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The End of All Things

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October 2020

She and Miranda have been in some absolute shit-holes since the world ended, but this one isn't the worst. On some days, when she tries really hard, Andy even likes it. At first she'd thought that its salient feature--its isolation--would be what drove her crazy in the end, even as it kept them safe. Well, safer.

But she's gotten used to the farm. The village is only two-and-a-half hours' walk away--less, when the weather's nice--and that's hardly insurmountable once a week. There's no traffic, no pollution, no noise. You can see people coming from a mile off. And there's plenty of clean water, which, even after they've been here almost a year, still strikes Andy as an unfathomable luxury. She's almost afraid to get used to it, to the idea that she can fill up a bucket from the brook any time she wants. Although winter's coming in, and she knows that she and Miranda will have to get ready to break some ice whenever they want a cup of tea or a bath.

The tenement was much worse. Zagreb was a bad idea, even if it had seemed like their best, no, their only option at the time. Water there had been neither clean nor free, and now Andy relishes every sip she takes that she didn't have to pay credits for hand over fist, and then boil twice. There are rats here too, but not as big, and they tend to stay in the barn. And she hasn't seen a single cockroach.

Andy thinks that Miranda likes it better here, too, but Miranda would never say as much. She'll never admit to caring about any place they've lived since New York. And with each passing week, month, year, when the bans aren't lifted, and when the borders are still closed, and when they can't hear anything about America, anything at all, much less anything good

For a while they'd had hope. They both had. Miranda had been everybody's symbol of hope, for crying out loud. Hadn't that been why Andy had headed for London after she'd managed to escape New York? Word had spread underground that Miranda Priestly, of all people, had become one of the most outspoken figures of the resistance overseas; forced out of her home and away from everything she'd ever worked to achieve, she engaged all her formidable energies in getting it back. If anybody could make those bastards sorry, Andy had thought, it would be Miranda. At thirty-two, nine years after they'd parted, somehow she'd still believed in Miranda's omnipotence.

Now she's thirty-eight, and where they live, with the way they live, her bones have begun to ache in the morning cold.

 


 

June 2015

When she stumbles off the cargo plane, Andy doesn't stop for rest. Women For Justice occupies an astonishingly small office in Vane Street. Andy goes there at once and gives her name to the harried receptionist. Within a matter of moments Andy stands before Miranda Priestly for the first time in nine years, in front of her desk while Miranda busies herself with something else. It's like they're having that introductory interview all over again: like Andy is twenty-three, not thirty-two, and has spent the last year in college instead of running contraband--food, information, and above all, women--from New York to Canada and back.

Canada is not safe anymore. The world that Andy knows, the world where she can live, is shrinking. But for now, London is untouched. And so is Miranda, who has always been so good at surviving.

At first she wonders if Miranda will even remember her face. For all that she's influenced Andy more than anybody else Andy's ever met, they hadn't really known each other all that long by the time Andy walked away in Paris. (Paris, which is likewise no longer safe.) Feeling astonishingly young and callow, Andy braces herself for it: 'Who are you? And what are you doing here?'

But Miranda raises her head and gazes at Andy over her glasses. She looks older, but not by much. And she's alive.

"So you made it out," she says. "I'm glad."

Andy is stunned, but manages to say, "Me too. Uh, hi."

"Do you have a place to stay?"

"Um. No. Not yet. But--"

"Go speak to Murugi in 4-B. Tell her that you're the one who sent me the first warning in New York."

The first warning. Not the only--but the first. Andy swallows and nods. "I will. Thanks."

"Do you need a job, too?"

"Yes," Andy whispers, wondering if Miranda will make a crack about how Andy screwed up the last job Miranda gave her. She'd be justified. The memory of that betrayal still mortifies Andy years later, even after everything that's come since. She'd walked right out in the middle of Fashion Week, for crying out loud. She'd left this woman alone.

But Miranda only says, "Good. I need someone halfway competent at writing press releases." She blinks at Andy over her glasses. "I can't pay you much. You'll want to room with one of the other women, I'm sure. Murugi," she repeats. "Speak to Murugi."

"I--yes. I will. Thanks. I will." Miranda nods. "Um…is that…"

Miranda bites her bottom lip, and then looks up at Andy with a hesitant expression on her face, like she's not sure whether she ought to ask, haltingly:

"Do you know anything about my girls?"

Andy would give anything in the world to be able to say yes. But she can't. She shakes her head. Miranda swallows, and Andy's glad that she's already run out of tears, because if she ever cries about Miranda's kids in front of Miranda…

"That's all," Miranda says, and looks back down at the open folder on her desk, but not before Andy can see that a light has gone out of her eyes.

 


 

October 2020

Then again, there are some disadvantages to their current dwelling. For one thing, when they'd lived in the tenement, Miranda had never brought home a cow.

She went to the village in the morning and has been longer than usual coming back. It's half-past three, and Andy has been fretting for hours. But now, all she can do is gape in disbelief as Miranda approaches in the distance, leading a fairly scrawny-looking cow behind her. Andy doesn't wait for her to get to the house. Instead, she throws on her old overcoat and puts on her galoshes, and runs outside to meet her on the path.

"What?" she asks, only slightly out of breath as they meet beyond the gate. She's gotten in excellent shape over the past few years. "What is this? What did you do?"

"Ensured a supply of milk for the winter, that's what," Miranda says, completely unruffled. "And cream and butter. We've got that old churn, we might as well make use of it."

"Why the fuck would we want--"

Miranda glares at her. "Language."

"Oh, pl--what do we need with cream and butter?" They've been getting along just fine without, and it's another chore.

"Something else to sell," Miranda says, like it makes perfect sense. "Have you been paying attention? Butter fetches a much better price at the market than eggs or potatoes. Or even honey."

"How are we going to feed it?" Andy demands, staring at it. The cow looks right back, its enormous eyes vacant. "Is our profit margin really going to be that good?"

"Cows eat grass, Andrea." Miranda gestures towards the farmhouse and around the fields where, it is true, grass is currently in abundant supply.

But it won't be forever. "Grass is scarce in the winter here, Miranda."

"But grain won't be." Miranda's eyes gleam with satisfaction. "Word's come through that they've managed to open up the eastern line. Wheat and corn are on their way. The locals won't be able to gouge everybody now."

"Well…" Andy can't deny that this is welcome news. But who knows how long that supply line will stay open? She can't believe Miranda has been so short-sighted. Not Miranda. "I mean, what'll we do if…"

"If worse comes to worst, we'll have fattened her up a bit," Miranda says. "We'll sell her to somebody else. Or…" She pats the cow on its neck. "We'll just get Dumitru to slit your throat and then sell you for parts, won't we, my dear?" The cow huffs agreeably. "There's always a market for meat." Andy must concede that this is true, no matter how stringy and tough the meat is. They haven't had any on the table since they killed a hen past her egg-laying years three weeks ago. It's a luxury.

"You know, her eyes remind me of yours," Miranda adds.

"Hey!" Andy scowls at her. Miranda looks back serenely. "There's no need to be an asshole. C'mon, just bring the cow."

Occasionally Miranda knows when not to push, so she lets the obscenity slide. Her victory is good enough to relish on its own. She tugs, and the cow follows obediently as they continue up the path.

"Here, let me have that," Andy says, and takes the potato sack from Miranda. "What else did you pick up today? I mean, useful things."

"Bullets. Some stronger chain for the door latches. Cheese and a loaf of bread," Miranda says. "Oh, and beer." Andy, who's been peeking in the sack, looks over at her with wide eyes. "I said grain was getting cheap, didn't I?"

"Beer?" Andy gasps. She looks back in the bag. Sure enough, she sees a small jug wrapped in protective cheesecloth. "Oh, my God!" Miranda looks insufferably pleased with herself. "You must've gotten a good price for the potatoes and--" Suddenly Andy narrows her eyes. "A really good price."

Miranda does not look at her. "Yes, well," she says.

Andy stops in her tracks. "Miranda, what did you sell today?"

"Eggs, beets, and potatoes," Miranda says blandly. She's lying by omission, of course. Andy glares at her, but Miranda just keeps walking. Andy wonders how long it will be before the truth emerges--that Miranda has sold some other tiny, priceless relic of the life before. They have religiously conserved what jewelry she has left for emergencies. And they have to be very careful about how they dispose of luxury goods. If word gets out that the two American women on the little farm have a stockpile--not that they do--of baubles and clothes and…

"Plus my bottle of Bulgari," Miranda sighs. "To the mayor's wife. Privately. Stop hyperventilating."

"I'm not hyperventilating," Andy says, relieved that it was something so simple. "I never liked Bulgari anyway. Smells like cow pies." She glances at the cow. "No offense."

"It was a bottle I picked up in Milan. Nearly full. She paid well for it." Miranda rolls her eyes. "She thinks it'll woo her husband back."

"Good luck with that," Andy says, drawing her own comparison between the mayor's wife and the cow currently trudging up the path. It is not a favorable one. "So, butter, huh? Do you even know how to make butter?"

"Yes," Miranda says, to Andy's shock. "I asked around. It's simple, if labor-intensive." She grimaces. "And we should expect to get it wrong the first few times."

"So we're going to get started right away."

"Indeed."

"Admit it. You just want some cheap moisturizer, don't you?"

"Among other things." Miranda sniffs. "As if you can blame me."

"You'll smell like a piece of toast."

"I'll take smelling like butter if it means my skin stops turning into paper. So will you."

"True," Andy admits. She looks at the cow, shuffling behind them. "So now we've got livestock, huh?"

"Chickens are livestock. Did you forget we have chickens? And honeybees?"

"Cows are big. Cows are serious livestock. Our first."

Miranda gives her a sharp look. "And last, I'm sure." Of course. She resists anything that smacks of permanence. They have to be able to pack up at a moment's notice and leave everything behind without regret, including livestock. "It's a business opportunity that was too good to pass up. Not a pet."

"Gotcha," Andy says. "So what are we naming our business opportunity?"

"I think 'the cow' sounds perfect." She would. "Feel free to call it whatever you want."

Andy considers suggesting 'Patricia.' But she's not cruel. Besides, it's possible, just possible, that Miranda's idea isn't all bad. "Rapunzel," she says. "Except she'll turn hay into butter, not gold."

"That wasn't Rapunzel," Miranda sniffs. "That was Rumpelstilskin. Or that girl in Rumpelstilskin, whoever she was."

Andy rolls her eyes, although it surprises her that Miranda knows about fairy tales. Then again…Runway was always its own sort of fairy tale, wasn't it? "Whatever," she says. "I like Rapunzel better. I'm calling her Rapunzel."

"Whatever turns your crank."

"Or churns my butter. Assuming, of course, that we can get hay in the first place."

"Oh, calm yourself." Miranda looks around as they pass through the gate and approach the barn. Finally something's going to live there other than a couple of feral cats that help out with the vermin problem. "We'll have plenty of grazing land for another month. We'll arrange for hay when it's time." She looks at Andy. "How are we for firewood?"

"We need to chop more."

"After supper," Miranda says, nodding. They have both agreed that chopping firewood is not a task to be handled alone. Too much can go wrong with an axe. And if one of them is at the village while the other has a mishap… "I'm looking forward to supper."

"Cheese and bread and beer," Andy says dreamily. It's a big improvement over beet soup, and potato soup, and beet-and-potato soup, and every other variation on beets and potatoes they can think of. Oh, and eggs. At least Miranda gets to eat eggs most mornings now. It's gone a long way towards improving her overall disposition. "Well, maybe we should chop the wood before we have the beer."

"How did you laze away the morning?"

Andy glares at her. "Oh, let's see. While you were taking a nice leisurely stroll and buying us a cow--" Miranda bares her teeth in an unpleasant, unrepentant smile. "--I was busy making candles. And patching up a couple walls in the barn. Good thing, too, as it turns out."

"Indeed. Let's hope Bessie here--"

"Rapunzel."

"--the cow isn't easily spooked by cats and rats. How many candles did you make?"

"Five," Andy sighs. "But we need three of them."

"They don't sell well, anyway."

True. A lot of people in the village can still afford electricity for the basics, like lights and refrigeration. If they lived there instead of out here, if they got jobs of some kind, Andy and Miranda could probably afford it too. But Zagreb taught them a lesson they won't forget in a hurry, and now they keep away from all but the most cursory contact with public life, cooking and staying warm with firewood, and reading by candlelight.

"I hope this cow makes good milk," Andy says.

She half expects Miranda to mock that mercilessly, but to her surprise, Miranda says, "She does. I made sure to get a sample before I bought her."

At least that's a relief. "Do you know how to milk a cow?"

"How hard can it be?"

"Oh God," Andy says. "I'd worry about you getting your head kicked in, if it weren't so hard to start with."

"You can do it, if you're so worried," Miranda parries easily. "We wouldn't need to fear any brain damage."

Rapunzel moos, as if in agreement. She's obviously picked sides already.

Andy and Miranda continue to bicker all the way up the path, but once they reach the barn, conversation stops. The day is drawing in, and the night promises to be cold. They have work to do, always.

 


 

July 2018

Andy works for Miranda--and then with Miranda--in London for three years. And for three years, she can never stop comparing Women for Justice to Runway, where she only worked for six months. There are superficial similarities. For one thing, Andy is again surrounded by women who are at Miranda's beck and call, who adore her without reservation. But these women are of all ages, all sizes, all colors, speak different languages, and they don't wear designer clothes. They never would have been allowed inside the Runway offices.

But here, they flock to be near Miranda's charisma, her leadership, her confidence. They fetch and carry, answer phones, send out mail, volunteer themselves for missions mundane and dangerous, petition Parliament, and beg Miranda Priestly, in a hundred different tongues, to find their daughters, to reach their sisters, to reunite them with their mothers and husbands and sons. To give them a voice with which they can cry out for justice. That's the name of the organization, isn't it? Women for Justice. It's straightforward and to-the-point, just like its leader.

And boy, does Miranda know how to lead. She never gives up, because to give up on the women who need her is to give up her own children, to lose all hope of finding Caroline and Cassidy again. Miranda, Andy knows from the start, will never let go of that hope, not even at the end of the world.

Andy does her best to help. She is astonished to learn, shortly after arriving in London, that she's got a reputation. The women at Women for Justice admire Andy; Miranda has told them about her work in North America. A couple of them know people Andy has rescued. They all know she helped save Miranda's life. Andy vows not to let them, or Miranda, down. She writes, first Miranda's press releases, and then Miranda's speeches, and then she starts giving speeches herself. Before she quite realizes it, she has become Miranda's right-hand woman, and, to her surprise, nobody begrudges her the privilege. Not even Miranda.

To be fair, Miranda has permitted Andy to see her at her most vulnerable. First in Paris, when her ex-husband left her. And again ten years later, after Andy had been in London for eight months, when she let herself into Miranda's flat above the offices and heard the sound of breaking crockery.

Terrified, Andy had dropped her briefcase and whipped out the container of pepper spray she kept on her belt. Without speaking, she charged towards the sound, towards the kitchen, not even thinking about calling the police because Miranda--

Miranda was standing by her refrigerator, pitching dishes at the wall. Andy skidded to a stop just in time. Dropping the pepper spray, she held up an arm to shield her face from flying debris. "Miranda!" she cried.

Miranda gasped, took a step backwards, and she and Andy stared at each other across a tiny kitchenette filled with shattered plates and bowls. Miranda's face was bright red, and her cheeks were streaked with tears. She was panting.

"Oh," Andy croaked, because it was the twins. It must be the twins. Miranda had finally had word and it was bad, that had to be it. "Oh God, what happened?"

"Nothing," Miranda said hoarsely. "Nothing happened." Her face twisted. "Nothing ever happens. Duck!" She gave Andy about one second to jump out of the way before she sent a saucer flying.

"Miranda!" Andy repeated, and she rushed into the kitchen, glad that she was wearing sturdy boots. Miranda was already reaching for a sugar bowl. Andy snatched it from her and grabbed her by the elbows. "What the hell's going on?"

"You're here early, that's what," Miranda spat. She jerked backwards and Andy let her go. "You have interrupted a ritual, Andrea. What on earth do you want?"

"A rit--I brought the case briefing from--a ritual?"

"Another month," Miranda said. She looked away, stared out the kitchen window. "Another month without my children. Without a single word about my children." She pressed a trembling hand to her mouth and lowered it again. "I thought they'd be safer with their father. I was so sure--"

"Well, of course, that made sense at--"

"They're nineteen now. They grew up to be so beautiful and--I can't bear it. Sometimes I have to hurt something, I have to break something. And I can't do it in front of the women." Miranda squeezed her eyes shut. "I can't."

"Of course not," Andy said lamely. "So you…you break plates?"

"I break plates," Miranda said. The wild look was going out of her eyes bit by bit, and she was turning back into the exasperated woman Andy recognized. "I get cheap sets at flea markets and I break plates, Andrea. Then I clean up the mess. That's the ritual. Why are you here?"

"I thought somebody had broken in," Andy said. "I heard all this stuff breaking, and I thought--"

"Andrea."

"Justice Robinson is letting Myra's case go to appeal," Andy said. To her relief, Miranda relaxed a little at this piece, however small, of good news. "So she doesn't have to leave yet."

"Well," Miranda said. She looked around the kitchen as if she'd never seen it before.

"I brought the briefing," Andy mumbled, shifting from foot to foot like the terrified second assistant she'd once been, even though it looked like the storm had passed. "It's in my briefcase."

"Which is where?"

"On the floor by your door."

"Well, then." Miranda led the way out of the kitchen to the sitting area where they discussed what happened in court that day, as if it were the most normal afternoon ever. When they were done, Andy, without asking, began to sweep up Miranda's kitchen. Hijacking the ritual. Instead of rebuking her, Miranda called out for Indian, and they ate together in silence.

They never speak of the broken plates again, but something happened that night, something important. Andy's not sure what it is, and maybe Miranda isn't either, but after that night they are different around each other. They are not quite colleagues and not quite friends. They're just together a lot, almost all the time when one of them isn't off raising funds or giving a speech outside London. It gets to where Andy feels uncomfortable, naked, if she's not standing at Miranda's elbow.

Old habits die hard.

Three years pass. They give a lot of speeches. They tug on a lot of heartstrings. They make pleas, ever more impassioned, for the end of war, of torture and imprisonment and enslavement across the pond. Sometimes people listen. Sometimes they don't.

Every once in a while there is a rumor about the twins, but it's never more than a rumor. Something that comes from a well-meaning refugee who says she's seen girls who look just like Caroline and Cassidy, or a con artist who mistakes Miranda for a sentimental idiot, or, most cruel of all, name sound-a-likes--like the time Carol Ann Priestley proved to be a forty-year-old woman from Topeka, and Miranda wouldn't speak to anyone for a whole day. She didn't even let anybody but Andy within ten feet of her.

But everybody's got worries. More refugees arrive every day and the city is getting overcrowded. Indian takeaway is nothing but a pleasant memory in the midst of rations and food stamps. By the end, London's having multiple blackouts a week. Miranda, who used to pitch a fit if her espresso was one degree too cool, never utters a complaint about having no hot water and no means to power her refrigerator. The only thing that infuriates her is the lack of access to news. Not that news is easy to come by even when the power works--in the last couple of months, since the war has begun to go badly, they've all known they weren't getting the real news.

But Andy, at bottom, is still a reporter. And when it's all over--when supply lines to the city are cut, when personal papers are getting checked every four blocks, and when "extradition" becomes the word of the day--Andy is the one who keeps her ear to the ground yet again, and who warns Miranda of mortal danger just before the final reel.

This time, when Miranda flees, Andy goes with her.

 


 

December 2020

"Almost," Miranda gasps. She shivers. "Almost. Yes. There." Andy presses down, rubs her clit, and Miranda arches her back: "Aah!" Then she relaxes, breathing quickly, trembling gently. She does not close her eyes.

"All right?" Andy asks, pulling her hand out from beneath Miranda's nightgown.

"Yes," Miranda replies. She blinks, shakes her head, and sits up with a grunt. "Do you want it, too?"

"Thanks," Andy says, lying down and spreading her legs. Miranda lies next to her, reaches down, and finds all the reliable spots. She is brisk, but not ungentle, and soon enough Andy gets off, releasing a deep sigh when she comes.

"All right?" Miranda asks in her turn.

"Mm. Yeah," Andy says. Miranda slides her fingers out, and Andy stretches lazily. "Thanks," she repeats. Miranda nods. They don't kiss. They never do.

It's very strange: Andy hasn't had sex with anybody else for a year, but she doesn't think of Miranda as her lover. She doesn't even really think of Miranda as her friend. She's fairly sure Miranda feels the same way; whatever else, they've never been able to define themselves in terms relative to each other. Not friends, not lovers, not colleagues. Boss and assistant, once, but that was a long time ago, in a different world. Now Miranda's all Andy's got, and vice versa. They depend on each other for everything, for every single thing, from food to shelter to sex. There might be a term for that, but Andy's not sure she wants to figure it out. She just knows that it goes beyond love or friendship or even codependency into something far more fundamental.

Survival buddies. Something along those lines, anyway. Relationships don't get much more intimate than that.

