Actions

Work Header

Consume Me

Chapter Text

"An expose? Is *that* why you brought me here?"

Andy waved her hand wildly. She knew Carl wouldn't be fooled by her incensed voice. There was simply too much Tequila in her bloodstream for genuine anger.
"What's wrong with it?" He drank the last of his beer and signaled to the bartender for another.
"What's wrong with it? What's wro-- There's nothing right with it!"
"Andy, I hate to put this weight on those beautiful shoulders of yours but--"
"I'm *so* going to drag you to court for that," Andy muttered, morosely licking the salt on the rim of her glass.
"That would be a nice distraction. Might even become a scandal if we're lucky."
Andy said nothing. She didn't want to hear what Carl had to say about the magazine. Three layoffs in the last week. Rumor said The Mirror had six months. She didn't want to be talked into writing this particular piece.
"Even if I were to do it, in theory, you don't exactly want an expose on Runway, do you?"
"In theory, I want exactly that."
"Really? When did The Mirror's readers become so keen on fashion?"
"Don't be tiresome. You know the spin we need."
"Why don't you spell it out for me? Snow Queen shacks up with No. 4? Would that do it or do you want pictures?"
"I don't care. If you don't like the sex angle, go for something else that would sell. Ex-Runway-Employee tells all. Or fur. There's always fur and winter's coming up."

They stared at their drinks. When Carl spoke again, his voice no longer held its habitual warmth.
"I don't know, Andy. We are not at the end of our ropes yet. The online section will survive if I have to keep it together with my bare hands... even if you don't do this. I created it and it's going to live. Just another year and we'll be out of this recession. Our visits are going up every week, and this social media thing might just be our big break if we played it right."
Carl's voice had started out with a note of wonder in it, as if he couldn't believe what he was saying, but when he finished, he was the same old unflappable Carl again. Andy reached out and held his free hand.
"This beer is such swivel," he complained.
"That it is," Andy agreed.

===

After days of arguing with Carl, Andy had decided to go with the subject of unpaid internships. An ex-Runway-intern had sued Elias-Clarke last month but it hadn't yet garnered much attention in the news. Andy's report, lightly peppered with statistics (500,000 unpaid interns in the US), took a shot not at a single magazine, but at fashion industry as a whole, calling an end to the shameful practice that was particularly epidemic in fashion. Andy found that she could channel an outrage that she did not immediately feel towards the issue at hand if she thought about other, more personal events, such as her last breakup. Her heart was not in her words, but they were reinforced with her habitual diligence and extensive research. She was in the middle of last minute polishing when the phone rang.

"I'm working, Carl."
"Sorry. Is the thing ready?" Carl's tone was apologetic.
"No. Deadline's next week!"
"I know. It's just-- Andy, something's come up and I wondered, can you get it in by morning?"
Andy remembered that Carl wasn't one to harass his employees and kept her patience.
"Why?"
"There's gonna be another lawsuit and it will be filed tomorrow. Ex-employee. Elias-Clarke vs. Jonathan Stark."
"Oh."
"Will you do it?"
"Sure. Count on it." There was no reason not to do it.
"Thanks, Andy. I'll appreciate it."
Carl hung up.

Andy went back to her computer and was entering search keywords to read up on this new court case when her phone rang again. She answered it irritably.
"How do you expect me to turn it in by--"
"Andrea, it's Emily. I have a message for you."
"Emily? Wow, long time! How are you?"
"Miranda doesn't want that internship article published this week and I want your assurance that it won't be."
"Huh? How does she even--"
"It doesn't matter. She said you are free to do what you like next week, but not this week. It would be... inconvenient to have it out this week. Andrea, I can't believe I have to spell this out for you--"
"Sorry, Em, can't do that. Not even for you."
"She also asked me to inform you that she will remember this gesture."
"Can I choose the gesture she'll remember? How about--"
"Andrea, I haven't got all day for your nonsense."
"Fine. It is going in this week. Bye, Em."

Andy hung up, and considered the many ways in which Miranda could've learned about the report, a report that didn't even contain information that wasn't already public. Maybe Andy's home was rigged with cameras. Maybe Miranda was the big brother. Maybe Carl spoke to someone-- Oh. Andy hadn't exactly been quiet about her work at the office. If someone asked, she was usually generous with details. It was easy to forget the publishing world was often like a high-school.

