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"Do you know what just really kills me about this whole thing? Is the clothes that you're going to get. I mean, you don't deserve them."

- Emily Charlton, to Andy Sachs,
The Devil Wears Prada


It starts with what appears, at the time, to be an ending.

"Don't hang up!" says practically the last voice Emily ever expects to hear again, right as Emily's about to do just exactly that. Later, Emily will wonder if any of it would have happened if she hadn't allowed Andrea to continue speaking, if she'd simply hung up in her ear as she'd every intention of doing. However, there's something about the tone of Andrea's voice, a certain whiny familiar little note that gets on Emily's last nerve, just as it always has. But it also causes Emily to pause, just as it always has. And that's when Andrea jumps in and tells her the rest.

At that particular moment, the pause seems fortuitous. Paris. Clothes. Clothes - from Paris. Who cares about Paris itself, really, so long as she gets the clothes?

She keeps thinking that, all through the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, when Roy drops off the clothes at Emily's flat, last thing after driving Miranda home.

She's determined not to appear too eager, but she lets out a squeak when Roy calls through the intercom to let her know he's waiting outside. She takes a moment to compose herself, deep breaths, in and out - but not too many and not too deep. It wouldn't do to faint. She holds herself up straight. Composure. Poise. That's what she wants. She needs to project an air of nonchalance, to try for an effect that's more ennui than elan. Receiving deliveries is just an everyday event. That's all. Receiving clothes is just an everyday event. Clothes delivered by Miranda Priestly's personal driver. Clothes from Paris Fashion Week.

Emily lets out another squeak. It's lucky her leg is still in plaster, because for a moment it's all that's stopping her from racing downstairs. Sedate, that's what she needs to aim for. A measured pace - well, it would be if not for the crutch. She's not excited. Not at all.

Roy is grinning as she opens the door for him, so maybe he isn't entirely fooled by what little of her he can see from behind the great pile of boxes stacked high in his arms.

"There's more in the car," he tells her, and he's not joking. There are even more boxes on the back seat, and dresses on hangers, and a few suit bags. And Andrea claims she's not interested in fashion. Emily hopes the excess baggage fee for Andrea's return flight from Paris was a hefty one. Serves her right.

Roy's still grinning when he carries up the final load and says good night. Emily all but slams the door behind him. And then...

It's hard to decide what to open first. She strokes the heavy embossed insignia on the lids of the boxes in turn, pushes back the protective covers of the dresses already on hangers, lets her fingers trail through a forest of organza and cashmere and silk.

Finally, she chooses a box, and lets it happen.

It takes her less than five minutes to revise her opinion about Andrea's interest in fashion: she clearly has none. Who else goes to Fashion Week, in Paris, and comes back with the contents of Armani's back catalogue? Every box she's opened contains something classic. Safe. Dull. Oh, Emily can accessorize it, without a doubt. She can mix and match and make most of it work, well enough. The fact that she's thinking in those terms about the bounty from Paris Fashion Week is enough to make her weep, it truly is.

She unzips one of the suit bags. This one contains an Anna Sui dress in gunmetal gray - a dull and unadventurous shade, but then what else can one expect? - and a matching overcoat done in a classic - *shudder* - cut. The fur trim at collar and cuffs gives her pause, though. That's not predictable. Andrea has bored Emily on more than one occasion with her holier than thou attitude to the wearing of fur. If not for the label, Emily would suspect the fur of being fake. Still, it's only a very slight enigma in a sea of boring certainty. And the coat itself isn't exactly daring. It screams "classic", like everything else in the pile.

Emily, for her part, isn't interested in classics. Not unless they're true classics, real classics, like some of the vintage Dior couture that turned up in that auction at Christie's last week. But that sort of thing is hardly likely to come Andrea's way - even less so now. It's really just as well, since she wouldn't have the faintest clue what to do with it, and Emily can only stand so much waste.

There are more boxes and more Armani - plus some more Anna Sui and 3.1 Phillip Lim thrown in in a pathetic attempt at variety - but it isn't until Emily pulls the cover off the last remaining hanger that she sees anything remotely interesting. And this is something interesting. Something a trifle daring. Something she might, just possibly, have chosen for herself. It isn't Armani and it isn't classic. It's Bill Blass and the bodice is gunmetal gray, but she'll forgive that because... wow. She can't imagine Andrea wearing this dress. The bodice is gray silk over what looks like a steel corset, strapless and low-cut, with a layer of black tulle over the top. A black velvet band cinches it in at the waist, and then there's the skirt. And what a skirt it is: feathered and beaded in charcoal gray, it catches the light from every angle, glittering as though bejeweled.

Of course, she has to try it on, even though she knows it will just drown her. She strips right there, in the middle of the living room, slides the dress reverently off its hanger, undoes the hooks at the back, then limps over to the side of the room and steadies herself against the door frame as she carefully slips the dress down over her head - at which point it quickly becomes apparent that there's just no way she can manage all those hooks and eyes down the back without assistance.

"What are you looking at?" she asks Westwood, who is perched atop a stack of Armani boxes and surveying her every movement with his habitual bored, blue-eyed stare. The cat looks at her unblinkingly for a moment, then yawns and jumps down with effortless grace before strolling off to the bedroom, his tail swishing behind him like a great white plume.

Emily tugs at the bodice in irritation, pulling it round so it's on back to front and then she can reach. She does up the long line of hooks and eyes with practiced ease before shifting everything back into place. Then she goes into the bedroom to check out the effect in the full-length mirror on the door of her wardrobe. Westwood leaps up onto the bed to observe the proceedings.

Tight-fitting as it's designed to be, and even though Andrea slimmed down to a barely-acceptable size four before the end, the dress still swims on Emily, which is as much a consolation as the dress itself. She'll have to get it taken in, here, and here, oh, and right here. She'll have to get it taken in all over. And she'll need the right shoes, clearly, four inch stilettos at least. And earrings, long earrings, maybe something glittery and dark, like the beads on the skirt.

And then she'll just have to wait for the right occasion to wear it. Emily lets her lips curl into a smile - smug, but she has every right to be.

Without warning, the bodice slips, and Emily is left staring at the sight of her boobs hanging out in a way that no designer ever intended. She grits her teeth as she hoists the fabric back up, reminding herself that it will be worth it in the end. Well worth it.

The top slips down again just as she makes it back to the circle of boxes in the middle of the living room. She takes it as her cue this time and changes back into her other clothes, pausing along the way to hang the Bill Blass dress carefully on the high rail in her wardrobe.

Emily sighs, feeling much put upon, and sits down to open the last box. It's Armani. What a surprise.