Two's the magic number. Three would be a crowd indeed. Three would find it harder to go from place to place, would be more conspicuous. And it would be foolhardy to try to negotiate the world alone. Andy and Miranda are together, and they're stuck that way. Usually it's a good thing.

Like tonight. There's frost and ice outside, Rapunzel's safe in the barn with the chickens, and there's a fire going. They've closed off the drafty top floor, where it's much nicer to retreat in summer, and have dragged the bed downstairs. Now they're cozy as rabbits in a burrow.

And yet Andy feels compelled to get out of bed. She does so, edging out from beneath the blankets while Miranda makes a soft, complaining sound. It's late, and while they work outside less during the winter, they're both tired. Sex makes them sleepy, too. But Andy just waves Miranda's protest off, and puts her sweatpants back on before sticking her feet into her tatty slippers. Then she heads for the sink. "I think we can afford to fix the plumbing in the spring," she says happily. "When the ice breaks. We won't get hot water, but we'll get running water." She grins. "Imagine. The bathroom will actually work."

"Sounds divine," Miranda replies grumpily. "If you got up for a drink, bring me one back too."

"Well, I would, Your Highness," Andy says. "But I didn't." Instead, she opens the cabinet door beneath the sink, and peers inside. There it is. "Remember when you got mad at me yesterday afternoon because you thought I'd been cheated at the market?"

"Don't tell me," Miranda says.

"I wasn't." Andy pulls out the carefully-folded sack from the recesses of the cabinet. She takes a quick look inside, and to her relief, everything seems in order. There's not much in here that would interest a mouse, but better safe than sorry. "Merry Christmas."

Miranda looks troubled as she sits up. "I didn't know we were going to…"

"We weren't," Andy confesses. "It was an impulse. I just got a few things. For both of us," she adds, and Miranda relaxes a little. She's hardly the type to be overcome by guilt (not that kind of guilt, anyway), but she doesn't like the idea of owing anybody, either. Moments like this remind Andy how different they truly are: for her, Christmas gifts aren't about give-and-take, or about having one up on somebody else.

She puts the notion aside and hurries back to the bed. "An impulse, hmm?" Miranda asks, eyeing the sack with interest.

"Well, you know, I saw the Christmas tree in the square," Andy says. "And there were garlands on the church. They were even putting up lights this year." She smiles. "We might be able to see them from the front yard. It's a clear night."

"And hear the hymns?" Miranda asks dryly. "'O Come All Ye Faithful' in Romanian?"

"Boy, what a Grinch." Andy sits back down on the bed and tugs the blankets over her lap. A shadow passes through Miranda's eyes and Andy remembers, belatedly and with a pang, that the Jim Carrey version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas had been one of her daughters' favorite movies when they were little. "Or a Scrooge," Andy adds quickly. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be," Miranda replies. The shadow recedes, to Andy's relief. It's been easier as the years pass. Maybe time really does heal all wounds.

"Right," she says, and reaches down into the sack. "Number one: coffee." She pulls out the vacuum-sealed bag and grins as Miranda's eyes widen in genuine, ill-concealed delight. "And we can even put milk in it now. Warm it up and get all fancy with café au lait."

"I told you the cow was a good idea." Miranda adores being right, and she was. They've done very well off the butter and cream. The supply lines are still open, but the villagers will take fresh, local, cheaper products any day. Same goes for the potatoes and beets and, of course, eggs and honey. The only ones really suffering are the greedy jerks who tried to hoard the grain. "How many people did you have to fight off to get this?"

"I think I took down a couple of grandmas with my elbows," Andy says. Miranda chuckles, takes the bag, and sniffs the coffee through it. Her eyelids flutter and she looks happier than she did after her orgasm. Andy actually feels a little jealous.

She clears her throat and says, "Next." Miranda opens her eyes as Andy pulls out a jar full of reddish-brown powder. "Cinnamon!" she says proudly. "They got a spice shipment in. We're pretty good for pepper already, and anyway that's boring." Miranda huffs. She loves pepper. "But I thought we can put this on our toast. Or in the coffee. Or…" She waves her hand vaguely. "Just use it to make the place smell nice. I can add it to the candle wax."

"Something to enjoy after the barn," Miranda agrees. Cows and chickens don't smell any better in the winter than they do in the summer, and without that running water it's more of a pain in the ass to break ice and get water for a bath. To say nothing of warming it up. Andy can't remember the last time she actually sat down in the tub--must have been the beginning of November. Since then, they've just been sponge bathing from basins as fast as they can in the relative warmth of the kitchen. Cinnamon will smell much better than they often do.

That reminds Andy of something. "Oh, here you go," she says, reaching down by the side of the bed and pulling up the green glass jar of strong-smelling liniment. Miranda needs to use it in winter for her hands, to guard against the dangers of swelling, painful joints. Arthritis would be a disaster. "Don't forget."

"Yes, Mother," Miranda says dryly. "I think we'd both prefer the cinnamon." She uncorks the bottle and they both grimace at the medicinal smell, but the stuff works. Miranda begins to rub it in. "Well, that was a nice Christmas indeed." She sounds like she actually means it.

"There's one more thing," Andy says. "And yes, this one's just for you. Sorry." She reaches into the bag one last time. "Here. Something else to rub on. I got a hell of a deal."

It's face crème. Estée Lauder. Andy bought it off a clueless train conductor who didn't know his luxury goods and had no idea that it was anything special. Not that it has to be special--hell, Lubriderm would be a big step up from butter--but the astonishment in Miranda's eyes speaks volumes.

"Oh," Miranda says faintly, staring at the beautiful little pot like it's a mirage. Then she looks down at her hands, still glistening and smelling of liniment. "I should wash this off."

"No," Andy says sternly. She bites her lip. "Let me? I can…"

Miranda nods. Andy smiles and opens the pot, and they both get a whiff of the delicate fragrance. Neither of them used to wear this particular crème, so the smell doesn't bring back any memories. Andy thinks this is a good thing.

Miranda looks at the pot again, and snorts. "Anti-wrinkle."

"Yeah." At least they can both laugh at the absurdity. "Hey, maybe I'll take some after all." But she doesn't. Instead, Andy swirls her index finger into the crème and brings up a dab--"Just a little!" Miranda warns--to rub into Miranda's skin, starting with the apples of her cheeks. If Miranda prefers a different procedure, she doesn't say anything. It's possible she doesn't even remember. Instead, she just closes her eyes.

Andy is as gentle as possible, willing Miranda to believe she's somewhere else for just a few moments. At her favorite facialist's back in New York, or a spa in Nice, being treated with the finest crèmes and oils, pampered from head to toe as if it's her birthright.

The crème is incredibly rich, and it melts into Miranda's skin. Judging by Miranda's tiny sigh, it feels good. Andy finishes and sits back. It's hardly enough to undo the damage of living hand-to-mouth for years--especially a year spent on a farm, working outside every day--but for now, for tonight, Miranda's skin is soft and smooth again.

"There," Andy whispers. Miranda opens her eyes. "How's that?"

"Lovely," Miranda says. She even adds, "Thank you." Andy beams. "Are you certain you don't want some?"

"Positive," Andy lies. "It's your present."

The troubled look is back in Miranda's eyes. "I didn't get you anything."

Oh, for crying out loud, as if Andy cares. "Milk Rapunzel for me tomorrow and we'll call it even." Miranda glares. Andy grins. "Or we could just not worry about calling it even at all."

"Hmph," says Miranda, who will probably get up and milk Rapunzel before Andy wakes, the contrary bitch. She settles back against the pillows, looking suitably spoiled.

"Look at you," Andy says. "All nice and moist." She drops her gaze from Miranda's face down to her hands and then, with a naughty grin, between her legs.

Miranda rolls her eyes. "Spare me."

"Spare you?" Andy asks lightly. "Never."

The words, meant to make Miranda's lips twitch, instead bring a pensive look to her face. Andy's not sure why, and she'll never learn why they prompt Miranda to say, "I wonder what the girls are doing."

What the girls are doing. Not 'if' the girls are doing anything at all. Andy swallows. "No way to tell," she says, and adds pointedly, "I wonder what my parents and brother are doing." If they're doing. By the time she left America, she hadn't tried to contact them in months. It was too dangerous. She was a wanted woman by then, and she couldn't bear the thought of putting them at risk.

She hopes it was enough. She tries not to think about it much.

Miranda purses her lips, perhaps unhappy at the reminder that it's not all about her, that Andy has people she misses too. "As you say…no way to tell." She tilts her head to the side. "Exactly how old are you, again? Remind me."

"Thirty-eight."

Miranda nods, her lips still pursed. Then, to Andy's shock, she says, "You're still young enough to have children. I had the twins when I was your age."

Andy can't think of anything to say but, "Oh."

"Have you ever thought about it?"

"You're kidding, right?"

"No," Miranda says. "I'm not."

"Miranda, why the hell would I want to have kids with the way the world it is now? And how would I even get them?"

"Tell me you can answer that on your own," Miranda says in exasperation. "That butcher would snap you up in an instant. So to speak."

Andy sighs. Dumitru has made no secret of his attraction to her, true. He's a widower with two kids, ages five and seven. Every time he sees her, he lets her know (in the halting English common to the village) how much he admires her for the hard work she puts into the farm, what with her being a woman and all. He says it's a shame she doesn't live in town, she'd probably like it a lot better, and the work wouldn't be as hard--not that she'd shy from work, she's obviously tough and has a good head on her shoulders. And his children are always happy to see her when she comes around. Does she know, his house is large, and there's plenty of room. For two people, even--a woman and her mother.

"You're kidding," she repeats. "We can't afford to settle down. You've said that. You know that."

"I'm not so sure," Miranda says, looking thoughtful. "This isn't Zagreb. Nothing like Zagreb."

She's right. The villagers know they've fled some kind of bad situation. They have to know. But nobody's evinced particular curiosity, and for sure nobody's attempted to tattle. To bring attention to the foreign women would be to bring attention to the village. Nobody is anxious for a visit from the Secret Police. Or, as Miranda calls them, the It's-Not-A-Secret-That-We'll-Loot-Your-Homes Police. Many of the villagers are Roma, and they know their history well.

"You really want to live here forever?" Andy asks. She doesn't have to add: You're going to give up on the twins? Miranda has never said she'll do that. Is that what this means? Can that really be true?

She's not surprised when Miranda sighs, "No. Probably not. It's only--if there was ever a place to put down roots and be safe, this appears to be your best option."

Andy's eyes widen. "My best option?"

"Ours," Miranda amends a little too quickly. "You'd just be the one getting married and becoming an honest woman."

"I'm not marrying anybody," Andy says fiercely. She's amazed that Miranda can even bring up the possibility. Andy can't imagine getting married. She can't imagine being with anybody but Miranda in those kinds of close quarters, not after all this time. Certainly not with somebody who buys into the necessary fiction that Miranda is her mother. It would be wrong, all wrong. Something would always be out of place. Wouldn't it? "Where is this coming from?" she adds. "What's gotten into you?"

"Nothing," Miranda snaps. "You've still got time. I'm thinking of you."

Time for what? Also, the hell she is. Miranda can adjust and adapt to almost any situation in order to survive. She'll never be altruistic. What can she possibly hope to gain from…oh.

"You want kids," Andy says. She crosses her arms. "You want me to get married so there'll be kids around the place."

Miranda is about to deny it. Andy can tell. Then she closes her eyes and sighs in defeat. "Of all the ridiculous…" she mutters. "Let's pretend I didn't say anything. Chalk it up to momentary insanity."

The way she bites her lip makes Andy's chest ache. So much for the healing powers of time. For a crazy minute, she wants to say that sure, she'll have a few babies, married or not; she'll do as much as she can to fill the bottomless hole in Miranda's heart.

But no. She fucked a guy for Miranda's sake once. She won't do it again. She doesn't want children, and she won't do it again.

She reaches out and touches Miranda's arm. Miranda does not push her away, although she stiffens.

Then she opens her eyes and says with forced brightness, "I think I'll make some coffee. I can't tell you how long I've wanted it."

"It's late," Andy says in surprise as she pulls her hand away. "It'll keep you up."

"Oh, I won't sleep well anyway," Miranda says, giving a careless wave of her hand as she tosses aside the covers. "It's Christmas. It's warm. I could do worse than stay awake tonight."

Andy knows she is thinking of--fears--her dreams, dreads waking up in a panic. Sometimes Andy does too. She's not going to say that, though. She's just going to watch Miranda get out of bed, reach for her wool cardigan, and walk the short distance across the kitchen to the icebox where they keep the milk.

"Merry Christmas," she blurts, without knowing why.

Miranda looks at her. Andy can't read any particular emotions on her face, but she does say, "Merry Christmas," in reply.

 


 

August 2018.

Andy is shocked at the difference between Milan and London. She believes that Miranda is too, although Miranda hasn't spoken very much in the week and a half it's taken them to get here. There were a lot of close calls and nasty living quarters on the way, and now, to see well-kept streets and stately Italian villas is a revelation. As she steps off the train and into the station, Andy takes a deep breath and dares to think that maybe they can relax now. Maybe.

She glances over at Miranda, who is looking around the station with a carefully blank expression on her face. Miranda's spent a lot of time in Milan, of course, for countless fashion-related events, countless society functions. She's known this city at its most glittering and decadent. She probably didn't spend a lot of the time riding the train.

"Miranda!" trills a voice. Andy and Miranda both flinch and look around in paranoia--how the hell could somebody be so fucking stupid as to call attention to--before remembering that this is Milan, not London or Bern, and they are safe here. A little man is hurrying towards them with a huge smile on his face.

"Miranda!" he cries again, flings his arms open, hauls a reluctant Miranda into them, and air-kisses her cheeks. "Como ho preoccupato! But you are well. I am so glad."

"Buona sera, Alessandro," Miranda says. She steps back and looks at him.

For a moment, he seems confused by something in her face, but then his disquiet fades, and he smiles ebulliently again. "What barbarism you must have faced. Come with me. I hear that in London there are food rations." He shakes his head and tsks. "How long it must have been since you have had steak and wine--eh?"

"A long time, yes," Miranda says wryly. Andy is relieved to see that she appears mildly interested. Andy sure as hell is. They've been living off MREs for months now, and even less on the run. She'd kill for steak and wine.

"Thank you so much for having us, Signor Vitali," she says, since Miranda has evidently forgotten basic manners again. "We really appreciate it."

Alessandro glances at her in surprise, as if he hadn't noticed she was there. Maybe he hadn't. Miranda's presence continues to dominate everybody else's. "Ah. You must be Andrea! The one who has rescued our Miranda." He places a hand over his heart. The gesture is probably sincere, but it still looks absurd. "We are indebted to you. Did you know," he winks, "that in Italian, Andrea is a boy's name?"

"Oh. Um. Ha ha," Andy says. "Well, actually people call me Andy. Which is a boy's name in English." She smiles, and fortunately, he appears charmed.

He claps his hands. "Bene. Lorenzo! Take their bags." A tall man in a blue uniform steps away from a nearby pillar. He pushes a rolling cart towards them, and Andy and Miranda carefully load their suitcases on it without waiting for his help. They've managed one suitcase apiece, mostly filled with unremarkable-looking clothes. But into the seams and pockets they have sewn Miranda's jewelry, and the soles of their shoes hide euros, which are still good in Italy, at least.

The passports were good, and Miranda and Andy were not stopped or searched. They were lucky. Andy still feels like her heart has been pounding nonstop for eleven days, and she hasn't slept well in nearly that long. She hopes that she can rest here. In the meantime, though, she still feels uneasy when she sees Lorenzo taking the suitcases that hold all their earthly possessions. Miranda does too, she can tell.

Alessandro does not appear to notice. He's too busy fawning over Miranda as they all make their way to the Bentley that waits at the nearest curb. "Oh, cara, what you have endured. But you have friends here. Donatella is mad with rage that I got to you first. Wait until you have settled in, then we will throw you such a fête."

Miranda looks horrified before she gets herself under control again and murmurs, "You mustn't go to all that trouble."

Alessandro waves his hand with a laugh. "Do not worry! You are worth it, and more. We have been glued to the news, we know all about what it is like. We are all so happy to have La Priestly with us again." He gives Miranda an affectionate look, and wrinkles his nose. "My God, darling, your hair. But fear not. We will have you looking like yourself again!"

"Alessandro," Miranda says firmly, stopping in her tracks. He looks at her in surprise. "I--" Then Miranda stops, appears to discard what she was going to say, and finishes with, "--appreciate what you are doing for us." He beams, but Andy knows that Miranda is going to change the ending of that sentence later, when the moment is more opportune.

Alessandro's house is in a beautiful, exclusive neighborhood. It looks like it's never even heard of war. Lorenzo carries their suitcases upstairs, and Andy only relaxes when he sets it on the bed and departs. Now she decides simply to hang the clothes in the wardrobe and make sure that there are no obvious bulges in the seams or pockets, in the case of an overly inquisitive housekeeper or maid. She and Miranda will have to decide what to do with the valuables later, after they've had a chance to regroup.

Already the scent of cooking meat drifts up from downstairs. It's only half-past six, but Alessandro has announced that he will forgo the usual Italian supper-hour in favor of giving his guests a good meal as soon as possible. It smells like it will be a very good meal indeed. Andy almost drools.

She spends a few minutes taking advantage of the fully-functional bathroom, and then wanders down the hall in search of Miranda. She will not impose her presence, she decides. They've been living practically on top of each other for eleven days, and Miranda will probably want her privacy. So does Andy, but with the way Miranda looked in the train station, well, Andy just wants to check in on her first.

She knocks on Miranda's door. "Yes?" says Miranda's voice from the other side.

"It's me."

"Come in."

Andy opens the door to see Miranda sitting on the edge of her bed. Her suitcase is open, but empty, and Andy sees she's put everything away in the wardrobe too. She's rubbing her temples.

"You okay?" Andy asks, trying not to sound too worried, because that irritates Miranda.

"A party," Miranda mutters. "He wants to throw me a party."

Andy quickly slips into the room and shuts the door. "I'm sure you can talk him out of it."

"I'd better be able to," Miranda says. "I have to." She drops her elbows to her knees. "There's not even any point in trying to turn it into a fundraiser, now is there?"

Andy swallows. "No."

"Everyone who's still back there." Miranda licks her lips and closes her eyes. "All those women--they won't get out. They're coming for them, they're rounding them up. And I'm supposed to go to a party."

"You'll talk him out of it," Andy repeats. She sits down in a chair across from the bed. Once, she would have asked permission. "You did all you could, Miranda."

"Stop." Miranda rubs her hand across her forehead. Andy sighs. She only spoke the truth. What, had Miranda thought she'd be able to call a halt to the war all by herself? And yes, they had to leave so many behind, so many--but not a single woman had wanted Miranda to remain. Andy has a feeling that if she'd put it to them, they would all have helped Andy tie Miranda up and bundle her onto the last train out of the city. She's always commanded that kind of fanatical loyalty, and now, after seeing what she is truly capable of, Andy finally understands why.

"We can't even start over," Miranda says. "They're not letting refugees in here, the selfish bas--" She stops. Even in desperate times, she refuses to lower herself.

"Makes it easier to stay neutral, I expect," Andy says.

"I'm sure." Miranda takes her fake passport out of her pocket. "When I was little, I always thought that I'd choose to be a French citizen, not an Italian one. 'Maria Calzone,' for God's sake." She glares at Andy. "Are you the one who named me after food?"

"No," Andy chuckles. Her pseudonym is 'Sofia Bianchi'--unremarkable, but she likes the sound of it. She holds out her hand and Miranda gives her the passport. Andy looks down at the photo, and affects an unimpressed sneer. "My God, darling. Your hair."

"Give me that," Miranda says, and snatches it back. To Andy's relief, her lips are twitching. "'Darling,' indeed. I'd forgotten people talked like that."

"It won't take you long to pick it back up." Andy stretches and yawns. "Oh, wow. Don't take this the wrong way, but I think I'll try to put aside survivor guilt for one night, so I can have a good meal and get some sleep."

"You do that." Miranda doesn't sound angry, at least. She'd have a right. Everything she scratched and clawed for, everything she built, is gone again. Yes, Miranda has a right to be angry if she wants. Andy bites her lip, already regretting her flippancy. "I'll see you at dinner," Miranda adds. Andy takes the hint and leaves.

Alessandro has an engagement tonight ("Tedious, but you understand!"), so the superb dinner is a relatively quiet affair, for which Andy is grateful. She sleeps well, and she's even more thankful for that. The next day, she and Miranda are perforce separated: Alessandro whisks Miranda off first thing in the morning to a series of salons and boutiques.

As for Andy, Alessandro does not roll out the red carpet, but she is given a credit card and permission to stop by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele so she can purchase whatever she needs "to be beautiful again." She goes out before lunch, looking forward to being back in civilization, but the opulence stuns her. So much flash, color, luxury, money, everywhere. There's a crush of people, but they're not standing in line to get basic supplies, and they're not rioting for want of food. She sees a few policemen from time to time, standing on corners and not doing much at all.

