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Going the Distance

Chapter Text

September 2006.

Andy glanced over Irv Ravitz's shoulder, and saw Miranda glancing back over Stephen's as she led him away into the throng of guests. Suddenly, the words Their eyes met across a crowded room leapt into Andy's mind, and her cheeks went hot.

There were too many people here. It was obviously too stuffy.

Across the crowded room, Miranda mouthed the words Thank you.

Then she turned around and dragged Stephen out of sight.

Andy's heart started beating again, which was when she realized that it had stopped in the first place. She quickly turned her attention back to Irv, who was still holding forth about John Cheever and apparently hadn't noticed her moment of distraction.

He kept talking for a while, obviously pleased with his captive audience. Andy tried not to squirm with impatience. She'd been on the verge of breaking out of here when Miranda had gotten in trouble. Now she was going to be even later to Nate's party. And she doubted her friends would appreciate it if she explained why.

But finally, Irv looked away from Andy and cut himself off mid-sentence. "Ah," he said, and a little smile crossed his face. "Excuse me, Andy. I see someone I have to talk to. It was a pleasure.” He offered his hand.

Thank God. Andy took his hand and said, smiling, "The pleasure's all mine, Mr. Ravitz. Enjoy the party."

Irv walked away, and Andy turned around, exhaling heavily. Emily was staring at her, her eyes wide with awe.

"Well," she said.

"Yeah," Andy agreed.

Emily tossed her head back. "Well," she said again. "I am forced to admit…"

Andy grinned. Then Emily's eyes widened again at something over Andy's shoulder.

Andy turned around and saw that the “someone” Irv was talking to was a tall, stylish woman, a brunette with a stripe of white hair, almost like a skunk. It took a second, but Andy recognized her. "Isn't that Jacqueline Follet?" she asked Emily. "From French Runway?"

"Ugh. Yes," Emily said with a moue of disapproval. "Miranda hates her. Thank God she's already left."

"Yeah," Andy said, nodding. Thank God, indeed. After that little showdown with her husband, the last thing Miranda needed was to square off with some woman who would compete with her for the title of Biggest Bitch of the Night.

Then again…Miranda hadn't been all that bitchy tonight. Not with that “thank you.” Andy wondered if Emily had noticed that, and instantly decided not to ask.

She snapped herself out of it. No more thinking about Miranda tonight. She had a boyfriend, for God's sake, whom she'd been letting down for months, and… "Uh, Emily?"

"Go, go," Emily sighed, and gave Andy a resigned half-smile. "Maybe someday you'll learn to enjoy the finer things in life."

Apparently for Emily, the finer things involved starving herself while high-society people ignored her completely. No, thanks. Andy patted her arm, and blurted, "You know--maybe you and I should go out for a drink sometime. That'd be fun.”

As soon as she said it, she thought that she had to be crazy, but heck, maybe it would be fun. Emily had actually been pretty nice to her tonight. Grateful for her help, even, just like Miranda. Maybe they could be friends after all.

Emily looked stunned, and then gave an indifferent little shrug. "Perhaps," she said.

Andy, having no idea how to interpret that (and not caring too much right now), hurried for the door, calling Roy on the way so that he could pick her up in the Town Car.

Traffic was bad, and Andy writhed in the back seat. It was past midnight, and Nate's birthday was already over.

"Roy?" she said hesitantly. "Can you--I mean, would you mind pulling over right there? In front of that bakery?"

When she got home, the party was long over. Nate was sitting on the sofa by himself, and didn't seem to notice when she came through the door, holding a little cupcake with a candle in it. She tried to explain--explain that she was sorry, but that she'd had no choice--and he didn't even care. He just went to bed.

Blinking back tears, Andy blew out the candle and tossed the cupcake into the trash. No sense eating it. She was this close to fitting into a size four dress.

Dammit.

In spite of herself, she thought of Miranda again. Wondered what she and her husband were saying to each other tonight, or if they were saying anything at all. If they were going to sleep in cold silence, just like Andy and Nate were. At least Miranda's house had more than one bedroom where somebody could retreat and stew alone for a while.

Andy walked by the bed, where Nate was already pretending to sleep, and began to remove the dress as carefully as she could, determined not to damage a single inch of it.

Chapter Text

October 2006. Paris.

Of all the shitty things that Andy had done, seen, and heard this week, this had to be the worst.

"They're replacing Miranda?" she gasped.

"Yeah," Christian said, his eyes alight with ambition. "And Jacqueline's bringing me in to do all the editorial content."

Andy stared at him in disbelief.

"You're really surprised?" Christian said, sipping at his coffee, wearing his towel like he thought it didn't make him look like an idiot. "Jacqueline's a lot younger than Miranda."

The way he said it made Miranda sound ancient, like she had one foot in the grave.

"She has a fresher take on things. Not to mention that American Runway is one of the most expensive books in the business. Jacqueline does the same thing for a lot less money.” He glanced at Andy and shrugged. "And Irv…Irv's a businessman. You know?"

Sure. Sure, Irv was a businessman. A tiny businessman with a huge ego who'd been insulted by Miranda's husband, and yes, Runway was expensive, but it always turned a profit, and turned heads too. Like hell this wasn't personal.

"Miranda will be devastated. Her whole life is about Runway," Andy spat. "He can't do that to her!"

"It's done," Christian said dismissively. "Irv's gonna tell Miranda after the party for James.” He took another sip of coffee. Another slurp.

"And she has no idea?" Andy whispered.

"She's a big girl," Christian said. His eyes were hard and cold in a way she'd never seen before. There was no playful flirtation in them now, no seduction. "She'll be fine."

She'll be fine. Andy thought about the soft-voiced, lonely woman who'd been brooding in her bathrobe on the couch last night, before Andy had gone out on this obvious disaster of a date. The woman who'd knowingly sacrificed her marriage for the sake of the job she lived for, the job that she was about to lose. How could anybody who knew Miranda at all think she would be “fine”?

"I have to go," Andy said, picking up her bag, grabbing her jacket. Her heart was already racing, her legs already tensing in preparation for the speed she was going to need when she got out of here.

"Andy, it's done," Christian said. His eyes widened when he saw that Andy was completely serious about getting the hell out. "Baby, it's done!" he called after her.

Andy turned around to give him a lethal glare over her shoulder. "I'm not your baby," she said, and then slammed the door behind her.

Outside, she hurried down the sidewalk, dialing the number of Miranda's hotel room frantically. Nobody picked up, and Andy remembered that Miranda was at the Nicole Miller show. And that Andy was supposed to be with her. Oh, fuck. But--but this was in a good cause--surely once Miranda heard what Andy had to say…

Andy pressed the speed-dial button for Miranda's cell with a shaking finger. She got sent straight to voice mail. Miranda probably had her phone off so that nobody could disturb her while she was watching the shows, which meant texting wouldn't work either. Oh, shit.

"Miranda, this is Andy--Andrea," Andy babbled. "I'm sorry I'm not there, but I have something I have got to tell you, there is something you absolutely have to know--please call me whenever you get this? I'll see you at the luncheon.”

Andy hung up and, not sure what was motivating her to move so quickly, began to run down the sidewalk in high heels, her feet aching. After a few moments, her common sense finally kicked back into gear and she waved down a cab.

Miranda did not call her. Andy kept listening for it, feeling like she was devoting her whole brain to waiting for the phone. Like a high-school girl who was waiting on pins and needles for the star football player to call and ask her out on a date, just like he'd said he would. Not that Andy had ever been that girl, but--

She struggled into a green dress, a black jacket, and ridiculously high-heeled shoes. Then she wrestled her hair into submission with what felt like a whole gallon of product--she hadn't had time to wash it, she'd just barely had time to hop in the shower long enough to scrub off the smell of sweat and sex. Fuck. Sex with Christian--she couldn't believe she'd been that drunk, had been so irresponsible--at least he'd used a condom, at least she was still on the Pill. It could have been a lot worse.

She put on makeup and painted her lips a bright red. Maybe that would distract people from looking at the bags under her eyes. Then she ran again, to the luncheon room this time, messing up everything she'd just styled so carefully.

A quick hair-pat in the bathroom, and she was pacing the hallway, so nervous that she wondered if she was going to be sick. Miranda wasn't here yet. Where the hell was she? She was always fifteen minutes early to everything. Well, everything work-related, anyway. When it came to her personal life, apparently she was fine with standing people up for hours.

Except her personal life was going down the crapper, which meant that Miranda had better get here right the fuck now so Andy could warn her that--

Miranda suddenly rounded the corner, elegantly dressed in black and wearing a silver fur stole around her shoulders. Her expression was one of bored disinterest. Like always.

"Miranda!" Andy gasped. At the sound of her name, Miranda looked up, and narrowed her eyes. She was probably about to fire Andy for missing the show that morning. Well, she could knock herself out with that in a second, but first she had to know--

"Where were you?" Miranda said, and looked Andy up and down. In spite of her urgency, Andy froze, waiting for the verdict.

Then Miranda nodded, and Andy went weak with relief. Maybe someday she'd actually get two nods, though she'd never hold out hope for a smile. That was, if “someday” came. If…

"I was with--I mean, I was t-talking to Christian Thompson," Andy stammered, realizing even as she spoke that she had no idea how to approach this subject, just that she had to do it fast. "Miranda--"

"I certainly hope you can explain that ridiculous message," Miranda said, and walked past Andy towards the luncheon room.

"I-I-I can," Andy said, reached out, and seized Miranda's elbow, stopping her in her tracks. Miranda turned to scowl at her, and Andy let her go at once. "Miranda, they're--I mean, Irv is--"  She swallowed hard and hoped she wouldn't pass out. "Christian told me--"

"You have five seconds," Miranda said flatly, though she didn't say five seconds before what.

"Irv is making Jacqueline Follet editor-in-chief of Runway," Andy blurted, and then gasped, unable to believe that she'd said it just like that. "He--I mean, Christian told me. He's going to work for her. Irv was going to tell you today, so I thought maybe if I told you, then you could fix it--"

She stopped talking when she realized that Miranda was staring at her as if she had just arrived from outer space.

"What?" Miranda said.

 


 

Andy barely heard any of Nigel's speech, and she was barely able to return his excited little smile when he sat back down. He waved at James Holt; James grinned right back.

And good for Nigel, having a new job. God knew it was probably the best time to get out of Runway. Andy wondered if Jacqueline would keep any of the old guard around or if she'd want to start fresh.

Andy realized she would probably have a place in the new regime. Well, she would have had one. She'd undoubtedly blown it by running out on Christian this morning. But that was okay. She didn't want a place like that. She didn't want to be part of that bullshit, didn't want to be caught up in something so dirty and hurtful. Something that would hurt Miranda.

She'd told Miranda everything, told her as much as she knew, which wasn't much. Miranda had just stared at her the whole time, like Andy was speaking a foreign language and she was trying to decipher it without understanding a single word. Beyond that, she hadn't reacted--hadn't gone pale or red, hadn't cried or gotten angry, hadn't even asked any questions. She'd just listened to Andy babble, until her eyes had finally narrowed; then she'd saddled Andy with her wrap and gloves and stalked into the luncheon room without a single word. She'd sat down at her table with her head held high.

At Irv's table. With Irv sitting directly on her left.

Had he said anything? Christian had said Irv was going to tell Miranda after the luncheon. But had he already gotten a head start? Was he going to try to rattle Miranda as much as possible before landing the final blow?

Then Andy forgot about everything else as Miranda ascended the podium amid general applause--Andy clapped as hard as she could--and cleared her throat. She didn't look rattled at all. But then, she never did. Her voice was perfectly steady and composed as she began her speech, which she began by making an announcement about the management of James Holt International, the hot new global brand, the latest commodity that would have been--would still be?--the latest tributary to her empire.

If Miranda's smile was a little tight, probably only Andy would have noticed, as Miranda said, "It's my great happiness today to announce to you all that the new president of James Holt International is my friend and long-time esteemed colleague: Nigel Kipling."

Nigel, beaming, stood up and took a bow. Andy glanced over at James, who was grinning again, and applauding along with everyone else.

Then she dared to look over her shoulder, back at Irv's table. Irv wasn't looking at Nigel or James, but was instead regarding Miranda with a placid smile and hooded eyes. Andy was reminded of nothing so much as a snake about to strike. Or maybe a hippo about to overturn somebody's raft. Hippos had sharper teeth than most people knew. In fact, Andy had read somewhere that hippos caused more deaths than any other African animal. People tended to underestimate them because they looked so harmless.

A couple of tables over, Jacqueline was sitting with Christian. She had the exact same look on her face. So did he. A whole goddamned herd of hippos.

Christian caught her looking, and gave her a meaningful glance. She turned away quickly, closing her eyes in denial, and tried to listen to Miranda's speech.

It was pretty standard stuff. Miranda was brilliant, but she was no speechwriter. Still, it did the job: praised James's talents, ran through the laundry list of all the stuff he'd done to get to the top (well, the stuff you could mention in public, anyway), talked up his perseverance and reliability and cheerful disposition, whattaguy that James Holt was.

It did what speeches were supposed to do, and under any other circumstances, Andy would have been able to tune out halfway through and know she hadn't missed a thing. But today she hung on Miranda's every word, every syllable and inflection, trying to find any hint of distress or concern or--or *anything* other than bland pleasure in a pet designer's success.

But she didn't get any of that until the very end. Not until Miranda wrapped up by saying, "--and I am certain, as I hope all of you are as well, that the vision James brings to our particular art will have the worldwide influence that it surely deserves.” She smiled, and the audience took its cue to applaud enthusiastically once more, although Andy felt too frozen to move.

But then Miranda didn't follow the script: she remained up at the podium, smiling politely at everybody, when it was obvious that it was time for her to return to her seat. Nigel glanced over at Andy, frowning a little, but Andy just bit her lip and kept looking at Miranda.

Then, for a second only, Miranda glanced back down at Andy. Their eyes met, and Andy couldn't read anything particular in Miranda's.

Miranda cleared her throat and looked across the room again.

"If you will bear with me, my friends," she said calmly, "I have one more announcement to make."

Nigel made a faint noise of surprise, and whispered, "What's she doing?”

Andy couldn't answer, because her stomach had just cramped up so hard it hurt. She had no idea what was happening--but maybe it didn't have to be awful. Maybe Miranda was going to pull a rabbit out of her hat.

Miranda folded her hands serenely on the podium, and smiled at everybody in the room, showing her teeth, before returning her gaze to the center table. Her eyes gleamed, she raised her eyebrows, and for a second she looked positively chipper. Then, still smiling, she tilted her head to the side.

"Irv?" she said. "I quit."

Next to Andy, Nigel sat straight up in his chair. From her peripheral vision, Andy saw his mouth fall open. But she couldn't take her eyes off Miranda, so poised and calm, so, so triumphant in the face of what had to be the worst defeat of her life while the room came alive with confused, alarmed murmurs. Everybody was looking around at each other, and at Miranda, in complete bewilderment.

Then it occurred to Andy to look at Irv, and she whipped around in her seat so fast she just about broke her neck. Like everybody else, he'd obviously been taken completely by surprise; his jaw had dropped, his brow had knitted, and he was leaning forward in his seat as if he couldn't believe, couldn't even conceive that Miranda had just stolen his thunder in front of everybody.

Which was precisely, of course, what Miranda had intended. Andy looked back and saw that Miranda was leaving the stage, posture picture-perfect, not even deigning to look at anybody else, her earrings catching the light.

"What the fuck?" Nigel gasped, but Andy couldn’t answer him. That didn't stop him from turning to her. "What is this? You--" He narrowed his eyes. "That look on your face. You know what's going on."

"No," Andy whispered. "Not really. I…Christian told me--"  Then she snapped out of it, snapped out of the freeze, because this was not where she needed to be right now. She was in the wrong place, and definitely with the wrong person. People.

She'd been too late. She'd learned the truth too late. She hadn't been able to protect Miranda, and Miranda had just lost everything. And now Andy was on her feet, shaking off Nigel's detaining hand on her elbow, and practically running for the side door where Miranda had just exited.

She almost slipped on the marble floor as she ran off the carpet and into the hall. But she righted herself at the last second, and looked wildly to the right, and then to the left. Nobody was in the hall except for the wait staff.

She ran up to the nearest guy she could find. "Excuse me, where--"  She stopped and shook her head. "Pardonnez-moi. Où est Miranda Priestly?”

The man shook his head.

"La femme," Andy said helplessly, trying to think in French, which was a lot harder than it usually was. "Uh, la femme avec cheveux blancs--quelle direction--"

"Ah!" the guy said, and pointed down the hallway to Andy's right. "Elle est allée--"

Andy didn't wait to hear the end of his sentence. The gist was She went thataway, and that was all Andy needed to know. She hared off down the hallway, hearing the noise swell back in the luncheon room.

"Andy!" Nigel's voice called behind her. "Andy, hold on--wait--"

But Andy couldn't hold on and wait, not even for Nigel. Her instincts--which lately had been serving her very well regarding how to handle Miranda--propelled her forward, down the hall, around a corner where she still saw no sign of her.

Andy stopped dead, looking around in confusion. Oh shit, the corridor split, and there was nobody here to ask for directions. This was where her instincts failed her, since she didn't have actual radar.

Just then, Nigel, who was wearing much more practical shoes made for the lucky sons-of-bitches who were born men, rounded the corner. "Andy," he said, only huffing a little. "What are you doi--where's, what's--"

Andy pointed down the corridor to the left. "I don't know which way she went. We have to find her.”

To his credit, Nigel didn't demur, or ask any further questions; he just nodded.

Andy continued, "You go this way, I'll go down here.”

"I want answers," Nigel warned as he headed quickly to the right.

"Yeah, me too," Andy muttered, and hurried down the corridor to the left.

But five minutes later, there was still no sign of Miranda. None. Andy reached the lobby, and more questions to the concierge revealed nothing. She looked around, trying not to panic (or pant). She just knew that any minute now, people from the luncheon were going to show up, would want to know what had happened, and…

Her phone rang. Andy jumped. But it wasn't Miranda. It was Nigel.

She answered at once. “Nigel? Did you find--"

"Some guy saw her duck out a side door," Nigel said grimly. "Said she caught a taxi. Andy, what the hell is going on?"

"She must have gone to the hotel," Andy said, barely listening to him. "We have to go…I'll meet you out front, okay? I'll be right there. Can you flag down a cab?"

"No need," he said. "Her driver's right here waiting for her. Why the hell didn't she--"

"I'll be right there," Andy repeated, and ten minutes later, she and Nigel were sitting in the plush leather back seat of Miranda's black Mercedes while the driver pulled away. Just in time, too; photographers were starting to congregate on the stairs, and they looked confused when they realized that Miranda Priestly's car was driving off without Miranda Priestly in it.

Before Nigel could bombard her with questions, Andy called Miranda's cell phone. Just like last time, she got sent straight to voice mail, and she flung herself against the back of the seat with a little huffed cry of frustration. Then she turned to Nigel, who had a relentless look on his face.

"Spill it," he said flatly.

Still shaking, Andy spilled it. And by the end, Nigel was staring at her, aghast. "You're--you're joking," he said. "Irv fired her?"

"No," Andy said, looking him dead in the eye. "No, he didn't."

His mouth opened and closed in realization. "No," he said. "She quit."

"Yeah."

"In front of everybody," Nigel said.

"Yeah."

"And then just walked out."

"Uh-huh."

"That's crazy," Nigel said. "This is crazy. The whole thing is--" He looked at Andy with wide, horrified eyes.

Andy put it into words, what they both feared. "Do you think she’s gone crazy?"

"No," Nigel said at once, shaking his head and leaning forward to look through the windshield as if he thought he might spot Miranda through it. "No. Miranda doesn't do 'crazy.'  Miranda does 'plans.'  Even if they're too difficult for mere mortals like us to comprehend.” He managed a strained laugh. "We'll just--we'll find her at the hotel and regroup."

"Right," Andy said, nodding hard. "Right."

"Jacqueline Follet," Nigel said, sounding stunned. "I never heard a word. Not one."

"Yeah," Andy said. "But I…" she swallowed. "I, uh, I saw her at the benefit. With Irv. They were talking.”

Nigel turned around to stare at her again.

"I didn't know!" Andy pleaded. "How could I possibly have--why would I have thought--"

"No," Nigel said slowly. "Now you mention it, I saw her too. I just didn't think…it didn't occur to me."

"Me either," Andy said in relief, so glad to think it hadn't been completely her fault. "I mean, just because they were talking--and--um. Miranda left before she saw her.”

"Did--" Nigel's voice trailed off. "Miranda knew she would be there, right?"

"She was on the guest list.” Along with a hundred other people whose names Miranda didn't know. Miranda hadn't even looked at the guest list. “Everybody worth knowing'” was the guest list. Of course Jacqueline would have been on it. Along with all the other Runway editors--Runway Italia, Runway UK, Runway Japan, a dozen others.

"Miranda knew she'd be there," Andy said.

"But she didn't see her with Irv," Nigel said quietly.

"No," Andy whispered.

"We did."

"Yeah."

"And we never--" He swallowed. "We never guessed.” He took a deep breath. "But she would have."

Andy stared down at her hands. " Stephen got drunk, and she had to leave early."

"I heard that," Nigel said. Then he muttered, "Asshole," under his breath. Andy had no idea if he was referring to Stephen, Christian, Irv, or Jacqueline. Probably all four.

"We'll help her," Nigel added. "We'll help her work it out. I'll talk to James. There are so many--she's done so much for so many. For all of us. We don't have to let her fall."

"Yeah," Andy said, licking her lips and tasting her long-lasting lipstick. It was stiff and powdery and gross. "We can…" 

Save her. Sure. Out of all the people in the world, Miranda Priestly would be the least grateful to be saved from anything.

"Yeah," Andy repeated weakly.

They arrived at the hotel and fled the car. But not before Nigel gave the driver a whole bunch of euros. "You didn't hear anything," he said, not even trying for French. "Right?"

"Right," the driver said promptly, and Andy and Nigel hurried up the stairs and into the lobby, going right to Miranda's room.

She wasn't there. They looked in the sitting room, the dining room, even--Andy gathered her courage--the bedroom. But there was no sign of Miranda anywhere.

"Maybe she headed straight for the bar," Nigel muttered.

"I'll try her again," Andy said, and dialed her phone. Once again, Miranda didn't answer. "Dammit! Where could--"

Just then, something caught her eye. She squinted at the wall to the side of Miranda's bed. A little door was open. The door to the wall safe.

Andy gasped and hurried forward. The safe was empty.

"Um," Nigel said. She looked back at him, and saw that his eyes were wide with the same revelation that had just occurred to her. Miranda's passport had been in the safe. Along with other things, Andy knew--a little jewelry, probably some emergency cash and credit cards--but most importantly, the passport.

She looked around the room again. All the bags, all the trinkets and tokens and gifts, were still there. All the flowers. All the luggage too, from what Andy could tell. But the passport was gone.

"Oh my fucking God," Nigel said.

"The airport," Andy whispered. "We have to get to the airport."

"Um," Nigel said again. She looked back at him and saw, to her surprise, that he looked hesitant.

"Nigel?" she said, but she already knew what he was going to say.

"Damage control," he said. "You know I have to.”

Andy drooped.

"We're going to need it,” Nigel reminded her. “Lots of it. Just go, for God's sake, and call me when you find her."

"Yes," Andy said. She hurried towards the door. "You try to call her. She might pick up if it's you.”

"Sure," Nigel said, but he didn't sound confident. "Get moving."

Andy got moving, and she called the driver again on her way to the lobby. Like all of Miranda's employees, he was trained to jump at a moment's notice. "De Gaulle," she said to him, narrowly avoiding the urge to add, And step on it!

Then a horrifying thought occurred to her. Miranda would have gone to de Gaulle, right? That's where they'd flown in. She wouldn't have gone to Orly. It was too far off. Right?

But how could you find out such a thing? Andy's job hadn't exactly prepared her to follow her runaway boss across Paris like they were in some kind of action movie, complete with car chase. Could you call airports and ask them to stop people at the gates? Probably not. Probably only if you said they were terrorists or something. And whatever else Andy knew, she knew that was the last thing she should ever do.

So, instead of doing the last thing she should do, she did the last thing she wanted to do. She dialed her phone, and waited for the person on the other end to pick up.

"Hello, Emily?" she said into the receiver.

 


 

She'd known the truth the moment she'd seen Irv's face.

Oh, he hadn't said anything, of course. He'd greeted her with perfect politeness. He'd even held out her seat for her. But his eyes had gleamed with malice, and she'd known right away that Andrea had been right.

Miranda looked out of her first-class airplane window and wondered if she might, perhaps, have been a little rash.

Then she released a deep sigh. Perhaps, yes. But the idea of remaining behind--waiting for Irv to lower the boom after lunch, for the news to spread like wildfire across Paris and then the ocean, for everyone to stare at her with either shock, or pity, or pleasure--that idea was intolerable. It did not deserve a single moment's worth of consideration.

No: rather, grab the passport, the credit cards, her favorite rings and necklaces, and get the hell out. Hit the ground running.

Wait. Not running. Miranda did not run. She did not flee. She regrouped, reconsidered, got her breath back, and planned her next move.

She pressed her fingertips to her temples and tried to do just that. It was remarkably difficult.

Well, how could she focus? How could she get past this fury, this rage that was gripping her throat and refusing to let up? Fury at Irv, at Jacqueline, at Stephen (definitely at Stephen), and, most of all, at herself.

She hadn't seen it coming. She hadn't known. She'd been cold-cocked during the most important week of the year, and if not for Andrea, she would have been humiliated in front of the entire industry.

As it was, well…she'd rather people thought she'd gone crazy than that she'd been fired. At least she'd beaten Irv to the punch. She'd gotten out on her own, just in time even though it was far too late.

Let them deal with it. Let them deal with the fall-out, the explanations, the last-minute scrambling to mitigate the chaos she'd no doubt left in her wake. Miranda smiled bitterly. That would keep them busy, at least.

It wouldn't be long before she was back in New York. She'd decided to risk the longer cab ride in order to dodge de Gaulle and had marched into Orly instead, buying a ticket for the first flight home. Her timing was good: it had left a bare hour later. She'd arrived just under the wire. Of course, she'd had no bags to check. Not even any carry-on but her clutch purse.

She caught herself thinking that she'd have to get Andrea to ship all her luggage home, and then snorted with incredulous laughter, making the next passenger over glance at her. Andrea didn't work for her now. Nobody at Runway worked for her now. Andrea was entitled to leave Miranda's luggage in the hotel room and go off to do whatever she liked. Whatever that might be. Miranda didn't particularly care what it was.

Well, when she got back on the ground, she'd just have to call the hotel herself and make arrangements. It would cost a pretty penny.

The money, at least, was not a concern. She'd certainly miss the enormous salary she'd commanded, and of course now there was no hope of the generous severance package Irv had no doubt intended to offer her, sneering the whole time. But she had saved her cash, setting aside a fairly substantial portion of her paycheck every month. Religiously. For years. More than anybody knew--more than her husbands had ever known. Raised in poverty, Miranda had always known that whatever happened next, she would not be without a nest egg, without a fall-back plan. And she'd made investments, good ones, on the advice of very reliable brokers and analysts. She owned a few valuable properties.

Not to mention the upcoming alimony, which she fully intended to squeeze from Stephen drop by agonizing drop, prenup be damned. She'd find a way.

She'd find a way to do everything.

Miranda rubbed her temples again, knowing that the headache wasn't going to go away until they'd landed in New York. She hated flying. Something about the air pressure. Given a choice, she'd have ordered a bridge to be built over the Atlantic Ocean and gone by--not plane, obviously, but train or automobile.

No, definitely automobile. There was real pleasure to be found in a car, in the immediate responsiveness of a vehicle to your own demands, in not following any laid-down tracks or flight plans somebody else had arranged for you.

She sighed again and focused on the moment. Talk about hitting the ground running: even if she hadn't had time yet to form a long-term plan, she needed an immediate one. First, the girls, of course. They were with Greg for a month that started with Fashion Week. They always were. It gave Miranda time to jump back into the fray as soon as she returned home, spending late nights with her team while they worked with all the new material and information and trends and…everything, getting everything ready for the spring issues.

The twins liked staying with Greg for that month. It was like a little vacation where they ate lots of take-out and pizza and pancakes, which meant that when they came home Miranda had a wonderful time being the killjoy mother who got them back on a healthy diet. But on that she refused to compromise.

Greg. She'd have to talk to him, tell him what had happened. The thought made her sick. She and Greg weren't enemies, not exactly, or not anymore. Time had helped to heal that wound, and they'd parted more in frustration than in anger. They could get along well enough for the sake of the girls. But he'd hated her job, just like Stephen did, and in his heart he'd be crowing with triumph, she knew it.

She clenched her hands into fists. Still--he would have to know. They'd have to work out what to tell the girls, and how much, and when.

And then there were her lawyers, and Stephen, and PR to be dealt with, and a hundred thousand other things spinning through her head. Normally her thoughts were as well-ordered as an accountant's books. But now everything was spinning around, rustling like a couple of pages had been torn out. She didn't feel quite right. She caught herself thinking that she'd feel better, would feel just fine once she got back to work, because that was what always happened.

But work was gone. It was incredible, unbelievable, unreal--she'd just lost her job.

Lost Runway. She had lost Runway. She imagined hearing the words, could very nearly say them out loud herself, but they made no sense. It was as if they were in a foreign language. It was like she was telling a lie, not admitting the truth.

Her head was nearly killing her now. Miranda waved down the nearest flight attendant and got some aspirin, and caught herself wishing for a sedative too, at least enough to help her get some sleep on the flight. She'd need it. She'd need her rest.

And then, when she got back to New York, back on her home ground, she'd know what to do. She was sure of it.

 


 

"You lost her!" Emily shrieked into the phone. "I can't bloody well believe you lost Miranda!"

Andy had been trying to explain the situation to Emily for the last half-hour, but they always kept returning to Point A. "Emily, I didn't lose her, she ran off! Can you please focus? I can't be a hundred percent sure, but I am at least ninety-five percent sure she's out of Paris by now. Probably France. She took her passport and--" Andy gulped. "She could have gone anywhere.” Who said Miranda had even gone back to New York? She had friends all over the world. "Look, just--check the flights to New York and maybe at least--"

"'Check the flights,' she says," Emily spat. "Do you know how many flights to and from Paris arrive in New York every day? At all hours? From both airports on either end? Oh, and funny thing, you might be surprised to learn this, but airport personnel sometimes aren't all that helpful, or willing to release their passenger lists to any old person who calls--"

"I've got an idea," Andy said, looking around her. She was in a gigantic lobby in the Charles de Gaulle Airport, and on top of being airport personnel, these airport personnel were Parisians. She was no closer to finding Miranda than when she'd started. "Come on, Emily--"

"She should have taken me instead," Emily said, drawing Andy up short. "I knew she should have taken me."

So much for taking Emily out for drinks. "Yeah, you'd have been a big help on crutches," Andy snapped. "Oh, and let's not forget, you wouldn't even have heard the news and been able to warn her before Irv dropped the bomb!” Unless Emily had slept with Christian instead which, now that Andy thought about it, she wouldn't have put past Christian for a minute. "For God's sake, can we at least get past this to--"  She stopped when she realized that Emily was sobbing. "Emily?"

"I can't believe this," Emily whimpered. "I can't believe--I can't believe she, and then you just said--"

"Emily, please," Andy begged. "I'm sorry, okay? I'm upset. We're both upset. Just--call Greg," she added in a moment of inspiration. "He's got the kids, she's bound to get in touch with him, wherever she goes."

"I--yeah.” Emily gulped. "Yes."

"And don't call Stephen," Andy added quickly. "Oh God, don't call Stephen.”

"What? Why--"

"Just don't!" Andy said. "She’d be…upset. There's an, uh, issue.”

She should probably just come out and tell Emily that Stephen had dumped Miranda, because that had to be one of the keys to all this, and besides, maybe he'd even be able to do something to fix this. To find her.

Fuck Stephen.

"She wouldn't want you to call him," Andy said. "Trust me."

"Trust you. There's an 'issue'," Emily said. "Fine. Bloody marvelous. We don't have enough issues?"

"I'm sorry," Andy repeated. "I'm doing my best. We'll find her, Em, I know we--"

"Don't call me 'Em,'" Emily said. "I'm not your friend.” Then she hung up.

Andy hissed and tilted her head back to look at the ceiling, kind of wanting to scream at it. Or at anything, really. Especially Miranda.

Okay. Back to business. Call Miranda one more time--no answer. Big surprise. Another call to Nigel revealed that he'd been similarly unsuccessful, but that he and James were about to sit down and talk strategy before attempting the press. He also wasn't surprised that Andy'd had no luck at the airport.

"A needle in the proverbial haystack," he said. "I should have realized--but we had to try, right?"

"Right," Andy sighed. "I'm coming back to the hotel. Emily's going to call Greg. I'll see you later--call me when you need me, I'm going to try and sort out all of Miranda's stuff. I can get her bags back to New York, at least.” Since there didn't seem to be anything else she could do for her right now.

"Good idea," Nigel said. He laughed mirthlessly. "At least Irv's still stuck with her hotel bill."

It took Andy nearly two and a half hours to pack up all Miranda's things, trying not to feel like an intruder or a snoop. It was one thing to zip Miranda's nice outfits and gowns into their garment bags or fold them into several suitcases. That was practically like bringing home the dry cleaning.

It was quite another to pack Miranda's underwear, and Andy spent the whole time wishing she had a pair of kid gloves and a blush-proof face. She felt like an archaeologist raiding a sacred temple. A very, very well-organized sacred temple that had bras and panties arranged by color, and then by cut, and then by material, and then, dear Lord, by brand, each item carefully rolled up in an individual Ziploc bag like evidence for a trial.

Nigel had more than once lectured Andy on the proper way to store garments, but in her heart of hearts, she'd never really believed anybody actually went that far. Apparently, they did.

But Miranda did have really pretty underwear. Not that Andy had ever thought about it, but if she had thought about it, she probably would have imagined lots of black. Black lace, or maybe leather, or maybe dragon hide, or maybe steel armor complete with a chastity padlock. Not sweet, delicate little things in pastel silks and satins.

Andy tried to avert her eyes as she packed it all up, but it was kind of impossible. She would have loved just to grab all the Ziploc bags in great big disorganized handfuls and stuff them into the nearest available suitcase, but Miranda would kill her for treating such valuable garments with irrev--

Except Miranda wouldn't kill her. Miranda couldn't kill her. Miranda had just quit her job in advance of being fired.

Miranda Priestly wasn't her boss anymore.

It wasn't until the bedside clock chimed the half-hour that Andy realized she'd been standing motionless for nearly ten minutes.

She shook her head, got moving, and, to her surprise, found herself handling Miranda's things more carefully than ever. Because she didn't have to now. Because she wanted to. She wanted to help Miranda, wanted it so much, and this was the only thing she could do, goddamn it.

She couldn't save Miranda's job, couldn't save Miranda's marriage, but at least she could do a halfway-decent job of packing up her belongings. It distracted her from thinking about the tired, sad woman sitting on the couch last night, and from the bright-eyed, indomitable lunatic who'd strolled right out of her own life without so much as a by-your-leave.

No. Not lunatic. Miranda wasn't, couldn't be crazy. Oh, Andy had often called Miranda crazy, of course, but she'd never really meant it. Miranda's demands were insane, but she wasn't. Nigel was right. She had something up her sleeve. She must.

And Andy was bound and determined to find out what it was, no matter the cost.

Except she obviously needed a better strategy. She hadn't been operating on instinct when she'd tried to find Miranda at the airport. She'd been operating on reason and logic. Logically, Miranda would have gone to de Gaulle, because it was closer and that's where they'd flown in. But nobody at the airport would admit to having seen her, and now Andy was willing to bet her bottom dollar that Miranda had gone out of Orly, precisely because people like Andy would have been operating on reason and logic.

There were a million less likely possibilities, of course: she could have boarded the Eurostar, rented a car, could be driving or riding across France anywhere, to any destination. Could be going to visit those friends of hers in Nice, or Barcelona, or Milan, or, hell, Budapest, for all Andy knew.

Except Andy also knew Miranda wouldn't do any such thing. She wouldn't go to cry on anybody's shoulder. She'd want to be entirely self-sufficient. And she'd want to tie up loose ends, whatever those might be, on her own terms.

No doubt about it, Andy realized. Miranda Priestly, however she'd done it, had gone to ground in New York City. Whatever else it was, and whatever she did next, that was her home base and her source of strength. But where in New York? Her house, of course. Because she was very private, and nobody was ever allowed in without permission, and it was her place of refuge.

Again, there were a dozen alternatives, but Andy wasn't going to think about any of them. Thinking was no good, because right now, in spite of her reassurances to herself, she wasn't entirely sure that Miranda was thinking, either. That Miranda, too, wasn't operating purely on instinct.

First things first. Andy packed up the rest of Miranda's clothes at the speed of light, and decided that the hotel staff could fucking have the gifts and goodies for all she cared. She called the concierge and told him to make arrangements to ship Madame Priestly's things back to her home in Manhattan. On the Elias-Clarke card. Irv owed Miranda that much.

Then it was back to her own room. It was just past four. Andy got on her company-owned laptop and checked flight schedules going out of de Gaulle (hell, it was closer) and to New York. She made her reservation for coach class, deciding that if Irv wanted to come after her for the cost of the ticket, she might have a prayer of being able to pay him back. Then she packed up her own clothes, as many as could fit into two bags and one carry-on, deciding that the hotel could just ship her leftovers too. And that Emily could have them.

She had to hurry. She didn't know why, and she didn't know how she knew, but Andy Sachs had the very distinct impression that time was running out.

 


 

Upon arriving in JFK, Miranda did not call for her driver. She did not call for a limo or a cab. She headed straight to the in-airport subway terminal, squinted at the maps--it had been years since she'd taken the subway, and the system was different--and bought a one-day pass. And then she rode, trying not to fidget the whole time or make eye contact with anybody else.

She'd left the luncheon at noon, and arrived at Orly at a quarter of one. She'd flown out an hour later which meant that in New York, after going through customs, it was just past four-fifteen in the afternoon. She longed to return to her home, but that would be one of the very first places they'd look for her. After Elias-Clarke. She chuckled mirthlessly.

Oh, she'd toyed with the idea of going there. Of using her pass, sweeping into the office (shocking the daylights out of everyone, because after all, shouldn't she be in Paris?), and systematically shredding or burning everything that could possibly be of use to Jacqueline Follet. Irv would sue, of course, but Irv could go to hell. She trusted that he would someday.

But she knew the plan was unworkable. By now, someone would have called ahead to New York and let everyone know what had happened. By now, the news would be all over the building that Miranda Priestly was no longer editor-in-chief, nor, for that matter, anyone else who mattered. Her security pass would almost certainly have been canceled. Irv was that petty. More than.

No. Not yet. Revenge would have to wait. It would have to be served cold, and it couldn't be anything so clumsy, so desperate, so…pathetic. If Miranda was to preserve the illusion that she'd quit on her own terms, then it wouldn't do to enact such an inelegant stratagem. She'd think of something else, something better.

For now, she needed to kill some time before returning to her townhouse--wait until nightfall when the neighbors were abed and people were less likely to notice her return. Let them wonder, let them all wonder where she'd gone, and when. And why.

For now, she needed to get some rest. That, she desperately needed. In the meantime, she had to be untraceable for just a little longer. She wanted to wait where nobody would find her, or even think to look for her.

Queens would do.

 


 

Andy's flight left de Gaulle at seven-fifteen. Nigel had tried to call her several times, and she did not pick up until she was getting ready to board.

"You're what?" Nigel roared.

"I've taken care of her things," Andy said, trying to sound level-headed and soothing. It was tough. "It's all arranged. I've done all I can do, Nigel--"

"The hell you have! Get back here--I need your help, James and I are trying to get in touch with everybody, and--"

"She needs my help more. A lot more," Andy said.

"What makes you think she wants your help?" Nigel demanded.

"I don't care if she doesn't," Andy said. She was almost enjoying her feeling of single-minded intensity, even as the rational part of her mind protested wildly. She used to feel like this when she was on the tail of a really great story--focused, hell-bent, damn the torpedoes. She hadn't had that sense of purpose in a long time. "I'm going to find her. And I'm going to help her."

"How?" Nigel said. "Assuming you do find her, what exactly is your plan? Give her a box of tissues and encourage her to let it all out?"

Andy had been trying very hard not to think about how she didn't have a plan at all. "Trust me, Nigel," she said, trying to sound confident.

"Oh, sure," Nigel said. "Emily's already over there, have you forgotten? We have somebody working in New York to find her. A lot of somebodies by now."

"Emily's not as good as I am, and you know it," Andy said.

A long silence was Nigel's only confirmation, but it was good enough.

"Listen, my flight's boarding. I gotta go. I'll call you whenever I learn anything."

"I can't believe you're bailing on me," Nigel said. "Listen, Andy, I know you mean well. I know you're worried. We all are. But you can do more good…"

"I know where I can do the most good," Andy said, hoping that was correct. "And I'm going to do it. Goodbye, Nigel.” Then she turned off her phone, hoisted her carry-on, and hurried down the gate before she missed the last call.

She had two-thirds of a novel and an unfinished crossword puzzle from the flight over. She couldn't concentrate on them, nor on the in-flight movie. But finally, at about three in the morning, she managed to doze off, and didn't wake up again until they hovering over New York.

"Please bear with us, as we are experiencing some delays," the pilot announced. "We'll have to circle for a while--" The passengers groaned, but Andy was the only one who had to stuff her flight-issue pillow in her mouth to keep from screaming.

By the time Andy's flight landed, it was almost ten-thirty local time, and her body, still on French time, was telling her it was half-past four in the morning. She didn't get through customs until eleven. The lines were unusually long, and the personnel--she was really starting to hate airport personnel--decided they wanted to search through both her bags and her carryon, and scrutinized her declaration form like it could only be translated by the Rosetta Stone. All told, by the time she'd managed to haul herself to the nearest taxi pick-up line, she felt ready to drop dead with exhaustion.

She called Emily right away. Emily, as Andy had half-expected, had nothing useful to report: she'd called Greg, but Greg hadn't heard from Miranda either. He'd been worried and angry, though, like all the rest of them. Andy hoped he could manage to do some good if Miranda did get in touch with him. Surely she'd care enough to come out of hiding for the twins' sake.

So Miranda hadn't gone to Elias-Clarke. Just for the hell of it, Andy called her cell phone again; Miranda, naturally, did not answer. Andy briefly considered calling the cops, but watching various crime shows had taught her that police waited to file missing person reports until…what, twenty-four hours? Forty-eight? She couldn't remember. Whichever it was, it wasn't nearly long enough since Miranda had vanished, and besides, the police would probably want something more substantial than "My boss got fired and is really upset about it."

There was only one place left to try. At least, only one place Andy could think of.

It seemed like sacrilege to brave Miranda's townhouse when she hadn't been invited, even if she did have a key. Especially when it was so late. If Miranda was at home, then she would be more likely to kill Andy than welcome her, after everything that had happened today.

Oh…hell, Andy thought as she crawled into a cab and told the driver to head for the Lower East Side. If Miranda had gone home, then she'd gone home, and why the hell shouldn't Andy wait until morning to find her? And if she hadn't gone home, then the whole question was moot, wasn't it? Surely Andy, and everybody else, could just leave her to lick her wounds in private for a night. Surely she could give Miranda that much of her dignity back.

She paid the driver and staggered into her apartment at a quarter before midnight. Then she undressed, really enjoyed her shower, and decided to screw unpacking. It could wait until morning.

In the meantime, she desperately tried to shake the feeling that no, she shouldn't slow down, should remember that sensation of running out of time.

It didn't make any sense. Running out of time for what? Miranda wasn't at all the sort of person to do anything drastic. Even if she had gone a little round the bend, Andy didn't believe for one second that she'd kill herself or try to blow up a shopping mall. She just wasn't picking up the phone and didn't want to talk to anybody. Which was understandable. Right?

Right. First thing in the morning, Andy would hop out of bed and go to Miranda's place and see if she was there. But there was no point in doing that now. Not right now. For crying out loud, what else might Miranda be planning to do tonight?

Where else might she go?

 


 

"Miranda, what the hell are you doing?" Greg snapped into the phone. "That assistant of yours, that British girl, called me this afternoon and told me you quit your job and ran out of Paris. What's going on? I've tried to call you twice!"

Nigel had tried to call her three times. Emily had tried four. Andrea had tried five. It figured that her ex-husband and the father of her children would have hit the lowest mark.

"That's precisely it, Greg," Miranda said. "I've left Runway and Paris, and I'm back in New York. For the time being."

"The time being? What is that supposed to mean?"

Irrelevant question. There was something else Miranda needed to ask. "Do the girls know? Have you spoken to them about any of this?"

"Of course not. As far as they know, you're still back in Paris, doing your stupid job like you've been doing your stupid job for as long as I've known you, to the exclusion of all else. You quit?"

To the exclusion of all else. Yes. The exclusion of her friends, of her husbands, of her social life, of everything except for-- "The girls don't need to know right now, Greg. I'd prefer that they didn't. I don't want to frighten them, do you understand?"

"Sure," Greg said, and now he was starting to sound worried, not angry. "Miranda…where are you right now?"

As it happened, she was still in a cheap motel room in Queens, where she'd checked in after getting off the subway, and had promptly proceeded to collapse on the bed in her clothes and sleep like the dead for seven hours straight. It was eleven-thirty now.

"New York. I told you. But not for much longer. I…"  She shook her head, trying to put her thoughts into words. "I don't want to stay here. Not now."

"What? I--okay. Miranda.” His voice actually became gentle. The nerve of him. "Listen. I think you should come to my place, okay? I swear I'll be on my best behavior, and it's late, we don't have to wake the kids. We can talk about what's happened and…"

"And you can commit me involuntarily?" Miranda asked dryly. "No thank you, Greg. I've hardly gone over the edge.” Her stomach grumbled, and she winced as she looked around at the peeling paint on the walls.

"Are you at your place?" Greg asked.

"No," Miranda said, which was true, although she was planning to return there at once. "I'm at a hotel. I wanted somewhere to be by myself and think."

"Which hotel?"

"Don't worry about it, Greg," Miranda said, knowing that Greg's mind was already running to the Waldorf, the Ritz-Carlton, the Mandarin Oriental. She wasn't even sure what this place was called. She had no intention of remembering it, either. "I'm all right. I just wanted to let you know what happened."

"Miranda, wait--"

She hung up,and wandered into the bathroom. It took precisely one second for her to realize that she wouldn't use it at gunpoint, and so she contented herself with glaring at her reflection in the mirror. Her makeup had slid and smudged, where it hadn't disappeared completely. Her eyes looked baggy and tired, and sleep had made the lines on her face more pronounced. Her Bill Blass dress, timeless and priceless, was a mess of creases, and it smelled from her travels. So did she.

Old. She looked old. Fifty years, in the prime of her life, at the peak of her power (this time yesterday), and she looked like this in the bathroom mirror. Miranda closed her eyes to shut it out, covered her face with her hands, and took a deep breath.

Then she lowered her hands and faced herself squarely. You, she told herself. This is you, right at this moment. March yourself home and turn into somebody better. Now.

She went downstairs, paid her bill to a bemused-looking woman at the front desk, and called a cab; she did not particularly care to get on the subway in Queens this late at night while wearing designer clothes. It was a fairly long trip back to the Upper East Side, and when she arrived at 73rd Street, she owed the cab driver a substantial sum of money.

The delay proved to be worth it, though. Nobody appeared to notice her arrival. Most of her neighbors' windows were dark, and she ascended the steps quickly.

Then she locked the front door behind her and stood in her darkened foyer, feeling completely disoriented for the first time in thirty years, ill-at-ease in her own house. In her own house, in her own city. The city she had worked to make her own; the city that had bowed and scraped before her, when she wished.

It could do so again, she knew. Her influence over fashion was hardly limited to her role as editor-in-chief of a magazine. She'd found and nurtured countless designers, writers, photographers, editors, and models. She'd decided who would rise and who would fall, which designing houses would clear out the old and make way for new talent. She was on the Met Board of Trustees, she gave to countless charities, she threw the right balls and parties unrelated to Runway. She was, she knew, a public icon; but she really excelled at working behind the scenes. La éminence grise, par excellence.

None of those things were over because she was out of a job. Irv would pay for what he'd done. So would Jacqueline. People would be angry. Miranda had carefully built a reputation on being a…difficult person (it had come easily to her), but nobody could deny that she'd made herself indispensable. The magazine would suffer for her loss. She'd make very sure of that.

She just didn't know exactly where to begin. Not right now, not here, after behaving so suddenly, so rashly, so beyond her own conception of herself.

Miranda had said to Greg that she didn't want to stay in New York. She hadn't realized it until she'd spoken it aloud, but that didn't make it less true. She wanted to get away. She'd had to leave Paris, and now she had to leave here, too.

Just for a little while. A few days, a week. That was all. Just go somewhere, away from everybody, go someplace where the peanut gallery wouldn't stare or gossip or…someplace where people wouldn't even know her, any more than she knew herself right now.

Yes. She wasn't a big-time actor or musician. Her face wasn't instantly recognizable. She wasn't even particularly well-known outside of New York City, except maybe in L.A. Outside of the city, she could be relatively, even safely anonymous, if she avoided certain social circles.

She turned on the light for the stairs and ascended quickly, deciding to get a shower before anything else, and change. But not for bed. No, she'd had her rest, and she had a lot to do tonight.

Miranda showered, and then stared at her face in the bathroom mirror again: face wiped clean of all makeup, eyes small and squinty without liner and mascara, hair wet and flat. Then she looked down at her naked body. Well. That was something to be unequivocally proud of, at least. Not bad at all.

She looked back into her own eyes. "All right," she said softly to the mirror. "All right, then."

Food first. She put on a bathrobe and headed into the kitchen, using as few lights as possible so that nobody would realize she was home. The kitchen was not well-stocked. She was meant to be gone for the whole week, after all. But there was bread and cheese and a little ham, and so Miranda decided with the darkest of humor to pretend that she was back in Paris. She wolfed down the food, surprised by how good it tasted and shocked by her hunger. She couldn't remember ever feeling quite so starved before. Not even growing up.

Miranda finished the food and put her plate in the dishwasher. It was after one in the morning: time to get dressed. She carefully selected slacks, a blouse, and shoes--elegant, naturally, but comfortable. Then she whipped out a couple of empty valises from the back of her closet, missing very much the designer luggage she'd left behind in Paris, but well, you worked with what you had. These she threw open, and then faced the daunting task of sorting through her clothes to find suitable things. She had a lot of clothes.

And she had no idea where she was going, so she couldn't exactly dress for the climate.

 


 

Andy went to sleep quickly, but her dreams were restless, and she woke up more than once. And at four in the morning, after not nearly enough sleep, she woke up for good. A single thought, one that she'd carelessly dismissed a few hours ago, popped into her mind and brought her instantly awake:

Where else might Miranda go?

She'd skedaddled out of Paris with nothing more than her passport and the clothes on her back. She'd wanted up and out, right away. And in spite of the trouble and the drama it had caused--because really, when did Miranda ever cause anything else?--Andy couldn't blame her. If Andy had been in her shoes, she would never have stuck around to give Irv or anybody else the satisfaction of knowing what had happened to her, to look upon her face and sneer. Better, far better, to give them all the metaphorical finger and get on with your life.

Why waste another second of your time wrapping up the work of Fashion Week, making things easier for everybody who'd pissed on you? Why not cause as much trouble and drama as possible?

If Andy had been in her shoes, in fact--not that Andy was, because she wasn't like Miranda in any way--but, but…but if Andy had been cornered and duped like that, betrayed like that, had her life ripped right out from beneath her like that, what would she want to do? Besides murder Irv Ravitz? Leave everything in chaos, obviously: that was Step One, and Miranda had accomplished it nicely. But then Andy sure as hell wouldn't just sit and wait for the world to figure out what had happened, for the press to come camp on her doorstep.

Miranda never did what the world wanted her to do, if it didn't suit her.

Still half-asleep, Andy found herself rolling out of bed and lumbering to her feet, squinting in the low light as she fumbled her way towards her chest of drawers. She had a place to go and a person to see.

Fast.

 


 

It took hours to pack, and when she had everything arranged to her satisfaction--it was amazing how long it took you to maximize your space when you were trying to cram clothes, shoes, accessories, toiletries, and emergency supplies into one suitcase--Miranda sat down heavily on the edge of her king-size mattress and sighed.

A week ago, she'd shared this bed with Stephen. Stephen, who'd said nothing about his intentions, though surely he'd known, he must have known that he'd be serving her divorce papers in a few days. But he'd kept quiet. He'd waited until she was all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.

The coward. The utter, cowardly bastard. She'd known he wouldn't be here when she got back. There had been no doubt in her mind at all. And she'd been right. Her instincts were always good. Always. Yes.

Miranda started to rub her hands over her face again, and then stopped, since she'd just reapplied her makeup and it looked perfect.

Well. No sense delaying departure any more. She was starting to get antsy, jumpy; starting to feel even more hemmed in by her home than when she'd first arrived. She needed to breathe. It was time to call the valet service at her parking garage.

Even as she dialed the number, she thought about which car she was going to request. The Mercedes, of course, was the logical choice. It ran like a dream, was comfortable and quiet, classic and reliable.

"The Boxster," she said into the phone.

"Yes, Ms. Priestly," the attendant replied.

It wouldn't take long for the Porsche to get here. The parking service was decently efficient: a rarity, in her experience. Miranda sighed again and hefted her bags, heading towards the staircase.

Downstairs, the front door opened and closed. She heard footsteps crossing the foyer.

Miranda froze. Stephen? Had he already heard what had happened, had he returned to--what, talk her off the ledge, lecture, gloat, what?

No. Greg. It had to be Greg: he'd have taken one of the girls' keys and let himself in, sweet as you please. Thinking he knew best, as always. As if he ever had.

Miranda dropped her bags to the floor with a thud, stormed to the staircase, and leaned over the railing, prepared to evict her ex-husband summarily. Father of her children or not, he had no right to presume to--

Andrea Sachs peered up at Miranda from the ground floor, wringing her hands. A shabby canvas duffel bag lay at her feet, along with a purse.

"So," she squeaked. "Where are we going?"

Miranda could not have spoken a word to save her life.

"I, I just figured," Andrea said, obviously trying not to fidget, "you, um, you might want to get an early start, so, uh, here I am--I'm all ready, and--" She pointed at her duffel bag. "I didn't know which car you'd be taking, so I packed light--"

"What," Miranda whispered, "are you doing here?"

"I--well, see, I--"

The last time Miranda had seen this girl, she'd been made-up, covered head-to-toe in designer finery, and watching Miranda anxiously from across the banquet room at the moment Miranda had decided to self-destruct rather than be defeated. And just before that, Andrea had been gabbling at her in the polished hallway, spilling all the details about how Miranda had already been defeated, whether she wanted to admit it or not. Those were the two memories Miranda currently had of Andrea Sachs's face.

"Get out of this house," Miranda said.

"Um," Andrea said. Then she added, "No."

"How dare y--what are you even doing here?" Miranda repeated incredulously. "Why are you not in Paris? How did you get here so--when--" She shook her head and repeated, "Get out."

"I saw your passport was gone from the safe, and I knew you'd left," Andrea said, her voice shaking. "I packed up all your stuff and told the hotel to ship it here, to your house, so all that's taken care of.”

Miranda inhaled sharply.

"And then I got a plane ticket and flew home. Nigel's really mad at me for leaving."

"I dare say," Miranda said, trying not to let her voice shake as well. "I would be too. Get out."

Andrea drew her shoulders up very straight. "No," she repeated. She swallowed hard. "You need someone to--someone, and--"

"No," Miranda said, and realized that she was gripping the banister so hard her hands hurt. "I don't, actually. I don't need anyone to do anything, and I certainly don't need you--"

"Yes, you do!" Andrea said, shocking Miranda with the forcefulness of her voice. "I mean--I can do things, I'm totally useful--"

"You're--?"

"You are driving, right? I bet you're driving, I bet you don't want to fly," Andrea said, as if it was the most logical conclusion in the world. "It'd be easier for people to find you if you flew. Anyway, I can drive stick. And I can change a tire. Can you change a tire?"

"Of course I can change a tire!" Miranda shouted, making Andrea jump. She rarely shouted, which meant it always produced satisfying results when she did. She lowered her voice and continued, "And I can drive stick. And parallel park. And operate the radio by myself. I can do all kinds of things, including calling the police."

"I'm coming with you," Andrea said, looking about as crazed as Miranda currently felt. "Nobody knows I'm here, nobody knows you're here--or I mean, if they do, I haven't told them. I swear, Miranda. But I, I can't let you do this by yourself.” She bit her lip. "Do you…you probably don't understand. But I'm coming. I'm going. I'm going wherever you're going.” She took in a deep breath, and exhaled. "So, yeah."

The girl was looking up at her pleadingly--wiped clean of all makeup, wearing a sweater and jeans and loafers, hair rumpled as if she'd run right off a plane, packed a bag, and come straight to Miranda's home without pausing for breath.

A horn honked outside. They both jumped, and before Miranda could say anything, Andrea ran out of view to the front door.

"Oh, wow, the Porsche," she called. "I'm glad I just brought my duffel. I can put it under my feet if there's no room in the trunk.” She hurried back and looked up at Miranda. "Where's your stuff?"

Miranda felt dizzy and she couldn't see anything in the world except Andrea's brown eyes, Andrea's clasped hands, Andrea's pale face. Andrea, who had warned her in Paris, when she would have gained more by staying silent; Andrea, who was enough of an idiot to leave it all behind and return for Miranda, who wouldn't have done such a thing for her, or anyone, in a thousand years.

Andrea bit her bottom lip again. Then she said, "I'm a really good driver."

 


 

Truthfully, Andy wasn't a really good driver. Under some circumstances, she was a terrible driver. In fact, the one time she'd actually driven the Porsche, under orders to get the brakes checked, she'd nearly been run over by a truck at a Manhattan intersection. (Luckily the brakes had, in fact, worked perfectly.)  She did much better on large, open roads like interstates, where there were no traffic lights, intersections, pedestrian crossings, or anything but highway.

So she was glad Miranda had insisted on driving out of the city herself. Although Andy probably could have managed it okay right at the moment, when the moment was five in the morning and even Manhattan's streets were relatively quiet. Sunrise wasn't for another couple of hours. It was strange, almost eerie, to play co-pilot beneath the skyscrapers while the sky was barely starting to lighten towards the east.

Not that Andy was actually playing co-pilot. Andy's role was much more "silent passenger," with emphasis on "silent.” They hadn't spoken a word since leaving Miranda's house, where Miranda had swallowed, gritted her teeth, and said hoarsely, "Get in the car. The passenger seat.” And now the Boxster was gliding down the streets like a silver specter, top pulled down and Miranda at the wheel, her head swathed in a white Hermès scarf held in place by a Kelly knot. She was wearing driving gloves. She looked like she'd stepped--driven--right out of the coolest moment of the 1950s.

Or the worst moment of Thelma and Louise. Andy vowed then and there that, former boss or not, she'd crack Miranda over the head before she allowed her to drive them both off a cliff.

Miranda had never answered Andy's question about where they were going, and Andy didn't dare pose it again, for fear that the answer would be "To the aptly-named Bronx Kill, where I will dump your body.” Or something like that. Right now, they were heading south on Park Avenue.

Then Miranda turned right onto 53rd, which meant Bronx Kill was out. It also meant they were headed west, and--Andy tried not to squirm--no doubt towards the Lincoln Tunnel. So Miranda really was intent on getting out of the city. Not that Andy had expected anything else, but…it all seemed pretty real now. Real in a totally-unreal sort of way.

Also, the adrenaline was starting to wear off. Andy hadn't exactly gotten a good night's sleep at her apartment or on the plane. Now, in spite of her apprehension, she almost felt like nodding off. But she also felt that she shouldn't do that, in spite of Miranda's obvious desire for silence. She wished she'd had time to grab a cup of coffee on the way over--in fact, getting Miranda her usual Starbucks would probably have been a nice gesture--but given that she'd arrived just in time for Miranda's car to pull up to the doorstep, Andy was glad she hadn't stopped.

The Boxster had this cool feature, Andy forgot what it was called, where you could drive it either in manual or automatic transmission. Miranda had chosen stick, which was always a pain in the ass in a city, but she was handling it with no trouble at all. It was probably a personal style thing. So was leaving the top down, Andy knew, but she wished Miranda hadn't, since it was a brisk October morning in New York and Andy was cold. With no idea of where Miranda planned to go, Andy had packed clothes that layered well, and sneakers and sandals, plus the loafers she was wearing. She had a coat on right now, but the wind still cut through her, and it was only going to get worse as they picked up speed.

They headed down 9th Avenue, still in complete silence. There were a few more people on the road now, and Miranda's shoulders and arms were starting to tense up. Of course, away from the Upper East Side and the Garment District, people were a lot less likely to recognize her, but you never knew.

Miranda suddenly reached out--Andy jumped--and activated the GPS on the dashboard. Then she said, "Well? Where are we going?"

"I--um--" To say What? guaranteed that Andy would be dumped at the nearest corner. "The Lincoln Tunnel?"

"Obviously," Miranda said coldly. "And after that?"

Again: what? "I, I don't know," Andy said. "Where do you want to go?” They weren't heading in the right direction to go to Miranda's house in the Hamptons. Maybe she had some other place stashed away that Andy had never heard of. "You never said."

"Because I don't know either," Miranda said.

Andy stared at her. She realized the truth, then: Miranda did not, in fact, have a plan. Probably for the first time in her life. Oh…oh, shit.

"All right," Andy said slowly, and watched Miranda's hands tighten on the wheel. "Do you have any ideas? I mean, where do you usually like to go?"

"In Jersey?" Miranda said. "In Pennsylvania? Where would I possibly 'like to go' in either of those places?"

Andy gulped. "Well--Philadelphia?”

Miranda sneered.

"Pittsburgh?”

Miranda grimaced.

"Hershey?" Andy added desperately, thinking that after a really shitty couple of days Miranda could only benefit from large doses of chocolate.

"No big cities," Miranda said flatly. "We're going to places where I don't know anybody. Do you understand?"

"S-sure," Andy said, even though there would be plenty of places in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and definitely Hershey where Miranda could hide out from people she knew. Then again, they might be places where neither of them wanted to go for other reasons. "Well, um, how far do you want to go? Where do you want to end up?"

"I don't know yet," Miranda repeated, her voice dropping into something low, even, and threatening. "California is large, Andrea."

There was another, far longer moment of complete silence.

"California," Andy said, sure that she had misheard.

Miranda didn't deign to respond. Didn't even look at her. Her cheeks were flushed, but that was probably from the cold.

"We're going to…" Andy trailed off.

"I am going to California," Miranda said. "Whether or not you are is up to you."

California? Now that she thought about it, Andy realized she'd never really considered how far Miranda would want to go, or for how long. Apparently a three-day weekend was out of the question. Apparently sticking around the fucking Northeast was out of the question.

"I should add that if you're not going, now is the time to mention it," Miranda said. "You might have a prayer of walking home from here."

"I'd take the subway," Andy mumbled, hardly aware of what she was saying, hardly aware of anything but her own buzzing thoughts.

A screeching, squealing noise brought her back to reality. Miranda had slammed on the brakes, and was jerking the Porsche to the nearest sidewalk.

Then, when the car had stopped, she threw it into park and rounded on Andy with blazing eyes. "Well, then," she said. "Here you go."

"What…no, hold on," Andy protested.

"I'm sure there's a subway terminal somewhere nearby," Miranda said.

"Wait a second, I didn't mean--"

"Don't think I didn't appreciate the speech, though," Miranda added. "'Wherever you're going.'  How long did it take you to think that one up?"

"Stop it! I'm not leaving!” Andy shouted.

Miranda's head jerked back. Her eyes stopped blazing and went wide instead. Andy snapped her mouth shut and swallowed hard.

"I mean, I'm not leaving," Andy added, in a much more even voice. "I was just surprised.” That didn't really cover it. But surely Miranda would change her mind before they actually hit the west coast. Surely Miranda would change her mind once she got a good look at the Midwest. "I didn't know you'd want to go that far."

"If you're going to do something, you do it all the way," Miranda said, after a moment.

"Yeah, okay," Andy said.

"You don't leave it half-finished."

"No. I guess not."

"You've been working for me for six months. I had hoped you would learn--"

A horn honked behind them. They both turned to see a guy in a big truck gesturing furiously, and Andy realized they were blocking access to a grocery.

"Last stop for Manhattan," Miranda said, still glaring into Andy's eyes.

"Forget it," Andy growled, and she could tell she'd surprised Miranda once again. She'd probably surprised Miranda more in the last twenty minutes than in the last six months. "Let's go."

"Very well," Miranda said, took the car out of park and nipped back out into the street, shifting into third gear as smooth as you please. Andy turned around and saw the guy in the truck giving them both the finger.

"People today are so rude," Miranda tsk'd. Andy glanced at her and saw that she was looking in the rearview mirror. "Whatever happened to manners?"

Andy was pretty sure that Miranda Priestly had flushed manners down the toilet years ago, so she wasn't sure where that was coming from. She didn't answer, but instead stared straight through the windshield.

The sign for the Lincoln Tunnel ramp came into view. Andy remembered Miranda's question, and shook her head quickly. "So, okay. Time to figure out where we're going.” She glanced around the car. "Where are your maps?"

"Maps?" Miranda said in disgust as she pulled onto the ramp. "This car has one of the most sophisticated navigational systems in the world."

"Well, sure," Andy said, "but a map can show you everything. The whole country. This is just a little screen."

"Maps are a thing of the past," Miranda said. She shifted into fourth, her foot pressed down hard on the gas, and the Porsche roared forward onto 495. "Embrace the future, Andrea. That's all you can do."

Chapter Text

The Boxster sounded satisfyingly loud as it rumbled through the tunnel, the noise echoing and booming off the walls. Miranda gunned the engine just for fun, and smirked at the roar.

It seemed to be taking Andrea far too long to figure out how the GPS worked. She kept poking at it and squinting and gnawing her bottom lip. Well, she had to learn quickly, because they were going to need it every day.

They. They were going to need it. Every day.

She'd allowed the girl to come along with hardly a token protest. Miranda inhaled sharply through her nose, and ignored the quick glance Andrea sent her way. Out of her mind. She had to be. For the first time, it occurred to Miranda to wonder if she really, legitimately might be going insane.

No. She shied away from the thought. The situation itself was insane; her response was…unorthodox; but it didn't follow that she, herself, was crazy. And she could not deny that the farther away they got from Manhattan, the more she could feel the tension lifting from her shoulders, the less her head pounded at the temples. Even in the pollution-choked air, she felt she could finally breathe. At least they'd gotten started so early that traffic wasn't yet a nightmare.

It was only sensible to have a traveling companion, she told herself. It made things much easier and safer, as long as you weren't lugging around a complete idiot. If Andrea proved herself to be reasonably tolerable company, proved to be “useful,” well, then--

"Right," Andrea yelled over the engine. "I think I'm figuring this out.”

She sounded all-business and promptly brought Miranda back into the present. She was relieved to see that she hadn't inadvertently sped up or slowed down during her moment of inattention. Setting the car on cruise control would probably be a good idea, but no. Not yet. No cruise control, no automatic transmission, nothing but her and the wheels and the steel, her car obeying her every command. She'd certainly been relieved to turn off the annoying voice function on the GPS, now that she had a navigator.

"I guess it all depends on how far you want to go today," Andrea continued. "Or how long you want to drive."

"I?" Miranda said, shouting for the second time that day, only it didn't count when you were driving a convertible underground. "What about that other part of your speech, about being such a good driver yourself?”

Andrea opened her mouth.

"This isn't a free ride, Andrea. You'll be--"

"We," Andrea said. "How long we want to drive.” She sounded as if she was straining hard for patience. Miranda had often heard that tone from various colleagues and even the odd subordinate, but never yet from somebody so low on the ladder as an assistant.

No. Not an assistant. There was no ladder anymore. They weren't boss and employee, so what were they? Some horrible joke of a tag-team? A stoic leader and a plucky sidekick?

"We'll drive until we're too tired to drive anymore," Miranda said. "Or until dinnertime, whichever comes first.”

"Dinn--" Andrea gulped. "Um, don't you usually eat at, uh, seven or eight?"

"I'm pleased you remember."

"So that's…um…roughly fourteen hours," Andrea said faintly. "On the road."

"I suppose," Miranda said. "And gas is so expensive these days."

"Yes, it, um, is," Andrea said. She shook her head rapidly and peered back down at the GPS display. They emerged from the tunnel into the slowly brightening air and New Jersey. Miranda idly wondered if Andrea had brought sunglasses.

"Okay, so, we're going west until we're too tired to go anymore," Andrea said, not shouting quite so loudly now. "And you don't want to go anywhere you know people. So Chicago's out, right?"

"Right."

"And it's kind of to the north anyway." Andrea tugged her coat closer around herself. "Maybe we could take, um, a warmer route."

Young people today were hopeless. "It's merely brisk and early, Andrea," Miranda said. "Man up."

"Man--" Now Andrea sounded indignant. "It's the middle of October, Miranda. Do you really want to go to Buffalo? Or Detroit, or Milwaukee, or--"

"I want you to shut up and find something," Miranda said, and Andrea fell silent. Out of the corner of her eye, Miranda saw her jaw tense. Would she say something? Talk back?

Miranda realized that she was almost hoping she would. Andrea Sachs was, she had come to realize, capable of coming up to the mark. Didn't her almighty gall today prove it? It would be interesting, a pleasure, even, to press and push until she actually had it out with somebody for the first time in--

"Then I'm finding something going south," Andrea said, her voice as quiet, firm, and even as if she were a mother waiting for a toddler's tantrum to pass.

Anger and disappointment suddenly vied for dominance in Miranda and wound up clogging her throat with heat. She mastered it at once and exhaled through her nose.

Andrea touched the display again. "I don't suppose you want to go see my hometown," she added with an awkward laugh that only irritated Miranda even more. "Cincinnati. My mom's a great cook."

It took Miranda a moment to realize that the offer was serious. She shuddered, and Andrea obviously took the hint. She bit her lip again. "Well," she said, "look, there's the exit for 95. Let's head for the Turnpike. I mean--why not?"

"Fine," Miranda said, and swerved right across two lanes of traffic without signaling, making a little Hyundai behind her honk indignantly.

Andrea cried out and threw her hands in front of her face. The Porsche purred in approval, and Miranda patted the steering wheel.

"And then, and then," Andrea babbled, leaning forward to look at the display again and pretending that she hadn't just screamed like a little girl, "we can make an exit on 78 West. That'll take us southwest for a while, at least, and we can figure out where to go from there."

"Fine," Miranda repeated, and for all that she was enjoying controlling her car, she found it a remarkable relief to let somebody else take over the planning for once. Then again, she supposed this was almost like the usual thing: telling Andrea the result she desired, and letting Andrea figure out the best way to make it happen, because that was--had been--Andrea's job.

The desired result was California. Which was another thing Miranda hadn't realized until she'd said it out loud. But it was true: she wanted a road trip, and she had the feeling that going coast-to-coast was the only thing that could satisfy her. Going, as she'd said, all the way.

Then Andrea's stomach gurgled loud enough to be heard over the motor and the wind. Miranda glared at her, and Andrea grabbed her own stomach, looking mortified.

"Sorry," she said. "I didn't stop for breakfast. I was in a hurry."

It was nearly six a.m. now. "I ate five hours ago," Miranda said.

"I ate--I don't even know how many hours ago," Andrea whined. "On the plane."

"We're not stopping until we hit Pennsylvania," Miranda said, choosing a destination at random. "Control yourself.”

Andrea threw her head back against the seat with an extremely childish whimper. "But don't you even want some coffee? I mean, for yourself? You haven't had your Starbucks today, have you?"

Miranda pursed her lips, but Andrea had a point. She'd been so focused on her goal she hadn't realized--but now that Andrea had pointed it out, a whole morning without coffee seemed an unendurable deprivation. The gas tank was half-empty, too. They might as well make a swift pit stop.

And if the coffee wasn't Starbucks…Miranda didn't really give a damn. Not this morning.

She took the nearest exit, and pulled into a gas station with a convenience store. She pointed at the store. "Get me coffee," she ordered. "And none for yourself."

"None--what?" Andrea gaped unattractively at her as a station attendant approached to pump the gas.

"You're going to be driving later," Miranda said. "You'll need to get some sleep before then. I don't want to crash into any concrete barriers because you're tired and wired."

"Oh," Andrea said, looking shocked, as if she thought Miranda was being considerate. "Okay. That makes sense.” She reached for the handle of her door and paused. "Um, hey," she said.

"What?" Miranda asked as she got her credit card out from her purse.

"You--you know my stuff's in the trunk, right?" Andrea asked.

Miranda frowned at her.

"And that I am seriously going with you?”

Miranda turned her frown into a scowl.

"I just want to make sure you're not going to drive off without me," Andrea said, the words falling out of her mouth all in a rush.

Miranda blinked. The idea had not, in fact, occurred to her; still, she was impressed that Andrea was thinking ahead, trying to work out all the angles. But she only said, "I'm not going to drive off without my coffee. If you come attached to the coffee, so much the better for you."

"Right, right," Andrea said, grabbed her purse, and headed quickly into the convenience store.

While the attendant filled up the tank, Miranda put up the hood, deciding that perhaps interstate speeds would be more suited to a closed environment, at least until later in the day. Andrea had a point about the chill in the air.

By the time the tank was full and the bill was paid, Andrea was rushing back outside, a Styrofoam cup in one hand and a plastic bag in the other. "Here you go," she said, sounding breathless, thrusting the cup at Miranda. "I put some nonfat creamer in there, but no sweetener.”

Miranda nodded and took a sip. It could have been worse. She got back in the driver's seat.

Apparently buoyed by Miranda's approval, Andrea hopped back into the passenger's seat and continued enthusiastically, "I got a couple of granola bars and things too. I thought--"

"You are not eating one bite of food in this car," Miranda said.

"--it would be, what?" Andrea asked.

"Let me draw your attention to the leather upholstery and the black floormats," Miranda said. "There will not be a single crumb spilled on them.”

Andrea gaped again. Then she puckered her lips and muttered, "Fine. Can I get out long enough to eat a granola bar?"

Miranda bared her teeth in her most frightening little smile. She was gratified to see Andrea flinch. "I've got my coffee now," she said. "The risk is yours to take."

"Miranda, it's, it's a road trip!" Andrea protested. "You're driving for hours, you can't take a road trip without snacks and stuff to eat in the car! That's practically against the law!”

Without a word, Miranda pulled away from the pumps and headed back towards the interstate, making sure to wear her most infuriating smirk.

 


 

Starving and exhausted, Andy decided she could at least meet one of her body's needs, and at Miranda's behest, no less. Besides, if she was asleep, she couldn't spend all her time thinking about how hungry she was. She'd gotten used to being hungry at Runway anyway. Size four, and all.

Right before she nodded off, Andy realized Miranda hadn't said anything about her sweater and jeans and loafers--all of them pre-Runway gear, since the designer stuff wasn't exactly suited for traveling and didn't belong to Andy anyway. That was weird. But Andy decided not to worry about it, and went to sleep instead. At least Miranda had put up the hood so she had something to rest her head against.

But just as soon as she'd shut her eyes, somebody shook her awake.

Andy winced and pried her eyelids open painfully, rubbing at her face and frowning. A glance at the dashboard clock told her that it was just past eleven a.m.

"You're an Olympic sleeper," Miranda said snidely. At some point she'd put on sunglasses. "How long have you been keeping that talent under lock and key?"

"Huh," Andy replied, glad that she was too out of it to snipe back. Any retort would definitely have come out sounding pretty lame. She sat up in the seat, feeling the crick in her neck, and rubbed her eyes again.

"Where're we," she mumbled.

"West Virginia," Miranda said. "Just past the Pennsylvania border."

West Virginia. Andy sat up, feeling dizzy. So it hadn't been a dream. They really were hightailing it away from home, and Andy had slept her way through an entire state.

"Some tragic place called Gilpin," Miranda continued. She removed her sunglasses, and then tugged her silk scarf from her head and looked in the rear view mirror while she fluffed her hair back into place. "Apparently we're not far from Cumberland, wherever and whatever that is. I've been seeing signs for it for miles."

Andy blinked and peered through the windows. They were sitting outside a diner, surrounded by pickups and sedans that had generally seen better days. To one side of the diner was a series of Mack trucks. Not another Porsche in sight.

The last thing Andy had seen was the New Jersey Turnpike, still surrounded by city. She felt like she'd just woken up on a different planet.

"It looks like this is the main drag," Miranda continued, "and God knows there's nowhere else worth stopping. I draw the line at McDonald's, and the only other place I saw was an Applebee's."

"No, this is," Andy mumbled, and got free of her seatbelt. "This is good."

"I doubt it," Miranda said, and got out of the car. Andy followed her, patting down her hair and squinting in the daylight, trying not to slip in the gravel and pebbles that surrounded the diner.

The interior of the diner smelled like french-fries and grease, and Andy's mouth watered instantly. She was afraid that Miranda would turn around at once and leave, but instead she seated herself in an empty booth by the door. Then she picked up one of the menus that was wedged behind the paper-napkin dispenser. It was covered in plastic.