===

Andy swiped at the phone vaguely, more than half-asleep, trying to silence what she thought was a wayward alarm, when she heard an unmistakable voice drawling her name on the other side.
"Andrea."
Andy jumped up from the bed and dropped the phone on the floor. She cursed and picked it up.
"Hi?" She said cautiously.
"Honestly, Andrea. Are you in a circus?"
Andy was wide awake by now. She took a deep breath, mentally training her voice for sophisticated-and-business-like, and not sleep-deprived-and-terrified. And definitely, absolutely not squeaky-adoring.
"I'm great, Miranda. How about yourself?"
"I'm done asking nicely. If that article goes on print or online before Monday, within a week you will be crawling back into whatever miserable little hole you crawled out of. Times, Daily News, Post, Newsday, Telegraph, they'll have your name and picture taped on the noticeboard for all eternity. Do I make myself clear?"

'Yes.' She bit the word back before it slipped out of her traitorous mouth and stared at the ugly brown wallpaper in her bedroom. Miranda's voice was cream and silk. It dipped and swirled, and if Andy didn't understand it, she would have been enraptured.
"Are you there?"
Miranda's fury was the stuff of urban legend. Andy never found out the truth behind half of the stories she had heard in Runway. She wondered how much of that was deliberately manufactured myth.
"Yes, I'm here. The article is going in today."
Miranda hung up, leaving Andy to ponder what professional ruin looked like in all its suffocating despair. She supposed she might find out soon.

Two hours later, she walked into the unnatural quietness of The Mirror office. It was only seven in the morning, and sleep was the last thing on Andy's mind after Miranda's phone call. It must have been made from the townhouse. Andy wondered stupidly if the twins had been asleep and Miranda had called from her study. She shook her head clear.

News of the fresh lawsuit trickled out at eleven. Andy's article was published fifteen minutes later. The website visits shot up as if on cue. Carl beamed. Andy bit her lip and waited for something to happen. The day passed slowly while the comments piled up on Andy's story. Andy saw Carl hurry outside his office at three. It was six hours before he came back, but Andy was waiting for him when he strode directly to her desk. She saw it written in his face.

"Am I fired?" She asked quietly.
"Oh, Andy." Carl's voice betrayed his exhaustion. He had aged far more than the fair share of six hours.
"Are you sure? Can't you fight or something? Carl, surely--"
"Why didn't you tell me about those calls from Elias-Clarke?"
Andy sighed.
"I'm sorry, kid. I can't-- There is no notice period. I've been thinking... I'll let you stay on as freelance for a couple of months. And that will have to be under a pseudonym--"

Suddenly, Carl reached and hugged her. Andy hugged him back fiercely. He smelled his usual coffee and cigarette smoke, except for a faint whiff of whiskey. There was something wrong about the smell here in office. It spoke of defeat.

"Carl, will you at least tell me what happened?"
He stepped back and looked around contritely.
She took his arm. "It's okay. Come, let's go get a drink. Another one, I mean."

Walking out of the office, anxious to make the most out of these few minutes before fear took over, Andy vowed silently that whatever this was, it won't break her. She felt something bubbling inside her, threatening to burst out any moment. She didn't think something like this would have broken Miranda. A hysterical laugh escaped her at that thought.
"Are you alright, kid?"
"Of course." Andy laughed again. She felt lightheaded and free; she was riding a mindless high, something better than alcohol.

===

Two weeks later, Andy had seven grand in savings, no job, and eight rejections. The rejections were coached in generic words, but the apology in the eyes of the interviewers -- the interviews courtesy of Carl's glowing recommendation -- told a different story.

Two months later, she woke up to her phone's vibration on Lily's couch. She had moved in after three weeks of unemployment and had started a diet of beans and eggs, because she didn't know how long this would last. She didn't keep an alarm anymore because it disturbed Lily and her boyfriend in the bedroom. She also didn't need an alarm anymore because she could not bear to be in this house while the lawful tenants were around, and automatically woke up every day at 6. She would shower and go to a nearby park, typing away at her laptop until its charge ran out five hours later. Lily would be at work by then, and Andy would come back for a quick brunch, her heaviest meal of the day, and submit job applications and freelance articles to various publications. By five, she would leave the apartment again and work her shift a few blocks away. Lily was often asleep when she came back, but at other times, Andy would hear voices in the apartment and wander away to a neighbor park. Luckily, there were plenty of those. She never slept a night outdoors, however, and spent all weekends at the library and the parks. Lily did not like Andy's withdrawal, but she stopped saying anything after the initial weeks.