It's overwhelming. It's too much. Andy grabs a few nice things to wear, just so she won't disgrace herself in front of Miranda's coterie, and flees back to the house, where she spends the rest of the afternoon on the upstairs terrace, watching cars and people go by on the streets below. At five o'clock, she sees the Bentley pulling in, and she knows Miranda is in it. She hurries downstairs just in time for Miranda to come through the front door, followed by Lorenzo, who is carrying shopping bags.

Time seems to stop. Because here is Miranda Priestly. Her white hair is cut and styled just like it used to be, she's wearing designer clothes, she's got on her makeup, she's standing in the foyer of a beautiful house, and she's followed by a servant carrying her extravagant belongings. It's like the last twelve years never happened at all. Andy doesn't know what to say. She only knows that she feels on the verge of tears for some reason, even as she manages a bland, welcoming smile. She feels like an intruder, and imagines that she sees the gulf opening between her and Miranda yet again, the chasm gaping wide between their lives.

She doesn't learn differently until dinner, where Miranda and Andy are not Alessandro's only guests tonight. Laudomia Pucci and Donatella are both in town, and both fuss over Miranda relentlessly. Andy attempts to divert them a few times, but it doesn't work; they look at her as if she's some kind of obnoxious, social-climbing upstart who has no business being near Miranda Priestly at all, before returning their attention to Miranda, who is obviously holding on to her patience with her fingernails. She is glad to see familiar faces, Andy knows. It's just--how can these familiar faces be so damn oblivious?

Like when Alessandro jokes, "Oh, the women, the women. How you cluck over each other. Do you suppose that barbaric New Government has a point?"

"Basta, you are dreadful," Donatella says, laughing. Laudomia laughs too. Andy and Miranda stare at Alessandro in dumb astonishment, too stunned to protest. Jokes like that will never be funny again. Never.

"But, Miranda," Alessandro continues, looking more serious, "have you word from your daughters?"

Jesus, it just goes from bad to worse. Andy watches Miranda swallow, and tamps down her own surge of misery. "No," Miranda says. She clears her throat. "I was hoping somebody in Milan might have news, perhaps."

"We will make inquiries, of course," Alessandro says. "At once." Miranda nods and looks grateful. Laudomia pats her arm and that, at least, is appropriate. The mood at the table becomes somber as, for just a few moments, everybody understands exactly how godawful the situation is.

Then Donatella leans forward. "Well, there is no sense in being gloomy! You have had enough gloom. Personally, I have always found London gloomy, war or not."

"So cold and grey," Laudomia agrees. "Italy is much better for you." She smiles. "Tell us how you escaped, how you got here."

"Yes! We must know everything," Alessandro says. "I have waited to pester you awhile."

Miranda gives Alessandro a polite smile that tells Andy what a pest he has already been. She wonders how Miranda passed the day with him. "There isn't much to tell," she replies. "Britain is losing the war, and London is about to fall. The New Government started making promises about going easier on everybody if certain undesirables were handed over. Andrea kept her eyes and ears open, arranged for passports, and got us out of there." She finally looks at Andy, seeks her out. Their eyes meet and they connect. Something in Andy's chest loosens a little. "Just in time, I understand. Andrea, didn't you say there were only a few trains left?"

"Yeah, I did," Andy says. Truthfully, there had been no trains left. They took the last one. But she wants Miranda to believe--Miranda must believe--that some of the people they left behind might have escaped after them. "It was a close call."

"Oh, how lucky," Donatella moans. "To think how close you came."

"Yes," Miranda says, looking away from Andy while she takes a sip of her San Pellegrino. "Lucky."

"Agreed!" Alessandro says. He rubs his hands together. "We are all so fortunate to have this intimate dinner here tonight. Let us adjourn to the sitting room. I have a delightful cognac, and there is chocolate mousse." He waves his hands placatingly at Donatella and Laudomia's protests. "Ladies, you are stick insects!"

They all rise to their feet. Alessandro leads the way, and Donatella and Laudomia follow him, chattering. Andy and Miranda look at each other, and Miranda gives Andy a wry little smile. All of a sudden, it doesn't matter what her hair looks like. Andy knows for sure that Miranda will talk Alessandro out of a party, and moreover, will make new living arrangements as soon as possible.

Within a month, Miranda finds a flat for herself and Andy in the Brera, given to her by none other than Veronica Lario. This puts them in the middle of Milan's art scene, and it is also relatively quiet; unlike a lot of Milan, the streets are well-suited to leisurely strolls, which Andy begins to take each evening. Occasionally she can convince Miranda to come with her.

Andy was initially surprised when Miranda announced that she and Andy were taking the flat, largely because Miranda hadn't said anything about a flat at all, much less that she wanted Andy to move into one with her. But once they're there, it's not so strange. They hadn't lived together in London, but by the end, they might as well have. This feels okay. It even feels natural.

The next several months are peaceful, and in spite of herself, Andy gets used to it. Miranda, of course, does not allow her second exile to get her down for long. On her third day in Milan, in full possession of her signature look, she stormed downtown and demanded to speak to the mayor about the emergency back in London. Since then, she has worked like a maniac to raise awareness, consciousness, and above all, money she can funnel back across the continent towards her remaining contacts. The Italian government might find it diplomatically untenable to help refugees, but Miranda has decided this does not matter: she'll do it for them.

This means that she is far too busy to hold down a job, but she refuses to take more charity than is absolutely necessary. To that end, while Miranda spends her days on the phone, or haranguing politicos at city hall, or speaking around the city, Andy works to pay the bills. She doesn't ask Alessandro, Donatella, or anybody else like that for a job; Andy knows that she'd go crazy if she had to listen to them day after day, and she is grateful that Miranda does not encourage her to try. It's probably good that somebody out there still gives a shit about fashion, good to know that Runway Italia is still hobbling its way to the newsstands for now, but Andy can't face it.

Instead, she finds work at a café. The pay will never make them rich, but she likes it. The café is close to the flat, she makes friends with the locals, and the work is uncomplicated. It's also a sure-fire way to learn Italian fast, and she gets lots of free coffee, plus leftover food to take home at the end of the day. This is an excellent side benefit, because the Priestly-Sachs household budget doesn't have a whole lot of room for food. In their beautiful flat, wearing their designer clothes, they live off the café's leavings, dirt-cheap supermarket specials, and frequent invitations from Miranda's friends.

That's okay. There are more important things. Every day, Miranda heads down to city hall to see if her daughters have crossed into the country. Every day, she is disappointed, but she charges on nevertheless. She keeps charging on even when Milan's sunny skies have begun to cloud over with war, even when dinner invitations are less frequent because it's harder to get hold of good food and wine.

All of a sudden, people see Miranda not as a glamorous woman in exile trying to raise money for some faraway cause, but as walking evidence of the horror that is on its way to Italy, 'neutrality' or not. People don't want to talk to her now. People don't want to listen to her. People don't even want to see her, don't want to remember why she's here. Some people, in fact, make noises about sending her back out of Italy, because that worked for Britain, didn't it, extraditing criminals? Hadn't it guaranteed more favorable terms of "conflict resolution"?

In the end, strangely enough, it's Andy's job that saves them once more. Cafés are excellent spots for gossip, most people in the neighborhood like her, and, well, what with one thing and another, she finds herself with two train tickets, a name to contact in Croatia, and some whispered words of warning.

It doesn't go smoothly on the home front. Miranda does not want to believe that they're in danger and have to flee once more because of her convictions. What is going on here? she demands. Why isn't anybody listening to her? What is wrong with people?

That night, they get a close-up of what is wrong with people as the first bombs fall on Milan, dropped from fighter jets that come out of nowhere. The bombs land on the other side of town, a horrific musical accompaniment to the quick rhythm of Miranda and Andy packing up their bags and making sure the jewelry's stowed somewhere safe. Again.

But they can't take as much luggage this time. They have to be able to carry it at a dead run.

 


 

April 2021

One fine spring day, Andy brings home a gift that will have far more serious consequences than coffee, cinnamon, or face crème, though this is not immediately apparent. She hurries up the path from the village, shoving the wheelbarrow, huffing and puffing like the wolf headed for the straw hut.

Miranda steps through the front door as Andy approaches, dusting flour from her hands and frowning. "You're back early." She sees that the wheelbarrow doesn't carry chicken feed, a jug of cider, or anything else Andy was supposed to get. It only carries one very small sack. "What happened? Were you robbed?" Her eyes dart down to Andy's hip, where the pistol rests in her belt, same as always.

Andy shakes her head, still heaving for breath, feeling the strain of shoving a wheelbarrow for six miles at top speed. They've been saving up for a truck since the old one died, but that'll take a while. She grabs the sack, hurries to Miranda, and gasps, "Radio!"

Miranda's eyes get huge. She seizes the sack and opens it to see the worn-looking radio within, and the spare batteries rattling around next to it. Then she darts back into the house without another word. By the time Andy has her galoshes off and her jacket hung by the door, Miranda's already got the radio set up on the kitchen table.

It's mostly static, especially out here. Radio frequencies are hard to come by even in cities, except the really big ones that maintain a large military presence. Andy feels her frustration mounting, but Miranda seems scarily calm. She has an intent look on her face, as if willing a radio station to broadcast itself into existence.

They stumble onto one, finally. Andy gasps, not least because she recognizes the music it's playing. Nirvana, of all things. Miranda pauses for a moment. "Do you suppose they have a news hour?" she asks, as if Andy's supposed to know. "Well, remember the frequency, anyway." Then she turns the knob again. They find two more stations: one that plays static-riddled folk music, and one that features a woman talking in…Romanian, of course.

Andy groans and covers her face; Miranda growls. They've both learned enough to communicate with the villagers, but you can't point and gesture with a radio, try a mix of Romanian and English on it, or ask it to slow down and repeat itself. Now they're sitting here listening to a Romanian woman chattering merrily along, and Andy can only catch occasional words: "sky," "wind," "sun."

Miranda slumps back in her chair with a disgusted hiss. "It's the weather."

"I wonder where it broadcasts from?"

"Cluj, most likely." Miranda scowls. "I thought that was one of our illustrious New Government's goals. To make everybody on the planet speak English."

"Yeah, but they're not here yet." Oops. Andy hadn't meant to add the 'yet,' since it sounds so pessimistic, but it just slipped out.

Miranda doesn't seem to notice it. "How did you come by a radio, anyway?" She looks impressed, as if against her will.

"Let me put it this way," Andy says. "Either the animals get to eat this week, or we do." Miranda sighs. "I'm sorry. I thought…"

"No," Miranda says sharply. "It was the right decision. I can live on beets for a little while." They've certainly done worse. "We'll keep listening."

Over the next few days, Andy realizes that when Miranda says they'll keep listening, she really means it. At her insistence, they take shifts. The radio must stay on at all times, and at least one of them must be with it. When they work outside, when they wash, when they eat, the radio is on. For three nights, Andy finds herself wearily tuning through static from eleven to three, trying to keep her eyes open until it's time to wake Miranda for her turn. She is heartily glad she bought spare batteries.

After three days, they believe they have worked out their options. The folk music station is plainly worthless, and the pop music one isn't good for anything but pop music, but they decide to keep listening to the Romanian news network during the evenings on the off-chance that they might be able to pick something up every once in a while. They're no worse off than before, at any rate.

In early May, two weeks after getting the radio, Andy is working in the barn. Miranda is on the other side of the house with the beehives. She will go to the village after lunch to sell honey and eggs. As she re-meshes the chicken coop, Andy reminds herself to tell Miranda to take some candles too. They have more than they need, so they might as well try to sell them if they can.

She finishes with the coop a half-hour later, and heads back towards the house for lunch. The front door is open, but Miranda is not in the yard. Andy blinks and heads inside, but Miranda's not there either. Then Andy sees that her boots and coat are gone. She's left for the village early. Which leaves Andy to have lunch by herself. She sighs--even though they don't talk much over their food, she doesn't like eating alone.

When she's had some leftover soup and tea, Andy heads back out to check on the vegetable garden. After that, the latch on the barn door needs fixing. Something always needs fixing, and Andy keeps very busy until sundown, when she realizes that Miranda has not returned.

She tries not to worry. Any number of things could hold Miranda up. Long lines at the market, eager customers (they should be so lucky), talkative villagers. Maybe Dumitru is having another try at convincing his prospective mother-in-law that she should, in turn, convince Andy to see him. Chuckling at the thought, Andy rounds the corner of the house to the beehives.

She stops in her tracks. All the mason jars are stacked by the back door, with no honey in them. And--Andy blinks--the wheelbarrow is resting against the side of the house. Miranda didn't take those things to the village? But she's gone to the village. Her coat and boots are gone, and the front door was open.

Had Miranda just forgotten to take them? It's unlike her. Andy's stomach writhes as thoughts of senility and dementia begin to dance in her head. If Miranda starts to lose it, what are they going to do? Then she gets a grip on herself and calms down. There's no sense in jumping to that kind of crazy conclusion based on one incident. Miranda is fine. Of course she is fine. She'd make fun of Andy for freaking out like this. There's really no point in worrying about…

Andy grabs her own coat, her pistol, and a lantern, and heads off down the path for the village.

She's positive, as she walks, that she's going to meet Miranda coming back up the path, and that Miranda will demand to know what on earth Andy's doing, why isn't she watching the house? But she doesn't, there's no sign of Miranda at all, and by the time Andy reaches the village, it's nearly full dark and she's practically shaking with fear.

The market is closing, but the light is still on in Dumitru's shop. She hurries inside--now is no time to be squeamish--and he greets her with a welcoming smile that vanishes the moment he sees the look on her face.

Romanian is a lot harder to remember when you're this upset, but she's got one word down pat that should explain everything. Andy sets down the lantern. "Mamă," she says. "Have you seen?" She shrugs, gestures helplessly, puts her hand to her forehead like a scout and begins to look around the room. "I cannot find my mamă. Have you seen her?"

Dumitru looks confused, and Andy's heart falls. But then he says, to her astonishment, "Yes. She take train, yes?"

Any stares at him. "Train?" He nods, but maybe he's using the wrong word for…something else. Except that 'tren' is Romanian for 'train,' and it's hard to mix that up. Andy tries anyway. "You mean--tren?" Just in case.

He nods, and points to the window. The tiny train station is down the street. "Yes. This afternoon. I see her at platform. I see her running."

"Running?" Andy shakes her head. "She got on a train?"

"Very big train, yes," he says. He throws his arms apart, as if to say the train was This-Big. "Go all the way to Budapest."

"Budapest?" This is making less and less sense. Why the hell would Miranda want to go to Budapest? "Are you sure it was Mi--my mother? My mamă?"

"Very sure." He looks troubled. "You don't know? You don't know she left?"

"No," Andy says, her mouth dry. "I didn't know." She licks her lips. "You say she was running?"

"In hurry, yes. Train was leaving station." He pauses. "Are you in trouble?"

"No," Andy says. "I--I don't think so. I don't know why we would be." And if they were, Miranda wouldn't have just run off by herself. None of this makes sense. "We haven't done anything." Lately.

"You…" He stops and clears his throat. "You should stay here tonight. Not go home."

The look in his eyes is honest and true--and brave. If Andy is in trouble, the last thing he should want is for her to stay in his home, near his children. And if she were less confused, Andy would be moved by it. "Thank you, no," she says quickly. "I must go home. The--gospodărie. Vacă. Puişors." Farm, cow, chickens. Their livelihood. "I have to take care of…thanks!" Before he can speak again, she bolts through the door.

She doesn't go home right away. She goes to the train station first, where the teller confirms that yes, he saw her mother taking the noon train that went to Budapest. Has she gone to visit more family?

"Yes," Andy lies. "My frate." Her brother. She hopes she still has a brother somewhere, although he's probably not in Budapest. She turns away and stumbles down the street, to the path that leads out of the village, back towards home.

Her thoughts won't slow down. A train to Budapest? Why? Andy supposes it's better than her worst fear: that she'd find Miranda dead on the side of the road between the farm and the village, or snatched up by the Not-A-Secret Police. But although this is less dire, it's far more confusing. Why in all hell would Miranda…and running? And without Andy? And without a word?

Andy's thoughts keep her occupied until she reaches the farmhouse, which looks exactly as it did when she left it. That doesn't seem right at all. Andy looks around the empty kitchen, through the windows into the night, and this is when it hits her that she's going to spend the night alone for the first time in almost three years.

Feeling like she's in a dream, Andy does what must be done: she feeds Rapunzel and the chickens and locks up the barn (really, how careless to have left it unbolted for hours). Then she goes inside and locks the doors to the house, knowing that a long, sleepless night awaits her.

Where has Miranda gone? More importantly, why? This is what's going to drive Andy crazy: there's no way to find out. It's impossible to follow her. They don't have a telephone. They sure as hell don't have a computer. Mail takes forever to go anywhere these days, and Andy and Miranda haven't received any mail in all the time they've lived here. Why would they? Nobody knows their address outside the village. Come to think of it, Andy isn't sure what their address actually is. It's never mattered before.

Too bad nobody sends telegrams anymore. Those could come in handy. DEAR ANDREA STOP HAVE GONE A LITTLE FARTHER THAN USUAL TO GET CHICKEN FEED STOP FOUND AMAZING SPECIAL IN BUDAPEST STOP BACK SOON STOP.

Andy trudges upstairs. They moved the bed back up last month, when the weather had begun to get warmer. Now, as she ascends the stairs, she hears noises coming from the bedroom, tinny and muffled. The door is open, and when she hurries into the room, she sees the radio sitting in the middle of the bed. Miranda left it on? They're always careful to conserve the batteries. This just gets more and more incomprehensible.

It's tuned to the static-y folk music station again. Which is playing static-y folk music. Andy stares down at it blankly, and then begins tuning through the stations, wondering if there's something on that's out of the ordinary. But no. There's nothing.

Miranda's reading glasses are on the nightstand. Versace. She's had them for years. They'll never sell them except as a last resort. She needs them. And here they are on the nightstand, as if Miranda will return any moment. Andy opens the drawer of the nightstand, and, yes: there is the tiny pot of Estée Lauder, which Miranda has conserved religiously for months. There's only a tiny bit of crème left. All Miranda's clothes are either in the closet or the beat-up chest of drawers, from what Andy can see. Nothing appears to be missing. It looks like she ran off with the clothes on her back.

Andy wonders if she took any money. They hide their cash in a lockbox beneath a loose kitchen floorboard, and keep careful track of its contents with a ledger. Unpleasant words have been exchanged over Andy's "infantile chicken-scratch," as Miranda puts it.

Andy decides she will look in the morning. She suddenly feels too heavy to go downstairs, to do anything but flop down on the bed with her clothes on and turn off the radio. Then she can't think of anything else to do with all that silence but stare up at the ceiling while the night wears on outside.

She goes to sleep at some point, and when she opens her eyes again, it's well past dawn. Shit! Why didn't Miranda--oh. That's right. Miranda isn't here. Is she?

Andy launches out of the bed and staggers downstairs with a headache and still in her rumpled clothes, as if she'd gotten drunk the night before, which would explain everything. But Miranda is still gone. She's gone, Andy doesn't know where or why, and there's not a thing to be done about it except to go about the usual business of the farm.

Her headache doesn't dissipate as she lets the chickens out to scratch around the yard, although she finds some small comfort in pressing her forehead against Rapunzel's substantial side while she milks her. As she milks, Andy realizes that she, not Miranda, will be the one to turn this into butter and cream, and then harvest the honey (she hates doing that, the bees scare her, Miranda knows that, dammit), and dig up the potatoes and beets, and do everything all by herself. Her chores have doubled. Running this farm was supposed to be a two-woman job.

As she lugs the milk inside, Andy looks up at the sky. It must be close to eleven. Twenty-four hours ago, she was re-meshing the chicken coop. This must have been about the time Miranda left. What could have set her off? What could--

The radio. The answer comes to Andy as bright as daylight. She sets the milk down and runs upstairs, almost tripping over herself until she finds the radio on the floor of the bedroom. She turns it on, and gets Madonna this time. No. It had been tuned to the folk music station. They never bother with that station. But this time yesterday, Miranda must have been listening to it.

Andy hears the usual crackle of static. Then she hears: "--news of a train." Zzt. "New refugees continue to arrive in Budapest every day from--" Bzzz. "--and many women refugees from Bri--" Zackt! "--ance, and America. Nobody knows how long the borders will stay--"

She sits and listens for a while longer, but she already understands everything. Miranda heard the words 'women refugees,' and ran out of here like her feet were on fire to catch the train before it pulled out of the station. The next train to Budapest won't be here for a week, and of course Miranda wouldn't have waited for that.

Because she's looking for the twins. Always the twins. Yet again, Andy is made to understand that nothing on earth is dearer to Miranda than that hope, and she will never rest, she'll go down the most unlikely rabbit-holes if she thinks she can find her girls at the end of them.

And evidently she'll do it without a word to Andy, who's come all this way with her, who's shared her life and all its dangers for six years.

Then again, Andy recalls, Miranda's always kind of been like this. She always looks out for Number One. Her interests must always come first. That's why she's a survivor. Wasn't that…yes. Something from the back of Andy's memory whispers to her, and she recalls that this was why she'd walked away from Miranda all those years ago in Paris. Miranda had betrayed somebody. A mutual friend. A bald man with glasses whose name Andy can't even recall right now, because there's so much water under the bridge and she's had a hell of a lot to worry about in the meantime, but evidently he'd been important to her once. Fuck. It was something really British, she knows that much…Algernon, or…why can't she remember his name, when she can see his face in her mind?

