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The Ship and the Girl

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THE SHIP AND THE GIRL

 

Their eyes meet, and then her assistant turns and walks away. Miranda fights a sudden and almost vicious urge, a traitorous urge, to go after her. Simply, she cannot. Never mind the photographers; she is expected at this show, they are waiting only on her arrival to begin. This is a simple fact, one that she has long been accustomed to. So she turns, and this time she does not look back.

*-*-*

The silence in her suite is disturbed only by the soft sounds of her own breathing. This is disquieting after the party that she so recently left. As she moves to the bedroom there is a rustling of excessively expensive fabrics, and then the snarl of the gown's descending zipper is extraordinarily loud.

She tries not to think in the shower; she blinks at water and tries to see pictures in the veining of the marble tiles, just as she used to when she was a girl, when her parents would fight. She often disassociates from pain in this manner; it's soothing and also inspiring.

When her hair is dry, and she's warm in a soft grey robe, she takes up a large sketchpad and pencils. She remembers the vague shapes and images in the marble veins. She draws rapidly, the soft 4B pencil speaking in velvet whispers to the paper. There appears a windblown tree; a small bird, which becomes a robin on a branch; a hand holding a champagne flute. She considers the last, then turns the page over and begins again on fresh white.

The hand, the glass. She minds the proportions carefully: this will be a study of a woman from the waist up. Other guidelines arrive, merely brushed graphite shadows on the paper. On to the torso‒ a certain dress; a particular dress. This is from memory and she frowns while she works, trying to place in her mind what is gathering shape and form on paper. The dress, the dress... Oh, but this is Chanel. She meticulously adds detail, concentrating. Occasionally she chooses a slightly harder pencil, one with a sharper point and less of a tendency to smudge. She is so fixated on what she is doing that she is only partly aware of the forming result. But then it is done.

At first she smiles; pleased. Then she sees, realizes, and her heart squeezes and betrays her.

There are no marble tiles, no clouds, there is no distant patching and patterning of trees and roofs and roads. There is no soothing distraction from the truth of capture, and although Andrea is there smiling at someone absent, frozen on paper, it is Miranda who is captured, still, by this girl's several kindnesses.

She is only aware of her tears when one splashes on the bottom edge of the sketchpad.

*-*-*

"Bitch!"

And there comes the sound of breaking glass: her father has thrown either a bottle or glass across the room, again. He keeps doing that, whenever her mother perhaps says something wrong. She's confused about why they fight. She tries to understand and comes back with nothing that makes sense, because she is told over and over: 'When you're angry or sad, you hide it; you do not cry; you must control your emotions,' and she is told as much by her father.

Something else breaks downstairs. Miranda is only five and she begins to feel afraid, because her mother is crying now. Miranda wants to think of something else, wants to do something to keep herself busy. She has a coloring book; she looks through the book, but none of the pictures in it interest her. There are two or three blank pages here at the end of the book, and she already has a blue crayon in her hand, because blue is her favorite color. With the onset of raised voices downstairs, she begins just to scribble with nothing on her mind except blue-on-white.

The noises downstairs become still, and suddenly there's a laugh. Miranda knows what comes next, and she's too little to understand how this works for them: fighting and then the making up, over and over; it happens at least twice a week. She is old enough to understand that they somehow like things just as they are.

Blue-on-white. White-and-blue. This shape here looks a bit like a sailboat, and there's a bit that looks like a buoy, on the water there, like one of those with a bell on it, to warn sailors about rocks and reefs. Miranda puts her little all into adding the small details that bring a real picture out of a scribble.

In the end she spends hours and hours creating pictures from haphazard scribbles. Hours and hours pass as she escapes into a world of half-shapes that become the images that her mind sees in white-and-blue.

*-*-*

She tilts her head, and from her desk she regards the latest replacement with a keenly critical eye, from foot to head. Faultless in appearance, as far as the attire stretches; near-perfect figure. Petite‒ were it not for this, the girl would most certainly be a model. Topping off the near-perfect figure is a near-flawless face. But there are faults, imperfections, and flaws aplenty in this one, and more of those negative traits are revealed the longer she works here. Too many.

This one will not last, just as the other two did not. She will quit, as the others did, because she is not aware of the very simple attitude of her boss; if she were aware, she would look beyond her own impressions of the woman in charge to the overall picture of a highly successful magazine.

Her many triumphs and successes seem always to never be enough. Complaints are levied against Miranda's harshness and supposed cruelty; people dislike her sarcastic invective and snide remarks. These are tools. These are keys that unlock doors and vaults. Simply, these are the spurs she uses to get the very best, and when she is given the best she demands not more in general, only more of the same. Demands and then hopes for it‒ yes; expects as much‒ no, not ever.

To hope is not to expect; they do not have the same meaning. Although some might deem the two words interchangeable, Miranda knows the difference. She takes joy wherever she finds it, but never expects it, because her several lessons of great disappointment are, by now, very deeply engrained.

Miranda's personal truth is that she is by far too sensitive. As a child she couldn't bear a voice raised to her even slightly, and if she cried she was reprimanded for it. The simplest solution was, and still is, not to cry: La Priestly is the persona she began to develop and perfect before she reached puberty. As a little girl, she clung tightly to the hope of something—anything—better than whatever had upset, or frightened, hurt, or disappointed her. Hoped for it‒ yes; expected it‒ never.

Hope can get her out of bed every day for a month and more, after expectations have given her worrisome dreams fed by doubts. Hope is a simple creature with a one-track mind and tunnel vision, and at the end of the tunnel—no matter how dim—there glows a light.

And so now she only hopes that someone, somewhere, is headed towards the job currently held by a person who fits the preferred picture, but not the overall profile.

Miranda takes a moment to consider and weigh and be very, very honest: Andrea Sachs was not that person.

She is less critical of the next candidate to fill the position.

*-*-*

She is ten, and the smallest child in the class. Today Neil Mills was fooling around with a very big pair of scissors. He hadn't meant to really cut her braid right off, but the teacher had come into the class at that moment, when the blades were wide, when the braid was there between them, and she had shouted at Neil Mills. Startled, the boy had snapped the blades shut, and the long braid of mousey hair had fallen to the tiled floor with a soft slap.

She looks down at it, with her hand behind her head, at the nape where there had been a weight earlier: she feels the lack of the weight more than the absence of the hair.

There is silence, even the teacher is mute.

Miranda has a choice, just as her father tells her often. She has a choice between crying and showing her mettle, and so she chooses. She lies:

"I wanted shorter hair anyway. Mommy wouldn't let me get it cut."

That voice is one belonging to someone much older. The teacher recognizes this. It is a voice that is trained and schooled in ways that are not in this teacher's purview. The woman puts a hand on Miranda's shoulder, and she's expecting to be rebuffed so she isn't offended when the girl shrugs her off and gives her a hard stare. The teacher meets it and shows this child the respect she is due; she gives Miranda a small nod.

At home Miranda's mother isn't quite sober; in fact, she's just tipsy enough, and Miranda tells the story in just the right way, and gets her mother to laugh. In turn, her mother makes sure that her father laughs about it later, but that sort of manipulation is not the kind that Miranda knows how to employ as yet. Still, she learns from them. She watches, she listens; she is mentally and emotionally precocious, and every day she puts to use, in some small way, the things she's learned by watching and listening.

The lady next door was kind enough to neaten Miranda's accidental bob, and it really doesn't look bad at all. She had lied yesterday, about wanting shorter hair, but the mirror tells Miranda that she wants to keep this short style; it suits her shape of face. At school all the girls agree, but Neil Mills has the audacity to rag on her and tell her that she looks goofy. It's a show for his buddies, to prove how tough he is, and so there must be some reason. And why should he need to prove it, Miranda thinks. When the answer comes to her she looks him in the eye, and her smile is probably as cold as her mother's is when her father decides to go out with his friends.

"Neil, I bet anything you like that I could get your daddy to give you another ass-tanning. One short phone-call‒ whadya say, boys? Wanna dare me to do it?"

Dares are a big deal in the fifth grade, and Miranda already has a reputation for being the girl to dare, because she'll do it and never renege. As Miranda guessed that he would, Neil panics. He apologizes even before he can think of how that will look to his friends, and now he becomes the object of ridicule. She might hang around and watch his belittling, but she doesn't. She walks away as if her triumph means nothing.

She watches; she listens; she learns, but no-one notices because she makes sure to pretend indifference. As the years pass, she learns how to make indifference comes across as an iciness, which is more useful: ice cuts.

*-*-*

Today she is awful. She cannot sleep on planes, and in order to be back today, she boarded a flight that landed at JFK at around seven a.m. She hasn't slept in more than thirty-six hours. Every word is double-edged sarcasm; every look is a withering glare. Her only compliments‒ if they can be called that, go to the crew who slaves from three p.m onwards every day to prepare the Book for her perusal. While she was in Milan they had double work, having to scan everything and send it to Miranda. She hasn't a single complaint to issue to them, and therefore, Serena is the only Runway employee who needn't cringe in fear at the slightest thought of Miranda. Everyone else does their best to just stay out of her way. Their only consolation is that tomorrow is Saturday, a half-day.

"Erica."

Erica was Andy's replacement, the one who lasted; the other three each held that desk for no more than a month, one of them getting the hell out after just three days. Erica is now first assistant, but today she'd kill to be researching ice worms in Alaska, or perhaps it would be better to tease piranhas in Argentina, while wearing a skimpy bikini. She'd die sooner, she's sure. The job a million girls would often kill not to have.

"Miranda?" says Erica, pen and notebook at the ready.

"Point first, if you like your job you had better not wear that blouse again‒ I have no idea what Anna Sui was thinking, regarding that print: it's sickening."

Erica knows better than to say even 'Yes, Miranda'; she merely nods. Then comes the quiet word-perfect dictation of a very long list. Erica scribbles like her hand is possessed by a demon. It's nearing the end of the workday for other people, but Erica and the second assistant Jennifer are bound to end their day no earlier than seven. Jennifer's too new to entrust with the Book as yet. It's after seven when Miranda leaves, and Erica sends Jennifer home. The wait for the Book is long tonight. Erica spent more than an hour away having dinner, from eight till just after nine, and by the time she delivers the Book and dry-cleaning it's close to eleven p.m.

"Erica."

She hates these calls into the small parlor where Miranda waits for and presumably reviews the Book. She's glad that she has on her coat over the objectionable Anna Sui blouse. Erica tells herself that she needs to hang in for just another year, and straightens her back as she walks with purpose and a good act of confidence into the parlor.

"Miranda, good evening," she says politely and professionally, before she hands over the Book.

"I won't be in tomorrow. I want you to collect the Book at eight a.m; it will be where you usually leave it. You need not stay at the office‒ leave that to Jennifer, and tell her she is to remain until one p.m, earliest. She'll have to stay longer if the Philip Lim samples don't arrive on time. Tell her to write down the time that they're delivered. Whenever I'm away, people get slack. We should have had those samples today."

"I'll see to it," Erica says, and doesn't bother to mention the massive and almost immovable traffic jams experienced in the City today, for various reasons. The subway wasn't jammed, and Miranda will most likely say something about alternatives being available to anyone who seeks them out. And she's right. Erica learned fast that very often Miranda is right. "Is there anything else?"

"That's all," Miranda says, shaking her head.

The next morning Miranda is seated at her kitchen table when she hears her front door open and close, open and close. A glance at the wall clock: precisely eight a.m. Miranda dwells for a few seconds on Erica's exceptional punctuality, which is acceptable, certainly, but then she is also like a machine in many respects, not all of them good. Politely put, Erica lacks imagination and as such she will be of little value to a magazine built on the imaginative efforts of so many very creative people. So Miranda will send Erica off one day with a glowing letter of recommendation, and with a look that will leave the girl in no doubt that she should not ask about another position at Runway. Then again... Yes. Miranda is almost positive that Erica Whitly will probably grab her letter of recommendation and head very quickly in the direction of away. The only reason she's lasted so long is due to a stubborn streak ten miles wide. Miranda smirks: lack of imagination or no, Erica is Miranda's favorite sort of person, all never-give-in, all I-will-so-succeed, just-see-if-I-don't. Emily is like that; Andrea is like that, too, but Andrea Sachs is wiser, Miranda knows, than both Emily and Erica combined.

It's no good to insist on success as defined by others; no-one succeeds who gives up their dreams and aspirations. Miranda believes in dreams. Dreams have propelled her into this life she is living, and the dreams of others make her own success a possibility: fashion, all manner of art owes its very fabric to dreams. She is not nearly so trite, so cold and hard as some prefer to believe, and because of her understanding of the importance of dreams, she chose not to make life difficult for Andrea Sachs.

*-*-*

She is thirteen. While home is a place and a situation she is coming to hate more and more, when her parents don't fetch her at weekends, her boarding school dormitory is rather a lonely place. To make it worse, it's bucketing down with rain today.

There's a knock at the door at the end of the long room, and Miranda lifts her head from reading a novel. Mrs. Kepler is one of the younger teachers; Miranda and other choir members sang at her recent wedding.

"I thought you might want to look at these," Mrs. Kepler says and offers three magazines. "Miz Stanton showed me the drawings you did‒ costume design for the ninth grade play: lovely. This is a bit different, but also not."

"Thank you," Miranda mumbles, her eyes already pretty much glued to something fantastic by Dior, vaunted on the cover of a magazine called Runway. Already her fingers itch for a pencil, and before she can control them, her eyes shift to the desk beside her bed.

"Go for it," Mrs. Kepler says in a playful stage whisper. She adds with a smile, "But perhaps you should flip through those to see what else Dior and others have on offer, hmm?"

"Okay. Thanks, Missus Kepler."

"Welcome," she says with a nod and walks away. Were Miranda any other child, Janet Kepler would have tacked on "honey"; she would also have asked "Are you okay?", but no-one takes that approach with Miranda. Her strength of character never comes across as willfulness, nor is she ever insolent, and that earns her a good deal of respect from most of the faculty. At the door Mrs. Kepler pauses, and says, "History test tomorrow‒ don't forget."

"No, ma'am, I won't forget. Thank you."

And it's a good thing that Miranda put in a lot of revision work yesterday, because she doesn't find time today to even think about her history books. When six p.m comes along, and her dorm-mates are trickling in to make the seven-thirty cut-off, Miranda's bed is littered with sketches, and a couple have slipped to the floor. Most are copies of photographs in the magazines, but a few are original. One of the girls picks up a piece of paper off the floor.

"Wow," she says quite seriously. "My mom would kill for a dress like this..."

