Actions

Work Header

Blissful Insanity

Work Text:

---------------------------------------------------------------------
Everything around her is a silver pool of light
The people who surround her feel the benefit of it
It makes you calm
She holds you captivated in her palm
---------------------------------------------------------------------


They came back from Paris to find that nothing had changed in their absence. Except nothing was the same. Emily refused to speak to Andy, which made co-assisting challenging when they could barely co-inhabit the same space, and more momentously, Nigel was preparing to leave for his new, glamorous job with James Holt, which meant that Miranda was even more on edge than usual, juggling the practical as well as emotional ramifications of losing her right-hand man and the husband she'd been married to before leaving New York and had come back separated from ("Is it true?" Emily had asked as soon as Andy had walked through the door, looking acutely torn between her curiosity and her resentment toward Andy, but nonetheless, news seemed to have made the transcontinental trip before the Runway crew had).

Andy's personal life wasn't doing much better: Nate wasn't returning her calls and the apartment they'd shared had been emptied of most of his belongings prior to her return. And amid all the mess and chaos, something else seemed to have shifted, the atmosphere changing ever-so-subtly.

It was the way Andy now viewed Miranda. No longer was she the façade of a hard, cold-hearted boss who derived pleasure from making her employees' lives miserable. It was embarrassing to admit, to herself if no one else, that it wasn't until an evening in the middle of Fashion Week that Andy had been able to see through the Dragon Lady persona to the human beneath and deduce that Miranda Priestly was, in fact, a multifaceted woman with more than two dimensions. She was now a vulnerable woman, a mother, a wife, slumped on a sofa in an underwhelming, grey robe, naked of makeup and guards, crying for the life she'd been trapped in. She was a woman who, through all of this, remained at the top of her game, running an empire that would collapse in the absence of her reign, peeling layer after layer of personal happiness in sacrifice to shattering a glass ceiling her male peers had maintained for centuries, all the while absorbing society's variety of criticism and judgement. She was a person now, a person Andy could sympathize and empathize with, someone she'd always aspired to become, someone she wanted to help. She was a kind person, that was her nature, and her job was to make Miranda's life just that bit more tolerable.

Miranda, of course, would never ask for help, but that was okay--she didn't have to. Andy had seen the other side of the snow queen, one very few others were privileged enough to glimpse, and it was all that it took to show her how wrong and misguided she'd been about Miranda. From now on, things would be different. She felt confident of that. The invisible yet palpable change attested to it.

"You know," she began casually, her fingers ticking away on the computer's keyboard, "I think I may have gotten too many clothes in Paris--my closet's about to burst. You mind taking some of them off my hands?"

"Oh, don't try to suck up, you backstabbing cow," Emily spat from across the room, her face locked in a permanent scowl.

Wow, okay then. Andy knew she deserved the attitude, at least partly: even if taking Emily's place in Paris hadn't been her idea, she'd said yes. Given the choice to get ahead, she'd said yes, and Emily, whose whole life revolved around Paris Fashion Week and very little else, had every right to be upset about her crushed dreams, not to mention her hospital stay, bound to a bed with a cast around her leg while Andy was jumping from one fashion show to another in thousands of dollars worth of designer clothes, meeting all the important people and receiving all the free goodies. Still, it stung to have someone hate her this much--she normally didn't arouse that feeling in other people--and the amicable camaraderie they'd started to reach before Paris seemed a million worlds away now.

Flushed, she turned back to her computer screen and hit send on an e-mail right as the glass door of the outer office opened. Entranced, she watched as onto the floor emerged Miranda, looking immaculately stunning in a figure-hugging pencil skirt and sharp blazer, bearing no trace of the grey robe or red-rimmed eyes.

She was a sight to behold: everything about her screamed power, authority, business as usual. But Andy, who'd gotten a glimpse behind the curtain, who'd been on the other side and could never unsee or unhear what she had, was able to just spot the barely-there lines around her lips, the weary expression in her eyes--all the signs that told her that Miranda had come back from Paris changed as well.

"Good morning, Miranda."

Miranda, predictably, did not return the sentiment. Not so predictably, she proceeded smoothly toward Emily's desk without a mere glance at either girl, where she deposited her bag and coat before the assistant's flushed face, signifying that the pre-Paris incident had not been a one-time occurence. The usual litany of soft-spoken commands was swift to follow thereafter, even as she was disappearing into the inner office, and Andy was fast on her heels, following her inside with her notebook and pen while Emily scurried toward the closet with glassy eyes. And thus their normal routine, once more, commenced.

They were back from Paris, and many things were about to change.

 


 

"Hi, you've reached Nate. I'm either not available or don't feel like picking up, but don't bother leaving a message 'cause I won't bother checking."

With her umpteenth sigh of the night, Andy hung up her phone and dropped her head into her hands. Half a dozen missed calls since returning to New York were sending a message loud and clear: Nate wanted nothing to do with her.

Which was really quite immature, especially considering the fact that he'd never bothered to officially break up with her. They'd spoken of a break, and even though it had been clear to both of them, even then, that "a break" was merely a sugar coating for the bitter pill, something had still felt unfinished. Several unanswered calls and one half-empty apartment later, Andy supposed it was finished now.

Lily still wasn't talking to her since their last encounter at her gallery, and for just a second Andy allowed herself to entertain the notion that there had been some merit to the accusations levied at her by her best friend.

She'd changed. She knew that now. At the time, it had been unfathomable to her; she hadn't been able to see what the people around her had all gradually witnessed over the course of six months, the mere idea that any of her opinions and ideals had grown along with her preposterous and far from a good transition. But the fact of the matter was that in the span of those months, she'd evolved into someone that scarcely resembled the twenty-three year old girl who'd arrived at Elias-Clarke's HR department with starry eyes and hopes of a shiny job.

It wasn't just the transition of her wardrobe that attested to that change. "Same Andy, better clothes," she'd told Nate. Back then, she'd meant it, and even now she still maintained the same ideals, the same drive and aspirations. But working at Runway had forced her to grow up, and with that, gone was the self-righteousness and entitlement one possessed in their youth and in their place developed a real work ethic, an appreciation for things she'd once deemed trivial, superficial, beneath her. She'd allowed herself to open her mind and learn, and with new clothes and a new haircut and, okay, a new size came the realization that the world didn't revolve around Andy Sachs.

So yes, she had changed, and if she had a say in the matter, for the better. She could only hope now that Lily would come to see things from her perspective and come around, but in the meantime, she let herself hold at least a little grudge against the friend who couldn't accept all the aspects of her personality.

Her phone rang.

"Nate?" she answered on the first ring.

"I've been called many things in my time. Nate is a first," said a voice on the other end, deep and smooth and a little smug.

"Christian," Andy sighed and shrank back into the sofa cushions.

"Whoa, please, contain your enthusiasm," said Christian, an obvious smile in his words. Andy could picture the subtle lines at the corners of his eyes and the twinkle that knew exactly what it wanted and knew it would get it.

"Sorry, I'm just..." she trailed off, running a hand through her bangs. "Hi."

"Hey," he laughed. "Is this a bad time?"

"No, no--"

"Kinda seems like you were hoping for someone else," he said, but Andy heard no trace of hurt in his voice.

She saw no point in lying. "A little, yeah."

Christian, apparently, saw no point in dwelling. "I haven't heard from you since Paris. Thought I'd call and check everything's okay since you left without saying goodbye."

Wincing, Andy shrank further. She recalled waking up from a sound sleep, well-rested and blissfully coccooned in Egyptian cotton, only to have a minor cardiac event when her discarded watch informed her of the time. She'd stumbled through a scavenger hunt of scattered clothing garments in her haste to leave lest she should get fired, and ended up rushing through the Parisian streets to get back to her own hotel. It was only when she was anxiously tapping her foot against the empty elevator's floor at the Plaza Athénée that she'd remembered leaving Christian behind, as well as her manners.

"I'm so sorry, Christian, I was so late and I was gonna call you, but--"

"Hey, no worries," Christian pacified. "I was just a little confused coming out of the shower to an empty room. Thought it was all a fevered dream. A very nice dream at that," he added and if Andy could see him, she knew he'd be flashing her that flirty, irresistible smile and she'd inevitably be blushing.

"So what do you say about a reenactment?" he continued, his disembodied voice growing unmistakably suggestive, causing Andy to almost choke on air. She'd never get used to his blunt forwardness, but she had to admit there was some charm to it.

Evidently sensing her discomfort, Christian shifted gears, amusement lacing his tone. "Okay, okay, I admit, that was a bit much."

"You think?" she half croaked-half laughed.

"Let me take you to dinner instead. I promise I'll be good."

"Oh... Christian..."

"Uh-oh."

"No, not 'uh-oh,'" she quickly said, but then she also remembered the events preceding their night together: the falling out with Lily, the stress of work in general and Fashion Week in particular, her crushing heartbreak. And among all that there had been the numbing, wine-induced fog, plunging her into the arms of someone who did accept her, or at the very least put on a great show of doing so, if only to get a brief taste of a different life for a few hours, become someone else in that magical city of possibilities and opportunity.

But she was home now, and reality had a way of catching up with you.

"It's just that work is crazy--crazier--now after Paris and..." She bit her lip, hesitant. "Nate and I just broke up. I think I need some time."

"I understand," said Christian, to her surprise. "But I'll keep trying until you say yes." That was more par for the course.

 


 

So, help Miranda. Make her life easier. But how to go about it?

The day had started as any other day at Runway, with Andy and Emily working in less-than-companionable silence, preparing the office for Miranda's arrival, and when she showed up, there had been the usual list of instructions, punctuated by scarce gaps for oxygen, and added remarks of not-so-subtle displeasure. The only change in the routine was that now, upon striding into the assistants' area, Miranda's belongings landed tauntingly on Emily's desk, and if Emily hadn't been so nasty to her lately--nastier than usual--Andy might have felt bad for the look of utter despair in her glistening eyes.

Apart from the hanging of the coat and bag, their roles hadn't been reversed. Andy still had the second assistant duties and was paid accordingly, so besides the blissful reprieve from the one lackey's task, there was no promotion to celebrate and no other explanation for Miranda's change in preference other than...

She liked her more, Andy realized incredulously. Or, at the very least, hated her less.

There was that shift again, the one that had started in Paris and persisted during every interaction they'd had since. They hadn't talked about that night and Andy wasn't suicidal enough to bring it up, but it was obvious that some invisible barrier between them had been broken in that hotel suite, and when Miranda tearfully confided in her about the innermost details of her personal life, her worries and fears and feelings, she hadn't stripped herself of only couture and makeup, but also of the walls that had been erected around her for years and decades.

Maybe Andy had earned her trust. Maybe Miranda had just needed to let everything off her chest and Andy had been in the right place at the right time. Whatever it was, the so-called professional relationship they had formed over the last six and a half months had been altered, if only subtly, and for some reason, it felt painfully cruical that Andy didn't screw it up.

The Starbucks cup landed on the edge of Miranda's desk with the slight thump of plastic against glass, the scalding liquid sloshing inside upon impact.

After an impreious inhale through her notsrils, Miranda stated, "I didn't ask for this."

"I know," Andy replied blithely. "You just looked like you needed it." Her bravado crumbled almost instantaneously upon the outraged look in Miranda's eyes. "Not that you look tired or anything," she quickly blurted, alarmed. "You look great. You look... I just meant... with all the work after Paris, and it's been a long day, I thought you might..."

With pure relief, she watched as Miranda's hand closed around the cup, effectively silencing her rambling. As she brought it up to her lips, Andy thought she also saw them twitch, a faint lift that was almost but not quite a smile, though it could have been a mere spasm.

"I also saw you had an opening tomorrow morning," she continued, bolstered once again, "so I scheduled you an appointment with your facialist."

The "It could help you relax," or "You always look so much more serene, not to mention glowing, after a facial" remained unspoken, but aside from a curious look, Miranda didn't offer a remark or a rebuke and didn't inquire whether Emily had also broken the fingers in charge of arranging her schedule, and for that Andy was grateful.

Emily, on the other hand, would undoubtedly plotz when she found out Andy was interferring with the first assistant's job yet again, but it wasn't Emily's well-being Andy was concerning herself with anymore.

"That's all," said Miranda before securing her grip on the coffee cup and swiveling in her chair toward the large window.

Leaving her office, Andy felt she was glowing, too.

 


 

Miranda's reaction, or lack thereof, at Andy's less than professional help, as well as the latter's insinuation that Miranda, simply put, looked ragged became less surprising as the day wore on, and by the time Andy stumbled through the townhouse's front door with the Book under her arm and a pile of dry cleaning over her shoulder, she concluded that the ever hectic pace of a normal work day at Runway was downright insane post-Paris.

She'd ended up spending much of her day outside of the office on various, unforgiving errands, a fact which her feet vehemently protested at this culmination of the day, and the promise of a hot shower and a crappy mattress felt, at the moment, like the height of luxury.

That was nothing compared to the work her co-workers were subjected to and the time and attention that had to be put in to create a flawless issue out of one week in a different country. Runway had been attending and reporting on Paris Fashion Week ever since its commencement in 1973, but if Andy had expected a well-oiled machine going through the familiar motions, she was dizzied watching everyone around her running like headless chickens and working themselves into near hysteria as if this was their first time.

Grimly, she mused that despite all the lessons she'd had in recent months, she would never fully understand this world.

She was beginning to understand her boss, though. She was beginning to see things that her fellow fashion followers and even gurus didn't, couldn't because they hadn't sat across from her in a quiet hotel room, the air around them so still, as if holding its breath while Miranda soliloquized about the toll her personal life had to suffer because of the person she'd chosen to be.

Those people, they didn't know her the way Andy now did; their eyes were still obliviously shut against the reality Andy's had been opened to: the other Miranda, the one who wasn't as monstrous as she wanted people to believe; the one who possessed as much vulnerability, if not more, as the next person; the one who, at the end of the day, was tired of getting hit with blow after blow; the one whose steps were growing louder and closer on the hardwood floor of the hallway--

Oh, shit.

Scrambling to hang all the garment bags in the closet, Andy emerged through the door and came face to face with the-- oh... not devil, not dragon... Miranda didn't exactly look like she had that night at the hotel--there were no tear tracks or a faraway look in her eyes--but she was also a far cry from the sure, cold woman who dominated the office every day.

The Givenchy dress she'd worn throughout the day, the one with the dangerously deep V-cut that no one, including Andy, had been able not to gawk at, had been traded in for a pair of black, wool pants and a cream-colored sweater that looked very soft and very cozy and not so very fashionable, and her feet were devoid of the four-inch heels, exposing, instead, red toenails and surprisingly unsurprising bunions. With the carefully styled forelock gone, giving way to messy, underwhelming bangs, and skin free of any traces of makeup or jewelry, Miranda looked... incredibly simple. And incredibly beautiful.

She looked, in fact, almost like she had the night she told Andy she'd be going to Paris in place of Emily, feet on the armchair and home design magazine draped across her lap, unapologetically comfortable in her own house, unassuming and oblivious of the storm lurking around the corner, waiting to turn everything on its axis. Andy marveled at how human she looked in her own sanctuary, at the gigantic contrast between the domineering persona everyone in the industry knew so well and the utter simplicity Miranda favored in her own privacy. No wonder she valued said privacy so deeply; if people were to see her in this state, what would it do to her credibility?

There was something very special about it--something that made Andy feel special for being allowed to witness the transformation--and for no explicable reason, it tugged at her heartstrings.

"Um," she began, couldn't think of anything to say, and picked the Book up off the table she'd deposited it on instead, timidly offering it to Miranda.

"Have you had the wardrobe problem fixed?" Miranda asked even as she'd started sifting through the pages, her gaze laser-focused, her voice as cool and collected as if she weren't standing barefoot in her foyer but sitting behind her office desk, resuming a conversation that had never ended.

"Yes," answered Andy, already well-versed in the science of Miranda Priestly, and gave a helpful smile. "Everything will be ready at the shoot when you get there tomorrow."

Miranda's response was a low hum, as if she was only half-paying attention despite being the one to make the inquiry in the first place, and then she promptly turned on her heel and started heading back down the hall, flipping another page. "That's all."

And Andy should have turned as well and gone. If ever there was a clear indication that she should, it was Miranda's frequent dismissal. The words that followed Miranda down the hall instead took them both by surprise, uttered before Andy's brain could give the order to her mouth to stay closed. "H-how are the twins?"

With a turn that appeared to take the previous nonchalance out of her, Miranda skewered her with a well-deserved frown. "Excuse me?"

Definitely wrong move. Andy winced, but didn't run for the door. "I'm sorry. That's none of my-- I'm sorry." The house was deathly quiet around them, not even a bark of huff detected from the horse-sized dog that Andy had returned from the groomers earlier in the day. From the spiraled banisters of higher floors, no light shone down on her, the kids she'd made the evident mistake of enquiring about clearly sleeping at this late hour while Stephen, it was no trouble guessing, was already gone.

So no, not a mistake. Andy cared, Andy was here to help--that was the vow she'd made upon their return, extending beyond coffee and facials--and she straightened her back, feeling boldened by that fact and not the ever flinty expression in Miranda's eyes. "I was just wondering... you were worried about them in Paris, how they would take the, uh..." Was she brave enough to say the word "divorce," to Miranda's face? No, she wasn't. "Do they know?"

"Of course they know," was Miranda's curt response, her frown morphing into a glare, and Andy's shoulders immediately lost their defiance. Of course, indeed: Stephen was gone, he'd demanded the divorce days ago, and by the time their plane had landed in New York, everyone had known. The implication that Miranda hadn't yet been brave enough to inform her daughters of their new familial status was not lost on either of them, and rightly unwelcome by Miranda, making Andy want to fold in on herself in shame.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, turning to leave.

"They're fine," Miranda's voice drifted behind her, frosty as it might be, and consequently froze Andy in place. By the time she turned around, Miranda's face had relaxed, not so much in sympathy toward Andy, but in something that more resembled concession, as if that was one more thing that made her tired. "Will be fine," she amended.

"They will be," Andy heard herself saying before her brain had fully caught up with the words, and despite her own exhaustion, she offered Miranda a soft, comforting smile. "They have you for a mother."

She didn't wait for a reaction and didn't hang around to see Miranda's bemusement, finishing her last task of the day with a mere nod and exiting into the gradually cooling autumn air. As she shut the town car's door behind her, relaxing into the buttery leather seat, she mused over the frantic turn business was taking in the wake of Fashion Week. Then she thought of Miranda's world, all the while, falling apart around her and the toll it must take to juggle all of that, and the look in her eyes just now, the rare lack of vitriol where it would otherwise have been deserved. And Andy could now tell that Miranda, too, was tired and her fatigue would not dissipate once the commotion waned.

 


 

The next day did not bring any peace with it. In fact, one day closer to printing, the staff at Runway seemed even more frenzied with producing the perfect issue that Andy found herself pondering, for once seriously, whether by the end of the day someone would experience a nervous breakdown. By noon, she was beginning to wonder if that someone would be her.

"I told you, this week won't work, she's completely booked," she hissed into the phone, fighting to keep her calm only because it was a fellow assistant on the other end, no doubt struggling to maintain her own sanity in this ever busy industry.

As soon as that call had mercifully finished, the phone immediately rang again, barely allowing Andy to take an in-between breath. "Miranda Priestly's office... No, she's in a meeting... Of course," she ended the call monotonously, scribbling a message on a post-it note.

When she looked up, Nigel was walking through the door, a stack of shoeboxes hiding his checkered vest. Before he could open his mouth, though, the shrill of the phone filled the room again, making Andy hold up a finger to stall him as she answered with the rehearsed greeting, then promptly snapped, "No comment."

"The divorce?" he questioned airily, coming to a stop by her desk.

"What else?" she affirmed, resigned.

"All the vultures want a piece. Welcome to divorce number two," he stated, placing the boxes on her desk with a mild thump. "Give these to her, will you?"

"Great," Andy grumbled.

"Hey." His voice made her look up, and when she did, his face was far more relaxed than that of any other person in the office, Miranda included--Miranda especially. "What's with the attitude? The world's still running."

She fixed him with a bitter scowl. "Easy for you to say. You'll be gone by the end of the month; you won't have to stick around for the apocalypse."

"Aww," Nigel cooed, "that's cute, but melodrama doesn't suit you."

With the sweetest tone she could muster, coupled with a sarcastic smile, Andy asked, "Was there anything else you wanted?"

"Yes," he stated, "come with me."

"Why?" She suspiciously squinted at him.

"Just do as I say."

As they exited the office, Emily spoke perhaps her third sentence of the day to Andy, calling behind her back, "You better be back before my lunch break," but by the time they neared Nigel's office, she was long forgotten.

"Is there anything you need?" Andy asked uncertainly even as she followed him inside. "Because I really need to get back to w--"

"Hush," he instructed and, with a push on her shoulders, lowered her into a stool. "Sit."

"Nigel, what..."

"Now," he disregarded her, bending toward a drawer in his desk, "I wouldn't normally do this-- well, not with you anyway," he threw over his shoulder before extracting a bottle of whiskey from the drawer, two glasses quickly following, bumping against a gigantic ring on his finger with a soft chink sound. Andy's eyes nearly popped.

"Are you--" she started breathlessly, watching in disbelief as he filled the bottom of a glass. "Nigel, are you crazy? We're at work!"

"Trust me, you need it," he replied knowingly, thrusting the glass in her face. "One does not survive the post-Paris issue without alcohol. Add that to being Miranda's assistant, and while she's going through a divorce, no less..."

Perhaps it was the stress finally catching up with her, but Andy was inclined to concede he had a point. And the next thing she knew, she was accepting the offering from his hand, glancing nervously out of the transparent door, and letting him clink his glass against hers before taking a bitter, burning sip. She'd never been a whiskey person; Nate had once tried to get her to share the habit, but she preferred beer or a nice Merlot. Right now, however, she would take what she could get.

"Look at you, little baby bird," Nigel patronized when she closed her eyes to take another sip. "Just now realizing it's not all fun and games."

Gulping, she croaked, "When has it ever been fun and games?" Because she must have been sick that day.

"Fair point," he allowed, nodding toward her glass. "Drink up."

Given permission to let loose, she did, sinking into her seat and tilting her head back while the whiskey poured freely into her mouth. Before she knew it, her glass was empty and Nigel was lowering it from her mouth, saying, "Calm down now, it's not a Shirley Temple."

"Sorry," she sighed, her throat burning, the alcohol settling warmly in her stomach. "It's not just work."

"Oh?" drawled Nigel curiously, hungry, like the rest of his peers, for every tidbit of drama and gossip.

"I mean, don't get me wrong, since Paris, work has been..."

"More hellish than usual?"

A confirming, haggard nod was his answer before Andy went on to twist her empty glass in her hand, avoiding his gaze as she elaborated as casually as she could, "But it just so happens that I'm also going through a breakup."

"Hm," Nigel made a high-pitched, little sound before taking a small sip from his own glass. "Finally dumped that frumpy boy toy of yours?"

"It was mutual." Andy glared at him. "And he's not frumpy."

"Oh, grow up, Six," he was quick to dismiss, clearly less than impressed with the details she was providing. "Do you think you're the first person in this place to end a relationship? Marcella just ended two; I once had three breakups in a week."

"I'm sure," Andy mumbled dejectedly and cast her eyes downward once more. "But I also... kinda complicated things."

Interest piqued anew, Nigel's eyebrows climbed up to his nonexistent hairline, his glass landing on his desk as he took a step closer. "Oh? Do tell."

For a second, Andy considered the merits of oversharing in her head. She was starting to feel the slight buzz of the alcohol and, she figured, it was about time she got a few things off her chest before she was driven crazy. Crazier.

"I slept with someone," she confessed, searching Nigel's eyes for approval or condemnation.

She received the former. Well, in Nigel's unique way. "You little slut." He smiled broadly, seizing her up as if expecting something in her appearance to have changed due to the fact that she'd had sex. "When did you have the time?"

Sheepishly, she admitted, "In Paris."

"Mhm." It slowly seemed to click for him, his smile turning downright salacious. "I had a feeling something was up. That Rick Owens jacket was screaming sex. So who was the lucky guy?"

"I'm not telling you," she exclaimed sharply.

"Oh, please, you're dying to tell me." It was scary how good he was getting at reading her. Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing he was leaving after all. "Come on, let it out."

"Christian Thompson," she let it out, the name spilling from her lips.

From Nigel's lips, a whoosh escaped before they formed a smirk. "Christian Thompson, journalist extraordinaire. I certainly didn't expect that from you, but not bad." He tapped the huge-ring-adorned finger against his chin. "Not bad at all."

"You know him?"

"I may have tried to sample him once or twice." For a moment, he went into his head and Andy could just see the shirtless version of Christian she'd witnessed playing for him, but then he waved his hand as though shooing a fly. "But no, way too straight."

"I'll say," Andy murmured, then shook herself. The whiskey really must have started to take effect because that was also when she registered the rest of his statement and frowned at him. "What do you mean, you didn't expect that from me?"

"You're a good girl; Christian is anything but good," Nigel replied. "I would have pictured you settling with a nice, wholesome, Midwestern boy and your seven children."

For some inexplicable reason, the assumption infuriated Andy, partly because of how little Nigel must have thought of her--and if he did, she could only imagine what the rest of her colleagues thought of her, makeover be damned--and mostly because had she stayed in Ohio, that might have been the trajectory her life would have taken, much like a lot of her high school peers who'd settled down in their hometown, marrying their high school sweethearts and having little to no passion in life. Hell, if she'd chosen Nate over her aspirations, quit her job to appease him, she might have ended up in the same place: a good, little wife who never put herself and her needs first.

She supposed the heartbreak she was experiencing over the demise of her longest relationship to date should have taught her the opposite lesson, and if not that, then experiencing Miranda's vicariously through her: that woman had always put her career first and it had cost her two marriages and, potentially, her relationship with her children. If anything, that night that was seared into Andy's memory, the image of Miranda, looking like a shell of her regal self--those should have sent her running for the hills, catching an early flight back to New York and groveling for Nate to take her back. They should have, but they hadn't.

Now, Andy imagined a life of diminishing herself for the sake of another, getting no fulfillment and meaning out of anything she did so her partner could. She knew it was a reach, but she also refused to go down that road and see for herself. It was a slippery slope and perhaps Miranda had had it right all along. And maybe, just maybe, when her daughters were older, they would have benefitted from the example she was setting. And when Andy thought of it like that, good riddance.

"Maybe I'm not as good as you thought," she stated. "Christian didn't think so."

"Okay now, don't get your nice, little La Perla in a bunch," said Nigel, but he also looked pleased. "I'm glad to see you spreading your wings. It's about time you did."

"Right," she muttered right as her phone beeped. Checking the incoming text, she groaned. "Great."

"Miranda?"

"Worse: her publicist."

"C'est la vie."

Sliding off her stool, she pocketed her phone. "I've been talking to her more than I have with Miranda since Paris. I swear, if work doesn't do it first, this divorce is gonna be the death of me."

"It's cute how your whole life revolves around Miranda," Nigel quippped.

Right before she left, Andy shot him a glare.

 


 

It was half past 9 o'clock and Miranda had still not gone home. For someone who'd been so worried about disappointing her kids, it was a risky game to play, but Andy knew it wasn't just work, abundant as it was, that was keeping her in the office: Stephen's new whereabouts had been exposed by a paparazzi and the speculation over whether he'd already moved out of the townhouse had been settled. Andy had been in touch with Leslie, Miranda's publicist, all day, helping her put out fires, but the biggest one had yet to be extinguished and it was waiting for Miranda at home.

For that very reason, if not for her own valued privacy's sake, Miranda had wanted to keep the divorce quiet. The original plan had been to contact Leslie upon their return to New York for a strategy to keep it out of the press; Andy could only imagine how devastating it had been for Miranda to step out of the plane and immediately be bombarded with questions from the blood-sucking vultures, as Nigel had called them. Miranda, of course, had maintained a stoic and unreadable face, but Andy had already learned that looks could be very deceiving.

Her heart went out to Miranda--how could it not?--and in her place, she would have been just as reluctant to go home to the sadness and wrath of two pre-teens.