Andy was pretty sure she was having the strangest dream of her life as she sat down in the opposite side of the booth and picked up her own plastic menu. Then her stomach rumbled again, and she forgot about everything else in favor of drooling over hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, chicken tenders, slices of pie and cake, and pretty much everything else she hadn't allowed herself to eat for months. The only question was what Miranda was going to get, since there was nothing here that would adhere to any standard of hers that Andy knew about.

A waitress arrived at their table, a fresh-faced blonde girl who looked as if she still ought to be in high school. "Hey, ladies, what can I get ya?" she asked brightly. Her accent was like something straight out of a movie. "Want to start off with some coffee or tea, and we got soda too?"

"Water," Miranda said, without looking up from her menu. Her voice was as cool as always, and the waitress's smile faltered.

Andy made sure to sound extra-polite as she said, "Coffee sounds great. Thanks."

The waitress, whose name tag read “Kimmy,” smiled again and looked relieved. "No problem," she said. "Y'all need another minute to figure out what you want to eat?"

"Hamburger," Miranda said, still without looking up. "Rare.”

Andy tried not to grimace visibly. Ick. Was Miranda incapable of eating anything that didn't bleed?

"Oh, we can't do you a rare hamburger," Kimmy said, looking apologetic. "It's against the law."

That made Miranda look up, frowning thunderously. "It's what?"

"You can't serve hamburger rare," Kimmy explained. "E. coli and stuff. Best we can do is a medium.” She gave Miranda a hopeful smile. "Nice and pink in the middle."

"Fine," Miranda said, as if Kimmy had asked her to swallow dogshit. "Lettuce and tomato, but no mayonnaise.”

"Gotcha," Kimmy said, writing industriously on her little notepad. "And for you, ma'am?"

"Chili dog with everything," Andy said, relishing the words as she said them. "And fries."

"Coming right up!" Kimmy chirped, and hurried away to the kitchen.

Miranda looked at Andy with obvious disapproval, but wonder of wonders, she didn't say anything. Maybe she'd realized the same thing Andy had: Andy didn't work for her anymore, and so could feel free to eat whatever the heck she wanted. Just so long as it wasn't in the car.

"So have you decided where you want to go?" Andy asked, and added quickly, "Just for tonight, I mean."

"We seem to be headed towards Kentucky," Miranda said, and placed a hand over her mouth to cover a yawn. "Those are words I never thought I'd say."

Andy dared to laugh a little.

"When we're back on the road, I'll see if I can find any decent hotels farther along. You're driving," she added.

"Okay," Andy said, and her palms got sweaty. She wasn't sure if it was anticipation or fear: anticipation at driving such an amazing car down the open road, or fear of getting a scratch on it.

"I'm looking forward to seeing how 'really good' you are," Miranda continued. The cruel gleam in her eyes told Andy right away that she'd already guessed the truth.

"I'm cautious," Andy said at once. "Really. I keep my eyes open. I'm a defensive driver. You don't have to worry about a thing."

Now Miranda really did look disgusted. "For you, 'cautious' means 'really good'?" she asked. "What kind of reporter do you want to be, anyway? The kind who covers county fairs?"

"Hey!" Andy said, because that was just uncalled for. "Come on, Miranda, I'm driving your car, not mine.” She didn't even have a car. "I want to be careful. I mean, what happens if I break it?"

"That car is worth roughly seventy thousand dollars, Andrea," Miranda said. "It has been customized to my exact specifications. What do you think happens if you break any part of it?"

Andy's jaw dropped. She should have expected something like that, but… "S-seventy--that's more than I make in two years!" she spluttered. "Even before taxes!"

"Is it?" Miranda said. She tilted her head to the side. "That's what you make in your current job?”

Andy started to reply, when she realized what Miranda was getting at.

"What is your current job, by the way?" Miranda added, driving it home.

"Uh," Andy said, and squirmed in her seat. "I don't know. I haven't officially quit or anything. So I guess I'm AWOL.”

Miranda nodded.

"But, uh, that reminds me," Andy added. "I should probably call Emily.”

Miranda's eyes narrowed.

"Not telling her where we are, or what we're doing," Andy said hastily. "Just that we're okay. That you're okay, I mean. She's really worried about you."

"Is she," Miranda said.

"Well, yes."

"She has no reason to be."

"But she doesn't know that," Andy said. "I'll just call and--"

"I'm not her boss anymore," Miranda said. Her face was perfectly blank, and her voice was perfectly even. It was scary. "She has no reason to worry or care about me at all."

Andy's breath caught. Miranda didn't even blink.

"Is that what you think?" Andy asked disbelievingly.

"Coffee for you," Kimmy said, carefully setting a white mug on the table and making Andy jump.

Miranda didn't move.

"And water for you," Kimmy finished, putting a frosted plastic glass full of crushed ice in front of Miranda. "Your food'll be out in just a minute."

"Thanks," Andy said absently, still looking at Miranda in astonishment. When Kimmy bustled off, Andy said, "You think Emily only cares about you because she works for you? Are you kidding? She knows you quit. She's still scared."

"'Scared' is Emily's default reaction to anything," Miranda said. "It's a reflex by now.”

"Miranda, Emily worships you," Andy said.

"Mm," Miranda said, not looking impressed. "And you, Andrea? Do you 'worship' me?"

"No," Andy said at once, hearing the incredulity in her voice far too late. She winced, but Miranda didn't look mad. "I mean--uh--no."

"I didn't think so," Miranda said. "And yet, where is Emily? Back in New York. And where are you?” She tapped her finger on the table.

"Miranda, that's not fair," Andy protested. "If Emily knew, I'm sure she'd have come with you too, if she'd figured it out instead of me."

"But she didn't figure it out," Miranda said. "Why do you think I took you to Paris instead, Andrea?” She shook her head. "Emily isn't here. And I have no more interest in talking about her at all."

"Okay," Andy mumbled. She was pretty sure she'd just been complimented, in a Miranda-ish way, but she had no idea how to feel about it. "But can I still call her? I really won't tell her what we're doing."

"Knock yourself out," Miranda said, rolling her eyes, and Andy immediately pulled her Sidekick out of her bag. She hoped she could get a signal out here.

It took a worryingly long time to connect, but after a few moments, Andy said, "Hello, Emi--"

"Where are you?" Emily screeched, so loudly that Andy had to hold the phone away from her ear.

Across the table, Miranda actually snickered before quickly turning to look out the window.

"I'm…somewhere," Andy said weakly. "Emily--"

"Somewhere? You're somewhere? You're on your way to nowhere, is where you are," Emily said. "Nigel told me you flew back to the States, and I've been trying to call you all bloody morning!"

"You have?" Andy frowned, and looked down at the display. Whoops--sure enough, there were six missed calls, and she was sure they'd all come from Emily. She remembered, with chagrin, that she'd set her ringer to vibrate, which meant she hadn't heard it while she was asleep. Miranda might have heard it, of course, and not given a damn.

"Sorry," Andy said, putting the receiver to her ear again. "I didn't know. But I'm just calling to tell you that Miranda's okay."

"Oh, that's just wonderful, you--what?" Then Emily gasped. "Miranda? You've found her? Are you with her? Where is she?"

"I found her," Andy confirmed. Had she ever, and just in the nick of time. "But that's all I can tell you right now."

"What?"

"I knew you'd be worried," Andy said, looking Miranda dead in the eye. "So I'm calling to let you know that she's okay, and now I have to go. Unless--"  She quickly covered the phone with one hand, and mouthed to Miranda, Is there anything you want me to ask her?

Miranda shook her head, pinching her lips.

"I have to go," Andy repeated into the phone.

"Andy, wait," Emily pleaded, sounding like she was on the verge of tears. "Please, just--can I speak to her for a moment? Just let me, just for a moment, please--"

"I'm sorry," Andy said, and hung up. Then she looked down at the phone, feeling inexplicably close to tears herself. Oh God, poor Emily. Who had “no reason” to care about Miranda.

"Block the number," Miranda said.

Andy looked up at her, eyes widening.

"Block it," Miranda repeated tightly. "I already have. I am not talking to a single soul from that office until I am good and ready to do so."

"Right," Andy said shakily, and began pressing buttons. Just when she'd finished, Kimmy arrived with their food.

"Hamburger for you, ma'am," she said, putting Miranda's plate down. "And your chili dog.” In front of Andy, she set down a plate with a hot dog that had been slopped over with chili, cheese, and relish. Hot, greasy-looking fries lay next to it. It was the most heavenly thing Andy had ever seen. "Anything else I can get you? You want a warm-up for your--oh.”

Andy looked up at Kimmy in confusion, and then realized that she hadn't drunk any of her coffee yet."Everything's fine, thanks," she said hastily, and Kimmy beamed and left.

As soon as she was gone, Miranda unrolled the knife and fork at her place from their paper napkin and took the hamburger out of the bun. She began cutting it up with a look of profound suffering on her face. Andy hoped her chili dog would cover her grin as she took a gigantic bite of it, trying not to spill it down her shirt.

Miranda ate her hamburger just like she ate her steak at her desk at Runway: quickly and neatly. Just watching her made Andy feel like a barbarian, and she slowed down, trying not to make any loud noises. She also stopped watching Miranda, figuring that it might piss her off, and instead took the opportunity to look around the diner for the first time. She hadn't spent a ton of time in diners, but from what she could tell, this looked like the typical greasy spoon. A few couples in the red booths, some families with small children who weren't in school yet, truckers on the counter stools.

Andy realized she and Miranda were getting their fair share of curious looks, too. So was the Porsche, parked just outside. Andy tried not to look nervous. If Miranda wanted to go around incognito, this was a pretty bad strategy.

She was about two-thirds of the way through the chili dog, and Miranda was cutting up her so-pale-it-was-pink tomato with a frown, when Andy suddenly thought of something she should mention, even if it made her stomach squirm. Which was even less fun than usual when you were eating a chili dog. But honesty was the best policy. Sometimes. Right?

"Uh, Miranda," she said. "There's, there's one more thing I forgot to mention. About Emily, sort of.”

Her tone made Miranda look up, directing her frown away from the tomato and to Andy.

Andy tried not to quail. "Um, when I was still in Paris, and we were trying to work out what to do, I told her…I told her not to call Stephen and tell him what happened.” She swallowed hard.

Miranda didn't say anything for a long moment; then she turned back to her tomato without a word.

"I can call him now, if you want," Andy said wretchedly. She’d obviously screwed up big time. What if Miranda had been waiting for Stephen to get in touch, and then, when he hadn't, she'd decided to hit the road? Then this would all be Andy's fault. "I'm sorry. I guessed wrong. I thought, I mean, I guess I guessed wrong.” She picked up her phone again with shaking hands.

"Don't call him," Miranda said, not looking up from the remains of her food.

Andy paused. Then, with a feeling of profound relief, she tucked her phone back in her bag without a word.

 


 

Kentucky appeared to be suffering a drought of luxury hotels.

Miranda scowled at the GPS. According to that, the closest thing in Lexington, Kentucky was a Hyatt. Well, there was a Hilton Suites, but Miranda drew the line at financing Paris's latest escapades; and there was some sort of extra-special Marriott "Resort," but it was out of their way and appeared horribly…hearty into the bargain. There were horses.

And at any rate, all of them were four stars, for mercy's sake. Gas station coffee was one thing, but this! Well, she should have expected no better than to live primitively on this trip. Especially when the day's destination was a place like Lexington, Kentucky. Queens had been a necessary evil, of course, and not one she was anxious to repeat.

They could stop at Louisville, the state capital. It was bigger. Surely something better could be found in a larger city, and Miranda was pretty sure she didn't know anybody there, either. And it would take them farther west.

A little too much farther. At least an hour farther, probably more. And Miranda had the feeling that Lexington, Kentucky would be about as far as either of them could stand in one day. It was just for one night. She hoped.

Besides, their current route was slowing them down a little. As they were leaving the diner, their insufferably-perky waitress had suggested that they take some kind of “historic” road instead of the interstate.

"It's so pretty," she'd gushed. "Especially this time of year, with all the leaves changing color. And it does run right next to 68."

So naturally, Andrea had declared outside the diner that she wanted to take the road. "I'm driving, right?" she'd snapped, and Miranda knew her bad temper was due to the fact that she'd had to pay for her own lunch.

But what had she expected? That Miranda would finance this little expedition all by herself? She'd said it wasn't a free ride, after all, and Andrea was the one who'd insisted on coming along. And when she had very pointedly explained this to Andrea, the girl had turned an unattractive shade of red before slamming her car door and making a great show of buckling herself into her seat.

Miranda hoped Andrea could afford to pay for her own plane ticket, too. Any more of that kind of attitude, and they'd be making a stop at the nearest city with an airport so that Andrea and her sulkiness could wing themselves right back to New York City.

"She was right," Andrea mumbled. "The leaves are really pretty."

Startled back into the present, Miranda looked up and around. Andrea was correct: all around them, the trees were showing off in bright flashes of orange, red, and yellow. Rather spectacular, really. Miranda looked around just long enough to give them their due, and returned her attention to the GPS.

"I'm sorry," Andrea said suddenly. "About the way I acted before. After lunch. I don't know what got into me, honestly.”

Miranda frowned at her.

"I think I'm just a little, you know," Andrea added, "thrown around? Maybe. Anyway, I'm sorry."

For a moment Miranda was unnerved by their little moment of connection, but then she pushed it out of her mind. "We're going to Lexington," she said. "In Kentucky."

"Oh," Andrea said, sounding surprised. "Okay. Why there?"

"Why not there?"

"Right," Andrea said. "Right."

"And then…" Miranda muttered, dragging her fingertip over the LCD to the left. "Tomorrow--"

"Aren't you even going to look at the leaves?" Andrea blurted.

Miranda looked up again in astonishment. Andrea was resolutely not looking at her. But she said, "Are we in a hurry? We don't even know where we're going. I mean, overall. We might as well…" She let go of the wheel with one hand--a first so far--and waved it around in the air. "We might as well enjoy it."

"Enjoy it," Miranda said softly.

"Well, yeah!" Andrea said, putting her hand back on the wheel in a death grip, like she'd been doing for miles, as if she was afraid the Porsche would veer out of control otherwise. She'd also been driving in the automatic transmission mode. Miranda wondered if she'd been lying about driving stick as well as about her fabulous driving talents overall. "We don't know where we're going, or how far, except for somewhere in California. Do we even have a time limit? Like, do you want to drive for a week, or less, or more?"

"I don't know," Miranda said, feeling anger building up in the back of her head. Enjoy it?

"See?" Andrea said. "So, you know, why don't we take the scenic route a couple of times? What can it hurt?"

"This trip is not for my enjoyment, Andrea," Miranda said, and was horrified to hear how rough her voice had become.

Apparently Andrea was, too. She looked over at Miranda for longer than usual, before returning her attention to the road.

"What's it for?" she asked.

"Look at the leaves, if you like them so much," Miranda bit out. "Would you like to pull over so I can drive and you can enjoy them in *peace and quiet?*"

"…no," Andrea said. She licked her lips and didn't say anything else. Good. Miranda turned her head because, fine, she'd look at the leaves, in the absence of anything else. At the next stop, she vowed, she'd find a book.

So. Andrea had told Emily not to contact Stephen, assuming, correctly, that Miranda would not want it. And she didn't. If Stephen had appeared in front of her at that very moment, Miranda would have slapped him hard enough to sprain her wrist. She wondered if he'd heard what had happened. Surely he had by now. If Emily didn't contact him, someone else would. Had he tried to call her? To get in touch?

She wouldn't know. She'd had her own phone turned off since leaving New York.

She'd have to remember to turn it on at four o'clock to call the twins, when they would have gotten out of school. That was the time she called them every day while she was in Paris. Miranda hoped that for once Greg had done the right thing and not said a word to them. They didn't need to know the truth. Not yet. It would be best, of course, if Miranda could tell them in person, which she would, when…when…

They were all right with Greg, Miranda told herself, gulping down a sudden nauseous lump in her throat. Take-out food aside, he doted on them, and they on him, and she wasn't abandoning them, of course not, the very idea was absurd. She'd gone on plenty of trips without them. And she would return in due course. Soon.

“Do we even have a time limit?” Andrea had asked. It was a reasonable question. Miranda tried to think it through. How long did it take to get to California if you drove all day? Surely not that long. She'd seen a movie, once, where a coterie of friends with souped-up sports cars had raced to see who could get from New York to Los Angeles first. They'd driven all night, of course, never stopped for food or rest, just for gas and to switch drivers every few hours. And they'd gone at insane speeds, well over one hundred miles an hour. She couldn't remember how long the race had taken them, but it hadn't been much longer than a day or so. They'd had to dodge several persistent policemen.

Miranda rather liked the idea.

But of course it was impractical. It would take her and Andrea more than a couple of days to reach California, especially since Miranda hadn't decided which part of California they were aiming for. And especially if they kept taking “historical” roads. Even if the leaves were pretty.

We might as well enjoy it. Miranda gritted her teeth.

They drove in silence for miles, and Miranda was eventually able, with some effort, to slow her racing thoughts. She'd always had excellent self-control. Excellent. And the day really was pleasant; Miranda had put the top back down after lunch, and since they weren't roaring along the interstate, her scarf wasn't about to blow off her head and she could enjoy a much milder wind in her face.

After about half an hour, Andrea asked, "Can we turn on the radio?"

 


 

All told, with lunch, another stop to fill up the tank and switch driving duties, and one bathroom break where they switched again, it took them just a little over twelve hours to go from New York to Lexington. When they arrived, Andy was terrified that Miranda would insist that they keep going until they hit Louisville.

It was Andy's second turn at the wheel, and she was totally exhausted. If Miranda wanted to add another leg to their journey today, she'd damn well be legging it all by herself. Especially since she'd vetoed the radio instantly and Andy didn't even have any peppy music to keep her going.

But fortunately, Miranda decided that five p.m. was close enough to dinnertime. She looked as tired as Andy felt. Which was lucky, because Lexington was clearly not her kind of town. She wouldn't know anybody here, that was for sure.

"The Hyatt," Miranda said. "It's the only semi-decent place in the entire city. If you can call this a city."

Andy's hands froze on the steering wheel. She should have expected as much, but… "Okay," she gulped. Miranda appeared not to notice her distress. But if Andy was going to pay her own way, she'd need a better alternative than the Hyatt.

She was going to need more alternatives, period. She was pretty close to her absurdly low credit limit already, and her checking account wasn't exactly bursting with cash. And she had probably already quit her job, or was about to get fired. How the hell was she going to pay for the rest of this trip without going into debt?

She certainly couldn't ask her parents for help. Her parents would kill her if they even knew what she was doing. Which would be pretty easy, because Lexington was reasonably close to Cincinnati, and Andy suddenly understood Miranda's urge to keep her head down.

Maybe Miranda would give her a loan with a reasonable interest rate. At least she hadn't asked Andy to split the gas. Yet.

When she pulled up to the Hyatt, Andy was relieved to see a Days Inn just one block down. "Er," she said to Miranda, and pointed at it. "I'll stay over there.”

Miranda stared at her. Andy felt her face burn with shame, which was just pathetic, because she didn't care, right? It wasn't shameful not to have a ton of money. But she was still mumbling when she said, "I can't afford the Hyatt. I'll check in there."

For a moment, she thought--hoped--that Miranda would say, “Don't be ridiculous, I'll pay for your room.” But Miranda just looked irritated when she said, "Fine. Call me when you have your room number, and we'll make a plan for tomorrow morning."

"Yeah," Andy said, trying to sound casual and not-at-all bothered. It was more difficult when a smiling doorman came forward. Andy pressed the button to open the trunk with a little more force than was strictly necessary, and the guy took Miranda's bags, polite as anything.

He reached for Andy's duffel too, and Andy said, "No, that's mine. I'm not staying here.”

He looked puzzled, but said, "Yes, ma'am," and carefully set her bag down on the sidewalk. Andy opened her mouth to ask if they offered valet parking service, and caught herself, because Miranda could damn well get her own car parked however she wanted.

"I'll call you later," Andy said roughly, grabbed her bag, and headed off down the sidewalk without waiting for Miranda's response, trying not to hurry or slouch or show in any way how humiliated she felt. It was a good thing her back was to Miranda so that Miranda couldn't see her flushed cheeks.

She gained the Days Inn and checked in without incident. The room wasn't as insanely expensive as the Hyatt would have been, but even cheap hotels were going to add up night after night. The Porsche wasn't exactly roomy enough to sleep in, either. Really, what was she going to do?

Think about it tomorrow, that's what she'd do. In the meantime, she lugged her purse and duffel bag up to the third floor, over faded, smelly carpets and past mass-produced art prints in gilt frames. Her room had one queen-sized bed, which she regarded longingly before deciding that food ought to be her top priority. Surely there had to be a McDonald's or something within walking distance. Anything with a dollar menu would do.

The room had been designated as nonsmoking, but she could already tell that at least one former occupant had thought rules were for other people. At least the sheets were clean. So was the bathroom, which Andy made use of right away. She couldn't wait to get a shower tonight. And possibly another one tomorrow morning, just for the hell of it.

Then she called Miranda. And got sent straight to her voice mail again. That was getting kind of old. But at least she didn't have to talk to Miranda live, and try to disguise her anger. It was all her own damn fault anyway for pulling this insane stunt, wasn't it? Miranda was right: Andy had invited herself along.

So, "Hi, it's Andy. I'm in Room 322 at the Days Inn," was all she said. "Call me when you want to get tomorrow straightened out.” Then she hung up and, in spite of her best intentions, flopped down on the mattress with a groan. It felt great.

But food. Yeah. Food. Something lighter than a chili dog, though, which, truth to tell, had sat uncomfortably in her stomach while she'd driven and ridden down the winding West Virginia roads. Kentucky roads were less traumatic, and it was actually kind of pretty, but it wasn't exactly dramatic.

She couldn't believe Miranda, who thrived on dramatic, had actually wanted to come here. If she was so dead-set on running away, why not run somewhere like the Appalachian Trail? Swing down to Virginia, head south and enjoy the mountains in the fall, hit Asheville, maybe?

Andy tried to imagine asking Miranda. Tried to imagine using the phrase "running away" right to Miranda's face. Tried to imagine the apoplectic fit Miranda would have as a direct result.

Miranda, Andy was sure, would never call this "running away.” Not out loud, maybe not even to herself. But what else could it be? When word got out about what had happened--and surely it would--people would see it as nothing less than the great, terrifying Miranda Priestly running off with her tail between her legs. How strange: when you got right down to it, there was only one letter's difference between Runway and runaway, wasn't there?

Andy imagined the smirks and sneers that would cover Manhattan, and actually felt sick to her stomach in a way that had nothing to do with the chili dog. Like any of them had the right to pass judgment. Like any of them could have the shadow of an idea about how Miranda had to feel right now--losing her husband, losing Runway, losing the things that made her who and what she was. Of course, Andy didn't really have an idea either, but at least she wasn't smirking.

She was kind of surprised by that, actually. She'd spent months hating Miranda, wanting to wring her neck for being such a demanding, spoiled brat. But she'd also seen Miranda commanding Runway with minute attention to detail, making sure that every issue was a work of art, keeping everybody on-task, all the time. Inspiring worship, even, with her incredible presence.

Miranda had gambled big for years, Andy knew. And this time she'd lost big. One single misstep and it was all gone. Andy didn't blame her for not wanting to talk to Stephen. Had she figured it out, too? About Irv and Jacqueline at the benefit, that moment that could maybe have changed it all, saved her?

All of a sudden, Andy wasn't mad about the room anymore, because she wasn't mad at Miranda. She was too busy remembering the sad exhaustion on Miranda's face, her red, puffy eyes on that night in the hotel room when Stephen had dumped her. That had been the problem she'd been wrestling with for weeks, the situation she'd tried unsuccessfully to save. So she'd dragged Stephen out of the benefit instead of sticking around. Backed the wrong horse, for once. No, Andy wasn't angry at Miranda now that she thought about it that way.

Not that Miranda would appreciate Andy's understanding. She wouldn't want her sympathy. She wouldn't want to know they had something in common.

Andy had lost Nate, too.

He'd dumped her because of her job. Because she was changing. Now she wondered if he was right. The old Andy would never have done something this crazy. She'd always been the reliable one, the one who was five minutes early for everything (Miranda had her beat, though--she was always fifteen). Andy was willing to do anything to get the story, to reach her goals, but she wasn't exactly throw-your-hands-in-the-air spontaneous.

Heck, now that she thought about it, Nate would probably like this. He'd like the idea of a girlfriend who was willing to drop everything and go on a road trip with him just for kicks, instead of staying at the office until two a.m. and missing his birthday party because of work.

Except she wasn't taking a road trip with her boyfriend. She was taking one with her former boss. Andy's cheeks burned as she made the connection, and she told herself to stop being so stupid. She definitely needed to get food. Something was wrong with her blood sugar and it was affecting her brain.

There was a Burger King within walking distance. Once she made it there, Andy realized that her stomach was actually protesting the idea of more fast food. Runway had obviously trained her body to reject anything deliciously fattening without her permission. She gritted her teeth, got a salad in a plastic case, and chowed down forlornly, thinking about Miranda's wilted lettuce and tomato at lunch.

It was almost seven when Andy returned to the hotel, and night was falling. So far Lexington, Kentucky didn't look that bad, actually, and she felt kind of guilty for jumping to conclusions like a snob. Like Miranda. But she was too worn out to feel overwhelming remorse. It was funny how tired and sore you could get when you sat on your butt all day in a car.

She got a state map from the front desk, returned to her room, and showered. Then she looked over the Kentucky map, and compared it to the contraband United States map she'd bought in the gas station that morning and stashed in her purse.

GPS, her ass. You couldn't go wrong with a good, old-fashioned map. Well, actually, you could, and badly…but there was still something about having a real map in your hands. As she read, she munched on one of the granola bars Miranda had forbidden earlier. She'd save the second one for breakfast.

When she looked up blearily from the maps, it was just after eight, and Miranda still hadn't called. Andy checked her phone's display just to make sure. Then she called Miranda again, and, again, got sent to her voice mail. Pissed, Andy got out her charger and plugged the phone into the wall, deciding that whenever Miranda called, it was going to be her turn to leave a message for once.

But Andy was willing to bet that, whatever else happened, Miranda would want an early start. She set her alarm for six, just in case. She'd wake up, check her messages, and if Miranda wanted to get going later, great. If Miranda wanted to leave at five again, and had already taken off without her, fine. Andy was too tired to give a shit.

She settled back into the bed, turned on the TV, found out that the hotel had lied about having HBO, and fell asleep while the television was still flickering into the growing shadows.

 


 

The room service at the Hyatt left something to be desired. The filet mignon was more mignon than filet, the salad was little better than average, and well, as for the soup, the less said the better. Still, it was what was on offer, and Miranda finished it resentfully before leaving the tray in the hallway.

It was a little after eight. Four hours past the time she usually called the girls. Miranda took a deep breath and turned on her phone.

She had eight messages. Two from Greg (again), one from Nigel, one from James Holt, one from Andrea, and…one from Stephen. He'd tried to call her just fifteen minutes ago.

Miranda felt bile in her mouth as she looked at his name on the display. She rather believed she'd worked out a few things by now. When, for example, might Irv had found an opportunity for a little unsuspicious face-to-face time with Jacqueline, above and beyond plotting on the phone?

Well, where else but the benefit, when they'd have been surrounded by other editors-in-chief, and editors-not-in-chief, and sycophants of all stripes? The benefit, where she'd had to drag Stephen away, and had spent the rest of the night in her room, fuming. Oh, a great deal would have happened behind closed doors for Irv and Jacqueline, of course. A great deal.

But if she'd known--if she'd only seen them--maybe she would have figured it out. No, probably. No--certainly. Definitely certainly.

Stephen hadn't known that, of course. The sight of his name still made Miranda nearly choke with fury.

The messages were entirely predictable. Greg's first message was concerned; the second one was angry. Miranda deleted those halfway through.

She skipped over Nigel's message, and then James's, to Andrea's. She'd left something terse about her room number and was obviously sulking again.

But still, perhaps it had been a little harsh to leave her to fend for herself. A little ungracious. Not that Miranda had trouble being harsh and ungracious when the situation called for it, but the current circumstances were exceptional--no, beyond exceptional, and Andrea was here, after all. She was obviously on a tight budget. There was no real reason not to give her a hotel room, for God's sake. Miranda could more than afford it.

And it would be far more convenient to have Andrea in the same building. She chided herself for not thinking of that before.

She took a deep breath and called the girls. It wouldn't do to listen to Stephen's message first. She was sure it would enrage her, and besides, she was late enough already.

Greg got on the phone first, however. "Okay. Where are you," he said flatly. "No bullshitting. The kids want to know why you haven't called yet."

Miranda's stomach twisted, but she kept her voice even as she said, "I hope they think I'm still in Paris."

"Yes. They do," Greg said. "When are you going to change that?"

"Not tonight," Miranda said. "Why should I?"

"All right. Fucking super. But since you're not in Paris, where are you?"

"Hell," Miranda said, looking around the hotel room. "You said I'd end up there eventually, didn't you?"

"Miranda," Greg said.

"I'm fine, Greg," Miranda said. "I've left New York, like I said I would. I'll call the twins every night. I'll even speak to you, if you insist. But I'm not giving you my itinerary.” She didn't have one, after all.

"You've gone nuts," Greg said, plainly in wonderment. "That's it, isn't it? You've finally snapped. I always knew you would."

"Greg--"

"Just tell me you've checked yourself into some cushy mental hospital," he said. "Some private place where they don't put you in a straitjacket. Rehab for workaholics or whatever. I won't make fun of you. I swear to God I won't."

"I haven't snapped," Miranda growled, because she hadn't. "I am perfectly fine. I just need a…a vacation. Time away from everything. Can you really not understand that?"

"For normal people, that would be a totally understandable reaction," he replied. "This is you, and you are not normal."

"Let me talk to the girls," Miranda said. "Now."

There was a pause. Then Greg said, "You're going to talk to me first. Every night. I need to know how you're doing. For them, not for you."

"Understood."

"Tell me you're not going to freak them out or scare them."

"Of course I won't," Miranda snapped. "Just don't tell them I'm not in Paris and everything will be fine."

"Great," Greg said. "I love lying to my kids. Especially about things that are a big deal."

"Greg--"

"I'll do it, okay? Fuck you. I'll do it. Now wait.” Seething, Miranda waited, and tried to calm herself, slow her breathing as Greg said, from a distance, "Kids? Your mom's on the line!” Then his voice said, close again, "So to speak."

To her astonishment, Miranda felt her eyes smarting with tears. She swallowed, pushed them away, and did not dignify Greg's barb with a reply.

Cassidy picked up first, and asked, "Why are you calling us so late today? Isn't it really late over there now?"

"Oh, not so late, bobbsey," Miranda said, trying to sound as sweet and breezy as always. "Mommy just had a longer day than usual. But she had to talk to her babies."

"We're not babies," Cassidy said in exasperation. Miranda smiled in spite of herself. Then Caroline picked up on the other line, and said, "Mom? Why are you so late?"

To Miranda's great relief, Cassidy said, "She had a long day."

"Oh," Caroline said. "Hey Mom, I came in first in swimming today."

"Oh my goodness," Miranda said, and carried herself reasonably well for the next fifteen minutes, which was the most the twins were ever able to stand. Children today. Miranda blamed television and computers for their short attention spans, really. She'd always done her best to limit the twins' access to both, but clearly the phenomenon was pervasive.

When she hung up, she felt two sensations, neither of them familiar to her: guilt and relief. Guilt that she wasn't telling them the truth and that she wasn't there; relief at precisely the same thing. It made her dizzy. Then she remembered she'd been awake since one o'clock in the morning, and immediately felt so tired she almost fell down on the bed. She should leave Stephen's message for the morning. It would probably just wind her up too much to sleep.

She hit the button and listened for the sound of his voice.

"Miranda," he said, sounding hesitant, lacking all the seductive confidence he'd shown during their courtship and the first year of their marriage. "Miranda, I heard what happened. Greg called me.” There was a brief pause. "I'm worried about you. And I'm sorry.” Stephen's recorded voice took a deep breath. "I'm sure you're furious. You've got every right--I didn't exactly handle everything like I should have.” Another pause. Miranda's lips were pursed so hard she was afraid she'd never be able to relax them again. "Please call me," Stephen added. "Like I said, I'm worried. I want to know you're okay, I want to talk to you.” One last pause. "Just call me, all right? Goodbye.”

"To reply to this message, press one," said the perky female voice. "To leave a call-back number, press two. To save this message in your archives--"

Miranda snapped her phone shut, and inhaled and exhaled a very deep breath. He hadn't gloated. He hadn't made excuses. He hadn't patronized her. And yet the sound of his voice had still angered her and, to her horror, done something else as well.

Miranda realized with shock that she was hornier than she could remember being in months. Here, alone in this poor excuse for a luxury hotel room, wrung out with rage and disbelief and exhaustion, she wanted somebody's hands on her, and somebody's mouth too, wanted somebody who could just press her down on the bed and make her forget about everything but her body for a little while.

Whatever his other deficiencies--and, as it had happened, there were many--Stephen was a good lover. Her body had clearly fascinated him on their first night together, and he took to their lovemaking like a much younger man, playful and astonished and just a little bit naughty, as if he couldn't believe he was getting away with it. He had delighted her; the fire had gone out with Greg long before their divorce, and to have such instant chemistry with someone was a revelation.

Of course, it was lately a thing of the past. She couldn't even remember the last time…September? No, before. August? Dear God, *July?*

She wondered if it had blinded her to a few other key points. Not just the sex itself, but Stephen's pleasure in her. Somebody, she couldn't remember who, had said once that "Love is the irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.” Maybe he was right, or she. Which was embarrassing, and didn't exactly improve the tenor of the moment.

Miranda briefly considered getting herself off, but it wasn't what she wanted. No, she didn't want that at all. And to be perfectly honest, she'd never been all that good at it.

Miranda got ready for bed, disgusted with herself. The feeling did not dissipate when she performed her toilette and realized that she had forgotten her nightly face cream. How could she have been so careless? She rubbed in her day lotion, which was better than nothing, but not a solution in the long term. And her night cream wasn't the sort of thing you could pick up at the corner drugstore or the local mall.

They were close to Nashville. Miranda realized she'd have to put a moratorium on her "no big cities" rule, at least this once. And while she knew a few people in Nashville--music executives and the country stars of the moment, mainly--they weren't so legion that she was likely to run into them on the street. If she did, she could always hide behind some yokel's enormous hat. Oh, God. Nashville, of all places.

She sat on the edge of the bed. All of a sudden, her bones turned into water, her eyelids turned into lead, and she just barely remembered to reach for the phone and call Andrea.

After three rings, Andrea picked up. She sounded as if Miranda had awakened her--obviously she, too, was worn out by the last twenty-four hours. "Hello?" she said sleepily.

"I'm in Room 214 and I want to leave by nine," Miranda said. "Meet me in the lobby."

"Fine," Andrea said. Miranda hung up, turned off the phone again, tugged the sheets over herself, and blacked out.

 


 

Nine. That was a lot better than she'd been expecting, Andy thought, as she changed her alarm. Good thing she'd wimped out and answered her phone in spite of her earlier resolve. She was still annoyed at herself, though. But not so annoyed she couldn't fall back asleep.

Her dreams were strange. When she woke up at eight, she couldn't really remember them, except that Nate had featured prominently--not such a surprise. And that he'd turned into Miranda and back once or twice. Which wasn't a complete surprise either, given Andy's reflections the night before, but it was still kind of off-putting.

She staggered into the bathroom and took a much shorter shower this time, just long enough to wake herself up. Then she got dressed and wandered downstairs to see if any food was on offer before she resorted to the second granola bar.

Hallelujah: they had a free continental breakfast set up. Andy grabbed a muffin and a cup of coffee, and settled down to stare out the window into the Lexington streets, trying not to think about anything in particular but unable to stop focusing on Nate. He was in her head now, and there was no getting rid of him.

Oh, hell. She finished her muffin and half of her coffee, and returned to her bedroom, where she dialed his number. Would he pick up? Maybe he wouldn’t pick up…

"Andy?" he said.

Andy took a deep breath. Nate sounded cautious, but not hostile. “Hey.”

"Aren't you in Paris?"

"Uh, not exactly." Andy was on the verge of telling him where she was when she checked herself. "I came back early. Everything got a little weird."

"Weird? Are you okay? What happened?"

"I'm fine," Andy said. "I mean--I think so. A, um, a lot of stuff happened."

And she told him: told him about Miranda losing her husband and her job, told him about Miranda fleeing back to the States, told him that Andy was back in America too, now. She did not, however, mention Christian.

"Holy shit," was his succinct reply.

"Yeah," she said. "Everything's completely insane."

"I'd say so, yes," Nate said, sounding awed. Andy could picture the wide-eyed look on his face and laughed before she could stop herself.

Then she said, "Nate--I'm sorry.” She bit her lip. She hadn't known she was going to apologize, but now she had, she might as well commit to it. "I know why you got fed up. I know why everybody did. I don't blame you, I don't blame any of you.”

She closed her eyes and pictured herself as she'd been two days ago: stuffed into her corset-like dress, her lips painted a ridiculous color, her body smelling of hotel soap after she'd tried to wash an ill-advised encounter off her skin. Now that she was an ocean away from all of that, she could see how ridiculous she'd been.

"I'm sorry," she said again, hoping he knew she was sincere and realizing this was why she'd wanted to call him in the first place: to apologize and be forgiven.

"So, you…Andy, have you quit your job?" he asked, sounding disbelieving. And hopeful. Just the tiniest bit hopeful.

"Yes," Andy said, making it true with one word. She couldn't go back to Runway. Not after what had happened to Miranda, and not after Andy had turned her back on all the rest of them to follow her. God, what the hell could she possibly be thinking?

"You're sure this time?" he pressed, and she cringed, remembering the last time she'd told him she was quitting her job.

"Definitely sure. Runway and I are history.” She wondered if she and Nate were still history too. Wondered if she wanted to be with him and patch things up. Lily was right--Andy had been “madly in love” with Nate since Day One.

Or…the old Andy had. Now she had no idea how she felt, about Nate or most things in general.

"Good," Nate said. "Good for you. And thank God.”

They laughed together, both of them sounding hesitant.

He said, "Well--you know what? Why don't we talk. You and me."

Andy suddenly got a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. "We're talking now," she said, already knowing what was in the cards.

"You know what I mean," Nate said. "Come on. Meet me for a drink. You can tell me all about what's going on. Maybe we can…" His voice trailed off, and he finished quietly, "Maybe we can work out some stuff."

“Stuff?” Miranda's jeering voice said in Andy's head.

Andy gulped. "I can’t. I'm not in New York."

"Huh?" Now she could picture Nate's frown. "You said you were back in the States, right?"

"Yes…"

"Then where are you? Did you fly back into another city? But you said you got in a couple of nights ago."

"Um. Yes."

"So where are you?"

"I'm…" Andy gave up. "Kind of with Miranda."

There was a long pause.

"Miranda?" Nate asked incredulously.

"Yeah," Andy said, squirming.

"But you quit. And she got canned. Right?"

"R-right," Andy said.

"So why are you with her? And what do you mean, you're not in New York?"

"She ran off," Andy blurted, putting it to Nate like she'd never put it to Miranda. "She's…she's in a weird mental place right now.” To put it mildly. "I was worried about her."

"So…" Nate trailed off, and then said, "So you did what, now?"

"I caught her right before she left town," Andy admitted. "I made her bring me along."

"You made her--wait, what? Left town what?” Now she could imagine him grabbing his dark, wavy hair. She’d loved that hair, too.

Andy took a deep breath. "Miranda has left New York and has no idea where she is going or what she is going to do. I am with her. That is the situation.”

There was a very, very, very long pause.

"You hate her," Nate said.

"No," Andy said. "No, actually, I don't."

"Yes, you do," Nate said. "I was there, remember? I heard all the stories--I saw all that shit she made you do--"

"Nate--"

"--and you are with her?"

"Um, yeah," Andy said, and flopped back down on the mattress, squeezing her eyes shut. Maybe the phone call had been a bad idea after all. How to make him understand, when even she didn't get it? "Listen--"

"Miranda Priestly, the boss you hate, has gone completely psycho after losing her job--and about damn time, I gotta say--"

"Nate!" Andy snapped.

"And she's run out of New York and you've gone with her to…where the hell are you?"

"Not in New York," Andy said weakly. "Kind of far away. Well, I mean, obviously you could drive it in a day…"  A really long day.

"Andy, for fuck's sake!" Nate yelled.

"Don't yell at me!" Andy yelled right back, sitting up again. "I just wanted to call you, and tell you what happened, and tell you I'm sorry for--"

"For getting so wrapped up in your job you forgot about everything else," he shouted, not lowering his volume one jot. "For putting Miranda Priestly above every single person in your life who actually likes you and gives a damn about you. Yeah, I can tell you've grown past that."

"Nate, please, this is different, okay? I'm not--I'm just trying to…" Andy glanced over at the clock by her bed. It was 8:50. "Oh, shit!"

"What?"

"I have to go," Andy gasped, jumping off the bed and glad that she was already packed. "I've got to check out. I'm going to be late."

"Late? Late for what?"

"We're leaving at nine, I've only got ten minutes, crap," Andy muttered, grabbing for her duffel. "Nate, I'm sorry, I've got to--I'll call you back later--"

"No," Nate said. "No, you won't. Don't call me. Do not fucking call me again, Andy."

Andy froze. "What?”

"Don't call me," Nate repeated. "Not until you've, oh, I don't know, turned into a different person. Shouldn't be too hard. You're pretty good at that."

He hung up.

By the time Andy looked up from staring at her phone, it was 8:56. She was definitely going to be late. It was kind of hard to move.

 


 

Miranda woke up and realized she had forgotten to set her alarm. It was eight-thirty. Cursing herself, she sat up and rubbed her eyes. And at least her routine in the mornings was relentlessly efficient: she'd gotten it down to a fine art, since she always had to show up to work looking perfect, and…

And she wasn't going to work.

It hadn't been a dream, she realized, just as she was about to get up from the mattress. Which wasn't her mattress. She looked around the room: a hotel room, but not her hotel room in Paris. Not even that motel room in Queens, which apparently hadn't been a dream either. Or a nightmare. No, it had been real, and this was real, and she was in goddamned Kentucky because she had lost her job and her husband, and she was still trying to figure out what to do about that.

And Andrea Sachs was tagging along with her for no obvious reason. And Miranda was supposed to meet her in the lobby in half an hour. Which meant the morning routine had to be double-quick.

Miranda had another revelation in the shower: she wasn't going to work and didn't have to look perfect for anything or anybody except herself. Well, and Andrea.

Yes, her too. It wouldn't do to slip in front of Andrea, to let herself go, since the girl was obviously already half-convinced that Miranda had lost it. Which, she reminded herself, she hadn't. So she got out of the shower, then dressed, applied her makeup, and arranged her hair with her usual alacrity. You couldn't lower your standards. If you did, what was the point of going on?

She’d have to forgo breakfast. Well, at this place it would no doubt be substandard, anyway. If you were going to get cheap breakfast fare, you might as well get it where you paid cheap breakfast prices. She doubted Andrea would object, especially if Miranda offered to pay this time.

All told, Miranda didn't get down to the Hyatt lobby until five after nine. There was no sign of Andrea, and she frowned. Well--at least Andrea wouldn't know that Miranda had been late too. It might even be for the best, as long as she showed up in the next five minutes and didn't delay them further.

At least Miranda wasn't desperately randy again this morning. She remembered last night, her longing and frustration, and felt her cheeks flush. Thank God Andrea would never know about that, either. Nobody would.

Andrea hurried through the door just as Miranda was signing the credit slip for the room. Hotel taxes really were exorbitant, which was fine if you'd had a satisfying experience, which she hadn't. Miranda briefly considered taking the time to fill out the comment card--extensively--before deciding that she wasn't in the mood.

"The valet will bring your car around in just a few minutes," the concierge said. His smile looked a trifle strained. Unfriendly service. That was another thing she would have put on the card. Perhaps when she got home she would send an email to the Hyatt group.

"Fine," Miranda said, and watched the bellhop get her bags and carry them to the door.

Andrea continued to stand in the lobby, looking around with wide eyes and appearing very out-of-place. Which was irksome, since she'd finally started to learn how to carry herself in the correct circles. Never let them see you sweat, never let them think you think you don't belong.

Andrea looked up to see Miranda as she approached. "Morning," she said. "Um, I'm sorry I'm late.” Close up, Miranda could see that Andrea's eyes were a little red, and that she was pale. Something had clearly happened. "But I'm ready to go now. You want me to drive?"

"If you're up for it," Miranda said. "You don't look well."

Then Andrea look surprised. She blinked rapidly and shook her head. Her voice was a little husky, but strong enough as she said, "No, I'm fine. I just had a…there was drama on the phone.” She gave Miranda a humorless smile. "All over now. Not a big deal."

"All right," Miranda sighed, hoping that was the end of that. She had no interest in the drama of young twenty-somethings. She was surprised, however, since she hadn't thought Andrea was the type to invite that kind of drama into her life. "Have you had breakfast?”

Andrea nodded.

"You'll have it twice," Miranda said. "I refuse to eat mine here."

"Well, once was enough for me," Andrea said with a laugh that sounded forced. "I'll just watch you and, you know, enjoy it vicariously."

"I'll pay for it," Miranda said.

Andrea blinked at her.

Miranda looked down to make sure that the lapels of her coat were in place as she added, "I see no reason not to finance the rest of the trip.” She did not elaborate further. You never explained yourself to anybody; you let them try, and often fail, to work it out for themselves.

"…oh," Andrea said after a few seconds. "Okay. I mean, thank you.” She sounded stunned.

"We're going to stop in Nashville," Miranda continued.

"We are?" Andrea looked surprised. "I thought you didn't want to go to any big cities where you knew people."

"I don't know that many people in Nashville," Miranda said, exasperated. "We won't be staying there. I need to find a place with decent shopping."

Andrea blinked again, but thankfully did not press her further. Equally thankfully, Miranda saw the Boxster rolling up to the front door. She jerked her head, and Andrea followed her.

The bellhop loaded her bags in the car, the valet gave her the keys, and she resentfully tipped them both. Four stars, for heaven's sake. But what else could you expect?

 


 

"There's a Gus Mayer in Nashville," Miranda said. As usual, she was looking over the GPS like it contained the secrets of the universe. Or maybe the secret to getting her life back. "At the Mall of Green Hills, off Hillsboro Road. It seems to be fairly close to downtown."

"Cool," Andy said, trying to sound hearty. "So then we can get some lunch downtown, and get back on the road."

"I suppose," Miranda said grudgingly. "At least we can probably find some restaurant that doesn't serve cockroach.”

That alone was enough to put Andy off what little remained of her appetite. She sure hadn't had that second breakfast Miranda had mentioned, but instead had sipped another coffee while Miranda made her way through her scrambled eggs at another diner. Nate's phone call had put a knot in her stomach that she wasn't sure would ever get untied.

She'd wanted his forgiveness, his absolution, even for the things he didn't know about, even for Christian. Andy gulped. Yeah, if he only knew…but it didn't matter. She was sorry for the way she'd behaved, and everything she'd done, but it wasn't enough and maybe never would be.

"Andrea!" Miranda snapped. "Are you paying attention?"

"Of course!" Andy said quickly, checking the mirrors. She wasn't tailgating anybody, wasn't drifting between the lanes. Whew. But if she wasn't doing anything wrong, how had Miranda known?

"I refuse to die in a car crash in Tennessee," Miranda said. "If you can't focus enough to drive, pull over at the next exit."

"I'm fine," Andy said. Then she said, "Where would you want to die in a car crash? I mean, if it could be anywhere."

Silence. She glanced at Miranda, who was staring at her with wide eyes.

"What? I'm not going to crash the car," Andy said. But Miranda was right: it had been the strangest question ever. Shouldn't Andy have some kind of filter between her brain and her mouth? "I'm just saying--I never thought about it before, but you said…"

"Tell me I haven't brought a lunatic along," Miranda said.

What? Like Miranda, of all people, had a right to ask that? "I was just making conversation," Andy muttered. "It wasn't a serious question."

"I certainly hope not."

"It wasn't!" Andy protested. "Okay, how about: what's your favorite city, period? Is that okay?"

"No," Miranda said at once, looking dead ahead as if trying to pretend Andy didn't exist. "No trivia, no ice-breakers--when have I ever, ever indicated that I like idle conversation?"

"Never," Andy said. "I know. Trust me. But you won't even turn on the radio, and yesterday we just drove for hours and never said anything and it was really weird.”

She wasn't sure what was making her so bold. Maybe it was Nate, and what he'd said. The old Andy had never been timid, had had plenty of backbone. She'd been editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper at a prestigious university. She'd bearded Miranda Priestly in her lair and told her that she deserved a job, for Pete's sake.

But it had all gone downhill from there. What had happened to her?

Duh. Miranda had happened. Miranda, her boss, who made everybody dance like she was shooting bullets at their feet. And who wasn't her boss anymore, so why the hell shouldn't Andy solidify her backbone again and have an actual conversation in the car on a road trip, God forbid?

"Weird," Miranda said, her voice cold enough that Andy shivered, and she realized the backbone wasn't going to return immediately. "It's 'weird' that some people actually prefer to hear themselves think? Instead of listening to constant music and babble and noise and God knows what else?"

"No," Andy sighed. Though if she were Miranda, especially right now, the last thing she'd want to do was hear herself think. If she were Miranda, Andy would want as many distractions as possible so she wouldn't keep dwelling on how her life was falling apart. But she wasn't Miranda. Thank goodness for that. "I guess not."

"Good."

"How about conversation that isn't idle?” Andy added. "We can do that, right?"

Miranda glared at her. "What?"

"Where are we going today?" Andy asked. "After Nashville. We should probably figure that out."

"Mmm," Miranda said, which meant she knew Andy was right, and she squinted at the GPS again. She had her reading glasses on today, which Andy privately thought was hilarious. "Farther west. We can keep driving until we're tired again. I think ten more hours is reasonable."

Oh God, it was the worst travel philosophy Andy had ever heard, so it figured it would be Miranda's. She opened her mouth to say so, and instead said, "Okay.” Then she rolled her eyes. Backbone. Grow one. "What the heck is ten hours away? Roughly?”

"I don't know," Miranda said pointedly. "We'll find out when we get there."

It sounded almost Zen, but Andy wasn't dumb enough to say that, at least. "At least tell me what road we're taking."

"After lunch," Miranda said, sitting back with a sigh as she swapped her reading glasses for her shades. "We'll work it out. Do try to be a little spontaneous, Andrea."

"Spon--are you serious?” Andy stared at her before quickly turning her eyes back to the road. "Spontaneous? You?”

Miranda turned to frown at her.

"You have your schedule planned out six months in advance, and everybody has to confirm everything like ten times to make sure it all happens, and if things don't go according to plan you raise hell…"

"I--?"

“And you are telling me to be spontaneous?"

"You understand nothing," Miranda said, somehow making her soft, venomous whisper carry over the rumble of the car. "You understand nothing about me, Andrea, and that is why I don't want to talk to you. Now be quiet."

For a second, Andy was so angry she couldn't speak, which was probably just as well. Her hands tightened on the steering wheel so hard that they began to hurt. Luckily, just then they had to take the exit for I-65, and she flew up the ramp and merged into traffic that flowed freely.

Great. No sudden starts and stops. Andy took the Porsche out of the automatic transmission mode and shifted into fifth gear. Heck yes.

The Porsche handled like a dream. She'd never driven a car like this before, not on the open road, and yesterday she hadn't really taken the time to appreciate it. She'd been, as she'd told Miranda, too worried about scuffing it or running into something or getting in trouble.

But at the moment it was all she could do not to swerve the car to the right and ram Miranda into the guardrail, so screw trouble. Instead, she enjoyed the way the car practically floated and roared over the road by turns, and even reveled in the impressed looks they got from other drivers as the silver Boxster passed them by. They didn't have to know that it wasn't her car, or that she couldn't afford a room at the Hyatt.

It distracted her from her seething so well that when Miranda spoke, she almost jumped. "So you do know how to drive stick," Miranda said.

The anger came back instantly, and Andy wished that Miranda had stuck to her own request for--no, insistence on silence. "Of course I do. I said so.”

Miranda did not reply.

"What, you thought I was lying?”

"You drove on automatic all day yesterday," Miranda pointed out without answering the question.

"So?" Andy said. "It was easier, and I was tired.” And scared, she didn't add. "We're on the interstate and I want to drive stick. What's the big deal?” Her hackles weren't just raised, she realized: they were getting ready to go on the march.

"None, I suppose," Miranda said, sounding indifferent. She adjusted her scarf under her chin. Andy saw that the bridge of her nose was starting to turn pink beneath the sun. She must have missed a spot with her moisturizer or sunscreen or whatever magical potions she used, and Andy hoped viciously that it would turn into a full-blown sunburn before the end of the day. And that Miranda would peel.

"Have you ever been to Nashville?" Miranda added.

If Andy wrecked the car on this trip because she felt compelled to bang her forehead against the steering wheel, nobody could blame her. No conversation, huh? As always, the rules were only whatever Miranda Priestly wanted them to be at any given time, they could change without a moment's notice, and everybody else just had to play along.

But Andy had also wanted to talk, and if Miranda could bring herself to be civil, it might be better than the stiff, silent drive of yesterday. Especially since driving was apparently all they were going to be doing, for God only knew how long. "No," Andy said. "Never."

"Lucky you," Miranda said.

"Why? What's wrong with it?" Andy asked, knowing perfectly well that inviting Miranda to criticize something guaranteed at least ten uninterrupted minutes of voluble speech.

She was not disappointed, although when Miranda wrapped it up eight minutes later with "…and don't get me started on the sequins," Andy was surprised it hadn't lasted a little longer. Maybe Miranda was still tired from yesterday. Andy wondered what she'd gotten up to after she'd checked into her hotel.

"You didn't mention the music," she said. "Isn't that what Nashville's all about? Country music?"

"It's a big industry, yes," Miranda said.

"Well, yes, I know," Andy said, trying to get a little patience back so she could build up a reserve while Miranda was willing to be polite. It was hard. "But you didn't say what you think about it.”

Miranda shook her head, furrowing her brow.

"Music," Andy said, wondering if she'd stopped speaking in English without knowing it. "You know, country music. The music they play in Nashville? What do you--"

"Well, the music industry operates in a way similar to mine," Miranda said, and Andy lost her breath at the hubris with which Miranda declared the fashion industry “hers,” even in the wake of having lost it. "Country, pop, hip-hop, so-called 'alternative,' it doesn't matter--they're all tastemakers, and the executives decide who the next big star will be. You'd be surprised by all the music you don't ever get to hear--"

"But what about the music that you do?" Andy said desperately. "All I'm asking is, do you like country music?”

There was a pause, and Miranda said, sounding suspicious, "No, why?"

"I'm just wondering," Andy said. What was so hard about this? "I mean…we're talking about Nashville, so…"

"I suppose it's better than asking me where I want to die in a car wreck," Miranda said.

Andy's cheeks burned. "Listen, that just popped out. Haven’t you ever just had a conversation with somebody where you talk about weird, random things?"

"Before today?"

"So what kind of music do you like," Andy mumbled. Then she added more loudly, "It's not idle chatter, I'm really curious."

"Why?"

"Well, why shouldn't I be? I helped to run your schedule every day, some things I know about you top to bottom, but I don't know what kind of music you like. Except that you go to the opera or symphony sometimes."

"I hate the opera and the symphony," Miranda said flatly. "I hate concerts of all kinds. I go only on special occasions, or did you miss that?"

"I…I guess I did," Andy said, realizing that it was true. Miranda had never told Andy or Emily to schedule a date with Stephen at the opera. She only went on nights when there was a benefit, or to some big important premiere. But what did that mean?

She considered her next question in light of a previous one. If you asked Miranda “Why don't you like this?” or “Why do you enjoy that?”, if you were obviously trying to learn anything about her, she'd clam up because that was none of your damn business. But…but if you said…

"What's wrong with concerts?" Andy asked.

"What isn't?" Miranda replied immediately. "All around you people are talking to each other, or even on the phone, and shaking hands and making deals and connections--not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you, but if you're going to do it, why do it at a concert?"

"Well--"

"And when you're not making deals or shaking hands, or talking to some horrible acquaintance about their horrible children and their horrible job, you're stuck in a box seat for hours listening to music. You can't do anything. Just sit."

Andy didn't usually go to the kind of concert where people sat in their box seats for hours. She couldn't imagine Miranda in a mosh pit either, though. "I see," she said slowly. "But, I mean, you still like music, right? Not at concerts. Just in general."

"I have nothing against music in general, no," Miranda said, sounding like she about to announce that conversation was off-limits again.

Andy beat her to the punch and just said, "Mmm."

"But it's background noise, at best," Miranda continued. "It's not outrageous to want a little peace and quiet after I'm surrounded by background noise every day at wor--"

She stopped talking at once. Andy was profoundly thankful she had an excuse not to look at her. But no matter how much Miranda said she liked silence, even she had to hear how horrible this one was.

Andy searched frantically for something to fill it up. "So, so you don't just like music for--you know--being music?" she asked, proud when her voice sounded even. Casual, almost. "You don't have any favorite songs or anything?"

Miranda remained silent for so long that Andy thought she was going to ignore the question, or maybe that she hadn't even heard it because she was lost in her thoughts.

But then Miranda said quietly, almost softly, "I don't know. I don't think so."

Huh? How could you not know if you liked any songs, even one? This didn’t seem like the time to ask. So Andy just said, "Well gee, if we turned on the radio right now, what do you think we'd hear?"

Miranda snorted. "Either Jesus or banjos," she said. "Or both at the same time.”

Andy finally dared to look at her, and saw a very bitter look on her face; she looked back through the windshield almost at once.

"So you probably wouldn't find a favorite song right away," Andy said. "I mean, unless you're crazy about banjos. Or Jesus."

"No," Miranda said succinctly, and turned to look at the guardrail. Andy shut up.

 


 

Andrea had been remarkably gracious about going into the mall to get her cream while Miranda waited in the car. She'd volunteered, in fact. And the day was pleasant, fresh but not cold, and it was almost nice to sit in the car in the parking lot.

Well, it would have been, if some mulleted man hadn't been sitting in his pickup three spaces over, listening to country music at a near-deafening volume. He'd pulled in about five minutes after Andrea had gone into the mall, and now Miranda was half-tempted to pursue her. But hopefully she'd get back soon, unless they'd happened to park at the wrong end of the mall. Which they might very well have done, given Miranda's recent stretch of luck.

Nashville, of all places. Miranda hadn't been here in nearly ten years, but how much could it have changed? Mullet Man was proof enough of that. And the music belching from his truck was just…

"You don't have any favorite songs or anything?"

No. Now that Miranda thought about it, she did not. She couldn't remember the last song she'd listened to and thought, Yes, I like that. She had an iPod of course, didn't everybody?, but it was currently gathering dust in her desk drawer in her study at home. And when Apple came out with a new model, somebody would give her one, and she'd switch them out and give the old one to one assistant or another.

Or somebody else now, she supposed.

At any rate, the iPod was either empty or preloaded with whatever the giver had seen fit to put on there. Now that she thought about it, she should have a look when she got back. See what somebody (and who had it been?) had thought Miranda Priestly would like. Probably classical. Probably opera.

Miranda was startled by how much this was starting to bother her. She'd listened to music when she was young, of course, because all her friends did. She'd heard all the hits, and danced to a lot of them, and made out to a few, and right now she was hard-pressed to remember a single one that stood out head and shoulders above the rest.

Well, she just wasn't a music-lover. That was hardly a crime. Surely she wasn't the only one. But Miranda's brain had a full head of steam now, and, as always, she couldn't slow it down until she'd come to the end of her thought. Not just music, but books, and art, and, hell, anything else.

Oh, she had artists and writers she enjoyed, of course. There were paintings and sculptures in her house that pleased her. She had shelves full of books on nearly every subject, although she hadn't read all of them, and she could name at least five writers off the top of her head whose work she consistently admired. She was fully conversant in all those matters.

But she'd never really been moved by any of it. She'd never gotten a lump in her throat while looking at a painting or a photograph. If someone played a selection from some opera she'd attended a dozen times, she just might not be able to name the opera itself-- because she hadn't paid attention, because she hadn't cared. And she certainly couldn't remember being utterly absorbed in any book or story the way the twins were with, say, Harry Potter.

Except for one Book.

Miranda's heart had begun to beat unpleasantly quickly. Yes, she enjoyed those paintings and sculptures and photographs in her house--because of their harmonious colors and the way she'd carefully placed them, the way they fit and looked in the context of their surroundings, not because of any intrinsic value they might have had apart from the whole. She liked design. She liked putting things in order and making sure everything worked.

No. No, she loved that. That was what got her out of bed in the morning, what really made her blood pump, that was where she found her passion and inspiration. Design. Precision. Harmony. And where there was chaos, let it be ordered chaos, which thrived in fashion: where the most brilliant designers piled colors and fabrics on top of each other every which way, but never randomly, never without vision. Creativity and genius flourished. Whim and will, all at once. And at the helm, Miranda, steering it all, them all, on an inexorable course towards greatness. With vision and genius of her own.

And Jacqueline? Did she have genius, vision? She had talent; Miranda could concede that much. Runway France was, in its own way, a pretty little rag. But that was all. Jacqueline wasn't ready to take that greater helm, to take over Elias-Clarke's flagship publication. Irv was a fool for letting her. Jacqueline would run it into the ground.

Miranda would be more than happy to help her. She just had to figure out how.

"Right!" Andrea said, opening her car door and making Miranda jump about a foot in the air. She sat down and thrust a paper bag from Gus Mayer at Miranda. "Here's your night cream.”

Miranda peered inside the bag to make sure it was the right one. "

And oh, I stopped to get one of these," Andrea added. She was holding a plastic bag whose logo Miranda did not have time to see before Andrea yanked a paperback out of it. This she brandished triumphantly.

The cover read: Road Trip! Seeing the USA From Coast to Coast. There was also a picture of an RV and several postage stamps.

"I thought we could use a guidebook," Andrea said. "I looked through this one really fast, and it lists a lot of places that are, you know, off the beaten path. Where you won't know anybody, but they still look kind of neat.” She blinked at Miranda hopefully.

"Fine," Miranda said, and opened it. The book seemed unnecessarily thick. Did they give you a run-down of every run-down town in America? She flipped to the index. "Let's see what they say about eating in Nashville, for a start.”

Andrea looked thrilled that she might have done something useful, and for a moment she reminded Miranda of Emily. Well, it was better than stewing in silence, or asking uncomfortable questions.

"Restaurants here…" Miranda muttered. She supposed this could come in handy, since while the GPS could scout out nearby restaurants and lodging, it couldn't exactly review them. But the book seemed to appeal mostly to travelers on a budget. It made sense, if it took you "off the beaten path," but still, the restaurants listed weren't exactly five star. Or even four.

Then something caught her eye, and she blinked. "'Noshville'?"

"What?" Andrea asked.

"'A New-York style deli'," Miranda read aloud. "They give it a good review. We'll go there."

"What?" Andrea repeated, but now she sounded scandalized. "Miranda, we can't come to Nashville and eat in a deli!"

"I don't see why not," Miranda said. "Are you pining for the local delicacies or something?” Whatever those were. Probably something involving gravy.

Andrea leaned over to look at the guidebook. "Look, Noshville’s in midtown. And we're, uh, downtown. Let's see…"  Her eyes lit up. "Jack's Bar-B-Que," she said. "That's much closer."

Miranda ran out of words and stared at her, utterly appalled.

"I like barbecue," Andrea said, as if she weren't confessing a mortal sin. "I haven't found a really good place in New York yet. I mean, I haven't really been looking hard--but my favorite restaurant in Cincinnati does amazing ribs.” Then, without even asking Miranda's permission, she turned on the engine. "Come on, it'll be fun. It'll be better than a diner, right? And it's just one lunch."

"It's in a guidebook," Miranda protested. "It'll be packed with tourists."

"Then so would the deli," Andrea said reasonably. "And you're guaranteed not to see anybody you know.” She carefully began to back out of the parking space. "And it's on a big street, so I bet I can find it pretty easily, even without the GPS."

"We do nothing without the GPS," Miranda said at once. "It is here for a reason."

"I heard a story once," Andrea said, maneuvering towards the exit. "About a guy who relied on his GPS so much he drove right into a lake, because that's where it told him to go."

"Sounds like an urban legend," Miranda sniffed.

"Might be," Andrea acknowledged. "But it's funny. Where does the guidebook map say to go?"

"Forget about the map," Miranda said, and closed the book, leaning towards the GPS display to make her point. "Turn left out of here."

The GPS worked perfectly, and it wasn't until Andrea was actually parking the car again that Miranda realized she'd been tricked into barbecue.

 


 

They'd only been here ten minutes, and Andy'd already had to stifle laughter three times. The first time had been when Miranda had seen the giant neon winged pigs over the doorway, the second had been when they'd been seated next to the jukebox, and the third had been when a man at the next table said loudly, "And I'll tell you what else Bill Clinton did."

"What's that?" his tablemate, another man, had asked.

"Hoffa," the first man said solemnly. "You mark my words, Hoffa is dead and buried in Bill Clinton's backyard. I don't know how the sumbitch did it, but he did it."

"You are a piece of work," said the other man.

Glancing at Miranda's face, Andy could tell that “piece of work” didn't really cover it in her opinion, and she had to bite her lip so hard it would probably leave a mark. This wasn't any more Miranda's kind of place than the diner had been. Maybe even less so. Good thing she hadn't looked at the guidebook map more closely, or she would have figured out that Noshville was actually closer to the mall than Jack's.

Well, it wasn't that much closer, Andy reasoned with herself. There was less than a mile's difference, and it wouldn't have taken much longer to get here than to the other place. But Miranda didn't have to know that.

"What would y'all like to drink?" a waitress asked. She was as perky as Kimmy back in West Virginia, but she didn't have a name tag; Andy instantly dubbed her Kimmy Two.

"I have no idea," Miranda said faintly.

"Iced tea, please," Andy said.

"We do good tea," Kimmy Two said to Miranda.

"Fine," Miranda said, shaking her head and looking around like she couldn't believe she was actually here. She probably couldn't.

"Right.” Kimmy Two beamed down at Miranda, and then at Andy. "I'll be right out with those iced teas while you and your momma figure out what you want to eat."

Andy didn't dare look up from the tabletop for the next several minutes. Instead she read her menu like she was about to take a final exam on it.

It seemed like no time before two glasses of iced tea landed on the tabletop, sweating. "Here we are!" Kimmy Two said brightly. "You ladies need any more time, or have you decided?"

Andy waited in agony for Miranda to say, “I want your barbecued head on a platter, and then we'll leave without paying.” But all she said was, in a clipped tone, "I'll have a smoked turkey breast sandwich and a salad. No dressing."

"You get two vegetables," Kimmy Two said generously. "Salad's one, and we can also get you some baked beans or--" 

Miranda looked at her.

"Salad, right," Kimmy Two said quickly, and turned to Andy. "What about you, honey?"

Andy could not have been more grateful that Kimmy Two hadn’t called Miranda honey. "A ribs plate with potato salad and cole slaw, please."

"Want me to bring you a basket of potato chips to start you off?"

"Um, I don't--" Andy took one look at Miranda's face and finished, "No thanks.”

"Right back with your food," Kimmy Two said, and hurried away. Andy saw her stop to pick up a few empty beer bottles from an abandoned table before disappearing into the kitchen.

Then she heard Miranda make a gasping, choking sound, and turned at once to see her holding her glass away from her mouth, her lips puckered and eyes squeezed shut.

"What is it?" Andy said at once, because if Miranda got food poisoning and died here, it was all going to be Andy's fault. Or if Miranda killed all the wait staff. "Is it--"

Perhaps unwisely, she picked up her own glass and sipped. Then she blinked and puckered her lips too. "Oh wow. That's…"

"More than half sugar?" Miranda spat. "Yes. I worked that out for myself."

"It tastes pretty good, though.” Andy ventured another cautious sip.

"Is there a dentist in the house?" Miranda said. "Did you make inquiries before we sat down?"

"Um," Andy said. "Maybe you should get something else.” She waved frantically at the nearest server.

"Barbecue, and sweet tea, and that woman tried to make me eat baked beans," Miranda said. "You will pay for this, Andrea."

Andy quailed, before she realized Miranda was speaking literally. "Right," she sighed. "This one's on me."

"What can I do for you?" the new server, a smiling young man, asked them.

"She wants something else to drink," Andy said.

"Yes, ma'am?" he asked Miranda.

"Coffee," Miranda said. "Black, with nonfat creamer on the side."

"Sure thing. Something wrong with your tea?” He looked genuinely concerned.

"I don't know where to begin," Miranda said.

The man looked even more concerned, and Andy said quickly, "Oh, sorry--is that your manager waving at you?"

After the guy walked away, Andy said penitently, "I'm sorry your tea wasn't very good."

"A decent restaurant for dinner," Miranda said, sitting back and closing her eyes, as if she was imagining steak and wine and linen napkins. "Well, Andrea?" she added. "Now that you've seen Nashville, what do you think of it?"

That was unexpected. "I haven't really seen Nashville," Andy said cautiously. "Not that much of it, I mean. But it seems kind of…" She glanced out the window at the busy streets, at the other neon signs that would light up when night fell, at the occasional pair of boots and cowboy hats (not nearly as many as she had imagined).

"Kind of cool, actually," she finished, surprising herself. It was true. It looked like the city could be fun, even if you didn't like country music.

"'Cool'?" Miranda opened her eyes again and stared at her. "Andrea, Nashville is the opposite of cool."

Andrea was thankful that the restaurant was so loud, and that Miranda's voice was always so low. "It's just the opposite of New York."

"No, it isn't," Miranda said flatly. "Los Angeles is the opposite of New York. Nashville is the opposite of taste."

"You mark my words, the Democrats are putting poison in the drinking water," said the man at the next table.

"And sanity," Miranda added.

"That's just one guy," Andy said, keeping it to a whisper. "And I think it could be fun, all the same." She pulled the guidebook out of her bag. "I mean, there's the Grand Ole Opry, and how can you not want to see a place named that?"

"Somehow I'm managing it."

Just then, Kimmy Two returned with their food. "Here y'all go," she said, and put a plate of mouthwatering ribs in front of Andy before giving Miranda her sandwich and a cup of coffee. Then she gave Andy a paper bib, and Miranda's eyes almost popped out of their sockets. "We got six sauces," Kimmy Two continued, pointing at the table where four bottles sat in a metal spinner. "Kansas City Style, which is nice and mild, that Tennessee Original there has a vinegar base--"

"How about that," Miranda said coldly.

Kimmy Two blanched and hurried away. At least Miranda hadn't said “That's all.”

Andy suddenly realized that she hadn't said that once on this trip, though she had no idea if that meant anything. She tucked her bib in, refusing to meet Miranda's eyes.

They ate in silence. After a couple of bites, Andy covered her ribs with a sauce that said it was best on beef, and then at the first bite she moaned in pleasure before she could stop herself.

Miranda looked at her like she'd just sneezed all over the table, and Andy quickly looked back down at her plate.

After a moment, Miranda picked up another bottle--Andy couldn't tell which one--and poured some sauce on her sandwich. Andy watched her, trying to look like she wasn't, and couldn't help noticing that Miranda got through the sandwich pretty quickly. Devoured it, you might say. Well, she was always a fast eater, but…

Between bites, Andy asked, "How was it?"

"Fine," Miranda said, and Andy saw with delight that she was regarding her empty plate and looking genuinely forlorn. "And those…things you're eating?"

Like Miranda didn't know what they were called. "Amazing. There are still a couple left. Want one?"

After a moment, Miranda said, "…no," and turned to her salad.

Andy shrugged, as if to say, “Your loss,” and watched Miranda picking through her lettuce without much enthusiasm.

"You seem to be making a decent headway yourself," Miranda added acidly.

"Yes, well," Andy said, trying not to be needled. For revenge, she mopped her mouth with the paper bib, and watched Miranda wrinkle her nose. "I brought all these size six clothes with me. I have to fit back into them."

"I noticed that," Miranda said, after a pause. "What kind of rebellion are you staging, exactly?"

"I don't have to look like a million bucks anymore, because I'd never work for her," Andy said.

The pause was a lot longer this time.

"What makes you think she'd ask you?" Miranda said.

"Maybe she wouldn't," Andy said. "But Christian Thompson might have."

Miranda frowned. "Christian Thomp--"

"I don't want to talk about it," Andy said.

Then she paused mid-chew, unable to believe that she'd actually said that to Miranda Priestly, because even if Miranda was in a weird place right now, you didn't just cut her off like that. Not with back-talk like that.

"I see," Miranda said, her gaze flat, her eyebrows raised, and Andy wondered if she did. Then she realized she was blushing, and decided Miranda definitely did.

"Well, that strategy's worked for women before you," Miranda added, and now Andy could see the contempt in her eyes.

Then it didn't matter whether she cut Miranda off, or how rude she had to be to do it. "I'm not going to sleep my way to the top," Andy snapped, not caring who heard her, throwing a half-finished rib down on her plate. Miranda could count herself lucky that it hadn't come flying at her head. "I didn't know what he was up to until the morning after, and it was just a stupid mistake, okay?” Then she added: "So maybe you don't understand anything about me either."

Miranda didn't get mad. Instead she looked almost pleased. "Why do you say that?" she said. "I wouldn't have thought before that you would do such a thing. And look: you haven't. So I was right."

Good for her. Andy didn't dignify it with a response, and dug viciously into her potato salad before realizing she'd lost her appetite. Just like after her first day of work. She saw Kimmy Two at a nearby table, and waved her hand. Kimmy Two came over, and Andy said, "I'll take the check, please."

"Sure thing," Kimmy said, and hurried off.

Andy finally felt like she could look at Miranda without yelling, so she did. Miranda was looking at her and tapping her chin, looking thoughtful. Then she opened her mouth, and Andy just knew that whatever came out of it next was going to be--

"I'll drive," Miranda said. "You can be in charge of the reservations at the Loews Vanderbilt."

"The…what?" Andy said, and then blinked, because any hotel with the word “Vanderbilt” in the name was going to be pretty nice, especially if Miranda wanted to stay there. "Um. Okay. Where's that?"

Miranda looked exasperated. "I can't remember off the top of my head, Andrea. Somewhere downtown, I'm sure. It can't be too far."

"Down--huh?" Andy gaped at her. "As in, here in Nashville?"

"I always thought you'd catch onto things quickly," Miranda said. "Looks like I was right about that, too."

"But you said we weren't stopping here," Andy said blankly. "You said you wanted to drive for, like, ten--"

"Are you objecting?" Miranda said, looking incredulous. "You were the one who wanted to see more of this tacky--"

"No!" Andy said at once. "No, that's great, that's…that's great. I was just surprised.” She shook her head. "What, er, what do you want to see?"

"The inside of the Vanderbilt," Miranda said flatly. "You can decide where you want to venture all by yourself, can't you?"

Luckily, at that moment, Kimmy Two arrived with the check. "Thanks," Andy mumbled, and used the opportunity to dig out her credit card to regain her composure. What was this, an apology or something?

But of course Miranda didn't explain herself. She just led the way to the Porsche after Andy paid for the meal, and sailed out of the parking lot, smooth as glass.

 


 

This was more like it.

Miranda settled back into one of the overstuffed armchairs of the Parthenon Suite and rested her feet on the ottoman with a sigh of relief. True, the suite's interior was a little gaudy--she'd never have chosen anything so, well, orange--but this was Nashville, after all, and it could have been a lot worse.

She was glad to see Andrea getting back into her stride and had been impressed by the alacrity with which the girl had made their arrangements. To say nothing of the fact that Andrea had been bright enough to check them in with aliases--Miranda wished she'd thought of that herself in Lexington, but oh well. And she had no idea where the names "Uh, Sharon Davis and her assistant, um, Michelle Rogers" had come from, but they weren't objectionable. And of course the woman at the desk had been discreet enough to say nothing when Sharon Davis had checked in with Miranda Priestly's credit card and driver's license.

Miranda snorted. If not for that, she would have allowed Andrea to share her suite. There were two richly-appointed bedrooms a hallway down from each other, two full bathrooms, and the suite entire was large enough that they wouldn't have had to lay eyes on each other more than necessary. It would have been a little more convenient.

But if any Vanderbilt employee was stupid enough to let it slip to the wrong person that Miranda Priestly had come to Nashville--not that they should, not at this kind of place, where they were paid to turn a blind eye to the doings of the rich and infamous--at least nobody would instantly conclude that she was sleeping with her assistant.

The possibility forced a bitter chuckle out of her as she remembered her urges from the night before. Dear God, how desperate would you have to be? Stephen would be laughing his idiot head off right now if he could read her mind. Which he'd never been able to do to her satisfaction. Andrea outdid him in that department at least. And she'd certainly had no complaints about getting a guest room all to herself in the Vanderbilt.

Miranda looked around the orange suite with a sigh. She'd said she wanted to see the inside of the hotel, and here she was. She'd told the truth to Andrea: she had no desire to traipse around the city. But it was just after two in the afternoon, and she had plenty of time to kill before six-thirty, when she'd told Andrea to return for dinner. They'd go somewhere acceptable this time.

Her face flushed when she remembered the sandwich she'd eaten at lunch. She must have been starving to find it so delicious. Far hungrier than she'd realized. That had to be it.