~*~

Emily gets the cast taken off her leg during her lunch break on Wednesday. That's about the last predictable thing that happens all day. For a start, she discovers that her newly-liberated leg is covered in fine dark hair. Disgusting! As soon as the doctor's receptionist hands over her receipt, she reaches into her bag for the wax strips she keeps there for just such body hair-related emergencies, and is aghast to discover that they're not there. She remembers, with mounting horror, The Hair from last week that necessitated the use of the last one. She looks around the waiting room a bit wildly. There's a ladies' loo out in the hall. Perhaps... No luck. There's nothing in there that's of the slightest use. She'll just have to walk out into the street looking like this. She wants to die, right there and then. She really does. Instead, she lifts her head high and walks out the door. She takes only a few steps before she stops again, pausing to consider the sign on the next door along. The ladies' room doesn't have what she requires, but gentlemen have different needs.

If anyone were to see her going in there... She opens the door of the men's room a crack, just enough to determine that the room appears to be empty - and that there's a couple of dispensing machines attached to the wall opposite. She slips inside and races over and: yes! Success! Next to the condom-vending machine is one that dispenses razors. She digs a couple of quarters out of her purse and jams them into the slot, all the time keeping one eye firmly on the door, and a moment later a cheap and nasty little razor drops into her hand. She's ready to kiss it. She makes her escape from the men's room as quickly as she entered it - but not quite quickly enough. She opens the door and comes face to face with a middle-aged man in an unremarkable business suit who is, understandably, a little surprised to see her there.

"I'm- an- am- Inspection!" Emily blurts out desperately. "Periodic inspection. Got to check for- Standards! Extremely important!" And she ducks around him and out the other side, into the hallway.

The businessman turns slowly and looks her up and down. Then he frowns. "Don't you work at Runway?" he asks.

"What? No. Never heard of it!" Emily gabbles, backing towards the door of the ladies'.

"I'm sure I've seen you in the elevator," the man says. "I work at HQM, two floors down."

"Nope! Never heard of that, either. Now if you'll excuse me-" Emily dashes into the ladies' room with no little relief, letting the door bang shut behind her. The woman retouching her lipstick in front of the mirror blinks in surprise at Emily's abrupt entrance, but it's a simple thing to stare her down and Emily soon has the place to herself. She grimaces: public rest room liquid soap and a razor from a men's room vending machine are hardly the height of, well, anything, but at least she won't have to walk down the street looking like some dreadful homeless person or, or... student possessed of not so much as a nodding acquaintance with appropriate personal grooming.

Mentally penciling in an appointment for a full leg wax on this week's 'to do' list - it's not as though she's in danger of forgetting such a dire emergency so there's no need to go to the trouble of getting out her Blackberry and putting it on her actual 'to do' list - she surveys her now hairless leg with displeasure. It looks thinner than the other leg, and there's no way she can think of to shrink the other one down in size to match it. She briefly considers breaking the other leg, or at least getting it encased in plaster for a few weeks, but reluctantly decides against this in the end. For one thing, London Fashion Week is coming up in only a few months and there's just no way she's giving Miranda a single possible excuse for taking the new second assistant with her in Emily's rightful place.

There's no one else to be seen when she steps out into the hallway this time, and there are no further chance encounters once she makes it out onto the street. Emily doesn't see anyone she knows at all, in fact, until she's less than a block away from Elias-Clarke. She's not terribly surprised about this. However, she is surprised that the next familiar face she sees belongs to Andrea Sachs.

Andrea waves and hurries over. "Emily, hi," she says. She's wearing a coat in an unflattering shade of beige that's clearly seen better days, and her hair is sporting a windswept look, but not in an artful way. Emily would bet her next pay check that Andrea's hair has recently been styled by actual wind.

"Hello," says Emily, and keeps walking.

"So, how's everything going? How's the leg?"

"As you can see, my leg is perfectly fine, thank you."

"That's great. Did the clothes arrive okay?"

Emily sniffs, and comes to a brief halt. "Roy delivered everything safely, yes."

"So... you going to wear them? It seemed such a shame to let them go to waste," Andrea says, and glances down the street in the direction of Runway.

"They're away being taken in at the moment. You didn't really expect any of your clothes to fit me, did you?" She's maybe just a little sharper with Andrea than is called for, just a little, but really, if Andrea will insist on stopping to chat when she knows that Emily's always insanely busy during the working day, what else does she expect?

"Well, no." Andrea shuffles from one foot to another, as though she's feeling the cold. Or as though she's nervous about something.

"But yes, you're right, it would have been a frightful waste," Emily allows. "It's just as well someone who can truly appreciate these things was available to take them off your hands."

"That's true," Andrea agrees.

"Though what ever possessed you to choose Armani at all, never mind outfit an entire wardrobe... Don't you know that Miranda told him that his designs were no longer relevant in the twenty-first century?"

"Ohhhh yes," Andrea says. "Nigel told me that. Right after the Armani reps insisted I take a sample of just about everything in sight. I think they knew who I worked for."

Emily raises her eyebrows. "And you didn't try to stop them?"

"Well, I guess that's one of the reasons why you're still Miranda's assistant and I'm not, Em." Andrea smiles that annoying, disarming smile of hers, but it looks a bit strained around the edges.

"Yes," Emily says, making no attempt to keep the satisfied smile off her face.

Andrea stands there, fidgets some more and finally looks down the street again.

Emily sighs and rolls her eyes heavenward in search of patience. She so doesn't miss having Andrea around every day. "So, if you have nothing more to say - and even if you do - I really must get back to the office. Those of us who are gainfully employed don't have time to stand around indulging in idle chatter."

Incredibly, Andrea's face lights up at that. "Oh, I'm gainfully employed again! Didn't you hear? I got a job at the Mirror."

"I neither know nor-"

"Miranda sent over a reference. I thought you would have-"

"She did? Oh, she did! Yes, of course I knew that!" Emily says hurriedly. "Well, you enjoy your little newspaper... job. I'm sure you're exactly suited to it."

It's meant to be an insult, but Andrea takes it as a compliment, or pretends to. She smiles again. "Why, thank you Emily. I really think I might be." She pauses and looks at Emily steadily for a moment. "So, this is goodbye, for keeps, I guess."

"I suppose so," Emily says.

"Well, goodbye, then," Andrea says.

"Goodbye," Emily says, because there really isn't anything else one can say in such a situation. Not anything that won't prolong the conversation to even more painful lengths than it's already been pushed to.

Emily starts on her way again. She stops near the end of the street, not sure of what prompts her to do so, and looks back to find that Andrea has barely moved and that she's gazing down the street again. She doesn't seem to notice Emily at all. Emily tells herself that it's good riddance, and hurries back to work.

Her phone goes off when she's in the elevator. It's a text message: m back early. WHERE R U?! Emily checks the time and oh dear God, she's two minutes late. She just barely stops herself from jabbing at the buttons in a vain attempt to make the lift move faster, cursing Andrea under her breath the whole time. She's almost hyperventilating by the time she finally makes it out of the lift and down the corridor to the outer office, where the new second assistant is hovering nervously. The door to the inner office is closed. Emily can see the shadowy shape of Miranda sitting at her desk on the other side of the frosted glass.