"Is there anything you need, Miranda?" she asked softly from the doorway of her office, feeling utterly useless. Lazying around in wait for the Book would feel a lot less awkward without Miranda around to witness it. Phone calls were growing further and further apart in frequency, Miranda had not called for her assistance in close to an hour, and even Emily had already vacated her desk after a long day of sneering and snapping at Andy--when she wasn't giving her the cold shoulder.

"Did I ask for anything?" Miranda's response was even colder, an impatient undertone lacing her voice as she focused on her laptop screen. By now, her desk lamp was the only source of light in the room, and in the darkness, the glaring white of the computer shone brightly on her face, making even the mighty Miranda Priestly look unappealing. Of course, her version of unappealing was very different to most everyone else's, but the unforgiving glow highlighted the lines even makeup couldn't conceal and the bags under the eyes, the result of a draining day, a draining week. Perhaps a lifetime of exhaustion.

As Andy made to leave with her tail between her legs, she was stopped, Miranda's tired voice following her. "You can go home. There's nothing left for you to do anyway."

"Oh. A-are you sure?" she stammered. "I still have some e-mails that I need to answer, or I could go get you someth--"

"Go," Miranda practically growled, "before I change my mind."

Nodding, Andy turned to leave again. But not before she caught sight of the second desk to Miranda's left, the one she didn't necessarily use for work but for extra space and storage, for displaying a pot of orchids, and for pictures of her family. Andy had always found it charmingly uncharacteristic; normal people, like Andy, usually decorated their desktops with little trinkets that made them happy or pictures of their loved ones, but she'd never have expected Miranda Priestly to share the same sentimentality.

What gave Andy pause now, though, was not the notion that Miranda might be softer than she'd like the world to see, but the change in decoration on the desk: the twins' black and white picture was still sitting in its frame, their smiles youthful but snooty enough to leave no doubt in anyone's mind that they were Priestly kids, but Stephen's picture, Andy noted for the first time, was gone.

And so it came to be that just after 10 P.M. on a Thursday, Andy was already home, cooking herself a late dinner in lieu of the one she'd missed for the second night in a row. Dinner was a fancy word, however: she was flipping an underwhelming omelette made with the one egg she'd had left in the fridge while clutching in her free hand a thawing bottle of beer. She hadn't bothered to shower or change her clothes, going straight for the fridge upon her arrival, and as she transferred the omelette onto a plate, she derived a morsel of twisted amusement from the thought of Coco Chanel rolling in her grave as her silk blouse absorbed the smell of eggs and oil.

Her thoughts screeched to a halt when, at the door, a key turned in the lock. The quiet sound was immediately detected in the equally quiet apartment, and when the handle moved, Andy's heart leaped. In the back of her head, she was grateful that this was New York City and not Cincinnati because here she had two additional dead bolts and a chain blocking the entrance, so as the intruder proceeded to press on the handle, the door still didn't budge.

Nevertheless, Andy grabbed the scalding, greasy pan from the stove, holding it up as she slowly tiptoed toward the door, holding her breath, careful not to make a sound. It was a good thing she was wearing socks.

Heart pounding, she stopped, put her eye up to the peephole, and exhaled a breath so heavy it deflated all the tension from her body.

The door opened widely after she'd unlocked it from the inside, but while she was immensely relieved that she wouldn't be getting attacked or murdered tonight, her ex-boyfriend looked less than relaxed.

"Nate," she breathed, still trying to calm her heartbeat.

"Hey," Nate said in surprise, hesitantly stepping through the threshold, his eyes immediately locking on the pan-cum-weapon in her hand. "What are you doing here?"

"Excuse me?" Andy frowned. She still lived there, thank you very much.

Instead of answering, however, Nate gestured toward the pan, which was when Andy remembered that she was still holding it. "I'm sorry, where you planning to kill me or something?"

Sighing, she returned it to the stove, admitting, "I was defending myself; I thought you were an intruder."

"Yeah, that pan would do it." Nate nodded and a small smirk found its way onto his lips. Andy was not quite so amused.

"What are you doing here?"

The smirk gone, Nate scratched his head through the myriad of curls, taking a step back. Now he looked uncomfortable, and a little embarrassed. He had every right to be, too, after cutting off all communication with Andy and childishly refusing to take her calls or answer her texts. Then trying to sneak into the apartment he'd abandoned late at night.

"I, uh... I came to pick up the rest of my stuff," he revealed, solemn. "I thought you'd still be at work, waiting for the Book."

"So you wouldn't have to see me," Andy finished knowingly for him. He didn't respond, and his silence was her affirmation.

The silence stretched on, enveloping them in its tense awkwardness, until Nate fidgeted and asked, "So, uh... how was Paris?"

Instantly, the mental image of Christian, sweaty and panting on top of her, popped into Andy's head, eclipsing all the beautiful clothes she'd seen and promising contacts she'd made throughout the week. Blinking, she stammered, "How was Paris? It was fine. I mean, good. It was, it was good."

"Yeah? That's good." Nate nodded. It was ridiculous. Less than two weeks prior, they'd lived together, sharing their lives, planning a future; now they were having small talk, and not exactly excelling at it. Nate didn't want to know about Paris--he'd made that abundantly clear when he'd expressed his feelings about her going and, for that matter, his opinion about her job in general and Andy in particular. But what else were they supposed to talk about when he'd come to extract the last of himself from her life?

"I came here while you were gone," he disclosed.

"I noticed." The considerable lack of his belongings attested to that. Despite herself, despite her earlier decision that she was at peace with their breakup, tears sprung to her eyes out of the blue and her voice came out choked when she said, "I guess it's official, then."

"Yeah." Nate looked down. He didn't cry, but he looked morose about the culmination of something that had been so significant to both of them. If things had gone a little differently, they might have ended up getting married. That had been the direction Andy thought they were heading in anyway. "And settling down with seven children," Nigel's taunting voice said in her head.

"Do you have any place to be?"

Visibly drawing a breath, Nate nodded. "I actually flew up to Boston while you were gone, interviewed at the Oak Room. And I got a job, as a sous chef." He allowed himself a half-smile. "I'm moving up there in a few weeks."

"You're moving to Boston," Andy echoed--not so much a question as ascertainment that she'd heard correctly.

"Yeah."

"Wow. That's... congratulations."

"Thank you. I'm actually, I'm excited about it."

With a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes, Andy assured him, "You're gonna do great."

By now, her omelette had gone completely cold and she didn't feel like touching it as Nate moved around the apartment, collecting his remaining possessions. When he was done, he stood in the bedroom's doorway, clutching a bag. Andy stared at him from the other side of the kitchen.

"You could come with me," he suddenly said.

"What?" she asked, baffled.

He came closer, sounding surer with every new word. "To Boston. You should come with me, Andy. We could start again--"

"Whoa, whoa, wait." Andy held up a hand, cutting him off. "What do you mean, come with you to Boston?"

"You could find a job there, as an actual journalist--"

"I have a job," she said emphatically, "right here."

"Come on." Nate gave her a pointed look. "Is that really what you want, to be Miranda Priestly's assistant for the rest of your life?"

She didn't repeat the same, old argument that it wasn't for the rest of her life, that she only had to finish a year on the job before countless doors in the publishing industry would open for her and she could leave with an adequate recommendation. She didn't say all that because she no longer had to defend herself and her job to Nate, and because her job didn't feel so frivolous anymore. Instead, she pressed her lips into a white, hard line. "I guess it's no longer any of your concern what I want to do with my life."

Defensive, Nate began, "Whoa, Andy, I was just saying--"

"I know what you were saying. I don't wanna hear it."

"So that's it?" he asked, a scowl on his face. He'd never been good about accepting criticism or rejection or anything that didn't suit him and his opinions and, really, it was high time they called things off. It had been good while it lasted, but they were in different places now.

"Nate," Andy tried to make him see reason, "we have nothing in common anymore. You said it yourself. You're moving to Boston, and I'm gonna keep wearing nice clothes and pursuing things I care about, not because I've been conditioned to, but because that's who I am now. We've both changed."

"Yeah." Nate nodded, gritting his teeth. "Some of us more than others."

"Nate..." Andy sighed. On the kitchen table, her phone screen lit up with a new text.

"Is that her?" The "her" he was referring to didn't need to be specified, but when Andy looked down, it wasn't Miranda's name on the screen but Christian's. He had promised to keep trying.

"No," she answered.

"Don't look so disappointed."

By the time she lifted her head, he was already making his way to the door, and when it closed behind him, Andy knew it was over. For good, this time.

Seconds later, her phone rang and she snatched it off the table, sighing into it, "Christian."

"I need the notes from the Chloé show I left on my desk," Miranda's low, no-nonsense voice replied.

"Miranda!" Mortified, Andy removed the phone from her ear--she really needed to start checking her caller ID--although there was no mistaking her boss's voice, certainly not for Christian's. Nevertheless, that was also when she glimpsed the time, indicating almost an hour and a half had lapsed since she'd left work and, thankfully, in that time, Miranda had evidently gone home as well. "Of course. I'll go to Runway right now--" The line went dead.

Typical, but nonetheless, she left the house in her omelette-smelling outfit, rode on the subway back to Elias-Clarke, and completed her late night journey only to collect a little notebook that surely could have waited a few hours for the next day and saved her a trip to the townhouse and back to her place. But it also felt good to be able to assist Miranda, even in the smallest manner, especially after the last hour. And, after all, wasn't that what she was there for? What she'd promised herself she'd do?

"Here you go." She gave Miranda her brightest smile along with the notes.

Miranda took the notebook, but didn't dismiss her presence. Instead, she stayed in her chair in the den, Andy standing like an obedient soldier beside her, and flipped through the pages.

"They didn't take it well," she murmured at long last, eyes still glued to the notes, although probably not reading much. "The girls," she clarified, but didn't clarify what they hadn't taken well. She didn't really need to.

"I spoke with Leslie today," Andy said quietly. "She's doing everything she can to keep this out of the papers."

Miranda didn't look particularly optimistic. "I suppose it was inevitable they'd get wind of it eventually."

That didn't give them permission to be so mean, Andy thought, but maybe she was just too innocent. Miranda had been right in her assumption, though, and some of the comments and remarks were vicious. It was a curious thing how when a woman was getting a divorce, it was because her husband had left her, and when a woman in power was getting a divorce, she'd driven her husband away. Women could never look good in those stories, could they?

"It's not true what they're saying about you," she heard herself blurt when the silence had consumed them and Miranda hadn't sent her away. It was then that Miranda finally raised her head, looking genuinely bewildered. "They don't really know you." They hadn't seen her in her hotel room, like Andy had.

Miranda's eyes moved around for a moment, as if skipping from thought to thought like they were written on a paper, before returning to the actual papers in front of her. It had been a splitting instance, but Andy could tell that she'd caught her off guard.

"What I mean is--"

"That's all."

 


 

The next day, Andy made another foray into dangerous territory, but this one did not leave her unscathed.

Miranda had spent the entire morning in a meeting with her lawyer. Andy didn't know whether Stephen and his lawyer had been present as well, but being the good assistant that she was, she was waiting with a cup of searing coffee when Miranda arrived at the office, determined to alleviate what was likely a rotten mood.

She was right: Miranda strode into the assistants' area without a single word or glance, her steps loud and sure in five-inch heels, and dumped her bag and coat on Emily's desk--just that side of violently--before disappearing into her office. Not five seconds later, Andy was standing at her desk, placing the cup on the glass surface. This time, Miranda didn't question her.

But this time, Andy made the mistake of questioning her. "How did it go?" she asked in a hushed tone lest Emily should hear, and mid-slipping on her glasses, Miranda paused. The look she gave her, a combination of shock and outrage, was more blistering than her latte and the heart-dropping reality of her deed dawned on Andy: she'd made a grave error in judgement.

She wasn't Miranda's friend, she wasn't even her equal. She was an assistant, and not even a senior one at that, meant to run errands and answer the phone and keep her mouth shut. And all this time, she'd been horribly, horribly wrong about Paris.

In a moment if weakness, seized by pain and despair, Miranda had confided in her, perhaps not even realizing she was doing it. But the truth was, it could have been anyone in Andy's place--a listening ear, a person with a hint of sympathy to unload all her troubles and woes on. Andy had simply been in the right place at the right time--or the wrong place and wrong time, depending which way one looked at it, and now she wasn't sure anymore.

Because Miranda had cried, and Miranda had shared with her the details of her daughters' feelings. But Andy had finally gone too far, pushed too hard, assumed the right to learn about Miranda's very private life, and now she was out.

She spent the rest of the day with a brick on her chest and a lump in her throat, limiting her interactions with Miranda to minimal. Emily, for her part, seemed pleased to witness her struggle to get through the day, which was par for the course. But Andy was already fantasizing about going home and opening a cheap bottle of wine, and dreading running into Miranda when she dropped off the Book.

So of course, she did just that.

"Andrea," Miranda's disembodied voice called when the foyer's closet door shut behind her, the single word sounding loud, even with its low quality, in the otherwise silent space. It was always a little bit eerie how the air stood so still in that giant house.

But Andy didn't have time to think about that as she headed on shaky legs in the direction of the sound, the Book clenched against her chest, her heartbeat quickening with every step. She'd crossed a line, and Miranda was certainly in no mood to be forgiving.

But all she said when Andy came to a stop in the den was, "Give me the Book," and held out a steady hand until Andy placed the Book in it. She didn't open it right away, though, staring off into space while it lay lamely in her lap. Her bare feet were up on the cushion, a far cry from the imposing way she sat at the office, and Andy was beginning to think that there were two different versions of Miranda, the work version and the home one, like Jekyll and Hyde (only not quite so dramatic and hopefully with less homicide), especially when she spoke next.

"Stephen isn't fighting." Once again, her voice invaded the silence of the night, as well as Andy's fears and misgivings. Astounded, she could only stand there and listen as Miranda went on, "He doesn't want money, he doesn't want any of my property." With a humorless chuckle, she added, "He doesn't even have anyone on the side. He just wants out."

Silently, Andy wondered if, subconsciously, Miranda had been hoping for him to put up a fight, if that would have made her feel better. What was better, hating someone so much you wanted to hurt them or simply not caring? Which one would Miranda have really preferred?

"He's letting me have my way. He's letting me have anything I want." Heavily, she sounded what she must have not been able to admit to herself until that moment: "He's not fighting because he can't remove me from his life fast enough."

"Miranda, I'm so sorry," Andy whispered, her heart tightening in a very different way than it had all throughout the day. She, of all people, could possibly understand what Miranda was going through, and even that didn't come close: Nate had been her first serious relationship; Miranda was parting with the second man she'd vowed to spend the rest of her life with. Where was the formidable, intimidating woman Andy'd feared so much? She couldn't find her anymore, which was laughable, considering the fact that just hours prior she'd feared being eviscerated. But Miranda now had the same empty look in her eyes she'd had in Paris. There weren't tears, but that didn't matter.

When a subtle movement caught her eye, Andy looked down to see her playing with two rings on her finger: a simple, narrow, gold band and a sparkling, silver one below--her wedding and engagement rings. She moved and twisted them in place, lost in thoughts Andy was not privy to, then looked down as well, seemingly just noticing what she was doing. Her tongue darted out, then, moistening her lips while Andy watched in silence, hardly daring to expel a breath. And after what felt like an eternity of deliberation, Miranda slowly slid the two rings off her finger, holding them up to her face as if they held the answers to her failed marriage.

"Well, that's it, then," she said on a long sigh, leaning forward, and placed the jewelry on the table with a subtle clinking sound. And that was it.


---------------------------------------------------------------------
Masquerade! Paper faces on parade
Masquerade! Hide your face so the world will never find you
---------------------------------------------------------------------

 

As the weeks following Paris progressed, work became less and less chaotic, by Runway's standards. The dust--or glitter--had begun to settle and life resumed, the office running like the well-oiled machine that it was. It wasn't exactly the going-through-the-motions Andy had anticipated--one never gave less than a hundred and ten percent if they wanted to stay employed at Runway--but at least no one appeared on the verge of a nervous breakdown, not any more than usual, and the Paris issue was shaping up to be fabulous.

Meanwhile, fall was creeping into New York City, coloring trees in hues of yellow, orange, and red and stripping them of dead, crunchy leaves for men in suits to step on and for dogs to hurtle over while pulling their jogging owners along. High school girls in big scarves and fluffy beanies were lining up at Starbucks branches for the seasonal pumpkin spice latte and treats while their younger siblings were preparing for the end of the month with original costumes and scary accessories.

The temperatures also began to drop, thus calling forth the fall collection of every fashion designer. At Runway, employees and models showed up in large coats and fur-lined gloves, thicker stockings with high-heeled boots. Their makeup had transformed from bright and colorful to subdued shades of cold and earthy colors, their exterior becoming as frosty as some of their personalities.

And while the wind was picking up its speed and the air was cooling around the city, another change occured, because Miranda's attitude toward Andy was gradually thawing. It was a known thing that fall brought change, and this one was quite welcome. Andy wasn't sure what had spurred the development--perhaps Miranda was feeling shaken in the throes of another divorce, perhaps she just needed a friend and was clinging to the only person not too scared to provide a listening ear and a kind word--but either way, she was being... nice, in her Miranda-esque way, and Andy was savoring it while it lasted.

It did feel nice to receive less barbs and more information about Miranda's life--nothing sordid, but not anything others were likely allowed to know either. It often came in the form of a command, too, such as "Let the girls' teachers know they're going through a rough time," or "Call my ex-husband back and tell him this or that in regards to our last conversation," and in those instances, Andy knew just what to say because, unlike the rest of her colleagues, she understood.

Admittedly, the first few times Miranda confided in her, it had seemed accidental: a case of right place, right time or the need to get something off her chest being so immense she'd just taken advantage of Andy's willingness to be there. Likewise, Andy's almost liberty to offer her own opinion or comforting statement could, initially, have been put down to Miranda's shock at an underling being brave enough to offer their own wisdom, but as time went on, it became apparent that that was not the case. Granted, she never responded, not directly, but she also didn't shut Andy down, which was more than any other employee at Runway could say.

It was a nice change, indeed, and over time, the haunting image of a wounded, crying woman on a Parisian sofa dissipated from Andy's consciousness, clearing the way for another new Miranda. This Miranda sometimes nodded her "hello" at Andy in the mornings, and on rarer occasions allowed her to share her elevator, if only to save time, and while still going through the bitter, devastating proceedings of a divorce, to Andy she began to seem less like a poor victim of of her own life and more like the strong, resilient woman she really was.

Meanwhile, with his last Runway issue taking wing, the search for Nigel's replacement had launched and, in that aspect, Miranda was a nightmare. Even though Nigel was the one in charge of finding and interviewing the cream of the crop in the field, it was Miranda who seemed to bear all the tension, and as the days went by and the end of the month loomed, it became worse.

She'd already nixed one and run off another, both of which had been perfectly adequate for the job, but the fact remained that they simply weren't Nigel. To Miranda, no one was. Nigel was an extremely capable art director, his knowledge of the fashion industry unparalleled and his work ethic second to none, but besides his loyalty and diligence and indisputable skill, he was, more importantly, Miranda's right-hand man and close confidant of eighteen years, working not so much under her but with her for almost the entirety of her own tenure at Runway. It wasn't hard to tell, for anyone who spared a glance, that Nigel was more than an employee: he was, to Miranda, one of very, very few friends and, as Andy was slowly coming to realize about herself, he had won Miranda's trust, something she did not hand out easily at all.

Miranda didn't need a good art director so much as she needed a Nigel, and those were hard to come by. Nigel was the one who got pats on the back and hardly any denouncements in comparison to the rest of the staff. It seemed to pay off to be on Miranda's good graces, but Nigel was also the one to go the extra mile in his job because he was the one who knew Miranda best and knew how to please her. And as his last days neared, everyone was on tenterhooks, fearing the environment awaiting them in his absence.

Even Emily was beginning to break her silent treatment to begrudgingly ask Andy, "How do you think she's taking it?" That was when it occured to Andy for the first time that the change in Miranda's treatment was apparent not only to her but to the rest of the office as well. Many clackers had taken to calling her "teacher's pet" behind her back and to her face; Emily, certainly, was taking it hard now that the useless, ugly assistant had prevailed, but Andy didn't care: things were finally working out for her and coming to work was less of a chore and more something to look forward to.

"Well, that was an absolute waste of my time," Miranda spoke five minutes after they'd gotten in the car, leaving a preview that had called forth not one but two instances of pursed lips and zero nods. One more strike, Andy thought, and the poor designer would be lucky to get a job as a cashier at H&M.

As far as Andy was concerned, the preview hadn't been particularly atrocious, but she'd also learned long ago that it wasn't her opinion that mattered. And if she were honest, compared to the plethora of couture she'd viewed in recent months, this collection had looked more appropriate for old, albeit fashionable, ladies and not runway models, so she could see where Miranda was coming from.

Miranda had already complained to Nigel all the way from the showroom to the car, and the latter had promised to deal with it, but now it turned out she had more venom to spew, and so long as Andy wasn't on the receiving end, she was happy to lend a listening ear.

"Did you see that awful skirt?" There had been a number of skirts, but Miranda wasn't an elaborator and Andy was adept by now at reading her, and the fact that her boss had pursed her lips at a wool midi skirt narrowed the options down.

Given what she assumed was permission to respond, Andy smirked. "Looked like something I would have worn before I started working at Runway."

"Exactly," spat Miranda, and due to the fact that she'd taken to staring out of her window at the passing scenery instead of at her assiatant, Andy snickered.

"How are the ball preparations going?" Miranda inquired when they were nearing Elias-Clarke.

"Swimmingly," Andy was glad to inform her. The ball in question was, in fact, a masquerade, an exclusive, annual event held by Miranda every Halloween for all the New York elite and who's who of the fashion industry. When the last one took place, Andy hadn't yet moved to New York, much less taken interest in fashion and ritzy affairs, but co-organizing this year's ball had put a lot more on her plate, including enough research into past masquerades to establish that it was no Halloween party she'd ever attended. The costumes didn't include ghosts or slutty school girls, but top-of-the-line pieces from the world's greatest fashion designers, complemented by expensive, extraordinary, mandatory masks. It was fancy and not a little pretentious, but it was a shame only the first assistant got to accompany Miranda, and Andy, at least this year, couldn't experience the extravagance up close.

Perhaps for that reason, Emily, who was healthy this time around (sans one cast-bound leg), was quite amicable sharing her planning duties with Andy, all the while holding it over her head that she would have to sit this one out. A long-overdue revenge of some sort, Andy supposed.

She didn't mind; she much preferred to finish work early and rest at home in a sweat set rather than squeeze herself into Spanx, and it was nice, in a twisted way, to hear Emily's insulting remarks instead of trying to gauge them--or anything--out of her to no avail.

"Did you get in touch with the caterers?" Miranda asked.

"Emily did. No shellfish," she assured.

"What about vegan options?"

"Portobello steaks with roasted mushrooms or grilled cauliflower with pesto for the main course and lots of options for the entrées and hors-d'œuvre," she answered with a smile. Outside the window, the Elias-Clarke building neared, the car slowing down.

"Good. If I have to hear from one more person about animal cruelty, I'll unleash all the hungry models on them," stated Miranda and opened her door before the car had fully stopped, securing her mink wrap around her. Behind her, Andy stifled a laugh.

So yes, a lot was happening in October.

 


 

Fall had, indeed, arrived in New York City, and with it Mother Nature was going crazy. The gradual transition between two seasons guaranteed uncertainty and no forecast could advise with confidence whether one should leave the house with an umbrella or a light top.

But when it rained, it poured, and on a day when the sky couldn't seem to stop weeping, Miranda suddenly had a lot of requests--demands--that required outdoor trips.

The sky had been wearing the same dark, grey color for days, heavy rain clouds hiding the sun and refusing New Yorkers light and warmth. Inside the Runway halls, the atmosphere was just as grim, the rain pounding its angry fists against the large windows of Miranda's office with the occasional lightning and thunder. Miranda, with a velvet dress that clung snugly to her figure and a tranquil disposition that contrasted the storm outside, had her legs crossed as she reclined in her chair, delivering a long list of errands that would ruin Andy's Jimmy Choos in the sidewalks' puddles and possibly give her pneumonia.

The second she'd finished speaking, right on cue, thunder struck, shaking the whole sky with its violent rumble. Andy, involuntarily, flinched before gulping in apprehension. "Okay," she said nevertheless, composing herself better for the ensuing thunder. "I'll, um, I'll go right now."

Closing her notebook, she winced all the way out of the office before Miranda's voice stopped her. "Wait until the rain has calmed down." When she turned, astounded, Miranda had already moved on to the next task at hand, which was viewing glossies on her desk, and her tone had held enough boredom and nonchalance to give the impression that she couldn't care less one way or the other, but the sentiment was still there, and as Andy returned to her desk, remaining in a heated, dry environment for a little longer, an inexplicably warm feeling settled in her stomach.

It didn't help her much that night when she stepped into the townhouse, wet and cold, praying to every entity she could think of that she wouldn't run into Miranda. It would be as much as her life was worth to be caught dripping water on the hardwood floor, especially now, when she didn't want to break Miranda's merciful streak. So of course it was just her luck that the second she walked out of the closet, Miranda happened to be descending the stairs, coming face to face with a pale, trembling Andy.

Time stood still as Miranda slowly assessed her, running steely eyes from dripping hair that Andy had styled so carefully into gentle waves in the morning to designer shoes whose suede had darkened under the touch of water, and back up again.

"I'm sorry," Andy whispered, gesturing at the umbrella she had left by the front door, broken and crumpled by the ruthless wind outside. "My, uh... I'm sorry."

Miranda, in comparison to her, looked warm and cozy in a big, black sweater, her hair soft-looking and devoid of styling products, her face clear of makeup. As she walked toward her, Andy could almost feel her heat emenating her way, and at the same time wanted to recoil, as if worried Miranda would raise a hand on her.

She did raise a hand, but not to strike her. Instead, Andy stood stone-still, unwilling to emit a breath, as Miranda's fingers went into her hair. Her eyes widened, the sensation immediately tickling her scalp even as her hand went nowhere near it, even as it was gone a mere second later, and pulling back, Miranda was holding a soggy leaf between her thumb and forefinger.

"Oh," Andy croaked and cleared her throat. "Uh, wind," she mumbled by way of explanation, still feeling the phantom weight of the touch in her hair.

Miranda nodded toward an umbrella stand in the corner. "Take one," she ordered before grabbing the Book Andy had left on the table and proceeding toward the den.

It was only when she was out of sight that Andy let out the breath she was holding.

 


 

A few days later, Nigel's replacement was found. Colin Parrish was a buoyant, good-natured man, however with a no-nonsense attitude where it was needed. He was younger than Nigel but with enough experience and knowledge to make up for the gap, sought out by every self-respecting magazine, fashion personnel, and celebrity in need of a stylist. Most importantly, he wasn't afraid of Miranda, which might have been his selling point. Hadn't it been Andy's, too?

The three spent a prolonged lunch outside of the office and when they came back, Miranda looked... not content exactly, but at peace with the selection. The relatively good mood was, of course, short-lived.

Andy was approaching with a steaming cup of coffee when Miranda hissed into her phone, "I'm busy," right before hanging up. In the same breath, she stated, "I don't want that."

"Oh." Perplexed, Andy looked down at the cup in her reddening hand. "I thought you said--"

"People say a lot of things," she spat, turning in her chair to pull a glasses cloth out of a drawer. "Not all of them are worth listening to."

That did anything but clear up Andy's confusion, but nevertheless, she said, "Okay. I'll just... Are you okay?" The question surprised even her; she'd by now learned not to ask those at work. It seemed Miranda's willingness to indulge her with details of her life and feelings extended solely to the privacy of her home. Much like the deep contrast between the two physical appearances, if ever Miranda was able to not be entirely engulfed by work, it was definitely not in her place of business--Runway's Miranda cared completely and exclusively about her work. And Andy was always dumb enough to push her boundaries, from the very moment they'd met.

Astonishingly enough, Miranda seemed to forget about it, or simply didn't notice what she was doing. Perhaps she was too upset to because, as she cleaned her glasses with a little more force than necessary, she divulged, "The girls' father has suddenly remembered to worry about how the divorce is affecting them... this divorce," she clarified sourly. "Of course, he wasn't nearly as considerate when he left and dragged me through months of litigation."