She'd never been good at sitting quietly and doing nothing, so she turned on her phone again, bracing herself. More messages. Another from Stephen, which she deleted at once before she could weaken. Another from Emily: same thing. Nothing from Irv. Not that she was waiting for any such thing…but. Miranda worked her way back to yesterday, and remembered Nigel and James had left her messages too.

Nigel. Well, at least things ought to be going well for him now. And he owed her. He owed her a lot. Everything, and he knew it. And as soon as she could think of a way for him to be useful, Miranda would be sure to collect the debt. In the meantime, she listened to his message.

"Miranda," he said--she was shocked to feel a twinge in her heart at the sound of his voice-- "Miranda, Andy told me what happened. We're all furious. You have to know how furious we are. Irv Ravitz is an asshole, and James and I aren't going to give Jacqueline Follet a damn thing to work with, and neither is anybody else if we have anything to do with it--and you know I'm crazy about you, so please call me.”

Miranda snorted.

"Everything's going nuts around here and we could use a little guidance. Or at least let me know you're okay? And while I think of Andy, she flew out of Paris yesterday to look for you, and wouldn't even listen to me. She's like a woman possessed so, you know, you should probably know about that if you haven't already. And you should just hear Emily over the phone.” Nigel laughed uneasily. "Call me, okay?” Then the message cut off.

Miranda tapped her chin thoughtfully, and then listened to James's message, which said essentially the same thing, only without Nigel's unlikely combination of blasé and hysteria: everyone was outraged, everyone was on her side, even Massimo had been stunned and had given James his full blessing to bar Jacqueline from attending the Holt show the next morning. He wanted Miranda to call him or Nigel. He wanted to help.

Help. Miranda cut him off mid-message, and stared across the room at the pale yellow walls. She swallowed hard against a sudden surge of nausea.

Help. They all wanted to help. They'd be delighted to help. Miranda Priestly was finally in need of rescue. At last, she was no longer on top. They could have the supreme pleasure of saving her in the name of gratitude, and expecting her own gratitude in return for once. They could all start over on an even playing field, because once Miranda was restored to her former glory, how could she ever look down her nose at her benefactors again?

No. She gritted her teeth. No. Not like that. She still didn't know what she was going to do, or how she was going to do it, but she wasn't going to do it like that. She was going to come back out on top the way she always had: by herself, by her own work, on her own steam and with her own plan. If she could find a use for Nigel and James and their ilk, so much the better. But it would be on her terms, not theirs. She just had to figure out how.

Her head hurt again. It was just as well she and Andrea weren't on the road, with sun and wind and noise to make it worse. But that wasn't why she'd agreed--no--decreed they'd be staying the night here instead of moving on.

Because Andrea had a point. They didn't know where they were going, and Miranda didn't even know how long she wanted to take getting there. It made little sense to drive from New York to California as fast as possible when Miranda had no idea what she'd do when she arrived at the West Coast or, for that matter, which part of the West Coast she wanted to end up in.

She'd wanted to get out of New York, and you couldn't get out of New York much more than coming to Nashville. There was nothing wrong with taking your time and going the scenic route.

She had another two hours before she could call the girls. No--only one. Miranda remembered, startled, that Nashville was an hour behind New York. Her three o’clock would be their four. Or--no, she had to wait longer, because she'd promised Greg she'd talk to him first, and he'd still be at work. Before dinner, then.

There was a Bose CD player on the table by the armchair. Three custom-made CDs were stacked next to it, which was one of the most bizarre amenities she'd ever heard of. One was labeled "Classic Country Favorites," another "The Latest Honkey-Tonk Hits," and the last "Up-and-Coming Cowboys.”

The latest hits held no allure for her. The latest hits were already the property of the rabble. It was the up-and-coming, the next big thing that mattered. Well, she'd been thinking about music, hadn't she? Might as well keep ahead of the game. She pushed the third CD into the player.

Three songs into it, she realized she'd barely been listening but was still incredibly irritated. It didn't help that the CD's title sounded like a porn movie. So did some of the songs. "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy"? Good grief. The cowboys might be up-and-coming, but they weren't doing anything for her, that was for damned sure.

And the latest hits were certain to be flash-in-the-pan forgettable. And she didn't like music anyway. And the hotel suite was awfully, almost terribly quiet.

Miranda picked up the "classic" CD. She'd heard of all these people: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Patsy Cline, George Jones, and others. She'd met a few of them, although she didn't remember much about any of them and she doubted they remembered her. They had never exactly been style icons. At least--not her sort of style.

Well, it wasn't like she had anything to lose except some time, and for the first time in her life, she had plenty. She glanced over the song titles, and to her surprise, laughed out loud. Track four: "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean" by Waylon Jennings.

Might as well give it a whirl.

 


 

Andy had been looking forward to diving right into Nashville's "insanity," as Miranda had called it. But she realized, the moment she hit a promising string of shops, that she hadn't brought any clothes fit to wear to "a decent restaurant.” Which was a stunningly stupid omission, but when she'd packed, she'd been in such a rush that she hadn't thought about anything except whether the clothes she chose layered and didn't wrinkle when they were stuffed into a duffel bag. She couldn't exactly wear today's sweater, jeans and loafers to…wherever Miranda would probably want to go.

So she had to detour into the ridiculously huge Opry Mills Mall, where she found and shelled out for a little black dress that would pack well, and shoes and a necklace to go with it. Since the total outfit cost less than two hundred bucks, Miranda would probably throw up all over it. But it wasn't like she could ask to see the receipt, so, bag in hand and a fair bit poorer, Andy stomped out to do what she actually wanted to do. She headed to the Grand Ole Opry, dying to see if it was half as cheesy as it sounded.

There were a ton of people. Not just tourists like Andy: apparently there was some big concert going on. She didn't recognize any of the performers on the marquee. Andy was faintly surprised to realize that the Grand Ole Opry was actually in use as a venue instead of…well, some kind of historic building or something. Like Shakespeare's house in Stratford-upon-Avon. There were definitely a lot of cowboy boots here. And big belt buckles. And American flags.

And cowboy hats. Andy was already in love with the hats, and she immediately swept into the nearest tourist trap and bought one. It was sunny outside, she reasoned, and she didn't want her nose to get sunburned like Miranda's.

Gripped by momentary insanity, she almost bought Miranda a Minnie Pearl hat, but thought better of it at the last minute, and headed back outside to wander around in a kind of happy delirium because this was way more fun than Paris had ever been. She didn't give a damn how she looked. And if she got picked up by some young stud in boots, she reasoned, it would still be smarter than what she'd done with Christian.

So it figured that Nigel called her at five o'clock, just when Andy was having a really good time and thinking about having a beer before returning to the hotel to change. She saw his name on the display and bit her lip, her good mood vanishing. Decision time: Miranda wasn't here, so Andy couldn't ask her permission. But Nigel was probably scared half to death, and so was everybody else, and Andy would just have to use her discretion.

"Hello?" she said.

"Oh, thank God," Nigel said. "Where are you?"

"Um," Andy said. She bit her lip and gave him the same answer she'd given Nate. "Not in New York. Where are you?"

"About to leave Paris. The Holt show was yesterday morning, not that anybody cared. She made Fashion Week explode."

"Good," Andy said with a burst of vicious pleasure. "I hope she made Irv explode, too."

"Something like it," Nigel said. "I've been avoiding him, but every time I saw him he looked like a very short powder keg about to go off."

"Good," Andy said again, deciding she'd pass this tidbit on to Miranda, who would no doubt find it satisfying.

"Now answer my question. Where are you? Emily said you're with her--or you were when you spoke to her yesterday."

"Yeah, I am," Andy said. "Uh, but I uh, I can't tell you where, though. She doesn't want anybody to know. I…I think she just needs a little time to get her head together. But she's all right," she added quickly.

"All right?" Nigel said. "Miranda and you have hared off to God knows where because Miranda is 'all right'?"

Andy sat down heavily on a nearby bench and sighed. Her cowboy hat slipped down over her face and she pushed it back up. "Okay, she's not all right," she conceded. "But she isn't, you know, hurt or--anything else.” She didn't think she had to clarify else. "She's in one piece and I'm going to make sure she stays that way."

"Is she there with you right now?"

"No," Andy admitted.

"Way to watch, Six."

"What?" Andy said defensively. "I can't stay with her a hundred percent of the time. We'd kill each other."

"What can I say but better you than her?" Nigel said.

"Hey!"

"A lot of people care about her, Andy," Nigel said, sounding very serious. "More than she knows. I don't think she believes anybody actually gives a shit about her as a person, but we do.” He paused. "I do."

"I know," Andy said, and closed her eyes. "So do I. That's why I'm here.”

"So I hear," Nigel said. "How the hell did you pull that off?"

Andy thought about saying, “What do you mean?” But she knew perfectly well what he meant, and being coy would just piss him off. "I showed up at her place right before she left, and told her I was coming with her," she said. "That's pretty much it."

Silence. Then Nigel said, "Andy, I am being entirely serious with you. I have no idea what Miranda is doing or what's wrong with her. But you have to persuade her to come home. If you persuaded her to take you with her, make it work the other way and bring her back to New York. Whatever else happens, these next few days are critical to…"

"She won't," Andy said, squirming on the bench and wishing she'd gotten that beer. Or five. "Nigel, I can try--but she won't. She's set on going to California. I have no idea why, but that's where she's decided she's going."

"Cali…okay, where in California? L.A., San Francisco--"

"She didn't say. She doesn't know.” Andy took a deep breath. "But she's got this idea in her head that she's got to get there, and it's all I can do to make sure she's not going to leave me stranded by the side of the road."

"The road?" Nigel asked. "You're…wait, you're driving? Does Emily know this? Jesus, Andy, we could have been in touch with Miranda's driver all along--"

"Her driver?" Andy said incredulously. "You think she brought her driver along for this?"

"--because he's…what? She didn't?"

"She knows how to drive, Nigel," Andy said. "So do I. Jeez."

"Miranda's…and you're…"  Nigel stopped, but before Andy could say something, he finished, "You and Miranda are taking a road trip."

Andy had known that all along, of course, but somehow hearing it in Nigel's voice--Nigel's shocked, disbelieving voice--brought it all home.

She burst out laughing so hard that she doubled over, and ignored the passers-by who looked at her.

"Andy?" Nigel said, but it only made Andy laugh even more. Yes. She was on a road trip with Miranda, and right now, instead of running around Paris in heels and the finest prêt-a-porter, she was sitting in Nashville and getting ready to go back to a five-star hotel so Miranda could take her out to a decent restaurant. It was suddenly the most hilarious thing that had ever happened to her.

"Oh my God," she wailed.

"Andy!" Nigel said, sounding angry now.

"Sorry," Andy gasped. "Oh my God. This is crazy. I'm sorry.” Then she howled with laughter again. "I'm wearing a cowboy hat."

"Andy, get it together," Nigel growled. "I mean it. Whatever is happening is serious business, and you might be the only person who can fix it."

"Right," Andy said, trying to choke down more laughter. Nigel thought this could be fixed? Was he as nuts as Miranda? "Okay. I told her I'm going wherever she's going. And I am. I'm not leaving her. Right now, that is my entire plan, and it's more than she's got.”

She checked her watch. Ten after five. Miranda wanted her back by six-thirty, and if Andy wanted to see any more of Nashville before she had to go back and change, now was the time to do it. Especially the beer part.

"I better go. There's plenty of, uh, stuff to take care of.” She heard Nigel take a deep breath. "You can call me later, okay?" Andy added, hoping that he wouldn't do any such thing, knowing that he would. "Right now I've told you all I can."

"I had hoped for better from you, Andy," Nigel said quietly, and Andy sobered up right away.

"I can see why," she said, and leaned back against the hard boards of the bench. "But I don't think she did. Hoped for better, I mean. I have to go. Bye," she added before he could protest further, hung up, and decided she'd ignore him if he tried to call her back tonight.

Beer. Definitely beer.

 


 

Miranda's conversation with Greg was not going very well.

"Stephen called me," he said the moment he picked up the phone. "When were you planning to tell me he's divorcing you? When were you going to tell the girls?"

She couldn't think of anything to say but, "I'm glad you two are so chummy."

"Miranda, this is not like you. You're not just acting weird, you're being irresponsible--and whatever else you are, you've never been that."

He was right, and the word “irresponsible” hurt more than any other adjective he could have chosen. “Cold” and “bitchy” she could handle. Not “irresponsible.'” That was never her.

"Are the girls all right?" she asked around the bad taste in her mouth. "Are they upset, distressed in any way?"

"No, I don't think so," Greg replied. "But they're going to start thinking it's odd that I talk to you before they do, now."

"And whose idea was that?"

"Miranda, come back home," he said, as if orders had ever worked on her. Especially his orders. "You've lost your job, you've lost that dickhead, you're not thinking straight. You're not in a position to be running around on your own, wherever the hell you are."

"I'm not on my own," Miranda replied, and was surprised by a sudden surge of reassurance. "One of my assist--former assistants is with me."

"Your what? That British girl? I thought she was back in New York!"

"Not Emily," Miranda said in exasperation. For the first time, she actually tried to imagine Emily accompanying her on this trip, and shuddered. "The second one. Andrea."

"Andrea?” He paused. "Oh, wait. The twins have mentioned her, now I think about it. I think they like her."

Miranda blinked. "They do?” Since when?

"I guess," Greg said. "You must too, if you dragged her along. God, has the poor kid even figured out she doesn't have to do what you say anymore?"

"She wanted to come," Miranda whispered. Then, shocked at how she'd sounded, she cleared her throat. "Let me speak to the girls."

After a few more protests, he did. The girls were fine, of course, and chattered on like always. It was past five-thirty when she hung up.

Then Miranda stood in the middle of her suite, feeling completely at loose ends and hating it. With no real idea of what else to do, she turned the music back on, and heard some man singing--

“All alone, all the way, on your own, who's to say that you've thrown it away for a song? Boy, you sure come a long way from home.”

In disbelief, feeling as if somebody had been listening in on her conversation--or her thoughts--Miranda looked at the CD case. The song: "Breakdown (A Long Way From Home)" by Kris Kristofferson.

Well. How about that. And then she thought about Stephen, and the glint in Irv's eyes, and the way Andrea had looked up at her from the ground floor of her house, and a series of empty hotel rooms, and the high-pitched voices of her children.

And for the second time in less than a week, she sat down and cried. She cried until she was breathless and aching with it, until her stomach hurt. There was nobody to see her, after all.

At least that was different from Paris, she thought, when she finally controlled herself and blew her nose. In Paris she'd seen those divorce papers, and wept for her failure before she could hold it back, her heart and throat and eyes all feeling like they were made of lead. Even when the tears had stopped. And then she'd looked up and there was Andrea, taking it all in with wide, shocked eyes.

The girl had handled it well, Miranda could admit. She'd been professional. Andrea hadn't become either cloying or flustered, hadn't looked away awkwardly or started babbling. She'd merely waited in silence with a gentle look on her face, expressed appropriate sympathy, and then offered practical solutions for Miranda's distress.

Miranda had needed none of them, of course; but she was very glad indeed that Andrea had behaved like that, in such a way that Miranda could remember the encounter with minimal embarrassment.

Andrea had behaved like that. Andrea had wanted to come with her. Andrea was out there in Nashville right now, probably doing something inane, but out there nevertheless, instead of back in Paris. Andrea was…here.

Why?

By the time Miranda dried her eyes and washed her face, some other man was singing about his mama's hungry eyes, and she was grateful it didn't move her in the least. Her mother's eyes had been tired. Miranda had always been the one with hungry eyes, and she'd actually done something about it.

She would again, she knew. In the meantime, she sat down in the armchair next to the CD player, and closed her eyes, listening to the music and waiting for her heart and throat and eyes to get lighter again.

 


 

Andy listened to her best judgment and only had one beer, and made it back to the Vanderbilt by six, sober but smelling of bar. She'd need a quick shower, although she had a nasty hunch that her new dress, though it was still wrapped in its bag, smelled of bar too. But she did her best, and by six-thirty, she'd fixed her hair and slapped a little makeup on--at least she'd remembered to bring the essentials--and was knocking on the door of Miranda's suite.

She had briefly considered wearing the cowboy hat just to see the look on Miranda's face, but there were limits.

Miranda opened the door, and to Andy's dismay, her eyes were a little red, just like they'd been in Paris. Straining, Andy thought she could just barely hear music coming from one of the suite's rooms. She couldn't make out what it was, though.

"Er," she said, suddenly feeling awkward (and very glad she hadn't brought the hat), "I'm ready for dinner."

"What? Oh," Miranda said. Andy saw that she wasn't dressed to go out. "Yes, that's--come in."

Andy followed her in, looking around the Parthenon Suite with awe. Her own room was super nice, although not quite as nice as her suite had been in Paris. This wasn't exactly like Miranda's Parisian suite either, though. Miranda's Parisian suite hadn't been orange, and the seat cushions hadn't been patterned in tiger stripes. Andy's eyes already hurt.

Miranda went down a corridor, and the music disappeared. Andy, still following, watched her turning off a Bose player. Then she glanced around the sitting room in apparent confusion, not even looking at Andy as she said, "Wait here.”

Andy waited obediently while Miranda retreated into her bedroom, presumably to change her clothes. She sat down in the armchair and glanced over the three CD cases resting on the table with the Bose player. There was one CD of old country music, one of new music, and one of even newer music.

The case with the old music was empty. Maybe Miranda was trying to figure out her favorite song, after all. Andy wondered which song Miranda had been listening to when she came in.

She jumped a little when Miranda called through her bedroom door, "What restaurants did you find?"

What? Shit. Even though Miranda wasn't her boss anymore, Andy's stomach still writhed when she said, "I didn't know I was supposed to be looking. I thought you had someplace in mind already.”

There was a pause, in which Andy knew Miranda would have rolled her eyes and pursed her lips.

"We could go to the one of the restaurants in the hotel," Andy added quickly. "They look nice. One of them's a Ruth's Chris.” That was probably the winner, Andy figured. What could tempt Miranda more than a good steak?

"No," Miranda said, to Andy's surprise. "I want to go out. I've been cooped up in here for hours.”

It was Andy's turn to roll her eyes. Apparently Miranda had seen more of the inside of the Vanderbilt than suited her. Like it would have killed her to poke around outside, even if she went somewhere tacky.

"I'll call down to the front desk and get some recommendations," Andy said, reaching for the phone. "How far away do you want to get?"

After another pause, Miranda said, "Walking distance."

Huh. Okay. Andy called, and the man at the front desk recommended a couple of places. One of them, she was amused to hear, was Noshville. Well--why not? Miranda had consented to eat barbecue, and it looked like she was having a pretty rough night. "That deli place is pretty close to here," she called to Miranda after hanging up the phone.

"I think you're a little overdressed for a deli," Miranda replied.

"Well--I can change," Andy said, nonplussed.

"What else is there?"

"Uh…the closest place is Indian, if you don't want to stay in the hotel."

"Fine," Miranda said, and fifteen minutes later, they were walking down 21st Street while the sky got dark and the cars started turning on their headlights. Miranda was silent. She often was, but there were different kinds of silence for her, and Andy was still learning about them. Tonight she seemed restless and sad.

Andy didn't say anything. She didn't dare. Miranda had come out of her bedroom wearing a python jacket, a shiny top, and a brown skirt: the exact same outfit she'd been wearing when Andy had caught her arguing with Stephen in the townhouse. The sight of it had made Andy's heart stop with the memory of terror, and she still wasn't quite over it.

At least Miranda didn't seem to notice. Andy prayed she wouldn't make the connection too.

They ended up in front of an unprepossessing building with green awning, and Andy supposed they were overdressed here too. But it smelled great indoors, and Miranda put up no protest when Andy said to the smiling, sari-clad hostess, "Reservation for two, under Sharon Davis."

"Right this way, ma'am," the hostess said. When they had removed their coats and been seated, Miranda picked up the menu and glanced over it idly. Sitar music played quietly in the background.

"So," Miranda said. "Why Sharon Davis? And--whatever your name is supposed to be?"

Andy started to sweat. "No reason," she said, hoping she sounded casual. "They just popped into my head. I figured they were better than ‘Jane Doe.’"  She decided not to tell Miranda that Sharon Davis was the girl who'd bullied her mercilessly from kindergarten to third grade, and that Michelle Rogers was a girl who'd decided, in third grade, that she'd had enough of Sharon's crap and socked her in the gut.

"Mmm," Miranda said, obviously only half-listening, and said nothing else until the waiter arrived to take their orders. Then she sat back and sipped her water, staring off into space. Andy suddenly imagined her in the Minnie Pearl hat and had to stare off into space herself before she started laughing. Well, it was better than being scared.

"Where did you go today?" Miranda asked.

Andy took a quick gulp of her own water. "Uh, the Grand Ole Opry," she said. "That was pretty neat. And I had to do a little shopping.” She tugged self-consciously at her skirt. Miranda had said nothing about her dress, and Andy wasn't sure if she was relieved or disappointed. "That's about it. Oh, and Nigel called."

That brought Miranda back into the moment, as Andy had known it would. "Oh?" she said neutrally.

"I didn't tell him where we are," Andy said.

Miranda nodded.

"He said Paris is in chaos. He called Irv ‘a very short powder keg.’"  Miranda smirked, and Andy dared to add,  "He's really worried about you. He wants us to come home."

"I'm sure he does," Miranda said dryly, and looked at the wine list.

Andy took her cue and shut up until the waiter returned with their food, at which point Miranda didn't even order any wine. Instead she silently began eating her lamb, while Andy dug into her eggplant curry. It couldn't have been more different from a giant plate of greasy ribs.

"I spoke to the girls," Miranda said.

Andy paused with a forkful of eggplant two-thirds of the way to her mouth. When Miranda said nothing else, she said, "How are they doing?"

"They think I'm still in Paris," Miranda said, "although in three days they'll have to learn otherwise.”

Three days, Andy realized, was when they were all supposed to have returned. Fashion Week, for the Runway team, was more like ten days: getting to Paris a day early, and staying two days after to wrap everything up.

"I'm not sure what to tell them. It’s too much," Miranda muttered, and stabbed her lamb with her fork. "Mommy losing her job and their stepfather in one day."

Andy lowered her fork to her plate, bit her lip, and said, "None of that's your fault.”

Miranda raised her eyebrows, but did not look up from her food.

"Well, it's not," Andy persisted. "That was Irv and Stephen, you can't control what other people are going to do.” Even as she spoke, though, she knew the argument was doomed: the idea of not being able to control people had to be as utterly alien to Miranda as sweet tea and barbecue.

Miranda didn't reply, but continued eating her dinner. Andy forced down some more eggplant, but it didn't taste that good anymore, not while Miranda had that blank look on her face.

"Leave the guidebook with me tonight," Miranda said suddenly. "I'll figure out what road we're taking out of town. We'll proceed from there."

"Right, okay," Andy said, latching on with relief to a new subject. Especially if the new subject might lead to an actual plan. There was only so much spontaneity she could handle, no matter how much Miranda needled her. "Hey, uh--can I put in a request?"

Miranda looked at her with narrowed eyes. "Another one? We're spending the night here, aren't we?"

"Wh--" Andy hadn't “requested” to stay here! "I just wanted to say it'd be fun if we took part of Route 66," she said, trying not to sound defensive. Or whiny. "Not the whole thing or--I mean, it's on the way to California, and since we don't have a, you know, complete plan."

"Route what?"

"Route 66," Andy said, perking up at the mild curiosity that had appeared on Miranda's face. "It's this old road that goes from Chicago to Los Angeles and got wiped out when people started using interstates, but it used to be major. It's what everybody was driving on in The Grapes of Wrath.” She loved that book. "There's a whole chapter on it in the guidebook."

"We'll see," Miranda said, and Andy dared to hope. "I'll want to get an early start tomorrow. We'll check out at seven.”

Andy drooped. Well, she should have figured that today's nine a.m. launch was going to be unusual, and seven was still better than five. "Sure thing," she said.

"What's that route called again? It rang a bell."

"Route 66. The Rolling Stones did a song about it," Andy offered.

"I have met all the Rolling Stones, and you've almost lost my interest.”

"Well, they covered it," Andy said quickly. "I don't think they actually wrote it. There's probably a better version."

"I would hope so," Miranda said. She took a final bite of lamb, and Andy quickly shoveled more eggplant into her mouth, knowing that tonight the meal would be over when Miranda was done. Which didn't take long, since Miranda didn't seem to have much appetite, and barely touched her rice or bread. Andy, still carb-starved, dared to reach for a slice of naan while Miranda called for the check.

It was just past eight when they left the restaurant: far too early for bed, even if they were leaving at seven. And Miranda still looked restless. "Do you want to do something else?" Andy suggested hesitantly.

"Like what?" Miranda asked, to Andy's surprise. She'd half-expected to get blown off completely. But then again, the past three days had been, unquestionably, the strangest of her life, so this was just a drop in the bucket. And Miranda had been eager to get out of the hotel earlier, so maybe she didn't feel like going back yet.

"Well--drinks? Or coffee?" Andy suggested, since she couldn't think of anything else to do after dinner that Miranda might tolerate. She doubted Miranda wanted to get tickets to whatever performance was happening at the Opry tonight. There would be more belt buckles than you could shake a stick at. To say nothing of the fact that Andy hadn't brought her cowboy hat.

"No," Miranda said. She looked around, and sighed. It was getting cooler as night fell, and her breath huffed in front of her, but she was wearing her cream leather trench. It didn't match her outfit perfectly, but she'd only brought one suitcase, and for once, Miranda didn't seem to care all that much. At least she knew that she wouldn't be warm enough in a jacket made out of snakes.

"Well, okay," Andy said, fishing for something else. "You want to go back to the hotel? I could give you the guidebook and maybe we could plan for tomorrow.” Because she wasn't at all sure that she wanted to leave their little tour entirely up to Miranda.

Miranda didn't even seem to hear her, though. Instead, she looked up and down the sidewalk, her brow puckering. "How late are the shops open around here?" she said.

"Huh? I mean--I have no idea," Andy said. “Depends on the store, I guess.”

"Wait here," Miranda said, and headed back into the restaurant. Andy waited, pulling her own jacket tighter around herself and wishing that a little black dress was something you could layer too.

Miranda returned a few minutes later and said, "The Great Escape. This way.” She began striding down the sidewalk. "They're open till ten on Saturdays."

"What's that?" Andy asked, but Miranda didn't answer. At least she didn't tell Andy not to bore her with questions, but Andy still thought it was pretty damn rude. What was so hard about answering a simple question? Miranda wasn't the queen of fashion anymore, or the queen of anything, so where did she get off being so high-handed?

Andy didn't have the cruelty to say it, though. Or the money. She wasn't sure she could afford to get home if Miranda left her here.

The Great Escape, it transpired, was a music store on Broadway. Andy stopped dead in astonishment when she saw the sign, but Miranda didn't even slow down, and Andy quickly picked her jaw up from the sidewalk and hurried after her.

Once inside the store, which felt welcomingly warm after the trot down the street, Miranda looked around, frowning. The place seemed to have a bit of everything: CDs, DVDs, video games, comic books, even those weird little pewter statues that you used to play Dungeons and Dragons. Or at least one of Andy's boyfriends in high school had. He'd even painted them. They hadn't dated long.

The guy behind the counter called out a greeting, which, of course, Miranda ignored. Instead she headed for the music section and peered around it as if she'd been confronted with the Closet in its entirety and was trying to throw together the next issue from scratch. Which meant she didn't look overwhelmed, but annoyed.

She turned to Andy, who was looking at her with her mouth open, and waved her hand irritably. "Get a few CDs of whatever it is you listen to," she said, and added sternly, "No pop. And for God's sake, not the Rolling Stones."

"Okay," Andy said, trying not to look like she could be pushed over by a feather. She opened her mouth to say How many is “a few” or “Anything else I should avoid,” or even “How long do I have?” and gave up, heading into the CD stacks as if she were sleepwalking.

All right, Miranda had said she didn't like country--well, she'd been listening to that CD in the hotel room. Andy didn't know anything about country, though, so she left it alone. What else? Miranda had sat next to Snoop Dogg at the Paris luncheon, but Andy thought that reminding Miranda of that luncheon in any way would be the worst idea ever, so she avoided hip-hop. And she didn't want pop. Which left classical--no, wait, not classical either. So there were the blues (maybe), jazz (maybe not), easy listening (definitely not), "world music" (what was that, anyway?), and, of course, rock and roll.

Miranda didn't like the Rolling Stones, which maybe meant she was a Beatles fan. Or at least maybe she wouldn't hate the Beatles. Andy suddenly wondered, with eager curiosity, if she'd ever met any of them. Had Miranda actually spoken to John Lennon? Andy had to find out sometime.

Okay. Andy dove for a "greatest hits" album by the Beatles--there were scores of them, so she just grabbed one that came on a single disc--and, fired up by the idea of classic rock, grabbed a greatest hits album by Bob Dylan too. Surely Miranda must have met Bob Dylan, Andy realized. Wow. Now that Miranda didn't have anybody but Andy to talk to, maybe Andy could actually get something out of her more interesting than how incompetent people were, or her coffee order. But that would have to wait. Time to keep looking.

Something told her that Simon and Garfunkel was a bad idea. Well--why not a woman? Yeah, some women artists. Janis Joplin, or Roberta Flack--she wasn't rock, but…Andy's head spun with the possibilities. All of a sudden she wanted to grab every CD in the store and offer them all to Miranda on a golden plate, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, she'd find music she liked at last. Which Miranda would not appreciate at all, so Andy had just better focus her search.

But Miranda might also think Andy was just offering her "oldies" stuff, which would piss her off. Yikes. Andy quickly went in search of something more recent, and fifteen minutes later, when Miranda came back into view, Andy had twenty CDs. Miranda's eyes widened.

"I just thought I'd give you a selection," Andy said feebly, balancing the stack of CDs between her hands and her chin. She glanced down and saw that Miranda, who had sensibly found a shopping basket, had picked up a few CDs of her own.

Miranda inspected Andy's stack disc by disc, and discarded most of them. She kept Bob Dylan and the Beatles, but she practically threw Janis Joplin to the floor and gave Andy a disgusted glare. Roberta Flack went on the “acceptable” pile, and so did R.E.M, after a little sniping about Michael Stipe's shaved head. Radiohead was a definite bust (“Do you have something against melody?”), as was Bif Naked ("Really, Andrea, she's got more tattoos than clothes."). U2 was out too ("Bono's a dear, but I've heard him sing.").

She looked ready to cut The Essential Billy Joel until Andy begged shamelessly. She likewise gave in on a cheap compilation called Songs For the Road: Twenty Tracks For Truckin' It.

By the time they were done, she'd agreed to six of Andy's twenty picks, which wasn't bad at all, considering. Andy tried not to bounce visibly with enthusiasm. "So what about you? What did you get?" she asked, trying to peep into Miranda's basket.

Miranda didn't answer, but swept Andy's CDs into the basket on top of her own, and left the rejects in an unsorted pile on an end table. Then she scowled at the guy behind the register while he rang up the CDs, and drummed her fingers on the countertop, and Andy realized that everybody on Madison Avenue was no doubt incredibly grateful that Miranda Priestly never deigned to set foot in any shops herself. The guy quickly scanned the discs and stuffed them into a plastic bag before Andy could get a chance to see them, and she remained insatiably curious as she and Miranda walked back to the hotel.

In the lobby, Andy asked, "So, do you want to plan for tomor--"

"Remember: we're leaving at seven," Miranda replied, and glared when Andy tried to get in the elevator with her.

Right. Some things never changed. Andy knew she'd do well to remember that, and sighed as she waited for the next available car.

 


 

Even though it was just past nine, Miranda was exhausted. She'd only been up for a little over twelve hours, and they'd only driven for three and a half hours today, and she'd already spent a lot of time in the hotel, but she was astonished at how tired she felt. At home, in New York, at Runway, she could work an eleven hour day, spend time with the girls, and get by on six hours' sleep with no trouble. But here…out here, doing this…

Her inner clock was out of whack. When Andrea had knocked at the door before dinner, Miranda had realized nearly forty-five minutes had elapsed since she'd finished talking to the girls. She had been disoriented, to say the least. Her life ran on minutes, down to the second, and she kept track of them all without missing a beat.

Andrea had been able to tell something was wrong, that much was obvious. There were disadvantages, after all, to traveling with someone who had a modicum of perception. She'd said just this morning that Andrea understood nothing about her, but Miranda was becoming uncomfortably aware that this was not true. She had not enjoyed dinner.

The shopping trip afterward might have been worth it, though. Now Miranda opened the plastic bag and sorted through her purchases. Andrea's choices ad been entirely predictable: the girl had tried to read Miranda's mind instead of pleasing herself, and had chosen accordingly. Miranda snorted. Typical.

As for her own selection…Miranda picked up the CD by Johnny Cash--the man was everywhere and there was no escaping him, and besides, she had to respect him for having a signature style, even if it was just something like wearing black all the time. And Waylon Jennings, who knew about being lonesome, ornery, and mean. And Emmylou Harris, but mainly because she knew how to wear white hair with panache, and then that man who'd made Miranda cry. Kris Kristofferson. With a name like that, he should have been designing shoes, not starring in shlocky movies with Barbra.

Miranda didn't know much at the moment, except that she felt like utter shit, and these people clearly knew a lot about that and weren't shy about saying so. She liked it when people didn't tiptoe around and play coy.

Like Andrea. CD selections aside, her assist--her former assistant was already showing signs of growing a backbone. Stepping out of line, even. That was what had led Miranda to hire her, after all: the honest determination in her eyes, her willingness to stand up for herself even as she knew she was out of place at the magazine. Oh, for a little while she'd been even more disappointing than all the rest of them; but then, one day, a Harry Potter manuscript had landed on Miranda's desk, with Andrea smirking above it, and Miranda--shocked, chagrined, and pleased--knew she had a winner on her hands at last.

And that winner was here, by her side. Well, one floor down, anyway. After an afternoon spent running around Nashville, where Miranda had originally not planned to stay. And the day before, they'd driven around and looked at leaves because Andrea had insisted on it. The scenic route.

This was not a problem, of course. Miranda supposed there wasn't much harm in indulging Andrea occasionally, because the places Miranda wanted to go after today weren't very scenic.

She needed her motivation back. She needed to remember where she'd come from. She needed to go back to the underbelly, to the kind of nasty little place she'd escaped--never the actual place, of course, never there again, but places like it. She needed to remember why she would never return. She had to take a long, good look at those places. If she got that look from a series of decent hotels, and she would, then so much the better.

She'd remember where she came from, contrast it with where she was now, and then she'd figure out where she was going. She was sure of it. On her own time, in her own way, on a route of her choosing.

Miranda became aware of a startling, dismaying feeling of liberation. Which was absurd. She was not being liberated from anything. She'd been cut loose, and that was different. She was only trying to get some space and get her breath back. She certainly wasn't having some kind of adventure. As she'd told Andrea, this wasn't for her enjoyment. This wasn't going to be fun.

First things first: read about Route 66. She'd heard of it before, and not just because of that absurd song. She wondered if it might take her to the underbelly, or indeed, anywhere at all. And if the guidebook recommended any decent restaurants or hotels. Barbecue might actually be…

Before settling down to read, Miranda decided to get ready for bed, nine o'clock or not, and to observe her usual toilette religiously. You couldn't let your routine falter too much, not in that respect, not if you wanted to be able to recognize the woman you saw in the mirror the next day. She headed into the bathroom, which really was more than acceptable, and sorted through her toiletries before taking an idle glance at herself.

Then her eyes widened, and her heart stopped in horror. She leaned in so close to the mirror that her nose almost pressed against the glass and her breath fogged it up.

Sunburn?

Chapter Text

The beds at the Vanderbilt were as plush as everything else, and Andy got a good night's sleep. Which meant that she wasn't exactly perky when she met Miranda in the lobby at five before seven, but she was awake, at least. And enjoying the last bite of a bagel and the dregs of a cup of coffee she'd snatched from some buffet breakfast laid out in the lobby for a convention. Good coffee, too. Definitely a step up from the Days Inn.

Miranda did not look quite as well-rested, and she didn't object when Andy volunteered to take first shift for driving. She did, however, object when she saw what Andy put on before they took off.

"What on earth--" she began.

"Isn't it awesome?" Andy said, adjusting her cowboy hat and making sure the strap was snug beneath her chin so the hat wouldn't fly off in the wind.

"Take that off at once," Miranda ordered as she buckled her seat belt.

"Sorry, no.” Andy shifted into second gear as they pulled away from the hotel. "My head gets cold. And besides, the morning news said it's going to be sunny today."

"I don't care if we're driving into the Sahara," Miranda said. "You look completely ridiculous."

"Just think how much more ridiculous I'd look with a sunburn," Andy said, deliberately not looking at Miranda's nose, which had reddened nicely, just as Andy had hoped. "And I hear skin cancer's bad for you.”

Miranda's silence spoke volumes.

"Besides," Andy added, less flippantly and a lot more awkwardly, "look at you. I'll never look that cool, so I might as well be as dorky as possible."

Miranda sneered, but she didn't reply, maybe because she sensed that Andy was actually sincere. She was wearing the cream trench coat again, and the Hermès scarf, and her sunglasses, and seriously, Andy was never going to get within a mile of pulling that off. Not in a dozen lifetimes. She tugged the brim of her hat forward self-consciously.

"So, since we're not going to the Sahara," she began.

Miranda pulled the guidebook out of her handbag and flipped it open to a bookmarked page somewhere in the middle. Then she turned on the GPS. "We're heading for Highway 70," she said.

"70?" Andy asked in surprise. "Not I-40?"

"Did I say 40?"

"No, but--it's just, if you want to go due west, why not--"

"Do you know where 40 goes, Andrea?” Was that a trick question? But before Andy could say anything, Miranda continued, "Memphis. I put up with Nashville, but there are limits."

"We don't have to stop in--" Andy gave up. "Right. Highway 70, here we come."

"Good.” Miranda sat back in her seat, obviously satisfied, and began paging through the guidebook. "Now let's see what's on the way.” She frowned and turned a few pages. "Not much."

"Well, you never know," Andy said. "How do we get to 70 from here?"

"Oh," Miranda said, and looked at the GPS again. She frowned. "Apparently we have to get on 40 first. But we're not staying on it."

"Gotcha," Andy said. "So how…"

"Right on Murphy Road.” Murphy Road was the next turn, and Andy hardly had any time to make it, much less signal. The Porsche's tires squealed, and Miranda scowled at her.

"Try not to get us pulled over before lunch, will you?"

"Sorry," Andy mumbled. "Just, uh, let me know where we're going before we, uh, get there."

"I-440 West. Surely you can follow the signs for that, at least."

"Sure," Andy growled, deciding that if she did get pulled over before lunch, it would be better not to have Miranda's body in the trunk. She had to keep her cool. "For how long?"

"Until we see the 40 exit heading towards Memphis, which, let me emphasize--"

"We're not going to, I get it," Andy said.

"Good. Then we're on 40 for about fifty miles, until exit 152. That should do for now."

"Fine," Andy said, merging on to 440. Thankfully, Miranda remained silent for the next couple of miles, until they hit 40. The road was pretty open, and Andy was able to appreciate the advantages of getting an early start, yet again. The sun was just beginning to rise, creeping into the sky behind them; she could see long clouds, pink and purple, drifting past her towards the horizon.

But when they were on the interstate, the silence started to feel uncomfortable. At least to Andy. "You know, I was thinking last night--" she said.

"Wonderful," Miranda said mildly.

Andy gritted her teeth. "--you know, all that music we got. About how you've probably met a lot of those people. You know, Bob Dylan and…a lot of those people."

"I have," Miranda said.

"So--I know you don't like the Stones, obviously, but are any of the others, you know, nice or--"

Miranda sighed and waved her hand, turning off the conversation without a word. Instead, she reached down to her bag, which she'd put between her feet, and from it she withdrew a couple of CDs. She peered at the cases with pursed lips, and then opened one and popped out the disc, sliding it into the player.

Andy listened, pissed off but eager to hear what kind of music had caught Miranda's interest. Then, to her utter astonishment, she heard a twangy guitar, and a man's voice singing, "I been down to Mississipi--down to New Orleans--"  

The voice sure wasn't Bob Dylan's, or anybody else she recognized right away. "I've played in California, there ain't too much I haven't seen. Lord, I'm a ramblin' man, don't fool around with a ramblin' man."

Andy took advantage of the quiet road to turn and stare at Miranda, who was looking ahead with something on her face that looked almost like a little smile. She was even tapping her fingertips on the door handle in time with the beat.

"Uh--who--uh--" Andy stammered.

Miranda held up the CD case. A grizzled man with a beard was on the cover. "Waylon Jennings. I think we have a lot in common. Eyes on the road," she added sharply.

Andy quickly turned back to the road, but she didn't think she was seeing much of it. "I thought you didn't like country music."

"It's never too late to learn, Andrea," Miranda said. "Now shush."

"Once I mess with your mind, your little heart won't be the same," Waylon Jennings informed them both, and Miranda actually chuckled. Andy felt her heart sink a little bit. She had a feeling that she, Miranda, and Waylon were all going to be buddies for a while.

She was right. Two songs later, Miranda said, "Oh, I like this one especially.” Then she cranked up the volume, and Waylon started singing about being…holy cow, lonesome and ornery? Did people still use words like that?

But Miranda looked completely enchanted. Well, she was right about having something in common with the guy.

"You know, I'm rather glad we stopped in Nashville after all," Miranda said, and Andy saw that her eyes were gleaming vengefully as she looked at Andy's hat.

Andy adjusted the hat again. "Me too," she said defiantly. "Next stop, I'm getting a pair of boots. With spurs, not stiletto heels.”

It didn't even faze Miranda, who settled back in her seat with a contented little smile and pushed her shades up her nose, sunburn and all.

 


 

"No way," Andrea said. "No way is this our exit."

Miranda had to admit she couldn't believe it either. Exit 152: Bucksnort, Tennessee.

"We have to make a stop here," Andrea said. "Oh, please, Miranda. I have to stay I've been to Bucksnort."

"You'll do it on another trip, because I want to say I have never been to Bucksnort," Miranda said at once. "No. I won't even say that. I will never say that word again. I will never let the word cross my mind."

"At least we can stop for coffee," Andrea whined. "Don't you want--"

"That is not going to work twice," Miranda said flatly.

"Well--well--" Andrea suddenly brightened. "We need gas. Look, we're almost running on empty."

Miranda saw in dismay that it was true. She wondered how long a Boxster could run on fumes. Probably not long, and she wasn't exactly sure how many miles per gallon it got. "We are going to make it quick," she said, and she watched Andrea send up a silent cheer. "And I mean quick. No bathroom break, no…"

"Sure, sure," Andrea said, and glided onto the exit, plainly as happy as could be. Well, simple minds liked simple pleasures, or words to that effect. Miranda sighed.

"Come on," Andrea added, "you know Waylon's been to Bucksnort. Or somewhere just like it. I bet Bucksnort is really Waylon's kind of place."

"That's Mr. Jennings to you," Miranda said.

Andrea laughed until she saw that Miranda wasn't laughing back. Then she finished her laugh with an awkward little "…ah," and shut up. Miranda wondered, amused, if she could actually get Andrea to call him 'Mr. Jennings' from now on.

The music had put her in a marginally better mood. She'd started the morning feeling wretched, and Andrea's idiotic hat hadn't helped matters.

Well, no, that wasn't true. It had certainly cooled her libido after a night of mortifyingly sexual dreams, the likes of which she hadn't had in…she didn't know how long. Miranda had no idea what the hell was wrong with her, but at the sound of her alarm she'd awakened feeling desperate and aching and bereft. She was unable to recall the particulars of her dream--she wasn't even sure she'd been having sex with anybody specific, just that she'd been having lots of it, and she'd never felt so cheated in her life as when she woke up with the job half-done.

She wondered if Waylon Jennings had been any good in bed. He didn't look like much on the CD cover, but there was a certain rough-hewn charm--

Oh, God. Miranda bit her bottom lip and started thinking about kicking Stephen in the balls. It certainly didn't calm her down, but at least it directed all that nervous energy towards violence instead, and was nearly as satisfactory.

Andrea piloted the Boxster into a gas station near the exit. They both got out of the car--might as well stretch her legs, Miranda reasoned--and took a look at Bucksnort, Tennessee. It was certainly a hospitable place, judging by the sign on the road that read, "Welcome To Bucksnort, TN. God Bless The USA!”

The gas station appeared to be locally owned, or at least, wasn't a chain Miranda recognized. A neon sign in the window offered "Fresh-Brewed Coffee!”

Well, why not? "Fill up with premium gas," Miranda instructed Andrea. "I'm getting coffee.” To her credit, Andrea didn't smirk, and Miranda added generously, "Do you want some?"

Andrea wasn't quite as good at hiding her surprise, but she said, "Sure, thanks," politely enough. Miranda headed inside and got two cups of coffee--at least it looked suitably scorching--and was then forced to wait in line behind two locals, both of whom apparently knew the woman at the register and couldn't help updating her on their families. Miranda was fairly confident this did not happen in Starbucks.

Just as she was about to suggest that business could possibly be conducted a little more efficiently, she glanced restlessly out the window and saw that Andrea was being chatted up by some broad-shouldered young man who was getting gas for his pickup on the other side of the pump. He'd propped up his foot on the back bumper, rested his elbow on the edge of the truck bed, and was giving Andrea an appealing, toothy smile. He had on jeans, boots, and a leather jacket. If he'd been wearing Andrea's cowboy hat, he could have stepped right out of an old Marlboro ad.

Andrea had one hand on her hip and was giving him a knowing smile: the kind of smile that said she knew she was being flirted with, and more, that she was used to it. The young man appeared completely charmed. He said something and they both laughed; then he tilted his head to the side in obvious inquiry, and Andrea shook her own head, gesturing towards the store.

Miranda immediately turned away and looked straight ahead, clenching her jaw until it ached.

Marvelous. She'd woken up sticky and lonely just in time to hit the road with Andrea, who could apparently get laid in a gas station if she wanted to. Andrea, of all people. And in that hat! And in those shoes! Sneakers today, for God's sake. Honestly, with the way she'd been dressing for the past few months, Miranda had thought Andrea had finally learned--

A man behind her cleared his throat, and Miranda realized that she was at the register. She shook her head rapidly and set the coffees on the counter, digging out her wallet.

"That's a beautiful car," said the woman behind the register. She looked awed. "Is it a Ferrari?"

"No," Miranda said. "How much?"

The woman looked like she didn't know whether or not to be offended. "Two-seventy-eight," she said, and Miranda dug a five-dollar-bill out of her wallet instead of looking out the window again.

Before leaving, she remembered to add creamer to her coffee. She couldn't remember how Andrea had taken hers at the diner. Well, if Andrea had a problem with black coffee, she could march herself into the store and fix it herself, assuming Miranda did not, in fact, leave her here to take advantage of the local hospitality. Then Miranda stormed back out to the Boxster, trying very hard not to look like she was storming.

Andrea had finished pumping the gas and was just putting the fuel cap back in place. She smiled up at Miranda, but the smile faltered a little, and Miranda realized she must still look annoyed. Which was an annoyance in itself: above all else, self-control.

"Thanks," Andrea said, accepting the cup from Miranda. She sipped gingerly, and then nodded in satisfaction. Oh. So she did take it black. Well, how special.

"I'll drive now," Miranda said, refusing to give Pickup Boy so much as a glance, not least because she knew she'd find his shoulders terribly distracting.

"You sure?" Andrea asked in surprise. "We've barely been on the road for an hour.” Miranda did not reply, but opened the driver's side door; Andrea took the hint, and got into the passenger seat without further protest. "It was nice to meet you, Zach," she called to the young man as she buckled her seatbelt.

"You too, Andy," he replied. "Take ca--"

Miranda gunned the motor and drowned him out as she peeled out of the station. Andrea slammed back against her seat with a squeal, fumbling not to drop her coffee. Her hat almost flew off: so close, and yet so far.

"Whoa!" she said. "Did you rob the store or something?"

"How do we get to 70 from here?" Miranda asked, pleased when she sounded as cool and even as ever.

"North on 230," Andrea replied. "For about twenty-five miles. Then we'll hit Waverly and be on our way.” She looked backwards over her shoulder, and Miranda heard the smile in her voice as she said, "You know, I think I liked Bucksnort."

"Oh?" Miranda said before she could control herself. "And did Bucksnort like you?”

"I guess so," Andrea said, sipping her coffee. "Not a bad way to start your day."

"Music," Miranda rasped. Then she cleared her throat. "Now.”

Andrea gave her a long, considering look that made Miranda wonder, for a dreadful moment, if the girl could actually read her mind. Sometimes it did seem as if--

But then Andrea turned to the CD player and mumbled something that sounded like "kill you to say 'please' once in a while" before pressing the 'on' button. Waylon Jennings picked up where he'd left off, unlike some men Miranda could name.

"Ladies love outlaws like babies love stray dogs," he let her know. "Ladies touch babies like a banker touches gold, but outlaws touch ladies somewhere deep down in their souls."

"This guy's kind of growing on me," Andrea said.

Miranda flattened the gas pedal and stared dead ahead at the road.

 


 

Andy wasn't sure what Miranda's problem was, but it couldn't just be her hat. She briefly considered removing it anyway, but the weather forecast had been right that morning: the day was going to be bright and sunny. They didn't both need peeling noses, and besides, Andy wasn't sure taking her hat off would really make Miranda happy anyway.

But at least Miranda seemed to be settling down. She'd been edgy and bitchy when they'd left the hotel, then seething and silent when they left the gas station, but now that a half-hour had passed and they'd just gotten through Waverly, she merely looked displeased, which was normal. Maybe the music had helped.

Miranda Priestly, fledgling country-western fan. A week ago, Andy would never have believed it.

But then again, a week ago, Andy would never have believed a lot of things. In fact, now that she thought of it, the country-western part was the least of it. A week ago, they'd both been living different lives, running around big cities like very fashionable ants. But out here couldn't be more different from Paris or New York.

For a start, Highway 70 was a lot less…interstate-y than the interstate had been. They were actually driving through countryside and seeing houses and driving over the occasional creek. The leaves were pretty out here, too. And in just a couple of hours, Andy realized, they'd cross the Mississippi River.

She hadn't seen the Mississippi since she was a kid. It'd looked like an ocean then. She wondered if it would seem quite so big now.

She grinned into the sunlight. There were definitely worse ways to spend your day. Especially when your day began with a cute guy named Zach jumping out of his truck and saying, "I can't decide what's prettier, you or that car." Andy had instantly decided to erase the entire morning up to that point and start fresh. And now she felt pretty darn good, so if Miranda wanted to stew, that was up to her.

Of course, Miranda had much better reasons to stew than Andy did. Andy bit her lip and glanced over at her; Miranda was looking ahead at the road as if Andy didn't exist.

Andy tried not to feel hurt, since she was pretty sure it wasn't about her at all. In three days--two, now--Miranda was going to have to tell her kids about Paris. Andy wondered why she didn't just get it over with. The longer she waited, the more the girls were going to say, "But why didn't you tell us before?”

Andy was glad that wasn't her problem. She had enough problems of her own. Like her current lack of a job, and income, and friends, and even home, since she probably wasn't going to be living with Nate again after she got back to New York. Whenever that might be.

Instead of facing up to any of that, Andy was hitting the road with Miranda. So maybe she couldn't point any fingers, here.

But none of that meant the end of the world, either. Andy suddenly had the insane urge to tell Miranda that it didn't have to be all bad right now--that it was a gorgeous day, and there was a whole lot of the world to see, and there could be so much more to life than a job or your pride or even relationships and marriages that went wrong. That even when everything was going to hell, you still saw pretty leaves in autumn and got the wind in your face.

But if she said anything of the kind Miranda would throw her out of the car, so Andy controlled herself, as well as her urge to prop up her left leg on the door and rest her sneakered heel on the side mirror. That would have worked better with cowboy boots anyway.

"Why are you here?" Miranda asked.

Startled, Andy looked over at her. Miranda was not looking back; she just kept staring through the windshield, and for a second Andy wondered if she'd imagined her voice. But then Miranda added, "Do you even know?"

"I…" Andy blinked. She should probably have anticipated this question--it was a natural one to ask, and really, it was surprising that Miranda had waited this long. "No," she said honestly. "I don't, really."

"I'm surprised at you," Miranda said. "I thought you had a good head on your shoulders."

"Yeah, but now you've seen it with the hat, so," Andy said, and laughed awkwardly. Miranda's jaw tightened, and Andy said quickly, "I don't know. I just knew I had to find you. And--"

"Or what?" Miranda asked. "Why did you 'have' to find me? What would have happened if you didn't?"

"Well…probably nothing horrible," Andy said slowly. "I didn't think you'd, you know--hurt yourself or anything like that."

"Good," Miranda said. "So why?"

"I told you," Andy said, knowing she'd never be able to explain it any better than this. "I couldn't let you go off by yourself. I knew you'd try," she added, hoping Miranda would ask--

"And how did you know that?" Miranda asked.

Whew. Andy was on firmer ground with 'how' than 'why'. "Because you'd want to screw everybody over," she said. "Why shouldn't you? And you did, Nigel said so. He said everyone in Paris went cra--"

"And after that?" Miranda said. "How did you know I'd go to New York, and then I'd leave again?” She turned to Andy, and for the first time since Andy had met her, she appeared honestly baffled.

"I, well, I didn't know," Andy said. "I mean, I did. But I don't know how I knew. Um.” She saw that Miranda's bafflement was quickly turning into irritation, and she shook her head and tried again. "I figured you'd go back to New York because it was home. So I followed you, and got in really late at night, and decided I'd go to your place in the morning and see if you were there. Only…" She trailed off for a moment. "I woke up at, like, four a.m., because I had this thought that you wouldn't want to stick around and wait for everybody else to figure out what happened. You'd want to get away from--" Andy caught herself. "--um, get away from it all."

She hadn't caught herself soon enough, though. "Get away from 'it'," Miranda said softly. "From 'everybody'."

"Well--"

"I am not running away, Andrea," Miranda said through her teeth.

"I never said you were," Andy pointed out, fast.

"Didn't you?"

"No," Andy said, and added, "but I don't know what you're doing instead.” She took her life in her hands. "Do you?"

Miranda took a deep breath and then let it go. "I'm assessing the situation," she said. "I'm finding fresh territory and a fresh point of view. I need a new perspective."

Andy was shocked that Miranda had given her that much. She wondered if she could get more. "What kind of perspective?"

"New," Miranda said, which meant that there was no more.

"Oh.” Andy scratched her nose. "Have you found it yet?"

"No," Miranda snapped with such force that it was nearly a shout.

Andy gasped.

"What do you think, Andrea? I am driving down Highway 70, towards I do not know where, with my former assistant who doesn't know why she's here either, except out of some misguided notion of pity."

"Pi--I never said--" Andy began indignantly.

But Miranda's voice continued to rise. Her hands were white-knuckled on the wheel. "Did you have to? Why else would you be here?"

"What? Oh, come on, I don't--"

"No?" Miranda said venomously. Her eyes were practically throwing off sparks and Andy wondered, stunned, where the hell this outburst was coming from, why Miranda was so on-edge. "You, and you alone, out of everybody in the world, are not happy to see me humiliated? Are you enjoying this, seeing me this way, feeling sorry for me--"

"I think you're doing a great job of feeling sorry for yourself," Andy yelled, cutting Miranda off and shocking herself utterly. She'd shocked Miranda too, she could see that; but now that she'd started, Andy couldn't stop, and she continued, "I don't pity you. You're the last person in the world I could ever pity, because you always know exactly what you're doing and you do it anyway--"

"What did you say?"

"You know you work all the time, and you know your husband gets mad at you for it," Andy said. Saying it felt pretty darn good, too, even though it was tantamount to suicide. "You know you walk all over everybody else, and you never say you're sorry for anything, at least, not that I can tell."

"You think you get anywhere in this world by being sorry for what you do?" Miranda hissed.

"I don't know," Andy said. "I'm just saying I don't pity you because you brought everything on yourself and you know it, and you knew it all along because that's how you are, and you did it anyway!” She flopped back against her seat and folded her arms, almost panting, wondering if Miranda was going to throw her out of the car, or kill her, or plaster duct tape over her mouth, or what.

"What do you know about it?" Miranda said, looking like she was about to explode. "What do you presume to--"

"You asked," Andy said. "You said 'why else would you be here,' and I have no idea why, but it sure isn't pity--" 

The Porsche swerved a little over into the other lane. There weren't any oncoming cars, and they were a good distance from the truck in front of them, but Andy still yelped, "Jesus, Miranda!” She didn't want to die in a car crash in Tennessee either, for fuck's sake!

Miranda said nothing, but she brought the Boxster into the dead center of their lane. Her jaw was clenched and her nostrils were flared and her cheeks were red from more than the wind and the sun, Andy knew.

"So you do understand," Miranda said, her voice at its lowest and most dangerous. It was much, much scarier than when she'd yelled, and Andy remembered why Miranda always talked that way. Never try to make yourself heard; make it so that others were forced to listen. "You understand more than I thought you would."

"I…"

"And it's a shame you can't apply it to yourself," Miranda continued. "I do know who I am and what I do, and why I do it. I have never fooled myself about any of that. But we can't say the same for you, now can we?"

"What?"

"Showing up with all those high ideals, and then putting on those expensive labels like you were born for it," Miranda said, and Andy knew that the long knives were coming out. She'd said something that hit home, and now Miranda was going to return the favor in a way that would prove Andy was only an amateur. "What did you tell yourself, Andrea? That it was only temporary, that you could just put on a costume for a few months, laughing into your sleeve the whole time at everybody…"

"I--no, that's not what--"

"…and then, at the end, pick up that noble little career you wanted, get back to being who you 'really are,' unchanged? Return to looking down on the people who helped you on your way. Turn your back completely and try to forget how much you enjoyed it. Is that what you thought?"

Andy longed to strike back, but Miranda was telling the truth, the awful truth, and nothing but the truth, and it took all of Andy's words and rammed them right back down her throat. She almost choked as she remembered Emily saying, "You sold your soul the day you put on that first pair of Jimmy Choos," and Nate telling her she was good at turning herself into a different person, only he sure hadn't meant it as a compliment, and Lily saying that she didn't "get" Andy any more.

"I thought so," Miranda said with a mean little smile, when she saw that Andy couldn't respond. She didn't look angry anymore, but vindicated, pleased with herself.

"Great," Andy said thickly. "I'm glad that made you feel better, after you asked me what I thought, and I told you, and then you made me feel like shit for saying it. Glad that perked you up.” Then she sat up straight and made another sally, not caring if it would fail, because it probably would. "Is that what you have to do to feel good about yourself? Put down people who can't fight back?"

Just like she'd expected, Miranda only laughed. "Do you think you're the first person who's ever said that to me?” She shook her head. "You're still fooling yourself, thinking that life is all sweetness and light. I have never needed the opinions of other people, no matter what they were, to feel good about myself."

"Okay--so do you feel good about yourself?" Andy said. "Seriously? Do you like being--"

"Give up now," Miranda said. "You're no therapist, and you're in over your head already."

"Yeah, whatever," Andy snapped. "You're the one saying I don't know anything about myself, but you're only out here to get a 'fresh perspective' or some crap like that. You don't know what you're doing any more than I do."

"Do not presume," Miranda said, "to guess what I do and do not know.” But a muscle had twitched at the side of her mouth. "I never asked you to come, and you're free to go home any time you like."

For a second, Andy couldn't say anything. She didn't know what to say, or how to put it. After a minute, she gave in and just said, "I don't want to go home. I want to go with you. I said so.” She took a deep, trembling breath. "I don't feel sorry for you, but I don't want you to be alone, either, and that's not the same thing, and if you don't understand the difference, then I guess I do feel sorry for you, actually.” She rubbed her hands over her eyes, and then glared up at the pretty blue sky. "You know, I was in a good mood earlier."

"Oh, I'm sure," Miranda spat. She obviously had no response to what Andy had said about staying with her--well, what could she say?--but it had pissed her off again. Visibly. "Unkempt young men in a dirty gas station paying attention to you. No doubt you were in your element."

"What?” That was way out of line! Slicing into Andy with the truth was one thing, but this was something else, and it surprised Andy that Miranda would even stoop to it. "He was a totally nice guy!"

"Who probably hasn't bathed in a month," Miranda growled.

"What the hell? You didn't even look at him," Andy said, feeling herself getting revved up again, only this time it felt different. This time it almost felt good: the subject was less personal, and a lot dumber. So if Miranda wanted to pick a fight… "Who's your ideal guy? Somebody in a tux who takes you to an opera you don't even like?"

"Somebody with a multisyllabic vocabulary."

"Shows what you know," Andy said. "He started off by quoting Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” He had, actually, after the 'pretty' thing. And he hadn't exactly gotten it letter-perfect, but Andy had to give him points for 'How cute are you? Let me count the ways.'

"How charming," Miranda growled. "At least he's passed high school English."

"Oh my God," Andy said. "You are the biggest snob ever." Then she added, "And it's polysyllabic."

"What?"

"Polysyllabic, not multisyllabic," Andy said. "See, I passed high school English too.” And a lot of college English on top of it, as a journalist. Miranda sneered, and Andy almost laughed.

"From cowboys to Christian Thompson," Miranda said. "Looks like you can run the whole gamut."

"Are you really doing this?" Andy asked, amazed that Miranda still was. "Are you seriously trying to insult me by--"

"Don't flatter yourself," Miranda snapped. She was going red again. "I'm only--"

Bang!

Miranda gasped and Andy yelped again as the left rear tire went suddenly, shockingly flat, shredding black rubber behind them. The car lost momentum instantly, but Miranda kept her head and skillfully guided it off the road and on to the generously-sized shoulder, where they rumbled to a stop.

Oh, great. Of all the times to be stuck on the roadside--why couldn't it have been when they were halfway-close to getting along? Of course, the odds were generally against that, Andy acknowledged as she sighed and unbuckled her seatbelt. Miranda wordlessly mashed the button that popped open the trunk.

Well, maybe it was for the best. They could call a truce while they fixed the tire, assuming Miranda didn't club Andy to death with a lug wrench, which she probably wouldn't.

Probably.

 


 

Miranda was actually grateful for the distraction, even if it was a dreadful inconvenience, a hindrance, and an all-around pain in the ass. At least a blown tire could prevent her from surgically removing any more of her own dignity.

Dear God, what had come over her, lowering herself like that? Sniping at Andrea about men? And Andrea had called her on it, which was the worst part of all. Didn't that just cap off the morning. Waking up alone, and then Andrea's stupid cowboy hat, and Andrea's stupid cowboy, and Andrea saying all those things that Miranda didn't quite care to think about, even if she'd provoked them herself, and that was another thing, since when did Miranda invite…

"I don't want to go home. I want to go with you."

Miranda pursed her lips and focused on taking off her Burberry trench, carefully folding it in the front seat while Andrea got their luggage out of the trunk. Then Miranda glanced down at her blouse and pants and shoes, and then at the grass and dirt, and sighed gustily. Andrea looked up at her with a curious frown.

Well, at least Miranda could save one work of art. "I assume you have some kind of sweatshirt or something," she said, plucking at the silk fabric of her blouse.

"Huh? Oh! Sure, of course," Andrea said, and quickly opened up her duffel bag, which she had stuffed to the point of bursting. After a moment of rooting around, she pulled out a purple hooded sweatshirt with the Northwestern University logo emblazoned across the front.

Well, it was better than the alternative. Miranda pulled it over her head and tugged it down so that it could shield her blouse as much as possible from the dirt and mud and grease and oil that were sure to follow. Then she looked around, and was pleased to see a fairly sizeable stone that she could put before the front tire.

When she'd placed it and stood up, she saw Andrea looking down into the trunk with a puzzled expression on her face.

Oh, wonderful. "The jack first, Andrea," Miranda said sweetly.

"Um--yeah," Andrea said, still frowning in bewilderment. "The jack. Sure.” She bent forward until her face was obscured by the trunk hood.

"You did say you know how to change a tire, didn't you?" Miranda asked, feeling her temper starting to rise again, and grateful that she had a legitimate reason to unleash it this time. Of course, she would do so with much more self-control.

"I--well, yeah…but…" Miranda heard the rattling of metal. "But…"

"Or was that just a little extra means of persuasion?" Miranda continued, already enjoying herself immensely. "Some kind of incentive for me to--"

"Miranda! I can change a tire--"

"--bring you along, which has clearly backfired--"

"--when the owner of the car has a spare," Andrea yelled, pushing the trunk hood down far enough that Miranda could see her red face and furious scowl.

"--at the worst possible moment, what?” Miranda blinked. Surely she had misheard.

"You have no spare tire, Miranda," Andrea said through gritted teeth. "There is nothing here to change."

"What?" Miranda repeated. Andrea had to be mistaken.

"I mean, it is supposed to be in the trunk, right?" Andrea said. She lifted the hood again and peeped inside. "That's where the jack and all the stuff--there's space for a tire in here, but…"  She dropped to her knees behind the Boxster and bent over. "It's not supposed to be under the car or something, is it?"

"Of course it isn't!" Miranda snapped, and stalked to the side of the car, looking in the trunk. To her horror, Andrea had not, in fact, been mistaken. Andrea had been absolutely correct. Jack: check. Tool kit: check. Extra floormats: check. Spare tire: no check. No check at all.

Miranda inhaled deeply and looked up at the sky, praying for strength. All right. All right. It was a simple problem, and easily dealt with. Porsche provided 24-hour roadside assistance that was supposedly of the highest quality, although Miranda was currently not inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

She took her cell phone out of her handbag. And when she got Porsche on the line, she made very, very sure to express her displeasure in full. Andrea refused to look at her the whole time.

And then they waited, Andrea sitting in the passenger seat with her arms crossed while Miranda paced restlessly around the car because she couldn't seem to hold still today. She glanced once at Andrea's face and saw something that looked almost like a smirk. Then she bit her lip and looked away quickly, before she could actually grab the girl by the hair and start an honest-to-goodness catfight.

She had the feeling it would be satisfying. She was surprised, in fact, by how satisfying, how stimulating, she'd found their earlier argument. At least until she'd let herself get bogged down into some kind of juvenile pigtail-pulling. But hadn't that been what she'd wanted, just a few days ago? The chance to let loose with somebody, have it out, provoke them past the point of no return? Even if it was just somebody like Andrea?

Of course, Miranda remembered with an angry twist in her stomach, Andrea had given nearly as good as she'd gotten. So perhaps Miranda should think twice about picking a fight in the future. Or take better care in selecting a subject to fight about.

"At least it's a pretty day," Andrea said, and Miranda nearly jumped. She turned around to glare at Andrea, who still had her arms folded, but was looking up at the sky, and then around the car. "Sunny, not too cold, could be worse."

"Paradise," Miranda said, putting a note of finality into her voice that should let Andrea know that under no circumstances were they going to talk about the weather.

"You want some more music?”

Surprised (yet again), Miranda said, "No. We don't want to run down the battery."

"Didn't they say the tow truck would be here in fifteen minutes? It won't drain that much," Andrea said.

"I gave in on Bucksnort," Miranda said. And regretted it, she didn't add. "Don't press the music.” She waved her hand around in the air. "Listen to the birds singing or something.” Since the day was so pretty.

"If you could be any kind of bird, what would you be?"

Miranda stared at her. Andrea's face was perfectly innocent, but there was an unmistakable gleam of…something in her eyes. Not malice, not quite. Mischief.

"I don't know," Miranda said. "What kind of bird would you be?” Andrea opened her mouth. "Because I'm fairly certain I'd be the kind of bird that kills and eats whatever kind of bird you are."

"I think you'd be a bald eagle," Andrea said, as if Miranda hadn't spoken. "I mean, I know that probably sounds cliché and all, but it fits."

Miranda tried to keep her jaw from dropping. After a very difficult moment, she managed, "Endangered?"

"What?” Andrea's eyes went wide. "No! I meant, like--"  She stretched her arms wide across. Then she actually flapped them. "Huge. And scary. And white on the to--pretty cool," she added hastily. "Definitely a bird of prey, you know, if that's what you want to be--"

"A bald eagle," Miranda said, wondering if maybe Andrea was still driving, after all, and Miranda had fallen asleep and was having a very strange dream.

"Well, maybe not," Andrea admitted. "You're not endangered.” Miranda looked at her again, frowning. "You're just rare," Andrea added, still smiling.

Miranda could think of absolutely nothing to say, and could think of no reason for why the hard knot in her stomach had warmed and loosened a little, except that if she needed her ex-assistant's approval in a conversation about birds, then she was far worse off than she'd thought.

At least Andrea had the grace to turn pink. She cleared her throat and said, "I'd be a woodpecker.” She grinned. "My parents always told me so, because--"

"I can guess why," Miranda said, easily able to imagine Andrea beating her way through solid wood with persistence and sheer irritation. "You know what kind of game I like to play in the car? The quiet game.”

Andrea opened her mouth again.

"My children are much better at it than you are," Miranda added pointedly.

Andrea's mouth snapped shut, and something flashed in her eyes. But she just pressed her lips together in a tight smile, and nodded, and shrugged, as if longing to say something. About Miranda's children.

"What?" Miranda asked softly, even as she knew this was not a fight she was prepared to have. She didn't quite think she'd be able to keep her head. Not about this.

"'What' what?" Andrea said. "'What' nothing, I didn't say anything. Isn't that how you play the quiet game?” Then she added, "I can't believe you lost."

"I--"

"Which means I win, and we get to play some music," Andrea said. "Do I have permission to get the CDs out of your purse?" she added, sparing Miranda the trouble of decapitating her on the side of a Tennessee highway, which she would have been forced to do if Andrea had gone rooting around in her bag.

"No," she said instead. "No, you do not. You will never have permission to get anything out of my purse or put anything in it. And you did not 'win' anything, because we are not seven years old, and we are not listening to music."

Andrea flung her head back dramatically against the back of her seat again. "Okay. Fine. But at least let me get out the guidebook," she said. "We might as well figure out where we're going to end up today."

Miranda hated to admit it, but it was the most sensible thing Andrea had said all day. And it was obviously a better alternative to whatever idiotic thing Andrea would say next, if left to her own devices. Or that Miranda would.

She prowled around the car and held out her hand, glaring. Andrea's eyes went suitably wide--at least that still worked sometimes--and then she gave Miranda her handbag. Miranda opened it and tugged out the guidebook.

"You have bigger purses than anybody I've ever seen," Andrea said.

Miranda didn't bother replying. Instead, she closed the bag and dropped it unceremoniously into Andrea's lap. She had actually packed three different bags in three different colors (black, brown, and cream, naturally), but this one, the black one, was by far the largest.

Andrea said "oof" when it landed on her, which was quite enough to put Miranda back on an even keel. She opened up the guidebook and flipped through Tennessee, hoping that the book suggested something west of Nashville--other than Memphis--that might be worth a stop on the way. There wasn't much. In fact…

"The guidebook doesn't even mention any other cities except for Nashville and Memphis," Miranda said, scowling.

"Well, it has to cover the whole country," Andrea said, sounding defensive, as if she'd written the thing herself. "They have to focus on the highlights."

"Since when is Memphis a highlight of anything?"

"Have you ever been to Memphis?"

"No," Miranda said, and did not look up from the book, because she had the sneaking suspicion that Andrea would be rolling her eyes. "These choices are completely inadequate."

"Well, we'll have to see where the tow truck takes us, too," Andrea said. "And how long it'll take to change the tire."

"A truck? God forbid they bring a tire and change it for us right here," Miranda said, not looking up from the book.

"Yeah, but Porsche won't pay them as much for that," Andrea said. "They'll probably only do it if you've already, you know, got a spare on hand."

Her tone was innocent enough that Miranda could afford to ignore it. "If Porsche is paying them, then the company ought to provide superior service."

"Porsche probably can't keep a really close watch on The Middle of Nowhere, Tennessee," Andrea pointed out, and Miranda was forced to concede she might be right. Which meant at least a couple of hours would be wasted, in all likelihood.

Five minutes later, the tow truck rolled into view and, as per Andrea's prediction, the burly man driving it had brought no tire with him. "Sorry, ma'am, against company policy," he said blithely, and what kind of policy was that, Miranda wanted to know. But he had a truck, and no tire, and as for her, she had no other options. Except to call Porsche yet again the minute they were back on the road, which she certainly would.

"Budge on up into the front seat, plenty of room in the cab," he said. "Really ought to have a spare, you know."

"But we didn't know--" Andrea began to protest.

"Just get in the truck," Miranda growled, because really, Andrea ought to know by now that you did not explain yourself to tow truck men. Andrea mercifully climbed up into the cab while Miranda watched the man carefully--with an eagle eye, she thought wryly--to make sure her car didn't get a single ding.

"You went to Northwestern University?" he asked her.

Miranda realized that she was still wearing Andrea's purple sweatshirt, and that her trench coat was still folded in the driver's seat. She instantly pulled off the sweatshirt, not caring that he was watching, and tossed it up into the cab, into Andrea's lap. Then she grabbed her coat and donned it, feeling like she was back in her proper armor. Maybe that explained her behavior--maybe wearing Andrea's clothes had temporarily lowered her to Andrea's level.

"Not a scratch on that car," she told him.

"Oh, I'm very careful, ma'am," he reassured her.

"Good for you," Miranda said, and watched him go red, and when they were ready to go, she was glad that Andrea sat between them in the truck. So was he, clearly. She wasn't sure that Andrea shared their relief, but that didn't matter. What mattered was pretending that she wasn't sitting in a smelly truck cab.

"Where you gals going?" he asked as he pulled off the side of the road. Miranda kept her eyes fixed unwaveringly on the side mirror, just to make sure her car made it with them, since it was apparently impossible for anybody in the entire world to do his job right.

Andrea clearly saw that Miranda was not going to reply, so she said, with a little laugh, "Out west. Where are you taking us?"

He chuckled too, and Miranda watched how he relaxed instantly, became more jovial toward Andrea. Her stomach turned into a knot again.

"New Johnsonville," he said. "Right by the Tennessee River. Where you hoping to get today?"

"Er," Andrea said, turning to look at Miranda, "I don't…"

"Tulsa," Miranda said.

"Tulsa," Andrea said to the driver. Then she said, "Tulsa?" to Miranda. Miranda rolled her eyes.

"Oh, that's easy," he said, as if they'd asked him for directions, which they hadn't. "It's a long drive any way you look, but if you want the straightest route, you pick up 40, go through Memphis--"

"We're, um, sort of looking to avoid Memphis," Andrea said quickly. "You know--uh--traffic? And we're not in a big hurry."

"Sure, sure," he said, nodding. "Well, you got you a good map?"

"GPS," Andrea said.

"That'll do you mostly," he said, nodding towards the GPS mounted on his own dashboard. "But a map's better for finding other ways than the highways. And it can't break.” He laughed heartily.

"Tell me more," Andrea said.

Miranda cleared her throat.

"I mean, I'm sure we'll figure something out," Andrea sighed.

"All right," he said, sounding doubtful. "I got family in Tulsa. You come down from Clarksville?"

"Nashville," Andrea said.

"Nashville?" he said, obviously surprised. "Why ain't you taking 40 this far?"

"Well, when we decided to get a flat tire, we knew it would be much too dangerous on the interstate," Miranda said, and finally, silence fell. Andrea squirmed a little, and the driver appeared to be sulking, but for her part, Miranda found the rest of the ride to be much more tolerable.

 


 

"We missed Loretta Lynn's ranch," Andy said.

"What a shame," Miranda replied.

They were sitting in a restaurant, not looking at each other over their menus. It hadn't taken long at all to get to New Johnsonville, for which Andy kept thanking God repeatedly. Then Miranda had hassled and haggled with every single employee at the towing company--at least, it had seemed that way to Andy--before ultimately accepting that "we'll have it done in two hours, ma'am," actually meant it really would take two hours.

Then Miranda had demanded a phone book and had flipped through it irritably while Andy stood by, looking for something to do. Or something to eat, anyway. So now it was nearly eleven-thirty, and here they were, two steps away from ordering steaks that Miranda would undoubtedly deem subpar.

Steaks, along with everything else. Andy was still trying to process the weirdness from earlier, when Miranda had tried to needle her about Zach. Talk about bizarre. And strange. And odd. And weird. And bewildering. And baffling. And--

"You might like Loretta Lynn," Andy said, just to save herself from her own brain. "Who knows? She's a country singer too."

"I might," Miranda said, with surprising mildness. Andy looked up, but Miranda was still poring over her menu. "I still fail to see why I would want to see her ranch, or know anything about her at all, beyond her music."

"Well, sometimes it makes it more meaningful, knowing something about the artists," Andy said.

"I wouldn't know," Miranda said. "Nor do I care. Things should stand or fall on their own merits, not the lives of their creators."

"Huh?" Andy stared at her. "Come on, Runway is all about selling the mystique of the designers along with the clo--" Miranda looked up then, scalding Andy with her glare, and Andy realized her gaffe. She could have choked on her tongue.

"No, no, do go on," Miranda said. "Tell me what Runway is all about, Andrea."

"I…I don't know," Andy admitted. She longed to change the subject, but it was already obvious that Miranda would allow no such thing until she'd punished Andy sufficiently for daring to open her big fat mouth. "I don't think I ever figured it out.” She swallowed, and forced herself to keep meeting Miranda's eyes. "Even when I started getting better at my job."

"I know that much," Miranda said. "I always did. I didn't bring you with me because I thought you'd turn into some kind of fashion star, Andrea."

'Bring'? Bring to Paris? Or did Miranda mean something, somewhere else? "Well, good call," Andy joked weakly.

