Elias-Clarke." It wasn't a question.
"A long time ago, yes," Andy said hesitantly, feeling an eerie dejavu of her fateful conversation with Carl.
"Friends with people there?" Donavan's voice gave nothing away.
"Not much. I, uh, lost touch."
"Hmmm. You would no doubt be shocked to learn, for instance, that a top Elias-Clarke executive is being threatened with a sexual harassment suit by an ex-employee?"
Donavan's phone rang. He answered it while Andy waited in agony, her thoughts scattered and racing in different directions. He hung up after several minutes.
"Sexual harassment lawsuit? When was it-- is it-- I mean, who?" She finished helplessly.
"Ex-employee. It's not filed yet." He was distracted by the ping of an email in his computer. "Friend got a tip-off and I told him you might be able to offer a--" He glanced at Andy. "--perspective. It's nothing we'd cover of course, but he mentioned a piece on unpaid internships--"
"Who's the suit against?"
"--that you had done... What? Oh, Ravitz."
"Oh!" Andy sank into a chair while Donavan looked at her in concern.
"Andy? Did you know him?"
"What? Oh no. Not really. Umm. Can I think about this?"
"Take an hour. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that this goes no further than this room."
"Of course. I'll let you know."
Andy strode straight to the door and dialled her phone the moment her feet hit the sidewalk.
"Miranda Priestly's off--"
"Em, it's Andy. Sachs. I need to speak with her--"
"Andrea? Have you gone mad?"
"She'll want to know this. Trust me, Em. Just tell her I have something that she'd like to know."
"I'm absolutely not telling her anything--"
"One minute of her time, Em. It's all I want. Please?"
"She's in a meeting."
"Okay. Tell her, umm, let me see--"
"God, she's back. Got to go."
Emily hung up and Andy called back.
"Miranda Priestly's office."
"If you don't give her the phone, I'm coming there now and she'll be *so* pissed at you and--"
There was a jumble of voices in the background followed by an unmistakeable "'Allo". Andy smiled at how harassed Miranda sounded.
"Miranda, it's Andrea. Sorry to bother you." Andy hated herself when she heard the slightly altered way she pronounced her own name.
"I have something you'll want to hear, but I can't speak on the phone. It's important."
"It better be."
"I have to speak to you for a minute. At your office, or a cafe or someth--"
"Townhouse. 10 tonight."
She hung up.
For reasons she preferred not to examine, Andy chose to visit Seb and Nick before she had to go to Miranda's townhouse that night. They ate dinner and watched the Everest movie. What Nick lacked in diagnosis was overcompensated with heavy medication. When he fell asleep half way through, Seb paused the movie and took him to his bedroom. Andy looked around for her purse. It was nine.
"I never thanked you for everything you did."
She turned to find Seb regarding her curiously.
"Will you stay for a glass of brandy?"
There was something strange about his manner. He was acting extremely cautious.
"I'd love to," Andy smiled. She was exhausted. "But I'm meeting someone."
"At this hour? Must be someone nice." He hastened along, as if to drown out those words. "Well. Good night then. Thanks for everything." He moved closer and kissed her cheek.
Andy blinked. That was new.
"Ummm? Seb? Is everything alright?"
"Is there someone?"
Andy took a deep breath, buying time.
He simply looked at her.
"There isn't anyone." It was true enough.
He waited, and Andy saw in his face that he was waiting for the inevitable refusal. Here was atonement staring at her in the face. Atonement for the party, for an unmade choice, for the kiss, for a phone call that had betrayed professional trust, for something toxic that had crept into her when she wasn't looking and now threatened to destroy her morality compass. She smiled encouragement at him. "Do I have to wait all night here?"
She felt her heart break a little at the hesitant, boyish grin that broke across his face. The haunted look she had seen in his eyes at the hospital was not completely gone from him. Her smile vanished abruptly. It was turning gentle with pity and she did not want him to see that. Instead, she reached and hugged him. He hugged her back, careful not to crush her.
"This is probably premature, but I'm not going to beat about the bush." He murmured into her ear. "I can't afford to. You know everything there's to know." He pulled back and looked into her eyes, his arms still around her, all muscle and strength and warmth, and she sagged into their comfort. "Will you marry me?"
She stared, shocked more by the unbidden face that flashed into her mind than the awkward proposal itself. She swallowed.
"Don't answer now." There was no pleading in his face. If anything, he looked stern. "Tell me later."
"Good night then." He kissed her cheek again.
"Good night," Andy said and walked to the door.