Other girls gather round to look at the sketch, but Miranda is so engrossed in capturing the movement of a piece by Chanel that she doesn't notice any of the favorable comments expressed.

For the first time in her life, she knows what she wants. Most of the garments she has looked at today are perfect, but some don't quite reach that mark. It's not a completely personal assessment. She has redesigned those pieces, so that lines and forms move more fluidly. As an artist she can tell at a glance when a color or shade is just plain wrong for the model wearing it. These are purely technical points which have little bearing on her personal judgment. She is sure, completely certain, that her take on these points is correct. Most importantly she has found an answer to her question, one which also happens to be her father's dismissive judgment: 'What point in art?'

Fashion is art. Fashion is the art of the everyday woman. Style is the personal application of the principles of that art: this is what is available, and one must make it one's own.

While Miranda is an artist, in the sense that she draws and paints, she is cognizant of the fact that she is not the sort of artist who can gather a following and thereby make a living from what she produces on paper or canvas. She is fully aware that her efforts are those best described by the term "draftswoman." She draws what she sees or has seen, and whenever she ventures into original design and composition it requires a lot of effort, and she lacks confidence. To mask this—because she deems it a flaw—she strives to produce such perfectly realistic depictions that those who look upon her work lose their breath. But she knows, and she is accepting of her various personal truths, not least this one: she understands art, and she knows what is and what is not art, and that knowledge now has a purpose.

After lights-out, she lies awake and stares up into the dark, and her mind's eye shows a parade of models wearing gowns and dresses and ensembles. She doesn't see herself when the designer is led onto the catwalk, after the show, but she does see herself in that place, in that future time: she is in the front row, and the designer looks to her for approval.

*-*-*

There's a rumor that one Andy Sachs decked someone for saying something untoward about a certain magazine editor-in-chief. Nigel follows up, which isn't difficult: the news is everywhere because Andy didn't smack just anyone, and it wasn't just a tap either.

He takes the news to Miranda, delivers it while standing at the side of her desk, and they are both looking out the window, she seated in her chair. Her lips purse, but against amusement. Nigel clears his throat and adds that Andy is now out of a job. Apparently, even before he'd hauled himself off the floor, Greg Waters had given Andy just two options: resign, or take the risk of an assault charge sticking.

Nigel comes to the end of his report, and Miranda's expression clouds, eventually settling into the blank mask he associates with someone's eventual demise. Someone is in trouble, and this time it isn't his friend Six.

Three days later, Miranda inclines her head as she walks, and Nigel, on his way to Graphics, changes course to match hers. They arrive in the lesser of two conference rooms; the door is closed. Miranda wordlessly places two sheets of paper on the table. Nigel peruses first one, then the other, and his eyebrows slowly rise until they can go no higher.

"Which would suit her best?"

"People will talk about this, Miranda."

"I didn't ask your opinion on future water-cooler natters. Which?"

"She can't choose for herself?"

"One or the other. Choose for her. I think you know her well enough."

The hand Nigel has in his blazer pocket bunches into a fist: even when she does relatively nice things she is just plain otherwise. And how is it that she always knows everything? How does she know that he and Andy are friends? Also, he's worried: this isn't smart. There is still talk, a whole year after the fact, as to the possible reason why Miranda didn't flay Andy alive and make it so that the kid couldn't find work this side of the International Dateline. If Nigel is very frank with himself, even he is still just a little flummoxed. Andy's still living in New York and she isn't a street person! With this newsroom punch-up business, there is chatter again, but in whispers. Andy landing this kind of job now will cause the volume to rise, Nigel is sure. He is Miranda's friend, and for once he will force her to recognize as much at Runway.

"Listen‒ do you know what the talk is, Miranda? Do you?"

"I happen to find that particular rumor to be rather amusing, seeing as I haven't laid eyes on Andrea since seven or eight days after my return from Paris, one year ago." She looks at him carefully and her eyes narrow slightly. "Why are you so concerned about it?"

"Irv is still looking for an excuse to get rid of you."

"He wouldn't like the discrimination suit I'd bring, nor would Elias-Clarke, if there was any truth to the rumors, which there is not. And good grief, really, all of it."

"Really-all-of-what, precisely? You're awfully defensive suddenly. Might you head in that direction?"

"Were it not for our friendship..." Her voice is a whispered hiss through gritted teeth.

Nigel raises a hand, palm out, and literally takes a half step back. His apology is in his eyes; he has never crossed that line before. They are old friends but there are areas of their lives that are off limits and which are never discussed. He raises his eyebrows in a question, and Miranda nods: forgiven, this once. Nigel looks again at the two pieces of paper and chooses one.

"I'll call her and meet with her tonight. She'll know, Miranda, that you're behind this, and not me. If she asks?"

"She won't. Shall we bet again, like we used to?" Miranda says, and there is a predatory and combative gleam in her eyes. It's an eagerness that is hard to look at: her lust of, and her taste for, the trickle of blood in the water; the way she takes pride in it when Nigel looks away. She would never bare row upon row of teeth to him after hours, but she will have her due, here and now. They are not friends at work, and he made the choice to forget as much. She says briskly, and with cold confidence, "My wager is a thousand, hard cash; odds are two-to-one: she will not ask."

Nigel cannot back out, not without looking and feeling like a coward. By ten p.m he is out of pocket to the tune of two-thousand dollars.

*-*-*

She is twelve, and her mother is thirty-eight.

"How do—Miranda, if you are lying..."

"I'm not," Miranda says, and her eyes are hard. She tells little fibs, if she feels she has to, but she doesn't tell whoppers, ever, because they are too easily found out. She learned this lesson from her father; she learned by noticing how easily her mother finds out his great big lies. Never mind the fact that sometimes he tells lies in the hope that he'll be caught, so they'll fight. She still can't quite fathom this dynamic, this urge of theirs to fight and make up. It's a riddle whose answer hovers at the edge of her awareness, and she doesn't like the hints that occasionally drop in on her: they make her squirm and hurry along to thoughts of other things. She has been drawing a lot lately, most of the summer, in fact. "I'm not lying, Mom. He was talking to Grandma."

Grandma is her mother's mother; the white-haired woman hasn't spoken to Miranda's mother in eight years. Miranda isn't too sure what that is all about, but she does know that her father is supposed to be firmly in his wife's camp, and not in Grandma's. Miranda herself has not spoken with her maternal grandmother for at least four years, if not five, but that's all right because Lorraine Brent is twice the bitch that her daughter is.

When Miranda's father comes home there isn't the expected yelling match, but there is strain and tension at the dinner table. Her father notices.

"What's wrong here?" he asks in his usual gruff, terse way.

And for the first time Miranda thinks that she could be in real trouble, for telling on him. She schools her expression to show nothing at all, and she is careful with her fork on its way to her mouth. Her father is going to blow a gasket, she knows, because she was supposed to be playing over at Kerry Schumann's house this morning. She had gone there, but had come home when she'd found that Kerry's mom had forgotten the play date.

And she does get into trouble, because her mother makes sure of it. The woman likes to inflict a lot of damage, when the mood takes her. She tells her husband that Miranda saw him this morning, talking to Lorraine.

While the lesson learned by other children might simply involve keeping their mouths shut about certain things, Miranda learns that and something else. It would have been wiser, today, to have crept closer, to have overheard the conversation between her father and grandmother. She didn't, and her parents don't discuss it now; to Miranda's knowledge, they don't discuss it at all, and she never finds out the real reason why her mother refuses to speak to her father, the reason why she forces him to sleep in the guest room for more than a month. He doesn't fight her on this, because her mother tells him, reminds him, of 'something else I know, Henry.'

Miranda learns that it pays to know things and use those things as levers and weapons: knowledge is power.

*-*-*

La Priestly is not the only side to Miranda. That view is one for clackers, Perez Hilton, Paris Hilton, and anyone else so shallow as not to see past their own ill-informed opinions. Andy has always known this, just as she knew at once that Miranda was behind the gift of an interview, which led to the job she has now. There was no point in asking Nigel to confirm that certainty, but besides that her feelings on the matter are her own business.

It's not that she feels she owes Miranda anything, not for that weird letter of recommendation—'If you don't hire her, you're an idiot'—and not for the job she has now, as editor at an established publishing house. Andy is grateful but more importantly, she is loyal, and loyalty is not about debts and favors; it has nothing to do with giving back and/or getting something in return. Loyalty might bring many rewards and it might earn as many favors, but the loyal never expect as much. Andy feels firmly that she was born a loyal person, that loyalty is a trait more prevalent in some than in others.

Take Lily and Doug, and even Nate, for example: they have all turned their backs on Andy, but she can't bring herself to offer them the same in return, even a year later. So she asks Lily's dad and Doug's mom and Nate's parents how each of the three are doing. It isn't something done out of duty. It comes naturally as breathing to Andy Sachs. Understanding Andy better than their children do, the dad, the mom, and the parents in question fill Andy in.

And Miranda might stab her in the back tomorrow, but Andy would still be loyal. Why that is, Andy isn't precisely sure, but it certainly has a lot to do with understanding Miranda's circumstances. As far as Stephen Tomlinson was concerned, Andy was pretty much in the same boat with Nate. So while others say, in a certain variety of newspapers, that Miranda is heartless and unfeeling and so on, Andy says to herself that Stephen knew what he was getting into. No-one else seems to be looking at it from that angle. The divorce is newly over, and yet there is still unkind comment levied against Miranda, only Miranda. Andy calls this grossly unfair.

As far as Nate is concerned, Andy has come to feel that he could have been a little more accommodating. After all, if and when Nate had been required to work late or swap shifts—which effectively screwed up plans he and Andy had made—Andy had said 'Okay.' The fact is, he'd had to work on her birthday, but his job at a restaurant had made that okay. They had simply gotten together at said restaurant. Okay? No, not quite. He hadn't even tried to get the night off; he'd simply said to come round to his job. Not okay at all. Of course, Andy hadn't thought to make that argument when Nate had pouted and had locked himself in the bedroom. She still kicks herself over this little issue—still gets mad whenever she thinks about it.

While still angry about the way their relationship ended, she doesn't bear Nate any sort of grudge. Nor does she hold a grudge against Miranda.

A little over a year ago in Paris, she had seen Nigel before she left; he'd hunted her down at Charles de Gaulle airport.

"Don't you dare do this only for me," Nigel had muttered in her ear while hugging her fiercely.

"I don't wanna be her protégé," Andy had told him.

"Okay," Nigel had said, but shakily, afraid for her. "Okay. I'm earning a third again what I did yesterday, by the way."

"Is that good enough? You wanted that job so much."

"That job—You know, Six, that job is not a safe place: I found out that Irv owns a full forty percent of the company. He'd think nothing of fucking me over to get at her. Miranda didn't get me the job. Irv tried to put me at that desk. Why, hmm?"

And Andy had paled at the very unpleasant scenarios that suddenly arrived in her head. She'd learnt in the space of less than twenty-four hours that Irv Ravitz is a master at playing dirty. She'd accepted, even while packing her bags, that for Miranda it was a case of play ball by his rules, or lose, and whoever was close to Miranda Priestly would be Irv's target, too. That was Nigel. Until that fall afternoon in Paris, it had also been Andy Sachs.

A year on and Andy is no longer concerned about Irv Ravitz, but she keeps tabs on Miranda.

At the Mirror, Andy developed quite the reputation for aggressively rounding on anyone who dared say anything negative about Miranda. It's now a reputation that precedes her, one bolstered by the solid-fisted straight right she'd delivered to the Mirror's editor-in-chief. The erstwhile editor of the Mirror, Andy reminds herself. That happened yesterday: Greg Waters walked into work only to be told to pack up his office. It's too much of a coincidence, and Andy is no fool. She knows that Miranda was behind the man's dismissal, even if indirectly.

*-*-*

They are both equally surprised to see each other after fourteen months. But here? It's a dojo, one specializing in the instruction of Iaido and Kendo, both of the Muso Shinden Ryu curriculum.

Andy has just stepped out of a kata‒ and has lowered her sword into an off-guard position. It's a real sword, dangerously real: a Thaitsuki Budo katana which is hand-forged, the blade folded over three-hundred times. Iaido kata begin with the sword—a katana—sheathed, and they end with the iaidoka—the practitioner—sheathing that sword. Andy hasn't completed her kata, and she's quite forgotten to sheath her blade. Not that anyone would blame her, considering who she's plainly staring at right now.

Miranda notices the easy, relaxed line to Andy's forearm, wrist, and hand, so that the sword seems a natural extension; it belongs there. Even though many people might consider a sword-wielding ex employee to be something of a health risk, Miranda approaches without fear.

And as Miranda walks over, Andy's expression loses some of its surprise. She looks down critically, at Miranda's feet, only to regain the surprised expression when she finds no shoes in evidence.

"Of course I took them off," Miranda mutters, easily reading Andy's mind, and referring to dojo etiquette. She gestures at the heavy quilted top and the thick floor-length split skirt Andy is wearing, and says, "The uwagi and hakama suit you."

"Thanks. What are you doing here?" Andy mutters. She is ill at ease. This is an odd hour, just around ten a.m on a weekday, and very few people are here at the dojo. In this large room there's only Andy and Miranda, who is looking at her in a way that causes Andy to worry about her hair and the fact that she's barefoot, and never mind the compliment on her attire, and the fact that Miranda is barefoot, too.

"I'm told that the Kendo instruction here is excellent. Your opinion?"

"You really want it, or are you making small talk?" Andy feels no need to be polite: she doesn't like this one bit. She is loyal, yes, and she thinks highly of Miranda, but Andy also knows Miranda.

"I want it," Miranda says, her tone sharpening in answer to Andy's sharpness.

"Yeah. It's a good school. The girls wanna try it?"

"Yes. Actually, they've 'tried it' already. What they want is to get serious about it."

"Hope they've got the discipline for it. And they're starting late: I picked up my first shinai when I was six." Andy guesses that Miranda has done her research. A shinai is a practice sword constructed of split bamboo, as opposed to a bokken which is a practice sword shaped from hardwood. "Tell them not to get ideas about Iaido anytime soon: six years of work with a shinai and bokken before my first Iaido lesson."

"I have to ask, how did your mother feel about that?" Miranda drawls, eyeing the katana in Andy's hand.

"Not happy," Andy says with a broad grin. "Same sword, just as sharp. Y'know what tameshigiri is?"

"Chopping things up," Miranda says wryly. "I realize that it might take years to perfect the method of cutting right through a tightly rolled, water-soaked bamboo mat with just one... slice, but I don't really see the point."