"Hmm," Miranda said, like she was still trying to figure out if it had been a good call or not, and looked back at the menu.

Andy bit her lip. She'd just received a reprieve, and she knew it, and she was going to push her luck yet again. "But I think you're still wrong.”

Miranda looked up again, frowning.

"About things standing on their own merits. I didn't care about Runway before I met you and started working there. I never would have cared if I hadn't met you. And I don't care about Runway now that you're gone.” She shrugged. "So, you know. And I'm not the only one who feels that way.” Miranda just kept looking at her, and did not ask her to elaborate, but Andy did anyway. "Nigel said that he and James shut Jacqueline out of the Holt show. Other people will…"

"I know," Miranda said. "Oh, I'm quite sure of that, Andrea.”

"Oh," Andy said, surprised. "Well, good, then. So--I mean, if that keeps going on, you can probably get Runway back, can't you? If nobody will help Jacqueline out, if everybody's waiting for you to…"

"Stop," Miranda said quietly. She looked back down at the menu.

Andy stopped, but she wasn't happy about it. Miranda needed to wake up and listen. Nigel and James and everybody else would help her, but she had to make a move, she had to let them know she was ready to go. The longer she waited, the more time she lost, the easier it would be for everybody to say she was crazy and beyond help. The easier it would be for everybody to forget her.

Not that it was easy to forget Miranda Priestly, of course. Andy had the feeling that even if she tried, she'd never be able to do it.

"Why Tulsa?" she asked.

Predictably, Miranda said, "Why not Tulsa?"

"No reason," Andy sighed.

"That's where Route 66 picks up," Miranda said, setting her menu aside. "Dear God, is our waitress still alive, or does just she expect us to subsist on water and coffee?” She looked impatiently around the restaurant.

"Route 66?" Andy asked excitedly, glad to forget about everything else. "Really? We're taking it?"

"So it appears," Miranda said dryly. "It takes us to California, and from what the guidebook tells me, you'll get all the kitsch you want."

"And then some," Andy said, beaming. She didn't know what had made Miranda agree to this, especially considering the mood she'd been in all day, but she wasn't arguing with it. Just then their waitress returned to take their orders, and Andy gratefully watched Miranda turn her irritation on Kimmy Three, whose name was actually May.

All told, after lunch and another wait at the towing facility, they were on the road again at half past one. Porsche would completely cover the cost of the tow, a new spare tire, and, as compensation for their "inexcusable oversight in not providing a very basic necessary," as Miranda put it, a new road tire as well. But now that they were moving again, especially after a pretty decent lunch, Miranda's mood appeared to have improved.

Andy wondered if it had anything to do with what she'd said at lunch, about finding Miranda more interesting than Runway, about knowing she, not the clothes or the designers, was the soul of the magazine. Andy hoped so. She wasn't really sure she'd been a whole lot of help on this trip so far, except to be a second driver and mooch off Miranda's credit card. Oh, and get into fights with her that nobody else on earth would ever believe.

There were no fights once they were driving again, though. Miranda's concentration was fully engaged in finding a way out of town that avoided the interstate. She was driving now, and actually listening to Andy for once, since Andy was the one throwing out the directions.

Andy wished they were taking the interstate, Memphis or no Memphis. If Miranda wanted to reach Tulsa by tonight, that meant they'd be hauling ass across the state of Arkansas, and it was Andy's considered opinion that interstates had been designed expressly for that kind of thing. But she didn't say anything, and Miranda got back on Highway 70 as if they'd never been interrupted, and Andy had never compared her to a bald eagle, and seriously, it really was a miracle Miranda hadn't thrown Andy out of the car by now and left her to thumb her way home.

They took 70 all the way down to Jackson, which seemed to be getting too close to Memphis for Miranda's comfort. That didn't stop her from saying, however, "Doesn't one of those men have a song about Jackson? I saw it on one of the CD cases."

"Um, I don't know," Andy said. "They're all in your bag."

"I know," Miranda said. "Just this once, you may look. Take out all the CDs and put them somewhere safe."

Once again, as she opened up Miranda's gigantic black bag, Andy had the feeling of invading sacred space. Then she felt like her ears had just caught on fire as she remembered going through Miranda's underwear back in Paris; fortunately, Miranda did not appear to hear the little choking noise Andy made.

With trembling hands, Andy carefully sorted through the bag, which Miranda had packed as if it were a Secret Service briefcase. Everything was stacked and tucked into pouches with a military efficiency and order. The CDs, all ten of them, rested at the bottom. The handbag itself had to weigh at least five pounds, and Andy wondered if Miranda used her purses as makeshift dumbbells for exercise. She certainly carried them around as if they were as light as so many feathers.

There wasn't a lot of extra "safe" space in the car, though. "We should probably get one of those cases for CDs," Andy said. "Easier to tuck away.” Miranda nodded shortly, and Andy took out the ten jewel cases and searched through them until she found "Jackson" by Johnny Cash. A duet with his wife, June. "Did you see Walk the Line?" she asked as she slid the CD into the player.

"There is a CD storage tray in the glove compartment," Miranda said. "Put them all in there and put the cases back in my bag."

"I wonder what 'walk the line' really means," Andy said as she obeyed. "I mean, I kind of get the general idea, but Wayl--I mean, Mr. Jennings" --Did Miranda actually smile for a second?-- "has a song about it too, and I wonder if it's, like, shorthand for something specific."

"It's an exotic and mysterious language, Andrea," Miranda said. "But as we walk among the natives, it's best to learn their speech, isn't it?” Andy couldn't even tell if she was joking. "Figure out where we're going after Jackson. After you play the music," she added.

Andy obediently pushed some buttons, and Miranda listened to Johnny and June singing to each other while Andy looked at the GPS again. "Looks like our best bet is--uh--Highway 412," she said. It wasn't actually their best bet, but all other roads seemed to lead, ultimately, to Memphis. 412 would take them back up north, meaning it would have been faster to avoid Jackson altogether, but Miranda wasn't doing the navigating and so didn't have to know. "That'll get us to I-155."

"No intersta--"

"It's not showing me a lot of small roads," Andy said, trying to be patient. "Not to go over the Mississippi River. We don't have to stay on it after we get into Missouri."

"Missouri?"

"I think so," Andy said, squinting at the screen again to double-check. "We can cross over, hop back on Highway 412, and take that into Arkansas. Then just keep going west from there towards Oklahoma."

"All right," Miranda sighed, looking annoyed that whoever had designed the American highway system had not taken her wishes into account. Then she cranked up the music and tugged her scarf more securely around her hair.

Andy waited a few minutes before adjusting her hat because she didn't want to look like a copycat.

Miranda tapped her fingers on the steering wheel in time with the beat, and although the wind and the road and the music were loud, Andy was pretty sure she caught her humming once or twice.

But after a couple more songs, Miranda said with a frown, "He's kind of depressing, isn't he?"

"Kind of," Andy agreed, although that seemed to be par for the course for country music, as far as she could tell.

"I'm not in the mood right now. Go to the next one," Miranda said, and Andy switched out the discs.

"It's nine o'clock on a Saturday, and the regular crowd shuffles in," Billy Joel sang. The song was depressing too, but at least the music sounded a lot perkier than Johnny Cash. Miranda did not object, and Andy nearly cheered, settling back against the seat. She started humming too, and before she could stop herself, she joined in on the chorus. "'Well, we're all in the mood for a melody, and you've got'--"

"No," Miranda growled, and Andy stopped, acutely embarrassed. She tried to enjoy the rest of the song without feeling self-conscious.

"You don't have a bad voice," Miranda said a few moments later. Andy turned to gape at her, but Miranda wasn't looking at her, and didn't seem particularly interested in pursuing the topic further. Andy still felt her insides get warm.

"Thanks," she said. "I was in chorus during high school. Do you, um, sing?”

She couldn't imagine it, and was not at all surprised when Miranda rolled her eyes and said, "No."

"I bet you could," Andy said, to her own surprise. "You sound like you could. I mean, your voice…"

"I don't care if I could. I don't."

"Oh,"  Andy said. "Okay." She twiddled her thumbs and looked out the window at the countryside, at the passing houses, at the other cars, at anywhere but Miranda.

Especially because she caught herself thinking about Miranda's underwear again for no reason and kind of wanted to die. She'd often half-believed that Miranda could read minds. She hoped to God it wasn't true.

Lost in her own thoughts, Andy jumped when Miranda suddenly snapped, "For pity's sake, is this why you wanted to buy the CD?"

"Huh?" Andy blinked at her.

"This song," Miranda said, looking really pissed.

Andy listened, and heard Billy Joel singing, "Oh, and now she's heading out to California--and she doesn't know what's comin', but she's sure of what she's leavin' behind--"

"Oh!" Andy said in surprise, and a little embarrassment. "I didn't know, I mean, no, I wasn't thinking about that. It kind of fits, though, doesn't it?"

"Does it?" Miranda didn't look any less pissed.

"Yeah, it does," Andy said. "It fits both of us, not just you.”

Miranda looked surprised, and Andy took advantage of the silence to pay closer attention to the song, about a woman with money in her pocket who was a rocket on the Fourth of July, who was heading out to California and was going to--

"Are we going to do that?" Andy asked Miranda. "Make a stop in Nevada?” She tried to imagine going to Las Vegas or Reno with Miranda, and her brain short-circuited immediately.

So it was a relief when Miranda said, "No. There's nothing but dice and desert, and I can't decide which is worse.” She thinned her lips. "And I don't approve of gambling."

"Oh, me neither," Andy was happy to say with complete honesty. "In college I did this feature on--"

"My first husband did, unfortunately," Miranda continued. "He lost a great deal of money that way. I left before he could lose all of mine, too."

"Oh," Andy said, too shocked to come up with anything else. It wasn't a secret that Miranda had been married three times, but Andy was pretty sure she didn't make small talk about why all those marriages had failed. "Yeah, I…I can see why it would be a deal breaker. Was it an addiction or something?"

"George was addicted to many things, I learned," Miranda said. She did not sound particularly bitter, which was even more surprising when she added, "Including drinking and other women. I married very young, but it didn't take me more than a couple of years to realize I needed to get out.” She bared her teeth in a savage little smile. "And that I could get the judge to make him pay for his crimes. Literally."

"Oh," Andy said again, only this time she gulped it.

"Do not underestimate the power of alimony, Andrea," Miranda said, "if you ever want to put the fear of God into a man.” She sighed. "Until you start making a lot more money than he does, and a lawyer's a better friend than a judge."

"Um, yeah," Andy muttered. "So…Stephen isn't…"  Miranda pursed her lips, and Andy winced, seeing that she'd overstepped. "Sorry," she said. "Never mind."

"Indeed," Miranda said coldly. Andy squirmed, and they didn't say anything else for miles.

Then, as they merged onto I-155 towards the river, Miranda said, "How does it apply to you?"

"What?"

"That song," Miranda said. "The California one. You said it applied to you, too."

Wow. Did Miranda actually give a shit about Andy in a way unrelated to herself? "Well, I left New York without knowing where I'm going," she said. "And I just lost my job too.” Not that quitting was the same thing as getting fired. "And, uh, my boyfriend dumped me. Before we went to Paris.”

And again just a couple of days ago. The thought still made Andy's heart hurt. But was it because she missed Nate, or because of how true his words had been, and how much they'd stung? She had a pretty good idea which one bothered her more.

Miranda looked bored, and Andy saw that she'd already dismissed Andy's relationship troubles as some pedestrian youthful melodrama. This compelled Andy to add, "He dumped me because I worked too much.”

That got Miranda's attention; she lifted her chin and gripped the steering wheel tighter.

"And because I changed," Andy admitted. "I wasn't like I used to be when we started dating. He said we didn't have anything in common anymore. I guess we don't.” She gulped hard, suddenly feeling tears smarting her eyes. Which she wasn't going to let fall. Not in front of Miranda, of all people. How humiliating would that be?

"Get used to it," Miranda said.

Andy turned towards her, wide-eyed. Miranda was looking dead ahead at the road, glancing occasionally in the rear view mirror. "What?"

"Get used to it," Miranda repeated. "Men don't like being put second. And they don't like it when you change. Never mind that when men change, when they become successful, when they become more dedicated to their work, it's a sign of 'growth' and 'achievement.'  Not for you, it isn't."

"Well--yeah, but--" Andy looked down into her lap. "I mean, I wouldn't like it if a guy put his job ahead of our relationship. I wouldn't like it if my boyfriend missed my birthday party because he had to work." But Miranda would have fired Andy if she hadn't gone to the benefit. And to Paris. Andy had said she didn't have a choice, had tried to explain to Nate…

"No, you wouldn't," Miranda said. "But you would be expected to understand."

"Yeah, maybe," Andy said, only half paying attention, because she was thinking about something else. She'd lied to Nate and to herself. She'd had a choice on all those nights when she'd put her job ahead of her boyfriend. And maybe there was nothing wrong with that, at this time of her life.

So she'd made that decision, but had refused to accept the consequences or the credit or the blame, and why wasn't this simple? Why couldn't she be either the good guy or the bad guy in this scenario? Why couldn't she just make decisions about her life one way or the other, and accept them like Miranda did, and then everything would make sense and fall into place?

"I promised him I'd be there for his party," she mumbled. "And I wasn't."

"Boo hoo," Miranda said, rolling her eyes. "Plans change. Priorities don't."

"Maybe they should," Andy said.

"Should they?" Miranda said. "Let me tell you about a woman who privileged her relationship over her job at an inopportune moment, Andrea."

"Oh," Andy said. "Um."

"I heard, long ago, that you have to pick the hill you want to die on," Miranda said. "You stake out what matters and you stick with it, no matter the consequences. You do not weaken.” She was gritting her teeth.

"It's not weak to want to save your marriage," Andy protested. She wondered, for the umpteenth time, if Miranda really was insane, if she was completely incapable of living outside her job. "You didn't know it wouldn't work. And you didn't know that Irv was going to--"

"It doesn't matter what I did or did not know," Miranda spat. "You don't take your eyes off the prize, Andrea, not for a single moment.” She smiled bitterly. "Let this be a lesson to you."

Andy decided that now was definitely not the time to start up a discussion on the merits of relationships versus work, or on feminism, or on human nature, or on anything of the kind. "Okay," she said instead. Then she dared to add, "I'm sorry it happened."

"Thank you, Andrea," Miranda said. "That will sustain me in my darkest hour."

"Well, jeez, maybe it should!" Andy said, getting annoyed, which was a lot better than getting depressed. Did Miranda want to share-and-care, or not? "People care about each other. We do things for each other. That's--that's a basic fact!”

Miranda said nothing.

Andy added, "If you ask me--"

"I didn't," Miranda said. "Nobody did."

Andy took a deep breath, and exhaled it, reminding herself that she should not strangle the driver of the vehicle. "I think it's not the end of the world if priorities change," she said. "I think sometimes it can be a good thing. That's all I've got to say.”

"Promise?"

"Yeah, sure," Andy snapped. She folded her arms and looked huffily out her side of the car, watching the guardrail speed by. Miranda said nothing else, and Andy didn't look at her.

 


 

Andrea didn't think it was the end of the world if priorities changed. Well, didn't that just figure. She was a product of her generation, Miranda thought; she hadn't had to fight for what she had, and at the ripe old age of twenty-something, she didn't know that the real fights still lay ahead.

That didn't mean she couldn't meet the challenges, of course, nor that she couldn't win. But she had a long learning curve. By the time she was Andrea's age, Miranda had already learned a lot more.

But it was a different world now. A new generation. Miranda felt her jaw tensing. Was that why Irv had done it, gone after her? Out with the old? Did he think she was out of touch--she, who had recognized and nurtured the newest, hottest, freshest talent that was turning the fashion world upside-down day after day? Had Jacqueline discovered James Holt, or Marc Jacobs, or Jack and Lazaro, or countless others?

Perhaps it was time to call Nigel after all. If Miranda couldn't think of a more productive plan to get herself out of this hole, maybe she could just dig Jacqueline and Irv a deeper one and throw them in it. Destroy Runway, destroy Irv's flagship publication, destroy…everything Miranda had worked to build for nearly two decades.

Miranda swallowed hard. The idea of sabotaging Runway had some attraction, but mostly, when she thought about it, she felt a little sick. As if someone had asked her to turn on one of her children. The magazine, her staff, fashion itself, none of those were to blame for what Irv had done. She hated Irv; she despised Jacqueline; she loved Runway, had loved it since she was a child, had taken it under her wing nearly twenty years ago, and the thought of savaging it hurt her.

This was not altruism, she knew. It was mother-love: the adoration of someone or something that depended entirely on you, a feeling so fundamentally selfish that it transcended itself, transforming into one of the "noblest" of human emotions. It had led the magazine, and her, to greatness. Runway had been the vehicle for her ambitions; it had also been more.

So she could not ask Nigel, James, and all the rest of them to turn their backs on Runway. What she had to do was get Jacqueline out of there. Irv was more difficult, of course, and possibly invulnerable, but Miranda was fairly confident that Jacqueline could be taken down with relative ease. It would just require a little finesse. Really, it would just require Nigel, James, et al. to say that they were delighted to work with Runway, but not with her. Once the numbers went down--enough to wound the magazine, but not kill it--Irv would get over himself and cut Jacqueline loose.

But what then?

For the first time, Miranda allowed herself to think that she might never go back to Runway. That even if Irv asked her, even if Irv begged and groveled--well, she'd take the grovel, but…maybe she wouldn't go back. Maybe that ship had sailed and it was time, after all, to move on to the next big thing. On her own terms, not Irv's.

Then, apropos of nothing, Miranda caught herself wondering if Jacqueline was going to redecorate her office, and the thought nearly made her scream.

So she stopped thinking, and concentrated on driving while Andrea concentrated on looking anywhere but at Miranda, and that suited them both. And about ten minutes later the Mississippi River came into view, which distracted Andrea nicely, since it appeared the girl had never seen water before.

"Ohmigod, it's huge," Andrea gasped, staring across the admittedly-impressive span of water as they drove over it. "I thought I was imagining it from when I was a little kid. But I wasn't. I mean…look at it!” She craned her neck. "Just imagine Huck and Jim out there. Or Mark Twain. No wonder it used to take everybody a million years to get anywhere on it."

"And yet here we are, doing it in ten minutes," Miranda said. "What happens when we cross the river?"

Andrea sighed. Apparently Miranda's lack of enthusiasm was disappointing. "Missouri," she said. "Missouri happens. For a little while. And then Arkansas happens for a long time."

"How long is long?"

"If you want to get to Tulsa from here, and not take the interstate?” Andrea looked at a passing road sign for Caruthersville, Missouri, and then touched the GPS. "Almost ten hours."

Ten hours? They'd be getting into Tulsa after eleven o'clock. Miranda cursed the flat tire yet again. "Well, we'll switch," she said. "I've been driving since Bucksnort, and I'm ready for a break. The next five hours are yours.”

"Sure," Andrea said agreeably. At least she hadn't kicked up a fuss about taking shifts so far. It was a relief to drive with someone who was willing to pull her fair share of the weight--and to let Miranda do the same, since Stephen had often insisted on driving everywhere himself, which, in hindsight, was clearly some kind of masculinity thing. How tiresome.

Once they crossed the river, Miranda took the nearest exit and they switched, taking a few minutes to stretch their legs. Miranda, who did yoga three times a week and played tennis nearly every morning, was incredibly annoyed at how stiff and creaky her joints felt, how sore her rear end was, and how much her shoulders ached. When were they going to come up with a pill for being fifty years old?

Andrea, of course, stretched, groaned, and then plopped down in the driver's seat with obviously minimal suffering. Miranda tried not to be jealous, since it was beneath her.

Miranda had also had quite enough of Billy Joel. He was a lovely man in many ways, but of course she had been forced to side with Christie during the divorce, and things had never really been the same since. So when Andrea took them back up on the highway, Miranda put in Roberta Flack, and listened appreciatively for the next hour or so. Maybe Andrea had been right. Obviously there was something to be said for this 'music' thing, for letting lyrics and melody pull you away for a little while…

And Roberta Flack had a beautiful voice, soft and soulful, and Miranda was still full from lunch, and they'd put the top back up, which meant there was no howling wind. Without quite meaning to, she fell asleep while Roberta was murmuring in her ears, "And the first time ever I kissed your mouth, I felt the earth move in my hands…"

"C'mon, you know you want one," Stephen said, sliding his arms around her waist, wearing the boyish grin she'd adored once upon a time. He leaned in for a kiss.

"No, I don't," Miranda protested, turning her face away from his even as she canted her hips just the tiniest bit forward. "For God's sake, Andrea's right over there, driving the car."

"It's okay, I don't mind," Andrea said from somewhere to Miranda's left, presumably still at the steering wheel. Miranda wasn't sure how she and Stephen were standing up while Andrea was driving the car, but it didn't seem to matter. "I want you to be happy. I want to go with you."

"There, you see?" Stephen said. "She won't look."

"No, I don't have time," Miranda said even as she wrapped her arms around Stephen's neck. "I have to go to work.” Stephen frowned at her, and she regretted speaking. She didn't really want to go to work. She would actually like very much to stand right here and be kissed.

"Don't go to work," Stephen said. "Stay here. Everything will be okay."

Stay. Yes, stay. She wanted to stay. But she couldn't stop herself from saying, "No, I can't. I have to go.” Then she was the one clinging tighter to him, while he was pushing her away. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," she said.

"So go, then!” Stephen was no longer smiling or leaning in for a kiss. He pushed her away, she stumbled backwards and fell down, and he loomed over her, red in the face.

"No," Miranda protested. She wanted to stand up again, but she couldn't move. She felt like she weighed a thousand pounds. "You don't understand, why can't you understand?"

"You know you're going to ruin it," Stephen yelled. "Why don't you just stop?"

"Because I can't!" Miranda screamed, so hard her throat hurt.

"I'm not going to kiss you again, and neither is anybody else," Stephen said, and then he was gone, leaving her on the ground and unable to rise. She looked around, looked everywhere, but he was nowhere in sight.

Somebody's arms went around her, and this time, they were Andrea's. "This is what people do, it's okay," she said.

Miranda turned and pressed her face into Andrea's neck. It was warm here.

"I have to change the tire now," Andrea added.

"I don't care about the tire," Miranda said, and now Andrea was the one she grabbed, the one she held on to. "When we fix the tire we have to go, so let's just stay here for a while."

"It's getting dark," Andrea said, and Miranda saw that she was right. Now they were sitting on a New York City sidewalk. The Porsche was gone and pedestrians were streaming back and forth around them. They had to huddle very close together to keep from getting stepped on. Night was falling.

"They're going to run over us," Andrea said. "Let's go inside.” Still holding on to each other, they both tried to stand up, but the passers-by kept buffeting and shoving them, and they couldn't.

"I could try to get up by myself," Andrea suggested.

"No!" Miranda cried.

"Okay, I won't," Andrea said, and kept her arms around Miranda. "Do you want me to kiss you instead?"

"I don't know," Miranda said. "Do you want to?"

But before Andrea could answer, somebody began shaking Miranda by her shoulder, and Miranda opened her eyes. It was Andrea, and Miranda blinked in confusion, looking around. They were in the car again. New York was gone, and the car was slowing down.

"Why are we stopping already?" Miranda mumbled, blinking again, and squinting.

"It's seven o'clock," Andrea said, and Miranda looked at her in disbelief, before realizing that it was nearly dark outside now. She looked at the dashboard clock. Andrea was correct. But…but Miranda had just had the one dream, and it hadn't been very long, and surely she'd only been out for twenty minutes?

She couldn't have slept for six hours. Impossible. She'd never been able to get any kind of restful sleep in a moving vehicle.

"You looked like you needed the sleep," Andrea said as she put the car into park outside the restaurant. "But it's dinnertime, and I figured you'd want to call the twins."

"The twi--oh," Miranda said, and shook her head. She unbuckled her seatbelt. "Yes, of course. Where are we?"

"Nowhere special," Andrea said. She still wasn't looking at Miranda, and Miranda suddenly wondered, horrified, if she'd been talking in her sleep. She'd never done that before, at least, not as far as she knew--but wasn't there a first time for everything?

"How far--ah," she said, clearing her throat and trying to sound aloof. "How far into Arkansas are we?"

"We're still following 412," Andrea said. "We just got through Harrison. This is some place called Alpena. We're heading towards either Springdale or Rogers, depending on how we want to get to Tulsa. I need to take another look at the route once we're done eating."

"That doesn't answer my question," Miranda said snappishly, and Andrea turned red.

"We're a hundred and seventy miles from Tulsa, and about four hours," she said. "And I am really tired, and my butt hurts. Just thought you ought to know.” She got out of the car, and nearly staggered. Miranda wondered if the attitude came from mere fatigue, or if Andrea had somehow picked up on--but that was absurd. She felt nauseated anyway.

She got out of the car. It felt painful, and good, and painfully good to stretch her legs and her back. "You go on in," she said. "I'll call the twins out here.”

"Okay," Andrea said, ran her fingers through her hair, and headed off. Miranda hoped the food was decent. She realized she was ravenously hungry again, even though she'd done nothing but ride in the car and sleep.

And she hadn't exercised in days. The next hotel had better have a gym. It was bad enough to have lost her job. She wasn't about to get fat into the bargain.

"So, are you sane yet?" Greg asked when he answered the phone.

"Hello, Greg," Miranda said, and then yawned. "How are the girls?"

"They're fine. Have you worked out what you're gonna tell them in two days, when you're supposed to be back to take them out to dinner instead of being in the middle of God-knows-where?"

"Arkansas," Miranda said before she realized it. Then she cursed herself.

"Arkansas?"

"Greg…"

"What the hell are you doing in Arkansas? Do you even know anybody there?” She could picture the flummoxed look on his face.

"Nothing's wrong with Arkansas," Miranda said, looking around the parking lot and taking in the family coming out of the restaurant: a mother and father, and a boy about seven or eight years old. The woman was wearing an oversized t-shirt with a picture of Tweety Bird on it. "Well, nothing that can't be fixed by leaving it."

"Is that girl still with you?"

That girl. Who had embraced Miranda in the dream. Miranda flushed. "Yes, she is," she said. "Of course she is."

"'Of course,' huh?" Greg said. "Nigel called me. He said he spoke to her yesterday."

"Yes?"

"He said she sounded about as crazy as you are.”

"What?"

"Something about, I don't know, a cowboy hat or something?"

Miranda saw that Andrea had left her cowboy hat on her seat. But since the top was still up, Miranda couldn't very well throw it away and then tell Andrea it must have been carried off by the wind. "Andrea has been very helpful," she said, glad that Andrea wasn't around to hear her say such a thing. "And neither of us is crazy, for goodness' sake. I'll call Nigel soon."

"You will? You swear?” Greg demanded. "He's worried sick."

"Yes, I will," she said in exasperation. Greg and Nigel had always gotten along well, and Miranda sometimes thought the divorce had pained Nigel nearly as much as it had pained the two of them. Maybe more. "Now please let me speak to the girls."

When Cassidy got on the phone, she said, "How come you're calling us so late now? Are you up really late every night?"

"It's been a very busy week, darling," Miranda said, getting a lump in her throat at the sound of her daughter's voice. Greg had a point. How was she supposed to break the news to them? She couldn't put it off for much longer. "Are you ready for school tomorrow?"

"Sure," Cassidy said indifferently. "We get to start riding lessons next week, right?"

"Right," Miranda said, and then Caroline got on, and she and Cassidy started talking excitedly about horses. Miranda wondered if they'd stay with it for longer than a few months. They liked music and karate. Nothing else had held their interest so far.

When she hung up, about fifteen minutes had elapsed, which, now that Miranda thought about it, was rather a long time to leave Andrea stranded in a restaurant all by herself. And what sort of restaurant was it? For the first time, Miranda paid attention, and realized they'd ended up at a barbecue joint again. Was Andrea making fun of her, or making a point, or what?

As she approached the door, Miranda was forced to concede that it did smell very good. Andrea was sitting by herself at a table near the window, sipping coffee and snacking on something from a plastic basket lined with paper. When Miranda sat down, she saw that they were…she wasn't sure what they were, exactly.

"What in the world…"

"Hushpuppies," Andrea said. "Try one."

'Hush Puppies' was a shoe brand. Of extremely ugly shoes. "What are they?" Miranda asked.

"Sort of like cornbread, only deep-fried and really bad for you," Andrea said. She picked one up and stuck it in a little plastic container of Country Crock. "They're good in butter."

"No thank you. Won't the coffee keep you up?"

Andrea looked at her for a moment with a stunned expression on her face--why?--and then shook her head before saying, "It's decaf. Here, you can borrow my menu."

"Wonderful," Miranda said, taking it. "Although I'm not sure why I should bother, since it's obvious we're going to be eating barbecue from coast to coast."

"It was on the way," Andrea said patiently. "And you liked it in Nashville."

"That was turkey," Miranda said, and then realized she'd admitted to liking barbecue. Andrea appeared not to notice, thankfully. "This is--I don't know what this is.”

Fifteen minutes later, though, Miranda was forced to concede that whatever it was, it was delicious. It had taken all her willpower to eat the side salad first before tackling the meat. Andrea, of course, had shown no such restraint, and her eyes were actually fogged over with bliss as she sipped her second cup of coffee.

Miranda remembered her dream, remembered the feel of Andrea's arms around her--it had seemed so real--and remembered Andrea's polite offer of a kiss. She quickly hid her blush in a sip of her own, regular coffee.

The coffee, combined with her earlier snooze, would no doubt ensure that she wouldn't sleep a wink tonight. But perhaps that was just as well. Tonight Miranda had the oddest urge to get in the car and keep going for as long as she could, as far as she could, no matter what her aching back and backside had to say about it.

Just keep going. Just go. She'd felt like this when they'd left New York.

She wasn't running away, she reminded herself. The opposite: she rather thought, now, that she was going in search of something. She just had no idea what, or how important it was, or what it would even mean in the end. But she'd find it.

She always did.

"Are you going to be okay with driving at night?" Andrea asked. Miranda frowned at her. "Well, I don't know," Andrea protested. "I mean, my mom hates to."

"Your mom?” Miranda almost threw her coffee cup at Andrea's head then and there. The very notion was insulting enough, but combined with that ridiculous dream--

Andrea quickly realized her error, and turned pink. "Hey, I didn't mean…"

"I'm sure," Miranda said.

"Nothing's wrong with my mom," Andrea flashed, obviously deciding that the best defense was a good offense. "It's not an insult to get compared to her, you know."

Miranda did not reply, but instead stuck another forkful of barbecue into her mouth before deciding that no matter how sinfully good it was, she'd completely lost her appetite. Andrea thought of Miranda like she thought of her mother. Nothing could have been more mortifying. It was even worse than when that idiot waitress in Nashville had said the same thing.

"Anyway, it's not as safe to drive at night, no matter who's driving," Andrea added piously. "Everybody knows that."

"I am driving," Miranda said through gritted teeth as her determination to get through Arkansas tonight redoubled. "Feel free to sleep through the wreck and wake up in the afterlife."

"Great," Andrea said. She ate a few more mouthfuls of barbecue before saying, "Do you believe in one? An afterlife."

"I don't know," Miranda said, making sure she sounded as bored as possible, because there were few topics that bored her more than this one. "I don't think about it often."

"I don't know if I do," Andrea said. "I mean, believe. I think I might. I don't think much about it either.” She looked appropriately pensive. "Did you go to church when you were a kid?"

Miranda surprised herself by saying, "Temple."

"Oh. You're Jewish?"

"No," Miranda said.

"Oh. Well, okay. My mom's never been religious, either," Andrea said. Miranda tried her very best to burn through the girl's skull with her gaze, but Andrea's lips just twitched. "Sorry," she said. "I'll stop now."

"Please do," Miranda said, appalled by how rough her own voice sounded, how…hurt.

Andrea blinked, looked at Miranda's face for just the quickest of seconds, and then quickly turned back to her food. For a moment Miranda was afraid she'd apologize again, or do something else to make things worse, but thankfully Andrea kept her mouth occupied only with eating.

While Miranda paid the bill, Andrea said, "How are the twins tonight?"

Basic civility. Well, that was something. "Fine," Miranda said. "I'll have to call Nigel soon."

Andrea blinked. Miranda supposed it could have seemed like a non-sequitur, but she decided not to explain herself.

"Okay," Andrea said. "You want to, um, right now?" She looked at a clock on the wall of the restaurant. It was nearly eight, and night had completely fallen outside. "I'm sure he'd be glad to hear fr--"

"Tomorrow," Miranda said, and led the way to the door.

Once they were headed out of the parking lot, Andrea busied herself with looking at the GPS. "Okay, 412 west is still the way to go," she said. "That's a start.”

"Good," Miranda said, and maneuvered back on the highway, glad to be driving again. Four more hours to Tulsa. It would be a very literal pain in the ass, but she could do it.

"That'll take us towards Springdale," Andrea continued. "Near I-540. We cross that, and…" She stopped to yawn. "Sorry. We cross I-540, stay on 412, and keep going until we hit Tulsa. Looks pretty simple."

"Good," Miranda repeated. "What's in the CD player?"

"Still Roberta Flack," Andrea said. "I turned it off. I didn't want to wake you up."

"Hmm," Miranda said, feeling embarrassed all over again. "Well, it's been hours, so we undoubtedly need to fill up the--" She glanced at the fuel gauge and saw that the tank was nearly full. "When did we--"

"You were asleep," Andrea said, looking out of her window, not looking at Miranda. "Pretty deep. Like I said, I didn't want to…"

"How did you pay for it?"

"I have a credit card too," Andrea said. The defensive note in her voice made Miranda turn to look at her, and she saw a blush creeping up the pale skin of Andrea's cheek. "Although I think I've pretty much maxed it out."

"'Maxed out,' as in--"

"As in, I probably have a couple of bucks left on it before I get eaten alive by interest," Andrea said.

"Andrea," Miranda scolded, incredibly grateful to focus on a topic other than her little siesta, "you should really be more careful with your money. I know quite well how much you made at Runway, and I'm sure you cannot afford to go around maxing out your credit limit every month."

"That's why my limit is so low," Andrea snapped. "I got it capped at two thousand dollars a month. So I can't spend my way into a hole."

"Two thou--" Miranda was stunned that anybody could live like that.

"Yeah. I pay for everything else in cash. Anyway, what do you mean, telling people to be more careful with money? Runway makes it look like thousand-dollar shoes and handbags are something everybody ought to have!"

"Runway is fantasy, Andrea," Miranda said. "Among other things. We--it--sells imagination, lets the woman on the street pretend she lives in an exotic world. Where she's privy to what the wealthy people do."

"I know that," Andrea said, to Miranda's surprise. "But even if they can't afford all that stuff, the magazine tells them they should want to. And then people get angry they can't have it, and you get fake bags on Canal Street."

"That's not my fault," Miranda said flatly. "Or Runway's fault. Or anybody's fault but their own. They buy the magazine of their own accord, and the fakes, and everything else. Choices, Andrea. We all make them."

"I--" 

"Or should Runway come with a warning label?" Miranda continued relentlessly. After all, relenting was no fun. "'Attention, stupid people: mind your wallets'. Or 'Buying things you can't afford can seriously damage your wealth'. Or maybe an informative insert about the economy in the middle."

"God, you know who needs a warning label? You do," Andrea said. She opened up the glove compartment and pulled out the CDs. "'Warning: Miranda Priestly might run you in circles and then talk you to death'.” Before Miranda could recover her breath from that audacity, Andrea said, "You want some more country?"

Miranda opened her mouth to deliver a scathing riposte, and snorted with laughter instead. "Just so long as you remember who's running who in circles, you may play what you like."

There was a moment of silence. Miranda did not deign to look at Andrea, but she was fairly certain the girl looked surprised. Then Andrea mumbled, "Right," and Miranda smirked. "I want R.E.M.”

Now Miranda sighed.

"What? The first song is 'Drive,' right? That fits.”

Andrea put in the CD, and soon enough, Michael Stipe was complaining about something. He was a sweet man in person, but dear God, his songs could be dreary. And then, to cap it off, three songs into the CD, Andrea went to sleep, and Miranda couldn't exactly flip through the discs and change them herself.

She could wake Andrea, of course, and demand different music. Even if Andrea had felt some bizarre compulsion to let Miranda sleep while she impoverished herself--certainly Miranda had never asked her to do something as silly as pay for a full tank of premium gas--that didn't mean Miranda was under any obligation to…

Andrea snuggled up against the side of her door and murmured something. "Everybody Hurts" began playing. Miranda pressed the fast-forward button so they could skip that one.

 


 

Andy could tell she was going to go to sleep. It was inevitable. She was exhausted, after all. And full. And it was dark outside, and they were moving at a steady pace, and the Porsche's seats were pretty comfy, even if she had been stuck in them for hours.

She just hoped she wouldn't twitch and mumble in her sleep, like Miranda had done. That had been really weird, and Andy had felt like an eavesdropper, although Miranda hadn't said anything coherent. Andy had never seen Miranda sleep before. Apparently she couldn't hold still or stay quiet even in her dreams.

Andy wondered what she'd been dreaming about. Probably Runway. She probably ran the magazine in her sleep, even now.

But even if she'd twitched and mumbled, she hadn't woken up. Not for hours, not even when Andy stopped for gas. It had made for a pretty boring drive, and Andy had been surprised by how much she would have liked Miranda to wake up and gripe about something. She hadn't woken her, though. She'd let her sleep. Andy had a hunch Miranda really needed the sleep, and had probably been needing it for years.

But now it was Andy's turn, and she wasn't sleeping as heavily as Miranda had. The music was messing with her, leading her in and out of consciousness, the lyrics and melodies shaping her dreams. R.E.M…that had something to do with dreaming, of course…right now the song was about going swimming at night, and how it wasn't like it used to be and nobody understood anymore, which didn't make any sense, until--

"You, I thought I knew you,” Michael Stipe sang. “You, I cannot judge."

At that, Andy opened her eyes just a little bit, saw Miranda in profile, and said, "Yeah, that."

Miranda frowned at her briefly, before looking forward. "What?"

"Just, that song," Andy said, waving vaguely at the dashboard and closing her eyes again.

"I'm glad you're awake," Miranda said before Andy could go back to sleep. "Put something in that's worth listening to."

"Aw, man," Andy sighed, but since she hadn't exactly been listening to the music, she couldn't complain. She grunted, squinted, and sorted through the CDs. "What d'you want?"

"Emmylou Harris."

"You like her hair, don't you?"

"Just put her in."

"Okay," Andy said. "Yours looks better.” Miranda did not reply; Andy swapped the CDs, and then happily conked out again.

She woke up briefly a few songs later. The music was soft, melodious, melancholy. Emmylou Harris had a pretty voice. Andy could just see Miranda's face lit up by the dashboard displays: the proud curve of her nose, the pinch around her mouth. She'd puckered her lips. Pursed them, almost. She definitely didn't look happy.

Emmylou Harris sang, "I only hope that you can hold me now--till I can gain control again.”

"This is nice," Andy said sleepily.

Miranda twitched and turned to look at Andy with eyes that had gone surprisingly wide. "It's--what? What did you say?"

"The song," Andy said, frowning in confusion. "It's a nice song."

"No, it isn't," Miranda said, and pressed the button to skip to the next track. "I was just about to change it. Go back to sleep."

"Hmph," Andy grunted, and did.

When she woke up again, it was to a sound she'd never, ever expected to hear: Miranda Priestly cursing, just a little too loudly for it to be under her breath. Andy opened her eyes in time for Miranda to give the GPS a murderous glare and a muttered, "Fucking…where in the world…"

That could not be good. Andy came fully awake, blinking and looking around. They were not on Highway 412, she could tell that much. At least, not unless 412 had suddenly gotten a lot narrower, and less like a highway.

"Where are we?" she asked, rubbing her hands over her face.

Miranda gave her a quick look and said, "Not too far from Tulsa," in an imperious voice that didn't fool Andy for a second.

"We're not on 412, though," Andy replied. Not a question.

"I--no, we aren't," Miranda said. "There was construction. Cars were backed up for quite a long way. I took a shortcut."

I took a shortcut were four of the deadliest words in the English language, as far as Andy was concerned. They were the words you heard in movies right before people got stranded in the desert, or had to stop to rest in the woods in the middle of the night while an axe murderer crept up on them. Or, at best, they got stuck in a car at almost eleven p.m. with Miranda Priestly, who would never--Andy could already tell--admit she was lost.

And of all the fucking times to get lost, why couldn't it have been during the day? As it was, it was much more difficult to scope out the terrain or look for road signs. Andy sighed, leaned forward, and looked at the GPS.

"I don't think we're where it says we are," she said after a second.

"It might be slightly off," Miranda said from between her teeth.

"We--we are in Oklahoma, right?” Given how close they'd been in Alpena, Oklahoma would have been pretty hard to miss.

"Yes," Miranda snapped. "We passed the state sign."

Well, that was a relief. Just then, a sign came into view of the Porsche's headlights. A sign for Highway 20. Highways were good.

"Let's go left," Andy said. "Get on a real road."

"What's this one?" Miranda asked peevishly. "Polyester?”

"Hey, don't get mad at me," Andy said. "I didn't put up the construction. Or take a shortcut," she added pointedly.

"Nor did you help navigate, which is your job."

"You didn't wake me up!" Andy said in disbelief. "If you needed help—"

"We. Are. Fine," Miranda said, and took a left so sharply that the tires squealed. Andy remembered doing almost exactly the same thing that very morning in Nashville. Apparently it was okay for Miranda to do it. Then, thankfully, Highway 20 came into view within a few minutes. A few minutes after that, so did a green sign.

"'Claremore'?" Miranda asked.

"Just five miles ahead," Andy said. Claremore. The name was familiar, but she couldn't remember why. Didn't matter, not right now. She quickly looked up the name in the GPS. "It's close to Tulsa," she said in relief. "We're not too far off-track."

"Didn't I say that?" Miranda asked.

"Yeah, you did," Andy said mildly, which definitely pissed Miranda off more than firing back would have done. Good. "Uh…do you still want to try to make Tulsa, or…"

"We're close enough, I think," Miranda growled, and Andy gave a silent cheer. "Just see what Claremore has to offer.” Her voice was already rich with scorn, and they hadn't even seen the place yet. Evidently it was going to meet the same fate as Memphis.

After a couple of minutes on the GPS, Andy hadn't found any lodging that would perk Miranda up, that was for sure. "Um, it all seems to be budget stuff," she said. "Days Inn, Super 8, you know, places like that.”

Miranda sighed through her nose, but Andy didn't know what else she'd expected. You didn't get Vanderbilts or Hyatts in most small towns.

"Whatever's closest," Miranda said. But the Super 8 was closest, and as soon as they drove into town and got a good look at the building, Miranda kept driving. Andy couldn't really blame her.

Instead, she looked around. She was still trying to remember where she'd heard of Claremore before, although obviously she hadn't paid too much attention. Maybe she'd figure it out in the morning.

There were several budget motels a few minutes down the road, none of them easily distinguishable from the others. Miranda quickly gave up and just turned into the nearest parking lot with a gusty sigh. They hadn't spoken for a few miles now, and Andy was glad to get out of the car. She stretched with a groan.

Even if she had napped for a long while, she thought she'd be able to get some sleep with no trouble. She hoped to God that she could somehow convince Miranda to drive a shorter distance tomorrow.

"I suppose it's too much to hope that this place has a gym," Miranda muttered. Andy had to try hard not to laugh. "Well, let's make sure they have room at the inn.” She headed for the doors.

The interior was…not so great, but it could have been worse. It was shabby, but clean. Miranda still looked completely revolted.

"Welcome to McKerrow Joe!" said a girl at the front desk. Kimmy Four or, as her name tag said, Linda. She was smiling, but she looked sleepy too. "You ladies want a room for the night?"

"Two," Miranda said tersely, and dug out her credit card.

"Name?"

"Sharon Davis," Miranda said without missing a beat. But apparently McKarrow Joe's staff wasn't as worldly as the Vanderbilt's, because Linda looked at the name on the credit card, and then at Miranda, with a frown. Miranda sighed and took out her driver's license.

Linda compared the two, saw that they matched, and looked at Miranda in obvious bewilderment. Then she said, dutifully, "Er…okay, Mrs. Davis.”

Andy tried not to laugh, since Miranda had just made their presence here look ten times more suspicious. What worked in big cities, in certain places, didn't work anywhere else, and judging from the pink on Miranda's cheeks, she'd just realized that too.

Linda swiped the card while Miranda drummed her fingertips impatiently on the counter. "You want me to go get our bags?" Andy asked her, since there was no way a helpful bellboy was going to appear out of thin air. Miranda nodded, but as soon as Andy turned to go back outside, Linda said nervously:

"Ma'am, I'm sorry, but your credit card's been declined."

Andy instantly turned on her heel, just in time to see Miranda's back go very straight. "Excuse me?" Miranda said.

"It's, the machine won't let me scan it," Linda said. "Says it's been blocked or something."

"What?" Miranda shook her head, as if Linda were no longer speaking English. "Why?"

Just then, Andy figured it out, and blurted, "Oh, shit."

Miranda turned to scowl at her, and Linda gave her a wide-eyed look.

"Sorry," Andy said quickly. "It's just, uh, M--Sharon, did you call the bank and tell them you'd be traveling?”

Miranda opened her mouth to speak, and then snapped it shut as she realized what Andy just had: that Miranda's credit card was supposed to be in Paris, not racking up charges while heading westward across the United States. Apparently the bank had noticed, and had stopped the card for Miranda's own protection.

The gobsmacked look on Miranda's face would have made Andy laugh if it hadn't been half-past eleven, and if they hadn't been trying to check into a fleabag motel in Claremore, Oklahoma, and oh yeah, if Andy hadn't also been flat broke and unable to cover the bill. Fucking premium gas.

"Oh, they stopped your card, ma'am?" Linda said, looking sympathetic. "That happens sometimes. I guess you can just--oh.” She looked at a clock on the wall and grimaced. "I guess it's too late to call them."

"I guess," Miranda said icily. "Try this card instead.” She didn't look hopeful, though, and sure enough, the second card wouldn't clear either.

"Well--we don't take personal checks, but if you have cash, we can do that," Linda said. "I mean, we don't normally, but it's awful late and I can tell you're tired. And you do have your license."

"How much per room?" Miranda asked.

"Seventy-five, ma'am," Linda said. She pulled out a chart and frowned down at it. "Oh, I'm sorry. We only got one vacancy. I didn't know. It's two queen beds, though. Y'all okay to share?"

Andy almost fainted at the thought. But where else were they supposed to go? At least this place was willing to take their money. Maybe Andy could sleep in the hallway on the other side of the door.

Instead of answering Linda, Miranda turned to Andy. She looked so tired in that moment--she looked at least ten years older than her usual self--that Andy was shocked.

"How much cash do you have?" Miranda asked.

Oh, that was another bad sign. "Me?" Andy squeaked. She pulled her wallet out of her purse and opened it. "Um…seven bucks and some change."

"Oh, wonderful," Miranda said. "You should always carry at least twenty-five dollars in cash, Michelle. You never know when you'll need it."

Not for the first time, Andy thought that they were both going to be really, really lucky if they got to the end of this trip without any black eyes. "Sorry. How much cash do you have, Sharon?" she said sweetly.

"Twenty-eight," Miranda said, and if looks could kill…she turned back to Linda. "No checks?"

"No checks," Linda said apologetically. "We just don't run 'em. I'm sorry.” She pointed to a little sign by the desk to prove her point: no personal or third-party checks, no Discover cards. "You got traveler's checks, though?"

"No," Miranda said. Her shoulders sagged for just a moment, and for the first time since Andy had known her, she looked…small. Diminished. She'd never looked like that before. Not even in Paris. Andy suddenly felt sick, and hot behind her eyes, and she knew it wasn't because she was tired. She wished with all her heart that she had fifty bucks, either in her pocket or in the bank, but she didn't.

"This has been," Miranda began, stopped, and continued, "today has been…" She trailed off.

"Can we pay you tomorrow?" Andy asked desperately.

"I--well--" Linda looked wretched. "I guess I can wake up the manager, but I don't think he'll say it's--"

"Where's the nearest pawn shop?" Miranda asked.

Andy stared at her. Linda blinked, but then beamed in obvious relief. "You got something you can pawn?" she asked. "Oh, that's good, that'll do you good for one night. Nearest place is Easy Pawn and Jewelry, right up the road--you go up Lynn Riggs, and take a left onto Will Rogers. It should still be open. I think they close a little after midnight.” Then she looked anxiously at the wall clock. It was almost a quarter till twelve. "You better hurry, though. It's just a few minutes away."

"After midnight," Miranda muttered. "Like Cinderella. All right. Come on, An--Michelle."

"What are you going to pawn?" Andy asked as they got back in the Porsche. She eyed Miranda's earrings. They were gorgeous hoops made of gold and garnet. David Yurman had designed them expressly for Miranda.

"See if the pawn place shows up on the GPS," Miranda said, looking into the mirrors as she backed the car out of the parking place. "What was it called?"

"Easy something," Andy said. She poked. "Easy Pawn. Okay. There it is."

It only took them five minutes to get there. Andy had never been in a pawn shop before. She looked at the bars in the windows, and then at the staggering array of merchandise inside. Miranda did not. Miranda marched straight to the counter, and Andy snapped herself out of it and hurried after her.

"Be with you in a minute," said a man down at the other end of the counter, where he was counting out cash to a guy with a bad case of the shakes.

"What are you pawning?" Andy repeated, leaning on the counter and looking idly over the knives beneath the glass case. "Your earrings?"

Miranda did not reply. Andy glanced over at her, and saw that Miranda was looking down at her left hand with a perfectly neutral expression on her face.

Andy's stomach twisted. "Um," she said.

"Stephen and I picked it out together." Miranda took off her diamond wedding band and regarded it. "What do you think I can get for it?"

"Um,” Andy repeated, "are you sure…I mean, your earrings would probably…" 

The pawnbroker came over before Miranda could reply. He was a stocky man with a whole lot of chest hair that poked out from beneath his black tank top.

The guy with the shakes watched him walk away, looked at Andy and Miranda, and then staggered out the door. The bell rang behind him.

"How much for this?" Miranda asked without preamble, holding the ring up so that the diamonds caught the light.

"Those real diamonds?" he said.

"Of course," Miranda said haughtily.

"Yeah, we'll see. Lemme do an appraisal in the back," he said, and took Miranda's ring like it was nothing special, hardly even looking at it. Miranda didn't say anything. She didn't look at Andy. She just stared straight ahead at the wall.

"Well--we'll be back to get it tomorrow," Andy said, trying to sound peppy. Miranda still didn't look at her, but she pursed her lips, and Andy shut up, because 'peppy' was obviously the last thing Miranda needed right now.

They waited in silence. It felt like years before the pawnbroker came back. "Looks like you got the genuine article," he said.

"It's from Tiffany's," Miranda said. "And it is worth over five thousand dollars.”

The man laughed. "Not here, it ain't. I'll give you four hundred for it."

Andy waited for the haggling and dickering Miranda had tried in the tow place that afternoon. But apparently Miranda had used all that up, because she nodded without protest. Andy stared at her, shocked, while the pawnbroker doled out the cash and then gave Miranda a ticket.

"We open at seven," he said. "There's two percent interest plus twenty percent in fees, so whenever you come back, you'll owe four hundred and eighty-eight dollars. You can't pay in a month, you come back and pay the interest and the fee, that's eighty-eight dollars, and we keep it for another month, and so on, and so on. You don't come back in a month, we keep the ring."

"We'll be back tomorrow," Andy said at once.

"Fine by me."

Miranda took the ticket and cash. "Tell me," she said as she pocketed both, "how devoted are you to customer service?"

The pawnbroker frowned. "Huh?"

"I was just wondering if you'd be so kind as to chase away that man who was at the counter earlier," Miranda said mildly. "The one who's hanging around in the parking lot and waiting for us to come outside."

The guy sucked in his breath, glanced through the barred windows, and stomped towards the door. He flung it open and yelled, "Wyatt! Get the fuck out of here, you son of a bitch!”

Andy heard a faint curse in reply, and the sound of running footsteps. Her heart started to beat double-time.

Then the pawnbroker held the door open for Miranda, who appeared completely unperturbed. Now he looked a lot less gruff and a lot more apologetic. "Sorry about that," he said. "He don't mean real harm--he wouldn't have done nothing but take your money."

"Well, that's big of him," Miranda said, and headed for the car without another word.

"Th-thanks," Andy stammered, her heart still pounding. "See you tomorrow morning."

"Asshole's bad for business," he muttered, glaring across the dark parking lot. Andy practically ran for the car, half-afraid that Wyatt or somebody like him was going to jump out of the shadows. She didn't relax until Miranda drove out of the lot.

"How did you even see that guy?" she asked. "You weren't looking out of the window--was there, like, a mirror or--"

"I didn't see him, Andrea," Miranda said. "I didn't have to.”

"What?"

Miranda glanced over at her, and looked sad for a moment--much sadder than she'd looked when she'd sold her wedding ring.

"Some things you just know," she said.

 


 

Andrea had been rattled by the pawn shop, Miranda could tell. It was plain that it had never crossed the girl's mind that they might run into actual danger. For Andrea, no matter how strange and--perhaps--occasionally aggravating, this was still an adventure, an occasion for her to play explorer. She had conveniently forgotten that there were perils inherent in travel, especially when you were driving into unknown territory and you were a woman. Even if you were two women.

But Miranda had only taken the briefest of looks at "Wyatt," and had instantly realized he posed a threat. She hoped Andrea would acquire that skill. Quickly.

Right now, Andrea was only dithering around in the bathroom. Miranda had already set up shop there, with all her toiletries neatly arrayed. She hoped that Andrea didn't have many, since there wasn't much room left, but first come, first served.

She quickly changed into her pajamas, and then sat down on the mattress with a little groan. At least the springs didn't creak, which was the best that could be said for this hole. She couldn't believe she was here. And sharing a room here, no less. There was all of three feet between the beds.

Miranda had never hoped so hard in her life that she didn't really talk in her sleep. God only knew what she'd mumble. What she'd dream about tonight, after such a day. Such an awful, unbelievable disaster of a day.

And with a hell of a big finish. Miranda looked at her naked left hand. She should feel something, she knew. Regret, at the very least. Maybe a little guilt, since Andrea was right: she could have pawned her earrings instead. They were very nice earrings. Or maybe even righteous anger at Stephen for throwing her away, just as Miranda had thrown away his ring tonight. At least she'd gotten money for it. She trusted it would not be the last penny she exacted from Stephen. When she got back.

But right now, she didn't really feel anything when she looked at her bare ring finger. There was a circle of paler skin there now, more obvious than it might otherwise have been, given the amount of time she'd spent driving in the sun. It was a badge. Of what, she wasn't sure.

Miranda scooted back and lay down on the mattress, covering her eyes with her hands. She caught herself wishing there were a stereo in the room, or that she had a portable CD player, or really, anything that would let her put Waylon Jennings on right now. She would very much have enjoyed his company tonight, since she couldn't do any better in that department.

"Uh, M-miranda?" Andrea called from the bathroom.

Miranda hissed in irritation. What now? "Yes," she growled.

"Um, are you, you know, dressed for bed now?"

Miranda frowned. "Yes," she repeated.

"Oh. Okay," Andrea said. She opened the door and came out of the bathroom, wearing a t-shirt that said "College Journalism Conference '04" across the front, and gym shorts, both of which were…smaller than Miranda would have expected from someone like Andrea. True, she was plumper than she ought to be, especially after gorging herself during this trip as some idiotic gesture--but there were curves and hips and breasts and…

Andrea tugged self-consciously at her too-short shorts and gave an awkward little laugh. The t-shirt stretched tightly across her chest. "I, uh, I don't exactly sleep in Versace," she said.

"So I see," Miranda replied, her mouth oddly dry. She realized that she desperately needed something else to look at. Why hadn't she bought a book like she'd meant to? "I hope the television works.” That'd do.

Andrea looked surprised. "You want TV? I mean, okay," she added quickly when she saw Miranda's eyes narrow. "Sure. I think the remote's on the nightstand…uh…" She looked around the room until she saw a decrepit-looking coffeemaker on a table. There was no coffee, of course, but there were teabags. Andrea sorted through them while Miranda turned on the television, focusing determinedly on flipping through the channels, because what on earth was *wrong* with her?

"They've got some chamomile," Andrea said, holding up a little yellow packet. "I think it helps you sleep. Do you want a cup?"

"No," Miranda said at once, still flipping and not paying attention to a thing on the screen. She found CNN and sent up a silent prayer of thanks for the relentless sensory overload of colors and lights and sound.

"How long till Anderson Cooper comes on?" Andrea asked, flopping gracelessly down on her own mattress. "I like Anderson Cooper.”

"You don't say," Miranda said dryly, finally looking at her.

Andrea had the grace to blush. "Well, he's smart too," she said. "He was really good during Hurricane Katrina, and--"

"Oh yes, of course," Miranda said. "That's it.” She pictured handsome Anderson Cooper meeting pretty Andrea Sachs and felt the hot twist in her stomach again, by now all too familiar. Then again, nobody even knew if he was straight. And he wasn't really Miranda's type at all, so Andrea could have him, and good riddance--

"Well, what can I say?" Andrea said, and suddenly there was something in her voice that was warm and teasing. "I guess I'm surrounded by people who can really pull off white hair."

Miranda stared at her in shock. Andrea, rather than looking awkward, was grinning, her earlier jumpiness gone. She'd stretched out comfortably on the bed, her dark hair spread out over the pillow, her long legs casually crossed.

"Aren't you making tea?" Miranda croaked.

Andrea shrugged. "Not if you don't want some too. I'm pretty tired. I'll probably be able to sleep without it.” She wrinkled her nose. "It's cold in here.” Miranda did not look at her breasts. To her relief, Andrea got back up and then slid in under the covers.

Then she peeped over at Miranda and said quietly, "I'm sorry today was so awful. Tomorrow'll be better."

"You saw that in a crystal ball?" Miranda snapped, aware even as she spoke that Andrea did not deserve the brunt of her temper tonight. They'd sniped at each other off and on during the day, true, but it had been little more than noise. An almost-welcome distraction, for the most part. And even Andrea's silent presence while she dozed in the car had been something like a comfort.

Except for when she woke up just enough to give unwanted commentary on disconcerting songs. "'Till I Gain Control Again," indeed!

"No," Andrea said. "It's more like the odds are in favor of it, considering."

"Come on, in a way, tornadoes, hurricanes--natural disasters can be good for some people, can't they?" Larry King asked on the screen. "You know, when contractors get the work--isn't that good for the economy?"

"Go to sleep," Miranda said, and turned off the TV and the lamp.

She tried to follow her own advice, but as she had predicted, it was impossible. She'd slept for six hours already and had then drunk a big cup of coffee. Her system was all wound up and refusing to calm down. And then there had been the ordeal of this evening, which had exhausted her, but wasn't exactly helping her relax.

Meanwhile, she heard Andrea's breath getting slower and quieter. The sleep of the just. She prayed to God Andrea didn't snore, or Miranda would not be responsible for her actions.

Miranda turned over on her side to face the wall, tugged the covers over her, and tried not to think about how she was sharing a budget motel room with a former assistant, because the very thought was so humiliating that it made her face burn. The worst of it was, it was her fault, all of it: she hadn't thought to call her bank, and she'd gotten lost, and now she and Andrea were stuck together in a room with a slightly-cracked ceiling and a twenty-inch TV.

Oh, and a baffled young woman downstairs who had probably never even heard of Miranda Priestly before tonight, but was undoubtedly now wondering who she was and what she had to hide.

Maybe they should just go home, after all. Forget California, just hop in the car tomorrow and turn around. She doubted Andrea would object; she was, after all, only along for the ride and not the destination. She'd go along with what Miranda wanted, and probably wouldn't ask any questions into the bargain--because she'd been trained not to, and also because she didn't want to push Miranda over the edge.

Miranda remembered that little t-shirt and thought perhaps she might be on the edge already. She wondered if Stephen had left her any messages today. She hadn't bothered to check. She hadn't wanted to know. But she caught herself wondering if he might be up for one last hurrah before they got divorced, just so she could screw him right out of her system and then get back to nor--

There was a thump against the wall near her head. Miranda frowned, and then rolled her eyes as she realized how poorly soundproofed the place had to be. Wonderful. She was wide awake, which meant that every little noise next door was going to grate right on her nerves. At least their neighbors weren't watching television.

But then there was another thump. And then another. And another. Very rhythmic thumps. Miranda had all of one second to realize exactly what was going on next door when she heard an unmistakably male grunt, followed by a low female groan.

No.

"Fuck," she heard the man say, muffled but distinct. "Unh."

No. Oh, no. This was not happening.

"God. Ohhh, God," the woman said, right by Miranda's head, and Miranda realized that she was separated from the lovers only by this absurdly thin wall. She felt her cheeks heating up. Her stomach knotted again and for a moment she couldn't see anything, even though her eyes were wide open, so overwhelmed was she by the injustice of the universe--no, no, by the sheer malice of it.

The man and woman groaned in unison, and Miranda felt arousal pool low in her belly, happily setting up shop right next to her rage. Oh no. No, this could not happen. She briefly considered sitting up and pounding her fist against the wall, but she wanted to hold on to the remaining shreds of her dignity. Besides, it might not even make them stop, and it would probably wake up--

Miranda suddenly realized that Andrea might be awake too after all, and that they might both be lying here listening to the people next door having a roll in the hay. Her face immediately went from 'warm' to 'scalding,' and she felt all her muscles lock up. She resisted the sudden temptation to roll over and see if Andrea was still asleep--because what if she wasn't? Then Andrea would know Miranda was awake too, and…and that would be…

The woman next door began to cry out softly, again and again. Whoever she was, and whatever her lover was doing to her, she seemed to be having a wonderful time. For the third time in a week, Miranda felt the urge to burst into tears. It wasn't fair. It was so beyond the concept of 'fair' that she felt about to choke.

She also felt the urge to do something else. She could feel herself getting slick as she listened to the sounds of two strangers making love, and for once, Miranda had the feeling that if she touched herself she'd actually get off, because there was only so much sexual frustration the human body could stand, surely? It would not take long. As humiliating as it would be, as pathetic and hollow and low, it might actually give her some relief, might help the horrible knot in her stomach loosen again.

Except that Andrea was three feet away, and the idea of touching herself with somebody else in the room--much less Andrea--well, it didn't even bear thinking about. Even if Andrea was asleep. Which she might very well not be. And it was true, it was still true, that masturbating wouldn't give Miranda what she really wanted. She didn't just want to come (although dear God, she certainly wanted that too), she wanted somebody on her, all over her, with her.

But there was no one. And the only thing left to do was throw the covers over her head and try to muffle her ears with the pillow, which she did as quietly as possible. It helped.

"Oh my God you are so good," cried the woman next door.

But not enough.

Chapter Text

When Andy woke up, the shower was running. She frowned and looked around the room, completely disoriented--Lexington? No, Nashville. No--oh, yeah. Oklahoma. Not Tulsa…Claremore. Andy had a feeling that the longer they were on the road, the more confusing mornings were going to get.

That somebody else was showering in Andy's room didn't help. Miranda. It took another few minutes for Andy to remember the events of last night: getting lost, the declined credit card, the pawn shop, Wyatt. What a shitty night.

The people next door hadn't helped, either. Andy had woken up to the sound of low cries. She'd lain still in confusion for a moment before she'd figured out what was going on. Then she'd stifled a gasp, and looked over her shoulder to see that Miranda was huddled up beneath her blankets, making no noise, lying perfectly still.

Well, that was a relief. Andy had tried to imagine the look on Miranda's face if she'd been listening to this, and had quickly been forced to turn her face into her pillow to muffle her laughter. There was something hilarious about the noises people made during sex, and when the guy yelled, "Come on, mama," Andy had nearly died. She chuckled again now, just thinking about it.

The shower cut off. Andy stretched and hoped Miranda had left her some hot water. Then Andy realized that Miranda was naked less than ten feet away from her, and squeaked. Oh, God. Did Miranda have a bathrobe? It had been bad enough last night, when Andy had changed into her pajamas in the bathroom and tried not to think about Miranda getting undressed on the other side of the door. She'd let her have her privacy. Because maybe Andy had touched--been forced to touch!--her underwear, but, but that was different. Completely different. And Andy was definitely not going to spend any more time daydreaming about…

Just then, Miranda barged out of the bathroom, and she was, indeed, wearing a silk bathrobe with flowers on it. Andy tried not to compare it to the grey one she'd worn in Paris, which had been plainer, but somehow more appealing. Miranda's hair was wrapped in one of the thin, scratchy towels, and for some reason the lack of visible hair made her nose look bigger.

She wasn't looking at Andy as she snapped, "Your turn. Be quick. I want to get out of here."

Andy tried not to blush and looked at the clock. It was just past eight. "Right," she mumbled, and scrambled off the bed, trying not to get tangled in the sheets, hurrying into the bathroom.

There, she glared at the sink, where Miranda's staggering array of toiletries had ignominiously forced Andy's little traveling bag into a corner like a conquering army. Still, Andy had the same revelation she'd had in Paris, when packing Miranda's stuff: it was downright weird to see that Miranda Priestly used toothpaste and dental floss like everybody else. Of course, she also had an electric toothbrush that was probably made out of titanium and cost as much as a space shuttle, but still.

Andy decided to shower quickly, because Miranda was right: it was time to hit the road. Claremore hadn't done them any favors so far, and besides, they needed to stop by the pawn shop before they headed towards Tulsa and Route 66.

Just thinking about Route 66 made Andy happy. True, she'd never imagined driving it with Miranda, but she'd learned by now that life was definitely good at throwing curveballs and you had to take what you could get.

By the time Andy got out of the shower, Miranda was already dressed and was just putting the finishing touches on her makeup, hardly even needing to look at herself in the wall mirror. If it weren't for her wet hair, she could've hit the road right at that minute.

In spite of her irritation, Andy was kind of embarrassed: she'd always assumed that Miranda would be a total prima donna about getting ready for the day, taking her sweet time while the world waited on her, as picky and prissy about her own appearance as she was about everybody else's. But no: lightning-quick cold shower, lightning-quick clothes and makeup. Maybe she'd served in the Navy or something and hadn't told anyone.

"You have ten minutes," Miranda said, still not looking at Andy as she stalked past her, back into the bathroom where she'd left her hairdryer. The door slammed shut, and Andy could hear the dryer roaring to life behind it. Wow, nice attitude, even for Miranda. What had caused it? Andy hoped she hadn't been snoring.

She dressed as quickly as she could, and just barely had time to turn on her own hairdryer before Miranda left the bathroom with perfect hair and her big bag of toiletries, and said, "Let's go."

Thankfully, she paused to put the bag inside her suitcase and then look inside her purse, so Andy had a few seconds to drag a comb through her still-damp hair before shrugging on her coat. Miranda still glared at Andy like she was holding them up unforgivably. She was probably blaming the hot shower. Sheesh. "I'm ready," Andy mumbled.

"Finally," Miranda said, and led the way out of the room, hefting her two bags and her big purse without so much as a grunt. Andy felt like a wimp as she shouldered her own duffel. She was going to have to do some laundry soon.

Miranda stopped by the front desk. A young man named Johnny had taken Linda's place. "Room 244," Miranda said. "We paid in cash last night."

Johnny frowned for a second, and Andy's heart nearly stopped at the thought that they were about to hit another obstacle before they'd even had breakfast. But then his brow cleared and said, "Oh, yeah. Linda left a note. Y'all have a good day, then."

Just then, a male voice sounded from the continental breakfast in the next room: "These here are some good doughnuts.” The voice wasn't particularly loud, and Andy wouldn't have paid it any attention if she hadn't recognized it from last night. Their noisy neighbor. She grinned and hoped she could get a good look at him. She'd already started picturing him as Ron Jeremy, and reality had to be better than that. Besides, she'd love a doughnut.

But it looked like Miranda wouldn't. In fact, it looked like Miranda was heading for the door as fast as she could, clutching her bags so hard her knuckles had gone white. Andy took advantage of her turned back to grab a free map of Oklahoma from the front desk. She shoved it in her purse and scrambled after Miranda.

"You're driving," Miranda said as soon as they hit the parking lot. "I'm calling my bank."

"S-sure," Andy said, aware that the old reflex--being scared shitless of Miranda--was kicking in. But it was hard not to be, with Miranda in the worst mood Andy had seen in days. "I'm sure everything will be straightened out just fi--"

"That's the idea," Miranda said coldly, pressing a button on the key ring's remote control. The trunk popped open. "Give me your bag," she added, as she slung one of hers inside.

Andy handed over her duffel.

"Well? Start the car, can’t you?"

Andy did, and tried not to imagine backing over her. Miranda slammed the trunk door shut, and Andy quickly fumbled for her own seat belt, already deciding that she was going to be quiet as a mouse this morning, since it was obviously not the day to piss Miranda off. Miranda got in the car, practically throwing herself into the passenger seat, and growled, "Go," as she turned on the GPS.

Andy gulped and went, driving as smoothly as possible. No sudden turns or screeching tires today. There would be gently-applied brakes. Judicious use of the turn signals. Reasonable following distances.

But as soon as Andy carefully began to turn out of the parking lot, Miranda barked, "Right, not left," and Andy's good intentions vanished as she was forced to press hard on the brakes.

"No," she said, "remember? We go to the left to get to the pawn sh--"

"I said right," Miranda said softly. "We are going right. That is how we get to Route 66. That is how we get to Tulsa."

She looked Andy dead in the eye, her own eyes glittering even behind her sunglasses.

Andy swallowed hard. "Are you sure?" she said, aware she was taking her life in her hands.

"Positive," Miranda said. "Or would you like to navigate and drive at the same time?"

"I guess not," Andy said, and turned right out of the parking lot, her head already throbbing. It looked like Miranda was set on making today even worse than yesterday. Andy just knew that they were going to get all the way to Tulsa, or maybe even past it, before Miranda changed her mind about her wedding ring and demanded they go back to get it.

They got back on Lynn Riggs Road. And then, in broad daylight, Andy suddenly remembered where she'd heard about Claremore. She'd glanced over it in the guidebook, which listed it as a curiosity Route 66 stop because…

Will Rogers. Everywhere. The pawn shop had been on Will Rogers Boulevard. There were signs directing visitors to the Will Rogers Memorial Museum and the Will Rogers Library. They kept passing stores that had his picture in the window. They drove by a car dealership that had a gigantic Will Rogers balloon tethered to its roof, advertising "ANNUAL CLEARANCE! EVERYTHING MUST GO!"

"What on earth is this?" Miranda said. Andy glanced over at her, relieved to see that her temper had vanished at least temporarily, replaced by sheer bewilderment.

"Will Rogers was born here," Andy said. "I read it in the guidebook. I knew there was a reason this place was familiar.” She really wished she weren't driving. She wanted to look at everything they passed. Like that statue of Will Rogers on the corner.

They passed another sign that pointed to Rogers State University. "This is ridiculous," Miranda said.

"Yeah. Can we stop for postcards?" Andy asked.

"Are you joking?"

"Of course not," Andy said. She pointed at another statue on the sidewalk. "Look at that wooden one! He's actually waving his arms!"

"Oh my God.”

"I wish we had a camera," Andy said wistfully. "I didn't get any photos of Nashville either. Or even the sign to Bucksnort.” Which was bad enough, but it was practically a crime that she couldn't get her picture taken next to a Will Rogers statue. Nate would have understood.

"No photos. No postcards," Miranda said. "Who would you possibly send a postcard to?"

"Uh--" Andy hadn't thought that far ahead. "My parents, I guess. Uh, except they have no idea where I am, or that we're doing this, so…" So she should probably call them at some point, she thought guiltily. She felt kind of bad that she hadn't thought to do that before. "Maybe I could make a scrapbook."

"A scrapbook?" Miranda said in disbelief. "You want to commemorate this?"

"Why not?" Andy said. "Come on, how many people do you know who have been to Claremo--"

"I don't care," Miranda said. "I do not want to commemorate Claremore. I do not want to commemorate anything about this or anywhere we've been. I do not want to pretend I am on some kind of vacation.”

"Oh," Andy said, and bit her lip. Dumbass. "Sorry. I didn't mean to--"

"What do you want?" Miranda said, her voice starting to tremble with rage. "A slide show? Maybe we could make a DVD and distribute copies--"

"I'm sorry," Andy said loudly, cutting Miranda off. "I didn't mean to offend you, all right? It was just a stupid…no scrapbook. I get it. Okay?"

Miranda did not reply, but dug her cell phone out of her purse in a huff. Andy was glad of the silence while Miranda dialed up her bank. And then she was glad that, during the next twenty minutes, Miranda was able to vent her anger on somebody other than Andy. Andy tried to turn off her ears while Miranda gave her social security number and answered a ton of other questions, but she couldn't quite, and by the time Miranda hung up, she was pretty sure she could have a ball with Miranda's money if she ever felt like it. Being ethical sucked.

Miranda snapped her phone shut and dropped it unceremoniously back into her bag. She looked around and said, sounding unimpressed, "So this is Route 66?”

Andy couldn't blame her for not being excited. It didn't look like much--just a long stretch of highway that was slowly starting to turn more brown and dusty than green and verdant. Andy was still happy as a clam to be driving it. Or she would have been if Miranda Priestly hadn't been fuming and glaring at her side.

"Looks like it," Andy said, keeping her voice mild. "Want to get out the guidebook and see if there's anywhere before Tulsa? We skipped breakfast."

"Hmph," Miranda said, but she dug the guidebook out of Andy's bag and flipped through it. "Between Claremore and Tulsa…" There was a pause. Andy looked over and was relieved to see Miranda looking puzzled, not pissed. "The 'Blue Whale of Catoosa'?”

"What's that?" Andy asked. "A restaurant?"

"I have no idea," Miranda said, frowning at the book. "There's just a note saying we shouldn't forget to stop there."

"Huh," Andy said. Just then, a sign for Catoosa came into view, followed by a sign that announced the Verdigris River. Both were just a few miles away. "Well, whatever it is, it's close. If it's in the guidebook, there's bound to be food nearby."

"Fine," Miranda said. Andy was surprised, and relieved, that she hadn't insisted on checking in with the GPS first. She must really be hungry. Now that Andy thought about it, she was too. Soon enough, they crossed over the tiny Verdigris River on one of two parallel steel bridges, and after that, saw a sign for the Blue Whale.

Then Andy saw the actual Blue Whale from the side of the road. She slowed down in disbelief, and then pulled over into the gravel parking lot in front of it before cutting off the engine.

Miranda did not object. She was too busy staring with her mouth open.

The Blue Whale was, no question, the tackiest thing Andy had ever seen in her life. It was a gigantic, cartoonish replica of a sperm whale, painted some shade of blue that was between sky and electric. (Miranda could no doubt tell her exactly what it was, but Andy wasn't about to ask.)  The whale had big red eyes on either side of its head. It was sitting in a scummy pond surrounded by trees that were a lot less spectacular than West Virginia's. An old, unused water slide poked out from both sides.

Looking around, Andy could see that this tiny place had once been some kind of amusement park. No longer. Now it just had some brightly-painted picnic tables.

Andy dared to look at Miranda, who still appeared completely thunderstruck. Andy wondered if she was having some kind of allergic reaction to so much kitsch in one morning, and what the antidote might be. Maybe wave a bottle of Chanel No. 5 under her nose? Fan her with a Pucci scarf?

At least they were the only people here, at this time of day, at this time of year. In fact, the whole place--empty, run-down, cold and brown--felt oddly desolate.

Andy turned to stare at the whale again. "Too bad we don't have any food," she heard herself saying inanely. "We could picnic."

She heard a funny sound to her right, and turned to behold Miranda's shaking shoulders. Miranda had placed a hand over her mouth, and now she made a helpless, snorting noise. It took Andy a second to realize she was laughing.

"Oh my God," Miranda croaked. "What the--what am I looking at--what is--"

"I…I don't know," Andy said.

Their eyes met, and then Andy lost it. She doubled over until her head rested against the steering wheel and howled with laughter. Miranda didn't go quite that far, but she was definitely laughing, no matter how hard she tried to muffle it. It sounded like there was a fair degree of hysteria in it. Andy looked over and saw that Miranda was almost choking on her mirth, and still staring at the whale in utter disbelief, and she laughed even harder. A couple of minutes later, her stomach hurt, and she had tears running down her face.

Eventually, Miranda covered her whole face with her hands. "We have to get out of here," she wheezed. "We have to get going. Oh my God. I see it every time I close my eyes.”

Andy would have laughed again, except her ribs ached. So she just whimpered.

"Can you drive?" Miranda added.

"Yes," Andy moaned, sitting up straight again. "Oh Jesus. Oh my God…" She turned the car back on and steered back out of the parking lot, glad that her hands were steady enough that the car wouldn't wobble. "So. Okay. Where do you want to stop for breakfast?"

"Does it matter?" Miranda sat back against the seat, keeping her hands over her eyes. "Oh my God," she breathed. "What am I doing?"

Andy, who had still been chuckling, stopped immediately. She quickly looked back at the road, but she just could see, in her peripheral vision, Miranda dropping her hands back down into her lap and staring up at the blue sky.

She didn't try to answer Miranda's question. She couldn't. And she knew, with certainty, that Miranda didn't even want her to try.

 


 

Miranda couldn't remember the last time she'd laughed in front of somebody. Not really laughed. Oh, every once in a while, when her daughters delighted her--but that didn't count. How long had it been since she'd laughed in front of an adult?