"So, what does she want, Samantha?" Emily hisses. Miranda always wants something immediately after lunch, even if it's 'only' to change her afternoon schedule - and then for her staff to carry out the myriad arrangements connected with said change.

"I don't know! She just came back and shut the door." Samantha wrings her hands and looks tragic, which admittedly isn't all that hard for her. "And call me Sam," she adds automatically. She's been telling Emily that every day since she first arrived. It's getting way beyond tedious.

"And she didn't say a word?" Emily presses.

"Nothing!"

"She didn't ask for me?"

"She didn't even call me Emily."

"All right, Samantha," Emily says, "There's nothing else for it. We'll just have to-"

At that moment the office door opens. Miranda is standing in the doorway, an indecipherable look on her face.

"Emily, you're back," Miranda says in her soft voice.

"I'm sorry, Miranda. I told them who I worked for, and that the doctor had to see me right on time, preferably earlier than that, but they still kept me waiting almost five minutes before-"

Miranda holds up one smooth, white palm and Emily falls silent immediately. "You've had the cast removed? Good." There isn't any bite to Miranda's voice, and the familiar honeyed tone is likewise absent. And all the while the expression on her face remains impossible to identify. She stares at Emily for one long, unnerving moment, then turns and goes back to her desk without another word.

Emily's so shocked that she almost asks Miranda if she wants anything else. Something has happened in the hour and a half since Miranda left the office for the lunch appointment identified only as "personal" in the schedule. This morning, Miranda had grudgingly granted Emily an extra ten minutes on her lunch break so that she could go to the doctor's office, with the rider that it was hardly before time to get the cast taken off since 'No reasonable person would think that graceful deportment should be too much to ask for in my personal staff.' And then, this afternoon, Emily returns to... this. Something has happened, but Emily has no idea what that something might be.

She pulls herself together and seats herself at her desk, opening Miranda's schedule for the rest of the week and cross-checking against her 'to do' list. Across the room, Samantha's eyes are like saucers, but she doesn't say anything. She's learnt that much in the time she's been here. Samantha - 'Call me Sam' - reminds Emily all too much of Andrea, except that Samantha at least has some inherent interest in fashion. That, and she lacks Andrea's irritating knack for unexpected competence. Fortunately, Miranda tolerates her, though nothing more than that - so she's unlike Andrea there, too.

Emily glances briefly in the direction of Miranda's desk and takes very great care not to notice that Miranda's just sitting there, staring into space.

~*~

The last of the Paris clothes return from the seamstress the following Thursday - after a series of increasingly displeased and threatening phone calls from Emily demanding to know where her clothes have got to - at the end of a week that's been even more hellishly busy than usual. It's that time of the month: when the last deadlines for the next issue of Runway fall due. Everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong this time, throwing Miranda into a toxic mood and making everyone else run around in panic like headless chickens - very well-dressed, well-groomed, well-shod headless chickens, admittedly. Emily's stayed hours later than usual at work every night this week. She manages to make it home before midnight on Thursday, after the new issue is finally put to bed, but it's still closer to twelve than eleven when she finally gets in through the door.

Emily walks straight from the front door to the bedroom, dropping her bag and other packages on the sofa on the way, and only stopping when she plants herself face down on the bed. Part of her wants to stay right where she is until morning, but the rest of her is already screaming about the damage she's doing to her clothes by falling down in a heap like this while wearing them. She knows she has to get up. She will get up. But the bed is nice and comfortable and wonderfully, mercifully horizontal. She just needs to lie here the tiniest bit longer...

There's a soft thump about halfway down the bed and a moment later four hard, heavy little points land in the small of her back, and then-

"Eek!" Emily rolls over quickly, and then screams again as something sharp pierces the skirt of her dress and then the skin beneath. "Westwood!" she exclaims, appalled, as she does her best to detach the cat's claws. "This dress is a Westwood! You should be ashamed of yourself!"

Westwood glares back at her, clearly unwilling to forgive today's tardiness on top of every other night this week. Emily finally dislodges his claws and attempts to push him off her. Westwood doesn't assist this endeavor in the slightest. Instead, he flops heavily on his side, looking like some sort of fluffy ermine stole, and giving every indication of being about as lifeless. Emily takes in the sight, reluctantly charmed, and reaches out to pet Westwood's head. Quick as a flash, a paw comes up and Emily is left with an unsightly red welt scored deep into her wrist.

"Bastard cat!" Emily cries as she cradles her hand against her chest. "Why do I continue to put up with you?"

Westwood stares at her, his ice-blue gaze both superior and unimpressed. Then he hops down to the floor, wanders over to the bedroom door, and waits. Pointedly.

With a groan, Emily hauls herself up and off the bed and staggers out to her tiny kitchen. There's part of a serving of Sheba Ocean Seafood Cocktail left over from Westwood's breakfast, sitting all alone on the upper shelf of the refrigerator. Emily takes it out, spoons it carefully onto a delicate white porcelain saucer and sticks it in the microwave for ten seconds. She's so tired that she almost overbalances when she sets the saucer on the floor. It's a pointless undertaking, in any case. Westwood sniffs the food once, and then turns his back on it, his stance radiating displeasure. Emily sighs. She should have known it wouldn't meet his exacting standards. She bends down again to retrieve the saucer and this time she does overbalance. Her hands go out in front of her automatically to break her fall and her right hand ends up planted squared in the middle of the saucer of cat food.

Emily jumps to her feet, eyeing her seafood cocktail-festooned hand with extreme distaste as she holds it out as far from her clothing as possible and washes it clean under the tap. Westwood just looks at her. Expectantly.

Emily knows what he wants, what it is he's waiting for, but she's going to be forced to disappoint him. "Look, I'm sorry, really I am," she says, "but there's just no way I can get any halibut for you right now. It's the middle of the night! None of the places that sell it will be open until morning. And wouldn't you prefer it to be nice and fresh and just off the boat, anyway? I'll poach it in your special milk, and everything!" Halibut in cat milk is the only thing she ever cooks. Not that Westwood ever shows signs of gratitude for the lengths she goes to on his behalf, but Emily's used to that.

Westwood stares at her, as if to say 'Is that really the best you can do?' He turns his back on her now, and proceeds to ignore her when she calls his name.

"Look, at least have the milk!" Emily pours a generous amount into Westwood's special milk bowl and replenishes the bowl of kibble beside it while she's at it.

Westwood doesn't turn around, even when Emily leaves the kitchen.

She brightens instantly as she catches sight of the packages sitting on the end of the sofa: the last of the altered clothes from Paris Fashion Week. Most of what the seamstress sent back before this was Armani. Emily had had barely enough enthusiasm even to try it on. Barely. Today, though, today is the day of the return of Anna Sui and Phillip Lim. And Bill Blass.