Andy had made a few friends at The Mirror but their hushed, understated sympathy grated on her. She repeatedly declined their invitations to hang out until they stopped calling her. She met Carl twice, but the second time he offered her money and she walked out of the bar. She spoke to her parents twice every week, hating herself more with every new lie about her day. She hadn't told them anything of her freshly derailed career.

The phone vibrated again and Andy answered it, keeping her voice as quiet as possible.
"Hello?"
"Be at my office at 10. That's all."
The line went dead. Andy dialed the number back.
"'Allo."
"I need more explanation than that."
"You are not getting it."
"You want to derive some sick amusement, gloating over me?"
The line went dead.
"Bitch." Andy threw the phone on the couch.

She showered and dressed in one of the few Runway outfits she still had: the flowery red ruched blouse that hugged her body and had won her Miranda's glance of approval once long ago, black cardigan with an interesting knot at the front, black pants, three inch flats. She left the house when she heard Lily stirring, and got off the subway three stops before Runway's stop, planning to walk the rest of the way to pass the time. The icy wind blew her hair into a mess, but it also took her out of the gloom that was descending upon her with every step she took towards Runway. She had no idea why Miranda wanted to see her, but it couldn't be for anything good.

By the time the Elias-Clarke building loomed into view, it was only 9:00. Andy passed the time tracing her path back and forth. She considered getting a starbucks for herself to calm her nerves, but it was more a brief exercise in restraint than real temptation. She walked into the building at 9:55, feeling like an intruder, but when she got out of the elevator on Runway's floor, it was as if she'd never left.

Emily was right there at her station whispering threats into the phone, and a new assistant was typing at the computer with her eyes flicking towards Miranda's office every few seconds. Two clackers pushed a trolley of bags and purses past Andy into the elevator. Miranda was standing in the office, leaning against the side of her desk, peering through the glasses into an oversized notebook, just as if she had not been the sole cause of Andy's new barista job and steadily growing terror. The stern lines of her suit were supposed to conceal the soft curves, but on Miranda, they stressed them. The impossibly high heels were casually worn, as if she was utterly unaware of the pain that went with wearing them. Between the iconic silver hair, the glittering white stone in the open collar, the dark blue of the suit stressing the ivory paleness of her skin, it wasn't so much that Miranda belonged in that glass-panelled room of light and space as the room seemed to be designed around her. Andy had never seen her in this shade of blue before, and the suit promptly replaced the Valentino gown in her mind as the most beautiful thing she had ever seen on a human being.

Miranda scribbled something in the corner of the notebook. Andy realized she was holding her breath, exhaled slowly and walked in, head held rigidly high. Neither Emily nor the other assistant paid her any attention. She was inside the office when Miranda spoke without looking up.

"Andrea. How nice to see you. Please take a seat."

The voice was pure cream again, but this time it held a note of venomous politeness. Andy wasn't sure what more this woman could do to her, but she already sensed the constant danger that one felt around Miranda. She swallowed and hesitated momentarily before choosing the chair closer to Miranda. Her first impulse had been to sit as far away as possible, but she was not about to display weakness.

The corner of Miranda's lips twitched slightly before settling into their habitually disapproving line. She put the notebook down and ran her eyes over Andy, the scorn and the malice in them palpable. At this distance, the eyes were bluer than Andy remembered, but it might have been the dress bringing the color out.

"The editorial team has a vacancy. Associate copy editor, reporting to assistant copy editor, reporting to copy editor."
Andy stared. This was the last thing she had expected to hear. Miranda tilted her head, the gesture so quintessentially Miranda that Andy nearly smiled.
"It's yours if you want it."
"Really?" Andy croaked, hating the hope that was filling up in her heart.
"Really," Miranda smiled. It was not the genuine smile that sometimes used to flash Andy's way.
"But what?" Andy realized she would take this job, regardless of the sting of working under Miranda again. She gripped her hands together to hide the shaking in her fingers.

"The copy editor was..." Andy held still while Miranda fixed her with another piercing gaze. The white stone in her throat caught the light. "...impressed... with that drivel you came up with. I wouldn't mind giving you another chance myself. In exchange for this, shall we say, generosity, I want a series of articles."

'Drivel'. It wasn't Andy's best piece by a long shot, but the word stung. She looked down at her hands. "What articles?"
"Not on Runway, of course, but on the website. Unpaid internships done for college credits. You know the, ah, spin." No trace of the smile now.
"Oh."
"Yeah, oh." Andy looked up in surprise. She was being teased, but the demand was real.