"Discipline," Andy states. She steps over to a shelf and fetches a sheet of regular printer paper from a basket, then steps into the center of the room. The katana has been sheathed, and Miranda notices that Andy's expression has become decidedly blank. Andy holds the paper by an edge, with two fingers and the thumb of her left hand. Abruptly she flicks up with her arm and wrist and the paper flips into the air. With her eyes on the fluttering paper, the sword is drawn, and then Andy is a blur of movement: two cuts leave the sheet of paper in three pieces. She tells Miranda, "That's fifteen years worth of discipline."

The word 'wow' very nearly escapes Miranda's lips; that much she can control, but she doesn't even try to keep astonishment from her expression. Never mind the exceptionally sharp sword and the paper. She's never seen another human being move as fast. She feels like a child, filled with the urge to ask to see it again, but she doesn't ask. There are limits, even here and now. She thanks Andy for the demonstration and her favorable opinion of the dojo, and she leaves the room.

Andy frowns while balling up the scraps of paper. She doesn't understand why she feels sad to see Miranda go.

*-*-*

She is seventeen.

"I'm so, so sorry, Miranda," Mrs. Kepler says softly, and she is very worried about the lack of tears, the lack of any reaction whatsoever. She says very gently, "It's okay to just let go."

Miranda shakes her head. The man who told her so many times not to let her emotions show, is dead; her mother is in a critical condition. Miranda overheard some people saying that the accident was her father's fault: he was speeding, a police officer said. Miranda adds, 'And probably drunk' only to herself, but she knows that others will find that out. She straightens her back and looks at Mrs. Kepler.

"She's not going to make it, is she?"

Mrs. Kepler could lie, but everything in her screams 'Don't!'. This girl is here all alone, but for Janet Kepler, and if she coddles and offers platitudes, it's highly likely that Miranda will reject any further kindnesses Mrs. Kepler has to offer. But she cannot bring herself to speak about this, so she shakes her head and struggles to keep herself from crying. Her heart very nearly breaks when Miranda offers a kind smile and a sort of there-there pat to her knee. And then Mrs. Kepler is the one who straightens up, who finds her backbone, because the last thing Miranda needs is to feel as though she should be comforting her history teacher.

Miranda hates the wait for news. She sits in this cold waiting room that is warmed only by someone who, if not a stranger, is someone she can't even call a friend. It comes to her quite suddenly that she is now all alone in this world. No, wait. There's Grandma. Miranda barely holds back a derisive snort. No, there isn't Grandma. They can't stand each other, so Lorraine Brent does not count. It's likely that Miranda will soon be able to choose who she associates with; she will be allowed to choose a good many things for herself, and this is a very frightening thought.

When the doctor comes in to tell them, Miranda stands and thanks him for his efforts. There's nowhere else to go but back to the dorm, because her grandmother is in Nice and will only come home in two days.

"Will you come and stay with Rob and me, just for the night?" asks Mrs. Kepler. "Principal Jackson said it'll be all right."

Miranda considers the dorm, and Mrs. Kepler's offer. At some point, she knows, the hold she has now will be lost, and she doesn't want to face any of her dorm-mates, not in tears. It's only fair to warn her, and Miranda does, mentioning that she will probably just want to be left alone. Mrs. Kepler nods and Miranda follows her out to a car. Later, she finds herself in a small but lovely home where kind and quiet Rob Kepler has gone to the trouble of thawing and heating thick, rich soup. After six hours at the hospital the meal is exactly what Miranda needs: it provides a new focal point, on a primal sort of level—one that is oddly similar to the twist of grief in her gut. The feelings of hunger and grief are subjoined. Miranda finds herself analyzing and reaching for a side of human nature that she has never contemplated before. It's soothing, almost as soothing as drawing.

When she is alone in the guest room, she hides her face in a pillow and the sobs come choking up.

While her home life has never been wonderful, of late she had been making a concerted effort to get along with her parents. Those efforts had been paying dividends: so far this term she had not spent a weekend alone at school. Her successes both academic and in a dressage arena had been cause for her father especially to become proud of her; her growing interest in fashion had been noticed, at last, by her mother, and they'd been talking and getting to know each other in a new way.

But now they are gone and she must face that. It would be easier, so much easier, if she hadn't put in the effort. She wishes that she could undo her hard work; she wishes that she could just shut off her feelings as one turns out a light, or closes a faucet. In the end, wishes leave her flat, because she knows already that love is something that doesn't simply end or vanish. All that's left is the hope that the crushing fist around her heart will eventually relax its grip.

The funeral is something Miranda wants immediately to forget, because her grandmother turned it into a farce. She kept a tight grip on Miranda's hand throughout; she wept like the best actress in Hollywood. But now they are at home‒ Miranda's home. She knows already that the house is willed to her; her father's attorney is now her attorney, and he's already explained a great deal. Miranda will be eighteen in six months, and by the time her birthday arrives all the legal matters regarding the death of her parents will have been settled. Beginning the day after her birthday, she will be a very wealthy young woman.

"What will you have, Lorraine?" Miranda asks, suggesting a drink.

"Water. I don't touch booze," Lorraine mutters and strips off black dress gloves. "Don't tell me they let you drink."

"Offers were made." Miranda feels no need to lie about it. It's blisteringly hot, so she cracks ice-cubes out of a tray and shares them between two large glasses, adding water from the cooler in the corner of the kitchen. "I should ride later."

"Yes‒ back on the horse in more ways than one." Lorraine looks her granddaughter over, liking the similarity to her own features, rather than those of her late parents. Another trait passed from grandmother to granddaughter is there, besides the face: "I see that, like me, you don't mind the early addition of a few greys."

"They're not like tears, not like being upset. I think that hiding them would be a kind of weakness," Miranda states, and finds that she is starting to like her grandmother. This is surprising, but then Lorraine has never spoken with Miranda like this, on pretty much equal terms. "You've always treated me like a kid."

"Until recently, you've never given me cause to do otherwise‒ hiding away," Lorraine says. "I like to respect people. Generally speaking, if I respect someone it's because they, in turn, show me respect. It's a fail-safe; a little trick that tends to ensure that I don't end up being put through the emotional wringer. The truly strong are those who know their own weaknesses, and avoid situations where those weaknesses may be exploited by others, Miranda... They call you something else at school, don't they?"

"Yes. Andy," Miranda says.

"You prefer that to Miranda?"

"No," Miranda drawls. "But the teachers don't use it, so..."

"Yes. The other girls can call you what they like because they don't count. No friends, hmm?"

"None that really want to know me," Miranda says, and she's quite comfortable with this fact. She takes a long drink from the glass and sets it down. "I'm going up to change. When I've finished schooling Saracen, we should talk. Will you go home? I can drive there, if you'd prefer."

"No, I'll stay. I've never seen you ride."

They will never move past respect into that kind of love common between many grandmothers and granddaughters.

Six years later, when Miranda stands alone at Lorraine's funeral, what she mourns is the loss of someone who understands her, and many years after that, when she finds that rarity in someone else, she knows better than to reveal any more chinks in her armor.

*-*-*

If Miranda is free, on evenings when Caroline and Cassidy attend Kendo classes, she accompanies them. But were it not for the armor utilized by kendoka, Miranda would not be able to sit here and watch blows aimed to her children's heads, shoulders, midsections, and forearms. They've been at it now for six months, and both girls only seem to grow more enthusiastic about the sport. Given the high cost of their gear, Miranda had been concerned that they would become bored of it all ('It's not about being able to afford it; it's about spending it wisely': what she always tells her girls about money), but those worries are long gone.

No belts are issued in this dojo, and belts of various colors denoting rank are generally not worn at all by kendoka. Sparring and competitions are the only times colored obi—sashes—are worn; and even then, the sole purpose is simply to tell two kendoka apart. Miranda knows her daughters by the braided tails of red hair exiting the backs of their helmets. She isn't sure which is which; one is wearing a red obi, the other a green one. It's a good thing that they're twins and matched in weight and height, because the other kids at their level are all much younger and smaller, so the twins spar together. As yet they are forbidden by their sensei to enter into ji-geiko, or sparring, at home, but they practice their kata religiously and without being asked or told to do so.

As other parents have had cause, Miranda has noticed that Caroline and Cassidy have both become a little more focused since taking up this martial art. They have found that they cannot apply discipline only to one area of their lives. Discipline has a way of worming its way into everything else.

"Hello."

Miranda turns slightly and nods a greeting to Andy, then returns her attention to the twins, being put through their stances and drills on a polished wood floor. Andy sits next to her on a bench against a wall.

They keep meeting here, but more often than not the twins have just finished their practice, or Andy has ended her session, and only greetings are exchanged in passing. But when they smile, it's real, and it didn't take long for their brief interactions to become pleasant. Andy puts this down to her own simple acceptance of circumstances: she'll be seeing Miranda, in passing, on a pretty regular basis, and so it's best to make the most of these transitory meetings.

Andy has a few minutes now before she's expected elsewhere; she's genuinely interested.

"How're they doing‒ still keen?"

"Yes‒ very," Miranda says. "As for progress, you tell me. You see the red hair?"

Andy nods and watches as Miranda's daughters are put through attack and defense drills. Footwork is very important in Kendo, and for that reason, beginners wear gi pants instead of the hakama skirt which hides the feet. Andy pays attention to the girls' footwork, and she likes what she sees.

"They practice a lot. Good."

"When you worked for me, when did you find the time to practice?" Miranda asks.

"I didn't. I had to choose to pay the rent, or attend classes and group practices. I started here a week after I got back from Paris." Andy pauses, then decides to say it: "I almost hated you then‒ I no longer felt as though I could claim my fourth dan rank. I worked my ass off to get back into it."

"For what it's worth, I'm sorry," says Miranda. And she is, especially now that she knows what it means to take on the mantle of discipline required here. Miranda now knows that Kendo and Iaido are not just sports; they are working philosophies which require a change in both attitude and mindset if one ever hopes to attain proficiency—not to mention the daily practice required to keep a hold on whatever level of proficiency one has already attained. "They had the flu two months ago and couldn't practice for nearly a fortnight. It set them back considerably. So yes, I'm sorry."

"Long time ago," Andy grunts and shrugs. But she smiles eventually and dares to bump her shoulder against Miranda's. "We should get coffee sometime."

"Really?" Miranda drawls, a smile quirking at the corners of her mouth.

"Don't be all highhanded and stuffy. Gotta go. I'll call you. Still the same number?"

"If ever it has to change, I'm sure that the resulting panic would cause my assistants to quit, or at least report to a doctor for a sedative," Miranda says dryly, and she rolls her eyes at the immediate grin of understanding on Andy's face. Miranda watches Andy go and a small part of herself hopes that she will call soon.

Once at home with her daughters, Miranda faces a slightly uncomfortable grilling.

They are not employees who can be shut up with a glare and, perhaps, the addition of a very quiet tirade. She never speaks so to her daughters; she never has and, no matter what, she never will.

They're nearly thirteen now and quick as whips, growing like weeds, naughty as all get-out but in ways that Miranda finds endearing: mischief is not mayhem. They are known more these days for their fine manners than their old reputation for pulling pranks. They are growing up, and Miranda has cause to be proud of them most every day. She never bothers to hide her love for them, and it was quite amusing to see so many jaws drop when the girls visited Runway last week, when she hugged them and smiled at them and paid attention to them to the exclusion of all others, even a visiting designer of no small standing.

Caroline and Cassidy are, for the most part, Miranda's world. If ever they ask it of her with real sincerity, and given the fact that she need never work another day in three lifetimes, she will quit her job tomorrow. She is a mother to the nth degree: they come first and always will.

"She's really pretty," Caroline tells her twin.

"Whatever: she's a fourth dan! Pretty-so-what," Cassidy says and shoves her glasses up her nose. "I wish she'd lead our class."

"Doesn't she have to be a fifth dan for that?"

Off on this new path, the girls have seemingly forgotten what they'd originally asked their mother. While they verbally lay out Kendo and Iaido rankings, Miranda takes the gap and tries to work out what to say. She knows these two: they'll get back onto their original tack, and when they do, she should have an answer.

But what answer? They've asked if there's any truth to a rumor, and they asked this in a very straightforward way: 'Mom, did you have an affair with Andy Sachs?' The answer is simply no, but a simple no won't suffice, considering the rumor has persisted for more than a year.

Cassidy and Caroline were told quite some time ago that they can, and therefore should, ask their mother anything. Miranda feels strongly that parents should be every child's first source of information. There have been times when Miranda has literally put in some study time on subjects unfamiliar to her, in order to be that first source of information for her girls. It's no answer at all, telling one's child to consult Wikipedia. That approach leaves the parent on the outside looking in, out of touch with the child's interests and developing mind and emotions.

If her daughters find a new interest, Miranda knows about it. She knows what music they listen to because she listens to it, too, even if it's torture: she isn't a hip-hop fan at all, and she isn't partial to boy bands in the slightest. She knows what TV shows they like, and she knows what video games they prefer to play. There used to be soccer, and now there's Kendo, but the girls still follow American soccer, South American fútbol, and English Premiere League football, and Miranda regularly watches whichever game with the twins. On the academic side, she keeps abreast of all of their classes, and it isn't unusual to find Miranda wishing that she'd paid more attention in math classes many years ago.

Gone are the days when two little brats would cajole their mother into getting one of her assistants to do their various homework assignments and projects. She no longer allows that, because she doesn't feel that she has to. Stephen is long gone, and so is the stressful atmosphere that pervaded the house when he was living here. Miranda no longer allows guilt to cloud her vision where her daughters are concerned.

Eventually she is asked the question again, and her answer is a simple no. She might preempt any further questions with an explanation, but she is interested to hear their thoughts, wants to find out what kind of approach their young minds have taken here.

"She must like you a lot, though."

"Yeah, cos she pounded her boss and lost her job, cos of what he said about you."

"He's lucky she doesn't take her katana to work," Caroline drawls, and her dry tones are beginning to resemble Miranda's more and more. "So if there wasn't an affair, why are people still talking about it? What's the big deal?"

"There's the rub, as Hamlet would say," Miranda says with a slight smile and a vague little shrug. "I'm the Dragon Lady, and Andrea walked away from her job, in Paris, and I didn't make life difficult for her. That's shocking!"

The twins giggle at their mom's overly dramatic tones, along with her wink, and her smile. They know her best. They know that she is playful and that she adores them, and that she isn't anything like a dragon at home. But they also know that she is all that at work, and they know why. They are very young but they know already that women must often be bitches to get and hold respect; they know that being nice results in others using one as a stepping stone, or a doormat; they know that nice people cheer on the winners, who call the nice people weak. Most importantly, Caroline and Cassidy know that it's perfectly possible to shrug off one's work persona and hang it up in the closet with one's coat. Their mother does it every day.