She unpacks the outfits carefully, trying on each one in turn before the bedroom mirror. The people who did these alterations are at least competent, even if they're deathly slow. Everything fits just as it should. She'll be able to wear these clothes around the office, at least. She leaves the Bill Blass dress until the very last, anticipation slowly uncurling in her stomach as she gets closer and closer to the end of her impromptu fashion show. She takes a deep breath before unwrapping the dress, but as soon as she pulls back the tissue paper she can see that it's every bit as breathtaking as she remembered. She pulls open the wardrobe door, digging through the bottom shelf for exactly the right pair of shoes. She doesn't come up with anything that's quite right, so she moves on to the shoe cupboard, where she keeps her between seasons shoes. She considers half a dozen pairs of black stilettos, all beautiful, all different, all not quite right, before she finds The Shoes to go with The Dress: spiky black patent five-inch platforms by Christian Louboutin, not so eye-catching as to divert attention away from the dress but still shiny enough not to be dulled into nothingness by the glitter of the skirt.

And then there are the other accessories to be considered. She needs jewelry to achieve the look she's aiming for, something dark and mysterious, but with sparkle. She knows without needing to check that nothing she currently owns is exactly right and she's already anticipating the hunt for just the right pair of earrings, the favors she should be able to call in. It will all be worth it.

She slips the dress on, luxuriating in the feel of the satin lining sliding down her body. She's careful to avoid looking anywhere near the mirror as she hooks the back up, and then she's pulling the front carefully into position, closing her eyes so she can focus on the sensation of every part of the dress slipping into place just exactly as it should, just exactly right. Her dress. Hers.

She takes a deep breath and looks at her reflection. She's stunned by the sight that meets her eyes. The fit is perfect. The skirt hugs her hips, emphasizing her figure. The velvet band makes her waist look even tinier than it usually does. But the top, oh, the top. The top is the part that she can't tear her eyes away from. Its not going to fall down this time. It's like a gleaming sheath, as tight-fitting as a second skin, emphasizing her figure, emphasizing... just how much it doesn't suit her.

The disappointment is palpable, like a fist hitting her in the stomach and then a dagger stabbing deep below her ribs.

She gulps, and raises her chin defiantly. She doesn't want to believe it, but... No. She must be honest with herself, always, in matters of personal appearance and as she continues to look at her reflection she can't deny the terrible truth. It isn't the dress that doesn't suit her: she doesn't suit the dress. A top like this is designed to show off a woman's assets, and Emily simply doesn't possess the assets required. Not in the appropriate dimensions.

Andrea could wear it, a treacherous little voice whispers inside her head. Yes, Andrea could wear it, the fat cow. Emily will never lower herself to the depths of such... voluptuousness. Ugh! No, not even for this dress. But, not for the first time, or even the second, she finds herself wishing desperately that she could afford the services of a decent plastic surgeon - Madonna's, say, or even whoever last worked on Donatella Versace. It's obvious that someone has had a hand in helping Donatella with the design of her latest look, however much she might try to deny it.

Emily's not sure how long she stands there, the sole witness to the scene of tragedy in place of what should have been a triumph. A single tear wells up in her eye, and trails a dark streak down her cheek. At least at this hour she doesn't have to fix her make-up. It isn't any sort of solace.

She starts as something soft brushes against her legs. Westwood, she realizes a second later. She bends down to pet him, touched. He hardly ever comes to her, even when she calls. Especially when she calls.

"Oh, Westwood, such a good, beautiful boy," she croons.

Westwood nips the side of her hand, none too gently, and ducks out of reach.

Emily eyes him reproachfully, and bites her trembling lower lip. Westwood just stares back, unperturbed. He really is a white-haired, blue-eyed devil of a cat. However, he has at least broken the spell. Emily takes off the dress, taking no less care in handling it than she had before. She pauses in the act of putting it in the wardrobe, and instead hangs it from the hook on the back of the bedroom door.

Emily doesn't linger about her ablutions, and she's in bed barely half an hour later. She lies there, so exhausted that she's all wound up with it, too wired as well as too tired to sleep. Her hand drifts idly down between her thighs. Getting herself off is a surefire way of relaxing enough to get off to sleep. Her eyes dart restlessly around the room. It's almost pitch dark in here with the heavy drapes drawn across the window but she can just make out the shape of the Bill Blass dress against the white paint of the bedroom door. It glints balefully at her through the darkness. Emily can't keep looking at it for long. She turns over and shuts her eyes firmly, gripping the edge of the covers hard with both hands.

When she finally does fall asleep, her dreams are a confusion of snakes with dark, glittering eyes shedding their silvery skins and sinuously twining themselves around creatures with white, white fur and a malevolent blue gaze.

~*~

October passes into November and Emily tries to put the huge disappointment of the Paris clothes behind her. It helps that the weeks that follow are much like most other weeks at Runway. That is to say, at the cutting edge of every worthwhile fashion trend and hectic to the point of insanity. Emily relishes every second. All the usual constants around the office - Samantha, Nigel, and, of course, Miranda herself - are, well, constant.

Or, then again, perhaps not. There's something unusual about Miranda's behavior lately, but Emily can't quite put her finger on the cause. Miranda's over the foul mood of deadline week, and now she's moved on to something else. Emily isn't entirely sure just what sort of mood it is. In anyone else, she'd describe Miranda's current demeanor as a trifle distracted. In Miranda, it's as though she's - and it feels like something close to sacrilege, only worse, to think it - less focused on her job than usual. It's a lot like the way Miranda acted the day Emily got the cast taken off her leg, though even more unnerving this time because it just doesn't stop. Emily's rushing down the street right now with extra samples from Dolce & Gabbana that Miranda had demanded in her usual implacable manner, but odds are good that when Emily gets back to the office with everything required - nothing more and absolutely, positively nothing less - she'll find Miranda sitting at her desk and staring into space again.

Emily races across the foyer and waits impatiently for the elevator. It seems to take forever. Maybe she should take the stairs. It might just be quicker, even in these heels, if the elevator stays stuck on level fourteen for much longer. Eventually, after one of the longest minutes of Emily's life, the elevator doors open and Emily is first inside. She drums her fingernails impatiently against the control panel as everyone else slowly shuffles in and then jabs the button to close the doors when the last person is still only half inside. Emily's looking straight ahead, out the elevator door, which is the only reason she catches a glimpse of long, dark hair paired with a familiar, toothy smile emerging from the elevator opposite just in the split second before the elevator doors come together.

Andrea? At Elias-Clarke? What. The. Hell?

"Stop!" she shouts, and jabs at the control panel again, this time at the "open doors" button, but it's too late. The lift is already moving. Everyone else looks at her as though she's crazy. With effort, Emily pulls herself together. She doesn't deign to return their stares.

She storms back into the office, all ready to drag Samantha off to interrogate her. It's only when she actually sees Miranda sitting at her desk, going through some papers and not staring off unseeingly into the distance for a change, that she remembers the samples she's carrying and the purpose of her errand. She hastens into the inner office.

"Put those down over there," Miranda says, not looking up from her work but waving in the direction of the small table in the corner.