Andy blushed in shame when she realized that the first thought in her head was one of a hot shower in her own home, followed by one of a mattress. A real job again. Miranda wanted Andy to go back on what she had written, and she wanted that to be public, on Runway's website, the magazine cited twice in Andy's original article. Ostentatiously, the worst consequence of such a series of articles would be the shredding to pieces of any credibility Andy might have been able to build in the future. But Andy wasn't blind anymore. If nothing else, the last two months had taught her something about human dignity. The articles wouldn't shred Andy's credibility alone. They would tear at Andy's sense of self-worth. It would be a long, long time before she can once again summon the moral assurance necessary to write anything at all.

"Well?" Miranda's face was a mask.

Andy sighed. She would get to work with Miranda again, at least occasionally. In a year or two, everything would be forgotten and she might be able to leave on good terms again and restart her career.

"Thanks, Miranda," she said softly, surprised at the sudden, inexplicable urge to say Miranda's name. "But I can't take it."
"Don't be ridiculous, Andrea. You are finished. I'm throwing you a lifeline. A few years down the line, nobody would recall--"
"I know." Andy stood up and smiled sadly at her. "It was nice seeing you too. Give my best to the girls, won't you?"
She walked out before she lost her nerve.
"Andrea."
She turned at the door.
"The job is yours if you come back within six months."
She almost ran to the elevator, and felt Miranda's blue eyes on her until the doors closed.

 

Chapter Text

Three weeks later, after spending days walking past the Elias-Clarke building with the twin temptation of the job and the possibility of seeing Miranda again in all her morning glory, Andy got drunk and bought two tickets, an Air Delta ticket from Boston Logan International to Cincinnati Kentucky International with a departure date that was two months in the future, and an Amtrak ticket from New York Penn Station to Boston Back Bay with a departure date of tomorrow, setting her net worth back to a precious four grand.

The next morning she woke up next to a perfect stranger and was in the shower before she remembered the tickets. She dressed and rushed to Lily's. This was one of those drunken decisions triggered by the survival instinct of her subconscious and she was going to see it through.

Lily had not been home, so when the train left the glittering city behind, there had been no goodbyes. Andy settled into a seat, grateful for the silence, and called Nate. She left no voicemail when he didn't pick up. They had spoken sporadically before Andy had been fired from The Mirror, and he had called once afterward to offer help. Lily must have tipped him off. Andy had hung up on him and he hadn't called again. She left a polite text asking if she can stay in his couch for a month, her desperation showing only in the note's conspicuous bluntness. Then she slipped off into an uneasy sleep, clutching her phone, and was shaken awake several hours later by a fellow passenger.

"I think it's your stop next," he said. "Here, you dropped this." He was holding her phone. She took it and thanked him. He was around her own age, his blond hair and boyish features standing out against an outrageously purple sweater.
"Anyone coming to pick you up?"
"No, I don't think so."
He leaned back in his seat across the aisle from her.
"Want a ride somewhere? I left my car at the station."
"No, thanks."
"Frank. Frank Templeton." He offered his hand and she shook it.
"Andy."
"Nice to meet you, Andy. You go to school here?"
"Nope."
Awake now, she checked her phone for messages. There was nothing.
Frank was waiting for her to elaborate.
"Visiting family."
"Oh." He nodded. "I'm the reverse. My cousin lives in New Jersey. I go to MIT."
They were silent for a while when Andy's phone vibrated. She answered it.

"Andy! Where the hell are you?" Andy felt guilty at the obvious panic in Lily's voice.
The train slowed and Frank stood up and reached for his bag in the overhead locker.
"Lily, I'll call you back in a second."
"Where are you?"
Frank got Andy's rollerbag down and they walked together to the exit.
"I'm going to call you back, okay?"
"Just tell me where you are."
"Boston. I hope."
"What the hell did you--"
"Lily, I had to do this. I'll stay at Nate's and start looking for something. Don't say anything to my mom, please? Not yet anyway."
"Fine, fine. You could've told me you were leaving."
"I'm sorry."
Andy adjusted her backpack and dragged her Rollerbag towards an empty bench. Her fingers were already numb from the freezing night air. Tiny, fluffy snowflakes were settling on her shoulders.
"Lily, I'll call you back. I got to go."
"Alright, take care of yourself, bye."