It doesn't matter, she supposes. She hadn't known him for long, it was too many years ago, and now she's remembered him too late. She's remembered all the lessons he taught her much too late. Miranda will sacrifice anyone to get what she wants, including the bald guy, including Andy, including dozens of other people along the way whom Andy never knew about or has forgotten or doesn't want to remember.

Andy curls her hands into fists and presses them hard into her thighs. Maybe that's not fair. Maybe it's not a fair comparison at all, because this is about Miranda's children. Andy's not a mother, and so maybe she just can't understand what it's like, or why it's so important that it justifies abandoning somebody like this.

She really, really can't understand why Miranda didn't just poke her head into the barn door and say, "I'm off to Budapest, want to come along?" or even, "Goodbye."

But she can't afford to sit around all day. She's got a farm to run. Alone, at least for now. Because maybe Miranda will return. What the hell does she think she's doing, crossing borders by herself? Did she even get her-- Andy hops to her feet, stands on her tiptoes, and reaches up to the top shelf of the wardrobe. They keep all their fake passports in a box up there. Her fingertips tell her that the box is open, and her eyes tell her that Miranda took her Romanian passport. It should still be safe to use at the Hungarian border. Hopefully.

Andy goes back downstairs and sees that the loose floorboard has been jammed back in place rather more clumsily than usual. Sure enough, money is missing from the box, although Andy doesn't know exactly how much. Miranda certainly didn't mark it in the ledger. Or even leave an IOU.

Andy sits at the kitchen table and counts the money. Miranda took a fair chunk of it, but not enough to leave Andy destitute. She marks down the new balance on the ledger, puts the box back in the floor, and heads outside, because there is work to be done. There's always work.

Throughout the day, she keeps looking down the path, always half-expecting to see Miranda coming up it. Of course, Miranda does not.

Eventually night falls, and Andy lies in bed, staring at the ceiling again. Her body is aching, because everything she did, from digging potatoes to moving some big bales of hay, she did with twice the usual amount of effort, throwing herself absolutely into her body so that she didn't have time or reason to use her mind. But now she has no more excuses, and she's back to thinking about it again.

Miranda's crazy. She's out of her goddamned mind. Even if the northern and western lines are more open these days, travel is still dangerous, especially if you're a wanted dissident. Sure, Miranda is canny and smart as hell, but she hasn't pulled this sort of stunt by herself since she fled to Britain from New York. And even then, she'd probably had help. You just don't do this sort of thing alone. What if she's caught? Without Andy, what if she's caught, captured, imprisoned, or worse--Andy would never have let her--

Andy would never have let her go. Andy would at least have demanded that they sit down and talk, plan it out, think it through. Usually that is exactly in line with how Miranda operates. She hardly ever does anything without thinking two steps ahead. But this time Miranda didn't want to take time to think. She had to get there before the train left, and she didn't want Andy to hold her up, and bam! Just like that, she's gone after six years, without a word. Where is she now? Sitting in the train, regretting her impulsiveness? (Regretting leaving Andy?) Or is she still wholly focused on the possibility of her children? And that's the best case scenario. The worst is that she's been caught already.

Andy can't think about that. She can't bear to dwell on that. She hopes Miranda makes it to Budapest. She hopes Miranda rounds a corner and runs smack into Caroline and Cassidy, healthy and whole, the moment she's dreamed of for years. She hopes they hug and cry and talk for hours and do all the stuff Andy can't really imagine Miranda doing, but that she probably would in extraordinary circumstances. And maybe then Miranda will say, Now that we're all together, girls, you really must come home with me, I've got to introduce you to somebody, and the size of their little household will double (or more--maybe both girls are married and have kids, grandchildren for Miranda, why not?), and they'll have to get another cow…

Well. That might be too much to hope for. Andy will settle for hugging-and-crying, and leave it at that. Because if Miranda never comes back, that is what Andy will choose to believe has happened. Miranda found the twins and they all lived happily ever after.

Yeah. That's a nice thought. Too bad it isn't enough to send Andy to sleep.

A week passes, and the train that returns from Budapest arrives two days after the next one to Budapest leaves. Miranda is not on it. Andy tunes in every morning to the fuzzy radio station, but there's never anything new or useful. At least it doesn't say that Budapest's been attacked, or that the borders have closed again, or anything like that. Business-as-usual is good, Andy reminds herself.

She keeps waking up in the middle of the night, all the same, never sure if she's still dreaming, and always reaching for someone who isn't there. Her dreams suck, too. Miranda usually dies in them, and Andy wakes up with her hands flailing in the air, warding off phantom bombs and bullets.

During her waking hours, she knows she has to make some decisions. As a second week goes by, it becomes ever more obvious that she can't run a farm all by herself. It's foolhardy even to attempt it. She's already had to cut down on certain tasks: there's no more time to churn butter without a second pair of hands around the place. And she just can't face the bees, no matter how hard she tries. Plus, it's dangerous--she hasn't had any wood-chopping accidents yet, and she hasn't fallen down from the hayloft and broken her neck. But you never know. She's miles away from everybody else up here, and she can't afford to hire help.

Yet a third week goes by, and Andy still dithers. She should probably go ahead and do it, go ahead and sell and move on with her life, because why wait, why delay? She's not getting any younger.

Dumitru is a very kind man. He has two beautiful kids and a thriving business. And even if she doesn't want him, there's still a world beyond the village. It's not pretty or safe, but it's there. Miranda's trying her luck in it, isn't she? Andy's loyalty and protection weren't good enough for her, so she--

Before she knows it, Andy is in the middle of the kitchen, heading for the cabinets. Here. The cracked old casserole dish. They never use it, Andy doesn't even know why she keeps it around, and so she hefts it into the air and sends it flying at the wall, where it shatters into a dozen pieces. There. That--and this, this bowl--yes, and this cup--

All told, by the time she falls down on her ass on the floor, Andy has destroyed nearly a third of their crockery. Her crockery. She supposes it doesn't matter, since she only uses half the plates. So it's almost like she came out ahead. Her arms and back ache.

Miranda hasn't thrown plates in years, not since leaving London. At least, not that Andy can recall. She's pretty sure that she'd know, since they've lived together all that time. All that time until three weeks ago, anyway.

Fuck Miranda. Fuck the war. Fuck everything. Fuck every single thing that made Andy's life into what it is at this moment: sitting on the kitchen floor in a country where she can barely speak the language, no family and no money and no time, surrounded by broken pottery and without her only companion in the world--a woman who never cursed, who brought home livestock without permission, and who let Andy put an arm around her while they slept.

 


 

April 2019

After the relative peace of Milan, Zagreb is an unpleasant shock. Croatia has not come under wholesale attack (yet), but its economy is staggering under the weight of cut supply lines, inflation, crime, governmental corruption, and a depleted workforce as thousands of young men and women are conscripted into the army, just in case. Zagreb, a beautiful and graceful city only a decade ago, has begun to crumble from the inside-out.

It's rough all over, and this time, they don't have the luxury of letting Miranda crusade while Andy supports them both. For one thing, Miranda would probably be killed; for another, they would starve.

They nearly starve anyway. Even when things got really bad in New York, London, and Milan--when they were living off rations, MREs, or leftovers--they'd at least had something substantial to eat every day, even if it wasn't particularly nutritious or palatable. Here, there is nothing. No government is stepping in to make sure people get fed, and they don't have any rich friends. They don't have any friends at all. They don't have anyone but each other. The contact Andy got in Milan had been able to get them safely into the country, but that was all. Since then, they've been on their own.

It never gets completely hopeless. They never have to scavenge in dumpsters, and they only sleep on the street for one night before they find the tenement. A pair of ruby stud earrings pays the first month's rent, and they find themselves in a cramped bedsit where they're sharing a bathroom with a single man next door. He does not appear dangerous, but they make very sure to lock both the hall door and the connecting door at night.

Andy hasn't lived with anybody in such close quarters since college--not lived. She doesn't count the nights spent in train cars or cargo holds or even on the street, because that was never supposed to be living. Even the Manhattan apartment she shared with Nate was bigger. Clearly, this room was meant to be part of a larger apartment, but the landlord has put in extra walls and is making more money this way. The place is furnished, but there's only one bed--a loft bed, high up so they can stash stuff beneath it. When they both climb into it the first night, they are too exhausted to be awkward around each other, and after that there doesn't seem to be much point.

There isn't much of a kitchen: just a hot plate, a mini-refrigerator, and a teakettle. That's all right, because they don't have anything to cook. Selling a gold bracelet brings in some revenue, but they are going to have to find work quickly.

This is neither easy nor pleasant. They're not Croatian citizens, and they certainly don't have visas. They slipped in under the wire and they're not supposed to be here. No pleasant, convenient cafés are looking to hire anybody. Miranda's voice, grace, and bearing would guarantee her a good job as the public face of a dignified something-or-other: a receptionist, maybe, a secretary of some sort (Andy has a small, private giggle at the thought of Miranda as a personal assistant)--except she doesn't speak any of the local languages, and neither does Andy. Plus the whole 'illegal immigrant' thing. They're screwed.

One morning in the middle of May, Andy wakes up to find that Miranda has already gone out. This worries her, because they still don't know the city well, and they usually travel together for safety's sake. Also because they can't afford the little disposable cell phones that everybody around here seems to use. If one of them gets in trouble, she has no way to contact the other. But Miranda has left a note by the fridge that reads Out to get work, like there isn't even the possibility that she will fail.

Her determination puts Andy to shame, so Andy hits the streets as well. As usual, she finds nothing. But that night, when she returns home, Miranda is already there, looking exhausted, triumphant, and wryly amused all at once.

"A garment factory," she says dryly. "I start tomorrow."

Andy decides to laugh instead of cry.

As if Miranda's luck were a touchstone, Andy finds work a few days later as a maid in a mid-range hotel that is not far from the factory: in fact, one of Miranda's co-workers who speaks a little English gave her the tip. They rise before dawn, work all day, and meet at the same bus station each evening so they can ride home together, propping each other up on a seat or while holding on to an overhead strap, stopping on the way to get supplies as they require them.

The hours are terrible, the pay is shit, and the work is brutal. They're aching from head to toe by the time they get home, from bending over sewing machines or pushing mops nonstop for hours. There is no such thing as a break, only fifteen minutes scavenged here and there to eat whatever they managed to bring along with them. Andy can't help but remember those pieces she wrote about the janitors' union so long ago, and thinks about how good those guys had it, compared to this. She'd pitied them once. Now she doesn't even dare pity herself, because if she does that, if she thinks for too long about what her life is like now…and she can't complain, can she, because she's surrounded by people who are in the same boat she is, but who have never seen New York or London or Milan, and who don't have any jewelry to sell to make ends meet. Andy wonders how they get by; she and Miranda are just barely managing it.

But however tight things get, there is one expenditure that they will not avoid: at least twice a week, they do their mightiest to stop by a local internet café, even if just for a few moments, to shell out what kunas they can spare and access English-language news sites. Most of the sites Andy used to know, including the one she worked for, are gone, or are now puppets of the New Government. Others have been blocked by the Croatian government--she's not sure why, but nobody seems to care about explaining it to her either. There are a couple of scrappy independent sites and blogs that are plainly operating on a shoestring budget and fairly chancy intelligence. There's no way to know if the news they're reporting is correct or true, which drives Miranda batty, but it's better than nothing.

And life is not ceaseless misery, evidence to the contrary. Miranda's factory is closed on Sundays, and more often than not, Andy can arrange to get Sunday off in exchange for working a couple of double shifts during the week. They'll sleep past dawn, pack a lunch, and then go to the park, finding a quiet, green corner where they can watch the people go by. A few museums are still in decent shape and offer public admission, so when it rains, they'll venture there. Sometimes Andy thinks they live from Sunday to Sunday, and they even pass up the chance to get more sleep so that they can enjoy those hours away from the job, savoring what pleasures the world has to offer now. A couple of times they even splurge on a matinee, if the movie's in English with subtitles instead of being dubbed. Smart little independent films aren't in high demand or easy to find (the Cannes festival is but a dim memory now), but well, somehow re-runs of former Hollywood blockbusters manage to be more escapist anyway. And they can do with escape.

It's funny: if you'd asked her a year ago, Andy would have thought that maybe they'd want to spend Sundays apart, have some time to themselves. If you asked her now, she might say that it's only sensible to stay together when they go outside, because who knows what might happen? But that doesn't quite account for the way that they sit or stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the bus, or the way they walk pressed closely together even if there's not a crowd, or the way they rarely sit farther than a foot apart at the park. Miranda, who formerly refused to ride in an elevator with another human being, treats Andy almost like an extra limb on her body. Andy gets nervous if Miranda is not within easy grabbing distance, in case they have to run.

Besides, people-watching is more fun if you have somebody there with you. At least, Andy's always thought so.

All the same, and Sundays aside, Andy has never known anything like this before, and neither has Miranda. They've both always been hard workers, and they've both been through some lean times. But they've never done work like this, work that breaks both the back and the mind, day after day, unceasingly. And they've never gone from one day to the next eating just enough and no more--from necessity, not choice. (Andy remembers models who deliberately starved themselves because it was fashionable to be skeleton-thin. No doubt Miranda does, too. Andy does not raise the subject.)

They're already living on the edge of the knife when inflation begins to rise catastrophically in September. Their salaries don't exactly keep pace. What are they going to do? There's no way they can find a cheaper place to live and remain even moderately safe. They can't work more hours. There aren't enough hours in the day, and besides, now everybody is scrambling for jobs, even shitty jobs like theirs. They cut back however they can: they sell a few more things and they finally have to give up on the internet cafés. There are certainly no more movies. Some days they eat less than just enough.

And they steal. Heedless of the risk, Andy swipes the occasional piece of china to sell, or lifts things from the kitchen: a jar of jam here, a loaf of bread there, and ta-da, they've got a few days' worth of lunch. Miranda's options are more limited, but sometimes she manages to nab a couple of silk neckties or scarves. These they sell to street vendors, who in turn tear out the labels and replace them with fake designer ones.

"Well, think of it this way," Miranda says. "Italy's on fire, but we're helping to make sure that Gucci still gets global exposure."

Andy laughs, but these moments of humor become rarer, especially from Miranda. They don't always go outside on Sundays now--sometimes she wants to sleep in much later, and so Andy reads quietly, or heads down the hallway to play checkers with old Mrs. Gojmerac, who lives in 5-C and likes the company. If they do go out, Miranda rarely speaks unless Andy asks her a direct question. She's never been chatty, of course, and she's never tolerated babble, but this feels different.

Then the news comes through: there's a water shortage. Each citizen of Zagreb will have a certain allotted number of liters per week, dependent on the size of his or her household and specific living conditions; anyone who exceeds his portion can expect to be heavily fined.

This applies to legal citizens, of course. Not illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants are going to have to pass some money under the table if they want to drink, cook, clean, or bathe.

Andy wonders how long she and Miranda have before they're out on the streets for real.

 


 

June 2021

At the beginning of June, three weeks and two days after she left, Miranda returns.

Andy, who (ironically enough) is in the middle of chopping wood, sees her approaching up the path. She feels several conflicting emotions: first, disbelief; second, unbridled joy; third, fury; and fourth, the vindictive feeling that if she chopped off her own leg right at this moment, it would serve Miranda right and be horribly appropriate all at the same time.

She decides not to go that far, and settles for flinging the axe to the side as she charges to the gate.

Miranda is alive. Alive and well enough, if she's walking. She isn't dead or in jail. That is the first thing to understand. That is the first reason to give thanks to whoever is or isn't listening. This truth, this certainty, makes Andy's life worth living again, and now she has space in her head for absolute rage. Rage if Miranda doesn't show remorse, if Miranda doesn't apologize for what she has done. Worse: if Miranda doesn't truly understand the magnitude of it.

Andy has no idea what she's going to do now. Throw her arms around Miranda, punch her, what? The last time she struck someone in anger was when she'd caught a contact in Canada, whom she'd trusted, trying to feel up one of the sixteen-year-old girls Andy was transporting. She doesn't want to put Miranda in his company. So hitting is out.

In the end, she just stands and looks, watching Miranda get closer and closer. She does not go out to meet her, and it takes Miranda nearly ten minutes to reach the gate.

When she gets there, they just look at each other. Miranda's eyes are weary and defeated, but there is no regret in them. None at all. Andy's stomach starts to get unpleasantly hot.

"I didn't find them," Miranda says. "They weren't there. I looked and looked, and they weren't there."

"Your kids are dead," Andy says.

The words land between them like the blade of an axe. Miranda's face goes white. The thought running through her mind is as clear as day: how can Andy say that with such certainty? Does she know? Has she known the truth all along and kept it from Miranda to protect her?

But even now, feeling half-crazy, Andy isn't malicious enough to leave Miranda like that for more than a few moments. "They're dead, or they've been forced to be some asshole's wife, or enslaved somewhere, or--"

Miranda's whole body sways, and she has to hold on to a nearby fence post for support as she almost collapses in relief. Now she's thinking oh thank God, thank God, Andy doesn't know for sure, and maybe someday she'll find them, yes, someday…

"You won't find them," Andy says, feeling like she's about to gag on the words, because Miranda has got to wake the fuck up and face the facts. She has to know that she can't take risks like that again, she can't just leave like that again, not without Andy. She doesn't have the right to leave Andy without the only human being she cares about, because that is the last cruelty, the only cruelty that Andy will not accept from this world. The world cannot be that way, cannot be that fucked up beyond all redemption. Andy only needs one thing to survive, only one thing in the entire universe, and for her to leave--leave like it was nothing--

"You won't find them," she repeats, aware that tears are running down her face. Miranda just stares at her like she can't comprehend anything Andy is saying. "You're not sorry. You're not even sorry."

"No," Miranda says softly, her face still pale, her eyes going very cold. "No, I am not sorry."

It's more than Andy can bear. "Go out and take care of the bees, or whatever the fuck," she says. Because she can't run this farm alone. "I'll be in the barn." As if their day three weeks ago had never been interrupted at all.

"Andrea--"

"I can't talk to you," Andy shouts. Miranda takes a step backwards, her jaw clenching. "Just go inside or somewhere, and stay put, because I can't do this by mysel--" She almost chokes, and wipes her cheeks dry with the back of her hand. "I'll be in the barn," she repeats. "Don't talk to me."

Miranda does not. Andy heads into the barn. And that night, even though her arms could be filled for the first time in nearly a month, she sleeps there too.

She sleeps there for several nights. Miranda doesn't try to persuade her otherwise. If Andy can't forgive her for leaving, then Miranda can't forgive Andy for what she said about the girls. Having struck at each others' weakest points, they keep apart, eating meals at separate times, speaking only as much as they have to in order to keep the farm going.

It's strange: Andy missed Miranda more than she's ever missed anyone or anything else, but she almost can't endure being near her, can't endure that Miranda doesn't feel the same way, or even understand why Andy cares so much. Back in the old life, therapists would have told her that this isn't healthy at all. This isn't the old life. It has none of the old rules, and Andy needs what she needs.

Miranda. Can't live with her. Can't live without her. It figures.

 


 

November 2019

It can't go on like this.

That's the refrain that runs through Andy's head day after day, hour after hour: It can't go on like this. They're cold. They're hungry. They're definitely thirsty. The only upside to the mess is that when they sleep, they're both too tired to dream.

Inflation's up, wages are stagnant, and it's getting harder to steal: aware that the temptation has grown, supervisors everywhere are watching their employees like hawks. If Miranda gets caught lifting so much as a spool of thread, she'll be fired, and they can't afford that. Ditto for Andy. So they make do, only it's not enough.

Miranda sells a little more jewelry. She manages to get decent money for it too, which Andy marvels at. Even in these circumstances, she's good at looking bored, like it's no big deal--if the buyer won't pay her asking price, she'll just go and find somebody who will. She never looks desperate. That, she tells Andy, is the key. And she works every day without complaint, which is more than Andy can say for herself sometimes.

But Andy's still getting a little worried about her. Every day Miranda looks more worn. She's aged more in the last year than in the twelve that came before. That makes sense, given how they live, and more than once, Andy catches herself thinking that after all is said and done, at least Miranda is still beautiful. But part of that beauty has always been the light in her eyes, the fierce glow of determination, whether it's to get an issue of Runway out on time, raise funds for refugees, or find her children. And that glow, though Andy would never have believed it, is fading.

Andy thinks she knows the problem. Miranda's too good at looking at the big picture. She's always thinking ahead, working out the next step in the game. But this is the game. This is the whole game, just this, day in and day out, with no obvious hope for escape, no way forward. Where can they go? The bridge back to Italy burned a long time ago. To the north, Slovenia and Austria are closed. It's dangerous to travel east, and exorbitantly expensive, too. They could very well be stuck here for the rest of their lives, however long--or short--those might be.

Andy watches Miranda come to understand this. There isn't a blinding moment of revelation. It's more that day by day, things keep not changing. And without any visible way out, any means to improve her lot, Miranda has clearly lost something that's kept her going. They haven't talked about struggle or the resistance or politics, haven't talked about any of the things they both used to live for, in God knows how long. Sometimes all that seems like a dream.