Emily does as she's bid. She's almost out the door when Miranda unexpectedly speaks again.

"Oh, and Emily?"

Emily waits silently, which is what Miranda expects of her, but Miranda doesn't say anything more. There's a strange expression on Miranda's face. She looks as though she's undergone some sort of shock, though she doesn't seem upset, precisely. The corner of her mouth keeps twitching, as though it wants to curl up, though Emily has no wish to stick around long enough to discover whether it's trying to be a snarl or a smile. On Miranda, the two can be equally terrifying.

Miranda shakes her head. "Oh, never mind," she says.

Emily gets out of there as quickly as she can, which is pretty quickly indeed, and pounces on Samantha.

"So, what happened?" she demands. "What did she say to Miranda? What did she do?"

"What are you talking about?" Samantha asks, and her bewilderment appears to be genuine. She backs away. Emily follows. They're almost nose to nose, with Samantha's eyes getting wider every second. "Who are you talking about?"

"Andy!" Emily hisses.

"Andy who?" Samantha says, taking another step backwards. She lets out a little squeak as she bumps into the wall. "There haven't been any Andys in here all day," she assures Emily.

"Andrea Sachs." Emily enunciates each syllable of the name so there can be no mistake.

"There haven't been any Andreas here, either."

"I just saw her coming out of the elevator on the ground floor."

"She hasn't been here," Samantha insists.

"She must have been. Why else would she even be in the building?"

Samantha shrugs. "Maybe she came to see someone else at Runway. She must have gotten to know lots of people while she was here, not just Miranda. And you," Samantha adds hastily, and darts a glance sideways, clearly in search of an escape route.

"She didn't know me at all!" Emily wishes the words unsaid as soon as they leave her mouth, and she's more than a little annoyed at Samantha for pushing her to the point where she lets down her guard to that extent, but she relents enough to at least let Samantha make her escape.

Less than two minutes later, Emily is in Nigel's office. She means to ask about Andrea as soon as she walks in through the door. Of course she does. But instead she walks in through the door and all her attention is immediately claimed by what Nigel is holding.

"Oh my god," she breathes.

"Yeah," Nigel says, smiling at the garment like a besotted new father and cradling it as carefully as if it were a real baby. More carefully. Emily's not at all sure that Nigel would know how to treat an actual baby, but he certainly knows how to treat this.

"How on Earth did you get hold of something like this?"

"Me? Oh, it's not mine," Nigel says quickly, even as he runs a possessive hand along the black velvet. "It arrived from London this afternoon. Miranda called me in about ten minutes ago and told me to guard it with my life until she comes back from this afternoon's meeting at Marc Jacobs - or was it with Marc Jacobs?" He waves a hand dismissively.

"It's Miranda's? Yes, of course it is." Emily answers her own question before Nigel has the chance. Who else around here would own something like this?

This is a long black velvet opera cloak, simple and elegant - deceptively simple. It's hooded and unadorned, lined with black satin, and cut on absolutely classic lines. But then, that's what it is. A real classic. A true classic.

"So Miranda was the anonymous phone bidder at the auction in London last month? The one that featured all the vintage Dior?" Because the cloak is Dior, it has to be, there's no mistaking that look. And not just any old Dior, either.

"Looks like it," Nigel says absently. He's holding out the cloak now, so that it hangs in mid-air, but taking care not to let the hem brush the ground. "Did you know," he adds, "that this cloak was one of the very last designs Christian Dior worked on himself before his untimely death? In fact, it's rumored that this was the very last piece to come from the master's hands before he went to Italy, choked vigorously on a fish bone, and dropped dead."

Emily is stroking her fingers gently, reverently along the folds of the cloak. She stops at this and frowns at Nigel. "He choked to death on a fish bone?"

"Vigorously."

"How does anyone choke to death on a fish bone vigorously?"

"Darling, you'd better believe that he was doing something vigorously right before he died. At least the fish bone sounds dignified. Well, more dignified, anyway."

Emily quirks a half-smile at that.

"So, was there something you wanted, or did you simply seek me out for the pleasure of my company?" Nigel asks, his attention still mostly on the cloak.

"Something I- oh, yes!" Emily says. "What did Andrea want?" she asks baldly, fixing Nigel with a hard stare.

"Andrea?" Nigel raises his eyebrows. "Andrea who?"

"Oh for God's sake," Emily says. "Do I have to go through this all over again? Andrea Sachs, of course. She was just in the building."

"And why do you assume she came to see me?"

"Didn't she?"

"Maybe," Nigel says, holding the cloak out again and tilting his head to one side as he runs an assessing eye from top to bottom.

"Nigel!"

"Okay, okay," he says, and now he finally looks her properly in the eye. "No, she did not come to see me, though you'd have thought that she would've. In fact, you did." He shakes his head. "I don't know. Gratitude: it's a lost art."

"But you did see her. Or you know who she came to see, don't you?"

"I see many things. That doesn't mean I talk about them."

"So you're not going to tell me."

"No, I'm not." He lays the cloak carefully in the large, silk-lined dress box lying open on the desk. "You're a smart kid. I'm sure you'll work it out for yourself."

And with that Emily is forced to be content.

It hits her halfway back down the corridor. If Miranda and Andrea are meeting in secret, being careful to keep it out of the knowledge of Miranda's personal staff, it can mean only one thing. Her stomach clenches in cold dread. She should have known Andrea wouldn't be content with a nothing job at some newspaper nobody's ever heard of, most likely at the beck and call of some slave-driving editor. Maybe she's not missing the designer clothes or the fact that once she possessed at least a glimmer of a sense of style, but now that the dust has had a chance to settle and the reality of her situation is starting to sink in, Andrea's probably missing the profile, the power that comes with being the personal assistant of someone like Miranda Priestly. Well, of being the personal assistant of Miranda Priestly, because there's no one else like her. It would take a lot for Andrea to swallow her pride and come back, though. The position of second assistant simply wouldn't cut it anymore.

Emily stops dead in her tracks. Andrea's after Emily's job. She has to be. And Miranda is considering the idea. She must be. Why else is she giving Andrea so much as the time of day? Emily flashes back on every single task she's carried out for Miranda in the past month, in the past two months. She mentally reviews every single thing she's done since Miranda returned from Paris. There have been no major fuck-ups, and no minor ones, either. To speak of. She's been late back to the office a couple of times, but only due to events beyond her control. Oh, God. That day, when she'd had the cast taken off her leg. She'd been late back from lunch because she'd run into Andrea in the street. Andrea had been walking in the other direction, walking away from Runway. That was probably when it started. And Andrea had had the unmitigated gall to proclaim that her newspaper job suited her perfectly, when all the time...

Emily's hands clench into fists at her sides. She's not sure what sort of expression is currently on her face, but Felicity from Accounting eyes her nervously as she hurries past. There's only one way to fight this. Emily has to make herself more than useful, more than merely necessary to Miranda. She needs to make Miranda see that she's completely and utterly indispensable.