Slipping on her glasses, she pierced Andy with a frigid gaze that had her fighting not to squirm in place, feeling as though she had been the one to cause her agitation. Miranda, however, continued, "Honestly, what is it with men thinking they know everything best? The world would be a much better place without them."

"Doesn't sound so bad," Andy tried to joke, but couldn't quite find the humor in the situation. Her face fell accordingly, the heat of the coffee against her skin barely registering anymore. "I'm really sorry, Miranda. If there's anything I can do to help--"

"That's all." She must have finally remembered where they were, Andy mused. Her eyes became vacant, settling on her desk as she sorted through items Andy doubted she was really paying attention to. But she didn't need to be told twice--she'd already pushed the limits enough--and, quietly, she left Miranda alone.

Not for long, though. Once she'd finished fielding calls and answering urgent e-mails, she ignored Emily's scandalized look on her way to Miranda's office with another steaming drink, this time in a mug from the kitchenette.

Miranda's reaction was slow to come when the mug had been placed on her desk, her eyes first examining the contents before she looked up at Andy with a haughty sniff. "What's this?"

"Peppermint tea," Andy replied, forcing a courageous smile--she knew she was walking on thin ice. "With, uh, honey."

"I don't recall asking for this." Miranda's demeanor was quickly dropping in temperature much like the weather outside. Andy swallowed.

"I know. But you skipped your coffee and I just thought..." She took a bolstering breath and continued, "My mom used to make this for me when I was sad as a kid. It worked; it's, it's comforting." Then her eyes widened in horror. "Not that I'm implying that you... need to be comforted or anything--"

"Do I look three-years-old to you, Andrea?" Miranda inquired casually. Alarmingly so. The ice was about to break.

Andy squeaked, "No?" That was definitely not meant to sound like a question. "I'm sorry, I'll just take it--"

"Leave it." Her eyes widened again, but Miranda was no longer looking at her.

 


 

There had to be more she could do. Tea and facialist appointments were nice, but they were simply not enough, and Andy wanted to help. She needed to help; every bone in her body screamed for it, unable to see someone suffer without finding a way to make it better. Maybe Nigel had been right and she really was a good girl, but it looked as though Miranda couldn't catch a single break, and ever since Paris, problem after problem was piling up on her plate.

She trusted Andy now, or at the very least did a very good job convincing Andy of that notion, and Andy couldn't risk losing something as precious and rare. There had to be more she could do.

"I hear you're the person to befriend around here if I want anything done," a voice said, startling her back into reality. Before her desk, Nigel's successor gave her an easy, dimpled smile. His dark curls were shining with enough product to make them look stylish and not tacky or creepy, a deceptively simple, snug, black turtleneck making his beige pea coat pop. Even in Andy's still amateur opinion, Colin Parrish knew his fashion well.

"I'm sorry?"

"Well, Nigel said it'd be in my favor to get on your good side," Colin explained conspiratorially. Andy immediately smiled.

"Mhm." She nodded. "I think that was his way of hazing you. Or me--he never really stopped."

Realization dawning, Colin's smile widened, his hands sliding into the coat pockets as he rocked back on his heels. "Ah."

"I'm just a lowly assistant, I'm afraid." And it was a good thing the first assistant was currently not manning her desk to witness the exchange for extra sneering material.

"Well, regardless," he said kindly, "Nigel speaks very highly of you."

"Oh, yeah?" Andy challenged. "What did he say about me?"

"He said that you were one of his best students."

"Uh-huh. And?"

Colin's dimples deepened when he mirthfully recalled, "Aaand that you're obnoxiously cheerful." That sounded more like Nigel. "But, you know, hazing or not, he does seem to think that you've got a certain touch when it comes to Miranda."

In an instant, Andy's smile was gone, replaced with bewilderment. "What?"

"Look, I don't need to have seniority around here to know how fast she goes through assistants. But you, apparently, were quite a surprise. I'm hearing you're her favorite one. Turns out there's more to the job than good looks, huh?"

What the hell was she supposed to say to that? She was still wrapping her mind around the "certain touch" comment, and the ensuing revelation that she was... No, if Miranda was less harsh on her these days, it was only because she'd finally stepped up her game and proved that she cared about the job, but there was a long way to go between that and favorite assistant and Andy felt oddly breathless. "Well..."

Colin must have sensed her discomfort, or become aware of his implication, because he quickly retreated, removing his hands from the pockets to wave them in front of Andy's face. "Oh, no, that's not to say that you're-- you're a beautiful girl. On the contrary, I was complimenting you."

Noting his struggle, Andy abandoned her own to take pity on him, smiling indulgently. "Well, thank you."

"And I could use it," he continued. "I mean, your help. At least until she gets used to having me around."

"I think you're giving me too much credit."

"Well, tell you what," he proposed. "How about I take you out to dinner, then, and get to know you a little better?"

Oh, no. She really hadn't seen it going in that direction, and awkwardly, she shrank in her seat, grimacing. The last thing she needed, with Miranda apparently favoring her--and Emily hating her guts--was an office romance. "Oh, um... I'm sorry, but I-- I'm just not--"

"Calm down," Colin said, his eyes laughing, his smile almost placating. "You're a very beautiful woman indeed, but I much prefer the company of beautiful men."

The relief Andy felt was almost embarrassing, and the breath she let out accompanied the pink tint on her cheeks. "Oh..."

"But hey, us gays need to eat, too, right?" She was too relieved to do anything but giggle. "So you just say the word, and dinner's on me. We can invite the other one, too." He pointed his thumb over his shoulder, where Emily's desk stood uninhabited. "Although she looks a little scarier."

On his way out of the office, one unruly curl breaking away from its polished companions to fall over his forehead, he looked back, saying, "And hey, if there's any way I can return the favor..."

Andy was sad Nigel was leaving, but on the bright side, she so far quite liked his replacement.

Some time later, when she picked up the surprisingly empty mug from Miranda's desk, Miranda stunned her further by offhandedly stating, "I'll want more of that in the future."

Andy waited until she was safely in the kitchenette to grin like an idiot.

 


 

The day before the masquerade, Miranda was spewing instructions and demands from the moment she stepped foot in the office to the very second she left. The masquerade was a very important, very publicized event in Runway's year, which meant that the faster it approached, the more stressful it became to be around Miranda, even for Andy, who liked her much better these days and who, as her assistant, had no choice but to be around her almost at all times.

On top of that, Nigel was scheduled to leave the very next day: while everyone was getting ready for the ball, squeezing into lavish costumes and trying on masks, he would be saying goodbye to nearly two decades of hard work, moving on to bigger and greater things. That was, no doubt, contributing to Miranda's agitation and everyone, including Nigel himself, did their best not to mention the impending departure.

They might not have had a chance regardless. When Miranda was leaving work late in the evening, the rhythmic sound of her heels echoing off the walls with every brisk step while Andy was trying to keep up in her own pair of stilettos and with a notebook in her hand, she was still securing last details that Andy scrambled to write down in motion.

"Check in with the music people again and, uh, what about flowers? I forgot--"

"Flowers have been confirmed and approved," Andy affirmed. "Um, no freesias."

"Good. Speak again with the security company--I don't want any misunderstandings like last year: a guest without an invitation isn't allowed in..." She was still going on when the elevator arrived, and in the choice between joining her or letting the doors close between them mid-sentence, Andy braved the former, stepping a decorous distance beside her. When she was met with no rebuke or overall acknowledgement, she continued to scribble in her notebook until they arrived on the fifth floor. The doors opened in the face of a suited woman, who took one look at Miranda, averted her gaze, and allowed them to close again.

That was also when silence settled between them for two more floors. Andy tried not to feel awkward, reminding herself that it wasn't her first shared elevator ride with Miranda and that small talk would make matters worse. But over the subtle humming of the elevator, she could hear Miranda's breathing inches from her, and in the confined space, the unique, luxurious scent of her perfume took over even after a long day on her skin. It made Andy dizzy: there was something so inexplicably special about her boss--a different creature to the rest of the mere mortals on Earth--and something even more special about being in her vicinity, basking in the vibe she exuded.

When Miranda spoke again, it took Andy's brain several seconds to come back to the moment. "Emily is still pretty useless with that hideos cast." As soon as the words left her lips, Andy's heart went to her throat. Emily couldn't be denied another opportunity she was so looking forward to. She was just starved enough that, the Paris debacle repeating itself, she might actually snap and kill Andy with her bare hands. So it was to Andy's utter relief that Miranda went on to add, "You'll be coming, too."

"Oh," she let out on a breath. "Of course."

She was so relieved, in fact, that it wasn't until Miranda left her alone in the elevator, her smell lingering behind, that she realized that, apart from the sweats she'd been fantasizing about, she didn't have anything to wear.

 


 

"Nigel?" she called desperately, running into the last place on her quest for him. In the Closet, stood by a row of hanged jackets, she found Colin instead, engaged in a conversation she'd interrupted with another man. "Oh, thank god you're still here," she panted.

"Hey," he greeted her fondly. "Is everything okay?"

Stopping before him, she tried to catch her breath. "I think I'm ready to cash in on that favor," she said. Colin, in response, lifted a curious, happy eyebrow.

 


 

Halloween had arrived, and with it America was gearing up, as was its custom, for a night of impersonation, trickery, and mayhem. While kids were waiting anxiously to put on the costumes their parents had bought or made for them, teenagers were stocking up on booze and eggs and generous amounts of toilet paper. Haunted houses had been set up for the intimidated public and private residences decorated with spooky merchandise and equipped with large portions of candy. It was to be a night of different kinds of fun for different kinds of demographic groups and everyone was excited.

In the midst of the celebration preparations, The Metropolitan Museum of Art was being organized for another kind of festivity, one that didn't include trick-or-treat bags and cheap bottles of beer, but tasteful flower arrangements and an abundance of expensive champagne. That night, models, publishers, shareholders, and more would step onto the marble floor in tens of thousands of dollars worth of costumes, hiding their identities behind creative masks and welcoming the holiday with the class and prestige that had always been synonymous with Runway.

But until then, within the magazine's halls, business was running as usual with the anticipation for the evening only simmering under the surface. Professionalism was the key word and everyone possessed it, focusing on their jobs and the distribution of the spectacular Paris issue they'd worked so hard on.

Everyone but one assistant.

"You're what now?!" Emily raged with a firm hand on her jutting hip while the other balanced on a cane--she was down to one these days. The death glare she pointed at Andy from behind her desk was almost incinerating, her makeup taking "smokey eyes" to a whole new level. Everything about her appearance was dark, perfectly befitting her mood.

"She told me to come," Andy defended herself. "What was I supposed to do, say no?"

"Yes!" Emily yelled. "There's a new concept for you: saying no. Perhaps you should practice it in front of the mirror when you smear yourself head to toe in borrowed Chanel: 'No, Miranda, I can't come to the masquerade. No, Miranda, I can't come to bloody Paris because Emily has been waiting for that FOR A WHOLE YEAR!'"

So, it was all coming out now: the vitriol, the toxicity--all of the things she'd bottled up for a month. In the back of her head, Andy was happy for her to have finally found her outlet; for her own sake, she found she much preferred the silent treatment after all.

"I'm sorry! Look," she tried to pacify, "the last thing I wanna do is step on your toes." At that, Emily scoffed. "I'm sure she just wants me there to-to get her drinks and bring her her coat when she leaves. She probably just doesn't want to have you running around all evening with your leg."

"Oh, yes," Emily sassed, "because that's what Miranda is known for: being soft and caring."

"It's not like you're not going," Andy tried to reason with her. "I'm just coming to help. You can boss me around all you want, okay?"

"Just don't talk to me. Ever," Emily spat before sitting down less than gracefully.

"Emily..."

"Shush!"

 


 

The silent treatment was also preferable to evil looks and random names and taunts--and, surely, a healthy amount of gossip behind Andy's back--but by midday, Andy had zoned them all out. She busied herself with ensuring and smoothing out last details to make sure everything ran flawlessly and give Miranda no reason to complain, and was more than ready to put the whole ordeal behind her until the far-off planning for the spring's benefit.

She took a minor break from work, though, when Nigel walked through the door, instantly pouting at him.

"Oh, stop that," he admonished, but couldn't disguise his pleasure with the gesture very well.

"I'm just gonna miss you," she confessed, fully prepared to deal with a sarcastic remark, which never came.

"You'll be just fine," he assured her. "The little caterpillar has broken out of its cocoon. You're ready to fly, sweetheart."

"Okay, seriously, what is it with all the butterfly analogies?"

That elicited a genuine laugh from Nigel, who said, "I don't know. I'm in a good mood, don't ruin it."

"Well, sure you are: you don't have to be here anymore," Andy groused, "while the rest of us are stuck here without the Miranda whisperer. How am I going to survive without you?"

"Oh, chin up, Six," he replied breezily, then arched an imperious eyebrow. "Or should I say Four now? You better not let yourself go in my absence."

Sweetly, Andy smiled up at him. "You were a great teacher."

"Of course I was." Leaning in, he then murmured, "And between the two of us, I don't think you really need me anymore at all. Seems there's a new Miranda whisperer in town."

"What?" Andy asked before she'd had a chance to grasp the words. He must have seen the bafflement on her face because he quickly changed the subject.

"And don't worry, I'll still be around; it's not like I'm moving to harvest corn in the Ohian fields."

"You're mocking me, but they actually do that in Ohio," she teased back.

"Of course they do."

"So when's the big going-away party?" she asked.

"Oh, right in our big and spacious break room, of course. There's a triple-layered cake, haven't you heard? Miranda brought it herself."

They both laughed at his statement with Emily mocking silently from her desk before Andy allowed herself another pout, a real one. It was a bittersweet moment, and she silently reflected on how much they'd been through together, the mutual banter they'd achieved so effortlessly. Nigel had been the first person to accept her at Runway, even when she was a disastrous mess, and the shoes he was leaving were very big indeed. "I'm really gonna miss you."

"Don't worry, Six, we'll stay in touch. We'll do drinks soon, alright?" he said. The promise was well-intended, but it was clear to both of them that it was an empty one, evidenced by the morose smile on his face. It was the kind of promise people made, knowing full well it wouldn't come to fruition. In this ever busy industry, social life was a myth, and unless you worked together, you very rarely saw your friends. Andy knew, then, that outside of the occasional, professional capacity, she would no longer see Nigel.

 


 

"Hey." She knocked on Miranda's open door, walking in with a folder. Outside, the sun was beginning to set, magnificent shades of pink and orange emerging from behind skyscrapers and gleaming off of shiny windows. Most of the Runway staff, including Emily, had already left to get ready, and soon Andy would, too.

"Just wanted to leave this with you if you wanted to go over everything one last time," she said, placing the folder containing all the masquerade planning on the desk. "And I personally oversaw your bag and change of clothes being delivered to the museum. So unless there's anything else you need, I'm gonna go now."

"Mhm," hummed Miranda, pulling the folder to her.

Andy was halfway across the room when she stopped, weighing her next move heavily in her head. Finally, she'd made a decision and softly asked, "Are you sad about him leaving? Nigel." She had just enough chutzpah and a short history of lack of rebuffs to summon the audacity to enquire about such an intimate emotion, and to her relief, Miranda didn't immediately kick her out of the office.

"Runway will certainly be missing him," she answered quietly after a prolonged pause.

Smiling gently, Andy went a step further. Coming closer, she sat down in one of the visitor's chairs and pressed, "I wasn't talking about Runway."

Closing the folder, Miranda finally looked at her. There was no scowl, no irritation, no indication that Andy was risking her life. And finally, she sighed, the exhaled air making her entire upper body sag. "We've worked together for eighteen years," she began. "Back when he started, he still had hair."

Chuckling, Andy felt more comfortable to chime in. "He's your friend," she stated simply.

"Friend... I suppose. I don't have many of those," Miranda admitted. It was a sad thought, Andy mused, and incredibly discouraging to learn that in order to climb to the top, one had to sacrifice so many personal relationships. Of course, Miranda's overall demeanor might have also played a part in it, but it was no trouble gauging, from every social gathering Andy'd ever accompanied her to, how fake social life at the top was: people sucking up to you to get something in return, never knowing who your real friends were and who would stab you in the back the moment you turned around, not being able to just go out for coffee and talk about life.

It was a good thing Andy's life wasn't like that. But then... when had she last sat down with a friend for a cup of coffee? Where were her friends? Lily was still alienating her, her and Nate's separation appeared to have also broken up their little friend group, the only person at work who seemed to genuinely like her had just left. The one other person she could perhaps, conceivably... No. Miranda was not a friend. She was her boss, she was the person everyone feared, and Andy confusing a phase of behavior a little less demonic than usual as friendship testified to the loneliness she hadn't even realized until that moment she was feeling. Was this really what her life had come to? There had to be a way to rectify it.

"He was the first person here to be nice to me, you know," she spoke upon noticing that Miranda had stopped. "My first day, he brought me my first pair of heels. And he gave me my awesome makeover." She jokingly flicked her hair over her shoulder. "He taught me a lot: not just about fashion, but this whole industry, everything we do here. It was a real eye opener." And attitude changer, she didn't add.

"Well, he likes you," Miranda commented.

"I think so." She smiled. "Yeah." Even when he'd tried his damnedest to hide it.

"It's a shame there aren't many others like him." Miranda sighed again. "He's a very rare person."

Struck by inspiration, Andy's eyes lit up with mischief. "I know. It's practically impossible to spot a Nigel in the wild."

Miranda, who immediately caught on, rolled her eyes. "Okay."

"I hear if you listen closely, you can hear him telling someone her dress is ugly."

"Look at you. You think you're so funny, don't you?" Miranda retorted, which made Andy break character in favor of an uncontrollable giggle. "Don't you have a ball to get ready for?"

"Yeah," she relented, but was still laughing on her way out of the office. Miranda wasn't mad at her, and that might have been the key factor.

 


 

When evening had dawned and people were attending their respective parties, the glitterati of New York gathered at the Met in their masses. A gold-trimmed red carpet had been stretched along the numerous steps leading to the entrance, on which reporters were interviewing new arrivals. All around, camera flashes were going off blindingly, capturing the works of art on people's bodies.

The costumes were absolutely breathtaking: men and women impersonating royalty in hoop dresses and velvet jackets; animals created out of lace and feathers; angels and devils; witches accompanied by fairies; silk and ruffles everywhere; riské pantyhoses contrasting modest necklines; slim waists made slimmer with corsets; head pieces that drew the eye and gorgeous jewelry that glimmered under the lights.

But the real kicker of the night was the masks, each one original and unique. Well-known faces, for one evening, were hidden by delicate lace, slick leather, glimmering glitter or sequins or even diamonds. One man's eyes were the only visible feature through a marble-patterned mask ornamented with golden leaves; another had shown up as a court jester with attached points and bells. A woman was holding a bronze face to her own, a painted peacock sprouting from the side to steal the show with feathers and flowers, while the top half of her companion's face was hidden behind a sparkly, black-and-gold mask. A few feet from them, climbing the stairs, another woman was smiling below a dazzling assembly of silver diamonds and black gemstones, the mask surely weighing heavily on her face. There was a butterfly-shaped mask, and a flimsy piece of lace that didn't really cover anything, and unimaginably creative pieces in all shapes and colors that guaranteed to be smeared across the tabloids come morning.

As Andy exited the chauffered Mercedes, she was promptly blinded by the bright lights. Ahead of her, celebrities and designers were answering questions on the carpeted stairs and models were balancing incredibly well on stilettos while holding up the trails of their expensive dresses. Classic music from inside the venue could be heard outside, providing a soundtrack to the arrival of guests, and as Andy began to head toward the entrance, she spotted Nigel.

His eyes warmed up when they met--once he'd recognized her behind the mask--and by the time she'd closed the distance, he'd finished his interview and was looking her up and down approvingly.

"You came!" she gushed, also admiring his fancy, detailed George Washington costume, only interrupted by a velvety, pine-colored cloth around his eyes.

"Of course I did. Did you expect me to miss an event I practically organized? Let me look at you," he demanded, twirling her several times in place to the sound of her laughter. "Very nice. Who put that together for you?"

The "that" in question was a Jessica-Rabbit-styled, black gown that spilled around her feet and made her look a lot thinner than she actually was, a deep cleavage and a very long slit up the side granting her a provocative look that, strangely, had class instead of slutty connotations. Her hair was slicked back in straight strands that fell over her shoulder blades and, covering half of her face, above dark, red lips, was a black cat's face made of tulle and wires and sparkling, silvery glitter. Coyly, Andy ran her hands down the delicate silk that felt so decadent against her skin.

"Your replacement," she answered. Colin had been enthusiastically up for the challenge of dressing her last-minute, having a far more laid-back, "everything is possible" attitude than Nigel, who'd insisted he could never alter Andy's look and spent an immeasurably long time educating her on ballroom etiquette and explaining the keys to wearing an evening gown, including making sure "the girls face forward." They sure were tonight, and as Andy weaved her way into the museum, trying to avoid the camera lenses, they drew the gazes of several faceless attendees.

Inside the museum, the atmosphere was even more luxurious. Everything had been planned to the very last detail and executed perfectly. A dim lighting granted the massive space a rich, golden glow that highlighted the marvelous costumes; flowers in shades of yellow, orange, and white decorated the room with a subtle holiday touch; just off to the main lobby, another room with beautifully set tables, exquisite food, and more Halloween elements waited for the guests to reconvene to for a later dinner. The museum was bubbling with the sounds of chatter and laughter, champagne flutes clinking, fabrics rustling as their owners moved within their outfits, long gowns and capes dragging lightly across the floor. Among the guests, smartly-dressed waiters glided with gold and silver trays, an occasional mini quiche or caviar and crème fraîche tartlet being daintily plucked off. Andy stood at the entrance and smiled in wonderment and satisfaction: for one night, the Met had been transformed into a palace.

"Well, look at you," someone said snootily behind her, and when Andy turned around, her heart momentarily skipped a beat.

Emily was dressed as a butterfly, or a scary-looking moth, with a sheer corset that pushed her breasts together, an attached skirt made of velvet and feathers in a gradient combination of blue and silver that barely covered her thighs but trailed behind her, and a matching set of magnificent wings large enough to assure no one would stand too close. Her eye makeup, for once, had had to be forgone in favor of the mask that completed the costume, but her look was just as daring as usual without it. If not for the big, white cast and a cane supporting her under an armpit, she would have given a lot of the guests a run for their money.

"Emily, you look so good," Andy raved; just that side of terrifying, but good. "Are you a butterfly?"

"No, you insipid twat," snapped Emily, taking her aback. "I'm a dark angel." Of course she was. "And you're a cat," she went on to sneer. "How adorable."

"I thought you weren't talking to me," Andy said. She really didn't want to burn all her bridges with Emily, but there was only so much she was willing to take lying down. Besides the many effusive apologies she'd extended, she didn't know how else to fix things, and maybe there was nothing to fix. After all, they hadn't exactly started out as friends.

"I'm not," Emily confirmed and turned away. And at that exact moment, a collective murmuring grabbed at both their attention, redirecting their eyes toward the endless flight of stairs, down which the host of the evening was descending to greet her peers.

"Oh... my god," Emily gasped, worshipfully pressing a hand to her semi-exposed bosom.

Oh, my god, indeed. Andy remembered Emily tearing up at the sight of Miranda entering Runway's benefit some months back, but this time she couldn't quite bring herself to make fun of her. Awed and breathless, she was unable tear her gaze away from the stairs, much like the crowd around her. Miranda, who usually wore black gowns to events of this nature, was a sight for sore eyes in wine red, dark and deep against her pale complexion. A tulle shawl in a slightly lighter shade of red rested loosely in the crooks of her arms, little, silvery dots glinting in the light whenever her body moved. The long trail of the gown slid languidly down stairs she'd already passed, pooling behind her in beautiful folds of sumptupus fabric. But what really made Andy's, and many others', jaw drop was the décolletage: at fifty-years-old, Miranda's neckline plunged way down to her abdomen, revealing just enough but not too much of a pair of rounded breasts and a sea of unblemished, unwrinkled skin uninterrupted by a gratuitous necklace. In the back, much in the same fashion, the dress exposed a generous amount of white, flawless skin for everyone's eyefuls.

And if the gown hadn't been enough to draw a clear distinction between her and the lesser beings around her, Miranda's face was the only one in attendance not to be obscured by a mask. Of course, if anyone could break the most important rule of the night, it was the one who'd initiated it in the first place. Besides, with a face like that, it'd be a crime to hide behind a mask. And mask or not, Miranda Priestly was easily the most beautiful person in the room.

For no particular reason, Andy was very glad she'd been invited to the ball. Even when, lips pursed, Miranda impatiently signaled with her eyes for her assistants to get a move on and join her side. They scurried over, Emily's wings scaring passers-by off and Andy holding the spilling skirt of her gown up to avoid a stiletto-related catastrophe, and when they'd reached her, Miranda's eyes ran up and down Andy's outfit, examining her from head to toe while Andy waited with bated breath. It was probably a matter of flitting seconds, but the imperious touch of her gaze scorched right through the fabric of the gown until, quite imperceptibly, Miranda nodded her approval.

The good thing about a masquerade, Andy thought to herself, was that there was no necessity to study endless lists of names and faces when those were covered by masks. Miranda exchanged vague pleasantries with people who craved her proximity, and engaged in longer conversations (as long as she was willing to put up with) with the ones she actually recognized. Meanwhile, Andy and Emily stood off to the side, nursing glasses of champagne and basking in the the aura that surrounded Miranda's vicinity. She was the center of attention, everyone gravitating toward her as though drawn by a magnetic field, hungry for a taste of royalty. Andy, certainly, couldn't stop admiring Miranda's elegant back, the creamy slope of her shoulders, the way she never ceased to surprise her.

"Miranda Girl," a voice murmured playfully in her ear and she didn't need to turn around to guess who it belonged to. Even when she did, it didn't make much of a difference, the owner grinning behind a Phantom of the Opera mask.

"Christian." She returned the smile.

"I was hoping to run into you," Christian said, his voice silky smooth, and proceeded to ogle her body. "And look at you: you're a vision."

"Oh," she chuckled shyly, touching the fabric at her hip. "It's nothing."

"Seriously, Andy, you look amazing."

Blushing, she returned the compliment, "You clean up nicely, too." She nodded at his impressive tuxedo and black cape. "Nice costume."

"Yeah, well, when in New York..." Christian shrugged. Before Andy could tell what was happening, he'd slid an arm around her waist and turned her toward a flashing camera with a dazzling smile, too late for her to evade the picture.

"Have I mentioned that I can probably get you a ticket to any Broadway show you'd like?" he spoke while Andy turned her already unrecognizable face away from another click. As Miranda's assistant, so could she: all she had to do was drop her boss's name and get whatever she wanted. "After landing you that manuscript, it'd be a piece of cake."

"Are you trying to buy me?" she accused, only half-joking.

Christian, in turn, flashed her the same smile that had caused her to melt time and again before while releasing her from his hold. "You tell me what I need to do to get you to go out with me again."

"Oh, um--"

"I'm dying to find out if the kitty likes to scratch." He smirked at her mask, which brought a shade of red deeper than Miranda's dress to her thankfully concealed cheeks.

"Oh, god," she laughed. "You have got to stop with those comments."

"Then agree to go out with me," he pressed. Andy bit her lip. "Come on, let me take you to dinner. I promise I'll behave this time. I'll even have you back home before curfew."

She couldn't help but laugh again; he was charming. And, when she really thought about it, why not? What was stopping her from saying yes? She was officially single, no longer plagued by the guilt that had consumed her in Paris and in the ensuing days, following an uncertain separation lacking in closure. Nate wasn't coming back, she didn't want him to, and hadn't she just ruminated on her loneliness hours earlier? Surely it would do her some good to spend a night out, dining with a real, living human instead of stuffing herself full of take-out food, having a real conversation and, for once, taking a break from the job her life had started revolving around. Even if it didn't lead to anything.

She felt someone watching her, and when she looked up, Miranda was. From a few feet away, ignoring a man in an Egyptian god mask, Miranda's gaze was concentrated on her and Christian, who, in that moment, oblivious to the sudden scrutiny, elected to place a hand on Andy's hip. Her eyes followed the movement, lowering to where he was stroking the soft fabric of Andy's dress, before rising again, inscrutable. She didn't look angry per se--Andy had no assistant duties to fulfill at the moment; she seemed almost... contemplative.