It was one in the night. Andy looked around at the rapidly emptying station. She was shivering, but if she got all her sweaters out, she should be able to spend the night here and be alive to call Nate in the morning.
"So, visiting family, eh?"
She looked up to find Frank grinning at her.
"Leave me alone," she huffed and went back to digging out sweaters from her bag.
"What are you doing?"
"Nothing. Please leave."
He sat next to her on the bench and fished out two Mars bars, tore the wrappers and held both out to her.
"Pick one and I'll eat the other. Just so you know they aren't poisoned."
She took one and tried not to wolf it down.
"My roommate isn't home for another week." He looked even more like a boy now that he was brushing snow out of his face. "You can sleep on my couch."
"Thanks for the chocolate, but no thanks, I can't do that."
"Are you sure?"
Andy nodded and stood up to find a bench away from him when the train station suddenly swayed. Frank's arm shot out and she gripped him for support, blinking away the black spots. She had fainted only once in her life more than a decade ago, although there had been several close calls. Something metallic was rushing in her bloodstream to her head now. Terrified, she simply sank bank into the bench. Her last meal before the chocolate had been two boiled eggs for lunch yesterday. When she opened her eyes, several minutes had passed and Frank was nowhere to be seen. Her backpack and rollerbag were tied to her hand. She began to untie them when he plopped down beside her.

"Here," he pushed a hamburger under her nose. "Nothing else was open. Didn't know what you liked. That's a cheeseburger. There's a McChicken and coke inside." He pointed at a paper bag he was holding.
She took the burger and mumbled her thanks.
"I'll have the McChicken then," he settled into the bench, carefully arranged the coke cans between them. Andy ate in silence while he chatted on. "It's so pretty outside. It becomes dirty snow in a few days, of course, and then it becomes ice and it's kinda annoying. Everyone here hates the snow. I suppose you've seen it all before but this is only my second time. I miss Texas a little but I think I'll stay here forever--"
"You said you had a couch?"
He nodded, taking his first bite.
"Can I stay there tonight?"
He nodded again.
"Thanks."

Frank's Ford Focus was parked in the station. It was a gift from his mother, he explained apologetically, as if Andy's impoverishment was somehow his fault. He pulled out of the station, his maneuvering awkward, and settled into an enthusiastic chatter. Frank's mother was a successful attorney in Dallas, where he had grown up. His father had died a few years ago and he was an only child. Did Andy like New York? He preferred Cambridge to anywhere else. His apartment was at Somerville, another twenty minutes away. He took the tee to MIT everyday. He had a roommate who was leaving in two months and moving in with his girlfriend. The three of them were working on an internet startup together. Andy was going to just love it here. Could she see the Charles river in the distance? Wasn't it gorgeous? Andy should have come three weeks ago; Fall was when Boston looked its best. Did she like biking?

"I don't like girls," he volunteered suddenly. "I mean, I'm gay."
"Oh," Andy was charmed. "Me too."

===

The next morning, Andy woke up to a frantic call from a hungover Nate who was convinced that she was mugged and left to die on a sidewalk. Once reassured of her well-being, he offered her his couch and shower. She thanked him and hung up. Frank had made her take his roommate's room over her half-hearted sleepy protests. She showered and dressed, careful not to leave traces of herself and walked out to find a note scrawled in an untidy handwriting.

"Andie, Good Morning, hope you had a good sleep. There's pizza and milk in the fridge. Call me if you need anything - 6171358262. Wifi passwd is the reverse of that. I'll be back after dinner."

She ate a slice of cold mushroom pizza feeling like a particularly amateur burglar, looking out at the quiet, alien streets of Somerville, but not particularly afraid. She felt the flight ticket sitting in her inbox at all times like a talisman pinned to her chest. The solid deadline reduced her shapeless dread into four words: two months, four thousand dollars. It was all-in.

She connected her laptop to the wifi and set to work, emailing her resume to every single publication in Boston and Cambridge. It was a generic email with a single paragraph tailored to each magazine. She would ask Nate to find her a cafe job tonight.

Eleven days after she got down the train in Boston, one month before a glorious white Christmas that she would spend alone but not unhappy, Andy Sachs was once again gainfully employed at The Somerville Times for a pay that was slightly more than the barista salary. This last fact did not stop her, Nate, Frank and Frank's roommate from emptying two bottles of cheap red wine in her honor. Frank's roommate was moving out in two months and she was offered his room. She spent those two months on Nate's couch, not eager to dip into her paychecks. She also stuck to cheap staples and the newly acquired habit of writing at public places in the mornings.

Boston was a city of students. She loved the book stores and the museums, the math graffiti and the science jokes scribbled in the restrooms, and the infectious energy of the young startups, but she thought of New York every day, and followed the city's news compulsively, only slightly ashamed of the time she spent skimming Page Six.