The fire of battle-readiness burning fiercely in her belly, Emily strides - well, as close to striding as is possible in a skin-tight miniskirt and four-inch heels - back to the office to join the fray.

~*~

Making herself indispensable to Miranda is, of course, easier said than done. Miranda expects nothing less than that her assistants give their all to the job, and Emily's been doing that since the day she first arrived at Runway. Emily's solution to this conundrum is simply to keep doing what she's always done, except that now her efforts are doubled. More than doubled: multiplied by ten, or perhaps twenty. That's what it feels like, anyway. She gets in to work each morning even earlier than before, and stays later. She takes on all the most visible routine tasks, and everything else that she can possibly fit in during her near-endless working day. She even takes back the task of waiting for The Book each evening. During the day, she guards the phone jealously, to the point where Samantha gives up trying to answer calls at all when Emily is present.

At the end of a week, Emily is utterly exhausted. Miranda, of course, has shown no appreciation for Emily's extra efforts. Not that Emily would have expected anything else than that, but she's not sure that Miranda's even noticed, which is lowering, to say the least. On Friday, Miranda calls Emily into her office. Miranda looks up as Emily enters, looks up and over the rim of her glasses. She looks faintly annoyed. Disappointed, even. Then she smiles, but there's no humor to it.

Emily goes stock still.

"Emily. You've been with us quite a while now. I really thought you understood how things work around here. But, apparently not, so I'll make this crystal clear for you: when I require you to undertake a task for me, I expect you to do it."

"Of course, Miranda. I always-"

"And when I require Samantha to undertake a task for me, I expect that she will be the one who carries it out." Miranda looks Emily up and down in one sweeping gaze. "Not you."

"Yes, Miranda. Of course. I-"

"That's all." Miranda turns around in her chair, so that her back's to Emily, picks up the latest issue of Numero from the pile by her desk and starts flipping through it.

Emily backs out of the room and practically falls into her chair, so relieved that she still has her job that she's almost sick with it.

"Emily, are you okay?" Samantha asks in concern.

Emily pulls herself up straight and turns a frosty glare on Samantha. "Of course I'm all right. I'm perfectly fine. Wonderful! Why wouldn't I be?"

Samantha hides behind her computer screen, gratifyingly cowed. Emily feels better already.

But she eases off on things a bit after that, arriving at the office no earlier than 6:00am most days and relinquishing the responsibility for The Book to Samantha again three nights out of five. In the end, the only useful thing to come out of the whole wretched episode is that Andrea appears not to be lurking in the shadows any longer. There hasn't been the slightest whisper of her presence anywhere around Runway since the day the Dior cloak arrived. Miranda has obviously thought better of taking a treacherous viper back to her bosom, and for that Emily is profoundly grateful.

By the time December arrives, it's as though Andrea has never existed. Emily really believes that, right up until the day in the second week of December when she arrives at the office in the pre-dawn darkness to find a James Holt bag and coat lying where they've clearly been dumped, in the middle of her desk. The lights are on in the inner office, and Miranda is seated at her desk, which is covered in photographic prints - the preliminary shots of the setup and outfits for one of the photo layouts to go in the next issue, Emily realizes. Or possibly all of them at once, given the number of photos Miranda has in front of her.

"You're here at last, Emily," Miranda says, without looking up. "I can't imagine what took you so long. I thought you were making a habit of getting in earlier recently." Emily's eyes flick automatically to the wall clock. It's three minutes before six. "I would have found your presence quite useful an hour ago," Miranda continues with soft, deadly menace, and Emily's eyes widen. Exactly how long has Miranda been here already? "However, you weren't here and so I was forced to fend for myself."

"If you'd called me I would have-"

"Spare me your pitiful whining," Miranda says. "Since you're here now, at last, perhaps you might possibly make yourself useful. Or should I call Samantha and request her to get my morning coffee, since my first assistant appears incapable of remembering the most basic of her daily duties?"

"N-no, there's no need for that. I'll be back immediately!" Emily assures her and hastily retraces her steps, stopping only to put away Miranda's coat and bag before she hurries out of the office again. She calls Samantha on her way to the elevator. Samantha sounds half-asleep when she answers the phone. She's much, much more awake by the time Emily finishes speaking to her. Starbucks is just opening up when she gets there. The girl at the counter yawns sleepily as she takes Emily's order. At least there isn't a queue at this hour. In a matter of minutes, Emily is carefully balancing six coffees instead of the usual four as she races back to the office.

The rest of the morning continues in much the same vein as it started. Samantha rushes in the door at 6:45, hair, clothes and make-up looking as though they've been thrown together without their wearer so much as pausing to look in a mirror. Miranda emerges from her office just long enough to suggest acidly that Samantha take herself off to the ladies' room and stay there until she looks at least presentable enough to be in the building. Other people are starting to arrive at work now. A few of them come down the corridor toward Miranda's office with the obvious intention of stopping to talk to Emily about something, but they take one look through the door, their jaws drop, and then they keep going. Emily does not have that luxury. Miranda summons her in to her office every ten minutes, every five - so many times that Emily loses count before the first hour is up. She barely has the time to draw breath, much less sit back and wonder what it all means, what on Earth could have caused Miranda to decide to come to work so many hours before the usual time, and in such a terrifying mood.

At 8:30, Miranda's cell phone rings. She takes one look at the caller display and snatches it up, dispatching Emily from the room with a single look, and closing the door firmly behind her. The phone call goes on for some time. Almost ten minutes. Emily can practically hear the whole of Runway heave a collective sigh of relief for the respite. Eventually, Emily hears Miranda's voice go silent on the other side of the glass, but Miranda doesn't open the door again immediately and, when she finally does so, she doesn't call for Emily for some time. When Emily checks on her, surreptitiously, she discovers that Miranda is once again sitting at her desk and staring at nothing that Emily can see.

Miranda leaves for her first meeting of the day at 9:30 sharp. While she's gone, Emily plays catch-up with all the tasks she usually gets done in the hours before Miranda arrives in the morning, and absolutely does not speculate about what's got into Miranda today, not even when Serena comes down to ask her just exactly that.

Miranda returns just before 11:00, apparently re-invigorated by the cut and thrust of corporate battle because she descends on the office like a soft-spoken, stylish whirlwind. Emily hardly has time enough to turn round between tasks until Miranda leaves again, this time for a lunch appointment with "personal". Again.

Samantha sighs deeply and leans back in her chair. "So, new boyfriend?" she says with a grin.

"I beg your pardon?" says Emily.

"Miranda. Do you think it's a new man that's got her all..." Samantha makes an expressive gesture with her fingers.

"I think I know better than to speculate about Miranda's private life, since I want to keep my job," Emily says in a falsely sweet voice and flashes Samantha a bright, insincere smile as she gathers her coat and purse. "See you after lunch," she adds as she disappears out the door.