"So why were you nice to her, Mom?"

"Not nice. Fair," Miranda says. "The truth is, I'm always honest in a way that suggests that if the truth hurts that's not my fault. And I'm always fair; hard, but fair. I might have to pull an underhanded trick or two, but most often, what people see of the professional me is what they're going to get if they don't pull their weight. As far as Andrea is concerned, I made a mistake. I thought that she had turned out to be very good at her job because she wanted that job. She didn't, and I made the mistake of not remembering that she had and has dreams of her own. So I let her go, and when she interviewed at the Mirror I told her boss to hire her. From there she worked very hard and proved her worth to herself, and also to me... And she struck Gregory Waters because she is a loyal person. Loyalty is not something that easily fades. You two like that English soccer team, Everton, for example, even though they generally middle out on the log. You're loyal to that team, even though they don't always win. Loyalty is not something easily explained, but it is a very definite feeling, and a strong one. It's an approach that tends to beget an answer in kind, so when Andrea lost her job, through her loyalty to me, I helped to get her a new one. But an affair? No."

"But you like her," Cassidy says, and it's a statement, not a question. She and her sister know their mother best; they read her like a book. "There's only three other people you smile at the way you smile at Andy‒ me and Caro and Daddy. Not even Uncle Nigel gets that kinda smile from you. You like her."

"Yeah, you do," Caroline agrees.

"I think that I've always liked her," Miranda says. "Andrea is kind; she was kind to me even when, perhaps, others wouldn't have bothered... But yes, I think I liked her right from the outset. She was very different to the other assistants I've had. To start she had no clue who I was."

"What?"

"Really?"

"Really," Miranda chuckles and nods. "So she wanted a job first and foremost and she never thought to suck up."

The girls don't need to say that that had to have been a welcome change: they know how their mother is seen by others. They know that almost every day most everyone approaches her with flattery in the hope of 'earning' her favor.

Later, Miranda drops in her lap the anthology of poetry she has been trying to browse through, and she ponders this question of Andrea Sachs.

It isn't at all difficult to step back in time, and her heart aches again as it did in that hotel suite in Paris, which speaks volumes here and now: she has missed Andy. And she enjoys their small interactions whenever they see each other these days. Miranda hopes again, quite fervently, that Andy will call sooner than later. It's no use trying to analyze this feeling. She sets aside the book and turns out the light.

But she can't sleep, not at first, and when she does drift off at last, she relives a shoulder bumping against her own, and from memory, a voice says:

'I'll call you.'

*-*-*

She was right: it is very scary to be able to choose so many things for herself; it's scarier still to be able to afford most anything she can think of. Her parents never taught her about money, and now she has so much, too much, and there is no-one there to say, 'No, you can't have it' whenever her eye is caught by jewelry, or a car, or even a house: scary.

It isn't her grandmother, her lawyer, or her bank manager who eventually provides guidance. She is in a store filled with beautiful dresses and blouses and skirts, and she overhears a woman saying to her daughter:

"Honey, it isn't about being able to afford it. Yes, we can, but this will be the second new dress this month. The trick with money is to always spend it wisely. Things happen; good turns bad in a second flat. Welcome to the real world, baby, it's time to grow up."

Miranda very nearly approaches the woman to say thank you. She doesn't do that, but she does set a dress back on a rack, and she goes to a coffee shop where she sits alone in a corner, and thinks. For the first time ever, she thinks about her future beyond her dream of working in the fashion industry, beyond possibly holding a position for a time at Runway or Vogue.

One's future is not really about that time beyond tomorrow, and next month, and next year. One's future is governed by desire, by what one wants in that future time.

In the coffee shop, there is a baby asleep in the crook of a young mother's arm. Babies have never been on Miranda's mind in any way, and looking at this little innocent, Miranda wonders what kind of parent she would make. Her heart races and she is abruptly worried. She becomes angry with herself. Ridiculous, to be so viscerally moved by mere thoughts of something that hasn't happened yet and might never happen. But no, she does want a child of her own and she really does have cause to worry, given the only examples she has of parenting. Her anger shifts and aims itself at her late parents. That, too, is rather silly, she feels. What purpose, now that they're dead?

By the time she gets home she is almost seething. She has a strong urge to break something, to lash out in some way, but she doesn't. She changes her clothes and heads down to the stables. Her original intention was to school Saracen, her Hanoverian, but she sees Mica, who used to be her father's horse, and decides that he could use some attention. She straps a blanket to his back with a surcingle, instead of burdening him with a saddle. When she vaults to his back and settles herself behind his withers, her legs long and relaxed, Mica tosses his head and whickers: Let's go!

"Yes, yes," Miranda mutters indulgently. "You'll warm up at the walk first, but we'll gallop today. We'll fly, eh, old son?"

The handsome steeldust Anglo-Arab snorts and moves out eagerly. Miranda smiles and lets it all go; releases every bit of anger and hurt and worry. Her butt is glued to Mica's back when he moves into a trot and, later, into a smooth ground-eating canter along one of the many bridle paths in this area of the Berkshire Hills. She's not just riding a horse, not just sitting him as he moves from one pace into the next; she's part of him, with him every step of the way. This is what she wants in her future: to be so closely bound to another person that she has no doubts about their relationship; no need to fight and make up; no need to weigh every one of his words to find the lies.

And at the stables, when she's rubbing the sweat out of Mica's coat to make sure he doesn't take a chill, and when she's grooming Saracen even though there is a stable girl who could be ordered to do so, Miranda realizes that being a parent is something she just might be good at: it's all about the effort applied.

*-*-*

If not for the rumors, they would meet for coffee at some fashionable venue or another, but the rumors propel them into the privacy of each other's homes; on and off, and then more and more regularly over several months.

They begin carefully with each other, both employing very different attitudes to the ones with which they were once familiar. Both are accepting of the fact that it will take some time to reach a plateau of relaxed comfort, which is a state requiring no small amount of trust. Facts are facts: Miranda used to scare the hell out of Andy; Andy once turned her back and walked away from Miranda. Speaking generally, that is not nearly a good start if mutual trust is the required outcome. Both are patient women, in their personal lives; they don't fuss over the slow start and the necessity of some tiptoeing around because they both know, without doubt, that it will all pay dividends in the end.

As for the rumors:

"Newspaper people are stupid," Caroline tells her mother, after Andy and Cassidy have scrambled out the front door on a mission to procure a half-gallon of milk. Andy has become a firm favorite with Miranda's twins; they often 'pirate' Andy away from their mother, who doesn't mind. Right now Caroline adds sagely: "Really stupid. I mean, Andy's still a bit nervous of you. She wouldn't be if you two had an affair, right? Isn't that the way it works?"

"Sometimes," Miranda chuckles. She assiduously avoids such phrases as 'You'll understand when you're older' because they only serve to confuse children, or frustrate them, or both. "But you're bang on the money, in the sense that we'd behave differently towards each other. There would be an air of... familiarity. That doesn't necessarily mean that we'd be relaxed with each other. It's just a certain something that says to other people that these two people know each other in ways that just-friends don't."

"I don't have those words yet, to say it like that, but that's what I meant," Caroline said.

"My lamb, don't grow up too fast," Miranda says with a fond smile.

But Caroline and her sister show quite a measure of maturity where Andy is concerned. They could say things to Andy about 'newspaper people' being silly, but they never do. And before long, those ridiculous rumors die down, and they don't fire up again when Andy is spotted with Miranda's daughters, walking Patricia, or when the three of them are seen cruising a mall. Perhaps the children's involvement flashes a warning light to some, who decide to be wise and pass the word. Miranda is the Dragon Lady, but what scarier sort of monster might be forced into existence if the press say certain things and mention the girls' names in the same breath? At any rate, this is Andy's theory, one she mentions to Nigel.

"You've never told me what you think of those rumors," Nigel says. He's fishing, of course, but there are no sharks in these waters.

"The trouble is, it's not implausible," Andy says. "That's the real reason why the rumors persisted for so long. It was a possibility, because just about everyone knows that Miranda Priestly could snap her fingers and have anyone she wants. Did it happen? No. Did I ever want it to happen? No. Did she? I don't know. It is not and wasn't anything that I've ever spent too much time thinking about, but maybe, like Miranda, that's because I own the luxury of knowing the truth."

Nigel knows another truth, one called Christian Thompson, and several other truths of the male variety with whom Andy has flirted when she and Nigel have been out together at night. His little fishing expedition has pulled up a rusty tin can and an ancient boot, and he's disappointed but he doesn't let it show.

He will think later that Andy's relaxed attitude is one belonging to someone who knows herself very well. He decides not to go fishing again. He decides not to ask, 'But have you ever been with a woman?'

*-*-*

This too-quiet Sunday morning Miranda is not in the mood to be alone; her girls are with their father. She invites Andy to the townhouse around eleven, and she promises that no, lunch will not be what models consider adequate. A look at what's available, as far as lunch ingredients go, sends Miranda upstairs to shower and dress. It's not often that she gets to do her own grocery shopping, and this morning she enjoys the experience. It is one of those sharply pretty winter mornings, where the bright sun contrasts distinctly with that vindictive cold common to January in New York. Just as Miranda rounds the corner with a paper bag in each arm, she sees Andy exit a cab. Miranda raises her chin in greeting, and her smile is small but real.

"If I was bad to the bone," Andy calls as she walks toward Miranda. "I'd use my cell to snap a picture and I'd send it to Page Six. Imagine the headline, 'Fashion Queen Does Own Shopping‒ World Ends!'"

Miranda gives Andy a mock glare, and as they meet she hands off one of the bags. The cold has brought a rosy flush to Andy's cheeks, one that is not unbecoming, Miranda notices, and she thinks that this girl's looks will only improve with age.

"Pretty day, pretty girl," Miranda says, while fishing her key out of a pocket.

"So I'm not the 'smart fat girl' anymore?" Andy teases, as she often does.

"You wore lumpy sweaters and awfully cut skirts‒ they made you look fat. And honestly, if I had it all my way, every model would weigh an average of ten more pounds. The designers won't hear of it, and I call that laziness: it's easier to design clothes to fit and move with a model who's all up-and-down. It's not because thin looks good; it's because thin is easier to dress."

"That's... It's despicable," Andy mutters, and takes the other paper bag while Miranda removes and hangs her coat. They swap out and Andy hangs her coat, too. In the kitchen they tackle together the rather domestic chore of packing away the groceries. Andy notices that Miranda is wearing a little frown. "What's up‒ work, or home?"

They have put in the time and effort, and this little area, that borders on a very-old-friends sort of comfort, is one they find themselves in more regularly these days. But sometimes landing here still causes the odd double-take, or mildly bemused response.

"Work," Miranda mumbles. Then with more vigor: "Irv. He never learns, and I've now had it with him. I've gone over his head for the first time in fourteen years, directly to Julius Clarke.'

"Jeez," Andy says, her brows arched, her eyes wide. Since the two of them have begun socializing, she's learnt a lot more about how Miranda does business, and in general Miranda prefers to face off with Irv directly. "What did he do to deserve that?"

"He wants to level my budget with those of the London, Paris, and Milan magazines."

"What!" Andy squawks. "You can't be serious. Runway New York provides more than half of the material used by all three of the satellite versions, and just about all of it for every September issue."

"You needn't sing to the choir," Miranda drawls. Then briskly again, and half through her teeth, she mutters, "Julius is incensed, not to mention flabbergasted. At first he thought that I was joking. When he realized that I was serious... Well, the paint nearly peeled from several walls."

"I can imagine," Andy mutters. She can also imagine that the snowy-haired old gentleman might have apologized profusely after turning the air blue. She's only met him once, but she'd liked him at first sight. What most of the publishing world knows about Julius Clarke is this: he's utterly devoted to the company that his great-grandfather and that man's brother-in-law built from scratch. Leveling the budget of Runway New York with the budgets of the satellite versions is a move guaranteed to drop the standard of the magazine in the toilet, negatively affecting the company overall. "Sounds to me like Irv has a real death-wish."

"Frankly, I think he's gone off his head," Miranda says, and now her teeth are properly gritted. She glares at a large onion before chopping it clean in half. She peels it quickly and neatly and begins to slice it. "Anyone knows that what he has said will never be taken as a joke. He can't fob it off as such. If ever his ludicrous notion is leaked to the press, Elias-Clarke's stock prices will take a nose-dive; word alone that just the idea is being toyed with is enough to do considerable damage. A ten percent fall in stock prices is the equivalent of two-hundred-million dollars. And what about the jobs that will be lost as a result? We are in a recession, for Christ's sake. Insane!"

Chop! This time it's a tomato that gets it. Andy has never seen Miranda quite as angry as she is right now. She is careful but insistent as she firmly takes the large and very sharp chef's knife from Miranda's hand.

"I'll... Yeah. Just let me, okay? Sun's over the yard-arm: have a glass of wine."

Miranda swears mildly in Italian, and pours from a bottle of cabernet sauvignon that hasn't yet breathed for quite as long as it should have; too bad. Well in-tune with herself, she recognizes this attitude as one which could lead to her polishing off that bottle all by herself. She pours a glass for Andy, too, and takes a seat on a high stool across the center island.

"I'm supposed to be making lunch for you."

"Us," Andy corrects and clinks her glass to Miranda's. "When there's no more chopping to do, you can take over again."

"You don't trust me," Miranda grumbles sulkily.

"I don't trust you not to hurt yourself. You should never handle a blade when you're angry‒ never."

"Yes, Mother."

Andy giggles and continues to zip the knife through various ingredients. Lunch will be a lamb casserole, homey and warming; it'll be more so by being served over a bed of steamed brown rice. Eventually Miranda browns the cubed lamb and turns it into the company of vegetables, parboiled new potatoes, and fresh herbs. She adds a slightly thickened, rich red wine sauce, and it all goes into the oven. The rice is already steaming. Nothing to do now but sip at their wine and talk.

The subject veers back to Irv Ravitz.

"Guess he's really out, huh?"

"I can't see it any other way," Miranda says and shrugs. "I really don't know what possessed him."

"You don't think he was trying just to rile you up?"

"If so it was a stupid way to do it. And yes, he's done so often, and perhaps this time he just got ahead of himself, but it's too much, too far,' Miranda says and shrugs slowly, in a very Continental way. "I couldn't let it lie. So he's out. But it's not as if he'll suffer."

"He's a multimillionaire, right?"

"My dear, Irv Ravitz is a billionaire."