"So what do you say?" Christian's question snapped Andy's focus back to him, and when she looked toward Miranda a second later, her attention had returned to the Egyptian god.

Well, what did she have to lose? "Sure," she answered. "I'd love to."

 


 

When Christian had raved about a sweet, little, family-owned, Italian restaurant, Andy had thought he was simply trying too hard, but it turned out that Patsy was really a lovely place. Granted, it was nowhere Miranda would step foot: for one, it had less than a five-star rating, certainly no Michelin star, and the food, as was the case with pasta and pizza, was rich in carbs. But the place was nice and cozy, the staff friendly, and dinner was better than any minimal, gourmet meal Andy had sat through in the last few months.

She was giggling at one of Christian's jokes as he topped off her emptying wine glass. Romance or not, as a dinner companion, he was great company, keeping the atmosphere light and fun, never succumbing to awkward silences or obligatory small talk. Throughout dinner, he'd shared personal details and stories they'd skipped in Paris, taught Andy the correct ways to hold different wines, and not only insisted she eat at least half of the mind-blowing tiramisu he'd ordered for them, but had fed her spoonfools himself. By the time their date was coming to an end, Andy entertained the notion that maybe there was something to pursue there after all.

"So tell me," he said, scraping leftover dessert off the plate, "when am I going to see your name in... what was it you said you wanted to write for? The New Yorker? Vanity Fair?"

"You remembered," Andy observed, impressed.

"Why wouldn't I? That's what you want to do, isn't it?"

"Well, yeah..." Sheepishly, she looked down at her glass, swirling the remaining wine inside. "But I'm at Runway right now, you know, trying to complete a year there before I can look into writing jobs. And, well, I feel like the work I'm doing there is important."

At the sound of his snort, she looked back up, a frown wrinkling her forehead. "I'm sorry," he chuckled, "but you can't be serious."

"Well, I am." Her frown deepened.

"Come on, Andy. Being assistant to Miranda Priestly? That can't be your biggest aspiration." He was starting to sound a lot like Nate. Andy's fingers tightened around the glass.

"I never said that it was," she ground out. "But right now, I'm helping Miranda."

"I'm sure she can do just fine on her own, she's a big girl," he concluded, speaking with the confidence of a man who had no idea what he was talking about. How could he, though? Apart from Andy, no one really saw how Miranda was struggling, how broken she'd returned from Paris. No one cared that she spent her evenings without a husband and worried for her children's stability. No one had any idea that she was valiantly clinging to her own. No one but Andy understood. "You should look out for yourself."

"You don't know everything," she said feebly, her fire diminishing. How could she argue on Miranda's behalf without revealing information no one but her knew?

"Okay," Christian tried to soothe, "I feel like we're veering off topic. I was just wondering about your writing, that's all. Because I've seen the stuff you sent me, and it's good. You've got a real potential." Despite herself, Andy smirked. "What?"

"Nothing, it's just... you called it 'stuff.'"

"Yeah?" he drawled, visibly confused.

"It's just that I've stopped using that word."

 


 

"You know, I've never worked so hard to get a girl to go out with me," he said outside the restaurant, helping Andy into her coat. It wasn't quite freezing yet, but she still found herself shivering, burying her bare hands inside the coat's pockets. She also regretted wearing a dress instead of pants when the brisk wind easily penetrated her silk stockings. "But thank you for a perfectly lovely evening."

"I had a great time," she concured. "I'm glad we did this."

Cheekily, Christian said, "Not to say, 'I told you so...'"

"Mhm." She smirked. A moment later, he was closer than he'd previously been, his breath warming up her face, exposed to the elements. Andy watched him lean in, studying her reaction for a sign to tell him whether he should keep going or withdraw, and when no rejection came from her, she felt his hand, big and rough, on her cheek, pulling her to him the rest of the way.

The kiss was warm, and slightly stubbly, and he had no problem introducing his tongue almost immediately. He tasted of red wine and mushroom risotto, being gentle with her but also taking what he wanted. The memory of their last kiss was lost to the effects of alcohol, so this one might as well have been their first, and as far as kisses went, it was a good one. But Andy didn't feel anything.

"Hmm," she hummed when they parted, her forehead creased in contemplation.

"'Hmm' I haven't heard," he joked, but underneath that, he was noticeably nervous. As nervous as Christian Thompson ever got. "Should we try again?"

Licking her lips, she gave the matter some thought before nodding. Maybe she'd just been distracted. Given permission, Christian stroked her hair behind her ear, tilted her head back with a finger underneath her chin, and bent toward her lips. This time he was slower, thorough. And this time...

A flash of grey and white. Small, supple lips. Soft tongue. A long gown. Tender fingers on her skin. Rounded breasts.

Jerking back, she broke the kiss, eyes wide, heart racing, blood boiling despite the crisp air. She stared at Christian, with his square jaw and broad shoulders and scratchy stubble and coarse hands, and he stared back, trying to comprehend the shift in mood. "No?" he questioned, tilting his head.

She tried to comprehend it, too, and compose herself. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "It's not you."

"Oh, okay," he laughed knowingly, but didn't appear hurt or angry.

Nevertheless, Andy rushed to reassure him, "No, really, it's..." And then, as the words stood at the tip of her tongue, pulsating, pushing to get out, the realization dropped on her like a thousand atom bombs all at once, more astonishing and impossible than any natural disaster, more terrifying and grave than any casualty. Just like that, the truth came slipping past her lips: "There's someone else."

"Le boyfriend?" Christian raised a skeptical eyebrow, obviously nowhere near as stunned as Andy felt by the new revelation.

"No," she said hollowly, "not him."

Mercifully, he didn't push further. "I see. Well, whoever it is, he's a lucky guy. I'd be lying if I said I hope it works out, though." His lips stretched into a half-hearted, quirky smile, his hand returning to Andy's hair to smooth a strand over her shoulder, tickling her neck in the process. "But I hope he knows what he has."

She was too numb to respond, being vaguely aware of parting words being exchanged between them, Christian offering to pay for her cab, her politely declining, Christian's hair blowing in the wind as he walked away. Andy, for her part, stayed outside the restaurant for a long time to come, her legs simply refusing to move, her body frozen from the inside. She watched the city bustling with life in a daze, lights dancing and changing, people filling the sidewalks, cars honking. The world moved around her in a blur while she stood still and stolid, and all she could think about was small, supple lips, tender fingers, a long gown, rounded breasts, grey and white hair.

There was someone else. It was Miranda Priestly.

 


 

Inconceivable. Ludicrous. Completely and utterly insane. The mere notion that Andy could harbor any feelings for Miranda beyond an appropriate amount of affection--newly acquired at that--was absurd. She was her boss, she was the meanest person alive, and Andy was and always had been attracted solely to men.

She darted an inconspicuous glance toward a girl leaning against the bar. She looked to be around her age, a snug pair of jeans hugging her legs, a considerable cleavage peeking out of her shirt. She was beautiful, aesthetically and objectively speaking, her smile sweet and lighthearted as she chewed the top of her straw, listening to her companion, but Andy didn't feel anything for her. Well, she wouldn't necessarily kick her out of bed, but every girl had those "hall passes": an admirable, female celebrity; a cute girl that stood out in a crowd. That was not to say that Andy felt the same clenching in her stomach that she did when her thoughts switched to Miranda's look at the masquerade, the way she'd moved around the room, practically floating in her divine splendor. That mesmerizing gown.

Miranda at the office, Andy's mind chimed in unbidden, legs crossed under her desk in a regal posture, high heels accentuating her smooth, strong calves. Her soft voice when she pronounced Andy's name so differently and uniquely. That singular and exclusive scent that remained in the room long after she'd gone, a rich combination of flowers and musk and something unidentifiable and exceptionally Miranda.

Andy tried to picture her in place of Christian a couple of nights before, reimagine the sensations that had seized her when his lips touched hers and it wasn't them she was feeling. But now, the mere thought of Miranda kissing her, Miranda touching her, Miranda... No. It was too much. Andy looked down into her glass lest someone should see her furious blush.

"I'm here, sorry I'm late. I got stuck at work." Looking up, she watched Doug make his way through the bar to her corner table, his tie undone, his jacket draped over his arm. "Hey," he breathed out after dropping into the booth, mirroring Andy's smile.

"Doug," she said happily, extending her hands over the table, which he took in his own, squeezing. "It's so good to see you."

"You, too," he agreed, lifting their joined hands as he appraised her outfit. "Is that Dolce?"

"Yup."

She immediately felt better at having his company, and at the same time was gripped by shame at the rift that had been drawn between them and the amount of time it had taken her to reach out to him. Lily was one thing: she'd decided that Andy was not the friend she'd once known and was keeping a distance from the new version she apparently deemed unworthy. But Doug, the only one of their group who'd never had a bad word to say about her job and new and improved appearance, was not exactly her friend to claim.

Lily had been her best friend for sixteen years, joining her and Nate in the move to New York, also to pursue better opportunities to advance her career. But Doug was Nate's friend, introduced to the group by him, their friendship dating back to their college roommate days and extending, she assumed, even to these days when Nate had relocated to Boston. For a long while after their breakup, it had felt awkward to contact and hang out with a friend she'd met through him, even as Andy felt incredibly embarrassed not to. It wouldn't have been right to call him after Paris and rhapsodize about all the couture she'd seen and designers she'd met, just as she wouldn't have liked Nate staying close with Lily (and, for lack of insight into that, she preferred not to think about it). Much like in a divorce, she supposed, they each had won custody of a different friend, and Nate had gotten Doug.

Except now Nate was in Boston, Doug had been enthusiastic enough to receive her phone call, and she didn't know who else to turn to.

"I'll have a bottle of Guinness and she'll have a refill of whatever that is." Doug pointed to Andy's glass, where residual, auburn liquid covered the bottom, and once the waitress had left, he inquired, "Since when do you drink whiskey?"

"I'm learning to," she replied lightly. She didn't care for the taste, but-- "It's stronger than beer."

"Trouble at work?" he asked sympathetically.

"You could say."

Their conversation was halted when their drinks arrived, then resumed in a new direction, each catching the other up on their lives since they'd last seen each other. Doug, it turned out, had been dating the guy Lily had introduced him to at her gallery, where, coincidentally, Andy and Nate broke up, and he seemed absolutely infatuated. Andy, in turn, recounted the grueling process of assembling the post-Paris issue, which he unbashedly admitted to reading cover to cover, and supplied every description she could recall of the masquerade to his avid ears and enchanted gaze, only leaving out the one image she remembered in great and precise detail.

Doug was the one to provide, "And I saw the pictures of Miranda... Wow!"

"Yeah..." she muttered.

"That red... talk about the devil. And that cleavage! I can't believe you got to see her up close. Do you know how lucky you are?"

"Not sure that's the word I would use."

When his second bottle of beer was set on the table, along with a bowl of nachos and salsa between them, Andy finally gathered the courage to ask the question she'd been preparing for all night.

"Hey, Doug, can I ask you something?" she began nonchalantly, plucking a chip from the ball and dipping it into the salsa.

"Sure."

She didn't eat the chip, though, staring at the liquidy tomatoes dripping down the length of it as she enquired, "When did you know you were gay?"

She finally chanced a glance at him when the words were out of her mouth, released into the air between them, impossible to retrieve, but he didn't look nearly as perturbed as her, or suspicious. Yet. "What do you mean?" he asked blithely around a mouthful.

She really didn't know how to put it more clearly. "Like, when did you-- how did you find out?"

"Well, I mean, not to sound too stereotypical, but I watched soap operas with my mom and always stole my sister's clothes; there wasn't really an a-ha moment, you know?"

"So you just always knew?" She frowned.

"I guess... subconsciously. Why?" That was when hints of suspicion started to present themselves. He even abandoned the nachos to fold his arms on top of the table and lean closer, a glint of realization lighting up his eyes. "Are you..."

"No!" Andy rushed to object, perhaps too quickly. "I mean, no, I'm-- no?"

Gasping, Doug grinned broadly, exclaiming, "You are!"

"No, I'm not! Keep your voice down." She looked around anxiously, but no one was watching them, nobody seemed to have heard, nobody cared. "Look, okay," she said, trying to calm both of them down, organize the chaotic mess in her head, "I'm just... I'm trying to figure some things out, okay?"

Doug, however, was also not listening. "Mhm." He smirked, leaning back in his seat. "I should probably be surprised, but I'm not."

"You're not?" Her eyes bulged, because she certainly was.

"No, I mean, working at Runway? How could you resist the charm? I probably should have guessed when you finally upgraded that hideous wardrobe, and Andy?" He covered her listless hand with his, emphatically saying, "Thank you so much for not giving into plaid flannel and shaving your hair."

"Um, okay?"

"So who is it?" He clapped his hands, then rubbed them together in excited anticipation. "One of the models? If I were a girl and spending all day around them, I'd also turn gay. Was it in Paris? Oh, my god, did something happen in Paris? Tell me everything."

If Andy hadn't felt so distraught, she would have laughed. Once she'd gotten over the initial shock of his assumption. He couldn't have been more far off: all those look-alike models couldn't hold a candle to Miranda, not in a million years. She couldn't care less about them just as she didn't care about the girl who by now had left the bar, and just the comparison was sending that awful, painful contraction to her stomach again.

"Never mind," she mumbled, stabbing a nacho into the dip, effectively breaking off the tip.

"Alright, alright, you don't have to tell me," Doug relented, sensing her discomfort. A second later, however, he prodded, "Is it Brooklyn Decker? 'Cause I saw her pictures from the Valentino show and I was ready to go straight for her."

Smiling tolerantly, Andy took a sip from her glass. The more she drank the whiskey, the less unpleasant, or overall noticeable, the taste became. She wondered how Doug would react if he found out that it wasn't the body of a twenty-year-old supermodel she couldn't stop thinking about, but that of her fifty-year-old boss. And her voice. And her smell. And the quiet ferocity and power she oozed. And her eyes--oh, god, she had the most beautiful eyes: blue with a hint of green, frosty but captivating--

She really was screwed.

"Andy," Doug began gently, bringing her back down to earth. "It's okay to be attracted to women. It's okay to be attracted to men. Hell, if you like both, you get even more options. My point is, sexuality is fluid. There's no book that says you can't explore that side of you. Well, not in the twenty-first century," he conceded, evoking a chuckle from Andy.

"Whatever you are, whoever you choose to be with, I'm still your friend. Just, you know, let me know if it turns out you are gay so I can take you to all the awesome gay bars I'm no longer allowed to visit, thank you very much, Eric."

"Thanks, Doug," Andy said, a genuine smile splitting her face. It hardly solved her current predicament, and she had no clue what she was going to do come Monday, but it was good to know that someone was in her corner. Custody or not, she was keeping Doug, and holding on tightly.

 


 

Following a weekend full of inner turmoil and doubt, Andy showed up at work on Monday, feeling, plainly put, like shit. Full disclosure: she'd entertained, during the weekend, thoughts that she wasn't actually attracted to Miranda and that this was merely a momentary craze brought on by lack of sleep and proper meals and the general effect Runway had on its employees.

They all went out the window the second Miranda walked through the door, flinging a fur-trimmed coat and leather gloves onto Emily's desk to reveal a blue dress that clung to her body like an additional layer of skin and billowed around her knees with every step she took. Entranced, Andy belatedly registered her talking, even as Emily glared at her, and scampered after her into the inner office.

"...why aren't the proofs from the Central Park shoot on my desk?" Miranda was saying, launching into the usual string of commands. She finished with, "And tell Nigel I want to see--" and promptly cut herself off. Andy lifted her pen off her notebook as well, staring at Miranda. To her mortification, gripped by weekend-long thoughts about her boss and existential wonderings about her own sexuality, the fact that the day she came back to work Nigel would no longer be there had completely evaded her mind. "Get Colin in here," Miranda quietly concluded with, lowering into her seat.

"Of course." Andy nodded, trying not to look at the hint of cleavage that presented itself when Miranda, in a fluid motion, slipped her glasses on and hunched toward the newspaper on her desk. "I'm gonna go get your coffee," she mumbled in a rush.

"I want tea today," Miranda murmured absently, flipping a page. Stopped in her tracks, Andy tried very hard to swallow.

 


 

While Colin and Miranda were conversing in her office, Andy sneaked a peek at Emily, typing on her keyboard. She was pretty enough--below all that makeup, even more so, Andy believed--but she couldn't picture them as anything other than co-workers. Friends in a stretch, and these days it was a big stretch. Emily's touch didn't intrigue her, the taste of her lips after a sip of coffee didn't appeal to her, and she certainly didn't feel the urge to strip her of her clothes.

So it was just Miranda; no models, no pretty girls in bars, definitely not Emily. And if Andy wasn't attracted enough to any other girl to go into bedroom fantasies, then she obviously wasn't gay. Hero worship--that was what it was. Spend too much time in Miranda's aura and you'd be bound to feel it. After all, she was one of a kind, a legend and an inspiration, adept at striking awe in anyone who looked. Andy sure as hell hadn't been the only person enthralled by the masquerade gown.

She was proving herself at work and therefore avoiding Miranda's wrath, and rare as that was, it was sure to confuse her feelings for her, but that didn't mean that she actually wanted Miranda's touch, Miranda's attention, Miranda's-- No.

"What are you looking at?" Emily bit, causing her to avert her eyes.

No, definitely not Emily. Hero worship it was, and that decision gave her peace of mind for a whole five minutes, until Miranda's soft voice floated from her office. "Andrea," she called and Andy's heartbeat effectively multiplied its pace.

Oh, she was screwed. Screwed, screwed, screwed.

 


 

It was a nightmare. Being assistant to Miranda was tough; being assistant to Miranda while constantly imagining the taste of her mouth and losing breath over the way her hips swayed when she walked was unbearable. And Miranda wasn't making it any easier on Andy by doing a complete one-eighty from the monster she'd always been: she forgave mistakes, and she wasn't so scary whenever she was talking to Andy, and one time--and Andy still wasn't convinced it hadn't been her imagination playing tricks on her--she even murmured an absentminded, accidental "thank you."

She'd enjoyed the post-Paris shift in their-- their working relationship, the newly formed comfort and familiarity between them--despite Emily's disdainful looks and clackers' snide remarks--so much that she'd grown accustomed to it, begun to view it as normal, and with any other boss it would have been, but now she would love a grounding blow that would jerk her back down to earth and right back to resenting Miranda like a normal person.

Unfortunately, on that front, Miranda wasn't providing. She wasn't particularly nice--Andy didn't think she knew how to be--but the usual, cold, quiet terror the rest of her employees suffered was no longer extended to Andy, just when she needed it most. Because without it, it was so much easier to notice how beautiful she looked when she immersed herself completely in a task, how witty her comments actually were when they weren't directed at Andy, how incredible a pinstriped suit with a white blouse that was undone just a button too many made her body look.

It wasn't hero worship, it wasn't a temporary bout of insanity: as Miranda's assistant, Andy had once again achieved the impossible and found herself horribly, painfully, hopelessly attracted to her boss.

 


 

Miranda moved around the clothing racks set in her office, touching fabrics with the tips of her fingers and piercing them with her sharp, thoughtful gaze. Outside, the sky was erupting in heavy tears, pouring down on the city and washing the streets clean of soot and filth. Umbrellas collided with each other on the crowded sidewalks while, on the roads, cars splashed water onto pedestrisns' shoes and coats.

At Runway, the staff had taken to subtly and gradually transitioning from an autumn wardrobe to a winter one, trading light jackets in for fur and wool, gracing their necks with warm but fashionable scarves, and clacking down the corridors in high-heeled boots. Miranda, on the other hand, was a timeless beauty, gorgeous in a crisp, azure blouse that brought out the color of her eyes (and the pattern of the lacy bra beneath it), tucked into a black pencil skirt; her stockinged feet were shod in four-inch pumps, clearly telling the world her style conformed to no type of weather. It was just possible that Miranda, ethereal and superior as she was, was immune to the elements.

Her employees, however, were not immune to her criticism, and several cringed when she pushed three hangers down the rack with a definitive, albeit boredom-affected, "No."

"How are we doing on accessories?" she asked, to which Lucia responded by rushing to the other side of the room, oblivious to Miranda's impatient eye roll.

Andy, instead of taking notes, as was her job, was too fascinated by the fluidity with which Miranda's body moved, the subtle facial expressions that still communicated exactly what she was thinking--well, what she wanted people to think she was thinking, her mind as unreadable as ever. A lock of white hair fell easily on her forehead, moving slightly with each motion of her head. The same smell Andy's nose had grown weak to, associating it with power and authority and sensuality, controlled the room, eclipsing any other perfume and fabric scent. Standing in the middle of the rain-darkened office with her confident posture and regal bearing, Miranda was the center of attention, every other occupant's single goal concentrated on pleasing her.

Enraptured, Andy couldn't look away. She didn't care about the clothes or accessories or that month's issue; she cared about Miranda. She stared and stared and stared some more, in the back of her head conscious of maintaining a straight face instead of allowing a stupid, dreamy smile to creep in.

She remembered her first run-through as Miranda's assistant, where the dragon lady had basically eviscerated her in front of a scornful audience with a humiliating, contempt-laden speech pointing out her ignorance. And even that, even the memory of Miranda's strong dislike for her before everything changed wasn't enough to repel her.

"We could work with these," Miranda murmured, stroking a collection of three different necklaces from two different designers that still complimented each other in Lucia's hands. Turning to Colin, she questioned, "What do you think?"

"You read my mind," he replied, an elbow propped up by his other hand, his index finger running across his lips as he dedicated his severe focus to the jewelry. "Yeah, we could pair them with this blouse," he decided, turning to a rack.

"Hmm." Miranda studied his offered garment. Andy watched her watch it. And Colin found Andy's eyes, winking playfully.

That, at last, yanked her out of her reverie, her lips gaping and dry. Blinking, she quickly lowered her gaze to her notebook, where the pages awaited, blank.

Some time later, Colin exited the office after Andy had returned to her post and everyone else had been excused. He was calm as ever, unfazed by every disapproving or derisive thing Miranda had had to say--that much he had in common with his predecessor.

"Amazing, isn't she?" he said knowingly, coming to a stop before Andy's desk.

"What?" Her attention snapped to him, a little too quickly, her eyes as big as a deer's caught in the headlights. She felt busted, all right. Had she been that obvious? She'd all but stripped Miranda with her gaze back there, and not for lack of trying, but any time she so much as imagined what Miranda might look like under her mesmerizing clothes, attempted to complete the picture the masquerade appearance had begun to paint, the evidence burned in her reddened cheeks. The last thing she needed, with everything else in her life going so terribly awry, was to be the office's laughingstock, especially after managing to shed that title after her excruciating, first months at Runway.

But all Colin said was, "Miranda. At the run-through. That focus, and the eye she has. Not many people in her position are dedicated to perfection at the level she is. She's a dying breed." Andy had not realized until that moment how tightly coiled her muscles were, and slowly, muscle by embarrasingly relieved muscle, she relaxed.

"Oh. Yeah." She presented him with a strained smile.

"I knew I made the right choice coming here," he went on. "I have a lot to learn from her."

"Right," said Andy, still reeling from the close call.

"Aren't we incredibly lucky to be working in this business?"

"Yeah," she answered in a daze, then blinked back into reality. "I mean, yeah, well, it's not really my business."

Frowning, Colin asked, "What do you mean?"

"Well, I'm just Miranda's assistant. I don't really know anything about fashion," she explained.

With a raised eyebrow, he perused her outfit. "I beg to differ."

That drew a coy, little laugh from Andy, who looked down at her blazer and the lacy top underneath. "Thanks, but I, uh... what I really wanna do is be a writer."

"Oh, yeah?" Colin perked. "You any good?"

Smiling sheepishly, she said, "Well, I like to think so."

"Alright, alright. I'll be remembering your name, then." He nodded slowly, then ascertained, "So this is just you surviving a year in the job a million girls would kill for before moving on to bigger and better opportunities."

It wasn't so much a question as it was an observation, and still Andy found herself pondering it. How odd: less than a year ago, that had been her objective, to make it through one year on the job so she could leave with a glowing recommendation and many an open door. After all, assistant to the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine had never been on her wish list when moving to New York, but the lesser of two evils in the choice between that and Auto Universe.

But now, parting ways with Miranda, never seeing her again, never smelling her scent or listening to her soft voice or watching her move in her clothes, losing the trust they had built between them... the thought alone made her incredibly sad. How was she expected to do that in a few months' time? Would anyone question her if she didn't? And was she really pathetic enough to stay in a lowly, badly-paid job because of a sad, silly crush on the most unattainable person in the world?

And if she didn't, why didn't the prospected reprieve justify the cost?

"I might stay a little longer than a year," she finally heard herself say, hating herself. "Emily will be gone by then and I could be first assistant."

"You'd just love that, wouldn't you?" Emily mumbled cuttingly from across the room, staring fixedly at her computer monitor.

Colin turned at the sound of her voice before redirecting his smile at Andy, hands sliding into the front pockets of his tight pants. "Big aspirations, then," he surmised. There was no mistaking the sarcasm lacing his statement.

"Well, Miranda needs me," Andy said unconvincingly, tilting her head toward her office, but the truth was becoming glaringly clear: she was fast losing the ability to bear being away from Miranda.

Still, without her, who would Miranda vent to? Nigel was gone, and Andy suspected he'd never been that kind of friend; there wasn't even a significant other in the picture--and Andy pushed down the relief that fact brought--which was part of the reason for her woes. She did need her in a way, even if neither of them could quite point out what it was, and so long as that didn't change, Andy couldn't and didn't want to leave her alone to fend for herself or, worse, let someone else fill her position. She might be torturing herself with newfound feelings she'd never asked for, but it was still better than nothing.

"How about you worry about yourself?" Colin obliviously suggested.

"Excuse me?"

"Don't get me wrong, your loyalty is admirable. But there's no room for it at the top of the ladder. If you want to succeed, you always have to put yourself first."

"Come on." Andy let out an awkward chuckle. "It can't be that black and white."

"I'm just saying." He removed his hands from his pockets, proceeding toward the door without a word of goodbye. "Nobody gets to the top without climbing on a few bodies on the way up."

If only he knew there was only one body she wanted to climb on top, Andy thought glumly and immediately shook herself, stunned by her own mind's creation. Thankfully, before she could indulge further in inappropriate thoughts, the phone rang, allowing her to commence her lowly, badly-paid, much appreciated duties.

 


 

The next day, when Miranda returned from a budget meeting, Andy was just setting her lunch on her desk, sprinkling chopped parsely on top of mashed potatoes accompanying a large, juicy steak.

"Thank you," slipped past Miranda's lips as she strode toward the desk, as absentminded and unintentional as it had been the first time.

Ignoring the shock, Andy rounded the desk and watched her take her seat, fighting a grin. "How did the meeting go?" she enquired instead.

"Dull and repetitive, as usual," Miranda answered without prompting, but any follow-up questions or comments Andy might have had flew right out of her head when she picked up her water, delicate, ring-adorned fingers wrapping around the dewy glass. Entranced, Andy's eyes followed her every move as she closed pink, supple lips around the rim and as her throat worked to swallow. She was mesmerizing, even performing this simplest, most common of tasks. Her eyes closed briefly, showcasing her lightly-applied, blue eye shadow, and her skin looked so silky smooth and soft it took all of Andy's will power not to reach out and run her fingers down a cheek.

"Okay I'll leave you to enjoy your lunch then," she got out in one breath, quickly turning on her heel and fleeing the room.

 


 

"How do you get rid of a crush?"

"You don't; you embrace it," Doug supplied unhelpfully, leaning forward for a third slice of pizza. They were sitting across from each other at his breakfast bar, having a midnight snack which also subtitued dinner for Andy. Over the rim of a beer bottle dripping with condensation, he smirked. "Gay life not treating you well?"

"I never said I was gay," Andy insisted, though at this point, who was she fooling?

"Because there's so many straight men in your field to pick from?"

Resigned, she sagged in her stool, picking with her fingers at the edge of her crust and watching the crumbs drop onto the plate.