Emily stops at the diner on the corner for her usual celery salad. The proprietor realized a while ago that there's a market for that sort of thing this close to the Runway office. The salad is free of dressing and contains mostly celery plus a few other nondescript greens, all of which use up more calories in the act of chewing than they actually contain. It's a lunch of, effectively, negative calories, of which Emily approves wholeheartedly.

Emily is on the ground floor of Elias-Clarke, waiting for the elevator as she returns from her lunch break, when she chances to look over toward the entrance to the building at just the right moment to spot a face she'd hoped never to see again. It's Loo Man, for want of his actual name, the businessman she'd encountered on her way out of the men's rest room the day she'd had the cast taken off her leg. He'd said at the time that he worked at Elias-Clarke and thought he'd seen her in the elevator, and now it looks as though he's going to get to relive that experience - seeing her in the elevator, not the gents' loo - unless Emily makes a run for it right now.

Emily slips around the corner in an instant and comes face to face with the door to the fire stairs. It seems like a good idea to duck inside for a few minutes until the coast is clear, so that's what Emily does. It's not a terribly salubrious location. Not remotely. Unlike the inhabited areas of the building, the stairs are gray and less than completely clean. The surrounding walls are a slightly paler shade of gray, but equally grubby-looking. It doesn't take Emily long to decide that her time would be better spent going up the stairs than waiting around here. She's made her way up several flights of stairs and is just about to embark on the next one when an access door creaks open somewhere above, followed by the clacking of a pair of high heels and then the sound of voices. Emily goes still. Tantalizing snippets of conversation waft down the stairwell.

"-shouldn't come here-"

"-had... needed to-"

"-mustn't-"

"-wanted to make sure-"

"-fine! Really!"

"-tonight-"

"-your voice down!"

Emily's eyes go wide. She knows those voices. Well, she'd know one of them anywhere, at least. And she's pretty sure she recognizes the other one. She bends down to pull of her shoes and then, Jimmy Choos in hand, creeps further up the stairs. The pair above are still talking, but they've lowered their voices and the individual words are harder to make out now. She stops several floors below the other two, stops and waits as the conversation above ceases and then everything goes silent. She can't see them from here and wonders what they're doing, why they haven't exited the stairwell if they have nothing more to say. Emily creeps up a few more stairs, grabs hold of the railing and leans out as far as she can but she still can't quite catch sight of them. A moment later, she hears footsteps and then there's the sound of the door creaking open again. And then nothing.

Emily sits down with a thud on the nearest step. She can't make sense of what she's just heard. She'd thought that Andrea was plotting to take over her job, but there's no need to do that in a stairwell, even if she wanted to make sure that Emily remained unaware that Andrea was in contact with Miranda. And more incomprehensible to Emily than that is that Miranda should agree to go anywhere near the fire stairs, short of the building being on fire, and even then it's hard to envisage. Except that Emily has heard it with her own ears.

Or has she? Maybe she's wrong about the identities of the two women whose conversation she inadvertently listened in on. Maybe. She didn't see them, after all.

It takes Emily a few moments to collect herself, but eventually she puts her shoes back on and makes her way up to the nearest floor, where she waits for the elevator to take her back to Runway - back to calm, sane reality.

Miranda returns from lunch soon after Emily arrives back, and wastes no time in calling Emily into her office.

"Get me the number of my favorite florist," she says without preamble.

"Certainly, Miranda. I'll order your usual hothouse selection immediately."

"No, don't order anything. Just get me the number."

"Right," Emily says without so much as blinking, but cursing silently. She retrieves the information from the contact list and hands it to Miranda on a square of paper in less than thirty seconds. She's just made it back to her desk when Miranda calls her back in.

"And shut the door behind you," Miranda adds.

Oh, Christ, thinks Emily. Miranda never shuts the door when she calls Emily into her office. Not ever. Maybe she saw Emily spying on her in the stairwell - assuming that that was Miranda, of course. But what if she did? That means that this is it. The end of her career as Miranda's assistant, the end of her career at Runway, and the end of her career in the fashion industry. The end of everything! But she doesn't let her panic show on her face. Much. She hopes. She schools her features into at least the semblance of a dignified mask and waits for Miranda to pronounce her fate.

Miranda looks at Emily consideringly for a moment, head tilted to one side just a touch. "As you know, or should know, Emily, next year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest designers of the twentieth century. Christian Dior will be putting on a special show in the New Year as a tribute to their founder. It's going to be one of the most important events in the weeks leading up to Fashion Week, and everyone who's anyone will be attending." Emily opens her mouth but no words come out, which is just as well, because Miranda's still talking. "Immediately following the Dior show, I will be hosting an exclusive and intimate dinner at my home for... some quite important people. I want you to organize it. Yourself. No delegating to Samantha, or anyone else, for that matter."

Emily swallows hard and thankfully finds her voice. "No, Miranda. I mean, yes, Miranda. I mean: I'll get on it right away!"

"This is the list of guests to be invited." Miranda hands her a sheet of paper. Emily glances at it quickly and sees that there are about twenty names on the list. "Sort that out first, and tomorrow we'll discuss the catering."

Emily nods, vigorously, and then tries very, very hard to keep sudden incongruous thoughts of fish bones from sending her into a bout of hysterical laughter. Not fired, but... rewarded. And she has no idea why.

"And Emily?"

"Yes, Miranda."

"Don't let me down." She holds Emily's eyes for a long moment and then: "That's all," Miranda says, and picks up her cell phone.

Not a reward, then, but a test. At least that much makes sense, unlike almost everything else that Miranda's done - or maybe done - today. And Emily will pass that test. Of course she will. She refuses to entertain the possibility of any other outcome.

As Emily resumes her seat she hears Miranda on the phone. It sounds like she's ordering roses. That doesn't make sense, either, but at this point Emily has ceased to be surprised.

~*~

The days pass faster and faster once they hit the second half of December, just as they always do in the lead-up to Christmas. Not that Christmas is a major priority for Emily. She's not going home to her family for the holiday, partly because there is no home or family to go to this year. Her mother and step-father are at the villa out in the middle of nowhere in the south of France, while her father and step-mother are doing their best to break multiple limbs skiing at Cortina. Emily has not the smallest desire to leave New York for such places. And as for her sister, well, the less said about her the better. The last Emily heard of her was a postcard from some South American jungle, where she was, apparently, engaged in the fight to save the rain forest, or the tree monkeys or... the whales, or something. Her handwriting has always been impossible to decipher.

So Emily isn't bothering much with Christmas this year, and, after all, it's not as if she doesn't have enough to do already. The fact that Christmas is coming up doesn't slow down the magazine's production schedule a jot, and it certainly doesn't slow down the magazine's editor. Miranda is in fine form, arriving at the office at her usual time - thank God - and putting in a full working day every day, even as she flits from Christmas party to Christmas gala to Christmas ball in the evenings. She somehow finds the time for Christmas shopping in the midst of it all. Well, she finds the time to send Emily off to do her Christmas shopping for her. Emily gets a range of books, toys, clothes and games for the twins on top of organizing all the corporate gifts Miranda sends to various contacts all over the industry each year. And then there's the Christmas card list, and the donations to certain carefully-selected charitable causes. And all the while Emily is still taking care of all her usual duties and continuing with the arrangements for the dinner after the Dior event due to occur at the end of January.