Not long enough, clearly. How embarrassing. But she hadn't quite been able to help herself: what did they say, 'If you didn't laugh, you'd cry'? She'd woken up to the Blue Whale of Catoosa after the most miserable night on earth, itself spent after the most miserable day on earth. Surely a certain amount of hysteria was understandable. It almost felt good.

"Um, does the guidebook say anything about where we can eat?" Andrea asked. Miranda had become familiar with that particular tone of her voice in recent days: a mixture of 'trying to be cheerful' and 'trying not to make Miranda upset.'  It wasn't quite the same tone Andrea had learned to use at Runway, not exactly; for one thing, at Runway, Andrea had learned quickly not to be cheerful. And she hadn't tried to pacify Miranda so much as she'd cowered in fear of her. That was a subtle, but important difference.

The new Andrea was far more appealing, Miranda admitted. "The book doesn't list anything before Tulsa," she said. "That's over half an hour away."

"Oh…well, if you want, we can wait," Andrea said, sounding reluctant. Miranda was half-tempted to take her up on it, just to teach her--yet again--that you shouldn't offer something you were not willing to give, hoping that it wouldn't be taken.

But she was hungry too, so she just leaned forward and turned on the GPS. After a moment of scrutiny, she said, "There's some place called Pauline's. East on Pine Street--take a right here--"

"Gotcha."

It soon emerged that Pauline's Country Buffet was completely unexceptional, but by this point on the trip, Miranda's expectations had been lowered to nearly subterranean levels. Now she merely did her best not to look at the sanitation grade rating on the walls, or speculate on the kind of mishmashed meat they were passing off as sausage patties.

She settled on her usual order of scrambled eggs, and pretended not to notice when Andrea ordered pancakes. At this rate, she'd go all the way up to a size eight, and while Miranda was perfectly willing to finance her room and board, she'd be damned before she bought the girl a new wardrobe.

The eggs arrived without any visible hairs or traces of dirt, and Miranda decided that would just have to be good enough. She'd eaten about half of them (Andrea had already inhaled three pancakes) by the time she noticed they were getting some odd, questioning looks. Again. She was getting a little sick of this; the last time people hadn't gawked at her was the Vanderbilt. She decided that when they were back in the car she'd decide where they were going to end up that day, because she wanted to end up somewhere with a decent hotel, and restaurants, and people who were jaded enough not to stare at Porsches or those who drove them.

Of course, that had been the point of heading for Tulsa last night--well, never mind that, she thought, and quickly ate another mouthful of eggs.

When they were finished, Miranda paid, and Andrea took the wheel again. Miranda did not notice until they were pulling out of the parking lot that Andrea had a tiny smear of maple syrup at the corner of her mouth. Well, really, that was just…was the girl not even capable of using a napkin properly?

She turned back to the guidebook, wondering if maybe her coffee, combined with her poor sleep the night before, was making her heart beat so quickly. She would have to try not to fall asleep in the car today. It would make it easier for her to go to sleep tonight. Much easier. And she needed that. She really, really needed that.

Out of the corner of her eye, Miranda saw Andrea glance into the rearview mirror. "Oops!" Andrea said, licked her pinky finger, and rubbed the syrup from her mouth.

Miranda almost choked.

Andrea quickly looked at her, but before Miranda could think of a single thing to say, she said, "Sorry. Lousy manners, I guess."

"Yes," Miranda said, clearing her throat. "Well."

"Hey, weren't you going to call Nigel?" Andrea asked.

Miranda almost asked, 'Who?', before she gave herself a mental shake. Nigel. Of course. "Yes," she repeated, pulling out her phone and turning it on. She speed-dialed Nigel, glad for something else to focus on.

He picked up on the second ring. "Oh my God," he said, sounding out-of-breath. "Miranda? Is that you?” Miranda heard a voice speaking urgently in the background. It sounded like James. "Shh, I'm just--" Nigel said to the voice. Then, to her, "Hello? Miranda?"

"Nigel, we need to discuss Jacqueline," Miranda said. "I very much appreciate that you and James kept her out of the show, but that's really only a beginning."

"I…Miranda?" Nigel said. "I, um, okay, but--you're all right, aren't you? I talked to Andy a couple of days ago. Is she still there? Is she still with you?"

"Yes, she's right here," Miranda sighed. "Now--"

"Hi, Nigel!" Andrea said, almost shouting over the wind. "Miranda, tell Nigel I said--"

"She says hello," Miranda said through gritted teeth.

"Which is more than you did," Andrea muttered.

Miranda ignored this. "Where are you, Nigel?"

"At James's studio," Nigel said. "We're just about to review the new fragrance line. It's spectacular--I mean, you'd love it--when are you coming back?"

That question again, as if she was supposed to be able to answer it. "In my own time," she replied, because when did she ever do anything else? "I'm perfectly fine. Now tell me about Jacqueline."

"Well, nobody really knows what's going on," Nigel said, sounding evasive. He wouldn't be able to get away with that for long. "Miranda, listen--"

"Tell me that nobody's been cooperating with her," Miranda said sharply.

"No, no, of course not," Nigel said, and Miranda relaxed. "We spread the word--you know, Karl took her off the invite list for his party next weekend and I heard Irv's blood pressure went up a few more points."

"Good," Miranda said in satisfaction. "Let's make sure we keep it up. Do give Karl my thanks, won't you?"

"S-sure," Nigel said. "Um…Miranda…do you, have you--"

"I'm still working out a plan, Nigel," Miranda said, waving her hand, even though he wasn't there to see it. "Right now, I'm mainly concerned with getting Jacqueline out of my office."

"Yes, yes," Nigel said. His voice warmed as he added, "So you're coming back? You want your job back? I bet we could put the pressure on Irv--"

"I…" Miranda closed her eyes. Did she want it back? Did she dare answer that question honestly, right now, like this?

Of course not. "We'll work that out later," she said instead. "Whatever happens, Nigel, I will decide the future of Runway. Not Jacqueline. Nor Irv."

"Of course, of course," Nigel said, sounding more relieved by the second. As if he, too, had thought she was about to crack and shatter. "Like anybody would dare to say otherwise, right?"                   

"Just let it be known that I have not disappeared," Miranda said, "and that I am calling in a few favors. And that I won't exactly take it personally if all the projects that I left behind are not finished in time to put new feathers in Jacqueline's cap.” She sneered. "I will be very pleased to know that new clothing samples have not made their way to the Closet, and that Angelina and Katie have decided not to give their interviews, and that Coco and Lily are suddenly too busy to pose on the Alps next week. And everybody else who owes their career to me."

"Gotcha," Nigel said, and Miranda smiled, because that was the absent tone of voice he used whenever he was busily writing down her instructions. "Won't be a problem. The models and photographers are already lining up, wanting to be part of the Resistance. They've always hated Jacqueline. She's kind of high-handed, you know?” He paused. "And she hasn't earned it."

"No, she hasn't," Miranda said.

"But, uh, you might want to hurry," Nigel added delicately. "We can slow her down for a while, but…well, there are an awful lot of unemployed models and photographers around who are just waiting for a chance, you know? And it's not long before 'unemployed' becomes 'new talent.'"

"Oh, I know," Miranda said. "Throw a stone out of an Elias-Clarke window and you're guaranteed to hit at least five.”

Nigel laughed shakily.

"Anything else to report?" she asked.

"Have you talked to Greg?"

Miranda rolled her eyes again. She should have seen that coming. "Every day."

"Oh. Good. Just making sure. But you don't know when you'll be back?"

"In a few days," Miranda said. Or sooner, she thought, remembering her discouragement the night before. Maybe she really should cut this trip short. Why not? "Try to stay calm, Nigel."

Nigel laughed shakily. "Right. Of course. My God, it's so good to hear you talk like this, I was worried--um."

"Worried about what?" Miranda asked softly, in the tone that always made him turn pale.

"Nothing," Nigel said immediately. "Just, you know, I should have known you wouldn't let it get you down. It never does, for long."

"What doesn't? Life in general?" Miranda asked sourly.

"Life--well, no," he said, sounding confused. "Public opinion."

"Public what?" Miranda rolled her eyes. "Why, what are people saying? That I ran off?"

"Well," Nigel said, sounding evasive. "It just…you know, to people who don't know you, it just looks kind of funny. But I know you," he added. "You scared the hell out of me, but I knew you weren't down for the count.”

The words warmed her. He'd always been so faithful, so loyal. It had been a pleasure to reward his years of work. Of course, if she'd known what was happening, she'd have given his job to Jacqueline in a heartbeat--that would have worked out nicely, really--but she knew he would have understood. He always understood.

There wasn't much point to saying that, though. Instead, she let herself be generous enough to tell him, "No, I'm not. I just wanted to get away for a while. I'll be back soon.” It was as close to explaining herself as she was going to get, and she hadn't planned to get that close.

"Yes, great," Nigel said. "So nobody's been giving you a lot of hassle? People are leaving you alone?"

Miranda blinked. "Of course they are," she said. "Why wouldn't they?"

"Well," Nigel said, sounding surprised. "I mean, you're you, and after everything that's happened…"

"Nigel, I am under no delusions," Miranda said dryly. "Nobody's ever heard of me outside of New York. I'm fine with that.” It was why she'd left, after all.

"Uh," Nigel said. "Um.” Then he stopped.

Her senses immediately went on alert. "What?" she snapped. "What is it?"

Then Nigel uttered the worst sentence in the world.

"Miranda," he asked, "haven't you seen the news?"

 


 

Andy had known it was too good to be true.

The morning had started off with Miranda in a lousy mood. But Andy had been foolish enough to hope that the Blue Whale of Catoosa, along with a halfway-decent breakfast, would have pulled her out of it enough that they could at least make it to Tulsa with minimal drama.

But then Miranda had talked to Nigel, and suddenly 'lousy mood' had elevated to ‘DEFCON 1.’

"CNN?" Andy squeaked.

"Apparently I'm the story of the moment," Miranda spat, snapping her phone shut so hard that Andy was surprised it didn't break in two. "I wonder who leaked it? Irv, no doubt--Wolf Blitzer's been licking his shoes since--" She turned a glare on Andy that nearly struck Andy dead on the spot. "What do you think your friend Anderson Cooper will have to say about it?"

"Uh--"

"Well, whoever hadn't heard of me has heard of me now," Miranda said, her voice getting almost shrill. "'Famed fashion editor disappears.'  I hear that's the headline. It's not exactly getting twenty-four-hour coverage, but I understand the website's getting a lot of hits. It's listed in the 'top ten most popular stories' sidebar, Nigel tells me. Isn't that marvelous?"

"Oh," Andy said feebly. Her stomach was cramping up just like it had at the Paris luncheon, when she'd watched Miranda make her decision to leave.

She couldn't think of a tactful way to ask Miranda if the news was mentioning Andy too. Because that was the last thing she needed. Oh God, her parents watched CNN. Religiously. Was Andy national news now? Just because she'd been dumb enough to make sure Miranda wasn't going over the edge? What would people say about her?

She'd always hoped that someday she'd be famous. That there would be a reason for people to know who she was. She hadn't exactly wanted it to be like this.

"So what are y--we going to do?" Andy asked.

"We're not turning around, I'll tell you that," Miranda spat. "I'm not going to let some bunch of slack-jawed voyeurs dictate to me what I will and will not do. I never have."

"Oh, okay," Andy said, trying desperately to figure out how to ask Miranda if--

"At least you're not in the news," Miranda added, and Andy almost fainted at the wheel from sheer relief. "Nigel said that nobody's mentioned that I'm traveling with anybody else. I'm not sure Irv knows that," she added contemplatively. "I'm not sure anybody does, beyond Nigel and Emily and Greg. And they'd all have kept their mouths shut."

Thank God, thank God, thank God. "Good," Andy said, before she could stop herself.

Although, of course, there was Linda, who would definitely remember Miranda Priestly's name after the absurdity of last night. And would remember that somebody was with her. Along with anybody else they'd encountered, because Miranda was definitely noticeable no matter where she went, and the minute anybody took a look at the news and saw her picture…all it would take was for somebody like Linda to call in a tip to CNN. Shit.

"Yes, very," Miranda said. "It means you can still make the hotel arrangements and so on without drawing attention.” She scowled. "We'll have to start paying for everything in cash. We don't need a repeat of last night."

"Yeah," Andy said feebly.

"God, all those people who stared at me in the restaurant," Miranda muttered. "I should have known. Well. We'll just keep to out-of-the-way places.” She grimaced. "We'll have to."

"I guess," Andy said, her mind running a mile a minute. Her parents. Now she really had to call her parents and let them know what was going on, before Wolf Blitzer, or Anderson Cooper for that matter, did it for her. Jesus. They'd kill her. At least they were hundreds of miles away by now.

She was so lost in her thoughts that she twitched when Miranda said, "Unless you want to go home, of course."

Andy blinked, and turned to look at her. Miranda was looking straight ahead, her hands folded over the guidebook, her scarf fastened around her head. Her lips were pursed.

"I thought you said you didn't want to go back," Andy said.

"I don't," Miranda said. "I said 'you,' not 'we'.” She paused. "You'll end up on the news too. Eventually. It will come out that I'm not alone."

"I know," Andy said, and cringed. She wanted to say she didn't care, that it didn't matter, that she'd stay with Miranda until the end, whenever that was. Like she'd so boldly declared in New York just a few days ago. She wished, with all her heart, that she had the courage for that.

Then she saw Miranda swallow harshly, and just like that, she did.

"I'm staying with you," she said. Then she snapped, as if she'd been insulted, "I said I would, so stop asking me, okay?”

"Well," Miranda said, and stopped talking.

They drove for nearly ten minutes in silence. Andy tried not to think about how stupid she was. Of course she should just fly back to New York and get her own life back, before it was too late, before CNN and Fox and Page Six and everybody else pinpointed her as Miranda's "traveling companion" and her name started popping up on Google for all the wrong reasons. She should definitely do that.

Except that Miranda had just swallowed really hard, gulped almost, and while Andy was well-equipped to deal with her rage, there was no way she could handle it if Miranda started to cry right in front of her.

Not that Miranda had been about to cry. She probably hadn't. But if she did cry, it wasn't going to be Andy's fault, ever.

"So where are we going today?" she asked. Tulsa was getting closer and closer. "We should probably go around--"

"Yes," Miranda said. She looked at the GPS. "Somewhere small and out of the way. Give me a moment. But we're not stopping in Tulsa.” She paused. "Oh, God. The twins.” She pinched the bridge of her nose.

"Huh?"

"The twins," Miranda snapped. "Now they'll know--and I didn't tell them myself. I was going to. Tomorrow.” Her jaw tensed. "They'll think I was hiding it from them. Lying to them."

Saying, 'Well, you were' probably wouldn't go over so well. "You'll explain everything to them tonight," Andy said, as if she knew. "I'm sure they'll understand."

"Understand? They're ten years old," Miranda said. "They won't understand anything except that all their peers at school are telling them that their mother is crazy. Right now."

The worst thing was, Miranda was right, and she knew it. It was Andy's turn to swallow. "They'll get over it," she dared to say. "You don't care what people say, so, you know, they should learn the same thing."

There was a pause, and Andy prepared herself for Miranda's explosion. It didn't come. Miranda didn't say anything at all for the next three miles, and Andy tried to be grateful instead of uncomfortable. By now she should have gotten used to being silent around Miranda, shouldn't she?

"We won't stop in Oklahoma City, either," Miranda said out of the blue. She looked at the GPS again. "We'll go up over it. Take Highway 51."

"Right, of course," Andy said in relief. She had no idea where Highway 51 led, or why Miranda had picked it, but it sounded sort of like a plan. She hoped they'd get to return to Route 66 later, but now wasn't exactly the right time to ask.

"Exit here," Miranda instructed.

Andy frowned at the road sign. "It doesn't say Highway 51," she said. "It says 33. Are you sure it's not the next ex--"

"It's this one," Miranda said with asperity, and given the last fifteen minutes, Andy knew not to argue. She took the exit. "We should hit someplace called Stillwater soon, and after that…" She paused and made a 'hmm' sound. "Lots of dreadful little small towns."

"We're looking for small," Andy reminded her. "Small towns that take cash."

"Yes," Miranda said, sounding unhappy. She was probably realizing there were no more Vanderbilts in the picture until they got to California, if they ever did, and accomplished what Miranda wanted to accomplish, whatever that was. At least it seemed like she was well on her way to revenge. "It should take us half an hour to get to Stillwater."

"Okay," Andy said. "You, um, want to put in some music?"

After another pause, Miranda said, "Yes," and opened the glove compartment. She picked through the CDs, put one in the player, and after a minute, a man with a low, sorrowful-sounding voice filled up the silence. Another country singer. Great.

"Who--" Andy began.

"Kris Kristofferson," Miranda said. She wasn't looking at Andy.

"Well, I woke up Sunday mornin' with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt," Kris told them both. "And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad, so I had one more for dessert."

Andy laughed. Miranda glared at her, and Andy flinched instinctively. "What?" she said.

"This song is not meant to be funny, Andrea," Miranda said. "I'm sure of it."

"Well--maybe not, but come on," Andy said. "You never woke up with a hangover? That's what he's talking about.” Then she remembered the last time she'd woken up with a hangover, in Christian Thompson's hotel room, and suddenly felt nauseated for reasons that had nothing to do with her pancake breakfast.

"Oh, is that what he's talking about?" Miranda snapped.

"Yes," Andy said incredulously. "He just said so. He just said he woke up with a hangover. I mean, maybe there's some bigger symbolic--but seriously, have you never woken up with a hangover?"

"Not in years," Miranda said. "Hangovers mean you got drunk, and I don't get drunk. Getting drunk puts you in a very vulnerable position where you make stupid mistakes."

Andy really wished she could protest the point, but she absolutely couldn't, even taking the whole Christian debacle out of the picture. She'd done a lot of stupid stuff when she was drunk. "Well, okay," she mumbled.

"A song about a hangover," Miranda sneered. She leaned forward, and cranked the volume up so loud that Kris's voice turned into something almost painful.

"And there's something in a Sunday makes a body feel alone--"

"Miranda--"

"Listen!"

"And there's nothin' short of dyin' half as lonesome as the sound, on the sleepin' city sidewalks, of Sunday morning comin' down."

"All right, already!" Andy yelled, and Miranda turned the volume back down. She was breathing quickly, her face was red, and Andy realized that Miranda was trying to pick another fight just to make herself feel better. But today Andy wasn't in the mood to indulge her, not while she couldn't help thinking about Christian and what a trainwreck that had been from beginning to end.

"So what do you think the song's about?" she asked, trying to be polite and patient.

"Not a hangover," Miranda huffed, folded her arms, and looked the other way.

Andy should let it be, should just accept that trying to be friendly wouldn't win her any points. But instead she said, "I'm surprised he's singing about a city, though. I thought all those guys sang about, you know, the country. Isn't that why they call it country music?"

"Well, let me just call up Mr. Kristofferson and ask him, Andrea," Miranda said.

"You know, you probably could," Andy said, daring to laugh a little again. Then she remembered that she'd heard his name before. "Hey--wasn't he in that musical with Barbra Streisand?"

"Let's play the quiet game again, shall we?"

Andy hissed, but she knew when she was cornered: if she said anything at all now, she'd find herself right in the middle of the fight Miranda plainly wanted to have. If she didn't know better, she'd have thought that Miranda was actually trying to encourage Andy to turn back and leave her alone on the road after all.

The thought brought Andy up short. Maybe Miranda was trying to do exactly that. Who could tell, with her? But it didn't make sense: she obviously wanted Andy to stay with her, even if she'd cut off her hands before she'd admit it out loud.

Maybe Miranda was one of those people who pushed other people away before they could get rejected. Maybe she had a classic case of self-denial and self-loathing, no matter what she said. Or maybe she was just nuts, and that was the end of it. Andy knew which one she'd pick.

Twenty minutes passed, with Kris the only one to break the silence. Then thirty. And no signs for Stillwater in sight. Even as she was thinking about this, Andy saw a sign that read "HWY 33" coming into view, and she sighed gustily.

"Okay, where are we?" she asked.

"What?" Miranda said, twitching, obviously coming out of a reverie.

Andy nodded toward the sign as they passed it. "We're not on Highway 51, we're on 33," she said, and didn't add, ‘Like I said earlier.’ 

"What?" Miranda repeated. "No, we're not.” She scowled at GPS. "Not according to this, anyway."

"Come on," Andy said incredulously. "You don't believe that thing over your own eyes, do you?"

"Of course I don't," Miranda snapped, to Andy's relief. "Apparently this part of the country is not mapped out very well in this system."

"Maybe Porsche doesn't have lots of customers in Oklahoma," Andy mused. "Or maybe they're all in Tulsa and Oklahoma City."

"Or maybe we could keep the irrelevant commentary to a minimum while I figure this out," Miranda said, and Andy pursed her lips so hard that she probably outdid Miranda's best.

A few minutes later, Miranda was obviously no closer to figuring anything out. "Any luck?" Andy asked, not caring that she sounded really bitchy.

"It doesn't even seem to know there is a Highway 33," Miranda said, clearly outraged. "It has no idea where we are.”

"Well, neither do we," Andy said. "Okay, open my bag."

"Why? What's in your bag?"

"I got a map of Oklahoma at the hotel desk this morning," Andy said, not bothering to disguise the tone of vindication in her voice. "Just open it up and we'll figure out where we're going the old-fashioned way."

"I--no," Miranda said. "That isn't necessary. We'll just keep going until we see a sign for somewhere. We're still going west, aren't we?"

Andy might have let it go, except that the last sentence actually hadn't sounded like a rhetorical question. "Miranda, come on, just get out the map, okay?" she said. "It can't hurt anything. The GPS doesn't work, I have a map, let's use it."

Even Miranda couldn't find an objection to that, though it seemed she wanted to. Instead, she opened up Andy's bag, peered inside, and then tugged out the map as gingerly as if she thought it would bite her. Then she started to unfold it, carefully at first, and then with obvious, mounting frustration until she wrestled it open at last.

"Don't tear it," Andy warned.

"Could they find a more ridiculous way to fold these things?" Miranda growled. "If you're already lost, why would they want to make it even more difficult for you?"

"Look, let's just figure out where we are," Andy said, since she wasn't in the mood for 'irrelevant commentary' either. "Highway 33, west of Tulsa. Do you see it?"

Miranda put on her reading glasses, scowled, and said, "Yes. I see the road."

"Okay. We just passed a sign for Langston. We probably ought to re-orient ourselves--what's the closest thing to a big city, and where is it?"

After a pause, Miranda said, "Oklahoma City, down. I mean, to the south."

"How far to the south? How many miles are we from it?"

"Andrea, this is ridiculous. Let's just ask somebody for directions."

"To where?"

"Well, you want to know how to get to Oklahoma City, for some bizarre--"

"I don't want to get to Oklahoma City, and we don't need to stop. We just need to figure out where we're going and find the best road to get there," Andy said. What else were maps for? "It helps if we know what's nearby, especially if it's big."

"Oh," Miranda said. She looked back down at the map.

"Look, there's a sign coming up for some place called Guthrie," Andy said in relief. "Looks like we'll be crossing I-35 soon. Okay, that'll do. Can you find us on the map?"

"Yes," Miranda said, and pointed to the map as if Andy was supposed to turn and look at it too. "This is…right here."

"Great," Andy said. "So should we hop on 35? We could just find a better road from there, maybe. Or we could keep going west instead, after all. What's the best way?"

Miranda didn't say anything, and after a minute, Andy turned to look at her. Miranda's cheeks were bright red. Alarmed, Andy said, "Miranda?"

"I-35 South," Miranda said, not looking back at her, still staring at the map. "That should take us down into…all right, let's do that. Oklahoma City, if you must."

"I…there's no 'must,'" Andy said. "I'm not dying to go there or anything. If you see some other place you'd rather head for--"

"I have no preferences. None. You have already decided--"

"What? Come on, I have not! Look, the sign for 35's coming up. Just tell me where you want to go. We can go anywh--"

"35 is fine," Miranda growled. "For God's sake, just stop yapping and get on it."

"Stop yap--okay," Andy said, and took a few deep breaths. Traffic was increasing as they got closer to an interstate, and she needed to concentrate better. She tried to stay cool. "Then how many miles?"

"What?"

"How many miles from here to Oklahoma City on the interstate?" Andy asked, praying for patience with all of her might. "If that's where we're going."

"I--there's--"

Andy turned around again at the sound of something in Miranda's voice. Miranda was staring at the map with her brow wrinkled, looking almost helpless, as if someone had just asked her to translate Sanskrit into Swahili. The penny dropped.

"You can't read a map," Andy said.

"Of course I can," Miranda muttered, bringing the map closer to her nose, as if that was supposed to help.

"No," Andy said. "No, you can't. That's why we've been using the GPS for every single thing. And why--" She almost said, 'why you didn't figure out that Noshville was closer than the barbecue place,' but cut herself off in the nick of time.

"It's just a map," Miranda snarled. "I don't often have a need for--keep your eyes on the road!"

"Oh God," Andy groaned, and signaled right, getting ready to pull over at an upcoming gas station.

"What are you doing?" Miranda said. "I'll read the map, if you can be patient for longer than two seconds--"

"Oh, like you can talk," Andy snapped. She saw Miranda bare her teeth, and accepted, in the back of her mind, that the fight was on. "What, it's suddenly okay for people not to be experts at things they've never done before in two seconds? I bet everybody who's ever worked for you can't wait to get that memo!"

"Oh, we're back to that, I see," Miranda said, and Andy felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up at the vicious anticipation in Miranda's tone. "You're still nursing your little grudge from your first day at work--"

"Nursing grudges, that's hilarious, coming from you--"

"--when I refused to coddle you and pat you on the head, and spoon-feed you everything you didn't know--"

"Right, which is why I'm not patting you on the head right now!" Andy yelled. "I promise, when we stop tonight I will give you all the map-reading lessons you want, I will spoon-feed you whatever, but today I will navigate and you will drive."

"I will leave you in this gas station if you speak to me like that again," Miranda said softly. 

"How? You won't be able to find your way out of it!"

"Laugh it up," Miranda spat, obviously two seconds away from strangling Andy, even if that meant they'd wreck the car. "You'd really like to test how serious I am?"

"Fine, go for it," Andy said as she pulled into the gas station. "Then you can drive to California by yourself and end up in North Dakota. I'll hitch-hike home." 

"And end up dead in a ditch," Miranda said. "I'll take North Dakota." 

Andy threw the car into park. "Yeah," she said. Suddenly she laughed. "So we better not do that, okay?” Then she laughed again, surprised at how good all that had felt. Like yesterday, squabbling over men. She'd waited for six months to let Miranda Priestly have it, and she knew for sure that Miranda kind of enjoyed it too. In her way.

"Can't read a map," she chuckled. "Oh, wow.” Grinning hard, she looked at Miranda, who scowled back--and who then, for some reason, turned pink.

Andy blinked.

Miranda did too; her breath caught, she turned pinker, and she looked back at the map, clearing her throat.

Andy realized her own heart was beating very quickly, and she felt a lot warmer than she should after driving down a highway in an open-top convertible during October. Huh. Well, that was--not weird or anything. Not at all. "So, um, let's switch seats," she said.

"Fine," Miranda said, and shoved the map at Andy before Andy could even unbuckle her seat belt. She went around the back of the car while Andy went around the front, and neither of them looked at each other as they settled back in.

"So," Andy said, clearing her throat as she looked at the map. "So, um, we don't want to go to Oklahoma City. What about Elk City?” It was another Route 66 stop. "We could make it there today, easy. And then keep going if we wanted to."

"Fine," Miranda repeated, adjusting the mirrors with the same kind of concentration she usually devoted to run-throughs.

"Highway 33 can get us there. It'll take a little longer, but, um--"

"So we should just keep going the way that we're going."

"Yes," Andy said, wishing her stomach would stop flopping around for no reason. It had to be the pancakes.

"Stay on this road. No changes.”

"Right. I mean, not for a while. A pretty long while."

"And by then, maybe the GPS will have woken up," Miranda said, not looking at Andy as she pulled back onto 33.

"Yeah," Andy said. "Let's hope so."

 


 

This was getting ridiculous.

Miranda, who had vowed less than an hour ago not to turn back, was having second thoughts yet again. No. Third thoughts. Fifth thoughts. A hundredth thoughts. Not because she lacked the resolve to press on and thumb her nose at the world--"public opinion," indeed!--but because she was apparently in such desperate need of sex that she was considering pulling over to the side of the road and, and, and…

And flagging down the first man she saw, that was it. She was obviously in no shape to travel.

She refused to look at her left hand. Maybe she should have gone back to the pawn shop today after all, but--no. She didn't want that ring back. She didn't need it. She got some perverse pleasure, in fact, out of the idea that a woman in Claremore, Oklahoma was going to be able to lay her hands on a Tiffany diamond ring.

Miranda wondered if that little detail would ever find its way to CNN. If the pawn broker would chance to see her picture on a website, or catch her name on the news, and connect it with the woman who had sold him her wedding ring. If he'd put in a call to the newshounds, giving all the gossips the juiciest tidbit yet.

Stephen would have a conniption. Miranda smiled to herself.

And if he did, at least something today would go right. Miranda glared at the GPS display. Worth at least four thousand dollars in and of itself, and it thought they were on Highway 51. Add to that Porsche's unforgivable oversight in leaving out a spare tire, and Miranda was not exactly feeling overwhelmed with love for the Boxster at the moment. Seventy thousand dollars, and this was what you got for it? Clearly she should have gone for an Audi or BMW. With a multi-disc CD player. Perhaps, when she got back to New York, it'd be time for a trade-in.

Back to New York--and to her girls. Miranda's stomach cramped. The twins didn't exactly watch CNN over breakfast, but surely, sometime during the course of their day, they'd find out. That kind of news spread quickly. They would be angry at her. They'd have every right to be.

And--oh God, would her divorce be in the news as well? Probably not, Miranda told herself, trying to calm down. Nobody knew except Stephen, Andrea, Greg, and Stephen's lawyer. None of them would sell the story. It would be up to Miranda, and Miranda alone, to break the news to the girls. On top of all this. Tonight.

At least Nigel's words had been encouraging. It should not, would not take long to dethrone Jacqueline, ideally humiliating her into the bargain. And then, after that, Miranda would--

Would find something else to do. Something other than being the editor-in-chief of Runway.

Trying not to tremble, she finally accepted it. She could not go back. And she wouldn't try. Even to return in triumph would be to acknowledge defeat. She'd said, "I quit," in that Parisian banquet room. If she was to preserve that illusion, however transparent it was, that she'd left of her own volition, she couldn't take it back. Returning to her job would mean admitting that she'd been fired in the first place.

And that…no. Never. She didn't care if people thought she'd gone crazy. She did care if they thought she was beaten, that she'd been beaten even for a moment.

She'd said that to Andrea that plans changed but priorities didn't, and she was right. Defeating Jacqueline and Irv like it was easy; coming back out on top; making the groundlings bow and scrape: those were the priorities. She'd just need a new plan, that was all. Now that she'd achieved the first goal, she could afford to stand back and consider the second for a little longer. Not much longer. Just a little.

They were approaching some other ugly, scrubby little town. Miranda looked at the clock display, and was shocked to see that she'd been driving for an hour in complete silence. Now a pharmacy stood by the side of the road, fronting a strip mall. Andrea cleared her throat and said, "Um, can we stop here?” She pointed to the pharmacy.

Miranda glanced at her quickly. "Are you sick?” That was all they needed.

"No, no," Andrea said. "I just want to buy a newspaper."

"What?" Miranda snapped. "You want to see my name in print?"

"No!" Andrea said at once. "I'll just get the local whatever. I bet they won't even mention you."

Miranda turn-signaled and headed into the pharmacy parking lot. Curiosity, she mused, would be the end of her. "Why do you want some local rag?"

"Because local journalism is the most important kind there is," Andrea said. "Also, we’re bored. At least, I am. Aren't you?"

Miranda was not bored, precisely, but she had to admit that it would be a relief to focus on something other than her own whirling thoughts. She'd had quite enough of those lately. But Andrea's solution didn't exactly thrill her. "And how do you propose to liven up the trip?" she asked as she parked the Porsche. "Read out loud about the local city council races or something?"

"No, of course not," Andrea said, and hopped out of the car, heading towards the pharmacy doors without another word. Miranda glared after her.

Twenty minutes later, back on the road, Andrea asked, "Okay, this one says 'Garbo flick.'  Fourteen letters."

"What? Pick a shorter one," Miranda said.

"Well, we've already got four letters in it," Andrea said, frowning at the crossword puzzle. "And the first one is 'Q.'"

"Oh," Miranda said, as it occurred to her. "Queen Christina."

"Huh, that's it," Andrea said, filling it in. "I've never heard of that one. At this rate we'll be done really soon."

"Well," Miranda sighed, "there's always the Jumble.” She'd always had much more difficulty with the Jumble. "Why are you using a pencil?"

"So we can erase things if we get them wrong, of course," Andrea said in surprise.

"It's much more efficient if you don't get them wrong in the first place, don't you think?" Miranda said. "What's the next one?"

"You do all your crosswords in pen, don't you?"

"I don't do crosswords much at all," Miranda said. "But when I do, yes, I use ink. As it should be done."

"Yeah, well, I don't want to make a mess," Andrea said. "Next one: 'Newman co-star surname.'"

What was this, the old movies edition? "Redford," Miranda said, hoping the next one would be more interesting.

"No," Andrea said, surprising her. "They probably thought that was too easy. Eight letters. We don't have any yet."

"Woodward," Miranda said, after some mental math. "Joanne Woodward."

Andrea frowned at the puzzle and sighed. "Yeah. Just as easy, I guess.” She chuckled. "They went for the wife instead of the boyfriend, huh?"

"Andrea," Miranda said, not at all amused. "Paul Newman is a friend of mine, and a fine gentlemen."

"...oh," Andrea said after a moment. "I didn't mean--it wasn't an insult or anything. Just a joke."

"And not a funny one, either."

"Hey," Andrea said. "I know it's not really true. Besides, it shouldn't be, you know, mean or whatever, to make a joke about somebody being gay. I know it is," she added, when Miranda turned to look at her in disbelief, "but it shouldn't be, you know? It should be like making a joke about your eye color, or whatever."

"How about a joke that implies a man is cheating on his wife?" Miranda said. "Are those not supposed to be mean?"

"Oh, come on," Andrea protested. "It's not about that. You know, George Clooney and Brad Pitt make jokes about being gay for each other, and everyone knows they're straight. It's just a joke!"

"Really?" Miranda gestured at the countryside they were currently traversing. The middle of nowhere, lonesome and ornery and mean. "Let's ask the people who live out here how they'd feel about George and Brad being gay."

"That--well--that's a stereotype," Andrea said weakly. "You never know. I bet a lot of people here would be fine with it.”

Miranda rolled her eyes so hard it almost hurt.

"Okay, maybe not a lot…"

"'Being gay for each other'," Miranda snorted. "In the first place, that's the most ridiculous idea…"

"Anne Heche did it for Ellen, didn't she?"

"Yes, and look how that turned out," Miranda said. She'd cut Anne dead years ago, and didn't regret it for a moment.

"I think it's more about the person, not their gender," Andrea said, as if that was supposed to be a novel idea.

"Really?" Miranda said. "How many girlfriends have you had?"

"Well, none," Andrea admitted, as Miranda had suspected she would. "I just never had a crush on a girl, that's all. That's what I meant--the right person."

"It looks like I don't even need to run you in circles," Miranda said. "You're doing just fine by yourself."

"What's that mean?" Andrea finally set the newspaper down in her lap and glared at Miranda.

"'I've never met the right person.'  Oh, please," Miranda said, a little surprised at how upset she was getting, how quickly her heart had begun to beat yet again. "It's hard to meet the right woman if you're not even looking at women, because you don't find women attractive in the first place."

"Well--I--um," Andrea said, and visibly gave up, slouching back against her seat. "Okay, you might have a point. Well, what if I started looking? I mean, why not? Nate and I aren't together any--" She stopped, and made a gulping noise. "Anymore. I might actually find a woman I like, because why shouldn't I?"

"Nobody said you shouldn't, and I don't care, and we are dropping this topic," Miranda said at once. "Right now."

There was a moment of silence that felt much longer than it probably was. Miranda refused to glance even in Andrea's general direction

Finally, Andrea said, "Four across. Three letters. 'Mouth part'."

Oh God, really? "Please tell me you can figure that out by yourself," Miranda growled.

"Of course I can! Oh. 'Lip.'  Uh. Right…six down. 'Letter after gamma'."

"Do I look like a classics expert?" Miranda asked, and leapt gratefully into the quarrel.

 


 

At their next gas stop, there was a bookstore within walking distance. Andy had nipped over and bought a whole book of nothing but word puzzles, which kept them occupied until about two o'clock. She had a hunch that Miranda wasn't absolutely crazy about crossword puzzles, but that, like Andy, she was willing to do anything that filled up the awkward silence of the day besides sniping at each other. So much for Miranda preferring to hear herself think.

But at two o'clock, even Miranda couldn't pretend to be enthralled by puzzles anymore, and so she called a halt and demanded Waylon Jennings again.

"Maybe we should get a new CD," Andy said, as she prepared to sit through another round of Waylon, just the same as yesterday. Miranda didn't seem to mind the repetition at all. Then again, this was the woman who ate the exact same thing for breakfast and lunch every day, for as long as Andy had known her.

For somebody on the cutting edge of everything, Miranda was certainly okay with being in a rut. Put like that, Andy was almost glad that something drastic had happened to get her out of it. Someone like Miranda shouldn't be perfectly happy doing the same job day after day for almost twenty years, no matter what it was. She should never believe she'd reached the pinnacle, should never stop reaching for the next goal. She was too ambitious and energetic and smart and--

Andy put her hands over her face, but quickly turned it into an eye-rub before Miranda could notice and think it was weird. That was the last thing she needed.

Now that they were a few hours away from it, Andy could let herself think about how she'd had a conversation with Miranda about turning gay. About finding the right woman. Oh God, had aliens taken possession of her mouth? Or her brain? Probably both. And Miranda had called a halt right away with a disgusted look on her face, which just made Andy want to sink through the floormats.

Andy was bored. Andy was lonely. Andy was trying to put off thinking about the future. That had to be behind it. She was fixating on something crazy so she wouldn't have to deal with reality.

Then her stomach rumbled, and she had something else to fixate on. She realized it was two-fifteen, and they hadn't stopped for food since breakfast, which had been just past nine o'clock. She was starving.

"Can we stop for lunch?" she asked Miranda, who twitched, as if she'd forgotten Andy was sitting next to her. Heck, she'd probably been trying to do exactly that. "It's been, you know, a while."

"Oh," Miranda said. She sounded surprised, and her eyes widened when she looked at the clock. "All right. Where are we?"

"Huh? Oh," Andy said, and opened up the map. "Right, okay…" She squinted, and then leaned over to see the odometer. They'd gone about sixty miles since passing by I-35. She frowned at the map, and did a little mental geometry.

"I think the next place is probably Watonga," she said. Ahead in the distance, she could see a green road sign, and waited for it to get closer. Three miles to Watonga. Andy smiled in vindication, even though Miranda hadn't said she was wrong.

Well, she couldn't, could she? Andy could have told Miranda that Dallas was just an hour away, and apparently Miranda couldn't have proven otherwise by looking at a map. She snorted with laughter, and quickly turned it into a cough before Miranda could turn and glare at her, but Miranda did anyway. Andy pretended not to notice.

Oklahoma wasn't too bad so far. There were trees, there was greenery. It didn't look much like the Dust Bowl that Andy had always imagined from The Grapes of Wrath.

"We need to figure out how we're going to do this," Miranda said.

Andy blinked.

"I don't want to be stared at by the dregs of America."

"Oh," Andy said. "Um, okay. I can run into a restaurant and get something. Or we can just go to a drive-through.” The thought did not thrill her. She wanted a break from the car. "And then maybe find a quiet spot to eat. You know, stretch our legs."

"Hmm," Miranda said. "Keep your eyes open, then, for something decent."

Not much seemed to be on offer as they entered Watonga. The outer edges of the town were desolate; there was an almost abandoned air to them, and there was certainly no place in sight where Miranda would consent to eat. Andy didn't have a good feeling about this. Was it a ghost town?

But then, as they drove further into town, they heard noise. More and more noise. Cars started appearing and congregating out of nowhere. There were suddenly families everywhere, and little kids ran around with stickers on their cheeks and waving balloon animals in their hands. Country music boomed from somewhere around a corner. So this was where everybody had gone: some big event in the town's center.

"What in the world," Miranda began, but then, when she drove around the corner, a gigantic banner answered all their questions.

"WELCOME! To the Watonga Cheese Festival!!" it read.

The banner fluttered in the gentle breeze, presiding over a throng of people who milled in and out of a festival devoted to one single thing: cheese. Cheese was everywhere. There were booths and tents lining the street, each hawking cheese-based products. One booth advertised t-shirts with pictures of happy mice printed on them. A large sign pointed to a building, and read, "CHEESE FOOD CONTEST IN CITY HALL AUDITORIUM."

A horn honked behind them, and Andy realized the car had come to a dead stop while Miranda gaped at the scene. Miranda twitched at the honk, and began looking around in obvious bewilderment; the street was closed off.

A man wearing a bright orange vest blew a whistle and waved at them, directing them towards a parking lot on the side of the street. Miranda actually obeyed his directions and turned into the parking lot, probably because she seemed kind of shell-shocked.

"Where are we?" she said, as she slid the Porsche into the one remaining space in the lot. "What is this?"

"I don't know," Andy said, "but I think I've figured out what we're eating for lunch.” She hopped out of the car before Miranda could say anything, looking towards the festival with longing. She loved cheese. "Oh, wow. This looks amazing."

"This looks revolting," Miranda said. She got out of the car too, and stood next to Andy, looking at the merriment in horror. "What is wrong with these people?"

"Nothing," Andy said. "They just really, really like their cheese, I guess.” She grinned, and it was like the awkward morning just melted away. "C'mon. Let's go see what's going on."

"No," Miranda said instantly. "Did you miss the part where I said I don't want to be noticed by anybody?"

"No," Andy said. "Did you miss the part where there are clowns dancing in the street wearing cheese hats?" She pointed at the clowns. "It's a festival! There's tons of stuff going on. People are going to pay a lot less attention to you here than they would in a restaurant, if you just act normal. I mean, inconspicuous," she added quickly, since Miranda's version of 'normal' would get her noticed pretty quickly no matter where she went. "Don't you like cheese?"

"I adore cheese," Miranda said. "A nice Camembert, or a perfect Brie. Gouda. Boursin. Which of these do you think I'll find here?"

"Maybe all of them," Andy said, annoyed. "How do you know if you don't look?"

"I have a vague suspicion," Miranda replied.

"Let's at least get away from the car before we get spotted," Andy sighed. "People will notice a Porsche. Besides, you've got your scarf and sunglasses on, right?” CNN probably wouldn't have depicted her like that. All Miranda needed now was a fake nose and moustache. "We'll just walk around and eat and see what's going on. Nobody will look for you here."

Miranda didn't say anything, but she did walk past Andy towards the festival. Andy cheered silently, bounced on the balls of her feet, and hurried after her. Excellent. She was afraid Miranda would turn back when they approached a picnic table and a woman cheerfully informed them that admission was five dollars apiece; but by now, it looked like even Miranda was curious enough to fork over ten bucks.

"'Cheese food contest'?" Miranda said as they approached the City Hall Auditorium. "What in the world is a cheese food? Cheese isn't enough of a food on its own?"

"I guess not," Andy said. "Let's go find out.” When Miranda got a mulish look on her face, Andy added, "The sooner we find something to eat, the sooner we can get back on the road, right?”

Miranda gave an aggravated sigh, which meant, 'I hate that you're right,' and she led the way into the hall.

Andy figured out pretty quickly, though, that the food inside the auditorium wasn't likely to whet Miranda's appetite. Or her own, really. The cheese food contest was, in fact, a race in which the contestants were given a basket of items--including cheese, naturally--and told to produce appetizers in a specific time frame. The best appetizer, judged by a committee of taste testers, would win. It appeared that last year's champion had been a recipe for a chocolate chip cheese ball.

"Iron Chef: Cheese Edition," Andy said. "When's the contest?"

"After we leave," Miranda said flatly. "Which should be very, very soon.” She looked around the auditorium in irritation. "Is this the only thing that's going on in here?"

"Looks like it," Andy sighed. The cheese food contest was in an hour and a half, and there was no way Miranda would agree to stick around for that long. "You want to find a place to sit outside? I can go forage."

"Fine," Miranda said, and they re-emerged into the bright October sunlight. Andy blinked rapidly. "There's an empty picnic table over there. Be quick."

"Any requests?" Andy asked. "I mean, hot dogs or hamburgers or bar--"

"No barbecue," Miranda said instantly, and Andy bit her lip to keep from grinning as she hurried into the crowd, trying not to trip over a small child or run into a pair of clowns. Wow. There was mini-golf. And bowling. And a lot of tables set up beneath tents, where volunteers produced charred-looking hamburgers and hot dogs by assembly line.

Andy picked a tent at random, run by the PTA. Everybody gave her cheerful smiles. Well, that was a nice change.

She returned to Miranda balancing two cups of soda in one hand and a tray of food in the other. Miranda had seated herself at one end of the lonely picnic table. At the other end an elderly man sat by himself, nursing a Styrofoam cup full of something and staring off into the distance. He didn't seem to notice Andy as she sat down.

"Hamburgers. Well, cheeseburgers, of course," Andy said as she set the tray down in front of Miranda. "I asked if they could make yours medium rare but, um, they didn't really take requests. And Diet Coke. And um, and um…"

"What in the world is that?" Miranda asked, staring at a third paper-wrapped packet while she took her own cheeseburger out and removed the bun. She frowned at the cheese--a thin yellow slice that wasn't too melted to be plucked off the meat and discarded, which Miranda did at once. At least Andy had remembered to include a plastic fork for her.

"Um," Andy said again. "It's cheese fudge.” She unwrapped the fudge and looked at it again; Miranda, seeing it for the first time, paused with a forkful of well-done hamburger meat halfway to her mouth.

"It's what?" she asked.

"Cheese fudge. There was a competition. This was the winner."

"A competition."

"Yeah. Would you like to tr--"

"No."

"Right," Andy said, and decided she'd need to eat a cheeseburger before she had the courage to tackle the fudge. If Nate had been here, he'd have tried it before anything else. Heck, he'd probably have tried to enter the competition cold. And would have won.

God. This was surreal. No, this was beyond surreal. This was insane. This…

"We need to figure out where we're going."

Andy looked up from her cheeseburger in surprise. Miranda was watching her with a blank, closed expression on her face that reminded Andy of the day she had been hired. Andy wondered if she'd been making a dumb face while eating or something.

"You mean today?" she asked. "Or in general? I mean, like--where in California?” She sipped her Diet Coke. "If we keep going like we're going, we'll end up in the southern part. Route 66 goes to L.A."

"I was only thinking of today," Miranda said. "I want somewhere nice and quiet, where we will be left alone and people will not stare at me. Somewhere where I can--" She stopped, cleared her throat, and continued, "Where I can talk to my girls in peace."

"Oh," Andy said softly. "Yeah. Okay. I'll check the guidebook.” She didn't have a lot of other options. "Or if you want to sit here, maybe I can ask around and see if anybody has any suggestions about where we might go. Somewhere a few hours away."

"I'm not sure I want to draw that sort of attention," Miranda said, shaking her head, but at least she hadn't called Andy an idiot. "We'll have to use the book."

"If you don't want to go far, you might head for Roman Nose," said the old man at the other end of the table.

Miranda stiffened, and Andy gasped. She'd completely forgotten he was there, and while she and Miranda hadn't been loud, they hadn't exactly been whispering either. But the old man, whose beaten-up Arizona Diamondbacks cap nearly covered his face, didn't even look at them. He just kept staring off into the distance, sipping his drink.

After another pull on the straw, he added, "It's quiet. Pretty views of the lake. Won't nobody bother you there."

Miranda didn't stand up and storm off; instead, she looked at the man intently. Almost calculatingly. Andy decided to take this as some kind of cue, and said, "Sorry--what's this place you're talking about?"

"Roman Nose," he replied imperturbably, still looking straight ahead, as if he was talking to the air. "State park. Just about right up the road. They got cabins and campsites and whatall.” He shrugged. "Don't cost too much this time of year. It's a nice place. Got a cousin does ranger work up there."

"You did say cabins?" Andy pressed. "Um, we're not exactly ready to go camping.” She tried to imagine Miranda camping. It didn't work.

"Sure," the man said. "And a lodge if you'd rather. It's all tricked out. They's plenty of people just goes off to be by theirselves.” He took another pull on the straw. "Just might want to think on it. If you don't want to go far."

"I don't know how far we want to go," Andy said, glancing at Miranda, who was still looking at the man. The man, in return, didn't so much as turn his head. "Uh--Sharon?"

"We might as well have a look at it," Miranda said, not glancing back at Andy. "If it doesn't suit us, we'll keep going."

The man nodded. "Might suit you. Might not.” Then he added: "That liberal media'll about hound a body to death. Poking into what ain't nobody's business.”

Miranda sat up very straight and lifted her chin. Andy caught her breath.

"Ever since that Monica Lewinsky," the man added. "If you ask me, it's all Bill Clinton's fault."

 


 

Miranda had nearly discarded the state park idea as soon as the old man revealed he'd recognized her. It had certainly been enough to propel her off the picnic table and back towards the Boxster while Andrea stuffed the last bite of her cheeseburger in her mouth, gabbling her thanks to him as she followed. Miranda wondered if the old man might call ahead to that park ranger cousin of his, and let everybody know that Miranda Priestly, the current object of curiosity on CNN, was heading their way.

But a tiny voice whispered in her head that there might not be any harm in taking a quick look; that the old man hadn't seemed the sort to tattle; that there were worse places to go than somewhere with a quiet cabin by a lake.

Of course, it was dangerous to trust people. Often fatal, in fact. Really--she should just write off that state park and--

"I see it on the map," Andrea said as Miranda began to back the car out of the parking space. "That guy was right. We're practically sitting right on top of it.” She bit her lip. "Er. If you really do want to stick that close today."

"What do you think?" Miranda asked.

It obviously took Andrea a moment to realize that it was not a rhetorical question, and that Miranda was not mocking her. She gaped like a fish before she recovered and said, "I'm fine with stopping if you are. Like I said--I'll go along with what you're doing. It's just, have you decided when you want to get to California? Not where, just when?"

"We're closer to California than not, Andrea," Miranda said in exasperation as she headed back towards Highway 33. "Barring the largest tidal wave known to man, we'll hit it soon enough if we just keep driving."

"Okay," Andrea said. "Right. Well, the park sounds fine to me. Like I said. If you want.” Then she blurted, "Do you trust that guy? He recognized you."

Good, Andrea had sense enough to ask. "I think we are lucky he was the only one who did," she said. "Assuming he was. If we park the car far enough off from the lodge, or whatever, and you check in with cash while I wait, we should be all right.” She hoped.

Andrea nodded. "A state park," she said. Now that Miranda had given her seal of approval, she sounded more enthusiastic than apprehensive. "I can't even remember the last time I saw a park. Not Central Park, you know, the real kind."

"Mmm," Miranda said, and pursed her lips. She was happy when Andrea stopped talking at once. It was nice to be able to communicate.

Then Andrea said, "Hey, look over there. In that strip mall. A music store."

Twenty minutes later, she was hurrying back into the parking lot where Miranda waited in the car, carrying a rustling plastic bag. She gave Miranda a large fistful of change-- "He was all suspicious when I gave him a hundred dollar bill, he had to get out that marker they use, that's what slowed me down" --and then began pulling CDs out of the bag.

"Here's more Waylon. This one has some songs we haven't heard yet. And this one's The Highwaymen, where he plays with like a whole bunch of other guys, like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. And here's Tammy Wynette, because I really think we ought to listen to more women," she added in a lecturing tone.

Miranda sneered with as much derision as she could manage, which was a lot. "Tammy Wynette, feminist icon," she said. "Oh, yes. Why don't you play that one first, Andrea?"

"Er--yeah," Andrea said, obviously realizing that something was amiss. She glanced at the CD case.

"What's the first song on the list?" Miranda pressed. "Let me guess."

"I didn't really look when I bought it," Andrea said feebly. "Um. 'Stand By Your Man'."

Miranda snickered.

"Okay, I'm sorry," Andrea sighed. She pulled something else out of the bag. "I got you one of these, though.” It was a portable CD player in a plastic case, with a pair of cheap headphones curled up at the bottom. "In case you want to listen to Waylon outside of the car."

"Oh," Miranda managed after a moment, deliberately keeping her eyes on the gearshift as she backed the car out of the parking space. "All right.” She turned her head all the way to her left, as if checking for traffic, so that Andrea would not see her swallow. "Did you choose anything for yourself?"

"No," Andrea said, sounding nonplussed. "We’ve already got some of the things I like--we just haven't listened to them yet. That roadtrip compilation looks really cool," she added with a smile.

Miranda cleared her throat. "Well, if you're dying to listen to it, we might as well do it now."

"Oh, no thanks," Andrea said, to Miranda's surprise. "Let's save that one for when we're going to go a long way. Tomorrow, maybe. Right now we're just driving for a little bit to somewhere we've already decided. This part isn't really like a road trip."

"No?"

"Not really," Andrea said. "Oh!" She pointed at a road sign. "Here's the turnoff for the park."

The road into Roman Nose State Park was marked by a large sign that featured a Native chief in profile. Miranda turned.

The lodge's parking lot was half-empty. Miranda carefully parked at the far end, and she and Andrea got out, looking around. The lodge itself was nondescript, made of brown logs, all canned homeliness. But the day itself was temperate, and the breeze rustled through the trees, whose leaves were changing color, though less dramatically than in West Virginia. Miranda could hear water.

"Want me to go look--" Andrea began, glancing towards the lodge.

"Let's walk," Miranda said.

Andrea looked surprised again, but she followed Miranda gamely enough out of the parking lot and onto a wooded trail. Miranda was glad that she was wearing flats. Andrea was still wearing her dreadful sneakers, and she'd put on her idiotic cowboy hat into the bargain.

They headed down the trail. Miranda kept her arms wrapped around herself, even though the day was not cold. She couldn't stop looking at everything: up at the sky, into the sun shining through the leaves, and then back down the trail.

Everything was surprisingly quiet. No cars, no music, no clamor of people, no crush and press and noise. Miranda knew there were other people here, but apparently the park was large enough that you didn't have to trip over them. Even here, in the middle of the woods, there was a feeling of spaciousness. Of room to breathe.

Miranda did not particularly enjoy nature, and she'd never liked camping, but there was something to be said for…whatever this was.

The lake came into view, surrounded by bluffs and pines. "I read somewhere that Oklahoma has more man-made lakes than any other state," Andrea said in the enthusiastic tones of a lifelong bookworm.

"You don't say," Miranda said flatly, quelling her at once. She looked along the shoreline, and then took off her trench coat, folding it up neatly and placing it on her knees as she sat down on a nearby log. After another surprised pause, Andrea tentatively sat down next to her at a prudent distance.

Stillness. Quiet. Of a kind she hadn't known in years. Miranda realized that she was stunned by it, as if someone had just blinded her with a camera flash or dropped her into water that was freezing cold.

And yet, it wasn't entirely unpleasant. Bereft of words, she let her mind go blessedly blank as she surveyed the lake, the shore, the autumn trees.

She didn't know how long she sat there in complete silence. She was a little startled when Andrea stood up and brushed off her pants, but Andrea said nothing--just ambled down to the lakeshore, apparently bored with sitting on the log.

Miranda watched her go, still feeling as if the silence had wrapped her in a blanket, or a cocoon. This place alternately terrified her and made her feel more…paused…than she had in a long time.

And it was very pretty. Dramatic, even. It would be a good backdrop for a photoshoot. Narciso was into orange and red this season, and maybe--

Miranda's stomach suddenly hurt as if she'd been punched, and she put her hand over her mouth just in time to stifle a breathless, anguished cry. Thankfully Andrea, several meters away now, did not seem to hear her. Miranda got herself under control as quickly as possible, because she'd wept more in the last week than she had in the last year, and she had no intention of adding any more tears to her tally.

She wasn't going back. She couldn't. She had to accept that. She would accept it.

Miranda shoved the thought away to the very back of her mind (she didn't want it now, she didn't) and stood up, trying to ignore the creaking in her knees. Andrea saw her movement, and turned around, jogging back from the shore.

Jogging. God, Miranda needed to do some of that, in the absence of her usual morning tennis. Or yoga, or something. She'd packed workout clothes and she needed a reason to wear them. Andrea might as well join her, she thought without humor as she recalled pancakes, hamburgers, and fudge made out of Velveeta. Get her out of the city and the girl turned into a barbarian. She needed someone to take her in hand and--

"So what do you think?" Andrea said, only slightly out of breath as she skidded to a stop in front of Miranda. "It's pretty here."

"So it is."

"Kind of, um, dull, though."

"Dull?” That decided it, as far as Miranda was concerned. "It's peaceful, Andrea. We could use a little peace."

Andrea wilted a bit. "Oh. You want to stay here tonight?"

"I think we should have sufficient cash," Miranda said, doing some mental arithmetic. Other than the hotel bill in Claremore, she hadn't had to lay out much. They still had a few hundred left from the pawn shop, although Miranda would probably need to dip into her bank account soon. At least ATMs didn't pay attention to faces. "Unless this place is more high-tone than it looks."

"The old guy said it didn't cost too much," Andrea said, and nodded towards the trail that led back to the lodge. "You want me to take care of it?"

"Yes," Miranda said, and without further ado, they headed back towards the car. Now that she had a mission, Miranda did not look quite as much at her surroundings. But she did wish--just a touch, hardly worth mentioning--that she had paid more attention to the leaves back in West Virginia.

She waited by the car while Andrea headed for the lodge to make inquiries. She didn't feel any particular compulsion to get back inside, however. It was nice merely to rest against the door, look up at the sky, feel a pleasant stretch in her thighs and calves. Yet again, she lost track of time, and, when Andrea returned to the car, was startled to realize that twenty whole minutes had passed her by. She hadn't been lost in thought; precisely the opposite. It was bizarre. But not bad.

"Okay, cabins are ninety bucks per night," Andrea said, and returned Miranda's wallet. "And they come with linens and stuff, so that's okay."

"Good," Miranda said in relief.

"I got Cabin Three." Andrea held up two keys. "It's a little farther off--guy at the desk said we might want to drive, especially with luggage. It's on the lake, and it's kind of by itself. I thought that would be good.” Andrea looked anxious to please. It was almost charming, now that Miranda had seen the other side of her personality.

But she only said, "Fine. Let's go.”

Andrea beamed, hopped back in the car--obviously twenty-somethings weren't in need of yoga, Miranda reflected grouchily--and they headed off down another road that was more like a trail, unpaved and dusty. Miranda was glad that the top was up on the car.

"We'll need to stop at a car wash tomorrow," she said. "This thing is getting filthy."

"Yeah? I didn't notice," Andrea said. Typical. "It just looks like somebody's actually been driving it, instead of it coming straight out of a showroom."

"It will have to be vacuumed too," Miranda said, ignoring this. "Keep your eyes open for a full-service place while we go. Or you can ask back at the lodge before we leave."

"Right," Andrea sighed. Then she pointed ahead. "There it is."

The cabin didn't look like much from the outside, but neither did it appear decrepit. The interior, once Andrea let them in, was much the same: functional and clean, if not inspired or luxurious. There were two bedrooms, a bathroom, a sitting area, and a kitchenette.

One bedroom had a television. "You can have that one," Miranda told Andrea, because she'd rather have cut off her arm than watch the news today. The other bedroom was a little smaller, but not noticeably so, and Miranda set her bags on the floor with relief.

Then she sat on the edge of the mattress, sighed, and looked around. The decorations in the bedroom were predictable: paintings of desert landscapes, a woven rug, and a carved wooden statue of a Native American brave on the nightstand.

"Hey!" Andrea called from the sitting room.

Miranda rose to her feet, left her bedroom, and saw that Andrea was looking at some kind of pamphlet.

"Did you know that you can rent a tipi?” Andrea frowned. “That seems wrong.”

"I'm calling my daughters," Miranda said, palming her phone and heading for the back door. It was past four o'clock. The girls would be home from school, and it was time. Her stomach turned into a knot again. "Do whatever you want."

"O-okay," Andrea said, but if she added anything else, Miranda did not hear her over the closing of the door.

The back of the cabin had a porch that looked out over the lake. In the distance, Miranda could see a pier with paddle-boats. It was a tranquil view. Miranda was grateful for it; right now, she needed any semblance of tranquility she could get.

There were rocking-chairs on the porch, but she decided to wander farther out. She didn't think Andrea would eavesdrop--not on purpose, anyway--but the more privacy she had, the better.

It was with slightly-shaking fingertips that she speed-dialed Greg's number. He picked up on the second ring.

"Okay," he said, sounding tired.

"Do they know?" she asked. "Have they heard?"

After a pause, he said, "Yeah. Yeah, they have."

The quiet solemnity in his tone made her heart race unpleasantly. "Well?" she croaked, and cleared her throat.

"'Well' what? What do you think?” Greg's solemn tone turned half-angry. "They're scared and they want to know why you didn't tell them what happened. What else did you expect?"

Miranda tried to say, Let me talk to them, and said instead, "Will they speak to me?"

"Yes," Greg said. "They will. They wanted to call you as soon as they got home. I said we'd wait for you to call, because we knew that you would. 'Remember, Mom calls you every night,' I said."

"Yes.” Miranda cleared her throat. "Thank y--tell them I'm here."

"Not until you tell me what you're going to say," Greg growled.

"Greg, I think I can speak to my own children without needing you to give me clearance," Miranda said coldly. "What are you afraid I'll say?"

"I--" Greg stopped. Then he continued, "Don't scare them. I mean, more."

"I won't," Miranda said. "Of course I won't."

"I’m serious," Greg said. Then he called, "Girls? It's your mom."

Miranda's heartbeat did not slow down one iota, and it seemed an eternity before she heard Caroline's voice say breathlessly, "Mom? Where are you?”

Only seconds later, Cassidy picked up on another extension and said, much more angrily, "What are you doing?"

Miranda realized she had no idea how to answer the second question, so she stuck to the first. "I'm out west, darlings," she said, trying to sound soothing. "I'm fine. Your father tells me you've heard the news."

"Why didn't you tell us?" Cassidy said. "We had to hear it at school--everybody made fun of us all day!"

"Did you really get fired?" Caroline asked. "Why? What did you do?"

I married your stepfather. I got older. "It's not that simple," Miranda said, knowing that it would need to be simple for ten-year-olds, no matter what. "Do you remember Mr. Ravitz? Irv? You've met him a few times."

"Your boss?" Caroline asked.

"Yes. My boss," Miranda said. Then she rolled her eyes. Former boss. "He decided that it was time for me to leave Runway because I've been there for so long. Only he didn't tell me--I heard about it from somebody else. So I quit before he could fire me.” It even hurt to admit it to children. How much more would it hurt to admit it to a world of sneering adults?

"Oh," Caroline said.

"You weren't in Paris," Cassidy said. "Were you? When you started calling us later at night? You were back home."

"Not at home, no," Miranda said quickly. "I wasn't in New York. In America, yes, but--"

"Why didn't you tell us?" Cassidy asked shrilly, and Miranda nearly cringed. Cassidy had always been the more emotional twin. "I had to hear about it from that stupid Stella LaCourt in first period! She was laughing at me!"

"I was going to tell you tomorrow," Miranda said, regretting her stupidity immensely. Greg was right (how galling): she should have told them right away. "I'm sorry about Stella, dear. But you should--"

"Why tomorrow?" Caroline asked. "Why were you going to wait until then?"

"I was supposed to get back from Paris tomorrow," Miranda said. "I didn't want to make you worry.” It didn't make much sense now that she said it out loud, and to them.

"When are you coming home?" Caroline asked. "Why didn't you come back here instead of going out west?"

"Because she hates us," Cassidy hissed.

"Cassidy!" Miranda said. She rarely spoke sharply to her children--she could hardly bear to--but there were limits. "Don't be silly. I do not hate you. Don't talk like that.”

To her relief, she heard Greg's voice in the background, saying something that sounded stern. Cassidy did not say anything else, and Miranda continued, "Caroline, do you remember when you got into that argument with your friend, um--"  What on earth had his name been? "Brad?"

"Brandon," Cassidy said. "Our friend's name is Brandon, Mom."

"It's okay, it's okay," Caroline said quickly. "What about Brandon?"

"You had that argument with him," Miranda said, trying to breathe evenly. It was difficult. She felt as if she was being choked. "And when you came home from school, you went into your room and locked the door, and you didn't want to come out or talk to anybody. Do you remember?"

"Yeah," Caroline said. "It's like that with you?"

"It's like that, bobbsey," Miranda said. "Mommy just wants to go off and be by herself for a little while, until she feels better."

"Stop talking to us like that!" Cassidy said. "Why do you always talk like that? We're not babies--we're almost eleven--"

"Cassidy, shut up!" Caroline said.

Miranda covered her eyes with one hand. "Caroline, don't tell your sister to shut up," she said. "Cassidy, please calm down. I'll stop talking to you like that if you want.”

I'll do anything you want. I'll give you anything you want. She had known that, had vowed it, from the moment she'd first held their reddened little bodies in the hospital--she had known that her girls would never be deprived like she'd been, that they would have everything they asked for. She would do that. That was her responsibility--

"You can still talk to me like that," Caroline said, her voice thick. Yet again, Miranda had to muffle her mouth with her hand, because if her children started crying, then it was all over. "I don't mind. I like it."

"Yeah, because you are a baby," Cassidy snapped.

"I am not! I said shut up! Mom, when are you coming home?"

"Soon. Soon," Miranda said, horrified by how strangled she sounded. "Do you need me to come home now? I can, if you need me."

"We don't!" Cassidy yelled, her voice suddenly rising into a screech. "You didn't want to come home and see us, you just ran away and didn't tell us what was going on--"

"Cassidy--"

"I don't care if you never come home, you can stay out there if you want, I hate you!"

Miranda bent forward, felt her knees go weak, and wished very much that she had a rocking-chair to sit in. A nearby patch of grass had to do. Her vision swam. But then she heard background noise, and Greg's voice said firmly, "All right, I think that's enough of the dramatics. Miranda, Caroline, I'm sending Cassidy to her room until she can behave herself."

"I hate you too!" Cassidy screamed in the background.

"Get moving," Greg said, and since Cassidy didn't yell anything else, Miranda assumed she'd gotten moving. Her own heart was pounding so hard she felt dizzy with it. She'd probably ruined her pants by sitting down so hard on the ground.

"Mom?" Caroline said. "Are you still there?"

Miranda gulped. "Yes," she said. "Yes, of course I'm still here, darling."

"Don't listen to Cassidy. Cassidy's stupid. She lets other people bother her, but I don't, I don't care."

"Good," Miranda breathed, feeling her heart slowing a little. "That's as it should be."

"But you still love us, right? You're coming home, right? Now that you're not working, maybe you can spend more time," Caroline said, her words coming faster and faster.

Miranda's heart seized again. Oh God. This was worse.

"Maybe we can do more things,” Caroline said.

"Maybe," Miranda said, pressing a hand to her throat. " That would be nice. Of course I still love you.” She closed her eyes. "I love you both more than anything else in the world.” It was what parents were always supposed to say. Her voice had wobbled, and she struggled with all her might to steady it again. "Are you feeling better now that you're talking to me?"

"Yeah," Caroline said. "Where are you? You're not out there all by yourself, are you? Is Stephen with you?"

Oh God, oh no. Not now. "No," Miranda said. "No, Stephen--Stephen isn't here."

"Caroline, honey," Greg said, and Miranda jumped. She'd forgotten he was still on the line. "Why don't we save some of these questions for tomorrow?"

"Why?" Caroline asked. "What's wrong with Stephen? Why isn't he there? Is he at work?"

"Well," Greg said awkwardly, "that's up to your mom to…Miranda?"

Miranda considered actually lying down on the ground, but discarded the notion almost instantly. She'd be like a turtle flipped on its back, unable to get up again. "Caroline, Stephen isn’t here. He told me, while I was in Paris--Stephen doesn't want to be married to me anymore."

"What?" Caroline said.

"Oh, jeez," Greg muttered.

Miranda realized that she could have put that better. "I mean, Stephen has decided…that is, we have…"

"Stephen wants to get divorced?" Caroline said, sounding like she didn't believe it.

"Yes," Miranda said softly.

"Because of your job? Because you got fired?”

"No," Miranda said. "No, he wanted it before I got fired.” He'd probably wanted it for a long time, and had said nothing until she was off the continent. The coward, the--

"Then why?" Caroline said. Her voice started to tremble. "I like Stephen. I thought he liked us."

"He does," Miranda rasped. "He likes you very much.” It was true. He always had. The papers she'd been served in Paris had, in fact, made mention of visitation rights. "It isn't because of you, darling. It's not because of you at all."

"Then why?" Caroline pleaded.

"Sweetie, it's--Miranda? May I?" Greg asked.

Miranda made a vague noise of assent.

"Sweetie, I know you probably don't remember when Mom and I got divorced. But it wasn't anything to do with you and your sister. Sometimes grown-ups just can't live together anymore. It makes them too unhappy. That's all it is."

Miranda had once thought that one of the few perks of divorcing Greg was that the girls were too young to understand, too young to need explanations. She'd never thought she'd have to give them one. Not like this. And she couldn't do it, she wasn't even the one doing it, her goddamned ex-husband was doing it for her.

Enough of that. She took a deep, trembling breath. "Stephen still cares about you and your sister, Caroline. He still wants to see you, even though he won't be living with us anymore. He isn't leaving you.”

The words hurt. If Stephen was leaving, Miranda wanted him well and truly gone. If he didn't want to be with her, then what right did he have to help himself to her family, to pick and choose as he pleased?

But it was about what the girls wanted. Anything they wanted.

"I don't understand," Caroline said in a small voice. "Can't you tell him you want him to stay? Doesn't he love you anymore?"

Then Miranda felt it: a tear rolling down her cheek. Oh…damn. She wiped it away at once. "No," she said, and swallowed. "No, he doesn't. Sometimes that happens, dear. With adults," she added quickly. "Never with you. Never with parents and children."

"Why doesn't he love you?" Caroline asked. Then, just like before, she said: "What did you do?"

"Oh," Miranda gasped, before she could stop herself.

But then, thankfully, Greg jumped in and said, "It's not like that, Caroline.” The irony was hideous; Greg, more than anybody, knew how easily Miranda did things that made people stop loving her. "It's not about what somebody did or didn't do. It's a grownup thing. You'll understand more when you're older."

"I'm sorry, darling," Miranda said. "I'm so sorry. But everything will be all right."

"I'll talk to you about it more when your mom hangs up," Greg said. "You and your sister. Okay, Miranda?"

What was Miranda supposed to say to that, while Caroline was listening? "Yes," she said tightly, and hoped that for once Greg could read her thoughts from hundreds of miles away: that he'd better say exactly the right things.

"Okay," Caroline whispered.

"Everything will be all right," Miranda repeated. "I promise."

"So are you by yourself?"

"No," Miranda said. She snorted with laughter before she could stop herself. Well, it was better than crying. "Do you remember Andrea? One of my assistants? She came with me."

"Andrea? The one with brown hair, right? The pretty one?"

"The…" Miranda trailed off for a moment, and then said faintly, "Yes. The pretty one."

"Why'd she go with you? Did Irv fire her too?” Caroline sounded even more confused than before, but without that dreadful overtone of loss.

Maybe Miranda could handle this better. She hoped. "No, Irv didn't fire her," she said. "She decided she wanted to come with me."

"Huh? How come?"

"Well, she--" Or maybe not. How on earth was she supposed to explain this? "She just wanted to help me. With driving, and the car. I took the Porsche," she added, as if that mattered.

"She's helping with the car?" Miranda could imagine Caroline wrinkling her nose in bewilderment. "Is something wrong with it?"

More than Miranda cared to think about. "The car's fine, dear," she lied. "Andrea just didn't want me to have to drive a long way all by myself. She's been very helpful."

"Oh," Caroline said. "Good, I guess. She's nice."

"Yes, she is," Miranda said, and added cautiously, "Have you ever spoken to her?"

"…a couple of times," Caroline said, sounding evasive. "When she dropped off the book. We'd say hi. Never for long," she added hastily. "And not a lot."

Andrea had certainly never mentioned that. Miranda supposed she couldn't blame her. "Well," she said. "That's fine. I'm glad."

"When are you coming home?"

"Soon," Miranda said. "Do you need me to now?" she repeated. "If you need me to, I can come home now."

There was a pause, and Caroline said, "I'm okay. I'll make Cassidy be okay. And you're okay?"

"I'm okay," Miranda said, only half-meaning it. "I'm perfectly fine."

"All right, then," Caroline said. "You don't have to come home tomorrow if you don't want to. But--soon? Like, sometime this week?"

"Yes," Miranda said at once. "Absolutely sometime this week. And I'll talk to you every night, just like always. I'll let you know."

"Okay," Caroline said.

"We'll talk more tomorrow. About Stephen, and…everything. I hope your sister will be more reasonable."

"Cassidy sucks," Caroline said.

"Caroline," Greg said. Miranda sighed silently. Weren't identical twins supposed to be best friends or something? But Caroline and Cassidy had never been like that, to her regret. She hoped it would change as they got older, but they were so different. "We don't talk about our sister that way."

"Why not? She talks to Mom and you like a total brat," Caroline said. "I don't ever talk to you like that. Aren't you going to punish her?"

"We'll let your father work that out, precious," Miranda said, feeling something wholly positive for the first time since the twins had answered the phone: the joy of passing the buck. "I'll speak to you tomorrow, all right? Be a good girl."

"All right," Caroline grumbled. "Talk to you tomorrow. Be okay," she added quickly.

"You too," Miranda said softly.

"Some good kid, huh?" Greg said when Caroline was gone. "She gets that from me, you know."

Miranda snorted. "Have fun dealing with the other one."

"Screw you," Greg said almost affably. Then he added more seriously, "Cassidy, though. Do you think she might need medication? I mean, she might. I get scared when she goes off like that."

Miranda wanted to deny it, to tell her ex-husband that there was nothing wrong with her children. That of course there was no need to turn Cassidy into some kind of flat-affect zombie, that parents were far too overzealous with pills these days, in her opinion. But after that explosion, she couldn't find the words.

She didn't have to. "I'll talk to her," Greg continued. "She didn't mean it, you know that. Kids just say that kind of stuff all the time."

But they'd never said it to her. Not before today. Miranda elected not to tell Greg this, and said instead, "Tell her I love her. And I'm sorry."

"Sure," Greg said. "Listen--they need you to be okay. You hear?"

"Yes, of course I heard," Miranda said irritably. And they'd nearly been getting along.

"So you damn well better be careful out there, wherever you are. If I have to tell the girls you smashed into a telephone pole while you were trying to 'find yourself' or some shit--"

Miranda hung up instantly, rocked back on her behind a little, and looked up at the sky. She longed for that sense of stillness, of quiet, to return.

It didn't. Her heart was still beating too hard and too quickly. Cassidy. That temper, that anger, that--

"I hate you." Miranda had said that to her own parents. To her father most especially. And she'd meant every word of it, every time. Children could be sincere about that, all right. Greg had never known that and would never understand it.

Miranda told herself that Cassidy did not mean it. She was angry and frightened, and she'd feel bad about it later. She was like that: she had flare-ups, quick and hurtful, that subsided into guilty apologies. And the next time something upset her, it would happen all over again. Miranda hoped to God she'd settle down, or adolescence would feel very long indeed. And Caroline…well, thank goodness for Caroline.

Miranda took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly, as slowly as she could before she needed air again. She would talk to the girls tomorrow, and Cassidy would not hate her. That was all.

She rose to her feet and brushed off her pants, looking around her. Nobody in sight. Good. She didn't want anybody around to see her like this. And yet--

She returned to the cabin, but as soon as she entered the back door, she could tell that Andrea wasn’t there. The car wasn't parked out front. Miranda's heart stopped, but then she saw the note on the table. It read: Went to get food. Back soon!! -A.

Miranda's heart started to beat again, and she sat down heavily in one of the kitchen chairs. That had been a nasty moment, no question. She remembered, with grim humor, the way Andrea had asked back in New Jersey if Miranda would abandon her at a gas station. Would Andrea have felt that same moment of panic if Miranda had driven away?

She looked around the cabin. No books, or computer, or anything but television. That was more than reason enough to call Andrea and tell her to pick up some magazines or some books or something, but Andrea's phone was busy and Miranda got sent to voicemail. This aggravated her more than she would have expected, and she hung up rather than leave a message. Not worth the waste of breath.

Instead she went outside again and sat in a rocking-chair, feeling as if she ought to have a harmonica. Something to make noise. It was so quiet here. So unlike New York, or Paris, or even Nashville or Claremore or any other bizarre, awful place they'd stopped. She didn't know what to make of it. She wasn't even sure that she liked it.

The air was growing cooler and it was starting to get dark. She briefly considered going back inside and putting on a cardigan. She'd brought a rather nice blue one. But it seemed like a little too much effort to move right at the moment.

A few moments later, however, she heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway, and then the opening and closing of the cabin's front door. She stood up at once, listening for—

"Miranda?" Andrea called.

Something went light in Miranda's chest. She shook her head rapidly, annoyed with herself. "I'm out here," she said, and headed back into the cabin to see Andrea carrying two large paper bags.