"I know why you're so embarrassed," Doug asserted with enough assurance that she almost felt the anxiety that had been guiding her lately flare up. "You're into one of those girls at the magazine who were so mean to you when you started and you can't admit it to yourself."

Well, she allowed, as far as guesses went, his wasn't that far off this time. Although not a single clacker interested her, as objectively beautiful as they were. It figured that her first foray into lesbianism--or whatever it was--would involve a crush on the one woman who wasn't like any other. Lusting after a traditionally good-looking model would have been too obvious and underwhelming, but Andy, who always went the extra mile and never half-assed anything or did the bare minimum, had just had to go and develop feelings for the most extraordinary, devine woman she--or the whole world--knew. Who was wrong for her for every reason in the book.

"Yep," she said simply. "That's exactly it."

"Why don't you just tell her?" Doug pushed. "What's the worst that could happen?"

She'd lose her job, her dignity, possibly a chunk of her already fragile heart. "You suck at giving advice."

"Which is why you should call Lily," he said, making her throw her head back in annoyance.

"Doug," she whined, "not this again."

"She's much better at this than me. And," he added, "she wouldn't let me eat this third slice, like a real friend."

"She stopped talking to me," Andy reminded him. "I'm not gonna chase after her."

Pointing his beer bottle at her, he said, "That's mature."

"Besides, you're a lot better at girl talk."

"That is true," he acknowledged. "And I don't think you really want to get rid of your crush."

"Oh, yeah?" She eyed him skeptically. "And why's that?"

"Because if you did, you would have let that hot writer guy take you home without feeling like you were cheating."

"I didn't feel like I was cheating on him," she argued.

Smiling slyly, Doug picked up his pizza. "I wasn't talking about him."

At once, Andy's face sombered.

 


 

A few nights later, Andy pushed open the townhouse's front door, lugging a pile of dry cleaning and the Book. And that night, she learned three things in a consecutive order.

As she entered the foyer closet, she heard a low speaking sound, and when she emerged back into the hall, the words became more intelligible.

"Ironic of you to say you don't trust me," Miranda's voice was saying, carrying out of what Andy assumed was the den. "You didn't have to say it, it was heavily implied."

Frozen in her spot, Andy did the one thing she wasn't supposed to, the very thing that could, at last, break the spell and eject her straight out of Miranda's life: she stood and listened. It soon became evident, by the pauses between sentences and the lack of a second voice, that Miranda's conversation partner was on the other end of a phone call, but it was unclear who that person was. Andy tried to guess by the bits and pieces she was collecting--Irv Ravitz, upset as always about Runway's budget? Or, worse, Stephen, having finally decided that he did want to milk Miranda dry in the divorce?--but some more hints from an oblivious Miranda finally brought her to a confident conclusion: James, the first ex-husband, had called, once again, to levy criticism.

"Absolutely not," Miranda snapped vehemently even as her tone remained as soft as ever. "They are perfectly content here with me... Yes, well, you can speak to my lawyer about that," she added coldly some moments later, then fell quiet again. It wasn't until Andy heard the distinct yet familiar "Andrea" that she realized the phone had been hung up, and that she was highly likely dead.

Nervously approaching the den, she bit her lip and prayed like crazy that she hadn't just ruined everything. Of course Miranda, with her godlike sixth sense, had been able to tell she was there the whole time. Andy had never been particularly stealthy, and this wasn't any better than the time she'd walked in on a private argument between her and Stephen. It was a novice move for a Runway employee, and she was screwed.

When she was eventually in front of her, before handing the Book over, she decided to practice a lesson imparted upon her as a child: fess up before being called out--at the very least, it might soften the blow. Voice barely steady, she said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to eavesdrop. I didn't actually hear anything."

But Miranda, when she looked closely, didn't seem angry. Resigned would have described her appearance better, reconciled to her predicament, along with exhausted and, well, sad. No tears or broken voice, not quite as sad as she'd been in Paris, but a pretty close second. "You didn't miss much," she sighed, slouched in her chair.

"Are you okay?" Andy ventured, trying to suppress a cringe.

"Define 'okay,'" Miranda said hollowly. Her gaze, too, was rather empty until it settled on Andy. "Is that the Book?"

"Oh," Andy remembered, holding it out. But instead of flipping through the pages, Miranda simply abandoned it in her lap, letting it rest there while she placed her chin in her open palm, pressing her lips together.

"Is it bad?" an apprehensive Andy asked inanely.

"It's not good," Miranda murmured honestly. "Apparently, the girls have been complaining to him behind my back--their father, if you haven't gathered. He thinks it'd be preferable if they spent some time with him."

Andy was well-aware that "some time with him" didn't mean an afternoon at the park or a long weekend. "Do you?" she asked carefully, and the sharp glare Miranda fixed her with was an instantaneous answer. "Do you think he might try to sue for custody?"

"God, I hope not," Miranda muttered on a heavy exhale, a sign that she had considered the option. Still, she lifted her head from her hand and scowled. "On what grounds? Does he really think he can do a better job than me? It's easy every other weekend and during summer break."

"Men are assholes," Andy blurted before she'd had a chance to censor herself, her eyes immediately widening in horror. However, to her immense relief, her proclamation released a small, admittedly reticent, chuckle from Miranda, which calmed her nerves some.

As amicable as Stephen was being--and not for any reason that pleased Miranda--the divorce was still being felt acutely by everyone in her surroundings, be it at work or, evidently, at home. Peaceful or not, the crumbling of a second marriage was devastating, and Andy couldn't even imagine how much more broken Miranda would be if her children were taken away from her. She couldn't witness that just as, she knew by now, Miranda wouldn't be able to handle it. That might just be the last straw to bring a perfectly maintained façade shattering.

"Caroline told him that she wished she didn't have to be alive for this," Miranda said, her eyes becoming vacant and distant again.

"Oh, my god, Miranda," Andy breathed out, horrified, and, without an invitation, sank into the chair across from her. Miranda didn't protest.

"And here I thought the suicidal ideation wouldn't start until well into her teens."

Andy didn't know whether that was intended to be a joke or not, but she wasn't laughing. "She didn't mean that," she gently but urgently whispered. "She's just a kid."

"Hmm." Whether Miranda wasn't convinced or hadn't seen a real reason for alarm in the first place, she kept quiet, her lips slightly pursed. "And there's the magazine, as always, to worry about, and Nigel isn't there to make sure everything runs smoothly. Colin is fine, I suppose, he's very good at what he does, but he's still new to Runway, he doesn't know me the same way. I swear, it's one thing after the other lately."

There really was so much on her plate. Andy had finally understood that that night in Paris, experiencing the minor meltdown Miranda had allowed herself for a few short minutes, a break from her chaotic life. As heavy a weight as her job piled on her shoulders, it provided very little room to alleviate it, and Miranda was slowly collapsing under that weight right before Andy's eyes. It wasn't long, she feared, before a new breakdown was due.

She didn't ask if there was anything she could do because she already knew the answer to that, and she already was. But she did say, "You can use me, you know."

From her seat, Miranda's gaze snapped up to meet hers, and in a brief moment, a stunned look crossed her features. It was so flitting that less than a second later it was gone, expertly masked by a well-practiced expression of nonchalance, but it had been there just long enough for Andy to detect the shock, a hint of alarm, and something else, much more grand. It was also enough for Andy to hear the words that had left her lips, and match Miranda's own look.

"To help... you," she quickly added, stammering, gulping a thick lump in her throat. "A-any time, day or night. I'm here to... I'm here to help." It didn't release the tightening in her chest, however, or the way her heart had started pounding inside it.

Miranda, on the other hand, had been quick to collect herself, even as she didn't meet Andy's eyes upon asking, "Wouldn't your boyfriend mind?" The question came out casual, deceptively so, and Andy's forehead crinkled in confusion. It was also, she realized, the first time Miranda had ever mentioned her personal life, or, for that matter, how it was affected by her incessant work.

"My what?" she mumbled and, for some unfathomable reason, her heart began beating impossibly harder.

"Christian Thompson," Miranda uttered airily, even adding a vague hand gesture. "I'm... assuming you two are..." She waved her hand again.

"No!" Andy shook her head so fast she felt dizzy. "We're not-- we... we're not."

A short pause ensued, followed by an, "Oh," one, soft, little syllable that rang loudly between them. Then Miranda became very, very quiet, eyes darting around the room before resting on a cabinet.

Andy was young and inexperienced, but she knew enough by now to know this with certainty: Miranda, who, up until that point, had believed for some unknown reason that Andy was dating Christian, had been, as impossible and unlikely as it sounded... jealous.

Suddenly, Andy was transported back to the masquerade. The memory of Miranda's outfit had haunted her memories and most private dreams ever since. Perhaps because of that, she'd forgotten another moment from that night, when, touched by a flirty Christian, Miranda's attention had found her, the look on her face as enigmatic as the woman herself.

Jealousy, an astonished Andy deduced breathlessly. It had been jealousy, just like the one Miranda had exhibited just now, combined with that same incomprehensible look she'd also just witnessed and could finally put a name to. Because when Andy had told her she could use her, blindly missing all the connotations it held, there had been shock and alarm there, yes. But also desire, a feeling so raw and primal it couldn't be masked and couldn't be mistaken.

Three truths occured to Andy that night:

One: Miranda Priestly, against all odds, was attracted to her.

Two: Andy's own reaction had given her away.

Three: they were both screwed.

 


 

Because an all-consuming (yet, at the end of the day, harmless) crush on the boss was one thing; a mutual, unacknowledged attraction between both of them was a whole other shitshow. Every reason under the sun pointed to them not being able to act on it, from the misfortune of Miranda's being Andy's superior to the threat that her ex-husband was just looking for an excuse to call her an unfit mother. In the middle, there was the unfinalized divorce, Miranda's remarkably public persona, the little, insignifant fact that, as far as the rest of the world, if not Andy and Miranda, was concerned, they were both straight.

The agonizing weeks suffused with thoughts of Miranda and existential self-evaluations now seemed like a sweet memory, far preferable to the un-discussed elephant in the room. Because Andy herself hadn't fully come to terms with the nameless feelings she held for Miranda, and the knowledge that Miranda might feel the same way, that she knew Andy did, that they both wanted something they could never get guaranteed a disaster.

And yet... at the same time, Andy thought in wonder, Miranda felt the same way. Of all the people in the world, all the rich men and all the drop-dead gorgeous girls she surrounded herself with, this marvelous, astonishing, divine woman saw meek, frumpy, little Andy as a worthy equal, someone she would want to touch and kiss and adore. It was a preposterous notion and a titillating one all at once. And it made everything even more complicated: a junior assistant indulging privately in unobtainable fantasies was innocent enough, but now that it was out there, and they both knew that it was, and neither was willing to talk about it because of the impossibility of the situation and its grave repercussions--now there was one thing Andy couldn't grant Miranda, putting an illegal Harry Potter manuscript and an impressive, five-minute coffee run to shame. There was one thing they couldn't grant each other, and it was the one thing they both wanted most.

One good thing, though, did happen following their late night conversation: Emily was officially out of her cast, which seemed to do wonders for her mood. She didn't suddenly adopt a sunny disposition--that had never been her thing--but at the very least, her face was no longer set in a scowl when she waltzed into the office the next morning in a short skirt and six-inch heels.

"Your leg looks so skinny," Andy gushed. By any normal person, it wouldn't necessarily be taken as a compliment, considering it was noticably thinner than the other one after spending two months in a condensed space, but on Emily it had the desired effect.

"Yes, well." She sniffed haughtily. "You look passable as well. You should wear McQueen more often."

That was new, Andy marveled silently, holding back a broad grin. She didn't want to jinx it, but it looked as though Emily was finally thawing. Maybe things weren't so bad after all.

But an hour later, Miranda walked through the door, paused between their desks, looked at Andy, and Andy knew there was no going back to the way things had been.

They didn't speak, and the wordless exchange couldn't have lasted more than a couple of seconds, but in that time, Miranda silently studied Andy's face, as if trying to ascertain that the previous night's events had not been a mere fruit of her imagination. Andy didn't know what her face showed, the blood buzzing in her ears defeaning and making her lightheaded, but whatever it was appeared to confirm Miranda's speculation because she visibly swallowed, tossed her bag and coat on Emily's desk, and stalked into her office without a word to either of them.

"Well," said Emily, who apparently was speaking to Andy again, "isn't she a ray of sunshine this morning?"

 


 

"Here you go," Andy said apprehensively, her voice one octave above a whisper, and placed a Starbucks cup on Miranda's desk. Miranda, however, didn't take it. She looked up at Andy, who was powerless to do anything but look back, and whatever she was silently communicating, Andy thought she could understand. They were in a place of business, and Miranda's eyes were practically pleading with her to ignore the elephant in the room. As hard and confusing at this was for Andy, Miranda must have been experiencing it ten times worse. Andy could bet it wasn't every day she found herself attracted to her much younger, female assistant, all the while not even being officially single. Andy could justify her infatuation with the inevitability of being captivated by someone as astonishing and legendary as the icon that Miranda was, but how could Miranda possibly explain to herself mirroring the same feelings toward an underwhelming nobody like Andy?

But if she could be professional, so could Andy. After all, she'd been functioning for weeks while pushing down the need to drool or picture Miranda's neckline with a slightly deeper décolleté; what was a few more months or years?

Whatever Miranda saw in Andy's expression seemed to appease her because, with an audible inhale, she commenced a list of instructions that left no room for breath or awkwardness, for which Andy was tremendously grateful as she hurried to write them all down.

"Schedule a lunch with Annie at that little place I went to with Gaultier," she said when Andy's hand was starting to cramp, meaning Annie Leibovitz, Andy knew, and the "little place" was a five-star seafood restaurant. "Return Simone's call and then tell Colin I want to talk to him about the head pieces--"

When she abruptly stopped, Andy looked up, pen suspended in the air, her eyebrows knitting. She hadn't mistaken Colin for Nigel again, but she wasn't trying to correct herself on anything either. Instead, Miranda's eyes were fixated on Andy's fingers, wrapped tightly around the pen, slightly whitened, the muscles underneath showing through. Her eyes glazed over, Andy's breathing stopped with the realization of where her mind could have gone, and as soon as she'd stopped talking, Miranda cleared her throat, looked away, and stated, "That's all."

So much for professionalism, Andy thought with flaming cheeks. "I'll get right on it," she croaked and all but ran out of the office.

And as the days dragged on, unbearably long and slow, the mutual, unspoken notion that they could ignore it proved to be harder and harder to fulfill. It turned out that secretly falling for someone was easy to hide when that person was unaware, and a lot easier when the prospect of them sharing those feelings was unrealistic. But even though they hadn't said it out loud, hadn't put all their cards on the table, it was between them like a third, living and breathing entity, tormeting them with every interaction and every excruciating look. A dam had been broken, and an ensuing flood threatened to drown them both.

It was accidental touches that sent a surge of electricity through the body when Andy was invited into shared elevator rides. It was the longing, lingering stares that were averted as soon as they were caught. It was the words that suddenly sounded like innuendos. It was the guilt that gripped them whenever they were alone in the same space, even though they weren't doing anything to summon that guilt.

There had to be a way around this, a way out of the limbo they were stuck in and the slow, agonizing torture they were submitting to daily, a way to go back to a time when Andy had simply been performing a job and Miranda hadn't spared her a thought. There had to be a way, and at the same time, Andy couldn't think of anything she wanted less.

People thought the work environment under Miranda was tense. They had no idea.

Miranda, perhaps as a weak effort to maintain a distance, had stopped showing up or calling for Andy when the latter arrived nightly with the Book, but Andy knew that she was still very much awake and likely aware of her presence in the house, listening to her footsteps, waiting for the moment she left.

For all the attention that went into avoiding her assistant, she wasn't exactly keeping the same rule at work, if anything making up for the minor lack of connection. Because suddenly their fingers brushed "accidentally" over cups of coffee and tea, and all of a sudden Andy had to be around for everything, taking notes that Miranda never looked at later. The distracted and distracting looks became longer and more frequent, and didn't always cease when they were met by matching ones.

The tension could be cut with a knife, and some days Andy wished she'd kept seeing Christian after all just so she could have a warm body to come home to and relieve some of it. Instead, every night she returned home to an empty bed, closing her eyes and thinking about Miranda in the clothes she'd worn that day, or remembering the way her hair had moved gently against her face, or the chill that had traveled up Andy's spine at the sound of her voice. She'd think about those things, and her yearning would grow.

 


 

They were in the car, stuck in traffic on the way to an up-and-comer's preview, and just this once, Miranda seemed genuinely harassed to be trapped in a confined area with Andy for a protracted amount of time. The space between them was practically nonexistent and the smell of her perfume assaulted Andy's senses, making her squirm uncomfortably against the leather seat. She could hear Miranda's breathing, as she was sure Miranda could hear hers, and she darted a daring glance at her elegant profile as she stared out of the window.

"Set up a meeting with Karl," she said at last, and after close to thirty minutes in the silent car, Andy wasn't entirely sure she was speaking to her until she elaborated, "I want to do a spread for Chanel's ninety-fifth anniversary in January. You might find an interest in it." She flicked a hand in Andy's general direction, but still refused to turn in that direction.

Even so, Andy smiled. It wasn't exactly a jab--those she no longer received from Miranda--but she knew that everyone around her had noticed her penchant for Chanel, if not for loyalty to the brand, then because the clothes weren't as showy and riské as some of the other designers' creations, notably Emily's selection of Vivienne Westwood's punky, new-wave designs. It wasn't helping that she just so happened to be wearing a Chanel skirt and necklace at that moment.

"Alright." She nodded, even though Miranda couldn't see. "I'll call his office as soon as we get back."

At last, Miranda turned her head, meeting her gaze. Andy tried for another smile, but it probably resembled a grimace more. Either way, Miranda's eyes settled on her lips and, subconsciously, she licked her own.

Andy promptly turned to stare out of her window.

 


 

The next morning, she made the mistake of coming into Miranda's office while she was eating her breakfast. The moment she walked in was when Miranda had stabbed a chunk of the scrambled eggs she'd gotten her with a fork and was lifting it up to her mouth. Frozen, Andy stood and watched her lips wrap around the fork, drawing the eggs inside. And imagined those lips on her body, kissing her chest, nibbling her neck...

"Um, I..." she began, her voice so unsteady the words came out quivering. Miranda, who noticed her less-than-subtle reaction, put down her fork, licking her lips, which did the opposite of help.

Taking a deep breath, Andy cleared her throat and tried again, "I confirmed your 11 P.M. with Irv and Gwen's agent called about her cover shoot. Also, Donna Karan has invited you to a party at her house on the 5th, and I talked to Lagerfeld's assistant and he's only gonna be in Chicago for two days next week and wants to meet you then. I told her that you prefer to meet him in New York, but there wasn't anything she could do. I'll call again, but--"

"Fine," Miranda interrupted passively, causing her to do a double take. "Book a suite at The Peninsula for two nights."

This was a first. Andy had been fully prepared for disapproval--in whatever form it came considering their personal situation--and to keep pushing the artistic director of Chanel on behalf of Miranda, who always played by her own rules, bending to no one else's. And who now had relented immediately. It made Andy's job easier, certainly, but it was also a strange occurance.

"Okay," she complied nevertheless. "Will do."

"RSVP 'yes' to Donna's party and I'll call Gwen's agent right after my breakfast," Miranda added.

"Alright."

Before she left, Andy caught her bringing another bite of eggs to her lips and was ready to scream with frustration.

 


 

But the following days passed more smoothly than had been the case in a while, at least on the personal front. Work-wise, the end of the month was fast approaching and, with it, the frenetic routine that revolved around adding final touches to a new issue before it went to press increased, intensified by the prospect of the boss going away for two days and not being around to stir the ship. All of that left little room for furtive glances and desire-driven musings.

"Remind my ex--" Miranda said a couple of days before the trip, then promptly stopped herself and amended, "the girls' father that he has them while I'm in Chicago, and make sure he remembers that Caroline has stopped eating meat and Cassidy will only eat it if there's no fat or bones on it."

Andy didn't offer a comment, mainly because Miranda looked distraught enough at the new concept of having two ex-husbands, but also because she was trying to keep up her fast pace on the way from the elevator while writing in her notebook and remaining steady on five-inch stilettos.

Perhaps an out-of-town trip would do Miranda good after all. Nothing like a two-day hotel stay in a foreign city to relax and reflect on one's life, although Andy suspected Miranda didn't do "relaxing" and "reflecting," as badly as she seemed to need it now. They both did, the last couple of weeks winding them up tightly, and Andy thought she herself could use the short respite and solitude to gather her wits and hopefully emerge saner on the other side.

And then the last night before the trip rolled around and everything went to hell.

Miranda had left, as usual, late in the afternoon, and Emily some time thereafter, but a mishap in the art department threatened the imminent printing of the magazine and was grave enough to summon Miranda back into the building, dressed in a different outfit to the one she'd worn throughout the day and re-made-up.

And that was how it came to be that, at 9 P.M., Miranda was still alternating between her office and the art department and Andy was squirming in her chair.

"Um, Miranda?" she said from the doorway to her office in a rare moment when Miranda was actually sitting down. "I was wondering if I could go to the bathroom real quick? We don't usually get calls at this hour and I--" she started to explain, but a sedate nod from Miranda cut her short, the look in her eyes too warm to belong to the snow queen and much too warm for Andy's poor, racing heart.

But she fled for a few moments of reprieve in more ways than one, and upon her return, she was relieved to find Miranda gone, undoubtedly sowing her calm, icy wrath in her harried staff.

She wasn't, though. Because before Andy had a chance to retake her seat, she heard a noise from the kitchenette, and when she approached, Miranda was peeking into a cupboard. Sensing Andy's presence, she turned around and immediately tensed up, so visibly that Andy felt it in her own muscles. She also realized that she was blocking the entrance, effectively trapping Miranda within less than three feet of her.

"I was looking for that tea you always--" she began to explain hoarsely, stopping at Andy's hurried nod. Her fingers wrapped around the edge of the counter behind her in a white-knuckle grip as Andy came closer, her breath noticeably heavier, her chest rising and sinking under the large, golden pendant of her necklace. But all the same, she didn't move, not until Andy was inches away, breathing the same air, close to invading her personal space. And when she did finally move, it was in the wrong direction, because the moment she tilted to her right, Andy reached up to the cupboard on her left and they collided.

It was the first full-bodied contact she'd ever had with Miranda, and immediately upon impact, her entire body caught on fire, the flames licking her skin and scorching her nerves, igniting something so deep and raw she'd never felt before that she wasn't convinced she'd survive it.

The fabric of Miranda's blouse was soft and delicate, her body firm and real and there against Andy, and immense heat was emenating from her, permeating right through Andy's clothes and the skin underneath. And had Andy not been touching her, she wouldn't have felt the shudder coursing through her entire body, or the puff of warm air erecting goosebumps on the side of her neck.

With her arm still outstretched, her fingers grasping the cupboard's handle so tightly it was sure to leave a dent, she turned her head and was met by hooded eyes so striking and piercing and close that an involuntary gasp escaped her lips. That, in turn, evoked an equally unintentional whimper from Miranda, who didn't even seem to notice that her head was moving closer.

Her lips looked so supple, her skin so smooth. Her smell was intoxicating, clouding Andy's every other sense, giving her body an order to move that her brain never signed off on. This was bad. Self-sabotage, that was what it was, on both their parts. They couldn't, they shouldn't...

From the outer office, the shrill ringing of the phone jerked them apart, intruding on the moment so violently that Andy's heart leaped all the way up to her throat. Thank god, she thought nonetheless, exhaling a deep breath of relief even as she ran to her desk.

By the time she finished a short, unfocused conversation, Miranda had breezed by her desk, sans a tea cup.

 


 

The Book was ready much later than usual, so late, in fact, that Andy had to force her eyes to stay open by reading and responding to e-mails on her brightly lit computer screen. But she didn't mind, not if it meant that she had a little more time to calm down and regroup and, most importantly, give her libido a chance to die down, and after Miranda had left, she needed that time.

They'd almost crossed a line, one second away from reaching the point of no return, and even so, Andy wasn't sure they could pretend anymore. It was out there, plain as day, and they both knew it. The only question was, what were they going to do about it?

Creeping into the townhouse shortly before 1 A.M., Andy's mind was put at ease to find it dark but for the entryway light and willed her heels not to echo in the hallway as she headed toward the closet. So of course, with her luck, Miranda was coming down the stairs just as she closed the door behind her, greeting her with a solemn face.

With a matching expression on her own, Miranda wordlessly accepted the Book, opening it on the first page but not flipping any further. "I... I hope it's all good now," Andy said, pointing feebly at it.

Miranda didn't reply, but ran her hand down the page. She was far more subdued than the woman who'd breathed heavily against Andy's face, her entire body taut with tension, and Andy wondered what had been going through her mind in the few hours they'd been apart.

She didn't stay in the dark for long.

"I'm going to Chicago tomorrow afternoon," Miranda murmured needlessly, scanning the first page of the Book with her eyes.

"Yeah," Andy confirmed, her voice coming out squeaky. A pregnant silence followed, the air still and tense around them. Outside the door, Andy could hear the wind singing through the trees, whistling a nighttime tune.

When Miranda finally spoke, she'd closed the Book and found Andy's gaze. "Will you join me?" she quietly asked. Asked. She didn't say, "You will join me," or even "I want you to join me." She was asking something of Andy, the look in her eyes so earnest and sincere it was almost uncharacteristic, and it was then that Andy understood she wasn't just asking her to accompany her on a business trip; she was asking much more than that and Andy knew what it meant: they were done pretending.

Now was her turn to make her decision, to give Miranda her answer. The ball was in her court and it was up to her to determine what was going to happen next. It had all been leading up to that moment, she realized: the mesquerade, the weeks of tension and frustration, this very night. And before that, much earlier. After Paris, everything had changed, and it was all coming to a head tonight, depending on what Andy said next.

"Yes," she said, simple as that.

 


 

They were scheduled to board their flight in a few, short hours and Andy was buzzing with nervous anticipation and anxiety, counting down the minutes. If anyone at work noticed, they didn't comment on it, but Andy's mind wasn't there to care either way.

While Miranda was wrapping things up in an editorial meeting, she double-checked last details to assure everything was set up. Their hotel rooms were waiting for them, the meeting with Lagerfeld had been scheduled for the following day's lunchtime, and after that... who knew?

"Well, that was a good meeting." Colin entered the assistants' area, which meant that the meeting had culminated. Which meant that they were one last duty closer to leaving. "Though I don't think she likes me nearly as much as she did Nigel. Yet."

"Maybe because you're so annoyingly optimistic," Emily quipped.

Ignoring the barb with a smirk, he approached Andy's desk with a spiral notebook. "She asked for you to type these up," he said, setting it on her desk. On the open page, the lines were filled with notes in Miranda's elegant handwriting, and even that made Andy's heart squeeze.

"So," he announced, looking between the two assistants, "a day and a half without the boss. Any vacation plans?"

"If you think I won't still be coming here to work, you clearly haven't been here long enough," Emily grumbled.

"Oh. What about you?" He turned to Andy. "No one to run errands for."

"I'm sure there'll be plenty of errands to run in Chicago," she said absentmindedly, copying Miranda's notes onto her computer. It wasn't until she felt two sets of eyes on her that she looked away and realized what had slipped past her lips.

"You're going with her?" Emily asked sharply, although this time she looked more puzzled than upset.

"Yes?" Andy squeaked, trying not to feel as though she-- they were doing something wrong. After all, Miranda might not usually take an assistant with her on short trips such as this one, but it wasn't necessarily weird. And to drive that point home, Andy added as nonchalantly as she could, "She just needs me to-to take notes and get her coffee and stuff."

"Huh," Colin hummed, looking thoughtful. "Working you hard, I see. Need me to get you out of it?" he joked.

"Thanks, I'm okay," she replied, forcing a chuckle.

And by the time their plane had finally lifted off, she was. They hadn't spoken much throughout the ride to the airport and custom clearance, not any more than necessary, and now that she was sitting in Business Class, Andy wasn't so bothered by it, not when she had leg space for miles, a cushiony seat, and unlimited refills of complimentary champagne. For just a little while, she allowed herself to forget about everything that didn't pertain to the luxury she was experiencing.