Frank's friends, uniformly male, nerdy and awkward, spent several nights in her apartment poring over whiteboards and quarelling over the mysterious software their startup was supposedly building, studiously ignoring Andy who sat quietly reading and listening in a corner, until one day when she brought Nate home and he whipped up a delicious boeuf bourguignon. They mellowed towards Andy after that, and she made sure to stock the fridge with extra beer.

Andy's generosity was not impulsive. She had started an anonymous technology news blog until now consisting only of job listings stolen from the social media streams of various Boston companies. She published a post every other day, working on her prose where content was lacking, and spent her free time absorbing the history and the lingo of boston's technology scene. Frank and his friends dropped a tip her way every now and then.

She was pinning a leaflet with a blog post on a cafe noticeboard when she noticed a man sipping hot chocolate and reading the top leaflet on her stack. His hair was an unfortunate shade of bright red bordering on orange and he was older than Andy's father. Andy smiled hesitantly at him. He was one of those people Andy could easily picture as a child and a youth. Overachieving, silent, often bullied, cunning. When he finished reading, he turned to her and informed her politely that she was a clueless idiot.

"What surprises me," he continued, "is that you are the other kind of idiot. Not the usual kind one finds here."
"Excuse me?" He had delivered an insult, but she detected a compliment.
"New around here, aren't you?"
"Yes. Andy Sachs. Reporter." She offered her hand, striving to reserve her judgement in the face of his ill-fitting tee shirt and baggy jeans.
"I thought you were a student," he shook her hand limply. "Paul Stanton. Meddler in things. So what do you report on, Andy Sachs?"
"Uh. Local news. I work for The Somerville Times."
"Why, then, does that paper wax lyrical about facebook being google's threat? Quite incorrectly, if I may say so."
"It's for my blog." He sounded quite superior for someone with his hair. Andy acted on impulse. "Can I buy you coffee?"
"Sure. Do you know, if your blog was actually on the internet, which I very much doubt seeing your technical prowess, or lack thereof, I would read it everyday? People these days seem to think tech news has to be horribly dull, perhaps to lend an air of studied gravity to the otherwise, ah, transient nature of the news, what with billions being made and lost in five years. I like your style. It flows. It reads more like, umm--"
"Fashion news?" Andy supplied.
"I wouldn't know, but probably, yes. It has more grace. It elevates the substance, makes it dramatic, but not at the expense of honesty."
"Thank you," Andy said gratefully, hoarding up his words.
He warmed his hands around the steaming mug.
"What did you mean earlier, when you said I was an idiot?"
"Well, living here, you ought to know that people don't find out about blogs from coffeeshops. You must advertise it elsewhere." He glanced at the leaflet. "You write well, but nothing is more common than wasted gift. Find someone with knowledge of search engines to help you. This city is full of those people. Technology is invented here everyday, after all." He stood up, and Andy stood with him. "Anyway, it was great meeting you, Andy."
"May I walk you to wherever you are going?"
"You may. I'll be walking far. So, what distant corner of civilization did you spring from?"

Before the four miles to his house were exhausted, Andy learned that Paul was a retired professor, that he had a son who was a high school teacher in New York, and that his wife had died from cancer last year. Only after she was done narrating several things about herself that she had not thought to mention to Frank or Nate did Andy realize that she was no match for his disarming candor and tactful questions.

"She sounds like a remarkable woman." It was the first full sentence Paul had spoken in several minutes.
"That she is," Andy agreed fervently.
"Greedy, spiteful, power-crazed, but remarkable."
"I don't know about--" Andy started, but he cut her off.
"No, she is all of that." His glance was shrewd. "She is also old."
Andy stared ahead. Neither Nate nor Lily had divined in months what took Paul an hour. "It doesn't matter," she mumbled.
"I suppose not," he nodded. "There's this quote that I've been trying to remember. There was a star riding through clouds one night, and I said to the star, 'Consume me'. I'm not a great fan of Virginia Woolf, but sometimes she said things that were so delightfully, uh, economical."
"Yes. The Waves. Lovely line."
"I'm so happy to have found you, Andy Sachs, despite your taste for men's names. You can go far in this town, and not encounter a soul who has heard of Woolf."
Andy laughed. "I like you too."

===

Andy bribed Frank's friends with alcohol and food, and they guilelessly snorted over her technical abilities and pointed out how much of a better job she could be doing. One of them bought her a domain and installed Wordpress in an attempt to show her how terrible Blogspot was. Frank spent a whole day setting up a Facebook and a Twitter page, teaching her what to write there, and how often, and why. Andy soaked up their words. It took her three months, but at the end of it, her blog was a first page Google result for several boston related search keywords. It was also entirely anonymous, because she hadn't wanted to risk appearing competitive to her employer.