Andrea set them down on the kitchen counter, and began taking out--two cans of broth. And celery. Miranda blinked. She had expected Andrea to return with take-out, not groceries.

"What's this?" she asked, even though she could see perfectly well what it was.

"Oh, well," Andrea said as she dug through the bag. Miranda noticed that her cheeks were red. It would be easy enough to blame it on the cool air, but there was something in her voice that suggested otherwise. "I got kind of tired of restaurant food. So I figured I'd make something."

"You cook?" Against her will, Miranda was impressed. She wouldn't have thought it.

"Not much," Andrea admitted. "But my ex-boyfriend's a chef. He taught me a few things. I can make vegetable soup. It's easy.” She shrugged, and took out a carton of eggs. "And I got these for breakfast. Even I can't screw up scrambled eggs.” The smile she gave Miranda was a little bitter. "Good thing your favorite's not complicated."

Miranda waited until Andrea had put the eggs in the refrigerator to say, "What happened?"

Andrea paused, and then shut the door. "Nothing. I called my parents," she said.

Well, that explained the busy phone. "Yes?" Miranda asked.

"It was nothing," Andrea repeated, and pulled out a tiny jar of instant coffee, followed by another jar of powdered creamer. "Sorry about this, but I thought we could drink it just for one morning."

"Fine," Miranda said. She folded her arms and waited.

Andrea glared at her. "They're not happy, okay?" she said. "I mean, why would they be? I've quit my job and I don't have another one, and I'm a long way from home, and they're freaked out and pissed at me for doing it. They think I'm crazy. Just like Nate."

Miranda looked at her for a moment. "I called the girls," she said.

"Yeah?" Andrea said.

"Yes," Miranda said, headed for the counter, and picked up a can of broth. Vegetable. "I assume you're not hungry just yet.” Although with this girl's appetite, who knew?

"No," Andrea said, looking sideways at her. "It's early. And we had a late lunch. Are you hungry?"

"No," Miranda said. "How long does your recipe take?"

"Not long at all.” Andrea dug around in the second grocery bag and pulled out some carrots, folowed by some string beans. "Mostly it's just prepping the vegetables.” An onion and a can of tomatoes followed the carrots and beans, and then a clove of garlic. "That won't take long. It can wait.” She pulled out a half-loaf of sandwich bread. "I thought we could have toast too. I like it better than soup crackers.” She gave Miranda a crooked smile. "Just so we can load up on carbs, right?"

"Hmm," Miranda said, but the bread was whole-wheat, so she didn't push back. Andrea's evening was obviously not going much better than her own, and judging from the past few days, they were more likely to turn their hurt feelings on each other than attempt to commiserate.

Miranda got a tingle in the back of her skull just thinking about it, a frisson of anticipation, and sternly ordered it back into submission. Now was not the time for a spat. Even if now seemed like exactly the time for a spat.

"I got some of these too," Andrea said, and reached down into the bottom of the bag. "Dammit, I should have told him not to pack them on the--" She pulled out three magazines: National Geographic, Time, and People. "This was about all they had, except for Sports Illustrated and Cosmo," she added. "It was a pretty small store."

Miranda tried not to look stunned speechless, which she was. How did Andrea know these things? Shipping Miranda's belongings from Paris, the CD player, and now the magazines--how could the girl know her mind so well? And that was leaving aside the incredible matter of Andrea tracking her down from Paris to New York in the first place.

Miranda couldn't think of a way to say any of that without sounding foolish. Or paranoid. "Why did you get them?" she asked instead, after she'd taken a moment to recover.

Andrea frowned at her. "Why not? There's nothing else to do but watch TV, and you don't want to. They didn't have any movies or anything.” She glanced out the nearest window and mumbled, "I don't know what you'd like anyway."

That was a relief. It prompted Miranda to say something she almost never said: "Well, it was a good idea. We need something to do."

It was Andrea's turned to look stunned. She stared at Miranda, and Miranda stared back, and then it got awkward very quickly.

"Uh," Andrea said, and looked towards the back porch. "Hey, that sunset is really pretty over the lake. I, I think I'll go have a look."

Miranda realized that she too would like a look at the sunset over the lake. She also realized she didn’t want to follow Andrea around like a puppy, and Andrea had claimed the sunset first.

"Enjoy," she said, sounding as dismissive as possible, before sitting down at the kitchen table and picking up Time.

"Yeah," Andrea said. She paused by the back door. "Hey, um, were the girls okay?"

Miranda's hands froze in the act of turning a page, but she mastered herself at once. "Yes," she said shortly.

After another pause, Andrea said, "…okay, good," and left. The door nearly slammed shut behind her.

 


 

The sunset was fantastic and the soup was okay. Most importantly, it had served as a distraction, even a relief from the sheer boredom of the cabin. It was amazing, Andy thought, how quickly you could get through three magazines. Even if one of them was National Geographic. Maybe especially then, because she only looked at the pictures. She felt kind of bad that an article about blood diamonds in South Africa couldn't hold her interest--a year ago she wouldn't have been able to tear herself way.

But a year ago, she wouldn't have been sitting in an old cabin in Oklahoma with Miranda Priestly, and it wasn't Andy's fault that this was screwing with her concentration.

She was curled up on the lone armchair, while Miranda was sitting at the kitchen table reading People with an expression between a sneer and a smirk. She'd actually helped Andy chop up the vegetables (and, even more astonishing, had eaten the soup without a single comment), which told Andy more than anything else how restless she was. Maybe they should have just kept driving all day, like usual.

But Miranda had insisted…and why had she insisted? This didn't seem to be her kind of place at all. Everything here was so slow, so quiet, which would be fine, except that Miranda didn't seem to find it restful or relaxing. She hadn't relaxed one jot, in fact, since they'd set foot in the cabin. At least, not as far as Andy could see.

They were kind of trapped in here, too. It was completely dark outside, so it wasn't like Miranda could go for a stroll and work off some nervous energy while she took in the local scenery. Besides, she hadn't even been interested in watching the sunset. She hadn't seemed like she was all there when she was cutting up carrots, either; Andy had worried she'd chop off a finger.

Andy guessed--was pretty sure, in fact--that Miranda's thoughts were overtaken by her daughters, and whatever she'd said to them on the phone. Or whatever they'd said to her. She'd left the cabin to talk to them, but Andy had seen her through the windows as she headed towards the lakeshore. Miranda's posture had grown more tense and rigid with each step she took.

Andy's heart had begun to ache, she'd felt her face growing hot, and then she'd written a note and hotfooted it right out the front door, thinking vaguely that she should get some food, hadn't the guy at the desk said something about a store? Or she could go somewhere, anywhere, but whatever she did, she shouldn't stay in that cabin and spy on Miranda. Miranda would kill Andy if she caught her watching, for one thing.

For another, it--well, it was just wrong. The haunted look on Miranda's face as she stood outside, the ache in Andy's chest, and of course the general ethics of the whole business, all of those things were as wrong as could be.

She'd called her parents in the store. She enjoyed driving the Porsche now, but she still wasn't comfortable doing it while chatting on the phone. So, when her parents had reamed her out for her stupidity, she'd been staring at a row of canned peas, which had somehow made the whole thing weirder.

They'd been slightly better than Nate, but only slightly. "Honey, it's great that you want to help her," her dad had said, "but--" and then he'd said all the things she'd been trying not to think about. About ruining her career, going broke, putting her head on the block for somebody who wouldn't appreciate it, and did he mention ruining her career? At least her parents hadn't called her a horrible person or anything, but it had sucked nevertheless.

More than anything, Andy wanted to talk to Lily. But Lily had been so angry before Andy had left for Paris, and how could Andy even begin to explain what had happened? Especially since Lily probably knew all about it anyway, from Nate. She'd be just as disgusted as he was, for sure.

Andy gulped and sniffled. Miranda gave her a sharp glance, and Andy quickly coughed. "Kind of dusty over here," she mumbled, keeping her eyes on a full-color spread of a Proboscis monkey in full howl.

Miranda didn't reply. Instead, she put down People, stood up, and headed out the back door without a word.

Andy watched her leave in alarm--had talking about dust bored Miranda beyond endurance in one sentence, or had she seen the tears hiding in Andy's eyes? Whichever it was, Andy took the opportunity to dash a hand over her eyes and sniffle again without an audience. Then, vowing not to try to puzzle out Miranda's motivation--because when had that ever done her any favors?--Andy looked back down at National Geographic.

Five minutes later, Miranda had not returned. Andy listened for the noise of a rocking-chair on the porch; while watching the sunset she'd learned that they creaked. But everything was completely, almost creepily silent.

And five minutes after that, Andy gave up, set down the Proboscis monkey, and headed outside.

Miranda was standing outside, near the place she'd called her daughters, with her arms folded across her chest as she looked up at the sky. Her posture was almost challenging, like she was daring heaven or fate or whatever to try dumping on her again, just try it. Andy wouldn't have taken that challenge, for sure.

The moon was waxing gibbous on a clear night, and the porchlights cast a glow, so Andy didn't worry about breaking her neck as she navigated her way across the ground. Miranda heard her coming, and looked away from the sky to glare at her.

Andy stopped dead. Beneath the moon, framed by the dark lake behind her and the shadowed trees around her, Miranda had never looked more forbidding. Not even when Andy had caught her fighting with Stephen. Here, now, she looked like she'd grown right out of the earth itself, and Andy was invading her territory.

Andy immediately longed to turn around and bolt. But no. She told herself that the great outdoors wasn't Miranda's townhouse, and Miranda wasn't Andy's boss, not here, not anymore, and Andy had a right to look at the moon too if she wanted. So Andy stood her ground. Steeled herself.

Then she squeaked, "Um, are you o-okay?" and ruined it. Damn.

"I'm fine," Miranda said coldly.

"Oh," Andy said. "Right.” She looked up at the sky to distract herself, and then she actually gasped.

Stars. Everywhere. Stretching across the whole sky like silver pins tacked into dark velvet. Andy had never seen so many stars in her life: not in Cincinnati, certainly not in New York City, not even during camping trips she'd taken with the Girl Scouts.

"Wow," she said, forgetting her fear, her companion, and herself for a moment.

"Indeed," Miranda said dryly, bringing Andy back to earth. But she was still looking up at the sky, and not at Andy, so Andy didn't have quite the same trouble breathing this time.

They stood there for a few minutes in silence. It was cold out, and Andy wished she'd put on her purple hoodie. Meanwhile, Miranda was wearing a very stylish cardigan that seemed to be doing the job well enough. Andy tried not to let her teeth chatter.

"We have to return home sometime this week," Miranda said suddenly. "I told Caroline we would."

"Oh," Andy said, wondering when 'sometime' would be, exactly. "Right, sure.” She was surprised by her sudden feeling of dismay, by the pang of regret that this trip would end soon. She had no idea why that should be, of course, because driving was excruciating, the cabin was boring, they were probably on the news right now, Miranda was impossible, and…

"I said I would return right away, if she needed me to," Miranda said. "If they both did."

"Well yeah," Andy said, "of course you--"

"But they didn't," Miranda said.

Silence fell. Andy felt her heart ache again, because now Miranda did not look intimidating, did not look like part of the vastness of the moon and the lake and the trees. Now, suddenly, she looked dwarfed by them, diminished, just like Andy was, just like everything else.

Andy remembered the silence on the way to Nashville, when Miranda had cut herself off in the middle of talking about her job. How awful that silence had been, almost like there was a third person in the car. Now it was back.

Only Andy wasn't sure how to break it this time. She felt completely helpless. "Do you want me to go back in?" she asked blankly, thinking that tonight, Miranda just might prefer the silence's company to Andy's.

Miranda sighed irritably. "I don't care what you do, Andrea. It's a free country. Stay out here or go inside or hover in the doorway, whatever you like."

After a moment of dithering, Andy gave in and sat down on a grassy patch of ground, pulling her knees to her chest and shivering as she looked back up at the sky. She thought about going back inside for her hoodie, before deciding that once she was in the cabin, she might not find the courage to come back outside again.

"Do you like it here?" Miranda asked suddenly. She was still looking at the sky, but Andy twitched anyway. She certainly hadn't expected that.

"It's not too bad," she hedged. "It's, you know, pretty. And quiet.” Really, really quiet. "Not much to do, I mean at night--but I saw in the brochure that in the daytime you can go on hiking trails or go horseback riding, so I'm sure that's--"

Miranda sighed. But it wasn't the irritated sigh, or the impatient sigh, or even the resigned sigh. It shuddered out of her chest, heavy and low. It sounded like it hurt a little. Her shoulders slumped, and Andy knew she hadn't heard a word.

Andy gulped and felt her eyes smart with tears again. She wanted to ask Miranda if she could help, just like she'd asked back in Paris, but Miranda had shot her down immediately. She'd just told Andy to do her job. She couldn't say that now, and Andy wondered if Miranda even knew whether or not Andy could help her at all.

"What about you?" she asked, glad that her voice hadn't trembled. "What do you think? I mean, about the park," she clarified quickly.

Miranda hugged herself a little tighter. "It's quiet," she said, still looking at the sky. "It's--big."

"Manhattan's pretty big," Andy pointed out, still hunting for words to fill up the silence. "I remember the first time I saw it from a plane. I couldn't believe--"

"It's not like this," Miranda said. She almost sounded frightened. "It's not like this at all, Andrea, and you know it."

"We can leave," Andy said, starting to get scared herself. Miranda wasn't supposed to act like this. Or be like this. No matter what happened. "If you want. Right now. I can drive.”

"Don't be absurd," Miranda said, getting her voice under control again, going for irritated instead of truly disturbed. "Why would we do something like that?” But her shoulders were still bowed.

"Um," Andy said. "Do you want to go inside?"

"And do what?" Miranda said. "Read about Drew Barrymore's pregnancy rumors?"

"You could have National Geographic," Andy said, trying for levity. "Even more nature to worship. There are some great monkey pictures," she added.

To her surprise--and her utter relief--Miranda snorted, and whatever spell was on her appeared to break. She even straightened up. "I'll pass," she said dryly.

"There are more crossword puzzles," Andy offered, daring to feel encouraged. "Or, you know, there's bound to be tons of stuff on TV that isn't the news, right? Movies or TV shows, just something to kill time with."

Miranda sighed, but this time it was the annoyed sigh, thank God. "Kill all the time you want," she said. "I'll stay out here.” But she sounded like her normal self now, so maybe Andy could stop worrying.

"I could bring you Waylon," she said cheekily. "It could be just you and him out here beneath the stars.” Miranda scowled at her, and Andy's fears were laid to rest. Whew. "Hey, you've got the CD player, why not use it?"

"Why not use your legs to go inside and do something else?" Miranda asked acidly, but Andy rather thought she looked relieved as well: glad to get away from whatever had grabbed her for a moment.

"Okay, okay," Andy said, grinning openly now. "I'm pretty cold anyway.

Then she stood up and figured out just how cold she was. Colder than she'd thought, because her knees were stiff and didn't want to straighten, and she couldn't feel the very tips of her toes inside her sneakers. She staggered a little, which wouldn't have been a big deal at all except she tripped over a rock; and then she stumbled a little, which wouldn't have mattered except that she stumbled into Miranda; and even that would probably have been okay if Miranda hadn't turned to look at her at precisely that second. And if Miranda hadn't let Andy grab her arm--instinctively--for support, if Andy's weight hadn't pulled Miranda forward a little bit, if their bodies hadn't bumped into each other, if all that hadn't happened, then their mouths wouldn't have sort of collided together, which was how they kissed.

Well, it wasn't really a kiss, just an accident. A very quick accident. It was a miracle, really, that they didn't break their noses or cut each other with their teeth--a miracle, for sure, when their mouths touched and they breathed into each other for a moment, exhaling.

It lasted for less than two seconds, which was as long as it took for Miranda to yank her arm out of Andy's grip, like she should have done in the first place so nothing would have happened. Andy stumbled backwards so quickly she almost fell back down on her ass.

"Oh! Whoops! Sorry," she gasped.

"Watch where you're going, for God's sake," Miranda spat, and even in the low light Andy could see the fury in her eyes. The tension was back, all over her, in every quiver. "Did you grow up taking klutz lessons while everybody else was in ballet?"

The urge to flee inside redoubled, trebled, but Andy heard herself snap, "Hey, it was an accident. I said I was sorry!”

Miranda narrowed her eyes, and they looked at each other for a little too long, so Andy said, "Anyway, I'm going in. Good night.” Feeling something else was called for, she added, "Um…yeah.” Then, finally, she allowed herself to turn tail and run.

Shit. Her heart was pounding so hard her chest hurt from it. Was she about to have a heart attack? If so, would Miranda even bother to call an ambulance, or just dump Andy's body in the lake? Better not to risk it, Andy decided, as she shut the back door behind her and leaned against it for a minute.

Oh, hell. She felt unsteady on her feet, as dizzy, as she had when she'd kissed Christian in Paris. Only now it was worse, since she didn't have the excuse of alcohol. That sucked, because now she really, really wanted a stiff drink.

She settled for getting ready for bed, vowing to take advantage of the bathroom before Miranda returned and they had to run into each other. If Andy had her way, she and Miranda wouldn't be in the same room until tomorrow morning, and hopefully by then they'd both be up to pretending nothing had ever happened.

Because nothing had. Just a stumble. Yeah. Okay. Miranda's lips had been chapped. So had Andy's.

Oh, good grief. She had to get it together. Andy brushed her teeth and washed her face faster than she'd ever done before, and then retired to her bedroom, where she changed into her pajamas and hoodie and prepared to wait out the rest of the night, even if it was only 8:30. At least she had the TV. Miranda could kill her own time however the heck she wanted. Probably by taking a washcloth and wiping her lips clean over and over. Dammit.

Andy grabbed the remote control and snuggled under the covers. The cabin's heating worked fine, but her t-shirt and shorts weren't up to much, even with a hoodie. Not the smartest packing she'd ever done.

Friends was on. It figured. Friends was always on. But it'd do in a pinch. Andy settled back and tried to concentrate on a re-run of Ross agonizing over Rachel yet again.

About twenty minutes into the episode, Andy heard the cabin's back door open and shut. She tensed, but Miranda didn't call her name or say anything, and her footsteps paced by Andy's door on the way to the bathroom.

For the next hour, Andy tried to divide her concentration between Friends and the sound of Miranda's every movement from the bathroom, to the kitchen, to her bedroom, back to the kitchen, and then, finally, silence. No knocks on Andy's door, nothing about when they were going to be leaving in the morning, or even where they might want to go.

Andy remembered offering to give Miranda map-reading lessons tonight. She winced. So much for that.

It was 9:30 when Andy finally gave up on Friends. But she was still too keyed up to sleep, and she didn't want to read or do more crossword puzzles. So she finally gave in to her impulses: she crawled forward on the bed to be as close to the TV as she possibly could, and turned down the volume until it was just barely audible. Then she flipped until she found CNN. At least the TV didn't share a wall with Miranda's room.

Maybe the news wouldn't mention Miranda anyway. There was a hell of a lot of stuff going on in the world. War, famine, disease, politics--surely the news anchors had something better to talk about than Miranda Priestly?

To Andy's utter relief, CNN was not, in fact, saying anything about Miranda. Instead it was saying things about Iraq, about the economy, about things that people ought to care about. Andy reveled in it, and then, at ten o'clock, happily turned to Comedy Central to catch The Daily Show. She couldn't even remember the last time she'd seen it. She couldn't exactly watch it while she was waiting for the book. But tonight, of all nights, she could definitely use a laugh.

On Comedy Central, the camera swooped around Jon Stewart to the accompaniment of the usual theme music, although it looked like they'd changed the set again. Jon waved his arms wildly around in the air and cried, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Daily Show! My name is Jon Stewart! What a program we have for you tonight!” He fussily adjusted the papers in front of him. "Our guest tonight is Angelina Jolie, here to promote her latest movie--" The crowd cheered wildly. "--and," Jon continued, leaning forward and waggling his eyebrows, "she has assured me that our studio probably will not burn to the ground in spite of her overwhelming hotness.”

He fanned himself to the sound of more cheers. Andy grinned. "But first, the news!" Jon added, adopting a more serious face. Then he smirked. "Ahhh, yes. The news.”

The audience laughed in clear anticipation.

"The American media. Tireless pursuers of truth, protectors of journalistic integrity, always there to remind all of us about what's really important in today's world." Jon pointed his ballpoint pen directly at the camera. "Lay it on me. I'm in need of help. Take it away, Herr Blitzer!"

Jon then vanished from the screen, replaced by Wolf Blitzer, who said, "And now we continue to provide you with our regular updates on the disappearance of Miranda Priestly, which has had us all so fascinated for the last day or so."

Andy froze. Her heart stopped. The camera flashed back to Jon, who now wore a flummoxed look on his face.

Then he spread his hands and said, "Who the [bleep] is Miranda Priestly?"

The audience laughed.

"No, seriously!" Jon said, looking around the studio incredulously. "I'm supposed to have been following this lady's disappearance for a whole day? What, is she a blonde college chick who vanished in the Bermuda Triangle or something?”

More laughter.

"Oh, Wolf. Please fill us in!"

Back to Blitzer, who said, obviously mid-sentence, "--the infamous editor-in-chief of the women's fashion magazine Runway. From what we've heard, she was in Paris for Fashion Week just a few days ago, and inexplicably walked out in the middle of a luncheon. She hasn't been heard from since."

Jon again. "Walked out of a luncheon?" he asked in disgust. "That's news now? What, the foie gras just wan't quite 'foie' enough?"

Blitzer. "Rumors are flying: was she fired, did she snap, is it some kind of bluff or gesture or protest? We've heard conflicting reports of numerous sightings--some in Europe, some back here in the United States--"

Back to Jon. A graphic appeared to the side of his head, reading, "Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” Then, before Andy's eyes, the words 'Carmen Sandiego' vanished, to be replaced by 'Irrelevant B-List Celebrity.'

The audience whooped and applauded once more. Jon beamed angelically, and then rolled his eyes.

"I mean, seriously," he said. "These are the people who sell you the most expensive--my wife reads that magazine sometimes. One issue advertised a purse that cost twenty thousand dollars.”

The audience groaned and booed.

"That's, what, twenty used Kia Sephias? Or, you know, an entire African village.” He placed a thoughtful fingertip on his lips and frowned. "You know…do you think, if we asked them nicely, everybody else in the fashion industry would run away too?”

The audience yelled in approval.

"Of course, we would have to figure out all on our own how to be--" Jon raised his voice to a falsetto, "Faahhhhbulous!"

Andy turned off the TV at once, sick to her stomach. Even her lips were numb. What--she couldn't believe--the fucking Daily Show! Jesus, if Jon Stewart felt the need to make fun of Miranda's story, that it meant it really would have been big news all day, “irrelevant B-list celebrity” or not.

At least Angelina Jolie loved Miranda. Andy hoped she'd put Jon in his fucking place. But she didn't have the courage to turn the TV back on and see for herself.

As she crawled under the covers, she realized she was actually shaking. Thank goodness she'd kept the volume down. She was pretty sure Miranda wouldn't have been able to hear anything. Although now Andy fervently wished that she'd never turned the damn television on in the first place.

But now she knew that at least nobody appeared to know for sure where Miranda was. It sounded like people everywhere were claiming to have spotted her. 'Where in the world,' indeed. That was something. That was good. Sure.

Andy huddled miserably in her bed and hoped like hell that Miranda was peacefully asleep.

 


 

Miranda stared up at the darkened ceiling, listened to Waylon Jennings crooning in her ears, and vowed with every fiber of her being that she was not going to masturbate.

No. She wasn't. She would not. Even though she had her own room tonight, and plenty of privacy, and she was fairly certain it wouldn't take long. At all.

But if she touched herself, she would think about Andrea. She knew she would. She wouldn't be able to help it; she could still feel the clumsy press of Andrea's mouth to her own, Andrea's breath hot on her lips, even the bump of Andrea's nose against her cheek--an accident, a stumble, and a far better kiss than the absent peck Stephen had given Miranda when she'd left for the airport last week. Even if Andrea's had been an accident. She'd smelled like the mediocre soup she'd cobbled together, and a little like the cold night air. She had been solid and real.

Miranda caught herself licking her own lips and tried not to whimper.

Ridiculous. Absurd. Obscene. Andrea was a woman, a young woman who thought of Miranda like she thought of her mother. She wasn't attractive; she was an irritant, a burr who'd stuck to Miranda back in New York and had refused to be shaken loose. She was self-righteous, immature, headstrong, and Miranda was clearly out of her mind.

Well…maybe relief wasn't completely out of the question, just so long as she took suitable precautions. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to think about something else. About men. About very masculine men: men who were tough and grizzled and had to shave four times a day just to maintain a five o'clock shadow. Men with big, rough hands and bodies. Attractive men--profession didn't matter, race didn't matter, even age didn't matter, in fact, she had rather vivid memories of that handsome young man in Bucksnort who'd so blithely propositioned Andrea--

No! Not Andrea. Anyone but Andrea, and her brown eyes and swollen mouth and absurdly small pajamas. Because if Miranda thought about Andrea…then Andrea would know.

Miranda was positive she would. The girl could apparently read her mind as easily as she read a map, while Miranda was completely, humiliatingly incapable of returning the favor on both counts.

Mercifully, the music changed, distracting her. Instead of raucous, honky-tonk banjos, now Mirada heard an acoustic guitar strumming and humming thoughtfully.

"I've held it all inward," Waylon sang, "God knows I've tried."

Miranda snorted. Something else she had in common with him. She'd held everything inward, everything, all her life, and for good reason. The practice had served her well, and she had every intention of continuing it, because why interfere with success? Self-control. She lived by it. It would not fail her now.

"Amanda," Waylon continued, his voice at once rueful and tender, "light of my life--" 

Amanda was clearly a lucky woman, Miranda thought grumpily.

Fate should have made you a gentleman's wife."

Miranda's eyes widened, and then she yanked off the headphones, barely managing not to throw the CD player at the wall. Instead, she set it down, none too gently, by the side of her bed before throwing the blankets over her head.

She'd count sheep. She'd remember the Alexander McQueen show, model by model, look by look. She'd imagine each and every one of Jacqueline's immaculate fingernails, and the screams Jacqueline would give while Miranda pulled them out with white-hot pliers. She'd do all of these things until she finally fell asleep and, God willing, did not remember her dreams.

And then tomorrow would be another day. A better one. It had to be, or she'd strangle something.

Or someone.

Chapter Text

"Andrea," Miranda said, "kiss me again."

"Okay," Andy said. "Just give me a second to turn off the stove."

"No. Kiss me now," Miranda ordered. "Do a better job this time. Kiss me until you've got me right where you want me."

Andy narrowed her eyes. "Fine," she said, and instead of turning the stove off, she turned it up so high that the gas burner began to leap with blue and orange flames. "You asked for it.”

Then she reached out, grabbed Miranda, and kissed her hard; Miranda wound her arms around Andy's neck and settled in, warm and pliant, humming with pleasure. Her mouth was hot.

"You want this?" Andy whispered, and kissed her cheek, a lot tenderly than she'd meant to. "You want me? I can make you feel good?"

"Very good," Miranda said. "I'm so glad you're here.” She stepped backwards, away from Andy.

But before Andy could protest, Miranda looked at her through lowered eyelashes. She was wearing her white scarf around her head, and her trench coat. She raised her hands to the buttons; the scarf and coat vanished, and Andy saw that she was wearing her python jacket, sparkly top, and brown skirt.

"I'll take these off for you," Miranda said. "Just for you."

"Yes," Andy gasped, suddenly dizzy with how much she wanted it. "Yes. Please!"

"Then you'll take me to bed," Miranda said. "I'll be naked for you, and you'll take me to bed."

"Oh, yes," Andy said, but suddenly she noticed something. The flames from the stove had spread everywhere, and now raged all around them. "Oh my God," she gasped. "The cabin's on fire."

"So what?" Miranda asked.

"So what? We'll burn to death!" Andy said. "We have to get outside, to the lake!” Water would save them. Water kept fire away.

If they got out of the cabin and Miranda kept her clothes on, everything would be okay. Then they'd be safe. Andy's heart clenched with the loss, but she knew it was the right thing to do--above all else, you had to survive, to make it to tomorrow--

"Andrea!” Miranda snapped. "Are you awake?"

"Huh?” Andy jerked back into the moment, her whole body going stiff.

Miranda wasn't taking off her clothes in a burning house. Miranda was glaring at her from the driver's seat. "I'd like to get going sometime this year," she said.

"Y-yeah," Andy stammered, and blushed furiously. She carefully set her duffel bag into the Porsche's trunk, and refused to meet Miranda's eyes.

Okay, so she couldn't stop thinking about her dreams from the night before. Big deal. How was she supposed to help herself? How could anybody forget a dream in which Miranda offered to get naked and screw?

It had been scary, Andy told herself as she hurried to the passenger seat. Shocking. Uncharacteristic. And definitely a one-time-only thing. Stupid accidental kiss.

The whole morning had been awkward as hell. Andy had woken up at ten past eight to an empty cabin. The Porsche was still outside, so she hadn't panicked--much--although of course Miranda hadn't done anything considerate like leaving a note to tell Andy where she was. But once Andy had calmed down, the solitude had been kind of a relief, and instead of fretting, Andy had showered and set about making scrambled eggs and instant coffee.

Miranda had returned at eight-thirty, when Andy was in the middle of taking her first sip. She'd been in workout gear and had obviously gone out for a run: her face was flushed, she was breathing quickly, and Andy knew she'd probably looked at Miranda like a deer in the headlights, because all of a sudden the dream was back and wasn't about to go away any time soon.

Miranda had glared, and then disappeared into the shower without a word.

By the time the water cut off, Andy had finished gulping down her own breakfast and had holed herself up in her room until it was time to leave, because she'd had to pack. And unpack, and repack. And now here she was at ten-fifteen, loading her duffel into the trunk and feeling like a huge idiot.

"So!" she said much too brightly, as she sat down next to Miranda. "Where are we headed today?”

"I haven't decided," Miranda said. She began to pull out of the gravel driveway, looking fresh and perfect after her shower, her cheeks tinted a soft, appealing pink. Oh, no.

"Okay," Andy said as she stared straight ahead.

"Mm.” Miranda had pursed her lips, which meant Andy had to put a lid on any unnecessary babbling, fast. "Well, get out your map. And turn on the GPS while you're at it--who knows, it might actually be useful today.” Her voice was already heavy with doubt, as if she'd just finished saying that a run-through might actually turn out okay, for once. Always expecting the absolute worst, that was Miranda to a T.

"Small towns," she added. "We'll keep a low profile."

Suddenly, Andy's dream was eclipsed by the memory of The Daily Show. She gulped. "Yeah," she said, and something in her voice alerted Miranda.

"What?"

"Nothing," Andy said quickly. "I was just agreeing with you, that's all."

"Andrea."

"What? I'm just--"

Miranda turned to glare at her.

"Okay," Andy mumbled. "I saw the news last night. We need to keep our heads down."

She followed her own advice and stared down into her own lap, listening to the grind of the rubber tires on the dirt road. For a few moments, silence reigned; then Miranda said, tightly, "Well?"

"They don't know where we are," Andy said.

"'We'?"

"You," Andy amended. "The--uh--show I saw only mentioned you. I might have missed something, though. But they said conflicting reports were coming in about where you are--some people say they've seen you in Europe.”

Miranda snorted, looking bitterly amused.

"So that's good, right?"

"Oh, yes," Miranda said. "Good. Wonderful. Peachy."

"All right, not good," Andy sighed.

"Did they mention the car?"

"Not that I saw," Andy said carefully. "But I only caught a few minutes of it. I think it was kind of an…all-day thing."

"Ah."

"So they might have."

"Yes,"  Miranda sighed. "Well, it's not the only Porsche in America, and it's the only car we've got. As I said, we'll keep our heads down."

"Yeah," Andy said. "Oh, but, hey--I need to do some laundry pretty soon."

Miranda glared at her. Andy tried not to cringe, and told herself that Miranda could not, in fact, look at her face and know what she'd dreamed about the night before.

"How soon is 'soon'?" Miranda growled.

"Today would be nice," Andy said in a small voice, before clearing her throat and attempting to sound more like somebody with a spine. "Unless you want to sit next to somebody with smelly clothes all day long.”

Miranda's lips thinned as she turned to glare out at the road.

"Look, I didn't know where we'd be going, or for how long," Andy protested. I still don't, she didn't add. "I didn't know how much to pack--"

"We'll find a laundromat somewhere," Miranda snapped, with what seemed like unnecessary force even for her. "No doubt wherever we stop for the night. Now let's figure out where that's going to be."

"Right, okay," Andy said quickly, pulling out both her map and the guidebook. They were approaching the gate to Roman Nose. "Turn right on 33, and we can just keep going from there for a while, I think. Same as yesterday. Unless you can think of some other way you'd like to go."

"Not at the moment," Miranda said. She took the turn and pulled out onto Highway 33. They passed by another car heading into the park; Andy saw its occupants stare openly at the Boxster as it glided by. She wondered if Miranda noticed it too. Talk about conspicuous, and now Andy felt downright paranoid.

They drove in silence for a couple of miles. Andy tried to use the time to get her head together, but instead of settling down, she just got more and more wound up. Finally, she snapped, and blurted the first thing that came into her head: "So, how did you sleep?"

Oh, shit.

Miranda gave her a look of disbelief. Andy couldn't blame her. That sort of personal question might--might--have been excusable over breakfast, when they'd just gotten up for the day, and even then Miranda would likely have given Andy the stink-eye. Asking that question now was just…weird.

Still, Andy bristled a little when Miranda snapped, "I beg your pardon?" as if Andy had just handed her a personal insult.

"I was just asking," Andy muttered. She had a flash of inspiration. "And I meant your run. Not sleep. How was your run? It looks like it's a pretty morning, so was it, you know…pretty?"

There was a pause, and then Miranda said, "It was fine," in a voice so cautious that she might have been talking to a dangerous lunatic.

"I didn't know you ran," Andy pressed on, not sure why she was feeling so desperate. It was only--why couldn't Miranda just talk about regular stuff like an ordinary human being? What would be so awful about talking to Andy as if Andy had a working brain and deserved some basic level of courtesy? Would it be a world-ending disaster if Miranda just thought…more of her?

"I don't usually run," Miranda said. "I prefer tennis."


"Yeah!" Andy said, and the relief in her voice shocked her.

Evidently it also shocked Miranda, who twitched.

"I mean, that's what I thought. You play every morning, really early. Right?" she added, although she knew Miranda's daily routine like the back of her hand.

"Mm," Miranda said, shortly enough that the single grunted syllable was an unmistakable rebuke.

Andy bit her lip. So much for courtesy. She should have known better.

Then Miranda said: "You have to focus in tennis. You don't have time to let your mind wander."

"Oh," Andy said, shocked all over again. "I guess that makes sense."

"Yes. And marvelous exercise, naturally. You might try it yourself sometime."

Was that a fat joke? The mean little curve to Miranda's mouth suggested it might be. Andy remembered the way that mouth had crashed against her own.

"I might," she squeaked. "Sure."

"Tennis is about skill, power, reaction time. Thinking on your feet. It sharpens you.” Miranda paused. "And, of course, you cannot win a jog."

Oh. That was it, right there--forget all the rest. At least Miranda had admitted it out loud. "What about races?" Andy asked.

Miranda had clearly anticipated the question, because she had an immediate answer. "You don't face your opponent in a race, Andrea. You don't look into their eyes.” She snorted. "I don't like it when I can't see my competitors."

Because they'd all be behind her, of course. "Oh," Andy said. "I guess not. I can see that."

"Can you?" Miranda asked coldly.

Oops. There was no right answer to that, was there? "I played lacrosse," Andy said instead. "In high school. And some intramural in college. Did you ever, um, play team sports?"

"I'll let you work that out on your own, Andrea."

"Yeah," Andy sighed. "Well, anyway, I'm sorry you had to go running instead, I suppose."

"It was better than nothing," Miranda said. "God knows I needed something to get my mind off it."

"'It'?"

Oddly, Miranda turned pink again. "The situation," she said, clearing her throat. "This whole debacle. What else could I possibly mean?"

"Uh, I don't know?"

"Obviously," Miranda said, and the frost in her voice was back, big-time. "If you're desperate to make some noise, Andrea, feel free to put in some music. Otherwise--"

Jesus! "I'd be delighted to, Miranda," Andy said sweetly, and opened the glove compartment.

Miranda didn't let her get away with it. "Can the attitude," she said.

"The atti--" Andy yanked out a CD at random, without bothering to look at it. "I was just talking. I don't have an attitude. Why do you say I've got an attitude?"

"Just talking?" Miranda said. "Strange words coming from a woman who spent the whole of last night and this morning walled up in her bedroom."

Andy opened her mouth to fire back, and realized she had absolutely nothing to say. She was too busy being astonished that Miranda had even noticed, much less actually brought it up. And judging by the little tic that started up at Miranda's temple, she was surprised too.

After another moment, Andy gave up on trying to find a response, because what could she say? 'Sorry, it was just kind of awkward after we smooched'? So she just popped the CD in the player, and only realized after the music started that she hadn't been paying attention to her pick.

"Truckin'," the Grateful Dead sang. "Got my chips cashed in, keep truckin'--"

"Oh God," Miranda said, rolling her eyes.

"It's the road trip CD."

"I gathered that much.”

"Aw, c'mon, it's not that bad," Andy said. She smiled, deciding to make peace, because peace had to be better than whatever weirdness was between them now. "It's a fun song. Don't tell me it doesn't bring back some memories."

"Andrea, I was born in 1957!" Miranda exploded, making Andy jump in her seat. So much for peace: Miranda's eyes had begun to spark with rage, and her face was getting red again. "I must have been all of twelve years old when--how old do you think I am, exactly?"

Oh, crap. "I didn't mean…"

"Have you been picturing me at Woodstock? Marching in the civil rights movement? What about sock hops?”

"Miranda--"

"Do you want to hear my horror stories from the Great Depression?"

"I'm sorry!" Andy said again, not yelling, exactly, but letting herself get loud. "I know how old you are! I just wasn't thinking, I didn't do the math, that's all."

"Good Lord," Miranda muttered. The tic at her temple was way more visible now.

"I'm sorry," Andy said, prepared to say it two more times before she got pissed off again. "I didn't mean anything. I wasn't trying to call you old. I know you're not.”

Miranda said nothing, but seethed visibly.

"I know I made that dumb joke about my mom, but you're younger than both my parents." Not by much, but whatever. "And I don't think they're old, so--"

"Shut. Up," Miranda said through her teeth. Andy did.

"What a long, strange trip it's been," the Grateful Dead observed.

 


 

Andrea would not make it through the day alive.

Miranda already anticipated that much. It was all she could do not to pull over and throw the girl out of the car. If things continued as they were, that urge would escalate into murder. She could feel it.

Memories of the Grateful Dead? Andrea should be grateful she wasn't dead already, that's what she should be grateful for. It'd be easy, out here in the middle of nowhere. Wasn't that the stuff horror movies were made of?

Trying to calm down, Miranda glared at her surroundings, feeling as if she was challenging them to prove her wrong: to grow more appealing and inviting, instead of scrubby and lonely. Roman Nose had been well-cared-for, but the roadsides of Oklahoma were clearly in need of a decent landscaper, and growing worse as they drove farther west.

And as if Miranda would follow the musical stylings of a bunch of dirty, smelly hippies anyway.

Hot with anger, Miranda caught herself remembering the kiss--the unfortunate accident--of the night before, and was overwhelmed by a different kind of heat. Oh God, that was the last thing she needed.

'How did you sleep?' Andrea had asked. That was easy. Miranda had slept very well indeed. On one level, that was no surprise, given the miserable night she'd endured in Claremore, and the emotional exhaustion of the day. When she'd managed to stop fuming and actually drop off last night, her sleep had been deep and restful.

It had also been…vivid.

This had to be the onset of menopause. That would make sense. It would, in fact, be grotesquely appropriate: yet another transition, another change at this time of her life. Yes, that had to be it. Nothing else could possibly explain her subconsciousness's sudden, relentless obsession with sex. It was hormonal. Had to be.

The dream hadn't wasted any time, she'd give it that. In it, she'd barged right up to Andrea--no faceless partners this time--and Andrea (dressed in her tiny pajamas) had opened her mouth to speak. "Shut up," Miranda had said, pushed Andrea down, and had vaguely-rendered but extremely satisfying sex with her right there on the floor or the bed or wherever they'd been. She couldn't quite remember the surroundings.

But one thing had been crystal clear: in the dream, Miranda, who had never come close to having sex with another woman in her life, had improbably managed to work her entire fist inside Andrea by the time the alarm clock went off.

Upon waking, she'd wasted no time in donning workout clothes before she'd hit the trail in a vain attempt to exhaust her libido to death. She should have taken the CD player with her; instead, all she'd been able to hear was her own heartbeat, and the memory of Andrea's cries of pleasure.

Miranda swallowed hard and forced herself to remember what Andrea thought of her. It allowed her a moment of grim humor: Do you kiss your mother with that mouth, Ms. Sachs?

She glanced down at the fuel gauge. They were running low and would have to stop soon. She wondered if people would gawk at them at the gas station, just as they'd gawked at the entrance to the park. Out here, in these little armpit towns, a Porsche was a rarity. Practically a red flag that said, 'Notice me.'  It would be a handicap, even if nobody recognized her. But what could she do about that?

"So, we're heading for Texas," Andrea said, sounding hesitant. "We should get there pretty soon. Probably in less than two hours.”

It was a quarter till eleven now. Miranda hmm'd.

"We'll need gas. And where do you want to stop for lunch?"

"How should I know?"

"Er--well--what do you think about…" Andrea's voice trailed off as she examined the map. "If we stay on 33, Miami might be a good place. Or--wow. There is seriously nothing out here."

"You don't say." Miranda looked around at the expanses of grass and dust. There was another car on the road, but it was so far ahead of them that it was barely a glimmer of metal beneath the sun.

"Anyway, if you still want to keep off the interstate, it looks like Amarillo is about four hours away," Andrea said.

"We're going to Amarillo?"

"Well...we could."

"Amarillo is a big city." Relatively speaking, anyway. “We could be spotted.”

"It's just a place, that's all," Andrea said. "On the map. In the general direction we're going. Easy to find."

"Oh, but you're the navigator now, Andrea," Miranda said sweetly. "We can find our way to the most obscure little corners safely. I have the utmost confidence."

"Okay," Andrea growled. "But we'll probably want to stop before then. For lunch or whatever. What do you think of--" She paused. "Elk City? When we hit Highway 152. It's about two hours away."

"You made that up."

"No, I didn't. Look."

Miranda did not look. "Fine."

"Elk City's okay for lunch, then?"

"What?" Miranda said. "I've never heard of it and I'm supposed to have an opinion on its cuisine?"

Andrea took a deep breath--yes, say something, I dare you, I dare you--and exhaled it. "You're not," she said evenly. "I just thought I'd make a suggestion. Something to shoot for.”

The words other than your head, Miranda remained clear but unspoken, and Miranda found them oddly satisfying.

The Grateful Dead were winding down. This annoyed Miranda, who realized she had missed the opportunity to make a gesture by skipping through the track. Too late now.

Then Willie Nelson sang, "On the road again," and Miranda compensated by pressing the fast-forward button at once.

"That's a country song," Andrea said in surprise. "You don't want to listen to it?”

Miranda found herself thinking of a week ago, when that question would have occurred to no one on Earth. "I don't care what it is. I hate that song."

"Me too, actually," Andrea said, sounding cautiously hopeful. "I don't like his voice, either. It's too nasal."

Miranda remembered a line from a Waylon Jennings song she'd listened to last night: "Was it singing through my nose that got me busted by The Man?"

She chuckled before she could help it, and then cursed herself for instantly lightening the atmosphere. Andrea's face had already brightened with relief. Miranda pinched her lips and tried to pay attention to the new song.

She recognized it. "Oh my girl, you're so young and pretty," The Animals sang, "and one thing I know is true--you'll be dead before your time is due."

This time Miranda didn't bother to disguise her laugh, and even permitted herself to give Andrea an extremely meaningful smirk. The relief on Andrea's face vanished, supplanted by the deer-in-the-headlights expression Miranda had grown so familiar with in the last six months.

Perfect. Big eyes, pink cheeks, that full mouth held in an 'O'--

Miranda just barely prevented herself from swearing out loud, and turned her eyes back to the road. Only to glance back over when Andrea snapped, "Okay, that wasn't creepy at all."

"What can I say?" Miranda drawled. "You get your kicks where you can on a road trip."

"You are awful," Andrea said, sounding utterly sincere. Then she added, "I have no idea why I like you. I mean, I really have no idea at all."

Miranda rolled her eyes. Was that supposed to be endearing? Or even original? She'd certainly heard it before. (But not from Andrea, something whispered, and she shut it down immediately.) 

"I don't care if you like me," she said flatly. She told herself she meant it.

Silence. Miranda knew Andrea was sulking. That made two of them, she realized, and was instantly disgusted with herself. Really--sulking, brooding over what Andrea Sachs thought of her--how low could she get? How had it come to this?

"You should never care.” Only when Andrea turned to stare at her did Miranda realize she'd spoken aloud. So much for self-control. She thought fast, and decided her best bet was to turn the moment into a Lesson. "Never care whether you are 'liked' or not, Andrea."

"It's better to be feared than loved, huh?" Andrea muttered.

"Precisely. Where does begging for approval get you? That's not what it's about."

"'It'?" Andrea said, and Miranda had a nasty moment of déjà vu. "What's 'it'?” Before Miranda could answer, Andrea continued, "Do you even know? Do you know what you want or what you need?” Suddenly, her voice climbed until it was nearly a shout. "Do you have the slightest idea what your life is even about?"

Your life. Not life in general, but Miranda's own life in particular. And Miranda--who did not care what Andrea thought of her--felt blindsided by the question, as if Andrea had struck her from behind with no warning. She had no answer, no riposte. None. She was suddenly, unexpectedly breathless, like when she'd stood beneath that enormous night sky and felt overwhelmed, swallowed up in spite of herself. All from a question that was too juvenile for a freshman philosophy course.

"I--" Andrea began.

Miranda's hands gripped the steering wheel so hard it hurt. She was glad the road ahead was straight, and that the car ahead of them had already vanished from view.

"I'm sorry," Andrea said haltingly. "It was a rude question. Nobody really knows that stuff."

Nobody knows. Now Miranda was lumped in with 'nobody,' when before--she'd known what her life was about before. She always had. Work, and the children, and marriage when she could manage it, and none of that was here now. Right now, all of that was gone.

"Anyway," Andrea said, "I like you."

 


 

Miranda had been ignoring her for miles. Andy couldn't blame her: she was obviously pissed off.


But that was all. Just pissed off, just annoyed. Not really angry or upset. Because she didn't care what Andy thought about her, didn't give a damn if Andy liked her or not. She didn't care if anybody did.

In one way, that was insulting, maddening. In another way, it was enviable. Even admirable, maybe, in some circumstances. Andy certainly wished she had the gift right now. It sure would be nice not to sit here and fret about whether or not Miranda held her in complete contempt.

But that contempt would be better than if Andy had truly upset her. Truly upsetting Miranda would be the worst of all, the worst thing ever. Which was weird because, taking the last six months into account, Andy should want to hurt Miranda. Miranda had dished it out in all kinds of ways, and it was only fair that she should be able to take it, too.

Only Andy had felt sort of gutted, watching Miranda cry in Paris, and watching her call her kids yesterday with dread written all over her. Andy hadn't enjoyed that. She wasn't a sadist. Maybe Miranda was, or could be--Christian had been right about that, at least--but Andy wasn't, and at the moment, she was thinking that if she really had hurt Miranda somehow, it would be better to get run over by the Porsche than ride in it.

So Miranda was just mildly annoyed. She had to be.

Road trip music played in the silence for nearly an hour, through a couple of tiny nothing-much towns that were gone as soon as you blinked. Andy hardly saw any of the scenery, such as it was. She didn't look at Miranda either, although she was constantly aware of her. When she thought Miranda seemed a little less pissed off, she reached down into her own bag and pulled out the book of crossword puzzles.

Wary of inviting more invective, she worked on a new puzzle by herself for a few minutes. Then she said, carefully, "'Ahab foe'."

"Moby Dick," Miranda said without missing a beat, and though she didn't look over, Andy relaxed.

"No," she said. "Doesn't fit."

"Whale."

"Longer. It's--"

"White whale."

"Ten lett…yeah, that's it."

That seemed to loosen things up, at least enough to work out that 'Volcano goddess' was 'Pele' and 'Eventually' was 'someday,' and more. Finally, though, Andy had to bite her lip. They were cornered with this one, and there weren't enough letters for her to suss it out on her own without bringing it to Miranda's attention. Oh, well.

"Twenty-five down," she said. "'Tussle'.”

"Fight," Miranda said.

"No," Andy replied. She prepared to tell Miranda how many letters there were, but Miranda just kept going.

"Quarrel."

"No."

"Argument."

"No."

"Row."

"No."

"Scuffle."

"No." Andy was grinning now.

"Altercation."

"Nope."

"Dust-up."

"Nuh-uh."

Miranda paused. Then she raised her eyebrows and said archly, "Road trip."

Andy finally laughed out loud. "No. Good idea, though."

"Says you," Miranda muttered, but she looked amused. "How many letters?"

"Five. The second one is 'a'."

Miranda's brow furrowed. Andy, who had decided this was a lot more fun than trying to work it out herself, watched her in fascination.

"Match?" Miranda finally asked.

"Huh. Maybe," Andy said as she penciled it in. Then she checked over the surrounding words and beamed. "Hey, that looks like it'll work. Great."

"Hm," Miranda said, sounding distracted. She was squinting into the distance. "I see a gas station up ahead. We need to stop."

Andy glanced at the fuel gauge, which was hovering unhappily over 'E'. They sure did. This wasn't the kind of place where you wanted to have a breakdown; the towns were too far apart, and it wasn't as pretty as Tennessee, either.

The gas station was like something out of a movie. Andy felt almost awed as they pulled up to it. Instead of rows of gleaming pumps with credit-card slots, and a modern convenience store lording over it all, there stood three pumps that looked like they'd been there since the 1930s. The store had likewise stayed frozen in history: it was a close-to-ramshackle wooden building that reminded Andy of an old-fashioned general store, only without most of the charm.

Miranda pulled up to a pump and frowned. "There's no premium.” She glared at the store, as if expecting that to be rectified immediately. When it wasn't, she sighed, "Although it looks like we should be grateful to find unleaded.”

Andy looked at the store again. Three old, portly men in dusty overalls sat in rocking chairs on the porch, staring right back. One of them, without taking his eyes off Andy, spat something into a Dixie cup.

"Um," Andy said. "Excuse me?” The pumps were so close to the store that she hardly needed to raise her voice. But no, it wasn't just proximity--it was the fact that everything was so quiet out here, so empty. "Sorry, but can you tell us where the next gas station is? It's just that this car is supposed to take premium gas.”

The guy in the middle rocking chair regarded her thoughtfully. The wind, warm and dry even in October--it had to be in the high seventies right now--whipped around Andy's head and threatened to dislodge her cowboy hat. Behind her, she heard Miranda cough on the dust. There might as well have been tumbleweeds to complete the picture.

"How low you running?" the middle guy asked.

"Pretty low," Andy admitted.

“Won’t hurt them to run on regular for a piece, will it, Jim,” said the guy on the right.

"Naw. Get you some gas here.”

Miranda sighed gustily and unbuckled her seat belt. Andy did too, and got out to stretch her legs while Miranda began fueling. She probably wouldn't fill the tank all the way. At least, Andy hoped she wouldn’t. She didn't feel up to making the suggestion herself, even if the crossword puzzle had broken the ice.

"Where y'all from?" asked the guy on the far right. He reached into the breast pocket of his overalls and took out a cigarette.

"Them things is gonna kill you, Joe," said Jim.

"Not before the chaw gets Bobby." Joe nodded towards the guy with the Dixie cup. He lit the cigarette, puffed it, and repeated, "So where you from?"

"Oh, pretty far," Andy hedged. "Um, up north."

Jim stood up, stuck his hands in his pockets, and sauntered down the porch. The floorboards creaked, and he craned his neck so that he could see the rear end of the Porsche. He whistled. "Them's New York plates."

"You come a long way," Joe said to Andy. He took another drag on his cigarette.

"I guess," Andy said, glancing nervously over at Miranda. She appeared to be ignoring the conversation completely, keeping her eyes on the fuel pump and watching the numbers climb with tortuous slowness.

"Where you going?" Jim asked.

Andy must be picking up some personality from Miranda, considering she had to fight the urge to say None of your business. Instead, she lied, "Albuquerque. We've got some friends there."

Jim nodded and looked over the Porsche again, stroking his scruffy white stubble. "Pretty car," he said. He raised a bushy eyebrow at Andy. "Pretty car for a pretty girl.”

That had been cute when Zach had said it back in Bucksnort. Here and now, it just seemed icky. Andy looked back at Miranda, and saw that it had gotten her attention, too: she was regarding Jim with a closed, cool look on her face.

He noticed and raised his hands placatingly. "I don't disrespect your daughter, ma'am. We just ain't got a lot of pretty faces around here."

Joe laughed. Bobby spat into the cup.

"She's not my daughter,"  Miranda said, her voice low and cold.

Joe stopped laughing, Jim straightened his shoulders, and Bobby narrowed his eyes. Andy's heart began pounding, though she wasn't sure why.

Miranda squeezed and released the nozzle's handle to stop the flow of gas. The ensuing click sounded like a gunshot in the abrupt silence. She kept staring at the men, and they kept staring back, and Andy had the oddest sensation that she was about to be caught in some sort of crossfire.

She looked up on the porch and saw that a shotgun actually lay to the side of Bobby's rocking chair. Holy shit.

Miranda set the nozzle back into the fuel pump. "Get a twenty out of my wallet," she told Andy, who saw that she'd bought just over twelve dollars' worth of gas. Not enough to fill the tank.

"And give it to me," she added, when Andy got out the money and turned to take it into the store. "Get in the car."

Andy thought that Miranda was probably overreacting--the old men seemed pretty harmless, ickiness and shotgun notwithstanding--but she got back in the car anyway, while Miranda stalked towards the porch. Andy hoped none of the men would recognize her from the news. If they did, they didn't say so; they just watched her approach in silence, her cream trench coat catching the dusty breeze.

"I'll ring you up indoors," Jim said. Andy half-expected Miranda to shove the money at him and tell him to keep the change, just so she could get away from this particular annoyance, but instead she nodded shortly and followed him inside.

The screen door banged shut behind them both. Joe looked at Andy. "She ain't your momma, what is she?" he asked.

My boss. My ex-boss. The pain in my ass. Sometimes I have sex dreams about her. "I don't know," Andy said. "Just my friend." She almost choked on it, because it was and wasn't true, and her brain couldn't figure out how to account for that.

For the first time, Bobby spoke. His voice was harsh and rough, like he'd swallowed a knife years ago.

"Y'all just keep on moving," he said. "Y'all don't stop here none."

Andy gaped at him. "W-what?”

"Don't nobody want none of y'all here," he said. "This ain't New York. This here is God-fearing country. So y'all keep moving. Keep that unnaturalness to yourself.” He spat again.

"Unnatur--" Andy figured it out, and her face flamed. "No!" she gasped, remembering how she and Miranda had kissed in the cold, and again in her dreams. "We're--you've got it all wrong, it's not like that--"

"No I ain't, and yes it is," Bobby said. "So you two go on, now."

Andy wasn't sure why she couldn't find the wherewithal to tell Bobby to go to hell, and take his bigotry with him, except that she felt like he'd punched her in the stomach and winded her. She looked at Joe, as if she was appealing to him for help, or perhaps understanding. But he just puffed on his cigarette and stared deliberately off into the distance, leaning back into his rocking chair until it creaked.

Then, finally, Miranda exited the store, her head held high as she swept down the stairs without looking at either Bobby or Joe. Or Andy, for that matter. She got in the Porsche, turned the key, and peeled back onto the highway with a squeal of rubber. Andy hoped fervently that all the tires would stay up to snuff until they reached the next town. Maybe longer, if the next town was full of people like that.

She glanced over her shoulder and watched the station recede into the distance. The last thing she saw was Bobby spitting into his cup before she turned away for good.

 


 

Miranda would kill for a Starbucks. She hadn't tasted her favorite latte in days. A decent restaurant would be a welcome relief, too. And a populace that would stop staring at her, for a bonus.

Andrea sat tensely beside her. Miranda wondered what she and those two odious men on the porch had said to each other. She'd heard the sound of their voices from the cash register, but hadn't been able to make anything out. Whatever it was, it seemed to have unnerved Andrea. It reminded Miranda a little of Andrea's attitude after their near-brush with danger at the pawn shop in Claremore.

This time it seemed like overkill. Miranda had not felt threatened by those old lechers so much as disgusted. Andrea clearly still needed to develop a thicker skin. Perhaps Miranda shouldn’t been so quick to make her stay in the car, away from them.

Miranda had been disturbed too, but for a different reason. Those men had displayed an unseemly interest, not just in Andrea, but in the entire picture: the girl, Miranda, and the car. New York plates, indeed. And, Miranda could admit, she hadn't helped matters by announcing with such force that, once and for all, she was not Andrea's damn mother. That would stick in their memories, for certain. But honestly, how much could she be expected to take?

She had to admit that she was impressed by Andrea's off-the-cuff lie about Albuquerque. It was certainly an improvement over her little chat with that man in the tow truck. She was learning something, at least.

It was nearly one-thirty in the afternoon now, and they were approaching Elk City, which, as it happened, Andrea had not invented. It was time to stop for lunch. Miranda hadn't had much of an appetite for her scrambled eggs that morning, even though Andrea had managed to make them palatable.

"We'll stop here," she said.

"Huh?" Andrea twitched, pulled out of her thoughts. "Oh. Yeah. Okay.” She seemed completely distracted. Miranda frowned.

"What did those men say to you?" she asked.

"Uh, what?"

"At the gas station. I heard you talking. What did they say?"

Andrea was silent. Miranda turned and saw that her face had gone bright red. She looked horrified.

Ah. It had been like that. Lechers, for certain. Andrea didn't seem like the type to be disturbed by a couple of ribald jokes, though--in fact, she'd probably handle them much more gracefully than Miranda would. She was…comfortable with male attention. So whatever those men had said to her must have been beyond the pale.

Miranda was shocked by the sudden clench of anger that seized her heart, lungs, and stomach all at once. How dare--what was wrong with people today? She had half a mind to turn around, go back to that station, and…and look like an idiot. 'Half a mind,' indeed. The Dragon Lady, turned knight in shining armor. There were no words for how ridiculous that was.

Then Miranda remembered she'd asked Andrea a question, and that Andrea had not responded. Instead, she'd continued to stare at Miranda with tomato-red cheeks.

"Well?" Miranda snapped. "Am I talking to myself?"

"Nothing," Andrea said. "They didn't say anything. I mean, anything important. They were just talking."

"About what?" Miranda pressed.

"About nothing! Jeez!" Andrea said. She looked dead ahead again, but her face was still scarlet beneath her ridiculous hat. "Why do you want to know so much?"

"I--" Good question. "--want to know if they recognized me. Us."

"No. They didn't. Or at least, they didn't say they did."

"No?" Miranda asked. "Are you so sure about that?” It wasn't just about what you said, but how you said it. And, sometimes more importantly, what you didn't say. "We have to be vigilant on that matter, Andrea. It won't do to be caught out if--"

"They thought we were gay," Andrea blurted.

After a long, long moment, Miranda managed to say, "Oh."

"That guy who kept spitting told me we both had to keep moving, because they don't like our kind around these parts.” Andrea chuckled bitterly. "Something like that, anyway. Looks like you were right about George and Brad."

"Ah," Miranda said. She was barely able to hear anything over the rush of blood in her ears. She had to be redder than Andrea by now.

"So that's what they said," Andrea finished. "Glad you asked?"

Miranda cleared her throat and wished wholeheartedly that she could go back just one minute in time and sew her own lips shut. "Don't be juvenile. Is that what's upset you so much?” That thought--the thought that Andrea had been so disgusted by the mere suggestion--made Miranda's heart, lungs, and stomach ache all over again. Her head, too. "What are you, ten?"

"It didn't upset me," Andrea said, sounding surprised.

Miranda blinked.

"I mean, it did, but not like that. I already said there's nothing wrong with…" She trailed off.

Miranda had learned her lesson, though, and kept her mouth firmly shut.

"It was just the way he said it," Andrea mumbled. "Like it was the worst thing. I know, I know, don't give a shit.”

The only thing Miranda could think to say was, "There's no need to be vulgar."

"Oh, like you never curse," Andrea said, and Miranda immediately recognized the tone of her voice: the eagerness to jump on a new topic as soon as possible. Miranda agreed completely. "I've heard you."

"What? No, you haven't. When?"

"When you got us lost on the way to Tulsa."

Now Andrea was baiting her. As grateful as she was for the diversion, Miranda refused to rise to it. "I do not swear, Andrea. Except in dire circumstances.” Claremore had been pretty dire. "It's so affected. People who swear excessively are trying too hard."

"To do what?"

"To do whatever they're trying to do," Miranda said in exasperation. "It doesn't matter. Never let people see you're trying too hard. That's the cardinal sin, especially in fashion."

"Because you're not supposed to care what people think."

"Precisely," Miranda said, pleased.

"Yeah.” Andrea settled back in her seat, adjusted her cowboy hat, and gave Miranda a mischievous grin. "Fuck what people think."

Miranda rolled her eyes, but the conversation had done the trick. Her heart was no longer pounding and her head had stopped spinning at the mere thought that someone had mistaken her and Andrea for lovers.

But how? Why? What had they seen? What did they know? What had Miranda done that could possibly have given away--

Her heart rate rose again. Miranda pursed her lips. But thankfully, Elk City, Oklahoma was almost upon them.

Miranda had the suspicion that if she blinked, it would then be behind them. It was one of the scrubbiest, most desolate places she'd ever seen. It was barely a step up from the gas station in terms of charm.

"What do you want for lunch?" Andrea asked, looking around as they drove past the town limits, already perfectly sunny again. Miranda had no idea why. "It doesn't look like we have a lot of options. Um…there's a McDonald's."

"Ugh," Miranda opined.

"They have salads," Andrea said sheepishly.

"I am not going inside a McDonald's." At least greasy spoons had a certain tragic dignity.

"You don't have to. Find somewhere close by to park. I'll get the food and bring it back out."

It really did seem to be the least appalling of their few options. Fast food chains on the lam. Miranda was fairly certain this wasn't the way she'd expected her life to go. Whatever it was or wasn't 'about.'  She sighed in aggravation.

"We'll park here," she said, and pulled into an empty lot next to a hardware store. If any customers went in or out of this place, she reasoned, they wouldn't be likely to recognize her, and the McDonald's was just a few buildings down the street.

She gave Andrea another twenty. "Salad and coffee."

"I'll be right back," Andrea said with an unnecessary level of cheer, and hurried down the sidewalk.

Away from her for a few moments--from her eyes and her smile--Miranda tried to relax. It was easier to think when Andrea was not here. It was certainly easier to breathe. Miranda snorted. Clearly she should have left Andrea back in New York after all. Knowing, even as she thought it, that it wasn't true.

Miranda inhaled and exhaled, slowly, before  turning her thoughts towards her surroundings. An empty parking lot in a nowhere town, and all because people couldn't keep their eyes or their opinions to themselves. And where were she and Andrea supposed to eat? Was the interior of the Porsche to be desecrated with a Big Mac, or whatever offal Andrea would choose for herself? Ridiculous!

By the time Andrea had returned, Miranda had been stewing for fifteen full minutes. The brief walk had put color into Andrea's cheeks and had brightened her eyes, which did not improve Miranda's mood one jot.

"I got you fat-free vinaigrette. I know you like…" She trailed off and gave Miranda a packet of salad dressing before getting a sandwich out of the paper bag. Miranda saw, with some surprise, that it was grilled chicken.

"I'm getting kind of tired of all the fatty stuff," Andrea said, and sat right down on the sidewalk like a savage. Miranda chose the least-dusty part of the Porsche to rest against, and attempted to concentrate on her salad rather than the spectacle, familiar by now, of Andrea Sachs stuffing her face.

For her part, Miranda had already lost her appetite. At least the coffee was decent, but nevertheless, a Starbucks really was imperative.

Andrea licked a drip of mayonnaise from her thumb, caught Miranda watching, and gave her a smile that was both abashed and winsome. Miranda nearly inhaled a slice of cucumber.

She looked away from Andrea, seeking something else to focus on. Anything else. It was easier when she wasn't in the middle of driving, and in a moment, something down the street caught her eye. She leaned forward, away from the Porsche.

"Isn't that a laundromat?" she asked, nodding her head to the left. Sure enough, an unprepossessing laundromat sat across the street in the opposite direction from the McDonald's.

Andrea looked up. "Oh, yeah," she said, and began crumpling her empty sandwich wrapper into a ball. "But aren't we going to wait until we stop for the night?"

"We don't know when we're stopping, or where," Miranda pointed out. "The laundromat is here now.” She frowned. "Can you afford to--"

Andrea blushed hotly. "Yes," she said, clearly affronted. "I still have my seven bucks and change. And I just need to wash a few things. I can probably do it in one load.”

How long did it take to do one load of laundry? Probably not long enough, but Miranda could get some more breathing room away from Andrea, at least. "Fine," she said. When Andrea kept gawking at her, she added pointedly, "You might as well get going."

"Me? What are you going to do?"

"Take in the local scenery," Miranda said, only half-sarcastic. "I don't know, Andrea, but I’ll find some way to occupy myself other than watching you do your laundry.” She thrust her salad container at Andrea, nodding towards a nearby garbage can on the sidewalk.

Andrea headed off obediently enough, but Miranda saw the precise moment she realized she'd been ordered around--her steps slowed, her shoulders stiffened--and allowed herself a true grin. It was especially satisfying when Andrea stomped back to the car, looking irate. Miranda smiled serenely at her, got back in the car, and pressed the button to pop open the trunk.

Andrea took out her duffel and, to Miranda's surprise, asked, "Do you want me to take anything of yours, too?"

Miranda was not yet out of clean clothes, and she had no intention of letting Andrea manhandle a single one of her precious garments. God only knew what the girl would do to her delicate silks. When the time came, Miranda would find a decent looking dry cleaner, or a laundry service, or both, come hell or high water. "No," she replied.

"Oh," Andrea said. "Okay.” She took her handbag and then shifted back and forth on her feet. "Hey--uh--I'm sorry if I upset you earlier. With all that talk about life, and…" She trailed off.

Miranda stared at her.

"You're not going to leave me here, are you?" Andrea blurted.

Miranda rolled her eyes. "Don't tempt me," she said, before cranking the key. The Porsche roared to life. "You have your phone?"

Andrea nodded.

"Call me when you're finished."

"But where are you going?” Andrea looked completely dumbfounded. "There's nothing here!”

Miranda had no answer to that other than, Away from you, which would probably not set Andrea's mind at ease. "Try not to stain anything," she said, and pointedly put the car in reverse.

Andrea continued to gawk, but at least got out of the way while Miranda backed out of the parking space. Good. The last thing Miranda wanted, or needed, was yet another person staring at her in her car.

She really would have to do something about that.

 


 

Doing laundry was actually kind of soothing. The laundromat was warm, and completely empty, and Andy suddenly realized that she had over an hour all to herself. No Miranda in the car, or even the next room. No Miranda in sight. It reminded Andy of the profound relief she'd felt when she'd still worked at Runway, and Miranda had still been her boss, and Andy had been so grateful to escape to her apartment at the end of each long day.

Although, funny thing, being with Miranda nearly 24/7 for the last few days hadn't been as awful as Andy would have thought. In fact, Andy hadn't realized she'd needed a break until Miranda had split for the afternoon. (But would return. Probably. Definitely. She'd better.)  And even so, as incredibly annoying as Miranda could be, Andy was pretty sure she hadn't needed that break at all until today.

After. After kissing, and unwanted commentary from some tobacco-chewing bigot, and everything else being so weird and wrong. Even weirder and wronger than usual.

Andy flopped down in a chair and listened dolefully to the sound of the washing machine slurping her colors together with her whites. She wasn't too worried about her clothes. It was cold water. She hadn't brought anything new enough to bleed. And if her underwear did turn out pink, then so be it.

Andy suddenly remembered Miranda's pink underwear. Peach and sky-blue and sea-green, too. Pastels in silk and satin and lace. Suddenly, Andy's face was so hot it almost hurt, and she was glad as hell that Miranda had not, in fact, wanted Andy to wash her clothes.

Had Andy been out of her mind to make that offer? Just the thought of touching something Miranda had worn, and recently…that feeling of sacrilege was back. And so was a deep warmth in Andy's belly that she so, so, so wasn't going to think about. No. She was going to use this time alone to regroup, breathe, and get herself together before she lost it completely.

Then her phone rang. Andy almost wailed aloud in despair. Of course Miranda wouldn't be able to give Andy even a moment's fucking peace.

Only, when Andy checked the display, she saw it wasn't Miranda. It was Lily.

Andy listened to the phone ring twice more before she could move her fingers enough to answer it. "H-hello?" she managed. "Lily?"

"Oh my God," Lily said. She didn't sound mad, but relieved, and suddenly Andy felt like she could breathe again. "Your parents just called me this morning and--where are you? What the hell are you doing?"

"Um," Andy said. "What did they tell you I was doing?"

"That you'd run off with Miranda Priestly or something crazy like that," Lily said. "And I saw on Page Six today--"

"I'm in Page Six?" Andy whispered.

"No. Not you, not that I saw. But she is. Andy--really? Seriously? You're with her?"

"Yeah," Andy said, sending up silent prayers of thanks. No Page Six yet. "Well--not right now, actually."

"Huh? Where is she now?"

"I have no idea," Andy said. "I'm doing my laundry."

"What?"

"We're in the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma, and I needed to wash my clothes because I didn't pack enough, because I didn't know where we were going or for how long, and she's off doing something else. I don't know what. I--" The washer buzzed. "Shit, hold on, my clothes are done. I have to put them in the dryer."

There was a long pause. Then Lily said, "You know, technically, if you still have to dry your clothes, I don't think they're 'done'."

A beat: then Andy wailed, "Oh God, I've missed you," and burst into tears.

Lily sighed heavily. "I didn't go anywhere.” But she still didn't sound mad.

"I know," Andy sniffled, looking around for a Kleenex. No luck. There didn't even seem to be a bathroom. "I have, though. God."

"Oklahoma? Is that what you said?" Lily asked. She added: "Breathe."

Andy breathed.

"All right. Calm down. Tell me what is happening."

Andy did her best, in between loading her damp clothes into the dryer. When she was done, Lily didn't say anything, and Andy gulped, "Lily? Are you still there?"

"Yeah," Lily said. She sounded hesitant. "Andy--you do know Miranda Priestly is a grown woman, right?"

"Lily…"

"As in, not a stray bird you found in your backyard.”

Andy snorted. She'd always taken in those birds when she was growing up. They'd usually died, and Lily had been the first one to tell her to get over it.

"I mean, it's nice that you want to look out for her and all. And totally predictable. But seriously, what are you doing? Do you even have a job anymore?"

"No," Andy said. "Lily, she can't be alone right now, okay? Nobody should have to be alone at a time like this.” Just a couple of days ago, she would have said that, and it would have been the truth. And maybe it still was--but a half-truth at best.

This wasn't about Miranda not being alone. This was about Andy being with her. That, more than anything, should have convinced Andy to leave her laundry right away and hitch-hike back to New York. But it didn't. It didn't. It wasn't going to.

"Is she at least being nice to you?" Lily asked, her voice rich with doubt.

"Yes. Well, not really. But compared to usual. I have no idea," Andy said.

"Andy, this is messed up."

Lily didn't know the half of it. "Uh, have you talked to Nate?"

"I saw him yesterday," Lily replied. "He didn't--wait. He knows you're doing this?"

"Yeah," Andy said. Her chest ached a little, remembering. "I called him a few days ago. I told him. I said I was sorry. For everything."

"He didn't say anything to me," Lily said, sounding pissed. "So I'm guessing you two didn't kiss and make up."

Kiss. Andy's face flamed again. "No. We didn't. I, uh, I think we're kinda done. It's over."

"Oh, hell, Andy," Lily said.

"What?" Andy snapped. "Come on, Lily, it's not like we were going to get married or anything--we just grew apart. We changed. It happens!"

"You changed," Lily said, but her voice was oddly devoid of accusation. There was only certainty. "Come on. Just admit it. You did."

"I--yeah. I did.” More than she could ever explain. "And you know what, I don't think it was all bad, okay? I don't think I just transformed into this horrible person. Maybe I'm different, but I'm still me!"

"Andy--"

"I learned a lot. And I got good at my job. And I was proud of that.” Andy heard her own voice shaking, and didn't quite know how to stop it. "And I screwed up some stuff big-time, I know--"

"That's not what I'm--"

"But I'm traveling across the fucking country with her, and I'm not letting her walk all over me anymore. She's not my boss now, and I can totally deal with that--"

"Andy, what the hell are you talking--"

"I kissed her," Andy said, and lowered her head down between her knees while her vision swam.

The ensuing silence seemed to last forever.

"I wish I could say I was surprised," Lily said at the end of it.

"Huh?" Andy managed, as she raised her head slowly. The room stopped spinning.

"God, Andy, how do you get yourself into these things?"

"What do you mean you're not surprised?"

"Andy, come on."

"It was an accident!" Andy gasped, and promptly stumbled all over herself to explain everything. Except, by the time she'd finished the story, somehow 'everything' seemed even more muddled than before. "So, you see? It was totally innocent. It just weirded me out, that's all."

"Uh-huh."

"Oh, God, Lily. You cannot tell anybody."

"Andy!"

"No, no, I know you wouldn't, but--not even Doug. Definitely not Nate. Totally not my parents. Nobody. Period!"

"Andy, when have I ever ratted you out?" Lily demanded. "Did I or did I not cover your skinny ass for years, every time you got in trouble?"

Andy paused. "You're just calling me 'skinny' to make me feel better."

"No," Lily said, "but the fact that you would even think that ought to tell you that you have no business kissing this woman. Accident or otherwise," she added sharply. "She is not good for you. She's probably not good for anybody. I’m telling you this as a friend."

"I know," Andy said, swallowing hard. "But seriously, that was just an accident. I promise. I'm sorry I just bugged out on you. It's just, this whole thing is so weird, and I haven't even been able to talk to anybody about it."

"Well, I'm here," Lily said. "You can talk to me.” She paused, and sounded a little choked up when she added, "I miss you, too, you know. Even if you did go crazy."

"Oh," Andy said, and started crying again, except that Lily did too this time, so it was only half as embarrassing.

When they'd gotten themselves under control, Lily managed, "Okay, spill it. From the beginning."

Andy spilled it from the beginning. And this time, she included Christian. "Oh my God, I was so drunk," she moaned. "Lily, it was the biggest fuck-up ever."

"You were safe, right?" Lily demanded.

Andy shuddered at the memory, but she was glad about this one thing, at least. "We were safe," she said. "Condom. Pill. The works."

"Does she know?"

"Who, Miranda?"

"Who else?"

"Yeah. She knows.” Andy got a sour taste in her mouth as she remembered Miranda's scornful glare back at Jack's Bar-B-Que, and her implication that Andy had slept with Christian to get ahead at work. Wow. Lily was right. Andy had absolutely no business kissing a woman like that. "What does that matter?"

"It doesn't, I guess," Lily said. "It shouldn't."

"Yeah," Andy said. "See?"

"I see, all right," Lily said. "When are you coming back? Soon, right? I mean, how long can she keep going?"

"We're coming back sometime this week," Andy said. "She promised her kids."

"What are you going to do then?"

"I have no clue," Andy said. "I don't want to think about it. Please talk to me about something else."

"Like what? I mean, okay. Uh--Doug sprained his wrist two days ago."

"He did? Oh no, what happened?"

"Apparently the other guy liked weird angles."

After a pause, Andy said, "Oh God," and then she and Lily were laughing as helplessly as they'd cried before.

Then they talked. They talked until the dryer buzzed--about Paris, all the stuff Andy had seen and done (besides Christian), because Lily loved clothes and big cities, and all the stuff that Andy had learned to love too, only now she wasn't trying to pretend she didn't. "I looked up the Moschino show on style.com," Lily said at one point. "What a trainwreck."

"Miranda hated it too," Andy said, without really thinking about it as she unloaded her warm clothes from the dryer. "I don't think they'll be featuring much in the big spring issue."

Then Lily got quiet, and Andy realized what she'd said. "Oh, hell," she muttered, pausing in the middle of folding a shirt. "At least she isn't here."

"Yeah," Lily said. "So, you know, is she--"

Just then, Andy's phone bleeped. Incoming call. From Miranda. "Crap. She's calling," she said to Lily. "I better take it. I hope she's okay, she was acting weird earlier."

"Go figure," Lily said, and added, "Be careful. Call me later."

"Sure," Andy said, already only paying half-attention. "Gotta go. Love you. Bye!” She hung up on Lily and picked up for Miranda. "Hello?"

"Are you finished?"

"Just now, actually," Andy said. "I'm folding my clothes. I was about to call you.” She tried not to sound guilty, since she hadn't thought about calling Miranda at all while talking to Lily.

"What's the name of the street, again?”

"West Third."

"Fine. I think I can find it."