That, of course, changed mid-flight, when, looking to her side, in her own little compartment, Miranda's chin was resting limply against her shoulder, her eyes closed. For the first time since she'd started working for her, Andy was witnessing Miranda sleep, as deeply and peacefully as if all her troubles had evaported.

She was beautiful. Absolutely, simply beautiful. Everything about her was perfect, from the shape of her cheekbones and the slope of her nose in profile to the way her chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm to the glow of the setting sun in her white hair, the magnificent colors painting her unconscious form. All it would take for Andy was to reach her hand across the makeshift table between them and be able to touch her, stroke her cheek, her hair, feel her breath as it slowly left her parted lips.

Leaning her head against her pillow, she turned it toward Miranda and closed her eyes.

What awoke her was the gentle voice of the flight attendant announcing the approaching landing, and as she gradually blinked her eyes open, her companion came into focus, sitting wide awake in her seat and clicking away on her laptop. Warmth enveloped Andy as she watched her, making no move to alert her of her consciousness, but it was only when she tried to raise her hand to rub the sleep out of her eyes that she noted where the warmth was coming from: in her slumber, she'd been covered up to her neck in a duvet, and for lack of another travel partner to fulfill that task, there could only have been one person to perform it, she realized as she turned an astonished look toward Miranda.

 


 

They arrived at their hotel late in the evening and immediately retired to their separate rooms. Andy had offered to help Miranda unpack or take care of her dinner plans, but had been met with a subdued refusal and an uncharacteristic "Goodnight" in place of the usual "That's all."

So she had a room service dinner alone, gorging herself on a cheeseburger and fries while thinking of Miranda a few rooms over, wondering what she was doing, if she was also licking her fingers after a bite of her food as Andy was doing. And as soon as the word "licking" invaded her thoughts, joined by the mental image of Miranda's fingers, her brain promptly shut down.

She didn't bother unpacking before slipping between the sheets of her large bed. The mattress was somehow soft and firm at the same time, doing wonders for her stiletto-abused back, and the pillows felt like clouds plucked right down from the sky. The weather was only a few degrees colder than in New York, and still she curled up into a ball, pulling the comforter up to her neck the same way Miranda had done for her on the plane.

Then her thoughts rerouted back to Miranda: Miranda on the same floor, Miranda in bed, what kind of pajamas Miranda was wearing, what side of the bed she slept on.

Huffing, she rolled over, fluffed her pillow, and plumped onto it. But as time ticked by and her thoughts kept running rampant in her head, it was becoming painfully clear that she wouldn't be getting any sleep any time soon. How could she, being so close to Miranda in a foreign city's hotel, knowing that whatever barrier they'd erected between them was slowly crumbling?

Tossing the comforter back, she flung her legs off the side of the bed, sat up on the edge, and rubbed her face. Her phone on the nightstand indicated that it was close to 11 P.M., but she was far from tired, which figured since on a normal day she would still be working at that time. Ideally, she would be entering Miranda's house at that moment, weighed down by dry cleaning and the Book and feeling none of them as she'd wonder if Miranda would show up to greet her, secretely hoping she would.

Apart from the time, there were no new text messages or unanswered calls and, with a sigh, she got up, heading to the floor-to-ceiling window and pulling back the heavy curtains. Outside, the city's bright, colorful lights shone against a backdrop of black skies, tall buildings concealing the stars behind them, ant-sized cars speeding along roads lit up by a fire-like, golden light in the night.

This was people's home, their lives, while Andy was simply passing by. They were going about their normal lives, unaware that others' lives were changing all around them. None of those nameless faces down there knew or cared what this trip meant to Andy. Did she know?

Drawing the curtains, she re-engulfed the room in darkness only broken by the bedside lamp she lit next, showing her the way into the bathroom. It was almost as spacious as her entire apartment, the bright light granting the room a timeless atmosphere in that late hour. As she stripped and stepped into the shower stall, she wondered if Miranda was doing or had done the same.

The hot water cascaded down her body, washing the day away, massaging her aching muscles. Leaning against the cool glass of the door, she closed her eyes, tilting her head back to feel the droplets against her face. And when she reopened them, Miranda was standing before her, naked and wet, her gaze so smoldering Andy felt a deep clenching inside.

Breathing heavily, she watched Miranda come toward her, slowly flattening her hands against Andy's belly as she was doing in that moment, sliding them up to cup handfuls of breasts. Squeezing, Andy sighed, closing her eyes again. As her hands traveled tantalizingly up to her neck, she let her tongue out, running it across her lips, pretending that it was Miranda's tongue seeking entrance into her mouth or, alternatively, her lips that Andy was finally getting to taste.

Sighing again, she opened her eyes, standing under the incessant spray of water, staring blankly into space.

When her skin had taken to resembling a boiled lobster, she stepped out of the shower, drying off and donning the hotel's complimentary, white bathrobe. Her hair was a wet mess, but for lack of the toiletry bag she'd neglected to unpack, she merely towel-dried before leaning toward the mirror, examining her flushed, makeup-free face. Was this really what Miranda wanted? Or had it all been a figment of her imagination?

Slipping a hand beneath the robe's lapel, she dragged it aside, revealing part of her reddened chest. She looked nothing like the models she encountered on a near daily basis, size four or not, her face common and uninteresting, her body lacking. She was plain; a simple, Midwestern girl with big eyes and pale skin, nothing special or noteworthy about her, no distinct feature that would stand out in one's memory. She knew she had all the reasons to want Miranda, but what reasons could Miranda possibly have to want her?

A knock on her door startled her out of her musings, calling for her attention. In the mirror, half of her chest was still exposed, slowly cooling despite the steams in the room. Tightening the robe around her, she exited the bathroom into the chillier air of her room, which quickly sobered her enough to remind her that she wasn't expecting anyone, dinner had been delivered to her hours before, and there was only one person who knew which room she was staying in.

"Hi," she breathed upon jerking the door open and, sure enough, there was Miranda, hair mussed, face bare of makeup, stealing Andy's breath right out of her lungs with the same, grey robe she'd worn that night in Paris.

"Hello," she replied almost inaudibly.

They stared at each other for a long while and, along with the knowledge of how to breathe, Andy had also forgotten her manners because it was only after Miranda said, "I wanted to go over tomorrow's itinerary," that she composed herself enough to step aside and say, "Of course. Come in."

Miranda did, entering the dimly lit room and pausing a few steps in, looking around. When the door had shut behind her, she moved further inside, playing with the sash of her robe, stopping again by a glass table in the corner while Andy pulled a folder from her bag. Numbly, she waited for Miranda to sit down before joining her across the table, gingerly placing the folder in front of her. Miranda, however, didn't open it.

"I couldn't sleep," she admitted.

To which Andy inanely replied, "Of course." She stared at her, unblinking, unable to tear her gaze away. She wasn't sitting erect and regal as she normally did: she was half-slumped against the chair, her gaze vacant, her face sagging. Without makeup, she had (clean) pores and bags under her eyes and more pronounced lines across her forehead and around her lips. They attested to her age, and to the toll life had and was continuing to take on her. Andy wanted nothing more than to touch her face and kiss the wrinkles around her eyes and caress her fingers down her high cheekbones. She couldn't stay away. And she didn't want to.

"So no boyfriend," Miranda murmured out of the blue, startling her again.

"No," she replied, hearing her voice from a million miles away. "I mean, there was, but..." Miranda's eyes immediately jumped up to hers, although she couldn't deduce what was going through her mind. "It's over now."

"What did he think about you working for me?"

Was Andy's life that obvious? Or did Miranda assume all relationships, like hers, broke because of Runway? At the end of the day, Andy's relationship had broken because of Runway, and at this point, she was no longer sure Miranda, specifically, hadn't had something to do with it.

"The person whose calls you always take, that's the relationship you're in," Nate had said, and, "Don't look so disappointed," when it wasn't Miranda's name lighting up her phone. It had always been Miranda.

"He didn't really like it," she answered honestly. Miranda, predictably, didn't look surprised.

"Maybe you're better off," she mused, staring off into the distance.

"Yeah," Andy agreed weakly, licking her lips. "I... my friend didn't really understand it either," she provided, for no other reason than to avoid the silence. "We haven't talked in a while."

"Mmm," Miranda made a low humming sound, drawing invisible circles with her fingers over the cool glass of the table. "What about your parents?"

Blinking, Andy replied, "They're-they're fine with it. They worried at first that I wasn't doing what I came to New York to do, but they're still supportive."

"Writer."

"What?"

"You came to New York to be a writer."

"Yeah." She swallowed. Across the table, Miranda rose and Andy's eyes followed her in a panic, but she wasn't leaving.

"Is there alcohol in here?" she questioned, already heading toward the mini bar.

Nevertheless, Andy turned in her seat and pointed at it. "In the mini bar." She watched Miranda smooth down her robe to squat and choose a sample bottle of whiskey before picking up a glass from a shelf above. She didn't offer Andy any, but Andy didn't think alcohol would be a good idea for her at the moment; her head was already spinning.

With a half-filled glass in her hand, Miranda slowly glided back toward the table before stopping behind Andy's chair. Andy couldn't move, she couldn't speak, feeling her close presence with every breath she took, sensing her drinking behind her. When the glass had been lowered onto the table, however, no more than a mere sip or two had evidently been taken, the liquid still moving gently inside. And when Miranda's hands came to rest on her shoulders, she lost all ability to think as well.

Even through the thick terrycloth of her robe, the contact lit up Andy's skin, bringing every nerve ending to life. Her cheeks burned, a vibrant shade of pink rising up her chest and neck, along with the heavy fabric suffocating her. Miranda's touch was tender but sure, running back and forth across her covered shoulders before one hand ventured into the tips of her hair, still damp from her shower. Her fingers weaved lightly through the strands, pulling them apart, sending tingles to Andy's scalp. She was reminded, in that moment, of the night she'd arrived at the townhouse drenched from the rain, Miranda's fingers going into her hair to remove a leaf. She hadn't known it back then, but now she was certain: she'd wanted so much more in that moment, and now she was getting it.

Turning her head to the side, she covered the hand that was still on her shoulder with her own. There, Miranda's skin was so soft it could have been made of silk. And it was all the incentive Miranda needed to cup the back of her head, bend down, and...

Soft. Smooth. Not Christian. Not Nate. Only Miranda. Andy's lips went slack as Miranda kissed them so slowly and tenderly she felt it in the tips of her toes. Her fingers lightly massaged Andy's scalp while she pressed one, two more light kisses to her lips before pulling back, only far enough for their warm breath to mingle as she quietly enquired, "Do you want me to stop?"

It was the most ridiculous question Andy had ever heard, and she said as much with a shake of her head before closing the gap, no longer a passive participant. She had wide lips and Miranda's nose was longer, but with their angle, they fit just right, as if designed for each other. Miranda's lips tasted better than Andy's mind could have possibly come up with, holding a hint of whiskey mixed with minty toothpaste and something intoxicating and addictive that was purely Miranda.

While she parted her lips for the moist, hot press of Miranda's tongue, the hand on her shoulder slid down to the open part of her robe, settling solidly on her chest. Andy's fingers rested lightly on her wrist, beneath the cashmere sleeve of her robe, where she felt the quick thumping of the pulse beneath the skin whereas Miranda doubtlessly felt the same thing under her palm. Andy could feel her heartbeat everywhere: her chest, her throat, her temples, the lips that were kissing Miranda. She'd waited so long, not even knowing she was waiting, and now she never wanted to stop.

It wasn't a mistake. Something that felt so right couldn't be wrong.

She couldn't recall how she'd made it from the chair to the bed, but the next thing she knew, her head was on a fluffy pillow and her breathing was labored as Miranda, perching on the side of the bed, placed her hand on the knot of her robe's sash, right above her abdomen, searching Andy's eyes for approval. There was nothing she wanted more.

As the sash came undone and the robe came apart, Andy stared up into Miranda's face, anxiously watching her reaction while she got her first glimpse of her body. There was a look there that she'd never seen before, something inexplicable that restricted her breathing. She wasn't stick-thin, she resembled none of the models Miranda always encountered, yet Miranda's gaze was warm and fond, traveling over her exposed body, blotched pink with equal parts embarrassment and arousal. She didn't assess her like she did every model that came her way, a cool, detatched, critical perusal that usually found something disappointing. Her eyes, instead, followed in something that looked very much like awe the journey of her hand as it ran from hip bone to stomach and settled in the valley between Andy's breasts, the fingers pressing against the skin while her heart beat wildly underneath the surface. Andy's chest sank with the touch, a gasp escaping her mouth.

Her touch was so hot for someone whose blood always seemed to run cold, and when it left her, Andy felt bereft, but stared, transfixed, as Miranda lowered first one sleeve, then the other down her shoulders, exposing a vast expanse of clear skin that shone under the soft glow of the bedside lamp. Her collar bones protruded enticingly through the skin, her shoulders standing high and proud. Not a single wrinkle could be found on her chest, and yet Miranda was now the one who looked nervous as she released the knot of her own robe and tilted her body, allowing it to slither smoothly down the length of her torso and pool around her hips.

Andy couldn't look away if she tried. Every model and clacker she'd ever met did indeed have nothing on Miranda, and even the masquerade gown couldn't have prepared her for the real thing. Her breasts were round and smooth, topped off with tightly-furled, brown nipples. They weren't big, but that only assured that, at her age, they didn't sag either. She had no stretch marks, no excess skin. She didn't have the body of a twenty-year-old, but Andy didn't want a twenty-year-old. She wanted Miranda.

She wanted Miranda to look at her the way that she was looking. To cup her breast the way that she was doing. To lean down and raise her hand to Andy's cheek, keeping her lips millimeters away to whisper, "You're trembling."

"I've never done this before," Andy whispered back, gulping, feeling Miranda's breath on her face. "Have you?"

Shaking her head, Miranda shimmied the rest of the way out of her robe before bending down again and capturing Andy's lips in hers. Raising a hand, Andy touched the locks of white hair she felt on her face, smoothing them back across Miranda's head. Her hair was softer than it looked, undisturbed by any product, just light and silky and addicting to the touch.

She felt the bed move, felt a weight on her body, and realized Miranda had climbed on top of her when the kiss broke and her lips proceeded to slide down her chin and neck, not quite kissing but peppering a feather-light touch against the skin. Andy's chest heaved the farther down it the lips moved, and when they wrapped around a nipple, she whimpered, arching instinctively to push more of her breast in her mouth. Her breast. In Miranda's mouth. Her head damn near exploded.

Every imaginary scenario she'd ever conjured up paled in comparison to this, to the fiery heat of Miranda's mouth as her tongue laved her nipple with affection and appreciation, to the tingles that ran from the tips of her fingers to the tips of her toes. To Miranda moving slowly down her body, kissing and tasting every new piece of skin, stopping at her midsection to help her the rest of the way out of her robe. It was smothering her, limiting her contact with Miranda, and once it was gone, she felt free, the exposure no longer bothering her but exciting her further. As Miranda kissed reverently around her navel, she brushed her fingers through the hair she'd already mussed before gasping audibly when Miranda dipped her tongue inside.

Of their own volition, Andy's legs opened to give her room to rest in-between, her back undulating against the mattress as Miranda stroked her hip bone and slid down the bed until her face was level with her crotch, a white bob visible between her thighs.

It wasn't like anything Andy had ever felt. Not with Nate, not with Christian, not with any other man and not by the touch of her own hand. From the moment Miranda's tongue swiped through her folds, she was ready to burst. For a woman who'd never been with another, she possessed the same expertise she applied to every other aspect in her life, sucking and licking and fluttering her tongue so gloriously and maddeningly Andy couldn't even produce the lung capacity to scream. She writhed and twisted on the bed while Miranda lavished her with adoration, caressing her belly and breasts while holding one thigh steady. Andy's lips parted several times, but no sound came out, even when Miranda wrapped hers around her clit, causing her to toss her head back and dig her fingers into the pillow underneath, her eyelids squeezing shut against the bright, blinding lights that exploded behind them.

From below, as she gently brought her down from her high, licking up the entire length of her, Miranda's eyes rose to find hers, dark and lustful. Taking big gulps of air, Andy's gaze lifted to the ceiling, her vision swimming and blurry, her face flushed, her throat dry even without emitting a sound. She blinked several times, trying to wake herself up from the dream and dreading the moment it happened all the same, but when she felt the weight back on her body, moving up, rubbing against the layer of sweat that had formed there, she knew it wasn't a dream. Dreams were never this life-shattering.

With her fingers on Miranda's chin, she accepted her kiss, instantly tasting herself on her lips and tongue. It was the tastes of both of them combined, her essence being shared with her, and it was the most erotic thing she had ever experienced, tugging a strangled moan from her throat, making her arch against Miranda's body as she licked inside her mouth to her heart's content, desperate to make the moment last forever.

Settling by her side when the need for air had become too great, Miranda removed a strand of dry hair from her face, her fingers grazing the skin with the lighest touch, and the look on her face was nothing short of awe-filled as she murmured, "So beautiful."

Despite the full-bodied, earth-shattering release she'd just had, Andy's abdominal muscles squeezed anew, her chest expanding with a bright, hot warmth. This was what had been missing all along: not coffee or tea, not little errands; this was what she'd needed to do, but not for Miranda--for herself.

Gay, straight--it didn't matter. She wanted Miranda and she wasn't giving her up, not after getting a glimpse behind the curtain.

Covering her body with her own once more, Miranda kissed her neck with a new kind of fervor, burying her fingers in Andy's hair, and, satisfied if not sated, Andy embraced her back, ready and more than willing to return the favor. She flipped them, rubbing their naked bodies together, enjoying the slick texture against her skin, the rise of Miranda's breasts against her own. Miranda didn't have a hairy chest or rough hands, and for the first time in her life, Andy knew she was right where she was supposed to be.

Plastering herself to the side of Miranda's body, she took the time to do all the things she'd been fantasizing about for a whole month. As she nuzzled her neck, sniffing a scent that was not perfume but a very real, human odor that caused her to hum her approval, she let her hand wander around the field of skin presented to her, not leaving an inch untouched. One nipple she flicked with her thumb to the sounds of Miranda's pleasure while she lowered her head for her first taste of the other. From the first swirl of her tongue and the sobbing moan it resulted in, she was hooked, closing her lips around it and sucking it into a hard peak. Miranda's fingers in her hair, pressing into her scalp, urged her on, as did her desperate movement against Andy's body.

She only let go of her breast to be able to see the path her hand was drawing down Miranda's abdomen and the resultant sinking of the muscles beneath it. She watched avidly as she repeated the motion, wanting to witness that again and again, but after the third time, fingers circled her wrist, slowly guiding her hand downward while they both panted up above.

Miranda was wetter than Andy had anticipated, and the low, guttural sound she made when Andy made her first contact spurred her on. She wanted to do everything all at once: taste and feel and devour. From her angle, it wasn't all that different to touching herself, but she still lacked the finesse Miranda deserved. That didn't seem to bother Miranda, who cupped her chin and pulled her down for a kiss while, down below, she became wetter against Andy's fingers.

By way of trial and error, Andy quickly discovered that Miranda liked different things than she did and responded vocally when she circled her opening and when she rubbed just to the side of her clit. If she'd had a single functioning brain cell in her head, she might have been able to take the time and appreciate the incomperable feeling of Miranda's flesh against her hand, the very real evidence of her arousal, the notion that not only was she allowed to do this, but it was giving Miranda pleasure. As it was, it was all she could do not to pass out.

"Inside," Miranda gasped, the word slipping from her mouth into Andy's. Andy had never disobeyed an order from her and she wasn't about to start now, watching her face as she parted her folds and slid a finger into her heat, her walls clamping down around it at once, trapping it inside. Adding a second one when Miranda screwed her eyes shut and tilted her head back with a breathless groan, Andy watched the motion causing her neck to elongate, which called for her lips and tongue to kiss and lick a trail from the bottom up to the chin. As she pumped her fingers in a leisurely, steady rhythm, she felt Miranda's wild pulse beneath her lips, relishing the sounds she couldn't seem to control.

It wasn't long before she lost control altogether, and the sight of Miranda Priestly coming undone was something that Andy was sure to remember until she took her last, dying breath. There was not a more spectacular scene in the world, her climax more grand than the most breathtaking sunset or the bluest, clearest ocean. Her entire body rippled like a wave while her cries filled the room. Inside her, Andy's fingers were clutched even more firmly, holding on to her lest she should escape. Little did Miranda know there was no other place she wanted to be.

When it was over, she extracted her fingers, plucking one more moan from Miranda, who shivered when she ran them up her body, leaving moisture behind. Now she smelled like sex and sweat, and like Andy. And before she could catch her breath, Andy covered her lips with her own, licking her way inside her mouth.

Humming into the kiss, Miranda grabbed the back of her head again, placing her other hand in the center of Andy's sweat-slick back and rolling them. Already, Andy could feel her body burning for a renewed touch, desperate for the night to go on forever. They had a lot of time to make up for, she supposed and wrapped her legs around Miranda's waist, caressing everywhere she could reach. Inside her head, a little voice screamed its gratitude.

 


 

She woke up from the best sleep of her life, feeling refreshed and pleasantly sore. They'd made love until late into the night. Andy had always found that phrase ridiculous, but that was what they'd done. It had been sweet and gentle, they'd taken the time to slowly study and explore each other's bodies and not an inch had been left unknown. They hadn't spoken much beyond the occasional "Right there" and "Oh, god" and Miranda's whispered endearments that had nearly brought Andy to tears, but there had been no need for words, the emotion and weight of the moment shining through their touches and looks.

Stretching her well-used muscles, Andy relished the sumptuous feeling of the sheets against her naked skin, smiling into her pillow. Light had seeped into the room, making it harder for her heavy eyelids to open, but when they did, she saw where it was coming from. It wasn't blinding, but a cool morning light hidden by heavy clouds, invading the otherwise dark room. It was colder than it had been the night before with only a comforter covering half of her body, which had lain motionless for hours, and no bed partner to keep her warm. Because her bed partner was standing by a narrow gap she'd opened in the curtains, watching the city below, and she was the first thing Andy saw when her eyes opened.

Propping herself on an elbow, messy hair falling around her face, she watched an oblivious Miranda in silence. She had redressed in her robe, her nipples protruding through the thin fabric, fingers running down the sash absentmindedly. One side of her body was pressed up against the window, no doubt absorbing it's coolness; some time during the night, after they had finally fallen asleep, spent and exhausted, rain had poured on the city, leaving residual dew on the glass come morning. Lit up by the early morning light, hair mussed no less than Andy's, Miranda was the most exquisite thing she had ever glimpsed.

"Do you regret it?" she asked, her quiet voice disturbing the stillness of the room.

The question seemed to pierce through Miranda's peaceful reverie, but she didn't look startled as she turned her head. In fact, she looked more relaxed than Andy had seen her in a long time, perhaps ever. There were no pursed lips, no frowning lines in her forehead. A subtle, serene smile was playing at her lips as she slowly shook her head, needing no time to weigh her answer. "Hm-mm," she hummed, a soft, sweet, certain sound that warmed Andy all over. She'd never really had a doubt.

Her lips stretched in gleeful anticipation as Miranda abandoned the window, sauntering over to the bed, her bare feet padding across the carpeted floor. However, bending toward her, milliseconds before their lips met, Andy's eyes widened with a near inaudible gasp and she promptly covered her mouth with a hand. "Morning breath," she explained, her voice muffled.

Miranda's smile, nevertheless, widened. She'd never looked at Andy with so much tenderness and affection as she was doing in that moment, and the tightening it caused in Andy's chest was distracting enough for her to put up no fight when her hand was gently lowered, her lips taken in a kiss so sweet that even after the night's events, it made her tingle all over.

This was what she'd wanted all along, before she could even admit to herself that she did. This, right here, was it. This was what her life had always been supposed to look like: waking up with Miranda, sharing a kiss that ignored every germ or bad smell. She'd finally found herself, she thought, unable to control a smile that spread against the light press of Miranda's lips.

 


 

Andy felt she was glowing. As their chauffered car drove them through the Chicago streets, she thought she was radiating enough light to power up a small city. Her face shone with a permanent smile she couldn't curb, but with Miranda so close, it was futile to even try.

They snuck glances at each other all throughout the ride and Miranda, surprisingly, was unable to conceal a smile of her own. With the driver so close, there was only so much they could do without giving themselves away, but when Andy inconspicuously slid a hand across the backseat, she was shocked and delighted to see Miranda's own slowly move toward it, meeting it in the middle.

They didn't hold hands--that would have been too noticeable and obvious--but they craved the touch, subtly moving them closer until their pinkies made contact. It was brief and light, but it made Andy's entire hand tingle in an instant, the sensation traveling up her arm and consuming her body. Even after the previous night, the bare hint of a touch was tantilizing, and the separation left her longing for more.

They touched their pinkies again, their smiles meeting over the entwined digits, before breaking apart, and for the remainder of the ride, their hands sat on the seat between them, an almost nonexistent distance dividing them. But even without the touch, the tingling remained, a palpable heat surrounding Andy's hand with the knowledge of the closeness. Staring out of her window, shd bit her lip, but didn't stop smiling. She had never been so happy.

 


 

"My queen!" Karl Lagerfeld proclaimed happily, welcoming Miranda into his hotel suite. "How are you?" He squeezed her hands.

Keeping a more sedate attitude, Miranda leaned in for the customary air kisses, softly asking, "Comment ça va?" in a perfect accent that had Andy's stomach fluttering.

"Très bien. Come in." His suite was a lot bigger than Andy's, opening into a large foyer with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and framed art works, which led in two directions, one of which was the bedroom and en suite and the other a fully-furnished living room, complete with an office desk and a kitchen. For just a moment, Andy forgot about everything as she looked around in wonder at the luxury. She hadn't gotten to glimpse Miranda's suite back at The Peninsula, but from the pictures she'd seen while booking it, she knew it was just as impressive and hoped she would get a closer look later that night.

"This is my Andr-- my assistant, Andrea," Miranda's musical voice sliced through her thoughts with the Freudian slip, but before she could secretly rejoice in it, a hand settled in the small of her back, guiding her closer to Miranda's side and igniting the skin underneath her thin, chiffon blouse in scalding flames.

She could only credit luck with the absence of the shiver that wanted to erupt, and with the fact that she didn't slur her words when she shook Karl's leather-gloved hand and said, "It's an honor to meet you."

Taking an appreciative look of her outfit, Karl smiled. "You, too. Beautiful blouse," he remarked on the item she'd gotten after the Paris Chanel show. "This is my assistant, she'll get you anything you want." He gestured at the girl who'd greeted them at the door and was now watching them carefully. Charlotte was her name; Andy had spoken to her on the phone when she was setting up the meeting. She had a chic, raven-black haircut that came down to the middle of her neck in ruler-straight strands, full bangs hiding her forehead completely. She also had infinite legs, which she rightfully showed off with a very short dress.

"Miranda, coffee?" Karl offered.

"Please."

"Charlotte, coffee," he ordered, leading Miranda in the direction of the living room. "And bring us the lunch menus."

"I'm--" Andy said behind their retreating backs, "I'll just be... outside."

Out in the hallway, she smiled cordially at a passing maid, her black and white attire matching the floor's décor: black doors, white walls; black and white rug stretched along a hardwood floor. She pulled out her phone, checking for new messages or e-mails, but her mind wasn't there--it kept going back to the night before, the image of a naked Miranda in the throes of passion burned into her memory forever, her tender, loving caresses still fresh and warm on Andy's skin.

Maybe it was the foreign city, the momentary break from real life, but it didn't feel like a bad idea anymore. All the things that had held her back before--their professional relationship, the ongoing divorce, the public's opinion--all seemed so inconsequential now when she'd had a taste of real, pure happiness. They could make it work, they were making it work. Miranda didn't regret it, neither did Andy, and that was all that mattered. All the rest they could figure out later, but right now Andy simply didn't care.

A slammed door startled her back into her surroundings, and looking back down at her phone, fifteen minutes had gone by since she'd stepped out into the hall. From the slammed door of Karl's suite, Charlotte exited, glancing down at Andy from her height and from behind red-framed, cat-eye glasses, the only color in her otherwise black appearance. On the phone, she'd been nice enough, trying to accommodate all of Miranda's needs and wishes, but now her smile was tight, her eyes evasive.