One night, Miranda lugs in a jug of nasty-looking water. They buy from a smuggler on the first floor. Nothing's swimming in it, but they'd have to be first-rate masochists to use it for anything without boiling it first. Andy gets out a pot, puts it on the hot plate, and they wait while the water begins to heat and bubble. Bonus: the bedsit will be warm in a minute, too.

"The highlight of my night," Andy says, climbing up into the bed. "Watching water boil."

"Remember when we used to have tea?" Miranda asks, sitting down heavily in the chair and tugging a blanket over her legs. "And coffee?"

Andy looks at her, surprised. Miranda doesn't make idle conversation these days, and she never talks about the past. Not even about Milan. On a few occasions in London, after they were more comfortable with each other, Andy attempted to reminisce about New York. Miranda always shot her down like a fighter jet. The past is past. Use the present to its best advantage, and always look towards the future. For Miranda to use the word 'remember'--and not as part of a sentence like, "Remember to lock the door"--is extraordinary.

Maybe it's healthy, Andy tells herself. Maybe it's good that Miranda is finally ready to face what's happened in the last few years. Surely she thinks about it. With her obsessive focus on finding her children, she must think about it all the time. So maybe it's good that she's ready to put that into words at last.

"Yeah," Andy says. "I remember that. I still remember how you used to drink your coffee every day."

Miranda blinks at her. "What?"

"You know. Your Starbucks." Andy wonders if Starbucks still exists in America. It just might. It always seemed pretty hard to kill. "At least three times a day. A no-foam skim latte with an extra shot of espresso. Searing hot." She can't imagine ever forgetting that. It had been drilled into her like her own name.

Miranda's eyes widen. "Yes," she says. "Every day. You remember that?"

"Yeah." Andy stretches out on the bed and smirks at Miranda as she crosses her ankles. "For a while there, I was getting you coffee in my sleep. Literally. I had dreams about it."

Miranda shakes her head, looking surprised. "It's so strange to think about. It wasn't even all that long ago. Although it feels like it." Andy nods. Miranda left New York five and a half years ago. That seems like a lifetime now. "I remember exactly what my office looked like. I remember the roses I always had on my desk."

"I remember that crazy girl I worked with," Andy says, grappling for a face, something to keep Miranda talking. "What was--Emily! The one with red hair. She hated me. You remember her?"

"I had many assistants, few of them remarkable," Miranda says, and for a second she sounds like her old self. "To be honest, I don't even remember that much about your tenure."

Andy is surprised by how much that stings. "I walked out like a brat," she says. "Do you remember that part?"

Miranda frowns. "You--? Oh." Then she glares. Andy grins in relief. "That's right. You did, didn't you?"

"Sure did. In Paris." Andy bites her lip. "I came back, though, didn't I?"

Miranda snorts. "You certainly did. And you were much more useful."

"You tried to call me when you saw me walking away. I always wonder what you would have said."

"I have no idea. But I can imagine."

"Me too. I used to. A lot." Andy smiles at her. "You forgave me, though."

"I doubt it," Miranda says. "You got a job at a newspaper after that, didn't you?"

"Yep," Andy says. "The New York Mirror. I worked there for three years and got laid off in '09, like everybody else. The whole thing folded." Andy sighs. "But I'd done good work and my name was out there. I'd learned about some online content stuff, and people were looking for that, so I got a job with the Gotham Gazette."

"The--" Miranda actually chuckles, even if it does sound bitter. "Perfect."

"Yeah." Andy grins sheepishly, but then sobers. "It was, actually. We were all tapped in to the city, we had people who found out what was really going on." She pauses. "That's how I got word to you before you left for London."

"I remember that," Miranda says quietly. "I remember that very clearly."

"Good," Andy says around a sudden lump in her throat. They're quiet. As Andy watches, the lines on Miranda's face deepen, her eyes cloud over, and just like that, she's not here anymore. She lowers her head, closes her eyes, and puts her hand over her face. Andy doesn't think she's crying, but her insides start to ache anyway, looking at it.

Then the water boils over, and Andy quickly clambers down from the bed to stop it. When she's turned down the heat, managing not to scald herself in the process, she looks over her shoulder. Miranda still has her hand over her face, as if she hasn't noticed the water at all.

It can't go on like this, Andy thinks. It can't.

And then the next day, somebody dies right in front of them.

It happens as they're leaving for work. It's five-thirty in the morning, the sun's not up, and it's cold. Miranda holds the front door of the tenement open for Andy, and as they step outside into the street their arms link together, seeking, a reflex guided towards warmth.

It's all very fast. A man darts out from behind a corner, carrying something, running as fast as he can. From around the corner, somebody screams, "Stani, mamlaz!" The first man doesn't stop, doesn't even slow down, but he's not fast enough. Within seconds, another man rounds the corner, points a handgun, fires, and Andy and Miranda are just standing there looking while the first guy falls forward, jerks, and lies still. They are the only other people on the street.

The gunman sees them. Andy gasps and Miranda drags her backwards towards the door, but he's already upon them, waving his gun in their faces, desperation in his eyes. "Zašuti!" he screams. "Šuti, ili ću vas ubiti!"

Andy doesn't know what most of that means, but it can't be good. This isn't the first gun that's ever been pointed at her, but that was years ago in Maine, and she's forgotten what it felt like. Miranda's hands are digging so hard into her arms that there will be bruises, and Andy suspects she is returning the favor as they clutch each other.

"Nemojte zvati policiju!" he continues.

The last word, they know. "No police," Andy croaks.

He stops, blinks. "English?" he asks in a heavy accent. "You speak?"

"Illegal immigrants," Miranda says, her voice astonishingly steady. She loosens one hand from Andy's arm to point at Andy, and then at herself. "Illegal." She shakes her head slowly. "No police."

He breathes heavily, looks back at the dead man on the ground. Then voices drift down from above, inquisitive voices. People have heard the gunshots and his shouts. The man looks at them again and says, "You don't call, I don't tell." He lowers the gun, runs to the body, and grabs the bag the dead man was carrying. And he is gone. The whole episode can't have lasted more than two minutes.

Andy realizes that somebody, not them, will indeed call the police. And if Andy and Miranda are pinpointed as witnesses, if they have to go in for questioning--

"C'mon," she manages, pulls at Miranda, and they're hurrying, almost sprinting down the street before they can be seen, keeping to the side of the building, in the shadows. When they round the corner of the next block, and nobody's called after them or seemed to notice them, they slow down and catch their breaths. Now that they're away from the scene of the crime, they have to act like they weren't anywhere near it, haven't seen anything of interest at all. Just two women walking together to the bus stop for work. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Andy's amazed by how calm she is. That wasn't so bad. It's funny: during her years of smuggling, running, and hiding, she never actually saw anybody get killed. She knew people who disappeared. Too many to count. She knew there were deaths in London during the riots. And in Milan, when the bombs were falling on the other side of town, she knew that people were dying. It's just never happened right in front of her like that. How…odd. And bizarrely tidy. There hadn't been any explosion of brains or blood--just one efficient little dark splatter on the sidewalk--

She stops and bends over, but she doesn't actually retch. Her stomach hurts, but it refuses to give up what little is in there. She's grateful for that as she gasps for air.

"Shit," she moans. "Sorry."

They're still in a residential block, and Miranda sits down on a nearby stoop while Andy composes herself. "Are you going to be sick?"

"No. I don't think so. God."

"Just as well. We can't afford to wash your clothes until next week."

Andy straightens up, and then sits down next to Miranda, feeling like she weighs as much as the earth. The weight of the world on her shoulders.

"We can't stay here," she says.

"There's nowhere to go," Miranda replies. Her voice is flat and leaves no room for discussion, as if she is stating a scientific fact.

"We're starving," Andy says. "We're running out of jewelry and in a few months we won't make rent. If anybody figures out who we are, we're dead. We just almost got shot."

"We're not starving," Miranda says. She doesn't have to add, 'Not yet.' They both know it's only a matter of time. And she can't deny the rest of it. Andy looks at her, tries to find some spark of defiance or will in this face as familiar as her own.

Miranda looks back and gives her nothing. Then she says abruptly, "Get up," and rises to her feet. "We're going to be late for work."

Without waiting for Andy, she proceeds down the street. Andy watches her for just a second, stares at the list of those once-proud shoulders. Miranda bends over sewing machines all day long. It's getting harder for her to walk with her back straight.

It can't go on like this, the refrain repeats. And looking at Miranda, Andy picks up a new chorus: I won't let it.

 


 

June 2021

A week after Miranda comes back, when they've exchanged as few frosty words as possible, Andy breaks. Miranda is in the kitchen, skimming the cream off the milk when Andy storms up to her. "I just have to know this one thing," Andy says. "Did you regret it at all, after you'd left? Did it feel just a little bit wrong? A little bit weird?" Miranda does not reply. Her eyes are cool, and the look on her face is decidedly unimpressed. "Oh my God, did you have any idea what you were doing?" To me? Andy does not add.

Miranda hears it anyway. "It wasn't about you, Andrea," she says. "It never was." She looks back at the cream.

A moment passes. "Oh, okay," Andy says when she's got her breath back, even if breathing hurts. "I guess that's all I need to know."

"You don't have children," Miranda says. "You don't have children, and you don't understand." Her jaw clenches. "That's all you need to know."

"You could have told me--"

"You'd have stopped me. Tried to stop me," Miranda amends.

"Not if it was important enough," Andy says, half-convinced it's true. "You shouldn't have gone without me. Something could have happened to you--"

"I know. I knew." Miranda shrugs. "I didn't care."

"Well, you ought to care," Andy rasps. "You ought to think about somebody else for a change."

"Like you're doing now?" Miranda asks scornfully. "You're angry because I left you, Andrea."

"No shit!" Andy's shaking. "After everyth--how am I supposed to feel?"

"However you want. Although I have to say, I've noticed the diminished number of plates in the cupboards." She looks back at Andy. Her eyes are alight with malice. Andy remembers telling her that the twins were dead. "Did it make you feel better?"

"No," Andy says. "No, goddamn it, it didn't!"

"It never made me feel better either," Miranda says. "It was never what I really wanted. Tell you what, Andrea--what if you hit me? Will that do it?" She's smiling, viciously, but Andy has the feeling that she's in earnest. She gapes. "All these years, and you've just been dying to tell me what you really think about my children--what about a nice, quick slap? It's the same thing, isn't it?"

"No," Andy says again. "I--"

"No, it isn't," Miranda agrees. "It would have been much kinder."

"Dammit, Miranda, you left, you just walked away and--"

"And I'd do it again," Miranda says. Andy freezes. Miranda doesn't look away. "Do you understand, Andrea? I would do it again."

Andy can't speak.

"Marry the butcher, why don't you?" Miranda suggests, and turns back to the cream.

A few moments later Andy's standing back in the barn, looking around like she's never been here before. She's breathing hard, which means she must have left the kitchen really fast. Her chest aches. Burns, almost. She feels a moment of panic: is she having a heart attack?

No. She sits down heavily atop a pile of feed bags. No. A broken heart isn't quite the same thing as a heart attack. It's probably worse. Miranda is right: physical pain is preferable to feeling like this. Being dead is better than feeling like this. She wishes Miranda had hit her instead, too.

And yet it's still better than a week ago, when Miranda wasn't here.

That night, Andy doesn't sleep in the barn. She goes upstairs. It's her room too, isn't it? Miranda is already in bed, just getting ready to blow out the candle. She looks at Andy in surprise. Andy tries to think of something to say, fails completely, and just begins to undress. Then she gets in bed and the candle goes out.

They never snuggle or anything, even after they've had sex. But they do sort of…settle together, arms or hands brushing. More often than not, Andy wakes to find that she's put her arm around Miranda, and Miranda doesn't complain about it. Then they get up and go about their business. They never allude to it during the day; it just is what it is. But tonight they sleep with their backs turned to each other, and while the mattress is much more comfortable than the hay, Andy keeps waking up. She doesn't have nightmares, though, so that's something.

By the time Andy wakes up, Miranda is already gone from the bed. Andy can hear the sound of the radio drifting up from downstairs. Somebody's speaking in English.

Andy practically falls out of the bed, certain, for an instant, that Miranda's heard news about more refugees and is gone again. Why hasn't Andy destroyed that fucking device? But as she stumbles downstairs, she sees that Miranda is seated at the kitchen table while the crackling voice on the airwaves says, "…and the borders are closing again. A new offensive on the part of the--" Bzzt. "--emergency defense measures. Hungary insists that the closure is temporary--" Kzz. "--hampers supply lines to the south and east. Shortages are anticipated. We don't have more information readily available at this time--"

Miranda reaches out and turns off the radio. Then she looks over at Andy, standing uselessly on the stairs in her sweatpants and ratty t-shirt.

"Well," she says dully.

Andy swallows hard and fidgets like a teenager. Part of her wants to make Miranda feel better. The other part…really doesn't. In the end, she bites her lip and says nothing, turns around, and goes back up the stairs to get dressed before heading out to do her chores.

It's a beautiful day. It's clear, and as she works in the garden, Andy has a great view of the tree-covered hilltops rising up into the mountains not so very far away. As far as scenic vistas go, you could do worse than live here. In the distance, she sees three men herding a flock of sheep down into a valley. Sheep. Now that's something to think about. If the supply lines are really closing, then the price of wool's going to go up. Not that Andy has any idea how to turn sheep-wool into clothing-wool--and she doubts Miranda would get excited over looms, considering--but…

Nah. They'd never be able to afford more than a couple of sheep, and the amount of wool they could get off that wouldn't be enough to justify the initial expenditure, to say nothing of the keep. And they get enough milk from Rapunzel. Andy sighs, stands up, dusts off her knees, and takes a few steps backwards to survey her handiwork.

Something heaves and twists beneath her foot, she hears an enraged hiss, and then she feels the brief, hot sting of a bite. Andy yelps and jumps away, but not before the adder strikes again, just below the first bite. She's not wearing her boots today--it's been warm lately, so an ancient, beat-up pair of sneakers suffices her, and leaves her ankles and lower calves vulnerable.

Fuck! There are plenty of adders around at this time of year, but they're usually timid. Unless, of course, you step right on top of them. Andy hops away on one foot, cursing as the snake recoils, then uncoils and slithers away with astonishing speed. Now what? She knows you're not supposed to move after a snakebite, but she can't exactly lie down here in the field by herself. She has to get back to the farmhouse, and she limps as quickly as she can.

By the time she's halfway there, she's in agony. Adder venom isn't usually lethal, not in this part of the world, but she's heard that it hurts like a bitch. The rumors were true. "Miranda!" she cries as she makes it past the gate, leaning on a post to support herself. Tears sting her eyes.

Miranda opens the door. Her eyes widen, and then she rushes out. Andy forestalls her question by gritting, "Fucking--snakebite." Miranda's mouth tightens, and she slides her right arm around Andy, letting Andy lean on her as they head for the door.

Inside, Miranda seats Andy on one of the kitchen chairs and props her leg up on the other. "What happened?"

"I stepped on a snake, that's what happened," Andy says as she pulls off her sun hat and tosses it on the table. Her leg is actually throbbing with pain. "Oh, shit. Do we have any aspirin?"

"We're not worrying about aspirin right now," Miranda says in exasperation as she turns on the faucet. They got their running water back in March, and Andy's never been so thankful for a modern convenience in her life. "Where were you?"

"Potato garden."

"Mm." Miranda brings over a tub, a rag, and a bar of soap to clean off the bites. "It got you twice?"

"Yeah."

"You should have worn your boots."

"It's too hot for boots." Andy gasps. "Ow! Jesus, don't push on it! Do you know how to treat a snakebite?"

"Yes," Miranda says tersely. She gets up and heads for the cabinet where they keep their first-aid supplies. Andy was surprised to learn that once upon a time, she and Miranda had both been Girl Scouts. It's come in handy more than once. Apparently some lessons really stick. Miranda gets out a bandage, returns, and ties it above the bite marks. It's not super-tight, but it still hurts.

"Oh God," Andy says, wincing. "Do we have to do that thing where you cut me and suck out the poison?"

Miranda frowns. "They say you're not supposed to anymore. But that might be because everybody just uses antivenin."

"Of which we have none."

Miranda bites her lip. "I'll have to go to the village. Get Dr. Capraru."

"Dr. Capraru is a jerk who charges a fortune," Andy protests, trying to ignore the insistent throbbing of her leg. And the way it's swelling up like a balloon. And starting to tingle. "We don't have one of those either. And everybody knows these things aren't, like, deadly." Miranda stares at her. "Besides, it's just an ankle bite. It's not like it got me in the face or anything. I bet it'll be fine. Owww. Just give me an aspirin."

"No," Miranda says, heading for the door, where she puts on her boots. "I don't know what you can give to people who have been poisoned."

"What?" This is revenge, it has to be. "Oh, come on--"

"You might not die, but your leg could be permanently damaged. We're not taking that risk."

"Miranda--"

"And the next time a bicycle shows up in town, we're buying it," Miranda mutters as she takes the shotgun from the rack on the other side of the door. She prefers it to the pistol, in spite of the extra weight. "Ridiculous--at least the doctor has a car. I'll be back as soon as I can." She gives Andy a glare that's much more deadly than an adder's bite. "Don't you dare move."

The door slams behind her. Andy bares her teeth at it. "Try not to take any trains by mistake," she mutters.

Now there's nothing to do but wait. Miranda's right. They really should get a bike the next time one becomes available. It's amazing that something like this hasn't happened before now--and that it isn't more serious. If one of them ever does chop a limb off with an axe, she'll bleed to death long before the other can get help. There are definite disadvantages to their solitude. But herders will be going to and from the village at this time of year, and it's fairly likely that Miranda will be able to hitch a ride on a cart, or even a truck if she's lucky.

At least the radio's still on the kitchen table. Andy switches it back on, and turns the dial until she finds the pop music station. Michael Jackson immediately lets her know he's bad. Andy laughs, then groans with pain. She can't believe Miranda just left her here to suffer like--oh hell, of course she can. Déjà vu.

For the next hour or so, Andy tries to distract herself from the pain by singing along to the radio, drumming her fingers in rhythm, but it doesn't help much. Especially since the pain keeps getting worse. Miranda might possibly have had a point about not waiting to get a doctor. Andy briefly considers saying the hell with her instructions, and getting up and getting an aspirin, or even limping upstairs to bed--anything's got to be more comfortable than this chair--but she's honestly not sure that her leg will support her at all now, much less let her get up the stairs. It hurts so much it feels like it's about to fall off. She almost wishes it would.

Another half-hour. Andy turns off the radio and lowers her head to the table. For some reason, she has a splitting headache. But now the farmhouse feels quiet, achingly quiet, just like it did after Miranda left the last time. Andy remembers how dizzying, how disorienting that was. Like right now. It feels like the whole room is spinning. She grabs the edge of the table just so she won't fall off her chair.

Her stomach has started to hurt, too. Like somebody's stabbing her repeatedly. Then, all of a sudden, everything comes up at once. She just barely has time to turn to the side so she can throw up on the floor instead of on herself. And then it's a pitched battle between her stomach and her leg and her inner ear, or whatever, because she can't decide which is worst.

Now she's starting to get hot all over, feverishly hot. This is not good. This is not good at all, this isn't how you're supposed to react to the bite of an adder, and this is a hell of a time for her to discover that apparently she's allergic to the venom. She's all alone in this farmhouse, her whole body is twisted up in knots of agony, and oh God, she can't die here. Not like this. Not after everything else--she's not going to die from a fucking snakebite in Nowherescu, Romania.

Water. Her mouth feels like somebody shoved a sock in there, and it tastes of vomit. She's got to get some water, get this awful taste out of her mouth. Water's got to be good, right? Maybe it'll cool her down. She feels like she's dying of thirst. The sink's just over there--so close, she can make it, even on this leg, she'll just be careful--

Andy eases her wounded leg off the chair and hisses when her heel touches the floor. The room is still spinning, and she knows it's a bad idea to try and get up, even as she does exactly that. But she's got to have water. She's never wanted water so badly in her life, even when they were paying through the nose for it in Zagreb. She grips the side of the table and takes one careful step forward.

And falls. Agony shoots from her ankle up her leg, all the way up to the crown of her head, and she shrieks. It hurts so much she almost passes out. She wishes that she would. Maybe she will: her vision's starting to get dark, and little lights are starting to flash where there shouldn't be any little lights, and even though she feels like she's burning up, she's shivering as much as if she had hypothermia. Her head aches almost as much as everything else, and it's pounding, like somebody is smashing it repeatedly against the floor.

There's the sound of the door opening. Then Andy hears Miranda cry out, "Andrea!"

There is a note in her voice Andy's never heard before, a note of genuine terror, and for a crazy second Andy wonders if they've been caught and the Not-A-Secret Police are at their door at last. What else could frighten Miranda so much? But then she hears Dr. Capraru's voice, and decides that is unlikely. Whew. Although if the police had come in and blown her brains out, at least she wouldn't be feeling like this.

She opens her eyes to see Dr. Capraru kneeling next to her, opening his bag. Miranda's nowhere in sight, but then she feels somebody's arms going around her from behind, holding her still.