"Let's hope the GPS has it," Andy joked.

"It doesn't matter if the GPS has it or not," Miranda replied. "I should be there in a few minutes."

"Okay," Andy said. "Just let me put these back in my bag, and I'll wait for you outside the door."

"All right. Look for the blue truck."

"For the…" Andy blinked. "Blue truck?"

"Yes. You can't be too far from the dealership," Miranda said. "Anyway--"

"Dealer…what?” Andy suddenly felt a little weak in the knees and leaned against the dryer for support. "Dealership?"

"Isn't that what I just said?"

"Miranda, what did--?" Andy croaked.

"Be ready to go," Miranda said. She hung up.

After a second, Andy did too. Her head spinning, she picked up her duffel bag and staggered towards the door of the laundromat, already bracing for impact.

 


 

Miranda was, on the whole, satisfied with the truck. It was certainly the least elegant vehicle she'd driven in decades, and one of the ugliest. It was also perfect for her purposes. Out here, it would attract no attention, and nobody would dream of looking for Miranda Priestly in it.

She was, however, a trifle disappointed in Andrea for not immediately appreciating her plan. In fact, Andrea was currently standing on the sidewalk with her mouth hanging open like a drooling idiot.

"Oh my God," she said.

"Well, hurry up and get in," Miranda said.

"Oh my God."

"I'd like to get going sometime this year, Andrea. Will you get a move on?"

"Oh my…what did you do?" Andrea practically howled. "Where's the Por--are you out of your mind?"

"The Porsche is back at Big Bob's Whatever," Miranda said, waving her hand. "And the GPS along with it. Since you're such a genius map-reader, why should we need it?"

"What is this? What--what--"

"1974 Chevrolet LUV," Miranda said. "I'll grant you the color is unfortunate.” It was. It was, in fact, some dreadful variation on 'sky blue,' although Miranda had never seen a sky precisely this color. "Regardless, it should suit us very well." She patted the steering wheel. 

Andrea hurried around the front of the truck, yanked open the door, and threw her duffel inside. Then she stared at the interior which, Miranda had to admit, had seen better days. Naugahyde did tend to peel over time. But really, what could you expect for four hundred dollars?

It was, she realized, the exact sum she'd received in Claremore for her wedding ring. She smiled. All things considered, she'd traded up.

"Oh my God," Andrea said yet again. She still hadn't gotten in the truck.

Miranda was starting to get annoyed. "Are you getting in, or aren't you?"

Andrea clambered into the front seat, looking as if it was quite an effort. She shut the door and looked around at the truck cab with wide eyes. Then she turned to stare at Miranda with same.

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Miranda said impatiently. "It's not much to look at, but it runs.” She pointed at the dashboard. "And the last owner modernized. There's a CD player.” The importance of which could not be overestimated.

Andrea kept gawking.

"Buckle your seatbelt," Miranda sighed, and put the truck into second gear. It only rattled a little bit as it pulled away from the curb.

Andrea buckled, and then turned around and kept staring at Miranda. "You know what?" she said. "I have not really, seriously believed that you are insane until this moment."

Miranda sneered at her. "As short-sighted as ever, I see."

"What are you thinking? What can you possibly be thinking?"

"First of all, I'm thinking it was my car to dispose of as I pleased," Miranda said coldly. "Not yours."

Andrea turned red. "I know that, but…"  She gestured around at the cab. "This thing is going to break down in, like, ten minutes!"

"Don't be ridiculous," Miranda said. It wouldn't dare. "Why do you suppose I did this?"

"I have no…" Andrea trailed off, and sighed. "You don't want to get noticed."

"Thank you," Miranda said. Finally.

"Do you really think it'll work?"

Miranda gestured at the town as they drove past its limits. It didn't take long. "Look at this place. Look at this whole area. Nobody will bat an eye at this truck."

"I guess not," Andrea said faintly. She looked around again, and obviously wanted to say something else.

"What?" Miranda snapped, against her better judgment.

"Nothing."

"If you have something to say--"

"Okay, fine," Andrea said. "You know what I was thinking? I'm going to eat all the granola bars in here I want, that's what I was thinking."

To her own astonishment, Miranda laughed.

After a moment, Andrea did too. "Oh my God," she said again, and rested her elbow against the window, pressing her fingers to her forehead. "Not that I want to jinx anything, but can this trip get any weirder?"

"Jinxing is an absurd and superstitious idea," Miranda sniffed. "It drives me crazy whenever anybody mentions it. As if they're trying to prevent some kind of magic spell from being cast."

"Crazier," Andrea said, settling back against the seat. The naugahyde squeaked. "You mean it drives you crazier.” She laughed again. "Was this the only other car on the lot? How much did you pay for it?"

"It was the car that suited our purpose best," Miranda said. "And I paid four hundred dollars."

"How much did you get for the Porsche?"

"Didn't anybody ever tell you it's rude to talk about money?"

"Oh, jeez," Andrea muttered. "A thousand? Two?"

"Certainly not," Miranda said, affronted. "It's a Porsche Boxster just over a year old in--" Not mint, certainly. "Acceptable condition."

"Five thousand."

"Eight," Miranda snapped.

"Wow.” Andrea looked up at the ceiling of the truck cab. "Well, it's still more than I could afford to pay, so that's something."

"You're just as gauche as you can be, aren't you?"

"Oh, whatever," Andrea said, glaring at her. "Like everybody you know back home doesn't spend all their time looking at the tags on people's clothing and talking about how much their investments made this quarter."

"Yes. And it's appalling. I don't."

"I guess you don't," Andrea admitted. Then she added snidely, "The only people who can afford not to talk about money are the ones who have plenty of it. You ever heard that?"

Miranda had heard that. Miranda had lived that, and she was fairly certain that Andrea had not. "You don't know what you're talking about," she said.

Andrea opened her mouth.

"As ever.”

Andrea shut her mouth and snarled.

"Music now."

Andrea snarled again and reached for Miranda's purse. "If this CD player doesn't work, I'm going to laugh," she said. "I’m going to laugh my head off."

She was welcome to try, but it seemed likely that Miranda would rip it off first. And then get rid of the cowboy hat. Honestly, did the girl live in that thing? Had she slept in it last night? It seemed possible, given the appealing tousle of her hair in the kitchen this morning--

Bob Dylan started singing. Through his nose, and unintelligibly. Miranda groaned before she could stop herself.

"Hey!" Andrea said, instantly defensive. "He's a genius! A poet!"

"Didn't you say that Willie Nelson was too nasally for you?"

"Bob Dylan's different," Andrea protested. Miranda looked over and saw that her eyes were actually starry, setting off her pink cheeks. She inhaled through her nose and turned to look back out at the road, her heart pounding again.

She was aware, in the back of her mind, that this was shaping up to be a problem. Potentially a large problem. She should not, should not even be dreaming about having sex with Andrea Sachs, much less thinking about it during her waking hours. She should not be this starved, this lacking in self-control.

No. She should still be married and enjoying sex with her husband, should still have her job and be ruling New York City from on high, not here, not doing this, in some beat-up old pickup with her former assistant who had somehow transformed, in the blink of an eye, from a frumpy little dumpling, into a glamorous young woman, and from that into…whatever it was Andrea was now. A woman with an extraordinarily lush mouth that hid, Miranda knew, a sharp tongue.

Miranda realized that she was trembling a little, and that her hands hurt from clutching at the steering wheel. The wheel was thin and hard, not plush and cushy like the Porsche's. It would leave a narrow, red indentation in her palms.

"How?" she asked softly. "How is Bob Dylan different?"

For a moment, she was certain that Andrea had not heard her over the truck's slightly rattling engine. But then Andrea replied, "Well, he's a poet. Like I said. Don't you ever listen to the lyrics? They just…they're really good!"

"Everybody must get stoned," Bob announced.

"Oh, I see," Miranda said.

"Other songs are better," Andrea whined. "Come on, the lyrics he writes are way better than what anybody writes today!”

Miranda, in no mood for a played-out discussion on the decline of rock n' roll, rolled her eyes.

"Have you ever been stoned?" Andrea added.

"Oh heavens no, Andrea," Miranda said, without even thinking about it. "What do you take me for, somebody who's worked in fashion for years?"

"You have?" Andrea gasped, sounding both shocked and delighted.

Miranda pursed her lips, already regretting having spoken. She was fairly certain she'd meant to deny it seriously, not sarcastically.

"Occasionally. But not in years," she said instead. Not since the girls were born. Not since all had depended on her reputation, her image. Dragon ladies did not get stoned and laugh like idiots (her inevitable response to marijuana), and snow queens did not spend time with that particular kind of snow.

"Yeah, well, I'm not blind," Andrea said. "It was everywhere in Fashion Week. Remember when I had to go backstage at the Armani Privé show? The models were doing coke right there in the open. I couldn't believe it," she added, sounding appropriately scandalized.

"And yet, cocaine did not make Armani interesting," Miranda said. "I'm shocked.”

"Well, it's obviously not a big deal." Now Andrea was trying to sound worldly. "I even saw Nigel--I mean…well, I guess you know--"

Before she'd quit, and over the years, Miranda and Nigel had shared more than a few joints and lines. "Nigel?" she said, curling her lips back over her teeth. "You saw Nigel doing drugs?"

"Wha--no!" Andrea gasped. "Um, no, I didn't. I mean…"

"I can't believe it," Miranda said. "I'll ruin him. How dare he?"

"Miranda!" Andrea cried. "No! You know what, I bet it wasn't even him. I bet it was some other bald guy. There was a lot of cigarette smoke, I, I didn't even get a really good look!"

"Hmm," Miranda said. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," Andrea said at once. "Totally!"

"That is a very serious accusation to level against someone, Andrea," Miranda said sternly. She hadn't had to muffle laughter like this for years. She felt much better now. Almost lightheaded. "It can ruin lives and reputations."

"Yeah, I know, I just figured, I mean, it was you, not the cops or anything--you wouldn't get Nigel in trouble. Not that it was Nigel," Andrea added quickly.

"Not that it was Nigel," Miranda agreed, and glanced out her window for a brief moment, pressing her lips together until she could get her grin under control. This was more like it.

"Well, anyway, I've done pot a couple of times," Andrea babbled. "In college. It's not like it makes you a bad person. It's not a big deal.”

In Andrea's case, Miranda was certain that 'a couple of times' was literally a couple of times. It was rather charming.

"And you said you did it, too. Don't be a, a hypocrite!"

"Well," Miranda said, still straight-faced. "You're quite right, Andrea. That would be very wrong of me."

There was silence while Andrea figured it out. Then she said slowly, "You're making fun of me."

"Most definitely.”

"Great," Andrea huffed. Miranda glanced over and saw her folding her arms and glaring out the window. "Well, I hope I looked stupid enough for you."

"Just about.” Already finished with Andrea's sulking, Miranda looked at the speedometer. "I wonder if this thing can make it above 60."

Andrea snorted. "Maybe you should have asked that question an hour ago."

"Maybe you should give it a rest.” Miranda looked in the rear-view mirror. Nothing behind them. And nothing ahead. And nothing to either side. "My God, this place is desolate."

"Yeah." Andrea's arms were still folded childishly. She added, "I'm serious. I'm not joking or trying to be a jerk. What if we break down out here?” She waved her hand. "We might not even get cell phone service.”

"We're not going to break down. And we have plenty of gas.” Miranda raised her eyebrows. "We don't even have to worry about buying premium anymore."

"Oh wow, that's awesome," Andrea said. Then she sat up and began to look around in alarm. "Hey, don't they get a lot of tornadoes out here?"

"Don't be ridiculous."

"No, seriously, they do, don't they? Huge ones. Tornadoes the size of, like--" Andrea held her arms apart, apparently unable to describe the size of like.

"Tornado season is in spring or summer," Miranda said, exasperated.

"That doesn't mean they can't happen any time," Andrea objected. She paused. "How come you know that, anyway?"

"Why shouldn't I know it?" Miranda asked, rolling her eyes. "It's common knowledge. The question is, why don't you?”  

Andrea scowled. Bob Dylan started singing through his nose about times a-changin'. Miranda pursed her lips again.

"We can change it if you want," Andrea said. She didn't sound happy, but neither did she sound ungracious.

"Did I say that?" Miranda snapped anyway.

"You didn't have to," Andrea pointed out. "And we don't have to. Listen to him, I mean. You want more Waylon?"

"I want to hear myself think," Miranda said, "with or without Bob Dylan or Waylon Jennings. Oddly enough, the only real distraction is your voice."

Andrea gasped, and then turned to the side, fuming.

Miranda had every intention of letting it go, she really did--what would be the point of baiting--

"And stop sulking," she added. "It's unbecoming."

Silence: then Andrea said, "Forget it."

Something in her voice, something flat and hard, put Miranda on alert. "What?"

"I said forget it. I'm not going to give you what you want," Andrea replied.

Suddenly Miranda's ears felt hot, and a roaring nose in them made her feel certain that she had misheard. "What?" she repeated stupidly, glad that her voice did not stutter or shake.

"You want to have a fight," Andrea said. "I don't know why, but you do, and I don't this time, so forget it. I'm not doing it."

Miranda tried her very best not to exhale with relief. Instead she said, "'This time'?”

Andrea did not reply.

Miranda turned to see that she'd gone red. Victory. "I see," she said smugly.

"Whatever," Andrea sighed. "I'm still not doing it."

"I'm pleased to hear it, since nobody said I want to fight with you," Miranda said, doing her best to sound disdainful. Judging by Andrea's snort, she was less than convincing. "Making passive-aggressive noises isn't helping your case, by the way."

"I am not passive-aggressive!"

This time Miranda's disdain was entirely real. "Oh, please," she said.

Andrea opened her mouth, paused, and said, "Oh. Nice. If I don't say something, I'm passive-aggressive, but if I do, then you get the fight you want. Pretty good Catch-22 you've got going there."

"I said I don't want a fight, Andrea," Miranda growled. "Whatever makes you think…"

"Oh, give me a break!" Andrea exploded, throwing her hands in the air. "You don't even know, do you? You--okay, you're deluded. You are completely deluded. I mean, you even think--"

"If anybody is deluded here, it's y--"

"That driving this truck isn't going to get you noticed. Well, you know what, Miranda?" Andrea turned to glare right at her. "You could have kept your Porsche, because it doesn't matter what you drive. It doesn't matter if people even know who you are, or if they watch CNN or read Page Six--"

"What are you talk--"

"You're noticeable. Okay? You stick out, no matter what you do or where you are! People look at you, and they think about you, and, and they wonder about you. They, you just fascinate people--that's--"

Andrea cut herself off.

After a pause, Miranda asked, "That's what?” Her voice was just barely louder than a whisper.

"That's nothing," Andrea mumbled, looking out her window again. "That's it. It's just the way you are. And you're deluded if you think otherwise.” Then she sighed heavily, and tucked a strand of dark, shining hair behind her ear as she went pink.

Miranda throbbed. And nearly gasped out loud at the feel of it. To her shock--no, to her utter horror--she was, she couldn't deny it this time, she was so aroused she could feel it in her bones, and she wanted…

She didn't want Stephen. She didn't want that handsome boy back in Tennessee. She didn't even, God help her, want Waylon Jennings. What she wanted was unforgivable. Inexcusable. Pathetic. Her mouth felt as dry as the Oklahoma air.

Andrea abruptly reached out--Miranda twitched so hard she almost drove off the road--and turned off Bob Dylan.

"There we go," she muttered, turning to her window again. "Now you can hear yourself think all you want."

Marvelous. Just what Miranda didn't need.

 


 

Andy was pretty sure that it wasn't a good idea to stay with somebody all the time when they made you act like an idiot. A complete, babbling idiot.

‘You fascinate people’? Jesus Christ. Just because a thought occurred to you didn't mean that you were supposed to say it out loud. In fact, nobody believed that more fervently than the fascinating woman sitting next to Andy right now.

And besides, Miranda wasn't just fascinating. She was mean, she was stubborn and spiteful, she didn't know more about life than anyone else, and it didn't matter how pink the bridge of her nose was or what kind of underwear she wore.

The rode in silence for miles. The truck--dear God, surely Miranda had been smoking something, for real--provided the only real noise as it rattled down the dusty highway. Every time it gave a suspicious groan, or made a tell-tale lurch, Andy fought not to smirk, while Miranda tried not to glare. She was trying to be the Snow Queen again. Yeah, right. Andy had seen too much to fall for that now.

The thought made her uneasy. She'd seen more of Miranda in the last few days than most people ever would. Certainly more than the average clacker ever would. And while that seemed kind of cool, Andy wondered if it would return to haunt her after Miranda came out on top again. Andy had seen her weak and humbled; it would be ten times worse than when she'd caught Miranda arguing with Stephen. Forget an impossible Harry Potter manuscript--Miranda just might exile Andy to Antarctica for daring to come along and care about her like a decent human being.

Andy wondered what, in turn, Miranda had seen of her. What she'd learned about Andy that nobody else knew. The thought made Andy's heart pound; she sweated and felt dizzy. She didn't know what was going on here, in this truck, out here in this country. But it couldn't be good.

And it was still much too quiet in the truck. So without permission, she put on Emmylou Harris again, since she'd missed her the first time by falling asleep. Miranda said nothing, and Andy pretended to listen to music, using it as an excuse to stay silent for a while longer, like she couldn't possibly talk and listen to somebody sing at the same time.

They crossed into Texas on Highway 152 at five o'clock. The rattling old truck wasn't exactly allowing them to burn rubber like the Porsche, and Andy smugly estimated that it'd take them about time and a half to get anywhere from now on. She was pretty sure that Miranda had figured that out by now, but she'd die before she admitted it.

But it was pretty obvious that they were in the middle of absolute nowhere, and they were both bored out of their minds. There was nothing to think about but whatever was going on in their heads. "Let's change roads," Andy said, looking back down at the map.

"Fine," Miranda said, not even asking any questions.

"We're headed towards Pampa. We can get on Highway 60 there and head for Amarillo. Should be about three hours, if that's where you want to go. It'd mean a late dinner, but if you want decent food, we--"

"Pray tell, when did I actually say I wanted to go to Amarillo?" Miranda said. Her voice sounded hoarse, and she cleared it as she added, "Does anybody want to go to Amarillo?"

"Well," Andy said, and reached for her bag, eager to have something to do other than squabble or stew. "'Named for the yellow clay of nearby Lake Meredith, Amarillo began as'--"

"I don't need the history, Andrea."

"Hey, this looks pretty fun," Andy said, ignoring her, and feeling a little spark of excitement return at last. Route 66 picked up again in Amarillo. "It says there's lots of Texas charm. Longhorns and stuff."

"Ooh."

"Oh, come on. You know what longhorns turn into? Steaks. I bet you could get some really amazing steak in Amarillo, if you wanted to."

"On the hoof, no doubt."

"Maybe," Andy said, and grinned at the idea of Miranda roping her own meal. If anybody could do it… "Anyway, if you don't want to go to Amarillo, I vote we go somewhere with a weird name.” She put down the guidebook and looked back at the map. "We'd have to divert south onto I-27, but how does Ogg sound?"

"You make these places up," Miranda said. "I know you do.” Her voice was still unusually low, and a little bit rough, but at least she sounded amused.

"Or we could just keep going until we get to Happy."

There was a long pause, and Andy regretted saying that, although she hadn't meant any harm. She hadn't intended it to be a jab or anything.

But then Miranda said: "Would we recognize it if we saw it?"

She didn't look mad or offended. Andy grinned hard. "Would anybody?"

"Let's skip Happy, then."

"All right," Andy said, making sure to punctuate it with a dramatic sigh. Yeah, this was better. Way better.

"Do you want to stop in Amarillo?" Miranda asked. Andy's surprise must have shown on her face, because she added, "Tell me now, because it's your only chance.” Before Andy could say anything, she added, "We're flying back home tomorrow."

Just like that, 'way better' disappeared into thin air. Andy was too stunned to speak. Then she managed, "Huh?"

"I've been thinking about that talk I had with my daughters," Miranda said, not looking at Andy. "It's time to return home. And I'm sure you have business to attend to as well."

Miranda was lying. Andy could tell, and it shocked her: Miranda wasn't one for telling lies. She was honest, in fact, to the point of brutality. But now her tone was too casual, and her neck was too stiff.

But…well, so what? Andy had no idea what was really going on inside Miranda's head, but this was Miranda's journey. She had a right to call it off whenever she wanted, no matter what her reasons really were.

Except that sometime in the last couple of days, Andy had started thinking of this as her journey, too. No. Their journey. She was no longer just along for the ride. And she didn't want to go home yet.

She thought about Lily, and what Lily had said, and decided that not wanting to go home was a sign that she probably should. So she just kept staring at the map, and mumbled, "Amarillo's great," trying not to sound disappointed, trying not to be disappointed.

Miranda didn't reply, and just like that, the silence was uncomfortable again, for all that they appeared to be in agreement. She still wasn't looking at Andy.

Which was when Andy realized that Miranda's problem wasn't about her kids, or with 'attending to business.'  Miranda's problem was with her.

There was no way to say so without looking like a self-absorbed idiot. And it would put something on the table that Andy didn't think she was ready to talk about--not least because she didn't even really know what it was. Miranda had the right idea: better to pretend. To ignore the elephant in the room. Maybe even to lie. Better to go home.

The thought made her desolate. Andy tried to swallow around it and couldn't.

 


 

Andrea was being very quiet. It wasn't sulking, though. Miranda had learned to tell the difference by now. No, it was a silence that was keenly aware that something was wrong, very wrong, in the truck. Miranda would have much preferred sulking to it. She would have preferred Andrea to remain unaware, oblivious to…to whatever this was.

But that wasn't Andrea. She wasn't stupid, she was observant, and at the moment, she was being very quiet while she studied the guidebook.

They'd gone a few more miles since Miranda had made her pronouncement, which she'd voiced almost as soon as the idea had occurred to her. Now there was no going back, unless she wanted to look wishy-washy, even as she felt a sharp sense of regret that they'd be ending their journey before California. Before her stated goal. That was wishy-washy too, but better than the alternative, better than…well, whatever this was.

She was just about to turn on the CD player, Bob Dylan or no, when Andrea suddenly said, "You know what? Let's skip Amarillo."

Miranda blinked and glanced at her. "What?"

"Well, we've only got one more night, right?"

Miranda thinned her lips and nodded.

"So, so maybe we should see…something. I mean, if we're going back to Manhattan, it's not like Amarillo is going to wow us."

"I thought you wanted steak on the hoof," Miranda pointed out, although she was amused to hear that, like many New Yorkers who hadn't been born there, Andrea had ascended to the heights of snobbery about magical Manhattan.

"I can live without it. Besides, we've been avoiding big cities, so why break the trend?”

Andrea still wasn't looking at her. Miranda cleared her throat. "What's your alternative?” Because Andrea was right; they only had one more night, and there would be no harm in indulging the girl one last time. Assuming, of course, that she wanted to go somewhere tolerable.

"Palo Duro Canyon," Andrea said. "It's not much farther than Amarillo.” Her voice began to warm with enthusiasm again, and in spite of herself, Miranda's heart and stomach clenched. "It's not as big as the Grand Canyon, but the guidebook says it's pretty great anyway. We won't get there until dark, but if, if we wanted to take just a couple hours in the morning, before--? And I've never seen the Grand Canyon, so--"

"I've seen it," Miranda said. "Not that grand.”

Andrea's face fell.

"But there's no reason why we shouldn't go to…?"

"Palo Duro."

"…there, as opposed to anywhere else.”

Andrea brightened again.

"Where can we stay?"

"It doesn't say," Andrea admitted. "It's talking about it more as a day trip. I'm sure there'll be places around, though."

Miranda shrugged. Couldn't be worse than the place in Queens. She hoped. Good Lord, when had her standards fallen so low that Queens was her referent? "How far?"

Andrea put down the guidebook and unfolded the map. "Looks like it's about twenty-five miles directly south of Amarillo, give or take.”

Not too bad, although it would take considerably longer in the truck. But even though she'd decided to pack it in and go home tomorrow, Miranda still didn't regret selling the Porsche. Much easier than having it shipped home. She doubted she'd have any regrets about ditching the Chevy.

They reached Pampa, Texas at six-fifteen. "Dinner?" Miranda asked.

They hadn't talked much since deciding on Palo Duro. They hadn't, in fact, talked at all. It had felt disconcertingly strange after the last few days, when Andrea hadn't been able to shut her trap and Miranda, for some reason, hadn't been able to stop responding.

"Are you hungry?" Andrea replied.

"No," Miranda said, surprised to realize it was true. Her stomach was practically in knots.

"Me neither."

"Fine."

"Want to switch driving? We get on 60 here. We can just follow the signs, you don't have to read the map."

"Fine," Miranda repeated in a growl, because really, as if she needed to be reminded of that particular inadequacy. She pulled over.

"Um, okay…" Andrea muttered as she slid up into the cab on the driver's side, scrutinizing the truck's admittedly primitive features. The Naugahyde creaked and crinkled beneath her when she settled in. "Well--here we go.”

'Here we go' managed to convey as much skepticism as if Miranda had suggested the truck could drive them into outer space. Miranda rolled her eyes. "Do you think you can handle it?"

"Yeah," Andrea said, her voice even. "Yeah, I think I can handle it.”

The words sent something down Miranda's spine--a chill? a shiver? a thrill?--and she did not reply.

"It's a pretty straight shot," Andrea continued. "South on 60 for about fifty miles, I think." She frowned. "Hmm. We might want to switch after that, because the map gets complicated."

"I can figure it out," Miranda snapped, suddenly determined to make it true. "For God's sake."

"Sure," Andrea said. "Do you have a pen? I don't like to write on maps, but if I circle the route, it'll be easier for you to…"

She reached out towards the map just as Miranda moved her own hand. Their fingers brushed. Andrea quickly drew her hand back a few centimeters and did not look at Miranda's face, which was good, because Miranda couldn't stop staring at Andrea's.

"I said I can do it," she managed, trying not to crumple the map, or leave visible stains on the edges, because her palms had suddenly begun to sweat.

"Great," Andrea muttered, and put the truck into first gear. "Let's go."

 


 

Miranda had been right about one thing, at least. Nobody in Pampa had batted an eye at their truck or the two women in it.

From the corner of her eye, because God knew she wasn't going to look directly, Andy saw Miranda settle against her truck door and close her eyes. It was seven-thirty p.m., but it looked as if she was deliberately trying to go to sleep anyway. Which meant she'd probably be awake all night, but whatever. That was her problem. Andy was grateful for it. An excuse for the cab to be quiet, but for a good reason, without awkwardness.

Andy had touched her again. They'd touched each other. Not on purpose. Probably. This was so, so bad. Andy hoped Amarillo had a big airport with regular flights to New York City. Or Cincinnati. Part of her was tempted not even to share the same city with Miranda, much less the same flight. Part of her just wanted to run home to mom and dad.

But the rest of her was pretty sure she couldn't face them. She was afraid they'd see the truth in her eyes, somehow: that she and Miranda wanted to fuck each other.

Because that was it. That's what it was. The elephant in the room was that Andy didn't just want to kiss Miranda, she wanted to jump her bones and fuck her right into the ground the way she never had with Christian or even Nate, to punish and enjoy her all at once. Touching her, that one stupid little touch after all the day's other stupidities, had brought that right home. They hadn't touched since the kiss last night. Maybe it had just been waiting the whole time, that jumpy, jittery, hot feeling. The life force, or whatever you wanted to call it.

It wouldn't have been so bad, actually, if Miranda didn't feel the same way. Andy could have brushed it off as some humiliating secret that Miranda would never find out about, and once they got back to New York and went their separate ways, it wouldn't matter.

But Miranda did feel the same way. Andy had seen the way she'd been clutching at the map, and breathing faster, and turning to stare out the window like the endless, scrubby dust of northern Texas was the niftiest thing she'd ever seen. Without wanting to, Andy remembered the look in Miranda's eyes after they'd kissed. She'd thought it was fury. And it had been, but it had probably been something else, too. She hoped Miranda slept all the way to Palo Duro.

Even those stupid, ugly bigots back in Oklahoma had seen it.

Did this mean Miranda was really gay? Maybe that was why she'd never stayed married for long. Andy wouldn't have thought it before; sure, Miranda looked at women all day long, but she hadn't exactly been enthralled by the models. Andy knew that because Miranda had always seemed a lot happier when she was looking at the clothes on their hangers without any irritating human beings beneath them.

It was easy to forget, when Miranda was being terrifying, that she really loved clothes. That she really loved anything at all. It'd be something amazing, Andy thought, it really would, for Miranda to look at her like that--not just like she wanted to fuck her, but as if--

And did this mean that Andy was gay? She didn't think so. Oh, God. Those idiotic things she'd said about going gay for one special person. Miranda was special, all right. Especially crazy. And evil. And fascinating. And hotter than hell. Was this why she'd chased Miranda across an ocean, and why she was tagging along with her across a continent?

No. It wasn't. Something else had dragged her over the sea, something that had felt like a rope around her waist. It was still there.

Andy closed her eyes, just briefly blocking out the road in front of her. It was kind of a relief. The sun was setting, and while they weren't going due west, the route was western enough that the light made her squint. She wanted her sunglasses, but they were out of reach in her bag, and she wasn't about to wake Miranda up and ask for them.

Then it occurred to Andy that Miranda hadn't called the twins tonight. It was 8:30 back home. She cleared her throat; Miranda twitched; Andy said, "Miranda."

"What?" Miranda growled, opening her eyes. She hadn't been asleep.

"Don't you want to call your kids? It's getting late back in New York."

Miranda hissed, sat up at once, and reached down for her bag. Andy could see her ears getting red, and quickly turned her attention back to the road.

"While you're down there, could you get my sunglasses?" she added. "The glare's sorta blinding me."

Miranda appeared not to hear her as she wrestled her phone out of her cavernous purse, but then, after she'd dialed, she reached down into Andy's own bag and tossed Andy's sunglasses into her lap. Where Andy didn't need anything to be tossed right now.

She squeaked, and quickly fumbled the glasses onto her face, glad that the dark lenses could hide her eyes. The brim of her cowboy hat would help a little too.

Then Miranda cleared her throat and said brightly, "Caroline? Hello, bobbsey."

Behind her sunglasses, Andy winced, and it wasn't just because of the sun. She'd only heard Miranda talking to her kids a few times before, but the syrupy tone always set her teeth on edge. The twins were ten years old--why did Miranda talk to them like they were four?

"I'm doing perfectly well, darling," Miranda continued. "How are you today?” A brief pause, while Andy heard the faint sounds of a chattering child. "Mmm," Miranda said. "Where's your sister?”

Andy’s antennae went up at the sudden, apprehensive edge to Miranda’s voice. She made sure to look straight ahead at the road.

Then Miranda said quietly, "She doesn't?” A pause. "Well. Perhaps tomorrow night. Has your father--? All right, then.” Miranda cleared her throat. It sounded a little wet, and Andy forgot her own stupidity for a moment while her heart ached. She didn't know what was going on, but it didn't sound good. "In any case, I want to hear all about your day, baby."

There was another, longer pause while Miranda listened to whatever Caroline was talking about, punctuating the dialogue only with, "Mm," "Mm-hmm," "Oh?", and "How wonderful.”

Then there was yet another pause; Miranda responded by saying, "Well, right now, I'm in the tru--car with Andrea, darling, and I think this is something we should just discuss in front of family. We can talk about it tomorrow. Hmm?" Then Miranda did a strange combination of sharp-and-puzzled when she said, "You want to talk to Andrea? Why?"

Yeah, why? Andy couldn't stop herself from looking over at Miranda, and she knew her eyes were going really wide. Thank goodness for the shades. She and the kids had said 'hello' a couple of times after the Harry Potter prank. The twins seemed to have warmed up to her after she'd completed the impossible mission. She hadn't returned the favor, although she'd always been careful to keep a friendly smile on her face.

"She's driving," Miranda said primly. "I don't approve when people drive and talk on the phone.” Whew. But then Miranda admitted, "Not very fast--no, there aren't many cars, but--bobbsey--"

Oh, hell. Sure enough, Miranda said, "All right, darling, but make it brief."

Then she shoved her phone in Andy's face, glaring at her. Andy sighed, took the phone, and said, "Hello?"

"Andrea?" It was really weird to hear Caroline's high-pitched, girlish voice saying her name the way Miranda did. "What's going on? Is Mom okay, like, really okay?"

"Uh…" Andy glanced quickly over at Miranda, who was, of course, watching her like a hawk. "Yeah," she lied. "She's fine. Everything's fine."

"I know she's sitting right there, you don't have to say anything," Caroline said. Andy was unnerved by the urgency in her voice. "Just say 'yes' or 'no,' all right? If she's really, seriously okay, say 'yes.'"

"Yes," Andy said, still lying.

"If she's really going to come home soon, say 'yes.'"

"Yes," Andy repeated, but with more conviction. She thought about adding, 'tomorrow, in fact,' when she realized that Miranda actually hadn't said anything about that. Better not to, then.

"If she isn't doing anything really weird or stupid, say 'no.'"

"No," Andy said, but only because she felt like she ought to. This whole trip was definitely weird, and what was going on between them was definitely stupid.

"If you're really driving the car, say 'purple hippo.'"

"Purple hip--huh?”

Caroline laughed. Andy rolled her eyes. "Purple hippo," she said with a sigh.

"Purple what?" Miranda asked.

"You said it," Caroline said gleefully. "You fell for it."

"I think I'll give you back to your mom now," Andy said, realizing when they got back to New York, she could do that forever. The thought made her generous enough to add, "You're doing okay, right?"

"No," Caroline said. She'd stopped laughing and sounded deadly serious again. "Sorry. Don't be mad. If--" Andy heard her gulp. "You're gonna look after Mom, right? Say 'yes.'"

It was easy to hate the twins if you thought they were totally self-absorbed, on top of being spoiled. It was harder when you realized they weren't, or at least, one of them wasn't. Andy swallowed. "Yes," she said, and added, "I have been."

"Okay. Cassidy's an idiot," Caroline continued. Andy glanced uneasily at Miranda, whose stare had escalated into a scowl, and who promptly held out her hand for the phone. "Maybe later you can talk to her too."

"Uh, yeah," Andy said, trying to sound moderately enthusiastic. "Maybe I can. If your mom says it's okay. She wants to talk to you again, all right?"

"Where are you now? She said 'out west' last night. Are you in Texas?"

"I--well, yeah, we are, actually," Andy said.

"What's it like?"

Miranda growled and wiggled her fingers as her hand waited, palm-up, for the phone.

"It's pretty flat and dry," Andy said. "Lots of dust. There's not a lot to look at. But now your mom--"

"Texas is the second biggest state," Caroline said. "Do you know which one's bigger?"

"Um. Isn't it Ala--"

"Alaska. Alaska is, like, huge. Anyway, you're going to look after Mom, right?"

"Right," Andy said, not looking at Miranda.

"Good. Jeez, are you gonna let me talk to her, or what?"

No problem. Andy gratefully returned the phone to Miranda, who said, "Well, did Andrea answer all your questions, angel?” Pause. "Oh, did she?” The hard note in Miranda's voice made Andy cringe, and she wondered what little detail Caroline had just let slip. "Well, everything is perfectly fine," Miranda added, her voice getting soft and soothing again. "We'll be home soon.” Again, not 'tomorrow.' 

"I love you," Miranda continued. Those words, spoken without a trace of self-consciousness to her child, did something really weird to Andy's insides, made them go hot and tight. "You and your sister.” Miranda cleared her throat again. "Tell Cassidy I said so, and that I will talk to her tomorrow night.” One final pause. "Good night, dear."

She hung up, and Andy barely had enough time to inhale before Miranda rounded on her. "You'll 'take care' of me?"

Andy winced. "She asked if I would. What was I supposed to say? 'No, I'll throw her to the wolves'?” Not that the idea wasn't tempting.

"'She can take care of herself' comes to mind," Miranda hissed.

"Oh, sorry," Andy said, rolling her eyes. "Next time you can have the cue cards ready."

"There won't be a next time," Miranda huffed, shoving the phone back down into her handbag.

"You didn't tell her we're getting back tomorrow."

"Very perceptive," Miranda said. She zipped up her bag and turned to look back out the window.

For some reason, Andy kept pressing. Like a poison ivy victim who couldn't stop scratching. "So is Cassidy okay?"

Wrong thing to say. Miranda turned on her with a murderous look on her face. "My daughters are fine, Andrea. Moreover, they are none of your business."

Andy felt herself starting to boil over. Uh-oh. Why couldn't she shut up? "Hey, Caroline's the one who asked to talk to me. All I did was ask you how your other kid's doing. It's not a crime.”

Miranda opened her mouth, lips pulling back over her teeth.

Andy held up her hand, because she was already so fucking tired of whatever Miranda was about to say. "Okay. Fine. I get it."

Miranda said nothing for a few more moments, while Andy kept her eyes trained on the road. It was getting darker by the minute, and soon she wouldn't have any excuse for the sunglasses.

"Everyone thinks they have a right to my private life," Miranda said. "Everyone."

"I'm not everyone," Andy said. Her voice almost sounded even, but not quite. She saw Miranda stiffen. "I'm not Page Six or CNN--I'm somebody who's been coming to your house every night for months, and doing your kids' homework, and it's not weird for me to ask you how they are.”

"You are not my family. You are not their friend."

Andy inhaled sharply through her nose. Both those things were true, and there was no reason for them to sting. "So that means I don't get to--"

"Just drive," Miranda said. It would have been infuriating if her voice hadn't cracked, and she turned to look immediately out her window again. But then she added viciously, "And I'm sorry if it goes against your principles, but dropping off the book and doing their homework is part of your job."

"No, it isn't," Andy said.

It was Miranda's turn to gasp. She did it quietly enough that Andy could pretend not to hear, and she didn't turn away from the window.

Had that been a low blow? Andy didn't even know anymore. They were both too covered in scratches and bruises by now, and she'd lost track of the rules of engagement. All of a sudden she felt completely exhausted, and she wished that Miranda were still driving because, late or not, she wanted to take a nap.

She also wanted to apologize, but she hadn't done anything wrong. Had she? If she did apologize, what would she say? 'Sorry I told you something that was absolutely true. I'm probably just on edge because I want to sleep with you so much it's messing with my head.'

"How about Roberta Flack again," she mumbled.

Miranda played some guy instead.

 


 

Miranda barely heard a word Kris Kristofferson was singing. This was probably a good thing, since he might make her cry again. It would be easier than usual. She felt as if she could fly into a thousand pieces at any minute, from any stimulus. Tears, or rage, or, or--

Tomorrow. They'd be back in New York tomorrow.

Andrea had been correct about one thing; Miranda hadn't mentioned her plans to Caroline. Thank heavens Greg hadn't answered the phone this time, because he would have pressed her.

But…there was no need to tell Caroline she was on her way home, Miranda reasoned. Or nearly on her way. It wouldn't make any difference in the long run. Miranda would return home to her children. It would be a surprise, even. And that would be that. The trip would be over, and she'd put her life together again. She'd make Caroline feel better, and she would coax Cassidy to talk to her again (because Cassidy did not hate her, she was just in a snit, and it would pass, it would), and somehow she'd make everything work.

She'd almost forgotten to call them tonight. No. She had forgotten. Andrea had been forced to remind her. Miranda pressed her hand to her mouth and shut her eyes. This would not do. This whole idea had been a disaster--this entire week had been a disaster, the biggest of her life--she had to think about something else. Anything else. The music. That would work.

"No, ma'am, I know this ain't all that you've ever been used to," Kris sang. "You with your rings on your fingers and time on your hands.”

Miranda smirked reluctantly. He was half-right. She'd lost her ring, but had gained a surfeit of time. Time on her hands, instead of a circle of diamonds.

"Sometimes it's nice to have somebody nice to be close to--"

…oh, no.

"God knows I've been there before you, and I understand."

Well that was just Kris Kristofferson's problem, wasn't it? Understanding her so well. Buying one of his CDs, that had been another mistake. She should have gotten more Waylon Jennings instead. Waylon couldn't read her goddamned mind.

"I, uh," Andrea said. "I think I like Mr. Jennings better.”

Only a day before, that would have shocked Miranda. But by now she had accepted that Andrea could read her mind even better than Kris Kristofferson could, which was another reason, one in a series of infinite reasons, why Miranda had to get away from her right away.

"Do you," Miranda said.

"Yeah," Andrea said. "I mean, this guy--who is it--"

"Kris Kristoff--"

"Yeah, him, he's okay, but…"

"He's extremely talented." Against all odds, Miranda realized that she was ready for a quarrel. Furious and exhausted, she longed to have it out with Andrea over something ridiculous. After all, if she couldn't have one thing with Andrea, she might as well have something else, mightn't she? "What do you mean, 'okay'?"

"Nothing's wrong with him, I guess," Andrea said feebly. Miranda could tell she already regretted bringing it up. "He's just not my favorite."

Miranda had just been thinking the exact same thing, so naturally she said, "You can only have one favorite, Andrea, so I expect you are doomed to be disappointed most of the time."

"God! You know what? You're…" Andrea clenched her jaw and shook her head, before tearing off her sunglasses and tossing them down onto the seat between them. "Forget it. Whatever. It's just a song. It's fine."

"So you show me yours, hon” --Kristofferson paused, and gave a knowing chuckle-- "and I'll show you mine."

"So it is," Miranda agreed quickly, and kept looking straight through the dusty windshield, which was acquiring an inordinate amount of dead bugs.

"Well," Andrea said tightly, after a pause. "What do you think Palo Duro's going to be like?"

"You're the one with the guidebook," Miranda said. And it was getting too dark for Miranda to look it up herself. "For myself, I'd wager a hole in the ground."

"Let's hope you're wrong," Andrea said, squinting ahead towards the dimming road. Her voice wasn't overly optimistic.

Miranda couldn't blame her. Although the terrain around them was beginning to develop a little more variety in the form of bumps and rises, it was mostly still flat, flat, flat. Miranda was a little surprised that they had, in fact, been able to pick up a cell phone signal.

"The book says it's supposed to be really pretty," Andrea said.

"When we get there we won't be able to see it," Miranda pointed out waspishly.

"That's why I was hoping we could hang around for a couple of hours in the morning.” Andrea's voice was hopeful now that she was asking for a favor. That voice--whether hopeful, firm, or strident--was going to be Miranda's undoing if they went on much longer. "I'll just get up early, wherever we're staying, and have a look around if you don't want to come too. I just want to see it."

"I don't see why not," said Miranda, who’d already decided to barricade herself in her room rather than stand next to Andrea on a high cliff. "I hope it's worth the diversion."

"Me too," Andrea said, with a little laugh. Her laugh was deadly too. Anything having to do with Andrea's mouth, in fact, was very bad news. Miranda forced herself to stop looking at the girl's lips.

It was getting dark rapidly. Miranda regretted not calling her daughters much earlier, not just because she felt guilty, but also because she would have had an excuse to be asleep by now. As it was, now she couldn't work on a crossword puzzle, or even pretend to page through the guidebook. She couldn't wait to roll into some hotel and be by herself for a few hours before going home, where Andrea wouldn't be at her side constantly. Perhaps never again.

As soon as the thought occurred to her, it hurt.

She pinched her lips together hard and looked out the window. Well--that didn't have to be true. In some ways, New York was not such a big town. Miranda was hardly without influence, no matter what had happened to her. She could help Andrea find some kind of little reporting job, or whatever she wanted for herself.

She’d be able to keep an eye on the girl, to monitor her from a safe distance. It wasn't an unreasonable thought. As irritating as Andrea was, she'd stepped out on a limb. Hadn't Miranda thought so a thousand times by now? There was no reason not to reward her. Their paths did not have to diverge completely and for all time.

Highway 60 took them just outside of Amarillo. Then, as Andrea had predicted, it got a little more complicated, but thankfully there were plenty of signs pointing the way towards Palo Duro. Evidently more people than Andrea were hankering to see a big crack in the ground.

It was a quarter till nine when they saw the sign that read "Welcome to Palo Duro Canyon.” Andrea, Miranda couldn't help noticing, looked tired, and when they pulled into a welcome center, she put the truck into park and rubbed her arms. "Oof," she said. "I'll run inside and see what they can tell me about hotels and stuff."

"Hopefully there's something decent.” Miranda looked around apprehensively. There were several cars and trucks in the center's parking lot. Obviously, this was a popular tourist destination. She was glad of the darkness, and that Andrea had chosen a fairly isolated parking space. Maybe they shouldn't have come here after all.

"If I can't find anything, I'll sleep in the truck bed," Andrea said. For the first time in hours, she smiled at Miranda. "You can have the cab. At least I've got my sweatshirt."

Then she nipped out of the truck while Miranda tried to make her head stop spinning. She couldn't. Spinning head, dry mouth, hot face--everything added up to the flu if you didn't factor in her soaking underwear.

"It's the desert," she muttered, to nobody there. "It gets too cold at night to sleep outside."

 


 

As Andy had expected, the lodging to be found in and around Palo Duro was of the budget variety; people who wanted more luxurious nests stayed in Amarillo and drove down to the canyon as a day trip. But she and Miranda had weathered worse by now, and at least this time they wouldn't be sharing a room. Andy couldn't have handled that. She just knew that she'd snap in the middle of the night after counting sheep for too long. As it was, the nice young man at the desk called up a place that he knew and reserved them two rooms.

"Longhorn Inn, ma'am," he said. "I know a couple people who work there. It's fine.” He smiled bashfully. "Not fancy, though."

"We're not looking for fancy," Andy said. At least, she wasn't. "That sounds great. Thanks.” She smiled at him, and he went a pleased sort of red. On her way out, she grabbed a brochure, plus a map of the canyon area, which included markers for all the hotels. Studying it, she memorized the route from the center to the inn. It wasn't far. Even Miranda could have managed to read it to her, but Andy was pretty sure the light in the truck cab wasn't working. Also, Miranda hadn't been real big on speaking during the past hour or so. Which was okay. Neither had Andy. What would they even say?

She could think of a few things, actually.

When she got back in the truck, Miranda was still looking out the window. "The guy at the desk made reservations for us," Andy said. "I said we were Dora Smith and Emily O'Neal this time.” She gave Miranda the map.

"Did you," Miranda said dryly, taking it. "And which one am I?"

"I'm used to answering to Emily," Andy said. She avoided looking at Miranda as she put the Chevy in reverse. The thing lumbered like a garbage truck. Driving it was surprisingly tiring--even the wheel felt heavy and awkward. "I think I've got the way to the hotel memorized. We go left out of here."

Miranda squinted at the map as they pulled away from a street lamp, and reached down for her reading glasses. "What's it called?"

"Longhorn Inn. You don't have to do anything, just hold the map."

"Well, just in case," Miranda said acidly, and put on her reading glasses, scowling at the paper as they passed in and out of the street lights. "Where does Dora come from, hmm?"

"I don't know," Andy said, honestly this time. 'Emily' had popped out of a moment of bitter, vicious humor. "It just came to me.” She smirked. "Dora the Explorer, maybe?"

"Aren't you a little old for that?"

"You're never too old to be an explorer." Andy leaned forward and squinted as they approached a stoplight. "Okay. We make a right here…"

She made the turn, and a few minutes later, they were turning into the motel parking lot. The Longhorn Inn was a one-story ranch motel, perfectly nondescript. Andy just hoped it was clean. Even Miranda's criteria must have lowered by now.

The desk guy had been right about one thing--it was quiet. Not a spooky quiet, though; the parking lot was well-lit, and the lobby looked inviting from the outside. "You want to wait in the truck again?" Andy asked.

Miranda nodded.

"Okay. I'll need some cash, though. The guy said it would be ninety-five bucks for two rooms for one night."

Miranda forked over the money, and then some extra for whatever hotel tax they'd need, without a word, without even meeting Andy's eyes. Andy didn't know why that should make her feel sick to her stomach. It was dumb to want Miranda just to look at her for a few seconds, because what did she want Miranda to see?

She booked in, got two key-cards, and decided to be grateful that she could lock herself up and watch some TV. No news, though.

"State park opens at eight. Sunrise at this time of year," said the smiling young woman who checked her in. Kimmy Five. "It's gorgeous over the canyon. Just a short ride down the road."

"I'll be ready for it," Andy said, feeling a little lift in her chest at last. She grinned. "I'll make sure to bring my coat."

"Yeah. It's cold before the sun comes out, but then it warms up quick. Enjoy your stay!" the girl chirped, and Andy hurried back out to the parking lot.

Miranda was already out of the truck this time. She had, in fact, climbed into the back of the truck, where Big Bob, or whoever he really was, had secured her luggage for her. Andy stared for a moment at the sight of Miranda Priestly in a truck bed before she shook her head and helped Miranda with her bags.

"Oof," she commented, taking the bigger of the two from Miranda and setting it on the ground. "At least the hotel's only one story."

"At least," Miranda said tightly. She still wasn't looking at Andy. "What are the room numbers?"

"You're in 133. I'm in 137.” Not next to each other. Several spaces removed. She took the second bag, and Miranda eased her way down from the bed with a slightly pained grunt. Placing a hand in the small of her back, she caught Andy watching her and glared.

"It was a long drive," Andy said uselessly.

"I want to leave no later than ten-thirty.” Miranda took one of the key-cards. "We don't know what the flights out of Amarillo will be like, or how frequent.” She frowned. "If they even have an airport. We don't know, do we?"

"I'm sure they do," Andy said, wondering how much of Palo Duro she could manage to   see in two and a half hours. "At least a regional one.”

If not, maybe she could make one appear by the sheer power of hope. Kind of like she'd done with the Harry Potter book. Or, it felt, like any number of other things she'd managed to accomplish for Miranda’s sake.

Miranda hefted her bags, and was heading across the parking lot to her room when Andy blurted, "Miranda?"

Miranda paused, and looked over her shoulder, her face half-shadowed by the parking lot's lights.

"How long did it take before you really knew my name?" Andy asked.

Miranda just kept looking at her. Andy squirmed and pushed a hand into her hair. "I guess when I checked in as 'Emily,' it made me wonder--"

"Don't forget to lock the truck," Miranda said quietly.

There wasn't any bite in it, none at all, so Andy just watched in dumb surprise as Miranda made her way towards her room. Then she shook herself and got her duffel out of the cab, locking the doors and wondering why her hands were shaking like Wyatt's had hundreds of miles ago.

 


 

Miranda dropped her bags unceremoniously on the shag carpeting, and looked around the room. It was so nondescript as to be actually memorable. Which was a dreadful shame, because Miranda fully intended to forget this night as soon as was humanly possible. It might take a while.

But she would do it. She would forget how she'd allowed her self-control to fray to the edges, and how she'd allowed her mind to turn to slow-moving sludge just because a beautiful girl had asked her a stupid question.

A really stupid question. How long had it taken before Miranda knew her name? Miranda had known Andrea's name from the moment she'd signed the HR slip. She knew the names of everybody who worked for her. It was idiotic to remain wholly ignorant of the people who surrounded you on a daily basis. It had pleased her to humiliate Andrea, that was all. A mind game. Nothing more. And when Andrea was gone, her name wouldn't have mattered one way or the other.

Miranda had been  sure, at first, that Andrea would be gone in a week: too full of herself to do what had to be done. Too overwhelmed by a world she didn't understand and held in contempt. But she'd lasted the first week, and then the second, and the months after that.

She would have outlasted Miranda if she'd chosen to.

Miranda gave a high, thin cry and tore at the buttons of her trench coat. Then she shrugged it off and threw it on the bed, kicked off her shoes, and headed into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. There were no windows here, not even those shaded by cheap blinds, and when she leaned against the door she didn't have to see herself in the mirror.

She wouldn’t think. She wouldn't fantasize, or romanticize, or do anything except the bare minimum it was going to take to get her through this night.

Trembling so much she wasn't sure she'd be able to keep standing, breathing as hard as if she'd run here all the way from Amarillo, Miranda unzipped her skirt and let it puddle to the floor around her ankles, followed by her slip, and then her panties; and finally, her head thick and dizzy with defeat, she pressed her hand between her shaking thighs.

 


 

The brochure went into more detail than the guidebook had. Palo Duro Canyon was 20,000 acres. Temperature in the canyons could get over a hundred degrees, so you were supposed to bring water when you hiked. There were a ton of great photo ops. Admission into the park was three bucks.

Andy flopped down on the bed, dropped the brochure, and admitted that she didn't give a shit. Maybe she could if she'd just stop thinking for a minute about Miranda, and her valleys and hills and crevices and Grand Tetons and whatever. But she couldn't seem to do that, either. She couldn't watch TV, she couldn't read about the park, she couldn't think about a single goddamn thing other than fucking Miranda Priestly's brains out, and then finding out how long she'd known Andy's name.

Then make her say Andy's name. Scream it, even. Did Miranda scream in bed? Could anybody make her? Could Andy make her?)

Like it'd matter. Like Andy mattered. Miranda might be attracted to her too, in some weird, fucked up way, but she wouldn't let Andy within a mile of her. That's why she was so intent on going home, for God's sake--on abandoning her intended goal, probably for the first time in her life, to avoid the completely horrifying possibility that she and Andy might, might…but they wouldn't.

Just then, her stomach growled, and Andy realized she could, in fact, think about something else. Relief and starvation overwhelmed her simultaneously. She hadn't eaten since that grilled chicken sandwich in Elk City, and it was a quarter past nine now. Definitely time for food. Food had to help; her blood sugar was off, that had to be at least part of why she felt like an insane person. Only thing was, there wasn't a restaurant on site--she remembered passing by some twenty-four-hour diner, but it wasn't within walking distance. She'd have to take the truck.

Andy bit her lip. It wouldn't take long, she was sure. She could get something to go and bring it back to her room. But Miranda hadn't eaten either, and it didn't seem right to drive off in her shitty truck without even letting her know, much less offering to bring her something back too.

It wouldn't take long. Andy closed her eyes. It'd just be the work of a few minutes just to go knock on her door, tell her the plan, and maybe—

Well, it was a crazy thought, but maybe they could talk about something. About why they absolutely had to leave tomorrow, or about how maybe they didn't, because this was Andy's journey too and she didn't want it to end yet, even though she should.

So her feelings didn't matter to Miranda. Andy knew that. On the list of things that meant something to Miranda, Andy was at the bottom, if she was on it at all. But her feelings mattered to herself, and if these were the last few hours that Andy and Miranda were ever going to spend together in their lives, Andy wasn't going to spend them in silence or try to act like none of this was important to her.

Andy opened her eyes, grabbed her key-card, and headed for the door.

 


 

Miranda briefly considered drowning herself in the shower. It had to be better than this: sitting half-naked on the bathroom floor, her whole hand wet and slippery, her lower body throbbing. And completely unable to get off.

This was the final insult. She was terrifyingly aroused, and had been for days. She should have gone off like a firecracker at the first touch, or at the very least, blazed and then snuffed out like a candle, just enough to give her a moment of peace. Her body had never been so physically primed for release.

But it seemed that her mind was another matter. The basic fact remained: she didn't just want an orgasm. She still wanted another person with her, touching her. And now she wanted a very specific person.

She wanted Andrea, wanted her so much right now that she could feel it in her teeth, and she couldn't have her. She didn't even dare think about her, not like this. Miranda had the feeling if she did, if she just moved her fingers and thought about Andrea's smile, or her little pajamas, or if she relived her dream from the night before--that would do it.

But she couldn't. She couldn't. Why wasn't it enough, why couldn't it be enough just to stimulate a few essential nerves and go over the edge?

Whimpering, she tried again, rubbing her clitoris with a certain sense of hopelessness. She got a familiar, pleasant jolt, but nothing that seemed ready to build into anything bigger. She'd never been any good at this. Masturbation, while marvelous in theory (it seemed so efficient), required a certain element of letting go, of allowing your brain to go wherever it wanted, but that was something she couldn't do.

Nor could she give up. If she'd finally let herself sink this low, then she was damned well going to hit rock-bottom. Gritting her teeth, Miranda sank two fingers inside herself, determined to go fast and hard until she got what she needed. She'd do it, get it over with, and get some decent sleep. Ideally with no dreams.

She'd just rubbed against her clit with the heel of her palm when she heard somebody knock at the front door.

Miranda's eyes opened wide and she stared at the toilet in disbelief. It could only be one person. Hoping she was hallucinating, she sat perfectly still, but sure enough, a few minutes later, there was another knock.

Andrea. She dared to intrude on this of all moments. She dared. Right now, when Miranda felt more vulnerable and humiliated than she had since fleeing Paris, Andrea insisted yet again on staring her in the face.

Miranda yanked her fingers out of herself and staggered to her feet. She tugged on her skirt, not bothering with the slip or underwear, because she was going to get rid of Andrea in no uncertain terms before the girl could set one foot in the hotel room. She stormed out of the bathroom, heart pounding in her ears, and flung open the door.

 


 

Was Miranda already asleep? Andy checked her watch. It was only 9:40. Maybe she was really tired after the long day. Or maybe she was just bound and determined to ignore Andy no matter what. So, she should leave Miranda alone. Maybe call her instead of knock at her door--Andy should have thought of that before, actually. It just seemed so important to talk to Miranda face to face. To look her in the eye and say that Andy didn't want to go home yet and maybe they could work something out. You couldn't do that on the phone.

She swallowed and raised her hand to knock on the door just one more time.

But before she could, the door opened so fast that Andy practically felt the suction of wind tugging her forward. Miranda stood there, breathing rapidly, her face bright red, her hair mussed, her eyes sparking, and her teeth bared.

"What?" she snarled, leaning forward until they were practically nose-to-nose, bracing herself on the doorframe.

Andy's jaw dropped.

"What?" Miranda repeated, her voice dropping into a deadly whisper. "What do you want? Why are you gaping at me like an idiot? Why is it utterly impossible for you to leave me in peace for ten minutes, just ten minutes?"

Andy stared, hypnotized, at the hand that clutched the doorframe a bare few inches from her face. Her eyes kept getting wider. She felt her whole body growing warm, and then warmer, while her brain started going a little fuzzy.

"What?" Miranda repeated. "What do you want?"

Andy turned to look at her face, and she saw that rage slowly draining away, replaced with something that looked a lot like apprehension. Uncertainty. Andy's entire mouth was dry.

"Andrea?" Miranda croaked.

It was over. It was all over, and this time Andy really truly didn't have a choice because, oh God--

She surged forward, pushing Miranda out of the doorway and kicking the door shut behind her as they stumbled back into the room. Miranda's fury was entirely gone now, replaced with both shock and fear as she said, "Andrea--what the hell do you think you're doi--"

Andy reached out, grabbed Miranda's hand, the one that had been clutching the doorframe, and brought it up to her face. She pressed her nose hard against the fingers.

Miranda cried, "Oh!", and tried to yank her hand free, but it was way too late. Her fingers were wet and smelled of come, they both knew it, and as Andy glanced to the right, she saw Miranda's bathroom door standing wide open with her slip and panties lying on the floor.

"No!" Miranda gasped, following her gaze. Andy's head snapped around to look at her face again, and it was redder than ever. Miranda's eyes were huge with horror, and blue, so blue--

Andy grabbed Miranda by her hips, pushed her back against the nearest wall, and listened to her say, "Andrea!" while she shoved her skirt up. She had no fucking clue what she was doing, and she didn't care either, that didn't matter--this mattered--she reached up between Miranda's legs and cupped her, finding her cunt and sliding two fingers up and inside, as wet as anything she'd ever felt, bending forward to press her mouth against the side of Miranda's neck. She tongued the soft, salty skin there while Miranda bucked forward, pulled her fingers down and then thrust them back up, and then bit down. Hard.

Miranda grabbed at Andy's back, screamed, and came, grinding down on Andy's fingers like she was dying for it. Andy kept her face pressed hard against her skin, smelling and tasting her until she finished, until Miranda lost all her breath and slumped back against the wall.

 


 

Not enough.

Miranda was shaking, about to collapse, with Andrea's fingers still inside her, and it wasn't enough. Nowhere near. She wanted to die. She wanted to kill Andrea, and then she wanted to die. Because if this wasn't enough--if Andrea, everything she wanted, wasn't enough, then what was it going to take? Why did she still ache and throb with need, when she'd just come so hard that her ears were ringing?

Then Andrea pulled her fingers out and released Miranda's neck from her teeth, making Miranda stagger. But before she really could fall down, Andrea caught her by the elbows. Miranda looked dizzily at her face and saw that the girl's eyes were bright with hunger. Her full lips were open, her mouth slack, and it was almost as if she wasn't even seeing Miranda at all. Miranda heard herself whimper.

Andrea kissed her.

It was just as clumsy as last night, but it was on purpose, and this time it kept going. Miranda gasped, because Andrea's lips were soft, and so full, and now one of Andrea's hands moved up to cup the back of her skull and hold her in place.

They were both panting too hard to make it a proper kiss--it was more like their open mouths were pressed together while they breathed raggedly. It still made Miranda's head whirl, and she whimpered again. Then Andrea pulled away and moaned, "Oh, fuck," before wrapping both arms tight around Miranda and propelling her away from the wall, towards the bed.

Moving backwards, Miranda couldn't see where she was going, so when her legs hit the mattress she fell down on her back. This appeared to suit Andrea fine, since the girl crawled right on top of her, reaching down between their bodies to unbutton her own pants and then to pull the zipper down.

Miranda, staring up at the whirling ceiling, heard the zipper's metallic rasp and thought vaguely that she should say or do something to slow this down or stop it. This was wrong--and moreover it wasn't fair, it was like waving a tumbler full of whiskey under the nose of somebody on the wagon--and even if Miranda wanted it, craved it more than air, she had to stop it--

But instead she found herself grabbing Andrea's pants, helping Andrea to fumble them, and then her underwear, down her thighs while Andrea leaned forward and kissed her again with that gorgeous mouth. And then again, and again, until Miranda couldn't see anything anymore. She couldn't stop squirming, and she couldn't muffle the tiny little cries coming out of her throat. But each cry made Andrea shudder and gasp, and suddenly it didn't seem important to muffle them at all.

After one cry too many, Andrea groaned roughly (oh, that groan, Miranda had dreamed of that groan), and ground her hips down, enough to let Miranda feel, just a little, her heat. That touch, Andrea's lips against hers, an entirely new kind of kiss, made Miranda arch her head back and cry out. Warm and soft, and she desperately needed another touch down there, needed fingers or a tongue or, well, anything, and this would work as well as anything else. She was sopping wet and throbbing and empty and if she didn't get something else between her legs soon, she was going to die.

But there wasn't enough room. It was the worst deprivation she'd ever felt, worse than when she'd ever been hungry or lonely, just this need for a touch, and they weren't-- But just when Miranda was about to start begging, Andrea whined, said, "Fuck" again, and pulled away just enough to kick off one of her loafers. Then she shoved her pants down farther until she could wriggle one leg out--Miranda didn't let go, couldn't bear to let go of her waist--and then she crashed back down, spreading her legs as wide as Miranda's and grinding down again.

Hot. And wet. Part of Miranda's brain was looking for something between her partner's legs that wasn't there, but most of it was busy with winding a leg around Andrea's waist and canting her hips upward so they could rub together frantically. And oh sweet God yes, it was good, and Miranda couldn't stop moving. Her shirt was sticking to her with sweat and it felt terrible, she wanted naked skin, but not as much as she wanted more of this--she arched her hips up, met Andrea, cried out, "Ah!"--no, no, she couldn't bear to stop or slow this down, not now--

Andrea moaned, "Ah, oh God," before she bent down and kissed Miranda again. She thrust her tongue inside in time with their rhythm, until Miranda felt that she was being fucked in her cunt and her mouth and everywhere all at once. Exactly what she'd needed, and it still wasn't enough. Sobbing, she flailed until she grabbed the back of Andrea's head with one hand and her smooth, bare ass with the other, urging her to go faster.

She did. Faster and faster, breaking away from Miranda's mouth and gasping, "oh," and "oh," every time she ground down. And it was as new to her as it was to Miranda, the way another pussy felt against her own, hot and wet and slick and soft.

And that--seeing, knowing that Andrea was feeling the same thing she was, that they were doing this together--sent Miranda over the edge one more time.

She didn't want to. She wanted this to last, to keep going on and on and on, but she couldn't wait, she couldn't stop moving or even slow down. And then she was tossing her head back against the duvet, holding completely still except for the tiny, helpless jerking of her hips as she convulsed again, too breathless to cry out.

Oh. It was different this time. This time she felt it everywhere, not just between her legs. She felt it all the way up behind her eyelids, where she saw spots. Her toes curled until they cramped, and when she finally got some air back in her lungs, she moaned as loudly as she ever had in her life.

When she could, she opened her eyes, saw Andrea staring down at her, and realized that Andrea had just watched her come. Violently. For the second time. Too stunned to be humiliated, she got her turn when Andrea's mouth fell open again; Andrea's eyes squeezed shut and she gasped, "Fuck, oh--oh fuck!" while she thrust against Miranda in helpless release.

Miranda's hips bucked up, and now she was so sensitive that Andrea's final, desperate movements hurt her, but when she cried out one last time it wasn't in pain.

Then Andrea folded forward, catching herself on her elbows, her forehead resting on Miranda's chest, her soft brown hair tickling Miranda's chin and mouth. "Oh," she whimpered.

And that was that. It was over. It couldn't have been more than ten minutes since Andrea had barged through the door. Probably less.

Miranda was weak and trembling with satisfaction. Her whole body ached with it. She felt utterly sated. She could not possibly have asked for more.

She had just made the worst mistake of her life.

 


 

Andy panted against Miranda's shoulder, her lips brushing the silk blend of her blouse. She was shaking all over, even as her eyelids were getting heavy. But she couldn't get heavy. She had to get off Miranda, whose breathing was slowing down, and who was starting to tense up beneath her.

Andy whimpered a little and clutched her. She didn't want to move. Moving would mean that she'd have to face what she'd done. What they'd done together. If she could just stay still and keep her face hidden from Miranda's eyes, then she could pretend for a nanosecond longer that everything was okay. She could keep smelling the side of Miranda's neck, and feeling Miranda's body pressing against her own, and remember that yeah, Miranda had screamed. Andy had made her scream. Andy had.

What the hell had just overcome her? She'd never done anything like that before. She'd never even felt anything like that before. It was just that Miranda had been standing right there, flushed and furious, and when Andy had smelled her and realized what she'd been doing…fuck, if she thought about that, she was going to start all over again, because she hadn't even gotten Miranda's clothes off. Although her own pants were dangling from one ankle and she must look completely ridiculous.

Shaking, Andy tried to sort through her thoughts, her feelings, tried to figure out what was going on. She couldn't, not now. It was all getting mixed up, muddled. She knew that what had just happened was huge and that she'd changed something big--something in herself--forever. And after all that, Miranda, who had wailed and writhed and grabbed her, was going to mock the hell out of her, or say something that would absolutely eviscerate her, or…

But Miranda didn't say anything. She just pushed at Andy's shoulders, and Andy managed to roll on her side and stare at Miranda's profile while Miranda slowly, laboriously sat up. She didn't look at Andy at all. She'd relaxed after her orgasm (her second orgasm, Miranda had orgasms) for all of five seconds, but now she was doing her best to pretend Andy wasn't here at all--like Andy hadn't completely lost her mind and jumped her, and would do it again if given half a chance.

Andy squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip. She didn't quite feel like herself. Maybe that was good. She could already tell that Miranda was about to break her heart, and maybe it would be good to be somebody else for just a few more minutes.

Miranda folded her hands into her lap. One of them, no doubt, still smelled like her own come. One of Andy's did too, now. They practically matched. Andy would have laughed hysterically if she weren't so mortally afraid that she and Miranda now stood on opposite sides of the world.

But Miranda wasn't saying anything. She wasn't looking at Andy and she wasn't saying anything.

Andy managed to sit up. She dragged herself to the edge of the bed, and then slipped her naked leg first into her underwear, and then into her trouser leg. Then she pulled all of it up around her hips and prayed that Miranda wouldn't turn around in time to see her zip, because her hands were shaking worse than ever.


Her key card was lying on the carpet. It had fallen out of her pocket. She bent down and retrieved it, turned to say something, anything to Miranda, and came up completely dry.

She licked her lips. "So, um," she whispered.

"Go," Miranda said.

She didn't look at Andy. And even though Andy stared at her like an idiot for at least a full minute, she didn't repeat herself.

"Miranda," Andy tried. It came out sounding kind of weird. A little choked, maybe.

Miranda closed her eyes and shook her head. No.

Oh. Well. Andy'd been ready for heartbreak, hadn't she? But not ready enough. She should have been ready all along, she should have been ready from the first moment she saw Miranda across her desk, because Miranda broke hearts, that's just what she did, and now Andy had lost--

"I'll," Andy started, and had to stop and swallow. "I'll, um. I'll be ready to go at ten-thirty. Okay?"

Miranda did not reply, and Andy weaved her way towards the door, wishing yet again, within the span of twenty-four hours, that she had the luxury of being drunk. Her room didn't even have a mini-bar.

At least she wasn't hungry anymore. She'd have gagged on anything solid.

Outside, the desert air had cooled so much that Andy hugged herself. She looked across the parking lot and saw, in the far distance, huge dark clouds rapidly rolling in. They flashed with electricity, and from her vantage point, Andy saw a bolt of lightning fly down and strike the ground with what looked like rage. It lit up the whole sky, and for a moment Andy saw the canyon walls in sharp relief, as if the lightning itself had just cracked the earth apart. And then another, closer by. Thunder sounded when the air opened wide and then clapped shut again.

For a crazy moment, Andy wondered how long it would take if she walked forward to meet the storm, and if it hurt a lot to be struck by lightning. She was pretty sure she could manage it, because it would be in keeping with the rest of her luck.

But she couldn't do that. Lily would never forgive her, for one thing. Oh, God. Andy covered her face with her hands just in time to muffle a genuine, if tiny, shriek. Lily would probably never forgive her for most of what had happened in the past fifteen minutes. But who else could Andy even tell? Could she tell anybody? Ever?

She couldn't tell anybody for tonight, that was for damn sure. She was pretty sure she'd lost her voice completely. All that was left to do was go back to her room and…fuck if she knew, stare at the walls or break the cheap lamp or whatever.

It'd be over soon, she told herself as she watched the lightning flash again. They were going to Amarillo tomorrow. They were going to fly back home. It would be over, and they could even pretend it had never happened. Should be easy; Andy doubted they'd ever even see each other again.

The thunder sounded again, closer this time, and the smell of rain filled the air. It could only be minutes away, if that. Andy clutched her key-card until the edges dug into her palm. Then she retreated to her room before the world turned to mud.

Chapter Text

It was almost five o'clock and Beverly had been sitting on the porch for twenty minutes when she saw them making their way down the road.

It was good to sit on the porch. It had taken the best part of the afternoon, but the sun had come out and was baking everything dry again, and Beverly was glad of it. Water had eaten up most of the day. And while it would be foolish not to welcome a rain, it had turned the garden into soggy nothing and Loysius would have a time trying to get the trailer out of the mud. It had taken them all by surprise: the weather forecasts had been good. Beverly wondered how many had been caught out by the downpour.

It'd made for a dull morning. Duller than usual, that was. She'd spent most of it in the kitchen, finishing up the persimmon preserves. Then she'd worked on shelling the snap beans--they looked good, better than she'd seen at Kenley's stand by the road--but her arthritis had started acting up. There wasn't much else to do, then, but sit. Eventually the TV had become an aggravation, and she was happy to see sunlight when the rain ceased.

So she sat on the front porch of the farmhouse and fanned herself. The air out here tore across your skin. She'd been supple in her youth, but even being young, and even living in Dallas with Clayton and staying indoors all the time, hadn't stopped a Texas desert wind. Beverly touched her cheek, weathered and crisp, and felt the landscape in her face. Tracks and trails and dust.

She'd heard the strangers coming a few minutes ago. The sound of a rattling old car in its death throes was familiar, and Beverly knew that she'd more than likely have somebody on her hands in a few minutes, what with the nearest filling station being twenty miles farther up the road. Sure enough, soon she saw a light blue pickup heading slowly, and none too surely, down the deserted highway, with nothing else around for miles but her house.

"Loysius," she called. "You come on over here."

A few moments later, Loysius's tall, lean form shuffled around the side of the farmhouse. Mud caked his boots and the cuffs of his overalls. His red beard was patchy. "Yes, Mrs. Blakeney," he said, blinking his rheumy eyes.

"See that?" she asked, tilting her head towards the truck.

"Yes, ma'am. Don't recognize it."

"Me neither.” When she'd heard the rattling, and before she'd gotten a good luck at the truck, she'd wondered if it might be Bill--he drove a blue Ford and she'd warned him often enough. "You got Thomas with you?"

"Yes, ma'am. Him and Hank both, out in the field. Want me to get the shotgun?"

Beverly leaned forward and squinted. The truck was nearing the turn to her driveway. She could see two people inside. "Not yet.”

Then, when the truck, as she had expected, made the turn and began to approach the house, she sat back. "No. It's two women."

"Oh," said Loysius, and for him the matter was settled; Beverly knew that the idea of raising a gun or hand to a woman was as strange to him as the book he'd been named for. She knew the same was not true of Thomas. She wasn't sure about Hank. "I'll go wash my hands and face, then."

"Use the kitchen sink," she said. "But wipe your feet."

"Yes, Mrs. Blakeney. I'll come back up to the front door," he said, and lumbered back around the side of the farmhouse.

As the truck got near to the porch, its wheels heavy with mud, Beverly rose to her feet. She could begin to see the passengers better: one woman at the wheel with dark hair and a cowboy hat, and another with a scarf around her head. Both wore sunglasses. The truck, a Chevrolet, came to a shuddering halt.

Beverly waited.

The driver door opened, and the dark-haired woman--a girl, couldn't have been more than twenty-five--stepped out, gingerly making her way around mud puddles. The other woman stayed inside the truck.

"Um. Hi," the girl called, waving at Beverly but approaching no closer. "Sorry to bother you."

Her accent wasn't from the Panhandle. It wasn't Texan at all. "Trouble with your truck?" Beverly asked. “I saw you coming down the road. Don't worry, we'll help you out.”

The girl smiled at her, a beautiful smile wide with relief.

"My hired man'll take a look,” Beverly added. “Need be, he can drive you into town."

"Town? Is that, uh…" The girl wrinkled her brow. "Back in Hereford, you mean?"

"You passed through there?”

The girl nodded.

"Where you going? Oh, come on in.” She descended the steps with a faint grunt, and beckoned the girl forward. "Her too. I guess that's your momma in the truck."

"My," the girl said. She ran her hand through her hair, glanced back, and then gave Beverly another, more strained smile. "My aunt, actually. We were trying to get to Lubbock. We need to catch a plane."

"Coming south from Hereford?" Beverly asked in surprise. "Why'n't you fly out of Amarillo?"

"We were going to, but, well, the weather," the girl said. She clasped her hands in front of her so hard she was almost wringing them. "It started last night, and just didn't let up, I think it's still storming back there, and M--my aunt didn't want to sit around waiting. They said conditions were clearer down south, and so, you know, we left."

Beverly looked again at the woman in the cab, who was watching the girl very intently. "Oh," she said.

"Sorry to be a bother," the girl said. "It's just, the oil light came on a couple miles ago and the truck started doing this really weird shudder-y, lurch-y kind of thing."

"No bother," Beverly said kindly. "I guess you had to drive through the storms in it."

The girl nodded.

"Loysius'll take a look. He knows old trucks.” It looked to be from the 1970s. Beverly sighed to think this was old. "Anyway, y'all come in. It's too hot to be outside. She'll cook in that thing.” It was unseasonably warm. Usually they only got to the mid-seventies in October, but today had to be somewhere in the eighties. And muggy to boot.

Something flashed across the girl's face, something hard and angry-looking. Then she took a deep breath and smiled again. "Thanks so much," she said, and trotted back to the truck, nimbly avoiding the mud.

Beverly went inside and quickly straightened up the coffee table, where the magazines were in a disordered pile. She never had visitors, but that was no excuse to become a sloven. She'd just put Ladies' Home Journal neatly on top when she heard their feet on the wooden boards of the porch.

She went back out and got a good luck at them this time: the girl even prettier than she'd thought, too pretty for her own good, and an older woman with white hair and a face like a hawk. She'd taken off her scarf and sunglasses.

"Hi," the girl repeated, taking off her hat and smoothing down her hair. "Thanks for your help. We can't even get phone service out here."

"Well, you're welcome," Beverly said. "My name's Beverly Blakeney."

"Tracy Michaels," said the girl.

"Claire Grayson," said Miranda Priestly.


"All right," said Beverly, who watched the news. She held the door open and nodded for them to go inside. "You're welcome to come in.”

They carefully wiped their feet, and Beverly took the opportunity to size them up while they were looking down at the welcome mat. Tracy's clothes were unremarkable, just the sort of thing a good girl her age ought to wear, but Miranda Priestly was wearing expensive things--those flats looked to be Italian leather, the kind Beverly had worn in Dallas when it had mattered.

Well, she was in charge of a fashion magazine, or used to be. Beverly was a bit disappointed, in fact, that she wasn't just a little more glamorous, but there was only so much you could expect of someone on a day like this.

As she waved them past her, into the house, Beverly considered the truck. She didn't think the news had said anything about a truck, certainly not a truck like that. Nor a girl. Maybe Beverly was wrong. But she looked again at Mrs. Priestly's face and saw what she'd seen on her TV a few days ago: not just her features, but her face, proud and cold and unhappy. No two women could have that face.

"You can hang that hat right here, honey," she said to Tracy, "and set your purses right here on the sofa.”