"Oh," says Andy, and she tries to remember what a billion looks like on paper: a one and nine zeros. Andy snorts and sips at her wine. "Can't imagine having all that money. What's the point?"

"I'm hardly poor, Andrea," Miranda notes, but not at all defensively; she is merely discussing and explaining a fact. "The point? Security, I suppose. I know that my children will lack for nothing. And there's enough in the bank to deal with most any calamity. However, I am well past the point where it gives me a thrill to get a raise. I'm paid what I'm worth, but I do what I love."

"I know that. You didn't have to say as much, cos I was being very literal‒ why hang onto as much as a billion? No one person needs that much."

"I agree," Miranda chuckles. "But I'm not Irv Ravitz."

"True," Andy concedes. Her expression becomes impish when she admits: "I got a kick out of getting a raise, last week."

"It's about time. Every time I see Robert Falls he sings your praises, and yet? About damn time," Miranda insists. "Tight-fisted, that one, and it doesn't serve him in the least, as the loss of Janey Caldwell proves. Is there a shuffling up the ladder, or is he hiring in a replacement?"

"Hire-in, but he's not offering enough to get a match for Janey."

"I'll have a word with the silly boy," Miranda mutters.

"Boy?" Andy laughs. "He's only about ten years younger than you."

"Yes, and twenty years ago he was twenty-two and I taught him everything he knows, while he got his master's degree through some correspondence college. Boy."

"Okay-okay," Andy giggles, really tickled. "No more, cos I'll probably have a hard time keeping my face straight at work tomorrow. You're funny, you know that? Took me a while to realize that half of the stuff you say is hilarious. Thing is, it comes along with le glare and the oh-so-quiet tones. You're Miranda Fucking Priestly, so everyone's too scared to see the funny side."

"Oftentimes it's fun to be Miranda Fucking Priestly," Miranda says with a smirk.

"You're awful," Andy chortles.

"You like me that way," Miranda chuckles.

"I admit, yeah, but I prefer you this way," Andy says with a smile.

Later, when Andy leaves, Miranda berates herself yet again: stop thinking about Paris! She might add a remonstrance to herself that she is weak, but instead, and for the first time, she faces a fact. Simply, she cares deeply for Andy. This fondness had its start while Andy worked at Runway, and she cried in Paris because Andy's leaving was akin to nothing less than a bereavement: few people even remotely understand Miranda Priestly.

Miranda still sees a lot of herself in Andy, but now she also sees how they are very different. The familiar provides a basis for a friendship that is developing and growing, and the unfamiliar provides the interest to keep working on the whole. There is real effort involved, too, because as it turns out there are fewer shared traits between them than Miranda had at first thought.

For one, and Miranda thinks about this rather wryly, Andy really couldn't give a damn about trends. She doesn't mind wearing what looks pretty on a hanger, and then looks better when she wears it, but beyond that, Andy is not in the least concerned with what's hot this season. She wears jeans and sweaters, and suits, and she mixes and matches well-cut skirts and blouses, but she has her own style and rarely does it match the latest trends featured in Runway. In fact, very often Andy Sachs deliberately dresses in a way that gives the finger to what both Runway and Miranda have to say about what's in this season.

Despite herself, Miranda smirks at this thought, because by proving that she doesn't care about trends and firmly sticking to her guns, Andy evidences a trait shared with Miranda: her way or the highway.

It's also like that in other ways. Often their dissimilarities tend to shine through in a manner that brings attention to their similarities. Sometimes they will look at each other, surprised by whatever is being discussed, or rather, the manner in which it's being discussed, and then they smile at that overlap of their commonalities.

And there is something about Andy that Miranda is drawn to, something that has no name, at least, it has no identity that Miranda can classify, but it also isn't something that she feels she needs to put a name to. What she knows is good: she likes having one Andy Sachs in her life. What she understands is also good: Andy likes having Miranda around. With those two points both clarified and classified, Miranda feels at ease. Whatever mystery is here can remain a mystery, or not. Miranda is content to walk this road with Andy to wherever it may take them.

She learned long ago that over-thinking anything often results in arriving at the wrong conclusion, which almost inevitably leads, as it once did with Andy, to disappointment.

*-*-*

By the time he comes in she is sipping, from a hand-blown glass, the remains of a whole bottle of wine.

He doesn't apologize for being late; he doesn't notice the perfectly decorated table, or the wide candles, dotted all around the room—blown out two hours ago; he doesn't ask about the meal she spent three hours preparing; he does not remember that it's her birthday.

"Again," he says, his eyes glued to the empty wine bottle. "I thought you said that you weren't going to turn into your parents."

He's slurring his words. He's the one with the drinking problem, which is precisely why he criticizes anyone else who has more than two beers, takes their spirits neat, or polishes off a bottle of wine. He can drink an awful lot before he shows it, before he makes mistakes like the one he's just made now. He's drunk but his words hit home, and Miranda feels fury boil up inside her.

She isn't quite aware of her actions until after, when she's standing over him, watching dispassionately as a snake of blood trickles down his temple and onto his cheek. The bottle is still rolling across the floor.

"I could kill you," she says, and it's the absolute truth. "You fucking hypocrite‒ don't you dare bleed on my Persian rug. Get up and get out."

"My things—"

"Tomorrow. Get out before I find a better weapon than that bottle. Move!"

He has sobered enough to realize that she means it, so he scrambles to the door and out.

She shoots the bolt loudly, hoping that he hears it, and she adds the chain for good measure. Two steps from the door, and she bends and snatches up the bottle; her lip curls at the blood and a few blond hairs attached to the thick bottom rim. She'd be worried about an assault charge, if he wasn't such a man's man: tell a police officer that a woman had injured and scared the hell out of him? Never. The bottle goes in the trash.

With his reference to her parents still ringing in her mind, she fills the lower half of a moka pot with water, adds a dark roast French-Kenyan grind to the little filter cup, screws on the top half of the pot, and she waits impatiently for her espresso to brew.

Like her parents? Miranda shuts her eyes and folds her arms, hugging herself. She loves this man; she adores him, and half of her is dying with the knowledge that it's over, a quarter rages still against his implication, and the final quarter is terrified that it's true.

In one way she is like her mother: the men she likes tend to end up liking their booze more than they like her. She has to fix this. She has to apply discipline and be very careful with the next one. And no more drinking alone.

The espresso hits hard and fast because she added sugar. She pours another cup and sips it, this time without sugar.

Yes, no more drinking alone. That seems best, or does it? There's no control, really, if something, anything is denied entirely, and the truth is that she has never once in her life been outright drunk. That proves something, doesn't it? She is twenty-six, she owns not one but two bachelor degrees—fine arts and journalism—and she is currently heading up the editorial department at Runway London. That level of success was not attained and is not maintained and improved upon by someone who has a drinking problem. But she is no fool, and she is ever aware that she could easily develop a problem, a habit.

The solution, then, is control rather than abstinence.

Miranda ponders this concept. Her lips purse and her eyes narrow slightly. It's a good rule in general, and she's good at taking control, in every way.

She is a Scorpio. She knows the heights and also the depths, in many ways, many areas. What she also knows is that smooth center plane, that plateau where she cruises, or so it seems: she readily manages to cause others to think that she cruises. She has ways of making people see what she needs or wants them to see.

Also she has her armor, and every day it becomes more resilient and it stretches to cover more and more of her several weak spots. Already, at just twenty-six, she is feared. Mostly because, come what may, no-one ever sees her ruffled.

There will be no repeat of tonight's events. Jeffrey was right in one way, booze hits her in the same way it did her father. There will be no repeat because she will not allow that to happen. If she is angry and also alone, no drinking at all. If she is angry while in company, she must, and will, restrict her alcohol intake.

Control becomes Miranda's best friend.

*-*-*

Miranda has no qualms about being seen by Elias-Clarke as a walking dollar sign. She set out to become exactly that. She has proven, on several occasions, to be worth a lot more to Elias-Clarke than certain people who think that they outrank her. Julius Clarke considers Miranda to be the company's single most valuable asset, and he's thought along those lines for at least the last fifteen years. He tells her that he's leaving the dissemination of this fact up to her.

"I am who and what I am, Julius, but I'm not about to tell your new CEO—"

"Tell? No, you show him," Clarke grunts around the cheroot in his teeth. In this, he proves Andy wrong in one respect: he's a gentleman only when being a gentleman is appreciated. Miranda Priestly appreciates many things, like cheroots, so he holds a light for her; she also appreciates straight talk, so she gets that, too: "I don't want any more bullshit. You walk onto that Executive Floor and you show him, Miranda. You make him piss his pants. I want him bitted, backed, and broke. I want him to know that if he screws with you, he is gone."

"All right," Miranda says lightly, as if agreeing to come to dinner.

He has known her for twenty-three years, and has seen her take a foundering magazine and turn it into his company's flagship in the space of eighteen months. He was also there when she proceeded to mount that ship with all the guns of a ship-o'-the-line, and she blew the competition out of the water.

He knows her, but in moments like this he knows only one thing: that he is very much relieved that she likes him.

*-*-*

When Miranda first meets Julius Clarke she is twenty-eight and he is thirty-seven. He grins and runs a hand through his dark hair that is boldly streaked with white, and she wryly hikes an eyebrow in acknowledgment- this much they have in common. When they talk they find more common ground. They are both from Massachusetts; both practically grew up on the backs of horses; both were born wealthy but like very much to really earn their own livings. And yes, Miranda will have one of those cheroots, thank you.

"You've said no twice to Mark's position."

"It's not what I want," Miranda says, referring to the post of Editor-in-Chief, Runway London. She's speaking to The Boss, but he has begun with her in a way that suggests that he likes straight talk as much as she does. "I want Runway New York."

"What you might want is to defect to Vogue," Julius states. "Damned if I know why, but Runway is—"

"Mismanaged," Miranda interrupts calmly, and just as calmly she taps an ash. If she can't get what she wants from Julius Clarke, she will indeed go to Vogue. She'd rather not because Condé Naste is already huge and set to become bigger, and it's a company that is little more than a money-grubbing, money-grabbing bully. In fact, Elias-Clarke stands a chance of being the next concern aggressively engulfed by the publishing giant. "Do you gamble, Julius?"

"Poker, yes. Why?"

"Go all-in on me. If it's as you say, that I might fare better with Vogue, then what you're really saying is that Runway New York and its satellite versions are failing anyway. If I fail to stop the ship from sinking, well, you've lost nothing, have you? And so the risk is really all mine: if I fail, my reputation goes down with the ship, not so?"

Julius shifts in his seat. He cannot look away from a pair of grey eyes that are steady and frighteningly confident. For the first time in his adult life he knows himself bettered. Mastered, tamed, and very nearly broken; he is no match for this woman.

He could react negatively; he has the power to fire her and ruin her already excellent reputation. He could do something stupid, like throw away a key to his company's future, all because of pride, but he smiles instead. It's better have a killer horse in the stable than no horse at all. After all, there's a war to be won.

"They'll make a try soon, to buy me out‒ Condé Naste or Time-Warner or McGraw-Hill."

"Soon, as in..?"

"Next year, latest; October, I'd say," Julius mutters.

"Then don't waste time now," Miranda says flatly.

So he agrees, and before the month is out, Miranda's predecessor is very much out.

She presses into service two young men whom she pirates from other publications, Nigel Kipling and Robert Falls, respectively an art director and an exceptionally good editor. These two are fresh, untainted, manageable and therefore malleable. She needs very much to have only new blood in certain positions. Within her first six months in New York, she makes sure to weed out and replace any and every individual who doesn't demonstrate a love for their jobs.

Julius wants to complain because all that firing and hiring costs a lot, but every month the numbers back Miranda's moves‒ sales figures are increasing regularly for the first time in eleven years. After nine months, when Miranda demands a bigger budget, she gets it. By then the board of directors and the board of trustees have both ceased to mutter about Runway being a 'money pit'. For the first time in nearly six years the magazine is almost breaking even.

With her ship well-crewed, and that crew keeping the ship well-maintained, Miranda broadens her focus.

Runway is, at present, not one, but four individual magazines, and that is a problem. While she agrees that Runway London, Paris, and Milan need to maintain an individual feel, what those three versions also need is for each to be a part of the whole. Each version needs to say "I am Runway", but what each of them is saying at the moment is, "I am vaguely related to Runway‒ I share the same last name".

Right now Miranda holds the rank of captain. If she wants to command the fleet what she needs is a promotion to admiral.

"You want what? Come on, Miranda—!"

"Julius, hear me out," Miranda says calmly.

So he listens to what might seem like an outrageous proposal to some, but the more he hears, the more he wants to hear. She has him convinced before she is halfway done, and by the time she's done, he sees the future: it's blindingly bright.

It all comes down to money‒ that's business. What Miranda proposes is to have Runway New York provide sixty percent or more of each satellite version's content. A basic mathematical sum shows that those three versions now need only forty percent, or less, of their current budgets. It's all as simple as pie, but then, so is business: lower the costs, increase the profits.

Julius promotes Miranda to fleet admiral at once.

Having all the bright, right ideas increases Miranda's value to Elias-Clarke, just as she'd hoped. She doesn't need the raise, but is pleased to get it. She works harder and earns the next raise and the one after that, but it really isn't about the figure on her paycheck. What she is doing amounts to nothing less than putting Elias-Clarke back on the map, but what she's really up to has all to do with making herself irreplaceable and, therefore, indispensable.

*-*-*

There is the usual, and Miranda stands still and acts bored for a few moments while the secretary, who came along with the new CEO, tells her that she doesn't have an appointment and therefore cannot see Mr. Keel. The secretary is of the professional variety and she's at least as old as Miranda, if not older.

"So what time tomorrow is good for you, because he will be free the whole day, honey."

"Now is very good for me," Miranda purrs. "And if you ever call me 'honey' again, your great-grandchildren will regret it. No-no. Don't bother getting up. John most certainly will not want you taking notes during this meeting."

The secretary is still blinking and sputtering when the door to her boss's office is closed quite firmly.

The large corner office is still bedizened here and there with unpacked boxes. No move has been made at redecoration. John Keel looks as though he is sitting at Irv Ravitz's desk‒ sitting at Irv's desk in Irv's office. That's not at all good. He is a reasonably handsome man, one who tears his eyes away from his monitor, and his jet black eyebrows leap above oval silver-rimmed spectacles.

Miranda has gone the way of a power suit today, Armani, in dead black, and her charcoal blouse doesn't so much have a top button as it has a last button, which fastens low enough to reveal more black: La Perla, antique lace. Her cleavage says 'Look here!', and then it taunts, 'Now-you're-in-trouble!'