"Can you breathe freely?" Dr. Capraru asks her sharply as he pulls a syringe from the bag.

"Uh huh," Andy moans. At least that's a good sign.

"Your heart? It hurts?"

"Nuh uh." It seems like it's the only thing that doesn't. Andy feels something in her hair: Miranda's fingers combing through it. The fingers are shaking, and Andy's scalp feels as tender and hot as the rest of her. "Don't pull my hair," she whimpers, and Miranda snatches her hand away.

"My, you are having a bad time," Dr. Capraru says. There is a note of cheer in his voice, but it rings false.

"Will she be all right?" Miranda asks. Andy thinks she feels her trembling, but that might just be because Andy's shaking pretty hard herself.

"We shall see," he says, and pushes Andy's sleeve up to her elbow before pulling out a cotton ball. He swabs the inside of her elbow with alcohol, and then in the needle goes. Andy hates needles. She closes her eyes and hisses at the addition of one more painful sensation to her current repertoire.

Then she can't open them again. The lights continue flashing behind the lids, though, so that's something. She still feels like she's burning up, and she's still desperately thirsty.

"Allergic reaction to the venom," she dimly hears Capraru say. His tone of voice is serious. "Running a fever…"

Andy feels Miranda's hand running up and down her arm, a little too quickly to be comforting. "Now what? What do we do?"

"…her comfortable." Their voices are getting fainter. "At least…know…her mother is here."

Her mother? Her mother is here? It doesn't seem at all likely, but Andy pries open her eyelids, which, like everything else, hurt. Suddenly, unlikely or not, all Andy wants in the world is to see her-- "Mom?"

She doesn't see her mom. Or her dad or brother, or the home in Cincinnati where she grew up, or anything that she wants to see more than life itself. She should have known. "Mom," she groans, and closes her eyes again.

"…tell her…mother is here," Capraru says distantly. He sounds sharp when he adds: "Tell her!"

"I--I'm here," Miranda says. Andy can hear her much better, but that's probably because Miranda seems to be speaking right into her ear. "I'm here, Andrea. I'm not--" She squeezes Andy's elbow convulsively. "I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere."

"Yeah, you are," Andy slurs. Her body is starting to feel very heavy. Like after they saw that guy get shot, years ago. The lucky bastard. She wonders if his experience was anything like hers, if there was any pain, even for a moment, or if everything was just--gone.

"No," Miranda says, her voice sounding ever more urgent. "No. I'm not. I'm staying here. Do you understand?"

Miranda is lying. She said herself that she would go away again if she wanted to. That knowledge, on top of every other pain, is finally enough to make everything go completely black, and maybe when Andy opens her eyes again she'll see her mom, her real mom, and her family and her friends and everybody else she's ever lost. People who loved her.

"Andrea!" is the last thing she hears. Miranda sounds like somebody is hurting her.

The dark place beckons. Andy goes.

 


 

December 2019

Sunday morning, 6:30 a.m. Miranda is asleep. Andy leaves a note: 'W/ Mrs. G.' She hopes Miranda doesn't wake up for at least another hour, because she'll never believe that even Mrs. Gojmerac wants to play checkers before seven in the morning.

Andy dearly misses Miranda's company, or at least her body heat, as she steps out into the frigid air. As always, she hesitates on the first step, as if she's afraid the gunman's going to jump from around the corner again. They both feared for days that he'd remember their faces, come back and finish them off just in case they got any funny ideas about turning him in. But it looks like he did something much smarter and ran away, because Andy hasn't gotten so much as a glimpse of him since.

They both still have nightmares about it, though. Miranda hasn't admitted as much, but one time, Andy woke up in the middle of the night because Miranda was shaking against her and muttering under her breath. Andy had nudged her; Miranda had gasped and opened her eyes; Andy had said firmly, "He's not here. We're safe." And then Miranda had closed her eyes and gone right back to sleep without a murmur. Andy doubts she remembers the episode at all.

This place is toxic. Too much crime. Way too many people. Even with its hardships, Croatia is still relatively free, and people like Andy and Miranda are creeping through the borders all the time. Andy got out off work a little early one afternoon, and decided to meet Miranda at her factory instead of the bus stop. She was shocked by the people lined up outside the building, and it didn't take long to figure out that they were looking for work.

Worse, Andy and Miranda were recognized yesterday. Andy knows they were, because she made eye contact with the guy, and saw her own shock reflected in him. A man who'd known them in Milan--not well, but he was a friend of Donatella's who'd been at a few parties and soirées. She'd exchanged a couple of pleasantries with him. Nothing more than that, but it was more than enough for him to recognize her.

He opened his mouth. She turned her head away and hustled Miranda through the crowd, muttering that they'd been spotted. When she dared to look over her shoulder again, he was gone. They still took an alternate route home.

It can happen again, Andy knows. It can happen so easily. All it takes is one person: one hungry, penniless person with an eye towards a reward. People are ready to turn on each other like dogs in this city as they run out of water and work. Andy can practically feel them nipping at her heels.

She's heard about a guy, called only 'Pavao.' A guy who makes passports and arranges for safe transport. It'll cost them a fortune, but at this point, Andy's willing to spend it. Last night, when Miranda was getting the water downstairs, she cadged a diamond bracelet: the most valuable thing Miranda still owns. Miranda will probably be furious, but it'll be a fait accompli by then. Better, Andy decides, to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

She has to take two buses, and by the time she gets to his flat, it's nearly seven-thirty in the morning. Still early, but a guy in this business keeps odd hours. She raps at the door four times, pauses for two seconds, and then twice more, like she was told.

The door opens, and the guy--Pavao, presumably--gives her a long look. She looks back. The word 'hirsute' comes to mind, as does 'portly.' But she doesn't care if he's the Abominable Snowman if he can get them out of here.

"Dobro jutro," she says. He nods shortly. "Putovnice. Trebam putovnice, molim."

"Come in," he grunts, and she relaxes. Most people can tell she's an American right away from her accent, and most people speak at least a little English. Still, you never know, and this is particularly delicate business.

She looks around the room as she enters. It's a pretty standard sitting room, but he keeps going. She follows him into the back, where he flips on a light switch, and she sees a table covered with plastic flaps, stamps, little photographs.

"How many?" he asks.

"Two."

"Where do you go?"

"I don't know," Andy says. He raises an eyebrow. "East." It's the only way they can go, right now.

"You should try Romania," he says. "They have--" he pauses, hunts for the word. "A pact. No one will bother them. And no one goes in without a passport, like I make for you."

Andy hopes to God it's the truth. Without access to TV or the internet, she feels like she's fumbling her way in the dark, trusting to this stranger's word. She points to a stack of fake passports piled up on the table. "May I see?" He shrugs, and she picks up a couple. Flawless.

"You have pictures?" he asks.

"Yes," Andy says. She pulls out their old British passports, holding her breath. He obviously has no idea who she is, but he just might recognize Miranda. But he just looks at them and grunts.

"How much?" Andy asks.

He gives her a long look. Then he turns and walks into another room. Through the open door, she can see the edge of a bed.

He comes back out, and she sees he's holding a wrapped condom. "It will be safe," he says, and jerks his head back towards the room. "Come." Andy freezes in place. He frowns at her.

"Y-you don't want money?" Andy asks.

"If I want money, I ask for money," he says. "If you want passports, you come in here and lie down."

Money's one thing, but he'd probably want the diamond bracelet if he actually saw it. Diamonds aren't subject to inflation. But he doesn't know she's got the bracelet, and from what she's heard, he gets enough business that he can afford to--

She goes in there and lies down.

It's not awful, although it's been a while, and she's not exactly wild with arousal. So it stings and stretches. But he's not rough or mean, just quick and impersonal, and it isn't difficult to lie back and think of England. Or of Miranda, and the stoop of her shoulders, the exhaustion in her eyes. After a few minutes, he lifts his head, grunts, and shudders.

Then he gives her breakfast: coffee and a couple of pieces of toast. She eats, trying not to wolf it down, while he sits at his table and makes the passports as painstakingly as any artist. It feels beyond surreal. When he's done, he presents them to her for her inspection. They're perfect, as far as she can tell, and she nods.

Before she leaves, he gives her a slip of paper. "Find Ante at the train station," he says. "He sells cigarettes at the south entrance. Trust him."

"Th-thank…" Andy swallows. "Hvala."

He nods and says, indifferently, "Stretno." Good luck. He turns back to his table, and she leaves, clearly dismissed.

As she walks home, Andy feels the weight of Miranda's diamond bracelet in one pocket and the passports in the other. She tries to work out how she feels about what just happened. To her surprise, other than a faint ache between her legs, she mostly feels relief. That could have been a lot worse. He didn't hurt her, he used a condom, she's still got the diamonds, and they'll be getting out of here with way more than Andy ever thought they would. She learned long ago to be grateful for small mercies, and this feels like a big one.

It's almost nine when she returns. Miranda, up and dressed, is sitting in the chair by the bed, sipping at something in a mug. Warm milk. Milk is more affordable than water now. At least it's good for you, and some mornings, it's all they get.

"Hi," Andy says. She reaches into her pocket, fingers the bracelet, and wonders how to get it back into their stash without Miranda noticing. "Sleep okay?"

Miranda grunts. "Did you win at checkers?"

She won something, all right. Andy takes a deep breath. "I didn't play checkers." She reaches into her other pocket, and pulls out the passports. Miranda takes one look, and her eyes go wide.

"We're getting out of here," Andy says. "Finish your milk. We're leaving now."

"We're what?" Miranda leans forward and takes the passports. Her eyes get even bigger; she opens the drawer of the nightstand and pulls out her reading glasses, evidently unable to believe what she's looking at. "Romania?"

"It's supposed to be pretty this time of year," Andy says, and drags out their suitcases from beneath the loft bed. She throws hers open, and then pulls open the chest of drawers. "Come on. There's a guy at the train station we have to meet."

"Andrea, have you lost your mind? What are we going to do there? How did you even get these?"

"We'll figure it out when we get there," Andy snaps. "Just like we did here."

"Andrea--"

"They're not like Croatia, they only let people with passports in. It won't be as bad, not like that, and they've got water. And a--a pact. They've made a pact with--" Who, exactly? "There's no fighting there."

"There's no fighting here--"

"Somebody saw us, Miranda!" Andy says. "Somebody saw us, we've got nothing, and this place is fucking killing--" she stops.

"What?" Miranda demands.

"--me," Andy finishes. "This place is killing me." Close enough. It's killing Miranda, and that's close enough, so it's not a lie. "Please. Come on. I've got the passports." She throws a shirt into her suitcase. "For Christ's sake, Miranda, we can be out of Zagreb forever by lunch!"

Miranda's mouth opens and closes, she takes another look at the passports, and then she gets to her feet and reaches for her own suitcase. Thank God. Andy's surprised by her own intensity, like she's just barely skirting the edges of hysteria. Maybe Miranda senses that. At any rate, it seems that Andy is correct: Miranda will leave for Andy's sake, but not her own. For Andy's sake, she doesn't have to bend her pride.

She's currently reaching into the drawers. Andy takes advantage of her turned back to say, "I'll get the stash." Miranda nods distractedly; Andy gets on the chair and pushes back the ceiling tile. She tugs out the bag and, before Miranda can see, drops the bracelet back in it.

It doesn't take long to pack. Clothes, jewelry, money, and as much food as it's practical to take: that's all. They're not in arrears to the landlord, so Andy feels no guilt about leaving without any notice. She hasn't felt much guilt at all in the last few years, now that she thinks about it. They have to change a couple of buses, but all told it takes them less than an hour to reach the station, where Andy leads them both to the south entrance.

There's a man selling cigarettes right by the door, just as Pavao said. Andy hurries up to him, hoping with every single part of her that this isn't a trap, that she hasn't walked into some setup with undercover cops or whatever. It feels too late to turn back. "Ante?" she asks breathlessly.

"Da," the man replies, giving Andy a cautious look. It's the look of someone who fears troubles of his own, and Andy relaxes.

"Pavao," she says, and as she hoped, the name sparks immediate recognition. "Pavao sent us." She reaches into her pocket and shows Ante the passport, careful to keep it discreetly hidden between them.

Miranda arrives to stand next to Andy. "Who is this?" she asks bluntly.

"Er…he's going to help us get out of here," Andy says, although she's not sure exactly how. This whole process should probably scare her more than it does. She feels high on adrenaline. "Help us," she repeats more clearly to Ante. "You'll help us, right?"

"Pavao give you a piece of paper, yes?" he asks.

For a heart-stopping moment, Andy has no idea what he's talking about, but then she remembers the paper Pavao put into her hands. Thank God, it's still in the pocket of her coat. She pulls it out, wishing she could read what's written there. But it seems to satisfy Ante: he reads, nods, grunts, and jerks his head.

"Who is this?" Miranda repeats, her voice an angry hiss as they follow Ante into the station. "And who is Pavao? What did you do this morning?"

"I told you, I got us passports. I'll explain later," replies Andy, wondering how she's going to do that.

"Yes, you will," Miranda says darkly.

They pause in the terminal. Ante says, "Wait here," and goes to talk to a teller in the ticket window. He speaks briefly, but does not look over at Andy and Miranda. The teller nods, hands over a couple of tickets, and Ante returns.

"Yevgeny conducts the train today," he says. "This is good. Yevgeny will help us. You show him the paper you showed me. And have your passports ready." He gives Andy the tickets. Huh. Passports, tickets, and personal service. And unlike the trip into Croatia, they're not even going to have to stow away in a cargo car. Andy thinks, with grim humor, that it's not bad for less than ten minutes' work.

She looks down at the ticket, and sighs when she can't figure it out. "Where does the train go?"

"Bukurešt," Ante tells her, "but there are stops before, if you want. Go now." Then he turns and leaves without another word.

Miranda actually waits until they're seated in the car, their luggage stowed above their heads, before she turns on Andy and says, "Explain. Now."

Andy licks her lips. "There's not much to explain," she says. "I told you, I can't stand Zagreb anymore. S-so I, last night I took some of the jewelry--" Miranda scowls. "--and this morning I went to this guy I heard about. Pavao. He made the passports and told me to get in touch with Ante. The man with the cigarettes."

"Andrea, did it not occur to you that perhaps we should have discussed this first?" Miranda asks acidly. "Especially since it's my jewelry you used?"

Andy closes her eyes. Miranda doesn't have to know--Miranda shouldn't know--Andy doesn't want to tell. She tries to think of something to say, opens her mouth before she can, and releases a deep sigh.

That's it. She really can't think of anything else.

After several silent moments, Miranda says, "What on earth are we going to do in Romania, anyway?"

 


 

June 2021

When Andy opens her eyes, she's lying somewhere soft and warm and comfortable. Her leg still hurts a little, but nothing else does, although she feels incredibly tired. For a moment she considers closing her eyes and going back to sleep, but then her eyes begin to focus, and she recognizes the farmhouse's bedroom.

Oh. Not dead, then. She's trying to work out whether she's disappointed or not when she realizes there are arms around her, holding her from behind, and somebody is breathing softly against her neck.

It can only be one person, unless Dr. Capraru is a lot more hands-on than Andy realized. She shifts and mumbles, "Miranda?"

She hears a sharp inhalation, and Miranda's hoarse voice says, "Andrea?" Funny. That was the last thing she heard, and now it's the first. The arms around her loosen, and Andy rolls over to see Miranda sitting up, hovering over her.

She almost gasps. Miranda looks worse than Andy has ever seen her, and that's really saying something. She seems to have aged ten years overnight. Her face is pale and her eyes are hollow and red. She has been crying. Andy remembers stumbling upon her in her London kitchen--the last time she saw Miranda's tears--when she'd thought Miranda had heard bad news about the twins.

Andy licks her dry lips. "What happened?"

"You were bitten by a snake yesterday afternoon," Miranda says. Her voice is still thick. "Do you remember that?"

"Yeah," Andy says, and winces as she moves.

"Are you in pain?"

"Just my leg. I don't think it's too bad." Although the real test will come when she tries to get out of bed. "God. That was awful. I passed out, didn't I?" She remembers it: writhing on the kitchen floor, longing for her mother, Dr. Capraru's face drifting in and out of her vision. Miranda holding her.

"You did," Miranda confirms. "You've been in and out of it since then."

"What time is it?"

"It's about ten in the morning," Miranda says. She places a gentle hand on Andy's forehead. "You're still a little warm, although that might be from sleep and the blankets."

"I had a fever, right?"

"Yes. It rose, and--" Miranda stops and clears her throat. "I gather you don't remember the cold bath."

"Oh. No, I guess not. It worked, huh?"

"Well enough." Miranda presses her lips together. "I should have given you that aspirin--it might have kept it down, or prevented it, or--"

"Did Dr. Capraru say that?"

"No." Miranda's hand is still on Andy's forehead. Andy distantly thinks that this is pretty strange.

Her mouth is parched, and she licks her lips again. "Can I have--"

Miranda moves her hand away, gets up, and heads for a basin sitting in the windowsill. She ladles water into a mug, and gives it to Andy. The water is warm from sitting in the sun, but it tastes like heaven to Andy. "Don't chug it," Miranda warns, and Andy does her best, sipping when all she wants to do is gulp. When she's done, she gives the mug back to Miranda, who returns it to the windowsill.

Then she sits back down on the edge of the bed, still staring at Andy with wide eyes. The color has not returned to her face.

Andy, who has rather been enjoying her warm, largely-pain-free lassitude, starts to get nervous. "Um," she says. "I am--I'm going to be okay, right?"

Miranda closes her eyes briefly and clears her throat. Andy instantly fears the worst, but Miranda says, "You will. For the most part. Dr. Capraru says you might not regain the full use of your leg, depending on--"

"What?" Andy gasps, horrified. "I can't walk?"

Miranda scowls at her, and for a moment, everything is normal. "Did I say that? You haven't even tried to walk yet. How should I know whether--"

Andy instantly struggles to sit up. "Right. Help me. Oh--" The room swims a little, and her head begins to ache. But it's not like before; it's just the vague, dim pain of waking up after sleeping too much. Andy hasn't had this kind of headache in a long time. She blinks. "Gotta get up."

Miranda does not protest. Instead she slides her arm around Andy's shoulders, then beneath her arms, and helps her rise. Andy winces, remembering how she'd tried to take a step in the kitchen and had instantly collapsed. But while her leg hurts, she is pleased to discover that she can put some weight on it. Not much, and she'd be glad of a crutch or cane, but she no longer longs for somebody to amputate her leg from the knee down.

They take a few paces together, and then Andy eyes the bathroom door longingly. "Thataway." Miranda nods, unusually compliant, and guides Andy to the door. She even makes to accompany Andy inside, but Andy stares at her in horror, and Miranda releases her with obvious reluctance.

The bathroom's old and tiny: small enough that Andy can navigate it easily. There's not much room to flail around, and a convenient wall is always there for her to brace herself. She sits down on the toilet with a grunt of both relief and pain. It's weird that she has to pee so badly when she was so thirsty just a moment ago.

When she leaves the bathroom, Miranda is lingering--hovering, almost--by the door. Without waiting for a signal, she puts her arm around Andy again. "Do you want to go downstairs?"

"Not yet," Andy admits. She knows she has to get her strength back as soon as possible, knows that she needs to do the subsistence-farming equivalent of physical therapy right away. Takes two to run the farm, after all, even if it would serve Miranda right to do it all by herself for a while. But she's still completely exhausted. "I think I need to lie down again. Just for a little bit."

"Yes," Miranda says, and helps her back to the bed, which feels deliciously comfortable beneath Andy as she reclines on it. To her shock, Miranda lies down next to her.

And then she keeps looking at Andy. Just looking.

"Okay," Andy says. "What is it?"

"What?" Miranda blinks and shakes her head, appearing to come out of a reverie. "What's what?"

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

"I'm not," Miranda says. "I'm--" She stops and swallows. The gulping noise sounds disproportionately loud in the silence of the bedroom.

When it looks like she isn't going to continue, Andy begins, "Miranda--"

"I didn't know if you'd wake up," Miranda says. Andy stares at her. "The doctor said…we'd bathed you, and he'd given you the antivenin, but you were still feverish. You'd wake up and say things that didn't make any sense--" Andy winces. "--and then you'd go back out again, and finally you stayed out. He said there was nothing for it but to wait."

Andy blinks, taking this in. "He's not here, is he? Downstairs or something?"

"No," Miranda says. "No, he is not here."

"When did he leave?" Andy asks slowly.

"Around midnight. When there was nothing else he could do."

"He…what? He didn't stay?" Andy's always thought Dr. Capraru was kind of a jerk, but not this much of a jerk. "He didn't stay with you?" He left Miranda alone with somebody who might be dying?

"I asked him to go," Miranda replies. "I told him to go."

"What? Why the hell did you do that?"