Tracy hung her hat; Mrs. Priestly set the purses. Beverly saw the Versace logo on one of them.

"Now where you two from?” She smiled at Tracy. "You got a Midwestern accent."

"I'm from Ohio," Tracy said, sounding surprised and pleased. Her smile was still on, but her shoulders were stiff. Mrs. Priestly's whole body seemed rigid as her gaze wandered around the living room. "Did you ever live in the Midwest?"

"No," Beverly said. "But I knew a girl from Kentucky.” Her stomach tightened as she realized she'd opened the way, however narrow, for talk about Ilene. She added quickly, "So where you coming from? Cleveland or somewhere thereabouts?"

"Oh no," Tracy said. "I'm from Cincinnati."

"My goodness. Cincinnati. Are you flying back there?"

"Maybe," Tracy said. "I'm thinking about it. But Claire's going to New York."

"You're what?" Mrs. Priestly asked, looking at Tracy with wide eyes. Tracy did not look back. "You never said anything about that."

"Well, I haven't decided," Tracy said. She smiled at Beverly. "But I'm between jobs, so you know, it might be time for a family visit."

"That sounds real good," Beverly said, glancing at Mrs. Priestly, who, for just a moment or two, looked like she'd been hit. But then she closed it all up, like somebody shutting a cabinet, so fast that Beverly wondered if she'd been imagining things. Uneasy now, she began to realize that there was quite a lot going on that wasn't in the news. "Y'all have a seat."

"Beverly," Mrs. Priestly said.

Beverly looked at her, appalled. Well, she was New York, where nobody had heard of manners.

"Is there a place somewhere nearby where we can get a tow, or perhaps a mechanic?" Mrs. Priestly asked.

"I already told you," Tracy said, glancing over but not meeting Mrs. Priestly's eyes. "She said someone here would take a look. If that's still okay," she added, looking back at Beverly, anxious and not at all like Ilene, who'd had eyes like a cat's, long ago.

Just then, Loysius knocked at the front door, and they all turned. Beverly saw Mrs. Priestly raise her chin, as if affronted. Well, Loysius did present a sight: six-foot-nine, lanky as a beanpole, vague eyes, and with a stubbly beard that was still red in patches. He did tend to give people pause. But still--and he had washed his face and hands, after all, even knowing that he was going to dirty them again.

"I can see to that truck now, Mrs. Blakeney," he said. He got a good look at Tracy and blushed, rubbing his roughened fingers over his chin. "If y'all got the keys."

"Oh! Sure," Tracy said, reaching down into the pocket of her jeans. "Here, let me go out there with you."

"All right," he said agreeably, and she hurried past him, back out onto the porch.

Mrs. Priestly silently watched her go.

"I can get Thomas to help too," Loysius added to Beverly.

"No," Beverly said quietly, considering. "No, I think we'll make sure Thomas stays out back. You let him and Hank alone to keep working.”

Something in her voice had plainly alerted Miranda Priestly, who gave her a quick glance, and then craned her head to look out the front door again.

Loysius said, "Yes, ma'am," and shuffled out after Tracy.

"Loysius is good with trucks," Beverly told her. "She won't need to stay out there with him for long. Come back to the kitchen, I'll fix you something to drink."

"No," Mrs. Priestly said shortly. And then softened her voice a little when she added, "No. I'll wait here; don't let me inconvenience you."

"She'll be all right," Beverly said. "Loysius wouldn't hurt a fly. Wouldn't even know how.”

Mrs. Priestly's cheeks and neck turned pink.

"I'll pour you some ice water," Beverly said.

The water out here didn't taste right, especially not after a hard rain, but heat was heat, even in October. Mrs. Priestly sat at Beverly's kitchen table and sipped from her glass, the ice clinking and crackling. She didn't look around a lot, but Beverly could see that her ears were primed to pick up any noise from outside.

While she wouldn't call herself outgoing, Beverly generally liked people. Most folks she'd be talking to, putting them at ease while their problem was tended to. But she could already tell that Miranda Priestly didn't hold with idle talk, and she looked as sweet as a rattler. Beverly wasn't sure she liked her. She'd be a hard woman to like, and harder to please.

And yet it felt strained and unnatural to say nothing. She hunted for conversation, when suddenly Mrs. Priestly said, "Excuse me. I'm just going to go check on--"

She stopped and her eyes went wide. She couldn't remember the girl's name. Not the girl's fake name, anyhow.

"Your niece?" Beverly said graciously. "Tracy seems like a sweet girl."

"My--" Mrs. Priestly went pink again, and cleared her throat. "Yes, I suppose she does. Excuse me," she repeated, got up, and left the room.

Shaking her head, Beverly set about making coffee. It had just started to drip when Mrs. Priestly returned, still looking jumpy in a way Beverly had never seen anybody look jumpy before. So calm everywhere, except for her eyes.

"What'd she say?" Beverly asked, opening the fridge.

"I didn't speak to her," Mrs. Priestly said, turning to gaze out the kitchen window towards the backyard, and towards the field beyond that where Hank and Thomas continued to work. Beverly briefly felt embarrassed that the glass was so spotted and dusty. "I just looked. They're still poking around under the hood."

Beverly tugged plastic bag full of snap beans from the crisper. "She know anything about cars?"

"That depends on your criteria," Mrs. Priestly said.

Beverly set the plastic bag on the table, and then headed for the counter where she picked up yesterday's newspaper and the big bowl. "Since you're here, I wonder if you won't mind helping me with something," she said, opening the newspaper and laying it flat on the table before placing the bowl on top of it. "It's my arthritis, you see."

She was pretty sure that nobody she knew ever had their peas shelled by a world famous fashion editor. It was a sight to behold; Mrs. Priestly, obviously distracted, shelled the peas at a rate that Beverly's pained, swollen joints could envy. It was like the women workers in World War II, lined up in factories assembling bombs or tanks or whatever. Beverly had never done that, but she remembered reading about it and hearing it on the radio.

Every once in a while, though, Mrs. Priestly would pause and glance towards the kitchen door, listening again. Beverly wondered if she was catching anything. Her own hearing had been worsening over the years.

Beverly wondered why Mrs. Priestly had brought Tracy with her into exile, or whatever this was. She could obviously do for herself, but she probably wasn't used to it. Rich and famous people had their entourages.

Except that she didn't seem to treat Tracy as anybody useful, either. And evidently she wasn't the type to relish company. But…all the same, she was anxious about the girl for one reason or another, wanted to make sure she was safe with Loysius. Just self-interested concern for a traveling companion?

Hard to like, harder to please, and harder still to understand, Beverly decided.

The coffee was done and the beans were almost shelled when the front door banged open and shut. Mrs. Priestly quickly turned her head halfway towards it.

"Mrs. Blakeney?" Tracy called timidly from the living room. "Uh, Claire?"

"We're in here, honey," Beverly said. "Come and have some coffee.” She took three mugs out of the cabinet.

When she turned around, Tracy was hovering in the door. She looked at the back of Mrs. Priestly's head while Mrs. Priestly continued to look resolutely out at the backyard. "Um, hey," Tracy said. "Mister…uh--"

"Just Loysius'll do."

"He said that he could change the oil, but that he'd have to drive down to Dimmitt to get a new filter.” She waved her hand. "Because the truck's so old, he said it's a really specific…something.”

Didn't know much about cars, then. "Oh, yes?" Beverly said.

"Yeah. I can go with him. He said it'll only take--"

"I'll go," Mrs. Priestly said sharply. "It's my truck. You wait here."

"Y'all can both stay here," Beverly said. "He'll get the right thing.” She looked at the clock. "You'll have supper here, of course."

"That's not necessary," Mrs. Priestly said, at the same moment Tracy said, "Thank you so much.”

They finally glared at each other, but not for long. Mrs. Priestly turned away first.

"Coffee?" Beverly offered.

They took the coffee back into the living room. Tracy, as Beverly would have expected, was a much livelier conversationalist, and took an active interest in her surroundings, asking questions about the photographs, the china cabinet, everything, in a way that made Beverly feel like she was being interviewed for something.

"This is my late husband," she said after one such question. She picked up the photograph from the side table and passed it to Tracy, who blinked down at it politely. "Clayton."

"Do you have any kids?" Tracy asked, giving the photo back.

"No, honey." Beverly declined to elaborate.

"Oh. When did he, um, pass away?"

"About eight years ago."

Tracy looked relieved that she wasn't dealing with a fresh wound. "So you and he ran this farm? For how long?"

"Oh, no," Beverly said. "Clayton never ran the farm at all. He grew up on one, we all did, but he wanted better." And he wanted me, she didn't add. "He married me out of high school and we went to Austin so he could go to college, and then Dallas so he could go to law school. Then he practiced there for nearly forty years, until he died. Started a firm," she added, surprised by a sudden sting of pride for that man. "It got big. Still is big. With his name on it and everything."

"Really?" Tracy asked.

"Yes. Blakeney and Fuller. They do a lot of work with big oil.”

"A big firm for big oil, huh?" Tracy asked with a grin.

"Big everything, honey," Beverly said. "This is Texas.”

Tracy laughed at that. From the corner of her eye, Beverly saw Mrs. Priestly turn her head away from the sound.

"But you didn't want to stay in Dallas?" Tracy asked.


Beverly had spent most of those forty years longing to leave Dallas, coming home for a few weeks at a time to look after, first her parents, then just her mother, and then with no excuse at all. But Clayton hadn't liked that much. He'd enjoyed having her with him. He'd loved her.

"No," she said. "I never was a city gal. This was my parents' home and I grew up here. I did it up real nice over the past several years while they were living, and I cleaned it up more after they died and I thought I was going to sell. But I didn't, and now here I am."

"Do you ever go back to Dallas? You know, visit old friends?"

"Not often," said Beverly, who had never. "My life is here now. You do move on."

"Do you," Mrs. Priestly said. Her voice was flat and calm.

"You do, yes," Beverly said, starting to feel a little sorry for her. She couldn't remember much about the news, but it was something to do with this woman getting fired, and that she'd lost her mind and run away. It was a few days ago and the details had faded. "You don't have much choice."

"So you're happy here?" Tracy asked. Mrs. Priestly scowled at her, and then Tracy looked embarrassed. "Sorry. I didn't mean--that was a weird--but you like it better here, that's what I mean."

"Yes. I suppose I do.” Beverly watched Tracy look around the room, plainly seeking something else to talk about. She hoped Loysius got back soon, for all their sakes.

She saw Tracy's gaze light for a brief second on the upright piano in the corner, and cringed. But it was too late. "Oh wow," Tracy said. "Does that say 'Steinway'?"

"It does," Beverly replied, feeling the old, unwelcome tug of nerves and regret. "I've had it since '68. Clayton had it brought from New York.” She smiled briefly at Mrs. Priestly. "Your neck of the woods?"

Mrs. Priestly pursed her lips. "Yes."

But before Beverly could divert into that line of questioning--the city? which part? did they still rob you blind up there?--Tracy asked, "So you play piano?"

"She's always been observant," Mrs. Priestly told Beverly, apparently before she could stop herself. Then she pursed her lips again.

Tracy's face went bright red, her mouth went tight, and she looked as if she was about to say something they would all regret.

"I haven't in a while," Beverly said quickly. Then, to her surprise, she added, "I used to give lessons."

Tracy took a deep breath that was only a little shaky, and plastered a smile on her face again. She blinked hard and Beverly saw that her eyes were glassy. But thankfully her voice was steady and clear when she asked, "In Dallas, you mean?” She was a good sport, Beverly'd give her that. "You were a music teacher?"

"More by way of a hobby," Beverly said, already wishing she'd said something else. Anything else. "I didn't have what you'd call a real job. Wives didn't, you see. Women in that class didn't work."

"No?" murmured Mrs. Priestly. She wore something very close to a sneer now. She was a nasty piece of work, and no mistake. Beverly was not impressed.

But she remembered the news again, and said, "No, indeed," deciding that it wouldn't be Christian to twist the knife. "It was different, then. I did work with charities and clubs and so on. Threw parties for Clayton's business acquaintances, that sort of thing.” She shifted in the chair to get more comfortable. "It was a different world. Hard to fit in, if you weren't born to it," she added in a moment of candor.

She chanced to look at Mrs. Priestly when she said that, and she saw a brief flash of recognition cross her sharp, hard face. Ah. So Mrs. Priestly was New Money, then. Beverly had suspected as much. Perhaps the two of them had that much in common, at least: being snubbed by Old Money. Or maybe not. Maybe it was different up in New York, where they said anybody could make it on their wits.

No. Old Money knew the difference. Old Money could always tell. Old Money would smell somebody like Miranda Priestly a mile away. Beverly had carried the same scent, and she'd run home and washed it off as soon as she could. Maybe that was it--maybe that was why Mrs. Priestly seemed to be so uncomfortable in her own skin. Maybe she felt that way all the time. No wonder she was jumpy.

"I took piano lessons when I was a kid," Tracy said, glancing back over at the Steinway, blissfully oblivious to all of it. "I used to enjoy it a lot.” She beamed at Beverly. "I bet you were a good teacher. You seem really patient."

It didn't come off as false flattery. Oh Lord, this one was a charmer. Beverly wondered how even Mrs. Priestly could stay so sour around somebody like Tracy, who could evidently pet you like a kitten if she felt like it. That was Ilene all over, only kinder, and Beverly blurted, "Well bless you, child, you have a try on the keys."

"Oh, no," Tracy said, blushing and shaking her head. "I'm sure I've forgotten everything."

"Please do," Beverly said, shocked by the urgency in her voice. Tracy looked surprised, too, and Beverly quickly added, "It's my arthritis. That piano hasn't been played in so long. I wouldn't mind hearing it."

And she didn't. But more than that, even though Tracy could only manage a simple, well-remembered child's tune, Beverly enjoyed seeing the young woman bent industriously over the keys. Her brow furrowed with concentration, and she was biting her lip to summon up a memory of what she hadn't done in a long time.

The tune soon trickled to an end, and Tracy waited a moment before turning around to give Beverly an embarrassed grin. She didn't look at Mrs. Priestly at all. Neither did Beverly, who was too busy wishing she was in another time and place for all the good it would do her. Had done her.

"That was nice," she said, hearing her voice like it was a long way off. "Real nice."

"Thanks.” But after a few moments of silence, Tracy plainly felt self-conscious, and looked away and squirmed. Beverly glanced over and saw that Mrs. Priestly was indeed watching her, like she had from the truck, her gaze unswerving and her mouth tightly pinched.

"Um," Tracy said, glancing back at the keys. "Can I, that is, would anybody like a coffee refill? It's really good coffee, Mrs. Blakeney. I'd be happy to--you know what? I'll at least get some for myself--"

Beverly Blakeney would be in her grave before she allowed a guest to do for herself, and that was a fact. (The peas were different.)  She stood up, wincing at how long it took, and how heavy she felt. Dr. Ashe had been after her to lose a few pounds. "Oh, no," she said. "You just give me your cup if you want something, honey."

Now Tracy looked horrified. "I didn't mean for you to get up."

This was on account of young people not being taught etiquette. Beverly treated her generously, since that wasn't her fault. "Happy to do it. There's plenty coffee left.” The girl still looked panicked, and Beverly realized she didn't want to be left alone with you-know-who, so she added, "It's getting on dinner time, though. I didn't know there'd be company, but I got fixings for sandwiches. I'd appreciate a hand."

Tracy jumped up like she had springs in her hindquarters. "Sure thing!"

Beverly decided to do mischief as she added, "Your aunt already shelled my peas for me, so there's not much else to do."

"She--" Tracy looked over at Mrs. Priestly, her eyes huge. If Beverly had expected Mrs. Priestly to look embarrassed, however, she was mistaken; she merely looked back at Tracy, her face as still and cold as stone.

"Right," Tracy said, and took a deep breath, turning to regard Beverly with a tight, fixed smile.

"You'll find the bread in the left cupboard, beneath where the colander's hanging. Then you have a look in the fridge and see what you like."

"Sure thing," Tracy repeated, and fled into the kitchen without a look behind her.

Beverly looked over at Miranda Priestly, who hadn't moved. "I know who you are," she said quietly.

"I know you do," Mrs. Priestly replied, just the same.

"Well, I won't tell anybody," Beverly said, and went to the kitchen without waiting for a reply.

Tracy had found the container of chicken salad, as well as a package of sliced turkey, and she was busy pulling a head of lettuce from the crisper. Beverly took out the plates and utensils, pleased by Tracy's quick, efficient movements, but noticing that the girl still appeared upset.

"What have y'all been up to in Texas?" she asked, not expecting the truth, but deciding that one change of subject was good as another.

"O-oh," Tracy said, fumbling the jar of Hellman's. She gave Beverly a quick, embarrassed look. "Not much. Just driving west. We stopped at Palo Duro last night."

Beverly clucked. "And in the rain, too."

"Yeah. I was looking forward to seeing it.” Tracy shook her head, and then blew a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. Her bangs were too long. "Didn't happen."

"Next time you get down here, then."

"Sure.” Tracy smiled tightly again. "I expect that'll be a while."

"Well, you never know. How long have you been traveling?” Beverly asked, trying to think back to when she'd actually seen the newscast. Three days ago? Four? Something like that?

"Just a few days," Tracy said, sounding evasive. "We've been driving in pretty long stretches."

It'd be long indeed, coming from New York. Especially in a truck like that. Good Lord, two women traveling across the country in long stretches for days on end in a rattling old Chevy--they'd be fighting like cats in a sack. No wonder their hackles were so ready to go up.

Still…maybe it didn't have to be vicious, Beverly thought suddenly. True, nobody could hurt each other like women could hurt each other, because most men couldn't see that far, and in any case--but sometimes, Beverly thought it could be tender, too…

Then Mrs. Priestly entered the kitchen, and all thoughts of tenderness evaporated, because tenderness and this woman couldn't be in the same room together. Her presence was like a cold wind. Beverly shivered and then got annoyed with herself.

They all sat down to sandwiches at the old Formica table, because Beverly knew the fuss of moving to the nice dining room would make things even more uncomfortable.

“Should I be the one to say the blessing?” she asked.

Mrs. Priestly and Tracy’s expressions both said that yes, she’d better be. Afterward, they both concentrated on their food like it was the first they'd seen in days.

Beverly looked again at Mrs. Priestly, and finally concluded that it had been a long time since she had seen somebody so frightened. Yes, that was it, that's what had her so on edge. Not anger or conceit: fear. But of what?

Well, of exposure, surely. Beverly had said she wouldn't tattle, but she supposed Mrs. Priestly didn't believe her, what with coming from that slick New York world where somebody's word didn't mean anything unless it was written down in the presence of a lawyer. And the media these days hounded people, sometimes to death, like that poor Princess Diana. Beverly couldn't blame Mrs. Priestly for not wanting that, or for being scared of it.

Yes, that had to be it. She didn't think much else could scare a woman like that. Beverly wanted to reassure her yet again that she had nothing to worry about, but she didn't want to do it in front of Tracy. And besides, she doubted it'd help much.

Loysius returned while they were in the middle of eating but didn't announce his presence, so that by the time the plates were put away, Beverly looked out the living room window and saw his long, overall-clad legs poking out from underneath the truck.

"Loysius?" she called as she pushed open the front door and crossed the porch, heading for the yard. "How you doing out here?"

He rolled out from beneath the truck and blinked at her, his face spattered with dark oil. "Be done soon, Mrs. Blakeney," he said. As she approached, Beverly glanced up at the sky, where sunset was in full bloom. "I can get 'em on the road by dark. Where they going?"

"Lubbock," Beverly said. "There won't be a need of them spending the night, then."

"No ma'am, unless you want 'em to."

Beverly did not. "How much for the spare part?"

"It don't need much. Just a new oil filter. Mr. Keane said he wouldn't charge nothing 'cause it's you, and you did for his wife when she was poorly on the fourth of July."

"All right then," Beverly said. She tried not to be ungracious, or feel as if the favor Benson Keane owed her had been wasted on Miranda Priestly, who could probably afford to buy a thousand oil filters. That wasn't how the Lord wanted you to be, and she was obliged to be thankful that Benson was good enough to repay his debts one way or the other. "You do it as fast as you can, but do a good job."

"Yes, ma'am," said Loysius, who needed no telling.

"And we finished off the chicken salad, but I've set aside the best part of the snap peas for you when you're done, and there's still the leftover ham."

"Thank you, ma'am," he said.

"Loysius, these two women--do you recognize 'em?"

"No, ma'am. But the girl said they wasn't local.” Loysius rolled back under the truck. "I'm almost done."

"All right," Beverly said, and returned to the house. Mrs. Priestly and Tracy were sitting in the living room, not speaking, not looking at each other. Mrs. Priestly's lips were pursed again. A muscle was going at the corner of Tracy's left eye.

Beverly wanted to urge Tracy to go to Cincinnati, by all means, but she didn't. Instead she said, "Loysius'll be done soon. He said y'all can be on the road by nightfall.” Decency forced her to add, "Though you might not want to drive at night. You're welcome to stay."

Mrs. Priestly cleared her throat and said, "No, thank you.” Beverly was not surprised. She expected silence to fall again, but then Mrs. Priestly added, "'Loysius' is an unusual name."

Beverly blinked. Tracy looked at Mrs. Priestly with big eyes, apparently as surprised as Beverly was that this cold woman might take an interest in somebody else. "I guess so," Beverly said. "Short for Aloysius, of course."

"Of course.”

"His momma read too much and wasn't interested in getting married," Beverly said. "Nor in being a mother either. But that was all a long time ago."

"Read too much?" Tracy asked, looking eager to dwell on something else again, like with the piano. "What book is his name from? I was an English major," she added with a lopsided smile.

"Then shouldn't you know already?" Mrs. Priestly asked with deceptive mildness.

Tracy inhaled through her nose, but replied evenly, "Yeah, I probably should.” She didn't so much as glance at Mrs. Priestly, who almost looked disappointed that she wasn't rising to the bait. Maybe more than disappointed. "But I don't."

"Honey, I don't remember," Beverly said. "I knew once. I remember it was by a man, but he had a woman's name. Well, it's a woman's name these days, anyway."

"He had a…you mean Evelyn Waugh?"

"Might be," Beverly said, grunting as she sat down. "Prissy could tell you. His momma. She lived down the road from me and we grew up together. We weren't much alike.”

Opposites, in fact. Prissy would have been more than happy to marry Clayton and move to the big city. But Clayton had settled on Beverly instead, and Prissy had had the preacher's baby, and Loysius's momma and daddy had both left town in their separate ways soon after.

"She didn't like living out here,” Beverly said. “She wanted to make it big. So she left Loysius and went on."

"What happened to her?" Tracy asked.

"I never knew. She was a high-strung gal.” Beverly had disliked and envied her by turns--disapproved of her choices, even as she longed for her selfish courage. "So she came to no good, I expect. People do, you know, when they reach too much beyond themselves."

"Well, you sound very sure of that," Mrs. Priestly said, her bored tone of voice pushing far past the boundaries of good manners. She rose to her feet. "Excuse me. I need to make a phone call.” Then she disappeared out the front door. Beverly managed not to grit her teeth as she watched her go.

When Mrs. Priestly left, Tracy exhaled deeply, and then looked embarrassed when she realized it had been audible. She gave Beverly a sheepish look; Beverly smiled; and then they chuckled together.

"Oh my God," Tracy mumbled as she tilted her head back and stared up at the ceiling. "Thank you so much for all this. Really."

"Nights when Clayton looked like you do, he'd want a drink," Beverly said. "But I don't keep spirits anymore."

"Eh, I've got to drive, anyway," Tracy said, waving her hand as she looked back up. "Or read the map. One or the other.” She snorted.

"You okay, honey?" Beverly asked before she could stop herself. Then she winced, realizing she'd just stepped into territory that was none of her business. Especially depending on how Tracy chose to answer it.

"Yeah, I'm, oh yeah," Tracy said. She bit her lip and looked away. "I just, it's just…" She sighed. "I just wish…well, she's…"  She rubbed a hand over her forehead. Then she snorted again. "She's a lot of things."

"Aren't we all.”

"I guess." Tracy gave Beverly a hesitant look. "So, you…um…that is, I think you--never mind."

"I know who she is," Beverly said. "But I won't tell."

Tracy swallowed. "Yeah. I thought maybe you did. Uh--"

"No idea who you are," Beverly said. "Nor about that truck."

Tracy laughed, visibly relieved. "It used to be a Porsche."

"Oh, I'd like to have seen that," Beverly said. "We don't get those around here. That's a shame."

"In more ways than one," Tracy muttered.

"But she's going back to New York now?"

"That's the plan.” Tracy looked towards the window restlessly. Night was falling fast. "I've given up trying to figure out what she's thinking, though. She's calling her kids now," she added. "She's probably telling them that she's heading back home."

"And you're going to see your family."

Tracy swallowed again. Her cheeks went a little red. "Maybe. I don't really know. I'll decide when we get to the airport, I guess."

"I take it," Beverly said delicately, "that she is not your aunt."

"No.” Tracy cleared her throat. "She's--uh, she was my boss. I just wanted to, I thought I could…"  Suddenly she scowled, and hit her knee with her own fist. "Oh my God, coming out here with her was the stupidest thing I've ever done. I didn't mean for it to…" She cut herself off.

After a few moments, Beverly said awkwardly, "Well, we all do things we regret. But you've got plenty of time to set it right again, at your age.”

And for a moment, Beverly was seized with the urge to reach out and grab Tracy's arm, shake her, and tell her that it was the most precious gift of all, this time. These years that Tracy still had, which meant that not all of her regrets had to be forever, that there was plenty of damage and joy yet to come--these were the greatest gift in the world. Oh, if Beverly had those years, if she was young and watching Prissy laughing on the schoolbus again--if she was letting Clayton drive her home after the dance and he was about to propose--if, foolish and all unknowing, she was about to open her door and clap eyes on Ilene for the very first time--

"Are you all right?" Tracy asked. Beverly realized she was staring out into space. "You look a little--"

"I'm fine, honey," Beverly lied. She shook her head and sighed. "You just remember what I've said. You've got time, and time, and time, Lord willing."

"Yeah," Tracy said, looking towards the front door and plainly not hearing a word. She rubbed the back of her neck with her hand, and sighed, and in that moment she looked so very, very like Ilene--different eyes and taller, but nevertheless--

"So you came with her out of kindness?" Beverly blurted.

Tracy turned around and blinked, and Beverly cursed herself. "What?"

"Nothing," Beverly said, almost whispering. "I just was thinking…did you have no reason to come with her--but kindness?"

Tracy turned very red. "I don't know. I guess not. I don't know.” She looked down at her lap. "I don't feel very kind. Just stupid.” She chuckled bitterly. "We've been driving all day, but we haven't been talking at all."

"She doesn't seem talkative," Beverly pointed out.

"This is different," Tracy said quietly. "I don't want to go into…I don't even know how to look at her. I'm a complete idiot, I'm--never mind.” She took a deep, shaking breath. "I just wanted to help."

"Then that's kindness, isn't it?" Beverly pleaded  "That's charity. You done a good thing, even if it didn't go right. That counts for something.” It counted for more than those who'd never tried.

"I think you're the kind one," Tracy said. Then the wood on the floor of the front porch creaked loudly enough to be audible in the living room. Tracy sat bolt upright and listened as intently as a hound dog, suddenly as nervous as Mrs. Priestly had been all evening. "Neither of us is all that great, seriously."

Beverly looked down at her own hands, knotty and mottled with liver spots. If it wasn't for Mrs. Priestly, she really couldn't have shelled those peas today. "You're out here when you don't have to be. Something drives you to that.”

"I guess," Tracy whispered. Beverly looked up and saw that she was red in the face again, and looked acutely miserable to boot. Biting her lip, Beverly wished that she hadn't said anything at all.

Just then, Loysius knocked at the front door, with Mrs. Priestly right behind him. She hadn't talked to her children for very long. But Beverly and Tracy both turned to the distraction with relief.

"Changed the oil and the filter," he said. "Y'all are ready to go now."

"Oh, thank you," Tracy said. "Thank you so much.”

Loysius's face went redder than hers.

Mrs. Priestly cleared her throat. "How much do I owe you?"

"Nothing," Loysius said. "Mr. Keane give me the part for free."

"Well, the labor, at least.”

Loysius just shook his head.

"Oh, please," Mrs. Priestly said, sounding more aggravated than grateful. "I hardly expect you to work for nothing.”

"I didn't mind doing it," Loysius said. "Don't bother none."

"But--" Mrs. Priestly turned to Beverly in appeal. Beverly could see that the idea of doing anything for anyone, or being done for, without hope of return or reward, was utterly foreign to her. She appeared honestly bewildered. Even annoyed.

She didn't know anything at all. "That's enough of that," Beverly said, hearing herself get sharp. Mrs. Priestly heard it too, and her back went straight. But Beverly was brought up enough to be ashamed of her lapse, so she added for politeness' sake, "Y'all sure you won't stay the night?"

"Positive," Mrs. Priestly said, coolly and with narrowed eyes. "Thank you so much for your assistance."

"What you going to do now?" Loysius asked Tracy, rubbing his jaw shyly.

"I'm not really sure," Tracy said, turning to Mrs. Priestly.

"We'll head to Lubbock as planned," Mrs. Priestly said, looking at Beverly for one more minute before she pushed past Tracy to pick up their purses. "We'll no doubt have to fly out in the morning. Unless you have Internet access so we can check the flight schedules tonight," she added dryly.

"No," Beverly said, trying not to sigh, eager for them to go. She couldn't put up with the woman, and she'd be torn to pieces if she looked much longer at the girl. She realized suddenly that she'd never know Tracy's real name unless it did, in fact, show up on the news. She didn't want that to happen, but she didn't want to give away the game right here either--so she'd never know.

She swallowed around the loss. "I don't know anything about computers. No need for it."

"Y'all might could go back up to Amarillo," Loysius suggested. "I heard in town the rain's cleared up there now and ain't supposed to be back."

"No, we won't do that," Mrs. Priestly said shortly.

Loysius looked rebuked. Tracy looked embarrassed. Beverly bit her lip.

Mrs. Priestly turned back to Beverly and repeated, "Thank you.”

And for a second, just one, Beverly saw something in her eyes again--something more than fear, something that was downright frantic. It vanished in a moment, but it had been there, and a part of Beverly began to understand it.

"Oh yes, thanks so much," Tracy repeated fervently, turning to Beverly with the most earnest eyes in the world. "I really didn't want to drive much longer with that oil light on, but it looked like there was absolutely nothing around for miles, and…"

"Lord, yes," Beverly said. She reached out and let herself pat Tracy's elbow. She could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times she'd touched Ilene, and it had never been more than this, because that was all that was right. So many years gone since then. "You travel safely, now."

"Don't forget your idiotic hat," Mrs. Priestly said to Tracy, who turned to stare at her with an expression of utter shock. But before she could reply, Mrs. Priestly headed out the door with nary a look backwards.

Tracy reached up to the rack and retrieved her cowboy hat with a hand that shook a little. "B-bye," she stammered to Beverly, and hurried out onto the porch into the rapidly falling darkness.

Beverly silently turned on the porch light so that it shone out and pooled in the driveway, lighting up the ground all the way to the truck.

"You make sure they get out okay, Loysius," she said, and barely waited to hear his 'yes, Mrs. Blakeney,' before she headed for the staircase. Puffing with effort, she made it up to her bedroom, where she went to the window. From the darkness, ashamed of herself, she watched them.

She saw Tracy catch up to Mrs. Priestly on the way to the truck. She saw her reach out and lay her hand on Mrs. Priestly's shoulder. But Mrs. Priestly jerked free immediately, shrugging her off, and Beverly thought, why. Tracy snatched her hand back, and her whole body recoiled.

Then, and suddenly, Mrs. Priestly turned around and stretched her hand out too, but Tracy had already turned her back. She stomped to the driver's side of the truck, where she flung open the door. Mrs. Priestly's arm fell down uselessly by her side, and Beverly thought, oh I see.

She turned from the window and sat on the edge of her mattress. She heard the halting rev of the LUV's engine, and then the squeal and scrape of gravel. Soon there was silence.

Beverly thought about Mrs. Priestly, and the way Tracy had turned away from her at the last, and said to Mrs. Priestly in her heart, Good. You're too old. You're too old, and it's too late, it isn't right and that's just the world. She thought about the silence at the dinner table and the reddened anguish on Tracy's face before she'd left for good. She thought about Prissy and Ilene, and then she hung her head and cried, cried hard, keening and glad she was alone. Her shoulders and stomach hurt by the time she'd finished.

When she was done, she reached over to the nightstand and got a tissue. The box of Kleenex sat neatly on a doily. She blew her nose, cleared her throat, and gulped it all back down.

Then Beverly got up and went downstairs, headed back out into the yard, and told Loysius to remember to lock up the shed.

Chapter Text

Miranda had small memory of the drive to Lubbock. They drove through some place called Littlefield that had a Waylon Jennings Boulevard, but other than that, there was precious little to appreciate. She tried to concentrate, to focus on something in the surrounding landscape, but it was dark and there was nothing to see. Nothing to distract her from the memory of that morning's silent agony, that isolated farmhouse, and that horrible old woman who'd seen right through Miranda and treated her like a fungus.

Most politely, of course. But she had looked at Miranda, passed judgment, and clearly found her wanting.

On any other day, Miranda would not have cared. She would not have given it a moment's thought. But today, this very morning, she had looked in her mirror and felt the exact same way about herself. So the old woman's contempt had stung. Arrows tended to do that, when they came at you from all sides.

She'd spoken to her children in the falling darkness. Yet again, she'd faked careless cheer. Yet again, she'd said nothing of coming home tomorrow. After all, wasn't it for the best that she hadn't promised them that yesterday? The weather, and then this absurd pickup's equally absurd breakdown, had prevented them from leaving Texas as soon as they'd meant to. Miranda to New York, and…Andrea to Ohio, apparently.

At the thought, Miranda's chest seized and ached so viciously that she might have been having a heart attack. But no. She wasn't that fortunate.

At least Cassidy had spoken to her tonight. Haltingly, but without apologies, trying to pretend that everything was normal and nothing bad had ever happened. Miranda couldn't exactly find the wherewithal, or the hypocrisy, to blame her.

Neither Miranda nor Andrea spoke until they hit the city limits of Lubbock at about 9:15. Then Andrea muttered, "Do you wanna find the airport now? Maybe they've got some late flights out."

It made perfect sense to suggest such a thing, because why should they spend any more time together than necessary, especially after--

"Pining that much for Ohio, are you?" Miranda snapped.

They pulled up to a red light. Andrea briefly closed her eyes and sighed, "Miranda…"

"When were you planning to mention that little decision? Before we got stranded, I mean.” To her horror, Miranda felt her face getting hot and her chest getting tight again. "When we were actually at the airport?"

"Why do you even care?" Andrea asked. Her voice rose as she added, "Don't act like you're mad about this, because if you are mad, it's not about this.”

Miranda snarled and opened her mouth--how dare Andrea presume?--but Andrea added, "Give me a break, like you give a shit, like it wouldn't be the best thing in the world for you to get as far away from me as you can for good--"

She choked, gasped, and cleared her throat. The car behind them honked because the light had turned green. Miranda couldn't speak.

"And what you said to Mrs. Blakeney, making fun of me," Andrea spat as she pushed down hard on the gas and the truck lurched forward. "'She's always been observant'--you know, it's been days since you've been able to cut me down in front of somebody like that, so I guess it must have felt great."

Miranda's face burned. Actually, it had felt pathetic: trying to get a rise out of Andrea, trying to break past the ludicrous mask of eager innocence that had so obviously enthralled the old woman. Trying--just for one, ill-conceived moment--to go back in time and find their old dynamic.

"For good," Miranda said more quietly than she'd meant to. She raised her voice just a little when she added, "You said you're going back to Ohio for good? Permanently?"

"No, I didn't," Andrea growled. "You heard what I said. Would you like that, though? It'd work for you pretty well, wouldn't it, me dropping off your radar completely? Convenient, right?"

They passed beneath a series of streetlights, and Miranda could see how brightly glazed Andrea's eyes were, how rapidly she was blinking. She was fighting off tears.

Miranda turned away and tried not to think about how the salt would taste on Andrea's cheeks. She tried not to wonder what it would be like to kiss Andrea without anger and not by accident. She tried, with all of her heart, not to think about Andrea going back to Ohio and dropping off the radar.

"Do what's best for yourself," she said softly. "For once."

After a moment of silence, Andrea said, "I will. And you don't know what's best for me."

Miranda hated it when she was right.

The sign for a Super 8 came into view, and what had seemed like hell in Claremore looked like paradise now. Before she could think better of it, Miranda said, "Pull in here."

Andrea sniffled just a little before she said, "What about the airport?"

"It's late. I'm tired. I don't give a damn about the airport," Miranda said. To her relief, Andrea made the turn into the Super 8's parking lot without further demur, no doubt shocked by Miranda's judicious use of an expletive. All in a good cause.

"Two rooms, then?" Andrea snarked as she parked the truck. She instantly looked as if she regretted the jibe, and glanced out the window as she held out her hand for the cash that Miranda wordlessly proffered.

Andrea added, still not looking over, "We're really not going to talk about this, huh?"

A strange question, coming from someone who'd been every bit as silent as Miranda all day, at least during the ride. "What do you want to say?" Miranda asked.

"Me?" Andrea turned around, her eyes wide. "Why does it just have to be me? What would you say?"

Miranda could fill a book with all the things she wanted to say to Andrea Sachs at that moment, some of them appropriately vitriolic, others…not. "I'd say 'two rooms,'" she replied instead, holding Andrea's gaze.

Andrea looked away first and got out of the truck. It occurred to Miranda that Andrea was well within her rights to tell Miranda to reserve the rooms herself for a change, to expose her identity, because after all, weren't they going home tomorrow anyway? What difference would it make? Why should Andrea keep doing all the fetching-and-carrying now?

Except that then it would emerge that Miranda Priestly had not only gone to Lubbock, Texas, but had reserved two rooms in a hotel there. Which meant she had a companion. "Who?" everyone would ask.

Andrea, of course, would have understood that already. She didn't even want to risk being on the same flight home as Miranda. Sensible, sane girl. If only that sense and sanity had made an appearance last night, before it was too late.

Instead, for almost exactly twenty-four hours, Miranda had been somebody who'd fucked Andrea Sachs. And who desperately wanted to do it again, in spite of everything else in the world. She groaned and hid her face in her hands, massaging her forehead.

The driver door opened, and Miranda glanced up to see Andrea watching her apprehensively. How long had she been lost in her own thoughts? "Are you okay?" Andrea asked.

"I think we need to rest," Miranda said. It was her turn to hold out her hand. Andrea silently put a key-card into it. They did not touch.

Ten minutes later, Miranda was safely ensconced in her motel room and feeling not at all safe. Nauseated, maybe. Because this was a disaster, all of it, it had been from the very beginning, and she should stop wanting to kiss Andrea. If she could go back one week, one single week in time, and do everything over again--

If she could behave as she knew she should, if she could just do the right thing for once, just do what was necessary to patch up her life--

Miranda shoved her hand into her purse and grabbed her phone. Before she could think better of it, before she could change her mind, she dialed the number.

After only one ring, she heard his voice in her ear, saying, "Miranda? Oh my God, Miranda, is that you?"

Miranda lowered her head and covered her eyes with her hand. It was too late to hang up now. "Hello, Stephen," she whispered.

 


 

When she was done crying, Andy washed her face and changed into her pajamas. She turned on the TV, turned it off again, and flopped back down on the bed and stared at the ceiling before sniffling some more. Totally pathetic.

Great. Just great. Crying herself to sleep: well, how else should you round off the worst day of your life? Andy had been pretty good at holding it together until tonight. Even though she'd wanted to start screaming about five minutes into their silent drive, even though she'd almost been brought low by that sweet old lady's innocent question--kindness? not hardly--she'd held it in. She'd played the game as well as Miranda.

Until fifteen minutes ago, when she'd wrecked it. We're really not going to talk about this? Evidently not. But what had Andy expected? Miranda obviously had nothing to say to her.

Or nothing she was going to say, at least. Andy had learned enough about Miranda by now to see when she was holding back. She usually didn't bother, was usually perfectly happy to let you know exactly what she thought of you, with or without words. But tonight, she'd obviously been fighting hard to keep her thoughts to herself. She hadn't wanted to give Andy a thing. And when Miranda set her mind to doing something, well, it mostly worked. Andy had no idea what she was thinking.

She supposed, in the end, it wouldn't matter. At least not to anybody but Andy. The only good thing about this whole debacle was that at least Andy had picked someone to go crazy over who was completely discreet. Nobody had to know how stupid she'd been. Miranda wouldn't be in a hurry to trumpet what they'd done. Not when she was so intensely private, and when she regretted it so thoroughly.

Andy sniffled again. Sniveled, almost.

Suddenly she was overwhelmed by the need to talk to someone. No, not just someone. Lily. Lily, who knew about the kiss already, and who would hand Andy's ass to her, make her glad that Miranda wanted to wash her off like mud because it really was for the best. Lily probably wouldn't completely hate Andy's guts for being such an idiot. That's what friends were for, right?

But on the other hand, maybe Andy should call her parents instead. It had been two days since they'd heard from her, and although they'd shown remarkable restraint in not calling her themselves, they were bound to be worried. Andy knew they'd be checking the news regularly for updates on Miranda's situation. If Andy had appeared in the story, they would have called her right away, so that was good, at least. But…yeah, they'd be worried. As a thoughtful, dutiful daughter, she should get in touch.

A thoughtful, dutiful daughter who'd slept with Miranda Priestly. Andy shuddered. No, she wouldn't tell them that anytime soon. She'd tell them she was coming home and ask for a lift from the airport, and worry about the rest of it later. She'd make…arrangements. That was what she'd gotten good at, making arrangements. It was time to start arranging herself. Call her parents. It was the suitable, responsible thing to do.

Gulping, Andy reached for the phone and called Lily.

 


 

"You're all right," Stephen pressed. "You're safe. Just tell me that."

"Safe. Yes," Miranda said, already regretting calling him so impulsively. She hadn't thought ahead, she hadn't planned what she was going to say. What was happening to her? "Yes, Stephen, I am safe."

Another lie. She had never been less safe in her life. Hadn't she just thought so?

She'd never been unfaithful before, either, not to any of her husbands. It had never seemed like an issue. Especially at her age, and the third time around. Besides, she was so devoted to her work that the possibility of stumbling over somebody else had never even occurred to her. She barely had time for one relationship, so how could she ever manage to juggle two, especially with her children in the mix?

Oh God, stumbling over Andrea. Miranda supposed that was exactly what had happened.

"Jesus," Stephen said. "Where are you?"

"Out west," Miranda replied, darkly amused at what Stephen would say if he could see her motel room. "I'm coming back to New York tom--soon."

"Good. That's great. We, uh…" Stephen paused. "We have a lot to talk about."

Oh, yes. They did, and Miranda was damned if she was going to let him call the shots on it. After all, no matter what had happened with Andrea, Stephen was the one who'd--

"Do we?” Miranda set her shoulders, suddenly glad to have a reason to feel indignant instead of guilty. "Are you sure we have to do it in person? Why don't you just send your lawyers over to me with a transcript of whatever you want to say?"

There was a long pause before Stephen said, "I should have been expecting that."

"Yes," Miranda said, remembering how it had felt to open the door of her hotel suite and find a suited, expressionless man with a briefcase standing there, handing over a thick manila envelope. And she'd been in her bathrobe. "Yes, you should have."

"Miranda, I'm sorry," he said, enraging her further. She didn't want his apologies. Not now. She didn't deserve them, and now that they were on the phone she wanted to have it out with him, wanted to fight him until she was exhausted from it. "I handled it all wrong. I suppose I just…"

"Had to wait until I was on the other side of the Atlantic," Miranda snapped, digging her free hand into the armrest of her chair and willing him to stand up for himself. He'd been confident and self-assured when they'd met. Where had that gone?

"Miranda," he said with a quiet forcefulness that she certainly hadn't heard in a long time. It stopped her in her tracks. "I am sorry.” Before she could respond, he added, "I've been thinking about calling the girls. You must have told them by now. I want them to know that I--"

No. She couldn't deal with that now. The twins could not be in this room right now. "The girls are not part of this conversation," Miranda said coldly. "This is not about them or how you're dealing with them. It's just you and me on this phone, Stephen."

"Jesus Christ, you're a lot to take," Stephen said. She could picture him rolling his shoulders, as he did when he was particularly stressed. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to talk to you? Even when I get a chance to do it in person," he added sharply. "Which is rare enough, if you'll remember.”

Miranda rolled her eyes. His offense had always been weak. He could rarely give as good as he got. Whenever Miranda had given in, it had been from either exasperation or exhaustion.

"I mean, you're not exactly communicative," Stephen added.

"Oh, I don't know," Miranda said. "You just have to know how to listen. You're not exactly good at that, if you'll remember."

"I repeat: it's hard to listen to somebody who's never here," Stephen growled. "What did you think, that I'd like coming in second? It wasn't like that at the beginning. You made more time then. Were you waiting until you had me hooked? Or did you just get bored?"

"No," Miranda said. "No, I wasn't bored.” Not precisely true, but she had loved him. Hadn't she? "And you knew from the beginning, I told you how important my work is--" She almost choked. “Was. And you told me--"

"Miranda--"

"How you admired me. A strong, professional woman," Miranda spat, wondering again why she'd called him, what she'd been hoping for. It certainly wasn't making her feel better about going home, or clarifying anything in particular. "How proud you were to have me on your arm. How long did that last? Until the first 'Mr. Priestly' remark came your way? Did you really not see that coming?"

After another long pause, she expected a counterattack. Instead, Stephen said softly, "Honey, I love you."

Miranda's jaw dropped.

"I do," Stephen persisted. "Hell, I always have."

He did? Suddenly, though he'd said them many times before, the words seemed impossible, like a fantasy. He loved her? How? Did he even know her?

"You love me," Miranda said numbly.

"Yes, I love you! Why else would I marry you?" Stephen demanded. "You know when 'Mr. Priestly' got to be too much? When you weren't here to take my mind off it. It's one thing for people to call me that--it's another to feel like it's true!"

Mr. Priestly. The name they'd taunted him with at the benefit. One of the reasons she'd dragged him away, and had missed Irv plotting with Jacqueline. Did he even know, did he even care? Did he understand that the time she'd chosen him had ended in disaster?

And it hadn't worked. She'd lost him, too. Her gamble, her choice, had failed her.

"Well," she said dully. "I'm sorry you felt that way, Stephen.” She was. As it turned out, she was very sorry indeed.

"Are you?" Stephen asked. "Really?"

"Yes," Miranda said, suddenly feeling unutterably exhausted. She closed her eyes.

"Then will you take me back?" Stephen asked, his voice quiet and very serious.

Miranda's eyes flew open. "What?"

"I mean it," Stephen said, sounding urgent. "I've been a fool. You can't deny that," he added with an awkward laugh. "I've been worried sick about you. You're all I've been thinking about."

"I am?" Miranda asked faintly, trying to remember if she'd thought about Stephen at all in the last two days.

"You are," Stephen confirmed. "Honey--won't you come home now? Can't we try to make this work again?"

"Make it work," Miranda said, shaking her head, suddenly more confused than ever. Back. He wanted to come back.

Well--she'd just been ruing the way she'd lost him. Was this why she'd called him? To start over and try to forget her own mistakes? And besides, hadn't she wanted Stephen to rethink the divorce, at first? She'd said as much to Andrea in Paris--oh, God. "Have you forgotten which one of us served the divorce papers, Stephen?"

"Of course not, but things are different now, aren't they?" Stephen asked. "The situation's changed. Substantially."

"Has it?" Miranda whispered, reminding herself that even if she wanted to tear his head off now, she had loved him once, and she had made vows, and her children adored him. He was a man her age, a successful financier. He was suitable, he matched her life, and she was trying to get back to her life. This was what she should want.

She could make herself want it. Surely. She could make herself regret that she'd thrown away her wedding ring if she only tried hard enough.

"Of course it has," Stephen replied. "You know it has. Your job, for one thing.” He paused. "I'm--I know this is going to sound ridiculous. But I'm sorry about that, Miranda. I'm sorry things happened the way they did. I've always hated that little bastard," he added. "You know that."

"Oh yes, I know," Miranda said, remembering Stephen's mortifying, drunken behavior at the benefit. Which might well have been the last straw for Irv. Was she supposed to look back on that fondly? To find it endearing in hindsight? "It was evident from the way you constantly acted like a complete child around him."

"Miranda," Stephen said. "Please hear what I'm saying. I'm sorry it happened to you."

"Are you?" Miranda asked, suddenly thinking of how big Andrea's eyes had been when she'd looked up at Miranda from the townhouse's foyer. How desperately Andrea had tried to prevent what Stephen was so sorry about right now. Of course, Miranda should really be concentrating on this conversation--or at the very least, she could remember how absurdly immature, infuriating, and above all, how inappropriate Andrea was.

But things were crystallizing in her mind, against her will. This wasn't right. Successful, suitable financier or not, Stephen couldn't stand up for himself. He couldn't read her mind. Truth to tell, he couldn't read a map, either. He'd never asked her stupid questions about birds or car crashes, and he'd never thrown all caution to the wind for her and expected nothing in return. He wasn't…

"Yes. Yes, but," Stephen said hesitantly, "maybe it doesn't have to be all bad."

A beat. Then Miranda said, "I beg your pardon?"

"No, don't get me wrong," Stephen said hastily. "I really am sorry, but…maybe things happen for a reason, you know?"

"A reason?" Miranda repeated, her eyes widening. "What?"

"Just listen," Stephen said. "Okay? I always thought we were meant to be, from the minute I met you. I've said so. You know that."

"A reason?"

"Miranda," Stephen said, trying to sound firm and resolved, "I want you back. I want to be with you. I want to be your husband. This, losing your job, doesn't have to be a catastrophe. You know--when you get lemons, make lemonade, and all that guff. Right?"

Miranda hated that saying. Hated it. Whenever she'd found herself in the possession of such metaphorical lemons, she'd chucked them right back at the head of whoever'd given them to her.

"Maybe it doesn't have to be the end of the world," Stephen finished. "Maybe it can be good for our relationship. It can be good for us."

Miranda let the silence drag on, and on, and on.

"Miranda?" Stephen prodded.

"Goodbye, Stephen," she said quietly, and hung up, turning off her phone.

Then she sat in her armchair, rubbed her temples, and considered. Enough of acting on impulse. It hadn't served her well today.

She could change her mind, of course. Call him back. Take him back. Even try to forgive him. And then she could call Greg and tell him to inform the twins that she was on her way home. After that, she could call Nigel and see how matters progressed with Irv and Runway. She could even get in touch with Emily, she was sure.

She could call any number of people and work her hardest to get her life back to the way it had been a week ago. Some things could never truly be the same, but she could be Stephen's wife again, and return to her children, and fight for Runway's future even if it didn't include her.

All she had to do was talk to certain people right at this moment, and her life would take her down a path she could see clearly. She could see all the things she was supposed to want.

Miranda remembered reaching out to Andrea's stiffly turned shoulder tonight, but not reaching quickly enough. She'd been freezing cold ever since. She was tempted to blame it on the desert night, but knew that she couldn't.

"All right," she muttered as she made her decision and hoped to God this one worked out better. "All right."

She rose to her feet and headed for the door.

 


 

Andy'd had Lily on the phone for five minutes now, and she still couldn't choke out the necessary words. To be fair, she wasn't exactly sure what they were. 'I fucked my ex-boss' seemed too blunt, and 'I've lost my mind' seemed too obvious. So she'd just mumbled a greeting, and was now dancing around Lily's questions like a prima ballerina.

"So when are you coming home?" Lily asked. "Tomorrow? Day after?"

"Tomorrow morning, I think," Andy said. "First flight out of Lubbock that we--that I can find."

"Good.” Lily sounded relieved. "Lubbock? What the hell is that? It sounds like some kind of fish."

"There aren't a lot of fish around here," Andy said, although at least the landscape was a little greener now that they were south of the Panhandle.

"Well, good thing you're leaving," Lily said. "Call me when you get in. I can try to meet you at the airport if you want. Uh…unless you and she are going to…" Lily trailed off and added, "Yeah, what's happening with that, by the way?"

"No need to meet me," Andy hedged, telling herself just to come out and 'fess up. "Actually, I don't think I'll be flying back to New York."

"What?"

"I think I'll go to Cincinnati for a few days instead. See my parents. I mean, I don't have a job now, and I haven't been home since February."

"Okay," Lily said slowly. "But you won't stay long, will you? Won't you want to get back and take care of things? Your apartment, and getting a new job, and all."

"Yes," Andy said, and sighed. "I need to take care of all those things."

"And as for the job situation…" Lily paused. "I just want to ask, can Miranda help you with that? Even though she's lost her own? I bet she still has a lot of connections, right?"

"Um…"

"You've done a lot for her, Andy. You've risked a lot, and for what?"

Andy heard Mrs. Blakeney's soft voice in her head: You done a good thing, even if it didn't go right. Andy wasn't sure of that at all. Not the first half, anyway.

"I'm not going to ask her for anything," she told Lily, knowing it was true. Ask Miranda for a job after they'd had sex? What would that mean? Miranda might even mistake it for a clumsy attempt at blackmail. It'd be just like her, always believing the worst of people.

"Oh, come on," Lily said, clearly aggravated. "What are you doing, overcompensating for the last few months? Andy, you don't have to be this noble. If you've got an opportunity, take it!"

If Lily only knew about the opportunity Andy had taken last night, and how badly it had gone wrong. Andy was pretty sure she was done with opportunities for the moment, unless one landed gift-wrapped in her lap and wasn't ticking like a bomb. It didn't seem likely.

Now was the perfect moment to say so. The perfect moment to confess, be yelled at, and be forgiven. Then Andy could start getting over it and move on with her life. She took a deep breath. "Lily," she began.

A knock at the door.

Andy's confession hovered on the tip of her tongue before meekly retreating. She knew who that was.

She didn't have to answer it. If she didn't, Miranda might go away.

"I gotta go," Andy whispered.

"What?" Lily said.

"Yeah. Uh. She's at the door. Miranda is.” Andy swallowed. "I'm sure it's to work out, um. Plans. For tomorrow."

"All right," Lily said doubtfully. "Are you okay?"

"Sure," Andy said, snapping out of it, knowing that she had to sound like she had it together, at least. "I'm just fine. I'll call you tomorrow, okay? Bye."

"Goodb--"

Andy hung up and practically threw her phone on the nightstand, before jumping to her feet and heading to the door so fast she stumbled before she opened it. When she did, Miranda was standing there with her hand raised. She'd been about to knock again, not go away.

She lifted her chin and regarded Andy without saying anything; Andy stood to the side and silently let her in. Then she closed the door, heard it lock, and went to sit on the edge of her mattress, trying not to tremble so hard that Miranda would be able to see it. Feeling as if she was about to stand in judgment, she looked up at Miranda's face.

Miranda did not return the favor. She seemed unable to look at Andy, her gaze roaming around the room before she spoke.

"I called Stephen," she said.

After a pause, Andy replied eloquently, "Oh.”

Miranda glanced down at her, and Andy immediately nodded, anxious to prove she still understood basic English. Her heart was pounding, which probably explained why it hurt so much. Because of course Miranda had called her husband. Last night must have knocked some sense in her at last, made her see how little Andy could ever matter to her in the grand scheme of things.

"I can't--" Miranda began, and paused.

Andy opened her mouth to say, Yeah, me neither, I can't do any of this at all, I can't even look at you, I need to go back to Cincinnati right the fuck now and--

"Make you any promises," Miranda finished.

The world swung around Andy before coming to a dead halt. She stared at Miranda, gaping.

Miranda just cleared her throat and looked at a spot somewhere above Andy's head.

Andy shook her head quickly. "But--you, you--"  She had to be misunderstanding this. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, I can't make you any promises," Miranda repeated through clenched teeth. "Tell me if you can't handle that, or if you don't want this, and this conversation never happened.”

"This"? Want "this"? Just like that? A day of not talking, a day of regrets, a day of Andy trying really hard not to cry and then crying, and now she had to decide whether or not she wanted this?

"You kicked me out of your room last night," Andy said. Her throat felt thick. "You hardly talked to me all day. And all of a sudden, now--"

"Yes," Miranda said. She finally looked down at Andy, right into her eyes, her gaze so intent that Andy felt skewered on it. "Yes. Now."

Andy felt like she couldn't breathe. But she had to. She had to find the breath to say, "But. Wait, what about Stephen? You said you called Stephen?” She was pretty sure that had to be important.

"Stephen and I are done," Miranda said flatly. "Regardless of how you answer me now. As to the rest--I don't know. I don't know what's next.” A look of wonder briefly crossed her face. "It's been a long time since that's happened."

Regardless of how you answer me now. It was happening. Miranda was offering her the choice.

Andy licked her lips. "It has?"

Miranda snorted. "Maybe it hasn't," she allowed. "Maybe I just thought I knew, and never really did."

"Yeah," Andy said stupidly, pretty sure she knew exactly how Miranda felt. Her life was not going like she'd ever thought it would. It wasn't going like that at all.

If you get an opportunity, grab it, Lily had said.

"At any rate, it's up to you," Miranda added. She'd become almost preternaturally still, and was still focusing her gaze on Andy. Andy didn't feel so much like a potential mate as a meal. Bird of prey, indeed. Miranda was a terrifyingly bad idea on every level. Terrifying, and beautiful, and wrong, and fascinating, and...

And Andy was never going to get this chance again. If she said "no" now, that was it, that was "no" forever. No do-overs. She was sure of that. This would never, ever happen again.

She took a deep breath. "Miranda?”

Do what's best for yourself, for once. Miranda herself had said that.

"Yes?" Miranda said tightly, and Andy gave up and leaped right into it.

 "I, I want this.” She wet her lips.

Miranda went pink.

"If you do.”

It was Miranda's turn to swallow.

"Do you?"

"What do you think?" Miranda asked hoarsely. "I'm here, aren't I? Against all logic and common sense?”

"Yeah," Andy said. "You are.” She paused. "We are."

Miranda stuck her tongue in her cheek. "So we are," she said, took a deep breath, and exhaled.

Apparently, that was that. Andy got the distinct feeling that some kind of door had been closed while another opened. Or they'd reached a finish line. Something like that--everything had just changed forever, anyway, and they had to find their way forward from here.

Then they looked at each other until it got awkward. Andy bit her lip. Miranda actually shifted from foot to foot.

"Uh," Andy said. She was pretty sure what ought to happen next, after a conversation like that. "So is, is now good for you?"

"Yes," Miranda said at once, and inhaled sharply. "If it is for you. You might be tired--"

"No, no, I'm okay--"

"You did all the driving today, and that truck--"

"I'm fine! Really!” Andy winced, aware that she sounded a little too freaked out. "I mean, I'm okay.” She tossed her head back and tried to look chill. Her hands were probably sweating enough to stain the coverlet. “You?”

"Yes," Miranda repeated. She raked a hand through her hair in apparent agitation, mussing it. Andy had never seen her do that before.

"Great, okay," Andy said. She swallowed and looked around her hotel room while Miranda visibly fidgeted in the doorway. "So, um...you want to come over here?"

"That is how it works, I think," Miranda said acidly as she prowled forward to where Andy sat on the edge of the mattress. But her cheeks were still pink. In spite of their agreement, Andy thought that she might be about two seconds away from running back out of the room, and that Andy was two seconds away from letting her.

She looked over at the lamp, and back at Miranda. "Oh--hey--should I turn out the light?" she blurted. "I mean, that might make you more comf--I mean, it might be--"

Miranda stared at her. "If that's how you...well, that's fine, of course."

"It's just, whatever works for you--"

"Either way is--"

"It's no problem, seriously, okay, you know what?" Andy babbled. "There's plenty of light coming in through the--"  She didn't even get to the word 'blinds' before she was lunging towards the lamp and plunging the room into semi-darkness. "There. Right! Okay. So, that's..."

"Yes.” Even in the shadows, she could see Miranda swallow. "That's fine.” She raised her hand to the buttons of her blouse. "So."

Andy abruptly remembered the dream she'd had after their first kiss, in which Miranda had begun to undress, had offered herself to Andy without shame. Her stomach lurched and warmed, pleasantly. They could...yeah. She had to stop thinking. They'd decided, and there was no point in bringing thinking into it. Not now.


She rose to her feet, even though her legs trembled, and reached out. Miranda froze, but she let Andy push her hands away from her buttons.

"Let me," Andy said. "Here--"

"Yes," Miranda gasped, leaned forward, and kissed her.

 


 

Don't.

Two seconds into it, and Miranda was already admonishing herself. Don't grab Andrea. Don't shove Andrea down on the mattress. Don't stick your tongue in her mouth without an invitation. All of those things would be unpardonably rude, especially given that Andrea was nervous and as tense as a tightrope.

As for herself, any remaining reservations had vanished the moment they'd touched each other again. It had been a whole day since they'd touched. And now that they'd settled…something, whatever it was they'd settled, Miranda wasn't going anywhere, wasn't rethinking anything, had no intention of leaving this room. Oh dear God, she wanted this. She'd wanted it for--

Andrea kissed her back, softly, almost timidly. It lacked finesse, and it made the top of Miranda's head feel like it was flying off. She'd wondered what it would feel like, hadn't she, to kiss Andrea this way? As it happened, it felt wonderful. And agonizing.

Careful. She had to let the girl set the pace, or at the very least, had to hold still until Andrea finally fumbled open the buttons of her blouse. What was taking her so long? Not that Miranda didn't appreciate careful garment care, but she was so aroused that she was almost dizzy, and it couldn't be that hard to take off somebody's shirt, could it?

But when Andrea had half of the buttons undone, she stopped. Before Miranda could garble out a protest, she slipped a warm hand inside the opened blouse, sliding her fingertips over Miranda's ribs and hesitantly kissing Miranda's cheek, her jaw. Nuzzling.

Miranda gasped. Oh. This was better. Lips and fingers and if Miranda could just…

"Is this, is this okay?" Andrea whispered as she rubbed her hand slowly up and down Miranda's side. "Is this the kind of thing you, um, like?"

"Sometimes," Miranda rasped, remembering the way Andrea had shoved her up against the wall last night and made her come. The idea of a repeat made her belly heat up, but some small, functional part of her brain balked at the idea. This wasn't the moment for that.

"Sometimes? What about right now?” Andrea's voice was very small.

Definitely not the moment for that. Miranda's desire was momentarily subsumed by tenderness. How…different.

"Sit down," she whispered into Andrea's hair, nearly kissing the shell of her ear.

"Oh," Andrea said, awkwardly pulling her hand out of Miranda's blouse. "Right. Okay.” She sat down on the edge of the mattress, making the springs squeak a little.

Miranda sat down next to Andrea and regarded her intently, taking the time to look, to study, more frankly and openly than she'd ever dared before. Before, it would not have done to show any such interest, any kind of fascination. But now it was all right to notice how huge Andrea's pupils were in the shadows, the way her full lips were parted a little bit, the freckles on the tip of her nose, the look on her face that was both terrified and deeply, perhaps unbearably needful.

That need was enough to bring Miranda's fingers up to touch her cheek. Andrea's breath caught, and Miranda kissed her again, knowing that it wouldn't slow her racing heart. Kissing Andrea felt different than kissing a man, naturally. It was unfamiliar but delicious, and Miranda felt like a teenager all over again, as if she were making out with somebody for the first time. As if she was having an adventure after all.

We might as well enjoy it. The memory of Andrea's words, uttered in West Virginia what seemed like a lifetime ago, almost made Miranda laugh. Which really would not do at this juncture.

"Wow," Andrea mumbled between kisses. "This is…"

Miranda solicitously freed up Andrea's mouth by moving down to kiss her jaw, and then beneath her ear. "Hmm?"

"Really weird," Andrea finished.

Miranda pulled back to glare at her.

"Not in a bad way," Andrea added quickly. "I mean, it just is, you can't deny, that wasn't a value judgm--"  Then, mercifully, she cut herself off by leaning forward for another kiss. A clumsy one.

Bemused, Miranda wondered if this was the same Andrea who had men falling all over her. Surely she hadn't kissed Christian Thompson and what's-his-name, the boyfriend, this way? Good Lord, was Miranda going to have to do everything this time?

Par for the course, really. Miranda sighed in both pleasure and exasperation (she'd never managed that before), and cradled Andrea's face in her hands as she pulled away.

"Andrea," she said kindly, "do put a little effort into it."

It worked beautifully. Andrea's eyes narrowed and she growled, "Eff--you know, you are totally--", leaned in again, and put a little effort into it.

Thank goodness. Miranda got dizzy again as Andrea went for it. Her mouth was so warm, and her kisses were quickly becoming hungry, almost anxious. But she wasn't quite as uninhibited as last night, not yet. Miranda tried to remember what had set that off, remembered, and gasped, feeling her face go bright red. That was something else she'd been trying very hard not to think about today.

Andrea paused. "You okay?"

"Fine," Miranda muttered, torn between humiliation and arousal at the memory of Andrea smelling the come on her hand and promptly ravishing her.

"Not enough effort for you?" Andrea asked, obviously getting a little peeved. It was much better than frightened. "Right--c'mere--" 

She grabbed the back of Miranda's head and tugged her in. Very nice. But if the kiss started off hard, it gentled quickly as Andrea's fingers began to move almost timidly in Miranda's hair.

Then Andrea whispered against Miranda's mouth, "Wow.”

"Mm?" Miranda managed.

"Nothing. Your hair. I can't believe I'm actually touching--" Andrea blushed.

Miranda rolled her eyes. "Yes. It's a strange, exotic thing, this hair on my head. Are you going to talk your way through this?"

"Oh, I forgot you like the quiet game," Andrea said, her bravado undermined by the slight tremble of her hands. "Show me how it's done, then, if you're so smart."

"You'd like that?" Miranda asked, looking into Andrea's eyes, which dilated even more at the whisper in Miranda's voice. She pushed Andrea's hands away and reached down to her own blouse, working on the remaining buttons. "All right. This is how it's done, Andrea."

"Oh my God," Andrea whimpered, her mouth going slack. So she liked watching Miranda undress, then. Something to remember, Miranda thought, as she pulled off her blouse and tossed it towards the other end of the bed.

Now Andrea was staring at her breasts as if she'd found the Holy Land. Miranda felt her nipples tightening against the soft cups of her bra, tingling from pride as much as desire. They were rather nice breasts. True, she'd had a bit of help after the twins were born. But it hadn't taken much; one modified breast lift and she'd been back in business. And--she shivered as Andrea tentatively brushed the side of her left breast--she hadn't lost a bit of sensation. As it happened, she rather wondered if she might not be getting too dizzy.

Since Andrea seemed to like a show, Miranda reached behind herself for the clasp of her bra, trying not to look improperly eager. But to her surprise, Andrea said, "No, wait," and placed her hands on Miranda's shoulders. Then her gaze dropped back down to Miranda's breasts. She still looked stunned. "This is, um.” She cleared her throat and stroked one hesitant fingertip down a bra strap; Miranda shivered. "This is beautiful.”

Miranda wasn't sure why the words put a little lump in her throat. Maybe it was the tone Andrea had spoken in: breathless, and close to reverent. Then Andrea gave Miranda a smile that was both shy and hopeful, and Miranda's heart nearly stopped at the sight of it. "Will you let me…?"

"Yes," Miranda said, her mouth dry. She heard how hoarse her own voice was, how low and needy, and added roughly, "You're not going to need permission for everything."

But Andrea didn't bother to snipe back this time. She just slid her hands around Miranda, fingers heading for the bra strap, and incidentally taking the time to pull Miranda in and kiss her very slowly, very deeply.

By the end of it, Miranda's breath was coming out in embarrassing little whimpers and she was frightened again. It wasn't like the jumpiness, the nerves she'd had arriving at Andrea's room. This fear was more profound, more earth-shaking, because she’d caught herself thinking: Yes, this was how it should have gone before. This was what their first time should have been like.

And then she'd realized that she'd wanted a first time, and worse than that, she had wanted it to mean something.

This was always going to happen, she knew, and when she whimpered again, Andrea pulled her closer. They'd switched, reversed, and now Andrea was the brave one. That wasn't supposed to happen, either. Miranda was not, under any circumstances, supposed to need--

"C'mon," Andrea said gently, slipping Miranda's bra off, and looking appreciatively at her breasts. "Let's lie down.” Then she gave Miranda another bashful smile. "You're--don't laugh. You're amazing."

Miranda couldn't laugh if her life depended on it. Nor could she speak. She had no words. She lay down, staring into Andrea's eyes, feeling swallowed whole by everything around her.

And as Andrea bent to kiss her again, so terribly tenderly, Miranda realized she had picked a dreadful time to fall in love.

 



Don’t kill me, but this is exactly where Life Happened and I ran out of steam. At least I got poor Miranda to a watershed moment!

The rest of the story was roughly going to go as follows:

  • Miranda and Andy continue driving west, having sex all over the place (including at the side of the road), with Miranda trying to hide the fact that she's in love with the girl. This probably makes her ridiculously prickly. "When I Loved Her" by Kris Kristofferson might or might not run through her mind.
  • Still, I had all kinds of entertaining mental images of them—my favorite was Andy sticking her bare feet out of the passenger-side window while they tooled down Highway 66 listening to "Hey, Jude."
  • Meanwhile, Andy senses that something has changed, but (of course) she doesn't understand how profound Miranda's feelings are.
  • Miranda also seems to be using sex, and her appetite for it with Andy, as a way to dull the pain and humiliation of losing her job, her marriage, and her relationship with Cassidy. It feels great and lets her forget about everything else.
  • Eventually, Andy makes her confront it. I had this idea that they would end up in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, a destination chosen by Andy. Miranda calls Andy on the heavy-handed symbolism (a la Happy, TX), and they have a big fight in which Andy finally lets go of the last of her fear of her ex-boss. I'm not 100% sure how it would have played out, but Andy and Miranda would finally come close to achieving emotional parity; until now, Andy's remained cowed by Miranda to some extent, and in the long run, that's no good for their relationship.
  • The story would have ended with Miranda having no plan for the future at all. I was tearing my hair out for months, trying to figure out where the hell Miranda could go after Runway. Some kind of executive position? No, I’d done that in Truth and Measure. Philanthropy? Didn’t feel right. Neither did anything else. I finally realized that this was the story's way of telling me that Miranda wasn't supposed to end up with a plan; that for the first time in her life, she must actually learn to embrace uncertainty and look forward to the future anyway.
  • She and Andy also don't end the story in any kind of committed relationship. I don't know if they would even have said "I love you.” I imagined a scene where, at an airport in [mumble mumble], they look cautiously at each other and Andy says, "So. We'll have to do this again sometime.” "Make a thing of it," Miranda agrees.

Which would have brought us all to the Epilogue, in the next and final chapter.

Chapter Text

Miranda turned her face up to the sun. Not a cloud in sight, and the day was warming up. Still, even at this time of year, it shouldn't be unbearably hot. The locals said they were going through a cool spell.

"Hey, Miranda?" Andrea said. "Remember back in Texas, when you got the crappy Chevy truck?"

Miranda winced. Thank goodness for the weather, because she'd need all the patience she could get if Andrea was in the mood to reminisce. "Of course I do. And it wasn't that bad."

"Yeah, right. It rattled and bounced and leaked oil like a motherfucker—" 

"Oh, honestly, your language…"

"Whatever, and it was just generally a terrible car, okay?"

Miranda sighed. "It wasn't the Boxster," she allowed. "I'll grant you that."

"Yeah. It was pretty awful. Hey, guess what?” Andrea wriggled her way out from beneath the Nissan Micra K10. Then she staggered to her feet, brushed the dirt off her jeans, and glowered at Miranda before spitting, "This is worse!"

"Oh, don't be so dramatic," Miranda said, rolling her eyes and looking out again at the surrounding countryside.

Mountains on the horizon. Valleys beyond that. And stretching out all around them, as far as the eye could see, the waving grasses of the steppe. Astonishing, really. If pressed, she'd have to admit that rural Kazakhstan beat the daylights even out of the fall leaves of West Virginia.

Off in the distance, a lone shepherd regarded them from the midst of his flock. Miranda raised a hand in greeting. He waved back.

"I'm not being dramatic," Andrea said, putting her own hands on her hips. "Who's being dramatic? This heap is pretty much scrap and duct tape, and we're lucky if we can push it over 40 miles an hour—" 

"Those are the contest rules," Miranda reminded her. "It’s got to be a terrible car. The Mongol Rally is all in a good cause, Andrea. At least we're getting lost for charity this time. "

"Charity? We're the ones who need charity. The last village was fifteen miles back, the next one is ten miles ahead, and oh my God, we're going to die out here. We'll be eaten by wolves."

"Must you see the worst in everything? For instance—"

"Wh—see the worst? Me?"

"Our new friend over there," Miranda said, pointing at the shepherd, who had not ceased to regard them.

He waved again. Andrea folded her arms and huffed.

"The people of this region are remarkably hospitable,” Miranda said. “I'm sure we have only to walk over and say hello.”

"We're running out of money," Andrea said. "I really, really want to save the last of the bribe chest for the guards at the Mongolian border. If we ever get there. Which we totally won't."

"Maybe he'll help us out of the goodness of his heart.” Miranda adjusted her sunglasses. They were Gucci. "Or maybe he'll take these. Either will work. You just need to be resourceful.”

"Resourceful. Great. Why didn't I think of being resourceful? You know, I bet the twins are scared stiff."

Miranda shrugged. "When we were in Qostanay last night, I posted a picture to the rally website from my phone. I'm sure they'll see it.”

"A picture? Which picture?” Andrea glared at her. "It wasn't the one where I'd just spilled mare's milk all over myself, was it?"

"I cannot tell a lie."

"Great.” Andrea rubbed her hands over her face, streaking her cheeks with dirt. Miranda found it terribly appealing. "I'm going to get eaten by wolves and I won't even leave behind my dignity."

"Really," Miranda said, amused. "That's even better than last year when we got stranded in Canada. It was bears then, wasn't it?"

"Grizzly bears are not a joke. Didn't you see the movie about that guy who tried to live with them? Also, you know what else isn't a joke? Wolves!"

"Oh, come on," Miranda said, rolling her eyes again. "Where's your spirit of adventure?” She sniffed. "We become stronger by embracing the unknown."

"Says the woman who won't set a date," Andrea muttered.

Miranda tensed. The silence of the  steppe suddenly seemed oppressive. It had been years since Stephen, true, but still—Miranda had said yes, eventually, and surely there was no need to rush— 

"Yeah," Andrea sighed. “I know.”

Miranda relaxed. "It's not my fault you worked to get me to embrace spontaneity, and now I am."

"Spontaneity?” Andrea dug a hand into her hair. "After we get home I'm going to club you on the back of the head and you're going to wake up in front of a justice of the peace, that's how spontaneous I'm going to be. The twins'll help me, don't think they won't." 

"What a sweet thought. I'll be sure to dwell on it while we're getting eaten by wolves."

"God! You are just…"

"At any rate, we're wasting time," Miranda said, deciding Andrea needed some motivation. As always, it was up to her to provide it. "Why don't we see if we can get what's-his-name to wander this way? He might be of some help."

It worked perfectly. "I don't need some guy to fix our car," Andrea growled. She reached into her pocket and withdrew a slender pack of gum. She pulled a silver-wrapped stick out of the pack and thrust it beneath Miranda's nose. "Chew this. I need to use it to stick some stuff together and I hate spearmint."

Miranda unwrapped the gum and popped it into her mouth, chewing obediently. After a few moments, Andrea held out her hand, as if she expected Miranda to spit right in it. Typical! Miranda delicately removed the gum wad from her mouth and dropped it in Andrea's palm.

For some reason, this seemed to amuse Andrea, who suddenly grinned. Without a word, she leaned in and kissed Miranda, hard. "Huh. Spearmint's not so bad," she whispered.

Miranda, blushing and tingling, wondered what on earth the shepherd was thinking now. "One just has to keep an open mind," she managed.

"Yeah. I'm going back under the car. Why don't you play some music? I think the CD player still has batteries.” Before Miranda could reply, Andrea sat on the ground and, true to her word, wriggled on her back underneath the Micra.     

Well, she'd asked for it. Miranda opened the passenger door, reached behind the front seat, and pulled out the CD player. The car didn't have one built into the dashboard, of course. Caroline and Cassidy had refused to believe such things were possible when she'd told them. Then again, they weren't too sure about actual CDs, either.

She selected a disc, popped it in, and pressed play. Then she turned down the volume so it wouldn't scare the sheep.

As the first notes played, she heard Andrea groan underneath the car. "Oh, no…"

"Who else would it be?" Miranda asked as Willie Nelson joined Waylon Jennings in a duet.

"Hey, whatever happened to your musical theater kick? I was enjoying that one."

Miranda wrinkled her nose. "Andrew Lloyd Webber kept calling me.”

"No, I ain't goin' down to the border with you tonight," Waylon declared to Willie. "All the women are crazy, they like to party till daylight—" 

"Oh yeah," Andrea chuckled. “That’s right.”

"—on second thought, if I can find a clean shirt, I might."

"Anyway, there's no beating the classics," Miranda said.

"I guess not, huh? I might as well tell you, when we get back, I'm surprising you with tickets to Emmylou's tour. Shh, don't tell yourself."

With no one close enough to see, Miranda grinned. She leaned against the car door, crossed her legs, and looked once more into the expansive sky.

"The secret is safe with me, darling," she said. "So, how much farther to Ulan-Ude?"

The End