It was no wonder, therefore, that she spilled her morning coffee all over the laptop keyboard when a laconic comment appeared, three months after her first meeting with Paul, simply reading "Congratulations. -MP". Andy stared at it for a long time, questions springing in her head. The questions were quickly suppressed by a nameless sensation building up within her, struggling to break free from her throat. She wanted to laugh and cry, but mainly she wanted to dance and dance and dance.

She ran to her phone and dialled a number that was etched in her permanent memory before a voice spoke up within her. It was the voice that made her save money compulsively and carry a pepper spray in her handbag at all times. What would she say on the phone? Thank you? For fucking up Andy within an inch of her life? Perhaps she would inquire after the wellbeing of the latest impeccable boyfriend frowning at the camera in last week's Page Six? She paced back and forth in her room, creating and discarding a dozen replies to the comment. It was no good. It was probably sent by Emily, anyway. She would ignore it.

Later, she asked Frank if someone could find out that she was the author of the blog. "Of course, dummy," he had laughed. "Your name is on the whois entry of your domain. You could remove it but it would cost you a little. Here, let me show you. You have to learn domain management, it's not that hard. Although I agree that Godaddy's web interface sucks. Maybe you want to transfer your domain to a better service? Hey, did I tell you about that new web domain startup? Could you move? I need your keyboard."

After that, Andy poured every free second into the blog. She networked obsessively and attended every tech event that she could. New startups started contacting her for mentions. If she wrote about them, it was with a refined meticulousness that the content barely deserved. She never forgot Paul's words, and used her blog as a playground for various narrative styles. Only the authentic conviction in her words, acquired from countless meetings with the startup founders, glued the posts together into a blog. She hoped Paul would never see her unpaid internship piece.

She visited him as often as she could, and an unlikely friendship grew between them. If Andy looked deep within herself, she might have discovered that the friendly charm she directed towards Frank and his friends was somewhat calculated. But Paul had no tips or connections to offer her. There was something harmless about his lively curiosity and utter lack of ambition that set her sensors down. He was also a topnotch critic of her writing, generous with praise, firm in criticism. Andy didn't know why he put up with her, but she kept bringing him books she guessed he had not read but would love, and he baked her delightfully chewy brownies that he could not eat because of his diabetes.

One day, Andy opened the gate with a book in her hand to find a little boy regarding her from the roof of Paul's house. His red hair instantly gave his ancestry away.

"Hi, I, uh, got up here," he said. "Can you please help me get down?" Andy knew that Paul's son was a divorced school teacher in Manhattan. He rarely visited Paul. She tried not to probe into this because Paul was uncharacteristically reticent on the topic.

"Are you Nicholas?" She asked the boy, searching for the best way to climb up the roof. Several minutes later, Andy was scratched and Nicholas was on firm ground again. They entered the house hand in hand to find Paul and a man -- Nicholas's father and Paul's son, Andy deduced -- in a staring contest across the kitchen. She cleared her throat.

"Andy," said Paul, somewhat agitated. "This is Seb. Seb, Andy."
"Andy," said Seb easily. Rugged, black haired, at least six foot tall, in clothes that actually fit, he was nothing like his father. "I see you've already met Nick."
"I found him on the roof," Andy smiled. The boy let go of her hand and rushed to the refrigerator.
"Thank you," Seb sighed. "That's the third time today."
"No problem. Umm, Paul, sorry," Andy said. "I'll come back later."
Paul opened his mouth but Seb cut in. "No, don't go because of us. We were just going to leave."

It would be a week before Paul revealed the reason for this rare visit to Andy. Nick was sick, and nobody seemed to know what was wrong with him. He wouldn't eat and fell ill every month, and the list of diseases that he did not have according to the various doctors grew steadily. Paul and Seb seemed to have agreed to bury their long estrangement because Andy ran into Nick several times more in her weekly visits.

Andy also sucked up to her boss at office, and sometimes stayed late to help other people. She declined a bonus, full of smiling girly sweetness, and tipped a colleague on a breaking news story, for which he went on to earn a promotion. She was under no doubt about her future in Boston. It did not exist. She only needed the job for immediate rent and food but she was determined to get as many people as she could into her debt.