"I told him to go, and then I just waited here with you," Miranda says. "I sat in the chair by the bed, and then I lay down--" Her voice breaks and she raises a hand to her mouth, pressing her lips together tightly. Andy stares at her, aghast, when she continues, "You must be hungry. He said you could have something soft, like white bread or milk, or soup, if you--if you wo--" She stops again and closes her eyes, breathing as quickly as if she just ran up the stairs. "If you woke up. Let me…"

Andy finds enough strength in her arms to reach out and touch Miranda's waist, trying to calm her or something, urging her to lie down again. Miranda gasps. Then she touches Andy's face with shaking fingers; before Andy can begin to make sense of this, Miranda leans in and replaces her fingers with her mouth, frantically kissing Andy on her forehead, her cheeks, even her chin. It's Andy's turn to gasp. Miranda is whimpering while she kisses Andy, shaking so hard she's almost convulsing.

"Miranda!" Andy says, and digs her fingers into Miranda's hair, holding her still for a second. Her heart is pounding. Miranda's mouth, and her body, and her fear, are all making Andy feel like her head is turning inside-out, like the whole world is about to change yet again and nothing will ever be the same. Miranda lets herself be pulled back, and looks down at Andy. Now her cheeks have some color in them, at least. Red color.

"C'mere," Andy says. Miranda settles back down and tucks her face into Andy's throat without a word, nestling against her, still trembling. Her right hand reaches out and finds Andy's arm. She strokes down it and takes Andy's hand in hers. This is like Zagreb, the only decent memory Andy has of that place: the way their bodies constantly sought each other out, needing comfort and security, far more intimate than the sex that came later. To touch was to know that they were alive together. Andy rubs her nose in Miranda's hair and closes her eyes.

"I'm still mad at you," she says.

"Oh…" Miranda inhales, and releases it unsteadily. "Did it feel like this?"

"I didn't know if you were alive or dead, or even where you were," Andy says, deciding there's no point in beating about the bush. "So it probably felt worse."

"Oh," Miranda says again. Andy gently rubs her back and they lie there for a little while, breathing together.

"I'm sorry for what I said about the twins," Andy says quietly. "It was mean. And wrong."

There is silence. Then Miranda rasps, "You might not have been wrong."

Her voice guts Andy, makes her feel every bit as awful as she did last night. She vows to stay conscious this time, though. Andy needs Miranda, and Miranda needs the possibility of the twins. To lose that is to lose everything. "No. I'm sure I was. I was just angry. I didn't mean it, I shouldn't have said it. I'm sorry," she repeats.

"I think you've been punished enough," Miranda says, with an attempt at levity that falls really flat. "You, on the other hand, are still mad at me?"

"You said you'd go again," Andy reminds her, swallowing hard against two agonies: the one of that memory, and the one that would strike if Miranda ever makes good on her word. "You said you would, if…"

"No," Miranda says. She turns her head up a little, and kisses the bottom of Andy's jaw. Andy closes her eyes at the feel of it. "No." Another tiny kiss, like a whisper, a breath. "It did feel wrong," she says. "It was--weird. When you weren't there." Andy tenses. So does Miranda, and she sounds strained when she continues, "I kept looking around for you, to tell you something or ask you a question. There was, only once, a…moment of trouble…" Andy's arm tightens around Miranda before she can help herself. "I looked around for you, and I had a moment of complete panic because you weren't there and I thought something had happened to you, before I remembered I'd left you behind."

The words left you behind slice at Andy and make her remember exactly how that felt, before Miranda's fingers trace over her chin again, and then down to her throat. Her hand is warm and her fingertips, roughened with work, touch Andy as gently as feathers. For the first time in years, Andy feels something that is completely, wholly good.

"So," she says lightly. "We're a team, huh?"

Miranda raises her head again and cups Andy's cheek with her hand. She looks right into Andy's eyes. "We're more than that," she says. "You know it."

Andy thinks about all the lies she's been telling herself for so long--she's always been good at that--and swallows, wondering if happiness can ever be possible in a world as fucked up as this one. It seems just within reach, right at this moment that hangs outside all the rest. She once touched Miranda's face too, with all the tenderness she had left.

"Yeah," she says, knowing that she had a much better way with words once upon a time. "Yeah, we are."

Miranda licks her lips and bends her head. Andy decides that the snakebite was worth it. The kiss beats back death and loss, defeats them both. It feels like forever.

 


 

December 2019

At least they make it through Serbia before the train breaks down. Ante was right: Yevgeny has been very helpful, and even though Andy sweated bullets, they made it past the Romanian border. So they're safe. Relatively.

This seems to be of little consolation to Miranda as they get off the train along with everybody else, and Andy gets flashbacks to Runway as Miranda says, "Really, this is absurd. Is it too much to ask that a simple train be able to limp between Points A and B without trouble?" Of course, Miranda knows better. It hasn't exactly been easy to find spare parts or skilled mechanics in the last few years. But it cheers Andy to listen to her crabbing, nevertheless.

She has to admit that this isn't the best place to get stranded. It's some tiny village in the middle of nowhere. But it's a relief after the crushing filth of Zagreb. It's kind of picturesque, really, and the houses and streets seem well-kept. And there's a gigantic Christmas tree in the town square: of course, it's the end of December, how can she have forgotten?

Last year, they'd celebrated Christmas at a big party in Milan. Andy had worn Prada and Jimmy Choo. There had been champagne and caviar. That almost seems farther away and more long ago than London or New York.

Now they're stuck in a Romanian village, looking up at the Carpathians and just grateful to be alive. Andy looks at Miranda and herself and realizes, with chagrin, that she's got no business being a snob of any kind. They look like vagrants, which, at the moment, is exactly what they are. They'll be lucky, with their dirty clothes and faces and complete inability to speak Romanian, if the inn will even give them a room for the night.

But it does, probably because they pay up front. They get a room, and the room is on a floor with two communal showers. That have hot water. Showers with hot water and they don't even have to pay extra for them. Andy's only complaint is that she can't linger for as long as she wants, because the inn has quickly filled up with their fellow disgruntled passengers. Most of them seem much more well-heeled (and well-groomed) than Miranda and Andy, so Andy's glad they got to the front desk first.

They've got enough cash to buy sandwiches at what appears to be the town's only café, but after that it's going to be chancy. Andy hopes the train will be repaired by tomorrow, because she's not sure it's wise to sell anything expensive here. The place is too small, and they're too noticeable.

"I'm going to do laundry tonight," she informs Miranda in between bites. She tries to go slowly so she won't make herself sick, even though the food tastes heavenly. Ham, real ham. "It's my turn. I figure I can use one of the showers when it's empty. It won't take long--I'll just scrub and rinse, and let them dry in our room." Miranda nods absently. She keeps looking around. It doesn't seem like paranoia or worry, though. It looks like honest curiosity, and Andy welcomes it.

After a few more bites, Miranda says, "We need to see if we can find a newspaper, or a television or…or something." She doesn't look hopeful of that. Andy can't blame her. This café appears to use electricity--she can see a refrigerator in the back, anyway--but not much, since it's lit only with candles. "If not today, when we get to Bucharest."

"I shouldn't go to Bucharest if I were you," says a man behind Andy. "Not now."

They turn to stare at him, stunned by English that's, well, English. The speaker is a man who seems to be in his early seventies, dressed in clean but shabby clothes, whiskered and regarding them neutrally.

Miranda clears her throat. "And why not?" she asks.

"My daughter lives in Bucharest," he says. "Married a Romanian, she did, and that's what's keeping her there. They aren't looking too kindly on expats, no matter how good your passport looks. In the big cities, that is." He gestures around at the village. "Nobody gives a damn here, so long as you don't cause trouble."

Oh, hell. Andy can't even look at Miranda. "We heard that Romania is safe," she says softly. "That…there's some kind of pact or…"

"Romania's safe," he says. "Up here, where the Secret Police don't venture." He lifts his pint of ale and drinks deep. Andy immediately gets jealous as hell. "Then again, it's probably safer even in Bucharest than it is wherever you're from." He gives them a canny look. "Belgrade?"

"Zagreb," Andy mutters. Miranda kicks her under the table, but Andy still can't look at her.

"Zagreb!" The man gives a harsh laugh. "Bloody hell. Pat yourselves on the back and be glad you're out of there, right enough. You couldn't pay me to go there."

"Good, because we're not going back, that's for sure," Andy says. They can't, even if they wanted to.

"It's a nice little place, this," he says. "I've lived here for near on fifteen years. I had a bit of a fancy to be a farmer, live in the mountains and off the land, somewhere really scenic and right out of books…brought my girl when my wife died. I wanted to start over completely." He shrugs. "And look what's happened back home. Seems as if I've had worse ideas."

"Yeah, looks like it," Andy mutters, and rubs her forehead. Suddenly she doesn't feel happy about sandwiches and showers anymore. Suddenly she wants to burst into tears.

Nothing she does--nothing she tries--it doesn't work out, they're never where they ought to be, they're never safe enough, it's never good enough, even when she's willing to spread her legs for--

"Anyway," he says, "looks as if you need jobs."

Andy looks up. Miranda frowns at him. He shrugs again. "I had a farmhand, but he left because of girl trouble. Young men are the same all over the world." He snorts, but doesn't look bitter or angry. "Maybe two of you'll make up for one of him. And be nice to have somebody about the place who speaks my language. What sort of work did you do in Zagreb? Anything rough?"

Two hours later, and against Andy's better judgment, they're looking up at an old farmhouse next to a barn, at a considerable distance from the village. The surroundings are really pretty, and the place looks homey, but Andy still can't believe she's actually standing here and considering his offer. She's never worked on a farm in her life, and so what if he speaks English? He could be an English-speaking psychopath for all they know. Or an English-speaking spy. Well--okay, out here, maybe not. At least, it seems unlikely. But 'psychopath' could still be on the table.

"Calm down," Miranda mutters into Andy's ear as they follow him towards the barn.

"Calm down? I can't believe you wanted to--he could kill us! Or turn us in, or--"

"No," Miranda says. "Learn to read people, won't you? He's telling the truth."

"But we don't want to work on a farm. We don't even know how!"

"Speak for yourself," Miranda says.

"What?"

"I didn't grow up in Manhattan, Andrea," is all Miranda says before the farmer--Robert Thorpe, he's told them--swings open the barn door.

It doesn't look like much inside. "I kept a horse when she lived here," he says. "Not much point to it now."

"Of course," Miranda says, but the moment he's out of hearing distance again, she mutters to Andy, "Look at all this waste. Why go to the trouble of keeping up a barn if nothing's going to live here?"

"Looks like he stores a few things," Andy says, looking around. "What do you mean, you didn't grow up in Manhattan?"

"I mean, I grew up on a farm," Miranda says in exasperation. Andy stares at her, and sees a look on Miranda's face that she knows very well: bitter amusement. "Just think of all those years I spent trying to leave it behind." She squares her shoulders and looks around the barn. Her lips are still twisted in that half-sneer, but there is a resolve in her eyes that Andy hasn't seen in months.

"…oh God," Andy says after a moment. "We're going to live here, aren't we?"

"What's your alternative?"

"I don't--Miranda, we don't have to," Andy says quickly. "I'll think of something. Seriously. You can't really want to…I mean, just give me a little time to…"

Thorpe pokes his head back into the barn. "All right in here?"

"Oh yes," Miranda replies smoothly. "What a charming place you have."

"I can't run it on my own," he says. "Don't get me wrong--I can get young men in as I need them, task by task, but it's not the same as having help on hand. You're not young men, but there's two of you, and you seem tough enough." He assesses them with a critical eye. Andy tries not to bristle at being sized up like a piece of livestock. "You must've been in Europe for a while," he observes.

"Why do you say that?" Andy asks. Miranda says nothing.

"Your faces. You're not…" He gestures towards his right cheek.

"What?" Miranda says coldly.

"Well, they're branding women now, across the pond," he says. "Along with the gays and dissidents. Or so I hear. You don't get much news here generally. Haven't seen a newspaper in months, not that you could read them, and electronics have gone through the roof."

Andy has frozen. So has Miranda. They just stare at him. He looks back, not without compassion.

"So you'd be glad of work?" he asks. "Am I right to guess that?"

"It looks like we have little choice," Miranda says. Her voice is hoarse, but steady, and her face is calm.

"Well, take a night and think on it," he says. He looks around. It's getting dark. "Speaking of. Come on, I've got potatoes for supper. Got lots of those. And then I can drive you back."

Supper is a mediocre affair at best--even Andy could do better, and she has a sinking suspicion that if they really do live here, she will. But afterwards, Thorpe's as good as his word. His ancient truck looks like it's about to rattle itself to death, but it gets them back to the village. "It only needs to last a couple of months longer," he says, and glances down at them as they climb out of the cab. "I'll be leaving about then, you see. To join my daughter's family. They're getting a bigger house, and…"

"Ah," Miranda says.

"You come and see me tomorrow, if you like," he says. "If not, good luck to you."

They watch him rattle his way back out of the village, towards the path that leads up the hill. "Well," Miranda says. "It seems he doesn't just want us to work on a farm, but to inherit it as well."

"Huh? What makes you say that? Unless he pays us really well, he's got to know we can't afford to buy--"

"Which is why I said 'inherit,'" Miranda says.

"Huh?" Andy repeats. "Why the hell would he want to--"

"Language," Miranda says sternly as she leads the way back to the inn. "And you can't put a price on a moment of insight, Andrea."

It's nine o'clock when they get back, and both showers are free. Andy takes a few shirts and pairs of pants, and sticks them all under the faucet. She was a little worried that they wouldn't be dry by morning, and maybe they won't, but now it doesn't seem to matter so much. It looks like they'll be sticking around for a while.

Doing the laundry is surprisingly soothing. She doesn't exactly have a washboard, so she does her best with hot water and a bar of soap. These clothes have seen better days. But they have labels like Versace and Gucci, and are much better-made than cheaper clothes, as they damn well ought to be. They've held up relatively well, although in the last few months, when all water had to be carefully rationed, Andy and Miranda hadn't been able to wash them quite as often.

When she gets back, carrying her damp trophies, Miranda is looking out the window. She turns to face Andy, and the expression on her face is closed, thoughtful, with a hint of displeasure. Andy's stomach clenches: here they come, the rebukes, the harsh insistences that things have clearly gone from bad to worse, the sneering rhetorical questions about what Andy could possibly have been thinking. And then Andy is going to get really mad, and they're going to fight, and…

"I'm exhausted," Miranda says. "I'm going to bed. Feel free to leave the lamp on."

Andy tries not to gape. Then she manages, "No. I'm tired too." They undress in silence--modesty has long gone the way of the dodo--and climb into bed, under the covers. Miranda turns out the lamp. The mattress is comfortable, and Andy really is tired, but she can't seem to close her eyes.

"I went through my jewelry when you were in the shower," Miranda says. "Nothing's missing."

Andy's breath catches.

"What have you done?" Miranda asks quietly.

Andy swallows. Miranda won't give up until she gets the truth. "The passport guy didn't want money," she says.

Silence. Then Miranda's voice is strained as she says, "I would never have asked you to--never--"

"I know you didn't," Andy says. "I, I told you it was killing me, right? I would have done anything to get out of there."

"I'm not stupid, Andrea." Miranda pauses. "You did it for me."

Andy closes her eyes and says, too late, "No. I--"

"Stop protecting me," Miranda says vehemently. "I don't need it." She probably believes that, too. "And if it leads you to do things like this, if it puts you in that kind of danger--what were you thinking?"

"We were safe," Andy says, staring up at the ceiling, which reminds her of her tryst with Pavao even more. "He wore a condom. He wasn't rough or anything."

"Oh my God."

"Lighten up," Andy sighs. "I'm not a kid, Miranda. I knew what I was doing. I could have said no."

"Could you?"

"Yes. Yes, I could," Andy says firmly. Miranda has to understand this. "But it got us out of there cheap. I really was ready to sell your jewelry." She snorts. "Besides, it's not like I've been getting laid regularly, anyway. And he even fed me breakfast. A real gentleman."

"That's not funny," Miranda snaps.

"Of course it is," Andy replies. She rolls over and squeezes her eyes shut. "I'm not traumatized, okay? And I'm going to sleep."

More silence. Then Miranda says thoughtfully, "I wonder when PTSD is going to set in."

Andy starts laughing before she can help herself. "Seriously, it wasn't that bad--"

"I mean in general. From everything. Surely it must at some point, mustn't it?"

"It's called post-traumatic, isn't it? I think it only happens, you know, when the trauma's actually over."

"Maybe." Miranda sounds doubtful.

"And it's not like--I mean, I have nightmares. I know you do too. Just because I don't crack up or have flashbacks in the middle of the day--hell." Andy rubs her eyes. "You have weird ideas about pillow talk. Let's just go to sleep."

Another pause. Then Miranda sniffs. "'Pillow talk'?"

Andy's face burns. She concedes that it was a strange turn of phrase. "You know what I meant."

"Of course I did." Pause. "I want to ask you a personal question."

That puts Andy on alert. In spite of being together as much as two human beings can possibly manage, they rarely talk about personal things. And when they do, Miranda never prefaces it with a request. "Yes?" she asks cautiously.

"How long has it been?"

Andy needs a minute to catch up. Her face gets even hotter. "Since Milan," she mumbles. "You've got to know that." They've never slept apart since, now have they?

"I never saw you with anyone there."

"We went to his place. Just a few times. It never got serious, I never even spent the night." It hadn't felt right.

"Mm," is all Miranda says. She doesn't speak again. Andy realizes that she doesn't intend to, and that's not fair at all.

"What about you? How long's it been for you?"

This time, the pause feels very long indeed. Then Miranda says, "I can't give you precise dates, but about six years, give or take."

Andy's eyes pop wide open. She rolls over and looks at Miranda. Miranda looks back at her evenly. "Six years?" Andy says. "Seriously?"

"I left New York five years ago."

"So? What does that have to do with anything?"

"I wasn't exactly in the mood before I left, either. I won't lie to you, there have been opportunities. But when I looked at a man--when I thought about what it means that I'm a woman, and about what's happening back home--" Miranda purses her lips. "I got angry. I got so angry. I couldn't. Sometimes I wanted to slap every single man I saw." Then she smirks. "Do you think that's what they always meant by 'man-hating feminist'?" Andy manages to laugh. It seems appropriate.

They keep looking at each other. Andy licks her lips, and her head spins while she thinks about what's going to happen now. It's not, she realizes, like Pavao at all. She's not certain she'll be able to say no to Miranda.

Then Miranda bites her lip and looks away. It's the closest thing to humiliation that Andy's ever seen on her face. "No. I won't--I can't even believe what I'm thinking."

"Well, jeez," Andy hears herself saying, "why shouldn't we?"

Miranda looks back up at her. Her eyes widen.

"Why not?" Andy asks. She is astonished to notice how her body is starting to respond even as she speaks. She's getting hot all over, kind of trembly, and she realizes she wants it. She wants it a lot. She wants Miranda to want it, too. "It doesn't have to change anything. We'll just--help each other out. Same as always."

"Same as always," Miranda says slowly. Andy's having a hard time reading her.

So she decides not to say anything. Taking her life in her hands, she reaches down between them and pulls up the hem of Miranda's nightgown. Miranda gasps and gulps. Feeling like she's dreaming, like none of this can possibly be real, Andy touches the inside of her thighs. Miranda shivers.

She thinks about doing more, about kissing Miranda and all the other stuff you're supposed to, and finds that she can't imagine doing any of that. She hopes like crazy that this will be enough. But then Miranda grabs her elbow before she can go any further and gasps, "No, stop, you don't have to, this isn't--"

Andy rubs her knuckles inquisitively against the fabric of Miranda's underwear. She is damp beneath, and the jolt of that realization, the utter shock of it, makes Andy's mind go blank. Miranda's hips jerk forward, and she says, "Oh."

"Ssh," Andy says quickly. "We have got to be quiet." They really do. This town looks pretty Catholic. Pretty old-fashioned Catholic, at that. Then, before Miranda has a chance to object, Andy rubs her knuckles again. Miranda bites her lip to stifle a whine, and her eyes close as she arches into Andy's hand.

Andy rolls her on her back and tugs her underwear down around her thighs, looking at Miranda's face in fascination, as much as she can in the dim light. Miranda's eyes are still squeezed shut, and she's panting; Andy touches slick, sticky curls, and Miranda immediately bites her own hand.

Up into the heat, and--two fingers, inside, easy. Miranda's eyes open really wide then, and Andy freezes. "Am I hurting you?"

"No. No. Don't stop," Miranda whispers hoarsely. She's not looking at Andy, but staring somewhere off in the distance. Andy wonders if she's thinking about somebody else, wishing she were somewhere else, and the thought makes her drive her fingers in hard. It doesn't seem to bother Miranda, who arches her back again and sticks her hand back over her mouth just in time to stop a cry. Then Andy begins pushing back and forth, in and nearly out, and Miranda's hips buck and she closes her eyes again and--

Six years. Jesus. That has to be the reason, the only reason, why she's coming so fast and, apparently, so hard. Andy is almost frightened as she watches it, and even looks away before Miranda is done. It doesn't feel right to watch her. It feels like Andy's invading her privacy.

Miranda relaxes, and Andy slides her fingers out, daring to look back at her. Miranda's eyes are still closed, for which Andy is thankful: she didn't see that moment of cowardice.

"Oh. Do you." Miranda stops and licks her lips. Then she opens her eyes, which have a dazed, glassy sheen to them that Andy's never seen before. "Do you want me to?"