She watches with satisfaction as his throat works, and he drags his eyes up with effort, a lot of it.

"You had better inform your secretary that I never need an appointment, John."

"Umm, but—"

"That was neither a question nor a suggestion," Miranda says in her quietest, most dangerous register. From across the room she sees that he is straining to hear; this is the reason why she often speaks very quietly: so that people will pay attention. "Three days ago I was given a list of three names, and yours was at the very bottom. The reason why you are sitting at that desk is because I moved your name to the top of that list. All I need do to remove your name from the list entirely, is snap my fingers. People far higher up the pecking order than am I have been fired for putting me in a bad mood, John. Give me polite cause to respect you, or you will find your tenure here short-lived. Are we on the same wavelength?"

He pauses, and his throat works again; the afternoon light through the west window shows off the sweat on his upper lip.

"Yes. All right," he says and clears his throat.

Miranda guesses that his mouth is dry. The sweat reveals that he is, at least, very nervous; she doesn't think that he's afraid. That's what is required here, and she knows how to get it.

She stands completely still and she stares at him. It isn't a glare. She merely looks unblinkingly into his eyes, and she is as still and as calm and as cold as a statue. She is the very image of indifference. If he's a good boy, that's fine; if he's a bad boy, there are more where he came from; if he decides to tuck tail and run, there remain those other two names on the list. She knows that he's aware of this. She knows how it must make him feel: vapid and small and very replaceable. She also knows that he must have guessed by now that Irv Ravitz was one of those people who was fired for putting Miranda Priestly in a bad mood. She gathers together all of these impressions in the few seconds that it takes for John Keel to look away, and still she stares.

Bitted, backed, and broken, Julius Clarke had said. The moment she'd walked in, Keel had had the bit put in his mouth, and hadn't even known it; she's been riding him for several minutes now. He's not quite broken yet. Miranda doesn't believe in quashing spirit completely, not unless she has no further professional use for whomever.

"I chose you because I believe you can serve this fine company well," she says softly. "However, if you prove me wrong, John Michael Keel, I will reduce you to a mere reflection of yourself; just the tiniest, most pathetic sliver of who you are. Do not try me."

And she turns on her heel and is gone in the softest rustle of cashmere and silk, with the quietest footfalls on thick wool carpeting, leaving behind the faintest hint of perfume. It lingers and haunts the man who sits at his predecessor's desk. He wipes at the sweat on his upper lip, his forehead, and at the nape of his neck. His hand trembles slightly.

John Michael Keel has a new definition of the word 'power', and Miranda Victoria Priestly embodies it.

*-*-*

On the day that she finds out that she is carrying twins she is hit by the worst headache she has ever experienced. She supposes it's that type called a tension headache, because it started with a stiff neck. Not that she usually raises her voice, but speaking at even a regular volume is just too much. For three days the headache persists. When it finally relents, she modulates her tone to its normal sort of level. She is at home when she notices something strange: James says, 'Sorry‒ what was that?', and while she was speaking, he'd carried on reading the newspaper.

It's Sunday and James goes off to play golf, and now it's Miranda's turn to mumble a vague reply when he says that he'll see her later. She is thinking about the past three days at work, and at home: speaking barely above a whisper had her underlings and colleagues, and even James paying her close attention. This is... Well, it's not a bad thing. Miranda decides to experiment.

On Monday she speaks at normal volume, about the same sort of volume employed by everyone else. Every time someone lapses in attention she makes careful note of it. By the end of the day, including James's stupendous score of nine in just the three waking hours they've spent together, the tally of attention lapses sits at nearly thirty.

On Tuesday she employs the very quiet modulation forced upon her by the headache last week, and again she counts up attention lapses. This time there are precisely two, and neither of them are scored by James.

That night, while stentorian snores issue from James's side of the bed, Miranda stares in blank disbelief at the wall. She is thirty-seven and in all those years she hasn't thought of this very simple method of grabbing someone's attention, and keeping it focused on what she is saying. Good grief! It's so very simple that it's also very nearly stupid, and Miranda feels quite dense for not working it out sooner. After all, she never raises her voice whenever she is truly angry, and whenever she is as angry as that, those getting the reprimand or lecture pay careful attention, because she speaks quite softly. No-one needs to know the reason for that. It was long ago, but house and estate staff used to overhear nearly every word of her parents' fights. Miranda still cringes at those memories.

The next morning she reveals her new discovery to Nigel, who has become quite a good friend.

"If it works, it works," Nigel says. "So keep doing it."

"Yes," Miranda agrees, then adds: "And I'm pregnant."

"Oh, that's lovely! Congratulations."

"With twins."

"Oh my God," Nigel groans in sympathy.

"Yes," Miranda agrees, very softly indeed.

*-*-*

Andy often wishes that she isn't nice. Actually, the correct term here is sap‒ she's a sap. Her boss Robert Falls was invited to this shindig. He's a bachelor, and bachelors who like being bachelors should avoid attending even housewarmings alone, for fear of being labeled eligible bachelors. This isn't a housewarming. It's the annual Publishers Ball. There are about a hundred photographers outside the venue, and Andy is the sap who'd agreed to come along. Great. Now she's going to have to go through the very old spiel of 'No Mom, I am not dating him'. At least the champagne is good, and for the most part the conversation has been quite engaging. As for what she's wearing—floor-length, low-cut, off-the-shoulder crimson Versace—she's glad that Nigel isn't a bit put out about the fact that this time Andy approached Miranda.

"I thought so," Miranda says. "That gown is perfect."

Andy chooses not to turn around. A sip of champagne hides a small grin. She is standing next to a rather large piece of sculpture and that means that Miranda is quite possibly lurking behind it. If Andy turns she just knows that she'll laugh.

"Why are you hiding behind—"

"Shhh! Five moments peace," Miranda hisses. "I could kill Nigel for agreeing to partner Bridget Antonizzi. Jason Schmidt is insufferable‒ more interested in my cleavage than in my eyes."

"Creep," Andy mutters, her amusement very nearly swept away by an urge to go and give Schmidt a tight one upside the head. "Why didn't you just come alone?"

"Because I have a boss‒ Julius owes me in the worst way and I will make him pay."

"Yeah, wipe him out next time you guys play poker."

"That's not nearly good enough. No... I've made him the guest speaker at Runway's new charity dinner."

The balance shifts back from annoyance to amusement: Andy digs her nails into her palm and stares hard at another piece of sculpture across the room. Her valiant efforts are all for naught, however, because when Miranda eventually glides up beside her, Andy cannot suppress a laugh. It's a lovely laugh. People notice it and look their way. Miranda tilts her head a little and smiles fondly at Andy before walking away.

Of course, Miranda is the belle of the ball. She isn't wearing black tonight, but her velvet gown is a purple so deep that light must fall on it at just the right angle for one to see the true shade and not call it black. Andy is left alone near her piece of sculpture, and that's just fine, because she likes to play observer.

What she sees is evidence of Miranda's 'meeting' with John Keel three months ago. The tall dark-haired man nervously introduces his wife to Miranda, and then it's rather painfully obvious that he makes sure to get away quickly. For the rest of the evening Andy takes mental notes: John Keel knows at all times precisely where Miranda is, and he endeavors to steer well clear of her.

Andy has no idea what really went on in that corner office. All Miranda said was that she'd put the man on notice, but a mild saying like that, Andy knows, is not at all accurate. Andy has a good imagination, and she also has eight months worth of evidence gathered while working at Runway: she knows La Priestly. She has known Miranda in a private sense for more than a year, but Andy never forgets La Priestly, nor does she ever dare think that Miranda should completely divest herself of her professional persona whilst in the Elias-Clarke building. Poor Mr. Keel, Andy thinks‒ tossed in at the deep end, where the biggest fish is always, always hungry. It's eat or be eaten. Andy might pity Keel, but she knows that it's best to leave him thinking that Miranda is just a big bully; explaining that the opposite is true is to let the enemy in by the postern gate.

Andy remembers Irv Ravitz and his coup attempt. She now knows that Miranda must have felt utterly betrayed by one Jacqueline Follet, who had once called Miranda her mentor. It takes no effort for Andy to recall umpteen overheard conversations, all along the lines of 'I hate Miranda Priestly'.

Andy knows that fear is Miranda's best weapon, and that it is necessary for Miranda to have everyone think that she can easily transmogrify into their very worst nightmare. The fact that Miranda can, and will, become that worst nightmare is not an upsetting thought to Andy Sachs. Not anymore. Simply put, Andy has grown up and she's dropped off the rose-tinted glasses. This world is not a nice place, and the publishing world in particular is one where professional dangers lurk around every corner. There is always someone aiming a knife at your back.

If Miranda ever asked Andy's advice, Andy would tell her to keep a whetstone handy, and to keep her own knife good and sharp.

*-*-*

"Sachs."

"Andy, it's Cass. Mom's sick."

"Sick? Miranda's never sick," Andy says and gets to her feet. "Where are you?"

"Home. She asked me to call you. Can you get Caro on your way here?"

Traffic is horrendous: so much so that Andy pays a cabbie while he's stuck in a jam, and jogs the few blocks to the Renfrews' brownstone. Caroline is already waiting, and she and Andy exchange hasty goodbyes with Katey Renfrew. Outside, Andy tells Caroline that, no, she doesn't know what's wrong, and they both jog the remaining six blocks to the townhouse.

When Cassidy tells her sister that Miranda has asked them to stay downstairs, Andy gets really worried. She takes the stairs two at a time to the second floor and long strides take her right to the end of the hall. The spacious master bedroom is dimly lit and Miranda is a tightly tucked ball in the center of the bed.

"Hey," Andy says softly, getting on the bed. Miranda rolls over and it's clear she's been crying. Andy takes the crumpled sheet of paper offered to her and dims up a bedside lamp just enough to read by. "Oh no..."

"I don't know how to tell them. First Patricia last month; now this," Miranda says in a sob-roughened voice. "He was such a good father. Such an excellent father..."

Andy wants to cry, because she liked James so much, but she bites back the tears and swallows the lump in her throat. Miranda wants her help—No. She needs it, and the best thing Andy can do now is to be a dry-eyed rock, albeit a very sympathetic one. She might hug Miranda now, but they've never hugged; it's not the way they are. Instead she finds Miranda's hand and squeezes it. She becomes even more determined not to cry when Miranda tightens her grip on her friend's hand and buries her face in the pillow to stifle her sobs.

Nearly a half-hour passes before they go down to the first floor, into the den, where Caroline immediately turns off the TV. Miranda goes to sit on the couch between her worried-looking daughters; Andy takes a seat on the coffee table in front of them.

"What's going on?" Cassidy almost whispers.

"Bad news, honey-girl," Andy says gently. And she handles it. Somehow she manages to tell them that their father was killed three hours ago in a light aircraft accident in the Bitterroot Mountains. Somehow she doesn't crumble and cry when the girls break down, when Miranda starts crying again. What they need is someone who at least seems strong and capable, and Andy delivers. She delivers because no-one else will, and perhaps no-one else can.

It's Andy who contacts first Leslie Sauls, then Nigel and Julius Clarke. Both Nigel and Julius arrive at the townhouse and both expect orders from Andy. They get them: Julius is told that he's to help Andy make sure that Miranda stays away from work for at least two weeks; Nigel is told simply to 'run Runway, and don't screw up.' Leslie arrives with James's lawyer, Frank, and Andy ends up wording a press release. She tells the lawyer to call her about the business of coroner's reports, transportation and delivery of James's body to a local funeral home, and funeral arrangements. Caroline and Cassidy are James's only living relatives, which means that his lawyer expects to discuss 'business' with Miranda, but that's not happening on Andy's watch.

"But—" Frank begins.

"Listen, Frank," Andy snaps. "Don't. Okay? You talk to me about all that stuff. My dad's a lawyer and I know that none of what I've told you to discuss with me is confidential. Do not piss me off, not today. Got it?"

"All right," Frank mumbles.

"Smart man, Frank," Nigel drawls.

Some time later only Nigel is left with Andy in Miranda's kitchen. He helps her put together a meal of soup and toast but he leaves her to take it upstairs. Nigel departs on a mission to Andy's apartment, to pack a bag for her.

Andy doesn't expect them to eat much, but both mother and daughters end up scraping their soup bowls and only crumbs of buttered toast remain. Andy doesn't linger upstairs. She'll be their rock but what they need right now is to grieve without an audience. Andy is Miranda's very good friend, and the girls adore her, but that doesn't make her family. She's very accepting of that fact. She's surprised when one of the twins comes down to fetch her. Caroline gets a bear-hug from Nigel, who arrives back just as she is about to lead Andy away by the hand.

"I'm going to stay here tonight, too," Nigel tells Caroline. "Either Andy or myself will be awake, on shifts, all through the night. Right, Six?"

"Right. Nigel, I'm not up to talking to Robert Fall‒ give him a call, please?"

"On it," he says, already hunting Andy's boss's number.

Upstairs Andy is dragged onto Miranda's vast bed, and now is not the time to ask questions, no matter how many are hopping around begging to be asked. Caroline clambers over her mother and over Cassidy, too, which effectively bundles her more sensitive twin into something of a sandwich. Andy has no idea what to do, but Miranda's back is to her and rubbing it gently seems like a reasonable plan. Miranda reaches back, catches her hand, and tugs.

"That I can do, too," Andy says quietly. She spoons up behind Miranda and hugs her middle, and the hand gripping hers shifts; their fingers knit, and Miranda pulls the hug tighter. "Yeah, I've got you."

Miranda says nothing, and Andy isn't expecting any response; the girls are quiet, too. What Andy does expect happens quite soon: all three Priestlys drop off to sleep one-by-one, Miranda last. Andy tries to stay awake but even though it's only just past six p.m, the stress of the last nearly four hours catches up and she dozes off.

Nigel eventually comes to investigate. He clucks quietly while taking the folded blanket from the foot of the bed, and he spreads it over the knot of four passed-out females. He turns out the light on his way out, but the door was open and he leaves it open. In the kitchen he pours himself another cup of tea, and he refuses to allow his mind to go where it wants to go, because it's unseemly at a time like this: he is deeply sympathetic toward Miranda and his adoptive nieces, and very grateful that Andy is around to help them through the loss of James.

There are few straight men who treat Nigel like just another guy, and now there is one less. Nigel takes off his glasses and knuckles away a blur of tears, and he point blank refuses to shed any more. It's likely that he and Andy will take a gap to cry on each other's shoulders, but not now.