"So," Andy tried to strike up a conversation. "What's it like working for Karl? I saw him at Fashion Week, I really like his designs."

"It's fine," she answered curtly before fixing her gaze on her BlackBerry.

"Right..." Andy muttered. "Well, uh, I think I'm gonna nip over to Starbucks--Miranda's probably gonna want her coffee when she's done. Can I get you anything?"

"No."

Well, alright then, she thought, walking away. Usually assistants, regardless of who they worked for, were nicer to her than her own co-workers. It was the assistant code: they were all in the same boat, slaving for their bosses with little to no recognition. Of course, Andy doubted any of the assistants she knew had ever had the kind of night she'd just had, but Charlotte didn't know that, and the one-eighty in her attitude toward Andy was confusing, but not enough to divert her mind away from more pleasant thoughts.

She was walking on clouds. Nothing could ruin her day, not the grim weather outside, not the long line at Starbucks, and no disgruntled assistants. In fact, she thought she might never have another bad day in her life.

And then she returned to the hotel, and everything shattered to pieces around her.

Walking down the hall with a scalding cup of coffe in her hand, she heard hushed murmuring before she could spot its source, but the French accent clued her in. Approaching slowly, she was able to make out parts of a conversation, and it didn't sound like small talk.

"I don't have concrete proof yet, I'm working on it," Charlotte spoke quietly but urgently into her phone. "I know we're pressed for time. What do you want me to do, break into their hotel rooms? I--" Looking up, she came face to face with a bemused Andy, her eyes bulging behind the glasses, her face paling considerably. She visibly gulped before hanging up mid-conversation, staring dumbly at Andy.

"What's going on?" Andy asked, but a bitter, uneasy filling was already settling in her stomach.

"Nothing," Charlotte answered, too quickly. Which meant it was something she specifically didn't want Andy to know.

"Who were you talking to?" she questioned, her suspicion intensifying, as was the beating of her heart.

"It's... it's no one. It's really nothing," said Charlotte, but the bravado she'd possessed before was quickly waning. "I promise."

"Didn't sound like nothing." Andy frowned, coming closer. "Were you talking about Miranda?"

"I--" Charlotte stammered, her voice quaking. Then she stepped away from the door, hunching to Andy's height and lowering her voice again. "Okay, listen, I'm sorry, I didn't want to do this, but let's be honest: you and I both know that being an assistant is a shitty, thankless job and Karl is a misogynistic pig. I was promised a much better job at Runway if I did this."

"By whom?" They were both startled by the question, turning toward the door, where Miranda was standing imperiously, directing a frosty look at Charlotte.

Andy's jaw sagged while the French assistant gasped in trepidation, cowering in the face of the impending danger. "I-I-I'm so sorry, Miranda."

"I do not like to repeat myself," Miranda stated cooly, stepping menacingly closer. "Who promised you a job at my magazine?"

Charlotte's lips pressed tightly together, and all of a sudden she looked much smaller than she really was. "Colin Parrish," she admitted to Andy's shock. Then she explained, "He wants your job. He asked me to get him proof that you-- that something was going on between the two of you." She cringed. "I told him he was crazy, but he was going to put me in the makeup department when he became Editor-in-Chief."

As she timidly trailed off, the hallway became deathly quiet. And much narrower. Andy stared at her in disbelief, dreading Miranda's reaction. She suddenly thought of Colin's contemplative response when he'd found out she was joining Miranda in Chicago, and the time he'd caught her staring dreamily at Miranda during a run-through. And she remembered what he'd told her: "Nobody gets to the top without climbing on a few bodies on the way up."

He'd planned it all along. He'd come to Runway to steal Miranda's throne from under her. The man sought out by everybody in the fashion industry had agreed to a great opportunity: the chance to weasel his way into the most sought-out role. And Andy, in her stupidity, had been transparent and careless enough to provide him with all the ammunition he needed.

A metallic click breached through the silence of the hallway, and when she finally braved a look at Miranda, she was reaching into her handbag and pulling out a pair of lacy gloves, daintily sheathing her hands inside. She didn't say anything, and besides a subtle pursing of the lips, she didn't show her thoughts either, simply striding down the long corridor, her heels clacking loudly in her wake.

"I didn't tell him anything," Charlotte called despondently behind them as Andy rushed after Miranda.

 


 

The dark, heavy clouds that had loomed threateningly over the city all morning were finally making good on their promise and raining heavily on the streets below, their harsh droplets bouncing off of umbrellas and running down windows. On the road, cars sped through the accumulated water, sloshing it indifferently onto the sidewalks.

The rain and the grey shade it painted the city with couldn't be more befitting of Andy's mood. In the backseat of their car, making their way back to their own hotel, she'd shrunk against the widow, her tears mirroring the raindrops competing with each other to get to the bottom of the glass. Just as she hadn't been able to contain her happiness earlier, the tears were now impossible to stop.

Everything was ruined. In just a matter of minutes, her world had turned on its axis and she was helpless to do anything but cry without sound but the occasional sniffle or hiccup. She didn't care that the driver could see her, didn't care that she was making a spectacle of herself. On the other side of the seat, Miranda was sitting stoically, looking out of her window with a blank, empty stare, ignoring Andy. She hadn't said a word since they'd left Charlotte behind, not even when they rode the elevator together, which made Andy's weeping intensify.

It was all her fault. If she hadn't acted like a lovesick teenager, if she hadn't been so preoccupied with her hopeless crush, she would have seen through Colin's façade and could have warned Miranda or, better yet, not agreed, foolishly and selfishly, to come to Chicago. That way she wouldn't have endangered Miranda's job and reputation, given Stephen cause to torture her as much as if not more than James had with an infidelity clause, and granted the latter an excuse to call her untrustworthy and take away her children. She had been stupid to let it all happen without so much as stopping to consider the consequences. If what they'd done got out, it would break Andy's heart, but it would destroy Miranda's life.

And yet, Andy couldn't give up what had happened the night before. After being on the receiving end of Miranda's lips, and experiencing the feel of her fingers, and being allowed to touch and taste and adore, she couldn't erase it. And she couldn't handle not ever getting to do it again. She was in too deep, and she was dragging Miranda down with her.

While Miranda continued to ignore her, she continued to cry.

 


 

They didn't see each other for the rest of the day. Upon arriving back at the hotel, they each cloistered up in their respective rooms. Andy waited for hours for Miranda to knock on her door, even just to make a work-related request or demand. She sat on the edge of her bed and waited, but Miranda never came.

The sheets had been remade, no longer holding the shapes and warmth of their bodies, cleared of the memory of their encounter. That was how hotels operated: a brief escape from life, each night a new beginning. You couldn't make a mistake just as the thing that brought you joy was erased the next morning, giving you a chance to forget and start over.

Except life wasn't a metaphor and what had transpired between Andy and Miranda couldn't be forgotten nor would it be erased when they went back to New York.

For the remainder of the day, Andy busied herself with making sure everything was set for their return, all the while welcoming any distraction in the form of assistant chores. But the day's events were hard to distract from, and whenever she wasn't thinking about Miranda down the hall, her mind went to Colin. She wondered if Charlotte had informed him about the demise of their plan--or its success, depending on how he looked at it--and if, come Monday morning, he would dare show his face in the Elias-Clarke building.

She'd liked him. She'd trusted him. She'd had no reason not to after he'd received both Nigel's and Miranda's approval stamps. And he'd been nice and friendly, taking time out of his day to visit her for chats, bestowing advice... spying.

Bile rose in her stomach, she wanted to throw up. No one had ever betrayed her before and the resultant feeling was crushing. It left her bewildered and hurt and lost, and worse of all, it kept Miranda away from her.

Until later that night, when she was getting ready for bed, pulling back the sheets that still smelled of Miranda and her. She had forgone the robe this time in favor of her pajamas, which consisted of a long-sleeved T-shirt and flannel pants--not quite the height of fashion--and was just climbing into the side of the bed Miranda had occupied the previous night when a knock sounded at her door.

She practically stumbled over herself to get to it, flicking the light back on on the way, yanking the door open in her haste, and there she was, in the same, grey robe, hair flat and uncoiffed, face tired. She stared at Andy, Andy stared back and finally moved aside to allow her entrance.

"So how did the meeting go?" she tried for a joke to lighten the mood, but neither of them could find humor in the situation. With a sigh, Miranda seated herself on the edge of the bed, sticking her tongue in her cheek. Andy came to stand in front of her, shoulders slumped, hands hanging by her sides aimlessly. "Have you talked to him?" she asked cautiously. They both knew she didn't mean Lagerfeld.

Miranda shook her head. "No."

"Are you going to fire him?"

"I haven't decided yet." Because that would give him all the incentive he needed to make his move. Then again, it seemed the plan had always been to use the explosive information to dethrone Miranda, so either way he had nothing to lose. And Miranda and Andy had everything to lose.

"Nobody has to know," Andy whispered after a lengthy silence. "He doesn't have anything on us. Charlotte didn't know anything. All he has is speculation."

"Which is more than he should have."

"Not necessarily."

"It's not that simple," Miranda argued quietly.

"Because of the divorce."

"Because of a great many reasons," she said. "We came too close."

They had. If a random co-worker who knew next to nothing about either of them, who'd only looked a little closely, had been able to figure it out before anything had even happened, it would be so easy to slip again, if they hadn't already. Andy had practically given Colin a strategy, a prize falling into his hands courtesy of her recklessness. How many more people had noticed her infatuation, could guess what this trip meant? Emily knew she was in Chicago, and she was one of the office's biggest gossips.

They had to nip it in the bud, they had to. They should have done it the moment they'd realized their feelings were mutual; Andy should have stepped up, thinking outside her bubble, and quit right on the spot, never even putting them in this mess. She should have, but she hadn't, and she couldn't have.

From the day she'd started working at Runway, her life had revolved around Miranda. Christian had noticed, her best friend and boyfriend had abandoned her because of it, even Nigel had commented on it. She'd been at her beck and call twenty-four-seven, doing anything without question; she'd undergone a complete makeover solely to please her, going as far as losing weight; she'd hurt Emily and neglected her personal life and thought about Miranda every chance she got.

She didn't want anyone else. She didn't want any other life. She wanted the same, happy glow she'd experienced that morning, when everything around her had been pink and beautiful. She wanted to pick up where they'd left off, ignoring all the fires it set around them. She didn't care. She wanted Miranda--she had for a long time, and now that she'd finally been granted what she wanted, how was she supposed to give it up?

"What are you thinking?" Miranda asked into the silence.

Andy raised her eyes to the ceiling, inhaling deeply through her nose. "I'm thinking that I'm selfish."

"You're not s--"

"I'm thinking that I've never been a selfish person, and I want to be one now." When she looked back down, Miranda's weary gaze was focused on her, her back hunched in resignation. Andy shrugged, and shook her head because she began to feel her throat contract. "We can make it work," she said, her voice straining against it. "Maybe it's not so bad."

"Andrea--"

"No, listen," she insisted, wiping her nose with the back of her hand and lowering to her knees before Miranda, "I know it's-- I know it's less than ideal, and that there's a lot to consider, but-but last night was good, right? Wasn't it good for you?"

"You know that it was," Miranda whispered warmly.

"So-so we'll find a way around everything. James won't take the girls--we'll fight him if he tries, together. And maybe Stephen won't care, I mean you said that he just wants out." She realized it was probably not the right thing to say, but if it could help her make her case, it was.

"You're forgetting that you work for me," Miranda pointed out dishearteningly.

"So I'll quit," she countered ardently, placing her hands on Miranda's robed knees. "If that's what it takes, I'll find another job. I won't even ask for your recommendation. Everyone keeps telling me I should move on; no one will be surprised."

Miranda closed her eyes briefly, looking far older than she had that morning. "Don't be ridiculous. They'll still know you worked for me."

"So what? Bosses and assistants, it's not unheard of. It happens all the time."

"It's not unheard of, but that doesn't make it any more ethical. Or any less illegal." She arched an eyebrow.

"Men always get away with it!" Andy argued, but halted when Miranda's warm hand covered one of hers, her thumb gently stroking back and forth. "I just want to make it work," she whispered. "Please."

She was kneeling at Miranda's feet, begging. As a bystander, a spectator, she would have found it humiliating, but she didn't care because she knew that Miranda wanted the same thing. The previous night couldn't have been faked--that version of Miranda was the realest version, the one even her husbands, Andy suspected, had never witnessed--and Andy wasn't pleading for something she thought she couldn't get. Miranda wanted her, and she wanted Miranda, and in another life there wouldn't have been such a tremendous obstacle course for them to go through to be able to be together.

It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair that people met their significant others on the street, that guys could go to a bar to find a girl they liked, that someone could ask their friend to set them up and meet the love of their life. It wasn't fair that people could walk in the park with their partners, holding hands for all to see; that they could show up at each other's places whenever they felt like it and stay the night; that they could tell their families and friends about the person they loved without fear of judgement. It wasn't fair that other people had it so easy and Andy and Miranda didn't.

"I don't even mind hiding," she said weakly, realizing that she didn't, not if it meant that she could be with Miranda. The night before, certainly, no one else had been on her mind--just them in their pretty, little coccoon. It could be like that every night. "Nobody needs to know," she repeated.

Looking down at their joined hands, Miranda ran her fingertips across Andy's skin, tracing the same fingers that had touched her so worshipfully and lovingly. She looked so sad, sadder than the night in Paris, but this time it was Andy's eyes that stung with the threat of tears, just when she'd thought she'd cried all of them in the car. She'd never wanted to see that look on Miranda's face again and now she was the cause of her anguish. "Why do you want me so badly?"

That did it. Tears sprung to her eyes, fighting to spill against Andy's steadfast effort to keep them at bay. "How could I not?" she asked brokenly. She was the one Miranda was supposed to overlook, the simple, Ohio girl who was unworthy of the queen's attention. She was the one who looked nothing like Runway's models and didn't know anything about Miranda's biggest passion and hadn't made anything of herself in the world. How could Miranda want her? And how could Miranda ever doubt that she was perfect in Andy's eyes?

"I come with so much baggage," she answered her unspoken question. "I'm so much older than you, and I have a lot more shortcomings than benefits, ask my ex-husbands." She smiled ruefully. "You're young, you're beautiful. You could have anyone you want--"

"I only want you."

"Are you even gay?" She narrowed her eyes at Andy, catching her off guard.

"I-I don't know. I don't know what I am. I only know that I don't want anyone else but you." If she'd expected that romantic gesture to pacify Miranda, she was disappointed to see her look even more troubled. Yes, she was flawed, deeply so, but who wasn't? Andy wanted the good and the bad, and she wanted Miranda to give what they'd started a chance, now that she had gotten a peek into how good the "good" could be.

"Come on," she breathed out, her voice tremulous and strangled with emotion. "Do I really make your life so bad?"

"No." Miranda shook her head, her voice a thready whisper, and uncovered Andy's hand to cup her cheek. "You make me happy."

Drawing a shaky breath, Andy leaned into the touch, and when Miranda proceeded to stroke her hair behind her ear, her expression so fond and reverent, so open and sincere, a tear slipped past its barrier and slid down Andy's cheek, quickly being wiped away by Miranda's thumb.

"I know you think it can work," she began, "but that's because you're still young and optimistic."

"I'm not," Andy tried to dispute her.

Calmly, she replied, "But you are. You don't see what I see."

"But you're wrong," Andy insisted, then sighed deeply, closing her eyes. "I know you'll always be out of my league. I know I'm not like the men you usually date, but maybe that's a good thing. Maybe it never worked because they weren't right for you. But I know that I am, even if I'm unfashionable and ugly and don't understand anything, and even if you only started liking me because I was nice to you and you felt that someone cared about you and finally had someone to talk to. And it's okay, it really is, because I never meant to fall for you and I still did, knowing I'd never be good enough. I know it's not perfect, I don't care if it isn't a fairytale. I just wanna be with you."

When her rambling had finished, her chest expelling the breath it'd held all along, Miranda looked well and truly bemused. Her brow was wrinkled as she stared down at Andy incomprehensively. "Is that what you think?" she asked incredulously. "Do you think I came here last night because you've been letting me vent?"

Speechless in the face of her disbelief, Andy could do nothing but gape at her. "I've been venting to you because I wanted to. To you. Because I wanted to and because you asked." With her hand on Andy's cheek, she lowered her thumb to her parted lips, rubbing the bottom one softly. "After Paris, I knew that I could count on you. You always hold everything so well together even when everything is falling apart. And I was falling apart and you held me together. With Stephen gone and the girls being so... so angry and sad about their lives being upended once again... I suppose it was the last straw for me. Everything in my life suddenly seemed so pointless: what good were my achievements if I failed in every other area in my life? I felt lost and trapped and..." She stroked Andy's lip again, receiving a light kiss on the tip of her thumb. "You were the light at the end of the tunnel."

As she spoke, Andy's mind suddenly rewinded to their second night back from Paris, the first time of many she'd been met by Miranda while delivering the Book. She'd reflected that night on how tired Miranda looked and the feeling inside her that suggested it wasn't only the frenzied pace of the magazine in the wake of Fashion Week draining her like everyone else, that it was something deeper and more complicated to unravel. She hadn't been able to place her finger on it then, but she understood now, months later. Miranda had been tired of her life. And Andy had woken her up to a new one.

"When you came to me in Paris... you'd surprised me. You weren't who I'd expected you to be when I hired you, and for a while after that," Miranda conceded. "But you showed me that I could count on you. I didn't start trusting you because you were there to listen to me." She shook her head, dropping her thumb. "I let you listen to me because I trusted you. And I don't trust very many people."

"I thought... I was just in the right place at the right time." Andy felt breathless, trying to wrap her mind around the new revelations.

Shaking her head again, Miranda ran her fingers through Andy's ruffled bangs, smoothing her hand down her cheek and neck. "You think you're not good enough for me. I'm not good enough for you."

"You're perfect for me," Andy muttered, grabbing her hand and pressing a long kiss to the palm. "We're perfect for each other," she mumbled against the delicate skin, kissing it again before placing it back on her cheek, Miranda immediately running her fingers over her cheekbone. 

"Let's stay the rest of the weekend," she beseeched. It was Friday; Miranda's kids were spending a long weekend at their father's and they weren't expected back at work until Monday. "Who's gonna know? We'll figure things out."

Miranda didn't respond. Perhaps she was considering it, Andy couldn't tell, but all she said after a while was, "Let's go to sleep."

So they were done talking, getting up without a word. Andy rose, rubbing her abused knees, and while she went to turn off the light, Miranda disrobed and got on top of the covers, lying on her side, leaning on an elbow. When Andy returned to the bed, she stopped, taking in the sight before her: Miranda was wearing a pale, pink, silken nightgown with a white, lacy neckline and hem, the thin straps definitely not appropriate for the current weather. But what gave Andy pause was the fact that she was wearing a nightgown in the first place when, the previous night, claiming to not have been able to sleep, showing up in Andy's room under the guise of work, Miranda had been nude under her robe.

Patting the empty space beside her, Miranda pulled her out of her shock, gesturing for her to join her on the bed. Andy did, and immediately snuggled up to Miranda, who wrapped such tender arms around her she felt tears prickle her eyes again. Burying her face in her neck, Andy wrapped her arms around her body, the silk of her nightgown sliding exquisitely against her fingers, and Miranda returned the embrace just as tightly.

They lay like that for a while, breathing each other in, feeling their hearts beat as one, until Miranda withdrew, but only enough to lean down and kiss Andy's lips, then her cheek, moving her bangs away to kiss her forehead as well. She held Andy in her arms like a cherished gift, hugging her close as she lowered her kisses to her temple and back to her cheek, lingering, nuzzling. It was Andy who grabbed the side of her head and brought her back down to her lips, stroking her hand through short hair as Miranda bunched and clutched a group of hers, deepening the kiss, repositioning them so she was covering Andy's body with her own, and suddenly she was kissing all over her face with so much urgency and ardor, as if she'd never get a chance to do it again, as if it was imperative she commited every taste and sensation to memory, her fingers wrapped around Andy's neck with the lightest touch, not meant to cut off the air supply but to hold her head steady, her other hand on the back of it, guiding it in every which direction she wanted so there would not be a piece of skin untouched by her lips.

Andy couldn't breathe either way, clinging tightly, unwilling to let go. She pulled a nightgown strap down Miranda's shoulder, leaning in for a taste, and her eyes shut tightly as her head was dipped back and Miranda's lips lowered to her neck, devouring her, peppering it with desperate kisses that left the skin tingling. Andy wanted so much she thought she might burst. In fact, her chest was about to, all the oxygen stolen from her lungs when Miranda's mouth returned to hers, seemingly trying to swallow her whole. Andy moaned with whatever air she had left, squirming against her body, and when she was finally released, the first thing that came out on her exhaled breath was, "I love you."

Breathing hard, she stared up at Miranda, who caressed her face and who, for the first time, let go of some of the fervor she'd possessed, leaning down to Andy's eyelids, which effectively closed, and kissing each one in turn as softly as if she were kissing a sleeping child. She didn't say it back, and somehow it meant more.

 


 

She woke up in a dark room, slowly fluttering her eyes open. There was no crack in the curtains to let the morning light in; it could have been mid-morning or the middle of the night or 3 in the afternoon.

They'd fallen asleep tangled in each other, Andy's head tucked under Miranda's chin, their chests rising and sinking against one another in perfect tandem. But as awareness gradually crept in, the room coming into focus in the shadows, it was easy to surmise that there was only one body in the bed, the blanket draped protectively over it against the invasive weather, much like it had miraculously been on the flight over.

Miranda's side of the bed was cold, and Andy had the sneaking suspicion that she wasn't in the bathroom, nor would she find her in her own room. She had made her choice, and last night had been goodbye.

 


 

Her heels clicked rhythmically on the floor, mingling with the sound of every other pair of shoes in the corridor, from wedged Valentinos to impossibly high Malone Souliers ankle boots. But Andy wasn't looking at anyone else, faceless bodies in couture breezing by her, disappearing behind office doors, wheeling clothing racks noisily by, resuming the hectic pace of Runway as if nothing had changed. To them, it hadn't. Andy, on the other hand, felt as though she was walking in a dream, the world around her blurry, speeding through life without giving her a chance to catch up. Was this how Miranda had felt in October?

"Hey," a friendly voice called to her after accidentally bumping her shoulder. In a haze, Andy turned toward the sound, and everything became clear again.

"Welcome back," Colin said, smiling. Unable to find her voice, she stared at him. He didn't look any different than he had before Chicago, before her life had changed permanently. If not for the physical pain in her chest, she could have convinced herself that she'd imagined the whole thing, but alas, she hadn't, and Colin Parrish was standing before her, smiling as if nothing had happened, while she gaped at him incredulously.

And at last, he took the hint, lowering his gaze to the ground. "Okay," he acknowledged, his smile becoming awkward. "You know."

Andy tried to speak, but her vocal chords wouldn't cooperate with her brain. She swallowed, shook her head, tried again, and could only come up with a feeble "Why?"

Sighing, Colin admitted, "This is my career, Andy. We're all working hard to make something of ourselves. You should, too."

"Is that why you came here?" she boggled. "She trusted you. Nigel trusted you. I trusted you."

Charlotte may not have told him anything, but Andy's reaction, the fact that she was addressing it in the first place, was proof enough. She was probably digging her and Miranda a deeper grave, but she was angry and hurt and she needed answers, and besides, without evidence, there was only so much he could do. With a history of no misconduct and an iron-clad reputation, Miranda was bullet-proof. Who would believe him if he started spouting stories about her sleeping with assistants, who were notoriously mistreated if anything? Furthermore, if Miranda fired him, which Andy hoped she did, he would lose even more credibility as a disgruntled former employer looking for revenge with an implausible story and nothing to back it up.

When Andy thought of it like that, he'd already lost. But so had she. So had Miranda. There were no winners here. Because the mere implication that something untoward was going on was guaranteed to attract attention, which, in turn, guaranteed to draw the attention of the people who could ruin Miranda's life: her bosses, Stephen, James.

"Look, it's not personal," Colin said solemnly. "I told you, in this business, you have to look out for yourself."

"What about her being a dying breed?"

He shrugged. "Sometimes you have to let nature take its course."

Through a clenched jaw, Andy ground out, "You will never be a tenth of what Miranda is." With that, she turned on her heel, stalking down the hall, when he stopped her again.

"I didn't mean for you to get hurt, Andy. Hell," he chuckled mirthlessly, "it wasn't my intention to hurt anybody. But it's a cut-throat business--you know that as well as me. I'm just trying to do what I can to get ahead."

Most people, she didn't tell him, found ways to get ahead without resorting to playing as dirty as he had. She wanted to tell him that, but she didn't, because she'd taken Paris from Emily, who'd wanted it more than anything else in her life. She'd neglected her personal relationships in favor of a job, when all she'd ever really wanted, subconsciously or not, was Miranda.

"I was planning to ask you to write for Runway, you know, after you told me you were a writer," Colin added. "But now I feel like it would be a little tone-deaf."

Staring in astounded rage, the only reason she didn't slap him was because there were people around. But her palm tingled with the desire to nonetheless.

 


 

"Okay, well, I got the shoes from Dior, but you'll need to go get the scarves from Hermès when they open, alright?" Emily said, tucking the day's schedule on the clipboard by Andy's desk. "Andy. Are you listening to me?"

"What?" Andy refocused her gaze, straightening in her chair. "Yeah."

Emily, in response, threw her arms up in exasperation, striding back to her own desk. Andy took that opportunity to say, "Hey, Em. I'm sorry about Paris. I don't think I ever actually apologized." She'd made excuses, but the word "sorry" had never come up, and Emily's taken-aback expression was proof of that. "I'm really sorry, though. You deserved it more than me."

"Yes, well," Emily stammered, clearing her throat. She looked away--Andy didn't think that she was very comfortable with human emotion--but her voice was steadier when she replied, "Thank you."

An hour later, her footsteps heard from miles away, Miranda finally arrived, stepping through the door in a near floor-length fur coat and frigid makeup that sharpened every rounded feature on her face. In other words, she'd come prepared to win a war, but as she stopped in the entrance, hands on the lapels of her coat, she turned her attention to Andy, who stared back, speechless, and paused.

They looked at each other for what could have been minutes or even hours, unmoving, unspeaking, while Emily waited behind her desk with outstretched arms, and when Miranda finally snapped out of her reverie, her belongings missed Emily's hands and fell on her desk and she headed into her office without a word.

"What did you do?" Emily accused, glaring at Andy.

 


 

She was standing by the glass table in the corner of her office, going through the collection of shoes Emily had delivered, when Andy gingerly walked in, knocking on the open door. It was after she'd had a chance to read her morning paper and magazines--or at least pretend to; after the Book had been handed over to the art department, after the morning's issues and chores had been dealt with, and after Colin hadn't shown his face once within a fifty-feet radius of them.

It was a temporary moment of quiet in the midst of the workplace's chaos and Andy waited until Miranda was facing her to say, "Guess I'm leaving, then."

Abandoning a pair of pointy-toed, leather boots, Miranda turned fully in her direction, her voice so low that Andy had to come closer to hear it. "I never meant for you to do that."

"I know. But I need to." They'd already gone too far, risked too much. Whichever way their weekend had ended, it never could have kept on working this way, not when there was too much on the line. It wasn't fair to Miranda, it wasn't fair to Andy. But it wasn't just that.

"It's probably for the best, anyway. I think I lost myself a little in this job." She wasn't the same person who'd come there eight and a half months prior asking for a job, and for that she was glad. She had grown and evolved, but some things she still didn't want to be. She didn't want to be like Colin.

Miranda seemed to understand because she nodded, asking, "What will you do now?"

Shrugging, Andy felt the familiar stinging sensation behind her eyelids even as she attempted a quavering smile. "Guess it's job hunting again. Maybe someone will finally let me write something."

"Tell me where you want to work and I'll make it happen," Miranda replied at once with the vehement force of someone who knew how powerful she was.

Horrified to hear her choked voice, Andy returned the question, "What are you gonna do?"

"What I always do." Miranda allowed a half-smile to grace her features. "Survive."

"I'll, uh..." Andy swallowed harshly, tears blurring her vision. "I'll give my two weeks so you can find me a replacement."