"S-sure," Andy says, pretty sure that it's the truth. She shucks off her pajama pants. "Do you know how?"

"No, but I'll figure it out." Miranda sounds a lot more like herself now. "Did you know how?"

"No." Andy finds the gumption for a cheeky grin. "Didn't take much, though."

In retaliation, Miranda is rough, but strangely enough, that's exactly what Andy's body seems to want. It really isn't like Pavao. It feels very, very personal. This is Miranda and nobody else. Andy comes quietly enough, but it's good.

There is a box of tissues on the nightstand. Miranda tugs her hand out of Andy's pants, reaches over, and snags two tissues, offering one to Andy. They wipe their fingers clean, and then look at each other.

It all feels oddly normal. An extension, as Andy said, of what they already do, of what they are to each other. To her relief, Miranda doesn't seem to want to kiss or cuddle. That, now, that would not be normal at all.

"A farm?" Andy asks. "Are you serious?"

Miranda shrugs. "I don't see why not. We appear to be out of options. And if we're going to break our backs, we might as well get some fresh air doing it."

"And get fed," Andy says, remembering the watery potato soup. "And have clean water."

"Exactly," Miranda says. It is plainly the end of the discussion. Oh, well. Andy doesn't have more to say either. Their lives are what they are, and they have to make it somehow. "I'm not sure how we'll get in touch with him."

Andy sighs. "I think we'll have a pretty good hike tomorrow."

"With suitcases," Miranda agrees. "But we'll have to get used to that kind of thing." She yawns, and delicately covers her mouth with one hand. Andy loves that she still does that, loves that Miranda will never abandon those minute, indispensable mannerisms from the life before. "Which means we ought to get some sleep."

"Yeah," Andy says. Miranda rolls over and falls asleep quickly, but Andy doesn't. Instead, she just watches the steady rise and fall of Miranda's shoulders until she, too, goes to sleep.

When she wakes, she sees that she has put an arm around Miranda while they slept. She pulls it away, embarrassed; that's never happened before. She's glad Miranda's still asleep. Almost holding her breath, Andy gets out of bed and dresses as quietly as possible, arming herself for this next new day. Miranda's ready to adapt, so Andy has to be too.

She's glad Miranda has a good attitude about all this, she supposes. But in the back of her mind, she can't stop laughing at the realization that yes, of course Miranda Priestly would feel perfectly at home in Transylvania.

 


 

August 2021

It seems impossible that they are in love, now, after all this time. It seems impossible, beyond strange, that for years they've shared beds and bathrooms and various minor viruses, but now they're shy together, almost timid. They do things like bump into each other and apologize breathlessly.

After sticking their hands into each others' underwear for a year and a half, now they're kissing and blushing. Andy's almost forty years old and she feels like a teenager. They don't have a sofa, but now she wants one just so they can make out on it all the time. She's known how to rub Miranda's clit for ages, but somehow it seems more intimate to kiss her beneath her ear as lightly as she can, or stroke the skin over her ribs. Both things make Miranda shiver. This is wonderful. Dazzling.

And Miranda's mouth. Kissing Miranda's mouth is best of all, and Andy tries endless variations on the theme: fast and slow, hard and soft. They all pay off, but her favorite is the time she makes Miranda drop the empty egg-bucket inside the barn.

They make love for the first time a week after Andy's snakebite. (Love, not sex; for the first time in a while, the distinction is very clear in Andy's mind.) It's funny: for months, they've concentrated on getting each other off as efficiently as possible before getting a good night's sleep. But now, when they actually want it to last, want to take their time, it's harder than ever not to race for the finish line. They keep trying to slow down by pausing to kiss and do nothing else. This does not help as much as Andy might have expected.

"We'll just have to keep practicing," Miranda wheezes, a bare fifteen minutes after they started.

"No point in getting self-conscious," Andy agrees, and starts all over, feeling like she's twenty years younger. Maybe she is. Miranda's whimpering cries sound as if she's telling time to stop, anyway.

Weeks pass, and they are happy. Life is good, good at last: the work doesn't seem as hard, the days don't stretch out so bleakly. Even potato soup tastes better. Andy has forgotten, until now, what love can do to the human brain. Her consolation is the certainty that Miranda feels the same way--Miranda, who seems by turns shocked, embarrassed, and thrilled by her own behavior, by how right this all feels. Somehow, nothing is ever more surprising than inevitability.

Happiness seems to throw all their priorities out of whack, too. Andy keeps telling herself that they ought to pay more attention to working the farm, but for what? They have everything they need. Rapunzel's got grass. The chickens have feed. Andy and Miranda have each other. That's how it's always been. Only better, Andy thinks, as she drops soft, tender kisses over the expanse of Miranda's back, enjoying the breeze coming through the windows on the heels of afternoon sunlight.

Miranda's skin is a beautiful surprise. Andy's seen plenty of it in the last couple of years, but she couldn't have known how soft it was. Not the face or hands, of course--those have been exposed to wind and sun and rain and hardship, and wearing high heels for decades didn't do Miranda's feet any favors either. But the skin of her body has been protected by her clothing (she keeps her arms covered even in summer), and it is as smooth as a child's, stunningly unblemished over the wiry muscles beneath.

"You're like Sofia Loren," Andy murmurs as she kisses Miranda's shoulder blade. "Except she took baths in olive oil. You don't even have to do that." Miranda hums contentedly. She is so deeply relaxed that Andy wonders if she might go to sleep. That wouldn't offend her, since they aren't technically making love. They just like to touch a lot, again, still. It was unbelievably easy to fall back into the habit; at first, it was because Miranda feared (irrationally) that Andy might drop dead all of a sudden, and Andy feared (incorrectly) that Miranda might still take it into her head to walk off. So their hands were always finding each other, as if to detain or hold or keep. And then, even when they realized they were safe from either outcome, they just kept doing it. They like it.

Miranda purrs when Andy nibbles the nape of her neck. They really like it. "Are you going to the village tomorrow, or should I?" Miranda asks.

"Nah, I'll go. It's my turn. And I want to try out the bike."

Miranda snorts. "You would. Try not to dash your brains out on a rock, all right?"

"Nag, nag, nag," Andy says, and pats Miranda's hip as she rests her head on her back, looking out the window.

Miranda hums again. "Your leg's up to a ride?"

"Yeah. The weather's been good for it." They've had a warm, sunny week, and besides, Dr. Capraru's gloomy prognosis hasn't come true completely. Andy only limps a little, and maybe it takes her longer to climb the ladder in the barn, but she can do it. She thinks she can ride the bike downhill, for sure, and maybe she'll have to push it back up, but so what? The bike has a basket to carry stuff, and she doesn't have a lot to get at the market today. And she's still young. Still strong.

In fact, the only downside (if you can call it that) of this whole business has been that loving Miranda gives Andy a radiant glow that's impossible to hide from anybody. She knows this because Dumitru mentioned it to her the last time she went into the village, saying that he'd never seen her looking so happy or so beautiful. She sighs. He's persistent, she'll say that for him, but it's bound to wear off in time. At least, she hopes so. She's pretty sure that her feelings for Miranda aren't going to wear off anytime soon, but that, she tells herself, is completely different. Andy hasn't felt fortunate, really fortunate, in years.

When she's being honest with herself, she can admit that this terrifies her. Happiness like this can't possibly be real. It can't last. Not because of them, but because of the world. This world doesn't allow for joy, not for long. She's seen enough evidence of that. Surely this is too good to be true.

She thinks about this the next day as she coasts down the hill on the bicycle. Something has to be missing. Something has to go wrong. The Romanian government will get on their backs, or one of them will get sick or hurt, or Miranda will decide that her love for Andy isn't enough to make her truly happy because the twins are still gone. The first two worries, Andy knows, are merely borrowing trouble. The third is what sometimes keeps her up at night.

Andy doesn't need Miranda to love her, and only her. She doesn't need Miranda to forget about her children, or never mourn them again. She just needs Miranda to be happy with her. Before, she just needed Miranda to be with her; but now she's seen Miranda happy for the first time since they've known each other, and Andy needs it to last. It's the most beautiful, wonderful thing Andy has ever seen. It sustains her like food, like air. She knows it's not under her control, too, and that's what drives her crazy. It's ultimately up to Miranda whether she's happy or not, and in the end, Andy can't do a thing about it.

She pays the usual small fee and sets up at the usual market table, laying out three jars of honey, a respectable portion of good-looking potatoes, and three pounds of butter. No eggs this time, because it's too risky to take them on the bicycle. They really do need to get that truck when supplies allow. It doesn't seem super-likely right now. The lines are still mostly closed, and while it means Andy and Miranda sell more goods, it makes them feel more hemmed-in, too. Happiness or not, they do not like feeling trapped.

The food sells well. She hardly has to haggle, especially over the honey. Everybody's got a sweet tooth in summer, and candy and cakes are harder to come by. She's flush fairly quickly, and uses the extra time to head down to the clothing booths. She needs a new pair of boots (Miranda has been extremely firm upon that subject), and Miranda can use a couple more light work shirts, if Andy can find them. Plus--Andy blushes--underwear. They definitely need new underwear.

She is pleased to find all three items in relatively short order. Today's going well, and once she gets the cheese and flour, she can hurry back home to her supper and Miranda. She knows which one she's anticipating more.

But as Andy's just watching the vendor wrap her cheese in a cloth, she hears somebody clearing his throat. She turns around to see Dumitru standing there, looking bashful as usual. Damn. She summons up a smile. He's usually extra-busy on market days. It's not a good sign that he's seeking her out instead of doing business like he should.

"Good afternoon," he says. "You are well?"

"Yes," Andy says. She means it more than he can know. "I'm very well, Dumitru. And you?"

"I too am well." He's holding two beers, she realizes, and he offers her one. Her mouth waters, and the bottle is refreshingly cold. "I have not much time, but I thought you would like something to drink for your walk." He turns red and practically scuffs his toe in the dirt like a little boy.

Andy can't help smiling at him indulgently. She sets her purchases down on a corner of the table, cracks open the bottle cap on its edge, and takes a swig. It's heavenly. "Thanks," she says.

"You are welcome. A beautiful day," he replies, clearly grappling for conversation. Andy nods and smiles again. "Exciting, too." Andy blinks. His eyes widen. "You have not heard?" Andy shakes her head, and he beams, obviously delighted to be the first one to share a juicy tidbit with her. "Spain has beaten back the New Government. The New Government is stretched too thin. They retreat. They do not think Spain is so important." He laughs. "Good news for us, yes?"

Yes, good news. If the New Government is retreating from anywhere, it is good news for any place that remains unoccupied and doesn't have anything that the New Government particularly wants. In fact--if this is the beginning of a defeat--

Andy takes a deep breath and warns herself against hope. Just because her love life has improved by a hundred percent, she can't start looking at everything through rose-colored glasses. "Yes," she says. "That's wonderful. Minunat."

He nods enthusiastically. "And Lisbon--they are getting people into Lisbon. From across the ocean. More refugees." Andy blinks again. "Now that Spain is free, they are safe for awhile." Andy nods dazedly. Against all odds, Portugal has beaten the New Government back time and time again, which probably gave Spain a helping hand, too.

Portugal has also refused to grant entrance to any refugees from North America. But now that the peninsula is safe, it looks like somebody decided it was okay to have a heart.

"Minunat," she repeats, and suddenly she has to get out of here. She looks longingly at the path that leads back home. "Dumitru--I'm so sorry, but I have to leave. My mother is si…meu mamă is bolnav." She hopes that's right.

His face falls, so it's close enough. "I am sorry," he says. "What is it?"

"Oh, not much," Andy says quickly. The last thing she needs is a well-meaning Dumitru to offer to drive her home, or send over the doctor. "Something she ate. She will be fine. But I need to get back."

To her relief, he lets her go. The guilty glance he sends back to the butcher shop might have something to do with it. She sees several customers through the windows, and they don't look too happy. At the end of the day, he's a practical man, and a good thing, too.

Now Andy regrets the burden of the bicycle as she huffs and puffs her way back up the hill, with one bag of her bounty loaded in the basket and the other slung over her back. She pedals for about half a mile before her legs and lungs start to protest, and then she walks the bike the rest of the way up, resenting the extra weight. It's not like she'd be sprinting anyway, but still.

As she walks, she thinks about how to tell Miranda. On the one hand, it's unequivocally good news. On the other, it will make Miranda hope again. Andy knows it will. It will make her restless. It might make her unhappy. Andy gulps at the thought. She almost feels responsible for this: like she's got some kind of power of magical thinking, like she summoned all this into being just by thinking about it earlier today. Or maybe she's got ESP. She's not sure she wants either of those things.

Finally, she arrives home. It's a little after seven o'clock: just in time for supper, if she can stomach it. She puts the bicycle in the barn and throws out some feed for the chickens, who are still scratching around in the yard. They haven't had much trouble with foxes this year, so that's something good.

Now there's no more point in putting it off. She squares her shoulders and heads into the farmhouse.

Miranda is standing in front of the sink, her back to the door as she stares out the kitchen window. She's plainly in the middle of washing dishes, and the suds have risen up to her elbows, but she isn't moving. The radio is sitting silently on the kitchen table.

Ah. Well then.

"Hey," Andy says.

Miranda twitches and gasps. She hadn't even heard the door open. "You startled me," she says. Her voice is too light, too carefree.

"Sorry."

"How was the market?"

"Good. I got everything we needed, and there's some money left over."

"Oh. That's good," Miranda murmurs, turning back to the dishes without hearing a word.

Andy sits down at the table and stares at her back and wants her to be happy. "I spoke to Dumitru," she says. "About the news and stuff."

Miranda pauses.

"I hear Lisbon's a pretty neat town," Andy says. "Maybe we'd like it."

Miranda grips the side of the sink, hard, and suds drip down to the floor. "Don't," she says harshly.

Andy takes a deep breath. "Miranda," she begins.

"No. Don't," Miranda repeats. She isn't turning to look at Andy. "I can't stand it. They won't be there. They're never there. Ever."

"Miranda," Andy repeats in alarm, wondering if Miranda's going to start throwing plates again. She has several within easy reach. "Don't say that. You don't know that." She swallows. "I know I said that stupid thing--" She's going to feel guilty about that until she dies, she just knows it.

"Stop it," Miranda says. She finally turns to look at Andy. Her eyes are not red from crying, but they are haunted. "No. They're alive somewhere. I know they are. That's enough. It is." Andy winces. This is new: watching Miranda lie to herself. She doesn't like it at all. "We have a life here," Miranda continues. There is a note in her voice that's almost pleading. "It's a good life. Isn't it?" Andy nods wordlessly. "So why should we--"

Miranda cuts herself off and returns to washing dishes. Viciously.

"Miranda, we can go," Andy says gently. "We can do it."

"Can we?" Miranda snaps. "Can we just take a little jaunt across Europe, across Italy and France where they're waiting to torture us to death? Maybe we can stop and spend a few nights in Zagreb, just to top it off."

"I bet I can--"

"Can what?" Miranda rounds on her again, her face tight with fury. Andy's stomach flops uncomfortably at the sight of it. "Who's your contact this time? Who's going to fake the passports and get us onto trains? Who's--"

"Nobody here," Andy says, keeping her voice calm and even. "But I've heard of people. In Cluj and Arad. Hell, in Bucharest." Miranda opens her mouth. "I can go there, Miranda. I can do it. I always have, haven't I?"

"No. We're done talking about this." Miranda turns back to the dishes. "You're not going anywhere. You're not sticking your neck out. I won't have it." She plunges her hands down into the soapy water. Andy hopes there aren't any knives in there. "We. Are. Fine. Here."

"Miranda," Andy tries again.

"What are we having for supper?" Miranda rasps. Her voice is choked, as if she's on the verge of tears. Andy feels breathless in a bad way, and she backs off at once.

"Cheese," she manages. "I'm thinking potato soup and cheese. If that's okay with you."

"Why wouldn't it be?" Miranda asks.

Dinner is very, very quiet. So is the rest of the evening. Andy plays solitaire with an old pack of cards, and Miranda reads, first by the sunset and then by candlelight. Back when the lines were open, English-language paperbacks flooded in, bestsellers from a long time ago. They'd stocked up on Stephen King, Danielle Steel, John Grisham: authors Miranda would never have dreamed of reading in the life before, but now she takes what she can get. Eventually Miranda gets up and goes to bed. A few minutes later, Andy follows her, wincing as she puts weight on her leg. She overdid it today, and will pay for it tomorrow.

They don't make love that night. Miranda turns on her side and stares out the window.

Andy spoons up and slides her arm around her. "You would never forgive yourself," she says.

"Stop," Miranda breathes.

"You know you wouldn't. You'll always wonder. You'll--" Andy's voice breaks. "You won't be happy." She knows it for a fact. Miranda can't leave things undone. She can't rest when there are loose ends to tie up. And happiness is so new to her, so fragile and unknown. She's not used to it. It can slip away from her so easily.

"I don't see how it can be done," Miranda mumbles.

"Yeah, because that's always stopped you before." Andy worries her lip. "You're thinking about me, aren't you?"

There is a long pause before Miranda admits it: "You like it here. You're happy here."

"That'll stop pretty fast if you're miserable."

"I won't be miserable. I'll adapt. I'll be fine. I am fine."

Sure. Andy tries a new tactic. "Miranda, we can't run this farm forever. Not by ourselves. We're getting older." Especially you, she doesn't add.

She doesn't have to. Miranda finally rolls over and glares at her. "That's a new one."

"But it's right, isn't it?" Andy asks. "What else are we going to do? Retire?"

"My 401(k) is due to mature any day now," Miranda sniffs. Maybe she's just trying to be funny, but there's something in her eyes that suggests she is open to persuasion.

Andy goes for it. "Well, I guess we could learn fluent Romanian and move to the village," she says. "And do God knows what." She smirks. "Maybe I'll marry Dumitru."

"Very funny."

"You were keen on it once."

"No." Miranda looks up at her. "I wasn't."

Andy smiles, and a weight long carried finally lifts from her heart. "So come with me. Let's go together." She strokes Miranda's arm.

"It's incredibly dangerous. We could be killed," Miranda says quietly. It is a statement of fact.

"Well, it'll make a change," Andy says. "Running into danger instead of away from it. They say variety keeps you young."

"Andrea--"

"They could be there," Andy says. Miranda stops talking and presses her lips together, shuts her eyes tight. "I don't know if they will be. But maybe they are. Or maybe they'll get there."

"Oh," Miranda whispers. "No. Don't make me hope."

"You're already hoping," Andy says. "You're always hoping." She blinks as a very odd memory, now fifteen years old, surfaces. "One time you said to me, 'Hope. I live on it.' Or something like that. Do you remember?"

"No," Miranda says. She opens her eyes. They are glazed over with tears that aren't falling yet. "But I believe you."

"Yeah," Andy croaks, and bends to kiss her cheeks, like that's supposed to head her grief off at the pass. Miranda shivers under her, and slides her arms around Andy's waist.

Andy pulls away. They rest their heads on the pillows and regard each other.

"We can walk Rapunzel down to the village on Thursday," Andy finally suggests. The next train west arrives on Thursday. "We can sell her to Dumitru. And tell him the farm's all his, if he wants it." They don't have anybody else to give it to, and they can't draw attention to themselves and their plans by selling the place.

"How are we going to cross the border?" Miranda asks. "Really."

Andy touches her face, just barely. "Border guards like money."

"Just so long as they don't like anything else," Miranda says tartly.

"I resent that." Andy touches her lips, too. "Don't worry. We've got enough to start going." She's pretty sure, especially since they still have all the jewelry from Zagreb.

Miranda tugs, and Andy wriggles until she can rest her chin on Miranda's stomach and look right into her eyes. Miranda pets her hair. She used to hate touching people, Andy can't help thinking. Now, where does she end, and where does Andy begin?

"Come on," Andy says. "With all those refugees coming in, Lisbon's bound to be crazy. They'll need someone to be in charge." She smiles and touches Miranda's cheek. "Somebody who knows how things ought to be run."

"Hmph," Miranda says, but Andy is delighted to see a little spark take light in her eyes. She wasn't really joking, and Miranda knows it. The world needs people like Miranda: people with vision and fire. And Miranda needs to take her place in that world again. She fled her dad's farm for a reason, long ago.

"We can do it," Andy coaxes. "You know we can." She pauses. "You know we have to."

Miranda looks at her silently. Then she whispers: "We are crazy. We are absolutely insane."

Andy's breath leaves her in a big whoosh of relief. "When aren't we?" She moves again, raising herself up on one elbow to look down at Miranda. "So. Um. Once more into the breach?"

"Once more," Miranda agrees. Andy can read the prayer in her eyes, because it's Andy's prayer too: please God let it be only once more. This time, finally, please let them find their way home.

Andy tucks her face into Miranda's neck again. Miranda hooks a leg over both of Andy's. They will not, Andy knows, make love right now. They'll just lie here, beneath their roof and above their kitchen and next door to their livestock, warm together and not moving until they absolutely must. And then they'll rise, leave, and save each others' lives for as long as they can.

It's what they do. It's where happiness lies.

FIN.

"I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam." -Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King