When Miranda wakes she stiffens at first, immediately aware of the warm body tucked at her back, and the lean arm around her waist. Then she remembers, all of it, and her heart aches again. At some point she had let go of Andy's hand but she finds it now, and finding it causes Andy to stir and hug and wake.

"Hey," Andy whispers.

"Thank you," Miranda says.

"Any time. Want some room?"

"No," Miranda says quite firmly.

"Fine by me," Andy mumbles, and promptly dozes off again.

That suits Miranda: she doesn't want to talk. Even though she knows that Andy will accept her silence, it's somehow seems better to Miranda that Andy is unaware of that silence.

Her mind is filled with memories of a man who was wise enough to say one day, after nearly eight years of marriage: 'Miranda, if we don't split, we are really going to fight. We'll yell, and while yelling we will end up saying things that can't be taken back; things that might be overheard by our babies: we cannot do that to them.'

They had quit their marriage for the sake of their children, but in the end, the divorce had also saved their friendship. If James hadn't suggested the divorce, Miranda might even now be putting up with his tarrying in other gardens. He'd learnt his lesson (first marriage, last marriage), while she had gone on two years later to marry Stephen Tomlinson, who hadn't enabled an amicable divorce.

James had been Miranda's backup right through that mess; he had allowed her to vent and cry and softly express many regrets, and never once had he said, 'I told you so', even though he had told her so: such a fine man, and a courageous one to speak with the conviction of his heart, no matter the possible backlash from his ex wife. Such a fine man, such a wonderful father—gone.

He was always so gentle with her. He couldn't keep his dick in his pants, but that didn't really hurt. It was more annoying and disappointing than hurtful. James didn't pretend, and he was discreet; Miranda knew then as she knows now that it could have been more a case of lies, and lurid pictures in the tabloids. He was always gentle with her, and he really did love her, but monogamy and marriage just were not for James.

So they had talked quietly and earnestly, and before long it had become less about the two of them and more about their children. In the end they'd talked every night for nearly a month before seeing a lawyer, just one lawyer. It had made infinite sense to both James and Miranda to have just one person to help them find their way through the divorce and custody matters. One lawyer for two people who wanted only what was best for their children, and as that man had once said, when it had come to the custody agreement, he was acting more on behalf of the twins, than with regard to Miranda and James.

And their friendship had become stronger, more certain, as if the divorce had been more cement than an ungluing.

Miranda sighs deeply and heavily and at the bottom of the exhalation, her heart squeezes especially painfully. The pain sharpens and then radiates when she realizes that it must become a habit‒ referring to James in the past tense. She swallows a sob. Miranda makes up her mind now to crying only when alone. She needs to be strong for her girls, because that will allow them to grieve as they should: freely and without too much concern for how their mother is coping.

"Andrea?"

"Huh? S'it morning?" Andy grunts.

"No, my friend, but if I don't get up now, then I'll probably wake up at three or four a.m, and stay awake."

"Ugh!" says Andy.

"Very," Miranda agrees.

Andy grouchily rolls onto her back and sits up, Miranda follows. She doesn't object to being wrapped up in a hug: that ice has been broken, quite possibly for good.

*-*-*

"Are you nervous?" Miranda asks.

"A little, but the good kinda nervous," Andy says, more eager than she is fearful of just getting out there.

Today she faces her godan, or fifth dan grading in Iaido. She's been called crazy to try for a double-discipline grading in one weekend, but yesterday she'd aced godan in Kendo, and now nearly everyone who is affiliated with this dojo is here today to see her perform a series of kata before a fifteen-member committee, two of whom are visitors here from Japan where grading standards are naturally very high. This morning the committee reviewed Andy's written exam, which she aced. While that in itself is a confidence booster, theory and application are worlds apart.

At present Miranda is with Andy in a deserted locker room, and her sensei is beyond the door, keeping everyone away. Andy breathes easily and calmly while a brush runs and runs through her hair. Soon, Miranda begins to braid it, starting tight into the nape of Andy's neck. She took over from Caroline and Cassidy yesterday morning, after they couldn't get the braid quite right, and this afternoon Miranda didn't wait to be asked to perform this small service. When Miranda has the braid tied off at the end, she folds it up so that it's doubled, and secures it with black rubber bands.

Andy gets up from the bench she's been straddling and Miranda helps her into her uwagi. Andy takes care of the inner ties on the thick black shirt, but she lets Miranda secure the outer ties. She steps into the split hakama skirt and tucks the uwagi into it. Andy lets Miranda wrap the attached waistband around her middle, crossing it inside the looped panel at Andy's back; Miranda handles the thick silk band with care, but she snugs it before tying the traditional knot over the hakama's front panel. Although thick, the weight of the silk band causes the free tails to hang vertically.

"Did I manage it all right?" Miranda asks softly.

"Mmm, thanks."

Andy is 'in the zone', as Miranda plainly sees. She watches the younger woman open a hardwood case and run her fingertips over the sheathed katana resting on blood-red silk. The lacquered saya, or scabbard is black but very faintly and delicately decorated with flying cranes in almost transparent grey paint under the clear lacquer. This is a new saya, a gift this past Christmas from Miranda and the twins. Andy lifts out the sword and gathers her obi at her left hip, sliding in the saya, with the slight curve down. It's a slow, smooth, concentrated action. Miranda doesn't have to ask: Andy is ready.

More than an hour later Miranda is as enthralled as everyone else present today. She has a 'front row seat', cross-legged on the floor, flanked by her daughters. The large hall feels a lot smaller because the crowd is four rows deep from the walls, leaving only enough room for Andy and the row of tables where the committee sits.

There is so deep a hush that Andy's every footfall can be heard. Even her katana can be heard cutting through the air, as she moves through the steps of a kata meant to represent combat with five imaginary opponents. Miranda mentally calls it 'ballet with a sword'. Andy's face, which is a still and rather beautiful mask of concentration, is awash with sweat, and her bare forearms are shiny with it, too. But her grip on the tsuka, or handle is sure and strong, but flexible; her every step and movement is confident, practiced. Her cuts and thrusts are precise and unmistakeable, leaving the audience in no doubt that one of her imaginary opponents has just lost his head or has been run through. At last she arrives at the tenth and final kata. Her last stroke is a great angled cut, high right to low left, and to give it strength Andy moves with it, down onto her left knee. She holds the stance for a full five seconds before closing with the ritual of drawing the blade between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand. Having wiped off the imaginary blood of her opponents, she moves her left hand to the mouth of the saya. Her left thumb is a guide to the mune, or back edge, and sheathing the blade is beautiful, smooth, and quick. She remains perfectly still for a moment, observing zanshin, a moment of physical and emotional stillness to be practiced after every kata. Then she rises nimbly to her feet and dips in a bow to the committee, who rise as one and bow to her.

Pandemonium!

"What?" Miranda has to yell to Andy's sensei. "What does this mean?"

"No deliberation!" he yells, laughing. "A perfect grading! I've never seen one before!"

A little distance away, Andy is beaming and happy. She nods acknowledgment to the cheers she's receiving, shaking hands with the American committee members and bowing respectfully to the Japanese members. She is still in the zone, and later she will probably say something like, 'Oh my God. Did I really do that?', but for now the confidence that carried her into this hall is still with her in a damn-right-bet-your-ass way, because she worked incredibly hard to be here.

The twins are the first non committee members to come and congratulate her, and that sparks a flood: everyone wants to pump her hand and pat her back and just say 'Well done!' Miranda hangs back, and when she does congratulate Andy, it's back in the locker room, and again they're alone.

"So proud of you, really," Miranda says, smiling.

"Thanks," Andy says and beams a grin. "That one, from you‒ means a helluva lot."

"But I hardly know anything about this art," Miranda chuckles. "I had to be told—"

"Hush," Andy says quietly, and her smile softens. "You know how I feel about it, and you know how hard I've worked for this. I gave you reason to expect a lot from me, and I didn't disappoint you."

"No, not at all," Miranda murmurs.

Andy nods and sits, and Miranda busies herself with removing rubber bands and loosing Andy's braid. The dark hair is darker still for being damp with sweat, and Miranda leans down, takes up a bottle of electrolyte replacement, and places it in Andy's hand. Andy takes the hint and downs half the bottle. Miranda's hands have come to rest on Andy's shoulders which are tight as boards.

"Shall I get Marie to come to my home later?" Miranda offers, referring to her personal masseuse. But she also remembers something and quickly adds: "Unless a beer with your friends will do the trick."

"I gotta go have that beer, but just one. You promised me dinner. I've never had a professional back rub before, so what's best‒ dinner first or after?"

"After," Miranda says, and her thumbs are already working at a couple of knots. She smiles faintly when Andy drops her head and starts to relax. So she keeps going, working at tension through the heavy cotton of the uwagi. "Come. I've started and might as well continue, and then you can get into a shower."

Miranda gestures past Andy's left ear to the massage bench across the room, and Andy doesn't think twice because those tight shoulders are really making themselves felt now. Miranda goes to the door and asks Andy's sensei about some massage oil, and he goes across the hall into his office to fetch some. When Miranda comes back into the ladies locker room, she finds that Andy is already belly-down on the bench, stripped to the black cycle shorts she likes to wear under the hakama. Her back is a map of slightly softened definition. Miranda kindly warms the oil in the palm of her hand before beginning, but when she begins it is with a no-nonsense approach.

"Wow," Andy chuckles and groans. "I mean, owww..."

"I learned a long time ago that athletes' muscles pay no mind at all to gentleness," Miranda says, while kneading at a knot between Andy's spine and shoulder blade. "Not at first, anyway. I can still hear James saying, 'Quit tickling and put some muscle into it', and only when I listened to that directive did I start to feel the difference: his muscles would give in and relax. You feel it?"

Andy grunts an affirmative answer. Painful at first, the kneading has become pleasant. More of the same, pain first and a soothing after. It's a cycle that she ceases to object to, and that's when Miranda's attentions begin to really bear fruit: Andy dozes off. Miranda smiles when she realizes but continues to work methodically. Her hands, wrists, and forearms will be sore tomorrow but she knows that she won't mind it. Years since she has done this, years since anyone has required the effort from her, and Miranda feels useful in a way that pleases her on a level that being useful to Elias-Clarke does not.

She is only Miranda here, and Andy is her very good friend; one whose right hand bears a punch-split scar over the knuckles, for Miranda Priestly. Miranda often finds herself looking at that jagged white mark; it had to have been painful, and the scar is cockled, not smooth: permanent. Thinking about the scar and how Andy got it, Miranda's hands become gentle, and she can't get back into the rhythm she set earlier. Time for the shower.

"Andrea?"

"Mmm?"

"Shower, and make it hot to start. I'll take the girls home and we'll see you later?"

"Yeah. Thanks," Andy mumbles. She sits up and Miranda makes a hasty grab for her hair, keeping it away from the oil on her back. Andy mumbles her thanks again and just-just manages to cover a yawn. "Really not in the mood for that beer now."

"Just one, and say simply that you won't stay long," Miranda says and approaches a basin. She works the hand soap up past her wrists, a habit. A glance in the mirror shows Andy still seated on the massage bench; their eyes meet via reflection. "Is something wrong?"

"We're going to Flannery's, a family-oriented steakhouse. The girls could come along," Andy says hesitantly. "Would you—I mean, I'm just—"

"Is the steak any good at Flannery's?" Miranda asks, feeling an abrupt need to ease Andy's discomfort.

"Might be this city's best kept secret: really good steak," Andy says, and she frowns as she feels her face and neck heat up. She's bare to the waist and suddenly feels shy about it, wishing that her hair covers both breasts instead of only one. She wants to fold her arms but instead she takes a tighter grip on the edge of the padded, towel-covered bench. "But maybe I should just go have that beer, then come on over to your place."

"Will you come over? Why do I get the feeling that if I don't keep an eye on you, I might get a call later announcing a change in plans?" Miranda says quietly. She takes up a small hand towel from a neat stack and she makes short work of drying her hands; the towel lands in a hamper and she steps over to the bench. Andy is looking at the floor, and there is a tightness around her eyes that Miranda finds worrying. "What's the matter, Andrea?"

"Feel all awkward, suddenly. Dunno why," Andy murmurs, and her grip on the bench tightens. It takes effort to look up, effort and a fair share of courage, but all she sees in Miranda's eyes is concern. That much is a distinct relief; Andy smiles bashfully. "Just being silly, I guess. D'you really wanna go to Flannery's?"

"Honestly, no," Miranda says, and she smiles at Andy's bark of laughter. "But I'm going to Flannery's, with you."

"How about I just take the girls along, for a soda, and we'll see you around six?"

"No, I've said so, and so I'll be along, too. Into that shower with you‒ move it."

"Bossy."

"It's what I do best," Miranda drawls.

Her girls are more than pleased to be going along with 'the gang' to Flannery's, which is owned by one of the dojo's longstanding members. It's not the sort of place Miranda would voluntarily frequent, but at least she's wearing jeans—albeit five-hundred-dollar jeans—and she doesn't stick out like the proverbial opposable digit, because everyone at the dojo has gotten used to having her around. She is much impressed when her dry gin martini turns out to be perfect. A little later she wonders if she can dump Smith and Wollensky as the provider of her lunch steaks, and get Todd Flannery to deliver to Elias-Clarke at 49th and 6th; her New York sirloin is superb. There is also the sinful addition of onion rings, and a small portion of grilled potato wedges seasoned with something magical, and Miranda finishes the lot.

"Good, huh?" Andy chuckles.

"Very," Miranda purrs. "Terribly good, and worse for the fact that I have no room at all for anything resembling a salad, but those hot chocolate brownies in the menu..."

"Wow," Cassidy mumbles.

"Mom, don't make it snow in August," Caroline drawls.

"I just might," Miranda says, amused.

But she doesn't, and instead steals only a small mouthful of Andy's hot chocolate brownie. The tidbit makes Miranda wishful of a full portion, but discipline prevails. As it is, she'll have to spend some extra time on her treadmill this week, and she is already steeling herself against the temptation of making Flannery's a regular habit, as in weekly. She likes the atmosphere: music in the background, and laughter and conversation and everyone in a good mood. No-one is here just because this is the-place-to-be, and none of those places-to-be is really a good place to take one's children. Miranda decides that from now on this will be the place to bring her daughters, given that they are so relaxed and at-ease, as opposed to the stiff-backed, ultra well-behaved attitudes they wear at more fashionable restaurants. She needn't ask if they'd like to come here again, and decides instead to surprise them later in the month.