"You don't have to do that," Miranda opposed gently, shaking her head. It might have been said in her favor, but Andy had a feeling a small part of Miranda was granting both of them that reprieve; it'd hurt her just as much as it would Andy if she stayed, having to see each other every day, fingers accidentally touching over coffee cups, unplanned meetings in the townhouse after dark. All the little moments that had tormented them before, made so much worse now when they knew what could be.

So Andy took the reprieve with a nod, turning to retrieve her possessions and walk out of Miranda's life, her legs as heavy as if filled with lead instead of blood.

"I don't want you to go," Miranda whispered behind her, contradicting everything she'd just said.

In the corner of the office, they were out of direct sight, but the door was wide open, Emily was outside, countless people were constantly passing by, transparent doors providing them with vision right into the room in the center of the commotion. And nevertheless, Andy crossed the distance between her and Miranda, her eyes wet and red, and cupped Miranda's face between her hands, pressing their lips together. And instead of being pushed away, her kiss was returned tenfold, Miranda embracing her so tightly and passionately that her tears finally washed over her face, falling between them, making the kiss salty and bittersweet.

She ended it before it felt finished and, accordingly, Miranda's lips chased blindly after her before her eyes reopened just in time to see her walking away.


---------------------------------------------------------------------
Suddenly your deepest fears are spoken
But you can't let your spirit be broken
It takes just one second
To stand up and say it's my life
---------------------------------------------------------------------


The snow on the sidewalks wasn't high, yet her stilettoes kept sinking into it, making her regret her decision to wear high-heeled boots. As she waded her way through the throngs of quick-paced New Yorkers, white, little snowflakes landed on her black coat, which she pulled tighter against her. The late evening wind was whooshing past her face in her rush, painting her cheeks and nose red and drawing steamy puffs from her lips with every breath she exhaled.

As December was coming to an end, the city's preparations for Christmas were intensifying: brightly lit, colorfully decorated trees had been placed on every corner; store fronts had embellished their display windows with ornaments and ribbons, a warm glow of wintery magic beckoning shoppers inside; mall Santas were making their yearly appearances, holding star-struck kids on their laps to take notes of their desired presents; ice rinks had been set up for warmly dressed, rosy-cheeked people to skate on; all around the city, colorful twinkly lights shone from treetops, bathing pedestrians with their warm radiance while the gentle snow made them shiver.

A holiday atmosphere was in the air, with it promising new beginnings.

As she entered the dimly lit, heated café, a bell above the door signaling her arrival (along with a mistletoe hanging from its bottom), Andy dusted residual snow off of her coat--the flakes melting onto the entrance floor already damp from others' shoe soles and shaken umbrellas--and looked around, searching for her.

She was sitting at a corner table, a steaming mug clutched between her hands, and when she spotted Andy by the door, she raised one to wave, a small smile lifting her lips. Andy took a deep breath--effectively inhaling the sweet aroma of cookies--and braced herself, pulling off her gloves on the way to the table.

"Thank you for meeting me," she said when Andy had reached the table, rising to embrace her.

"Of course," said Andy, hugging her old friend.

"I wasn't sure you'd say yes," Lily confessed, sitting back down. Across the table, Andy shed her coat and scarf and took a seat as well just as a cheerful waitress arrived with a pad and pencil.

"Oh, um..." Andy looked toward Lily's mug, which was brimming with tiny marshmallows and smelling deliciously of chocolate. "I'll have what she's having."

When she was gone, despite patrons' chatter and the soft Christmas music playing from speakers on the walls, silence befell their little table, broken every once in a while by an uncomfortable smile or chuckle. At last, Andy stated, "So this is awkward."

"Yeah," Lily confirmed, running her palms back and forth over her mug.

"It's good to see you, though," Andy added earnestly. "I missed you."

"God, Andy," Lily sighed, leaning back in her chair. "I missed you, too. I feel like such an asshole."

"No," Andy began pacifyingly, then caught Lily's dubious eyebrow. "Okay, yeah, you were kind of an asshole," she agreed, evoking a light laugh from both of them, which finally broke some of the ice.

They engaged in small talk, then, covering topics ranging from Lily's boyfriend to Andy's resignation from Runway, until her drink was set before her, at which point Lily asked, "So what are you up to now?"

Swallowing a sip that scalded her tongue and left a foamy mustache over her upper lip, Andy reached for her napkin and smiled proudly. "Well," she said, wiping her lip, "you are looking at Vanity Fair's newest writer."

"No way!" Lily exclaimed and slapped the back of her hand playfully. "Andy! Way to go!"

"Thank you." She shrugged sheepishly, grinning.

"Guess I have to get a subscription now."

"Oh, I haven't really written anything substantial yet," she admitted, blushing. "But I'm getting there."

"Yes, you are." Lily nodded confidently. "I'm proud of you." Hiding her smile behind her mug, Andy took another, more careful sip. "So how did the witch take it?" And almost spat it out.

"What?" she choked out through a bout of coughing.

"I'm guessing Miranda wasn't too happy about you quitting less than a year in."

Grabbing her napkin again, Andy tried to get herself back in check while composing an incospicuous response. In the end, she decided that honesty was the best policy. "She, um, she actually got me the job."

"What?" Lily frowned incredulously.

"I mean, she wrote me a good recommendation letter." That sounded less dependent and suspicious and was also the truth. As far as Andy was aware.

"Wow." Lily lifted impressed eyebrows. "I wouldn't have expected that from her."

Drawing random circles with her finger on the wooden tabletop, Andy mumbled, "Yeah, well..."

"What?"

"No, no." She shook her head decisively. "It's nothing."

"What, Andy?"

"Forget it. I know how you feel about all... I haven't told anyone and you're just gonna get mad at me and I don't wanna fight again."

"Well, now you have to tell me," Lily insisted, looking worried. "You can't leave me hanging like that."

She hadn't told anyone. It was such a private, intimate memory that it almost felt like cheating on Miranda to share it with someone else. She wasn't even sure how to classify what they'd had: did those two nights constitute as a relationship? Or an affair? And what about all the months before that, of secret longing and quiet desperation?

Whatever it was, it had been the realest thing Andy had ever experienced. And it was eating away at her: the distance, the abrupt culmination, the feelings that were, now when they were no longer together, more alive than ever. She had to get it off her chest, come what may, if only to relieve some of the heartbreak. It was either that or therapy, and she couldn't afford a therapist.

"Well... something happened."

"What?" Lily questioned, intrigued.

"I know you won't approve, but Miranda and I..."

"Miranda and you what?" she asked slowly, suspiciously.

"We grew kind of close." She gulped, the aftertaste of her chocolate milk suddenly feeling bitter in her throat. "Not kind of."

"Okay..." Lily drawled, transfixed.

"I don't wanna get into too much detail, but a few weeks ago we went on a business trip together and... apparently we'd both been having these... feelings for each other. And we..."

"And you...?" She raised an eyebrow, understanding setting.

Andy inhaled a deep, shaky breath, feeling a huge weight sitting on her chest, compressing her airways. "I slept with her, Lily," she said the words out loud, her voice cracking. From nowhere, her eyes prickled with moisture, a frequent occurance, it turned out, since her acquaintance with Miranda.

While Lily sat quietly, her face hard, Andy went on, "I know it was the stupidest thing we could have done, for so many reasons, but... god," she breathed, the word coming out on a cry, "it was the best thing that's ever happened to me. It was the realest thing that's ever happened to me. I don't even know how to describe it, just..."

As she trailed off, lost for words, tears staining her made-up cheeks, Lily picked up her unused napkin, offering it to her, which effectively halted her tearful confession. Gratefully, she accepted the napkin, dabbing underneath her eyes, careful not to smear the makeup. "Sorry," she mumbled.

"You had sex with Miranda Priestly," Lily echoed, her forehead wrinkled in thought.

Hiccuping, Andy nodded. "Yeah." It was the first time she'd heard that truth out loud, the words transporting her back to the hotel, Miranda's body supple beneath her, her mouth between Andy's legs, rocking her world. The term "sex" simplified something so much deeper and significant that had occured between them during those nights.

A thousand questions seemed to run through Lily's head, her mouth opening several times before closing again. Eventually, she settled on, "Isn't she married?"

"She's getting a divorce."

"And you're..." She cocked her head to the side, the lines on her forehead deepening in contemplation. "You're gay?"

"I don't know," Andy whispered honestly. "I don't know what that makes me. I just know that I was really happy with her. For a while, I was really, really happy. And I miss her." She wiped her nose with the napkin before lowering it to the table, looking at Lily, who'd gotten very quiet. "Are you angry?"

It was disheartening that she didn't answer straight away, but finally she shook her head in resignation, muttering, "No," and Andy breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn't so much that she needed approval, but she didn't think she could handle any judgement any time soon.

Lily's face, however, was still harsh. "I'm just trying to wrap my head around everything."

"I know it's a lot," Andy said. "And I know you never liked Miranda and Runway, but--"

"I never said that."

"Well, you didn't like who I became. But that's who I am now, even if I'm no longer working there."

Lips puckered, Lily stared off into the distance, pondering everything. The silence unnerved Andy, her foot tapping restlessly against the floor. It had been a mistake telling her. Of all the people, and right when they were trying to reconcile--

"Do you love her?" Lily asked, releasing the weight lodged in her chest.

"Yeah," she breathed out, the easiest question she had ever had to answer. "And I also hate her. And myself. For getting us in this whole mess and for not being able to explore what we started. God, Lily, it ended so badly and I'm so... angry. And I'm heartbroken." She pressed a hand against her chest, gasping tearfully, "I'm so heartbroken I can't breathe."

"Well, then, I hate her, too," Lily concluded. "For making you feel like this."

"No." Andy shook her head morosely. "It wasn't her fault. It was mine."

On top of the table, Lily took hold of her hand, squeezing firmly. After a pause, she said, "I'll admit, I always thought you and Nate were the real deal--I mean, you were so madly in love with him. And I don't think Miranda's right for you. I know it's not what you wanna hear, but man or woman, you deserve someone much better. But... even though I don't exactly understand... you're still my best friend, Andy. I just want you to be happy."

"Thank you," Andy whispered, her tears drying, and squeezed her hand back.

"Is it over-over?" She nodded. "Okay. So we need to get you out of this mopey mood you're in and get you going again."

"I don't really think--"

"Andy," Lily persisted. "You got a new, awesome job. You're young and hot. You should be out there having the time of your life, not crying over someone who's not worth your time or tears. Okay, listen," she continued, putting her hands together. "If you're still into guys, I know someone you might really like. His name is Matthew, he's also a photographer. He's nice, single, and pretty hot."

"I don't know." Andy wrinkled her nose. "I'm really not in the mood to start dating--"

"Doesn't matter. You need to meet someone new. You know what? I'm not even asking you; I'm gonna call him and set it up." Andy opened her mouth to protest, but Lily held up a hand. "Trust me, it's good for you. We need to get this whole Miranda mess out of your head."

There didn't seem to be a way out, and maybe Lily was right: maybe meeting someone new would make her forget everything, if nothing else, help alleviate some of the pain. She wasn't thanking her for that, though, when she said, "Thanks, Lil."

"Of course. What are friends for?"

 


 

"Yeah, so my last series was actually there, shooting the village and the people, working with the kids."

"That's amazing," Andy gushed. "Lily didn't tell me you were such a humanitarian."

"Oh, I wouldn't go that far." Matthew smiled modestly. "It's the job. But it is rewarding sometimes." He really was a nice guy, as Lily had praised, and good-looking, and conversation with him was flowing and interesting. And he was safe: safe to be seen with, safe to think about, safe for Andy's heart. She could see herself having a relationship with this person, going out to dinners and movies, telling co-workers about him, bringing him home to meet her parents. There was nothing about him that indicated she shouldn't do all of that. Except that he wasn't Miranda. And Andy didn't want anybody who wasn't Miranda.

No. No. She'd promised herself she was done thinking about her, and she wouldn't ruin a perfectly good date by breaking that promise. Instead, she willed her mind to focus on Matthew and the indelicate way in which he was slicing through his steak, fingers clamped around the utensils. His hands were big, dry and coarse from a day-to-day use. "Well, enough about me," he said around a mouthful and swallowed, reaching for his water. "Tell me more about you. Where are you from?"

"Oh, well, I'm from Ohio," Andy began.

"You don't say. We're neighbors, then--I'm originally from Indiana."

"No way," she exclaimed.

"I knew you looked too nice to be a native New Yorker." Matthew pointed at her with his fork and a toothful grin. He also had good teeth.

"Who says I'm nice?" She flashed him back a sly, flirtatious smile, going as far as batting her eyelashes.

Playing right along, he said, "Oh, I hope you prove me wrong."

"Stick around and you may just find out."

"I just might--"

"Andrea." The soft voice was barely enough to carry over the restaurant's jazz music, but it was distinct and prominent enough to cut through the conversation, drawing Andy to it like a magnet.

And there she was. For the first time in a month, Andy was gazing upon Miranda, standing beside her table, looking like a dream. Andy felt as though she was in a dream, all right, everything around the two of them slowing down to a crawl while she took Miranda in: her hair was as coiffed as ever, a light, grey coat that matched her snug dress draped over her shoulders instead of covering her arms, her face as breathtaking as it had been the first time and the last time Andy had seen her, making her heart clench like a fist.

"Miranda," she heard herself respond through the blood roaring in her ears, feeling lightheaded all of a sudden. If Miranda said anything in return, she was too dazed to catch it because there was only the hint of a smile on her lips and that look in her eyes Andy had seen on their last night together, so warm and caring and lighting up her entire face that it made Andy want to cry until she remembered where she was.

"Uh... this is Matthew." She gestured across from her, where Matthew stared, starstruck, up at Miranda.

"Hey, and you're Miranda Priestly," he said at once, holding out a hand, which Miranda didn't shake. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Likewise," Miranda replied mildly before returning her gaze to Andy, its intensity multiplied.

"I didn't know you knew each other," Matthew continued even though he no longer had either of their attention; Andy wasn't sure she could look away from Miranda's eyes if she tried, and she really, really wanted to try. "I would have worn something more fashionable than this old jacket to this date."

"Would you," stated Miranda, keeping her penetrating, hypnotic eyes on Andy, who gulped.

That must have finally tipped him off to the fact that he was fast becoming a third wheel on his own date because, fidgeting in his seat, he said, "Well, uh, I actually need to make a quick phone call. You don't mind, do you?" he asked Andy, who was able to grant him her attention long enough to shake her head and see him get up. "I'll be right back."

The moment he was gone, Miranda filled his seat, hanging her coat on the back of the chair and boring her eyes, it felt, straight into Andy's soul. They had a certain glimmer to them, as if she was seeing something miraculous like a sparkling diamond or the rarest piece of couture, and all she did was stare at Andy with that glimmer, so Andy chose to fill in the silence. "How did you know I'd be here?" she asked, her voice suddenly heavy to get out. "Are you following me?"

"No." Miranda shook her head serenely even as her lips quirked. "I'm having dinner with my new art director." She nodded her head toward a table at the far end of the restaurant, where a dark-haired, dark-skinned woman was sitting alone with her back to them, sipping white wine. "Renée Dunne. I snatched her from Vogue."

"Oh," said Andy lamely.

"Colin, obviously, has been let go," she added unnecessarily.

"I'm glad."

"Besides, don't women do everything better?" she said, a knowing sparkle of mirth gleaming in her eyes and shooting straight at Andy's heart. Then, if possible, her tone softened. "I've been looking out for your articles. I'm very pleased that you're finally doing what you wanted."

"Yes," Andy said numbly. She would have come up with a more articulate response if she could form a coherent thought, but Miranda's eyes were still piercing her with everything that had been left unsaid between them, and between that and the rapid beating of her heart, she couldn't get oxygen into her lungs and brain fast enough.

"The divorce has been finalized," Miranda added quietly. "It's official now." The sadness and dejectedness that had accompanied the news when she first broke them to Andy in Paris, when she took off her rings in her home late at night--they weren't there now, replaced by something that looked like relief and peace. And hope.

"I've been thinking," she continued, clearing her throat, needlessly adjusting the sleeve of her dress. "The girls and I will be spending Christmas and New Year's together in the Hamptons. I thought we could use a little break from everything."

"That's good," Andy contributed almost without sound, her lips dry around the statement.

"Would you like to join us?"

If she'd thought the fog in her head was heavy before, it was downright impenetrable and all-encompassing now, burning her chest, clogging her throat, even darkening her vision for a split second like a smoke screen. Miranda's gaze was concentrated on her and only her, so open and vulnerable for the first time since Andy'd known her. She was saying yes, at long last, offering Andy everything she'd asked for on a silver platter. Laying herself bare for Andy to take what she wanted.

"I would very much like for you to come," she whispered, Andy's protracted silence an indicator of her feelings.

And from miles away, Andy dimly heard the word falling off her lips: "No."

It shook her as much as it appeared to do Miranda, but at the same time she didn't look so surprised. Still, it was enough to anchor Andy, help her regain some equilibrium in a moment that made her feel so off-kilter, remind her why everything that had happened had happened. She'd been careless and greedy, taking and taking without worrying about consequences, and it had nearly destroyed both of them. She'd never said no to Miranda, not when she wanted to please her, and not when she was powerless to let Miranda finally do the same, and that had been her downfall. Perhaps, for selfish reasons, she had to be selfless.

And she had a new life. She was slowly making a name for herself, as everyone had been urging her to do for the majority of the last year. She had a job that allowed her to do what she'd come to New York to do, she was rebuilding friendships that were now founded on loyalty and support instead of longevity. Hell, at that very moment she was in the middle of a date with a good guy who was ideally suited for her. She didn't want to think about Miranda. She didn't want to make the same mistakes again.

"I don't wanna come." She shook her head, her voice a mere murmur in the commotion of the restaurant. "You and I--" She swallowed down the lump that bore down on every word and tried once more, "It's in the past. And I'm trying to make a future for myself."

"I'm saying you could have a future with me," Miranda whispered, and the face that never let anybody see the thoughts and emotions behind it showed Andy everything. For a small eternity, they sat across from each other, silent, the gentle sound of their breathing mingling with the music and chatter and clanking dishes. Andy wanted to look away, she wanted out of that moment, wanted her life back, a time when she hadn't known of this woman's existence and hadn't been plagued by never-ending thoughts of her, but Miranda's eyes pulled her in: the regret masked by very real, very poignant acceptance, and something else, much bigger and sharper and stronger than them both. Andy was held under a spell that she couldn't escape from.

"I love you, too," Miranda murmured, the quiet words ringing deafeningly in Andy's ears, echoing long after parting with her lips. She wondered, briefly, how much oxygen a brain needed to function, because it all seemed to drain out of it, her heart working overtime to remind her body that it was still alive.

Then Miranda gave a small smile, an uncharacteristic acquiesal that said what she didn't with words: "That's that." Rising, she donned her coat the same way she had before and, while Andy looked straight ahead, chest rising and falling faster and faster, she crossed the table.

It was the same smell, the same memory of countless occasions at Runway, her nose picking up on the subtle, distinct fragrance that all but short-circuited her brain, and as Miranda leaned down, her eyes fell shut, her body motionless, the tingling sensation on her cheek tightening her stomach and showering her whole body with heat. It wasn't an air kiss like everyone else received; Miranda's lips were touching her cheek, lightly but lingeringly, as if savoring that last contact. If anyone was watching, she was outing them right then and there, but evidently, she didn't care.

A few minutes after she was gone, disappearing behind her back, Andy was still frozen in her seat when Matthew returned to the table, searching the restaurant with big eyes. "How do you know Miranda Priestly?" he questioned. "I'd love to shoot for her magazine some day."

 


 

"I thought you were going home for Christmas," Lily said.

"I was, but then Eric suggested a spontaneous ski trip." Doug smirked before lifting his beer bottle to his lips.

"You don't ski."

"He doesn't need to know that. Anyway, what are you and Tony doing?"

"Nothing big. We said no presents this year; we're just gonna hang at his place."

"Oh, boy."

"What?"

"Please tell me you got him presents."

"I just said we said no presents," Lily reiterated.

"That never means 'no presents,'" Doug argued. "It's like telling him you don't want anything for your birthday. Are you new to this? Andy, tell her. Andy?"

Lifting her eyes from the narrow hole in her own bottle, Andy blinked. "What?"

"Oh, Andy, I'm sorry." Lily frowned, contrite. "Here we are talking about our relationships while you..."

"It's fine." Andy waved her off with a mild smile and began to slither out of their booth. "I actually think I should go." Which drew simultaneous reactions of protest.

"Come on, Andy, we're sorry. We'll change the subject," said Doug.

Lily joined in with, "Sit your ass down."

"I'm not great company, I know." She pressed her lips together, but did as she was told. "I don't know why you guys insisted I come along. You have your own lives."

"She said you were depressed." Doug pointed at Lily, who not-so-subtly elbowed him. They were sitting together across from Andy, presenting a united front against her desire to flee the scene.

"What?" she forced out a chuckle. "I'm not depressed."

"Oh, yes, you are," Lily stated matter-of-factly. At her side, Doug nodded in concession. "What about Matthew? Have you talked to him?"

"No." Andy slumped back against her seat. "I decided not to see him again."

"What? Andy, come on," she implored. "He was perfect for you."

"But he wasn't Miranda," Doug muttered under his breath in a sing-song voice, loud enough for Andy to hear and for Lily to glare.

"Ignore him," she said. "Girl, you need someone new. Or, at the very least, you need to get over her."

"I am," Andy insisted. "I'm over her. I'm moving on."

"Please," she pffted while Doug rolled his eyes less than discreetly.

"No, really."

"Honey." Lily trapped her under her gaze, leaning over the table. "You've been brooding ever since the last time I saw you. Keep that frown going"--She pointed at Andy's forehead--"and you'll get wrinkles before you're thirty."

"Okay." It was Andy's turn to roll her eyes. "Can we, please, change the subject now?"

"I'm just saying." Lily shrugged and reached for her drink. Andy did the same, gulping down several bitter mouthfuls. On the other side of the table, Doug's eyes darted between the two.

"Okay, I just gotta ask one thing," he finally let out in one breath.

Instantly, Lily objected, "No, you don't."

"I have to know."

"Don't you dare."

"What's Miranda like in bed?"

 


 

"Can you explain to me again why we're Christmas shopping two days before Christmas?" Andy complained after being pushed against a bookshelf for the second time in as many minutes. The heating in the store had been welcome and preferable to the freezing temperature outside upon entrance, but with so many other people conducting last-minute shopping, it was becoming suffocating. And reeking of body odor.

"How was I supposed to know that 'Let's save money this year and not buy each other presents' translated to 'I'm gonna buy you, like, seventy presents?'" Lily ranted frustratedly. For someone whose boyfriend was showering her with so much affection, she'd been remarkably moody ever since her urgent phone call to Andy following the discovery of his hidden stash.

"Aren't girls the ones who invented that?" Andy asked while running her fingers down a row of book spines, all still impeccably intact.

"I don't know, ask Doug," she replied distractedly, scanning the shelves. "And we're only exchanging gifts on Christmas day so technically it's three days before Christmas."

"Okay," Andy sighed. "Tell me what exactly we're looking for?"

"I don't know." Lily waved her hand vaguely in the air. "He likes Stephen King."

"Got it." She nodded, wandering further into the store. Or, more accurately, pushing her way past other customers, looking for gaps bigger than a foot long and enough oxygen to sustain her more than any book.

Items were getting snatched off of shelves in a hurry, anything worth reading already gone. When she'd finally found the horror and thriller genre, the few Stephen King books left were all from the '90s, but she kept looking around nevertheless, finding comfort in the familiar smell of paper and the gloss of unused covers. Lily was nowhere to be found anymore, and she decided to take her time and walk aimlessly around, reading summaries and reviews on the backs of books and watching harried people file before the cash registers impatiently. She had nowhere she needed to be; she might as well enjoy the outing.

And then she found herself at the front of the store, not quite sure how she'd ended up there, staring at a magazine stand. And the latest issue of Runway was staring right back at her, Gwen Stefani smiling at her under a Santa hat from the front page.

She didn't know how long she'd been standing there, seized by the magazine's invisible hold, when she heard behind her, "You should go to the Hamptons."

Startled, she spun around to see Lily's calm, knowing face. "What?" she laughed nervously. "No..."

"Andy... what are you doing?" Lily came closer, bumping against a passing man in a green Christmas sweater. "The love of your life invited you to spend the holidays with her in her house in the Hamptons and you're here with me, in a bookstore two days before Christmas."

"She's not the--" Andy started to refute her when the statement fully caught up with her, making her falter.

How and when had that happened exactly? Of course she was. Of course Miranda Priestly was the love of her life. Not Nate, not Christian or Matthew, not any man or woman she'd ever met before. There was only one Miranda, and Andy had been wrapped around her little finger since day one. No one had ever touched or made her feel the way Miranda had, and no one else could bring her to such radical extremes of emotions in a matter of seconds. No one took her breath away or made her heart feel so full it might explode. It was only Miranda, and she was willing to give Andy everything--she'd practically begged, being her most exposed and vulnerable self--and Andy had said no.

"I... I can't," she argued weakly. "It's too complicated."

"It's really not," said Lily. "It's only complicated if you make it complicated." Studying Andy's perturbed face, she inquired, "What are you so afraid of?"

Shakily, Andy shrugged her shoulder. "That I'll get hurt again?"

"Of course you will," she confirmed confidently, which did the opposite of lessen Andy's worries and misgivings. But then she followed it up with, "That's how relationships work: you get hurt and you learn and you move on. And maybe she'll do something really mean and you'll never want to see her again, and maybe fifty years from now I'll be back here buying you a gift for your golden wedding. You can't know these things in advance, and that's not a good enough reason not to take a leap. If you always play it safe, you'll never be happy. And you deserve to be happy, Andy. I wish I'd seen that sooner."

In the middle of a bookstore in Downtown Manhattan, Andy was fighting back tears, looking into her friend's genuine eyes and not seeing a hint of cynicism. "Why are you doing this?" she muttered. "I thought you hated her."

"Well... a little," Lily conceded. "But you don't, despite what you might be telling yourself. This is what you've wanted for a long time, Andy; you'd be a fool not to take it. You love her and she loves you and life is too short not to go for what you want."

In the middle of a bookstore in Downtown Manhattan, Andy's brilliant smile lit up the room.

 


 

Late in the evening of Christmas Eve, when the stars had come out into the clear, dark sky and Christmas trees and twinkly lights shone through the windows of lavish houses, where families and friends had gathered to throw parties or sing carols in their holiday attires, Andy slammed the cab's door behind her, politely accepting her suitcase from the driver. She'd nearly missed the last train from Manhattan and possibly forgotten to pack half of what she'd need, but at last, she was there.

The long pathway up to the huge house was shoveled of snow and illuminated by golden lights in the currently white lawn, framing it with their glow. The wheels of Andy's suitcase rolled soundly along the bricks, her heels clacking along, her heart hammering to the rhythm. With every step, the house grew nearer and realer, flickering colors lighting up the open windows. This one wasn't as excessively decorated as the houses her cab had passed on the way, but two friendly-looking snowmen in different shapes and personalities greeted her from either side of the door, welcoming her closer.

Coming to a stop, she stood in the dark, feeling small under the enormous building, shivering with more than her body's reaction to the cruel, unforgiving wind. Raising her fist, she took one, two, three deep, calming breaths. Then she knocked: one, two, three times.

She waited close to an eternity outside the door, her teeth chattering in the chill, her breath coming out in white puffs through purpling lips. But when the door finally opened, there was not a cold bone in her body. Warmth washed over her as Miranda looked at her as if she were the most incredible, the most precious thing she'd ever laid eyes on, more cherished than any clothing garment in her closet. She, for her part, was dressed in underwhelming, wool pants and a big sweater, plain, black socks on her feet--unapologetically simple and comfortable in the privacy of her own home.

As Andy waited in anxious anticipation, her lips tugged upward almost imperceptibly, accentuating her sharp cheekbones, softening everything else in her countenance, making her look like a dream come true.

Wordlessly, she stepped aside, her smile broadening. And when Andy had crossed the threshold into the warm house, their hands brushed once, twice, before Miranda intertwined their fingers, stroking her thumb over Andy's knuckles.

"Girls, there's someone I want you to meet," she softly announced through her smile, closing the door behind them.