Headhunters started contacting her regularly soon after her blog became a front page Google result for several Boston related technical words. Ten months after she had gotten out of the train in Boston, she moved back to New York as Associate Copy Editor for a popular online technology publication. Frank and Nate didn't want her to go but Paul knew better. Her salary doubled. On her first day at the new office, she received an anonymous note of congratulations and flowers, leaving her giddy for days. Surprisingly, she didn't feel particularly pathetic about rearranging the paltry contents of her minuscule studio apartment such that the potted white orchids would be the first things she would see after waking up.

She worked late on the first Friday, reluctant to face the empty apartment, and left the office at midnight and walked directly towards Elias-Clarke, her feet on autopilot. There was little chance that anybody was still working there, and she simply wanted to take a look and leave. But when the elevator doors slid open, Miranda was behind her desk, hunched over, slashing furious red lines at something offensive on a notepad. Andy was at the door when she looked up. Her face instantly froze into stone. She wore a Chanel suit with two of the buttons undone, revealing a gold sheath with a scandalous neckline beneath the suit.

"Hi?" Andy offered weakly, keeping her eyes rigidly fixed on Miranda's face. At first, every inch of her being screamed at her to look down, but Miranda's face soon caught her attention. The cool makeup was flawless as usual, but there was something about the eyes that spoke of an intense exhaustion. Andy had become acquainted with this look during her Runway days. It meant that the eighty hour work weeks were compounded by troubles at home.
"Andrea," Miranda said, her voice the same as ever.
Andy's face broke into a smile far wider and sunnier than the one she had intended. Miranda smiled back, but it was gone before Andy could be sure.
"Sit," Miranda said at last, when it became evident that Andy wasn't going to speak.
Andy had no idea what she was doing here. "I--I was back in New York and--" Her mouth was dry. "I just came by to say hi and, uh, I'll just go now." She turned.
"Andrea, I believe I asked you to take a seat, not babble idiotically under your breath."
Andy sat down opposite Miranda. There was a new picture of the twins sitting in the beach. Definitely staged.
"Well?"
"I'm, uh, back in New York."
Miranda nodded. Her eyes were held open as if by a sheer force of will, a fact that did not stop her from surveying Andy's blouse critically.
"Thanks for the note. And uh, the flowers. They were orchids, weren't they? I put them next to a window because I read online that they need the sun--"
"At office?"
"What?"
"Did you put them next to a window at your office?"
"Oh! No. In my apartment."
"They might stay in bloom for three months if you water them every two weeks and give them two hours of sunlight every day."
It was unreal to hear Miranda talk about something as domestic as taking care of flowers.
"Well, thanks again. That's a nice picture. Very, uh, arty."
Miranda frowned. "Arty?"
"I could explain over a coffee."
She didn't smile, but her eyes lost some of their awful weariness and her mouth relaxed from its battle line. "I see you've picked up some spirit in Boston."
"Among other things. I have to go now." Andy looked down. This desk had never held a single superfluous thing. She drew the smallest notebook towards her, and took the Montblanc pen from Miranda's hand, careful not to let their fingers touch, her breath catching at her own audacity.

She wrote down her phone number and name -- the full name -- on the last page of the notebook, fighting down a fatal impulse to take the hand that was resting so unsuspectingly at the edge of her vision. Andy had been surprised the first time she had truly noticed Miranda's hand. Miranda's gestures were full of fastidious disdain, but Andy knew that if one truly looked when she was unaware -- an extremely rare occurrence since Miranda knew she was watched at all times -- one might see that her hand was small, rather delicate, more like a child's and less like a supermodel's. Never without a ring, except at home. Often caressing a necklace or a earring or a piece of fabric. Utterly forbidden. But wasn't it made of flesh and bones, just like Andy's own hand? Wouldn't it bleed if cut? Wouldn't she feel it if Andy held it now, whatever came after?

Andy placed the pen next to it and let the back of her fingers brush lightly, daringly against the large emerald ring. Miranda was stock-still. Andy couldn't catch her eyes because they were lowered. She was staring at the pen. Andy stood up. "I'll see you later then," she mumbled.
"Goodbye." Miranda picked up the pen and went back to her notepad.

Chapter Text

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.

If.

===

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."

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?"
"Wh-What? Who?"

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.
"Yes?"
"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.
"Why?"
He simply looked at her.
"Oh."
"Well?"
"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.
"I-- uh--"
"Don't answer now." There was no pleading in his face. If anything, he looked stern. "Tell me later."
She nodded.
"Good night then." He kissed her cheek again.
"Good night," Andy said and walked to the door.