Even though it's after nine, Andy goes back to the townhouse with Miranda and the twins, who go obediently up to bed. When she returns from tucking her girls in, Miranda finds Andy in the downstairs study. She's helped herself to a scotch and has poured one for Miranda, too. Miranda touches her heavy tumbler to Andy's and takes a small respectful sip. She knows by taste alone that Andy chose the Glenlivet 18 tonight; Miranda taught Andy everything she now knows about scotch whisky.

"I think that when I see the pictures I took today, I'll get an urge to draw," Miranda says quietly.

"Draw me?" Andy says, quite surprised.

"It wouldn't be the first time," Miranda admits. "I drew you from memory, once, without even knowing what I was doing. There you were on the page... In Paris, after you left."

"Not the most mature thing I've ever done." Andy's cheeks are abruptly pink. It's not that she's ever thought that they wouldn't talk about this, and it's not that she's hoped that they wouldn't talk about it. She is willing, but she's unsure of how to proceed, and clearly Miranda would like her to talk about her side of it all. So she asks, "Where d'you want me to start?"

"I always like to know how people come to whichever decision," Miranda says, and her tone is relaxed and not at all accusatory.

"It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment thing," Andy admits. "Back then ours was a professional association—No, wait. Let's say it was ninety percent professional and ten percent personal. I don't think that anyone can be one of your assistants and have a purely professional relationship with you—"

"True. At the end of the day, where my assistants are concerned, my personal opinion is what lands in a letter of recommendation."

"Exactly," Andy says and she taps her chest. "And then there's me, myself, and I. I'm loyal, and I have to care about people. I was born like that and can't help it. So it wasn't easy to walk away. Rather, it wasn't easy to make the decision to walk away. Once I'd made the decision? Easy as pie. Getting there amounted to remembering what I really wanted from life, and when you not-so-vaguely hinted that I could be your protégé, that was... Well, it was scary. I'd always wanted to be a journalist, but what I really, really wanted to eventually be, was an editor, and I mean, like, from the age of twelve or thirteen. Then there I am in Paris, and I'm not writing about Fashion Week, I don't care about what's being written by others about Fashion Week, I'm being seduced by Fashion Week. You were right. The scariest part was that you were right: I could sit at your desk one day—"

"No-no. Not 'one day.' Tomorrow," Miranda says quietly, certain. Her eyes are solidly on Andy's and she sees them become round with disbelief. Miranda nods slowly. "Oh yes. Working for me for those eight months enabled you to know exactly who the best people are when it comes to advice and guidance, and I top that list. You'd never have trouble saying 'Miranda, what would you do, who would you choose, where would you place this?' You would have been smart enough to keep me at arm's reach. The right person for the job is always the one who employs the correct resources to get it done properly. Now, if Jacqueline Follet was anything like you, I might have considered stepping down."

"Umm... Wow," Andy says, because she can't think of anything else to say.

"Give it a day or two, and you'll say 'I suppose so' instead of 'Wow.'" Miranda chuckles, and she is certain of what she says now: "Like me, you don't shy from simple truths about yourself... I've never apologized for forgetting your dreams."

"You forgot my dreams in the hope that I'd further a few of yours. You're human‒ amazing!" Andy teases.

"Cheeky," Miranda chuckles.

"I've earned the right."

"Indeed," Miranda agrees.

*-*-*

The movie ended quite some time ago, and the girls took themselves off to bed, without disturbing Andy, who is still asleep, her head resting on a cushion over Miranda's lap. Before going to bed, Caroline had brought the novel from beside Miranda's bed, and she is content to sit and read—the book and her left hand resting comfortably against Andy's shoulder. There were less than forty pages left to read, however, and eventually the book is set aside.

"Andrea?"

"Huh?"

"Will you stay, or should I call you a cab?"

"No cab," Andy grumbles, sits up, and flops against the back of the couch.

Andy isn't awake, not really, and she becomes a whole lot less awake in a very short space of time. Miranda smirks. She's been here twice before and it's just as amusing as the first two occasions, but she is tired. She feels even more weary when she remembers that neither of the two guestrooms are prepared.

"Come on, you. I'm too tired to make a bed‒ we'll share."

"Fine," Andy mumbles.

In the master bath Andy sleepily brushes her teeth, then stumbles into the bedroom. She sheds jeans and socks, T-shirt and bra, and hauls the T-shirt back on again. When her head hits the pillows seconds later, she is gone. Miranda shakes her head while buttoning up her pajama shirt, and she takes the time to collect Andy's clothes and lay them on a chair.

Miranda has just settled after turning out the light when there's movement behind her. An arm comes around her middle, and tightens, and Miranda wriggles backwards so that they meet in the middle. She surmises that Andy is fast asleep and probably unaware of spooning up.

"Hey," Andy mumbles, proving the supposition wrong. "Is this okay for you?"

"Perfect," Miranda states.

Andy hugs her tighter and Miranda smiles, aware of breathing that slows and deepens: out like a light again.

Tired as she is, Miranda is yet content to lie awake. Perhaps it has to do with liking this comfort with Andy. She feels safe, and that isn't something she can own very often. In business, she is constantly on the defensive, and those who feel the need to defend always act from a place of insecurity. Safety is relative, and Miranda is too smart to call herself safe in a professional sense. Here at home, often at night, while not exactly feeling fearful, she rarely feels completely secure. Then again, that's loneliness talking.

Her thumb brushes over the cockled scar across Andy's knuckles, and she concedes that this scar pretty much sums up why she feels safe tonight: that feeling has more to do with who Andy is, than with her company. There's a strength to this young woman that Miranda answers to, but it's not easily classified.

It's not the same as it was with any of the men in her life, not even James. Their strength was almost bossy, testosterone-driven: I am a man, lean on me. Miranda had never leaned, feeling the need to hang on to a sizable amount of independence, and she had employed a good deal of control, among other measures, to keep those men in their place‒ even James.

But she leans on Andy, and feels safe doing so, safer still when Andy reveals her protective streak.

On the flipside, the leaning really goes both ways. Miranda has seen Andy through several major arguments with her parents, the worst coming after Andy foolishly told them about the headhunt offer from a Cincinnati-based publishing house that is doing very well for itself. What followed was a lot of pressure from her parents to take that job. Hurtful words had ended up being swapped, and Miranda had been right there for Andy until—and beyond—such time as the repair work had been effected.

Miranda recognizes that there's much to be said for accepting that shoulder to lean on, and that counts for them both. With that point settled, she realizes that what she's mulling over, sleepily, is balance, and it's quite possible that Andy is sleeping so soundly tonight because she feels safe with and because of Miranda.

*-*-*

Miranda Priestly is the last person Emily Charleton expects to see on her birthday, her thirtieth‒ at last. When she gave up worrying about her weight, her worries about getting older went up in a puff of smoke, too. Thirty is a very nice number, especially in business. One hits thirty and those older than forty rather much cease to think of one as 'the kid.' These days Emily is making the right sort of waves in the design department at Calvin Klein, and being thirty adds just that bit of an extra edge to her cred.

But Miranda has arrived at her birthday party, and Emily abruptly feels a few years younger and, not to mention, rather annoyed with Nigel.

"Me? Not me. Six got her to tag along with us," Nigel chuckles. "I'd just love to know how she talked her into it.

"Do not go there," Emily states flatly, and her dark blue eyes flash in a way that says she means it. "Those stupid bloody rumors only need a spark to flare up again. People here have ears."

"And eyes," Nigel says, unperturbed.

Emily looks around and finds his statement to be true: the forty-some guests are all looking Miranda and Andy's way. At least, they keep glancing that way when their little knots of conversation allow. A couple of years at Runway taught Emily how to read a crowd when Miranda's in the room. What she's seeing now is no different to the usual La Priestly Effect: they're looking at Miranda, not at Miranda-and-Andy.

"Hmph! Still my bestest boss," Emily says smugly.

"They—" Nigel gestures broadly at the crowd. "—have all decided that the rumors can't be true. That's all you're seeing. And they are choosing to see what they believe to be true. But look, Em; really look."

Emily might tell Nigel to lay off again, but instead she takes the time to do more than just see. The two women are talking with Patrick Demarchelier and James Holt, and as Emily looks on, it's clear that Andy's opinion has been sought on something or other. While Andy speaks and gestures with the hand not holding a champagne flute, she has Miranda's complete attention. Emily has only seen that level of attention given by Miranda to models on catwalks, and garments at showings and run-throughs.

"They don't realize," Nigel whispers in Emily's ear. "They are perfect for each other and they don't know. Do you have any idea of the kind of torture I have endured for almost four years? It's excruciatingly obvious. The twins think so, too, but like me they keep their mouths shut, because as the situation stands, it's good for both those women. If they don't stumble into it on their own, it will be a helluva shock to hear it even from Caro and Cass. Fucking it up isn't our place, no matter how much we love them."

This is as much a warning for Emily as it is an explanation. She nods just once, and she changes the subject.

Then, just a week later, the portion of Nigel's words that amounted to a warning proves itself useful. Emily is having dinner with Nigel, and Miranda, Andy, and the twins. The girls brought the subject of boys to the table. Caroline and Cassidy are sixteen and finding out quite rapidly that the boys they know could use a few lessons in good manners from their Uncle Nigel.

"Yeah, right," Andy says. "Good luck. You two had better accept that most straight guys are cavemen."

"True!" Emily agrees. Lunch with Miranda during the week assured her that Miranda will never expect her to scribble out endless lists and fetch boiling-hot Starbucks ever again. "Toilet seat up. Socks lying next to the laundry hamper, not in it. Shaving stubble in the basin. Wet towels on the floor. I'll leave it there, but your mum, Andy, and I, could tell you other things, to which you will both reply 'Eww, gross!' Not so, ladies?"

"Before they say anything, I'll just say it's true," Nigel chuckles, fanning theatrically at his red face. "To save myself further blushes."

"Why are you blushing? You're not anything like the cavemen I've had the displeasure of knowing," Miranda says wryly. "You and I shared an apartment for two years, and never a complaint against you from me... There's something to that. James and I were the very best of friends, but even he must be lumped in with this statement: I have no luck at all with straight men."

"Me neither," Andy grumbles. "I tossed the last one out after only two months. So that leaves gay men, but we don't make 'em happy in the right way."

"Ah, well," Miranda says with a shrug. "Marriage is overrated anyway."

"If Daddy was still here, he'd agree," Caroline says jokingly, and only her sister is sure of the almost desperate note to her voice, but Nigel and Emily are aware, so they help change the subject.

Later that night, Cassidy creeps into her sister's room and makes sure to close the door. She tells Caroline that it was a good save, earlier.

"Oh my God, but they are so blind..." Caroline groans quietly.

"Yeah‒ dense. It woulda been a mess, if they bumped into the truth tonight," Cassidy says. "Maybe not with just Uncle Nigel there, but Emily—"

"No, even with Nigel," Caroline states. "Anyone can rag on 'em afterwards, but they gotta wake up to it on their own, and preferably alone."

"So what do we do?" Cassidy asks.

"Whenever we can manage it, we give them room," Caroline decides.

*-*-*

"Mom's drawing."

"Mom's drawing you," Cassidy clarifies. "There's drawings of you all over the studio."

"O...kay," Andy says and laughs bashfully as she hands a paper bag to Caroline. "So is lunch off?"

"Uh-uh. What's in here?"

"Things for a salad, and I found some halibut steaks which looked way better than my original chicken idea."

"Do you fix halibut the same way you fix tuna?" Caroline asks.

"Yeah, or you can grill it with that basting sauce I taught you to make, for sole."

"Okay. We got it. Right, Cass?"

"Yeah. You go see Mom in mad artist mode," Cassidy giggles.

"Will she want me up there?" Andy asks hesitantly.

Caroline looks at Andy in a manner which leaves her in no doubt that Caroline Lorraine does not answer stupid questions. Cassidy backs that up by rolling her eyes and jerking a thumb at the stairs, her only comment, before she heads into the kitchen with her sister.

Still, Andy doesn't bound up the stairs. She has a lot of stairs to climb, and she has only once before ascended all the way to the attic‒ Miranda's studio. The door there is standing ajar, and beyond it, Miranda is humming along softly to one of Vivaldi's lute concerti. Andy pokes her head in around the door, and she smiles at the sight of Miranda dressed in pajamas, hair a bit tousled, glasses on nose. She is seated before a draftsman's angled desk and a very large photo print of Andy in uwagi and hakama, katana in hand, is on an easel to Miranda's left.

Sketches do indeed litter the floor, and more sit on another desk. On another easel is a charcoal study of Andy, the sword held almost as a baseball player would hold his bat at the ready. But a baseball player wouldn't stand quite like that, wouldn't drop his chin to rest on his left shoulder, eyes downcast: this is a stance taken briefly after an iaidoka has 'slain' an imaginary opponent and is preparing to take on another. Andy might have held that stance for all of two seconds, perhaps less, before proceeding into another phase of the kata.

She's standing in front of the easel now, without really being aware of having walked into the room.

"Something about your face there, your expression," Miranda says softly, at Andy's right shoulder. "That's the first piece I did, early‒ couldn't sleep."

Andy looks around at the number of sketches and studies and decides not to ask how early.

"So good at this," Andy almost whispers. "That's... It's really, really me. I've seen the portraits you've done of the girls, but... But you love them so much, so it kinda makes sense that... Oh."

Andy decides that she's said quite enough, and she's thinking of another Sunday, several months ago, when she practically asked Miranda out on a date. She's thinking of barely remembered and very pleasant dreams. She's also pretty sure that those dreams are a bare echo of reality, and she's sure that this particular reality is bound to exceed the knowledge she gained one wild night in college. Andy bites her lip and waits.

Miranda sighs and nods, and hopes. She didn't know, but now she is rather certain, and this might be a bit easier to manage if it hadn't crept up on her, but such is life. It's not-at-all a bad idea, because Andy and her girls adore each other. And Andy makes her laugh. And Andy likes to speak her mind and likes to hear Miranda speak her own opinions. Andy also just happens to be not-at-all bad to look at, too. It might be as simple as all of that. Ordinarily she would hold back just enough to get a firm grip on the reins, give herself just enough room to gain control of the situation, but for once she is prepared to let go. She feels quite firmly that this is the only course to follow. Miranda has hope, and it's time to live on a little of it now.

Her eyes lift from her hands, which are still a little charcoal-grubby, and she finds Andy's eyes, eyes that are smiling—No. Andy's eyes are twinkling with mischief.

"Oh really? What's the joke?" Miranda drawls.

"You always did look good in charcoal," Andy chuckles, and she wipes a dark grey smudge from Miranda's cheek.

Hope is a simple creature with a one-track mind and tunnel-vision, and at the end of the tunnel, there glows a light.

THE END