That's really starting to come together. All the guests have RSVP'd and now Emily knows for sure that she's organizing an 'intimate' dinner for eighteen names that read like a who's who of the fashion world. All but one. The identity of Miranda's own escort for the evening remains undisclosed. Emily wonders about that, but she knows better than to ask. Miranda has approved the menu from the selection that the caterers provided. She's approved the table settings and the flowers and the other tasteful decorative touches to be added to the dining room and to the adjoining large room where the pre-dinner drinks will be served as well. Everything is slotting into place perfectly and right on schedule, and yet Emily remains apprehensive. She can't fuck this up. There's a little part of her brain that still thinks this is not so much a test as a last chance, and that if one single thing goes wrong Miranda will get rid of her and invite Andrea back in her place.

She hasn't seen sight or sound of Andrea since the day she heard - or thought she heard - her talking to Miranda in the stairwell, but some sixth sense tells Emily that Andrea is still not nearly as far away from Runway as she should be, especially considering she was the one who walked away from it all.

A package arrives for Miranda on the morning of the 24th, delivered by special courier. Emily is called down to collect it from the security desk on the ground floor. It's a small box from Jean Vitau. Earrings, Emily guesses, or perhaps a jeweled pin of some sort. Or maybe cufflinks. She's a bit surprised: she sent out all the corporate gifts more than a week ago . She knows she didn't overlook any and, even if she did, Miranda would tell her to rectify the problem, not go to the trouble of ordering something herself. It must be some sort of personal gift, but for whom it is intended remains a mystery to which Emily is pretty sure she's never going to discover the answer.

Samantha wishes Emily a Merry Christmas as she departs the office that afternoon. She's going directly to the airport from work to catch a flight home to Iowa or Indiana or Illinois or somewhere equally benighted that starts with 'I'. Emily offers a perfunctory seasonal greeting in return, and then Samantha is gone and Emily's all alone in the office. Miranda's already been gone for hours, going from her last meeting of the afternoon off to some function or other- she was vague about the exact details. Emily bets that it's something to do with "personal" again, and that she's taken the box from Jean Vitau with her. At six o'clock, Emily shuts down her computer, packs up her belongings and leaves the office for the day. She gets to the elevator without seeing another soul anywhere on the entire floor apart from the cleaners, and it's not as if they count. It turns out to be a harbinger of the day to come.

Emily spends Christmas Day at home with Westwood. Westwood gets his halibut, of course, poached just the way he likes it in cat milk - the low lactose sort, naturally. Emily isn't letting any other sort of milk anywhere near him, not after what happened right after the first and only time she fed him ordinary low-fat milk. She still shudders at the memory of that particular clean-up.

Emily treats herself to Miracle Soup for Christmas dinner. This is a lot like her usual lunchtime salad, except that it's heated up in a pot of hot water and served in a bowl. When she gets to the bottom of the soup bowl Emily vows to break her diet next Christmas, just long enough to have a decent Christmas dinner. And maybe she'll even try out the south of France while she's at it.

It's a relief to be back at work on Boxing Day. The office is like the grave and the perfect environment for getting through the backlog of non-urgent administrative tasks. Miranda is working from home this week. Several times each day Emily calls Miranda to pass on messages and to alert her about any important or unexpected developments on the work front. There aren't many of those.

She goes out to a party with Serena and some of her girlfriends on New Year's Eve. She doesn't remember a great deal of the details afterwards, but she wakes up on New Year's day with a splitting headache, a mouth as dry as sandpaper and what feels like fur growing on her teeth, and company in her bed.

Westwood is not amused about any of it, particularly the intruder in the bedroom. The two of them share a couple of cups of strong, black coffee and a couple of icepacks from the freezer before Emily hustles her out as politely as she can manage. She doesn't make any promises, or even attempt to exchange phone numbers.

Things start to pick up again at Runway after the New Year. Miranda is back at the office on the 2nd of January, and Samantha returns that day, too. There's a stream of people in and out of the office all day, and the phone starts ringing off the hook as it suddenly hits people that the deadline for the next issue is looming and that Miranda is breathing down their necks and demanding everything five minutes ago. Meanwhile, Emily keeps her eye on the arrangements for the Dior dinner. The date gets closer and closer until the days are passing even faster than they did in the lead-up to Christmas, but it still feels sudden to Emily when she wakes up one morning and realizes that the day has arrived.

She checks and re-checks every single detail: the decorators have already been in, accompanied by the florist, the caterers have received their detailed instructions and will be arriving in the afternoon to start setting up, the wine has been ordered and stored at the appropriate temperatures. Everything is in place. It should go perfectly. Emily wishes that she could see it. She sees it in her mind's eye during her journey home from work. She's still seeing it as she digs in her bag for her front door key, and her cell phone rings.

It's Miranda. She must be calling from the Dior event. Emily drops everything - literally drops her key - and answers on the second ring.

"I hope you have something appropriate to wear for the dinner I'm hosting tonight," Miranda says by way of greeting.

Emily's mouth drops open.

"Someone has canceled at the last moment and thrown my numbers out. You're going to have to do as a last minute replacement," Miranda continues. "I repeat: I hope you have something appropriate to wear to dinner."

"I-" Emily's voice catches in her throat. She swallows hard. "Yes, I'm sure I have something that will do very well," she says, already mentally reviewing the contents of her wardrobe. "I'll need to know the name of the person who canceled so that I can change the place cards and so I know who I'll be partnering at dinner," she adds, voice almost steady.

Miranda is silent for a while, for so long, in fact, that Emily starts to think that maybe the connection has dropped out. But then she speaks again: "It was my... dinner partner. I can't host something like this unaided. I'll need you to attend to the guests and ensure their comfort, both before and during the meal. I expect you to give this your all, Emily."

"You can count on me, Miranda. One hundred percent," Emily assures her.

"I sincerely hope so, since that's your job," Miranda says drily. "Roy will call for you in half an hour. See that you're ready to go as soon as he gets there."

"Of course," Emily says, but Miranda's already terminated the call.

Emily scrabbles for her key and makes it in through the front door. Her mind is ahead of her as she races upstairs. She reviews and discards a dozen outfits before she even arrives at her flat, but she already knows in her heart of hearts that only one garment she owns is right for this particular dinner, in a room full of people dressed up to the nines in honor of Christian Dior.

The Bill Blass dress is still hanging on the back of the bedroom door, even after all these weeks. Somehow Emily hasn't been able to bear to put it away, even though she feels as though it's constantly mocking her. She doesn't think about that too hard right now, though. She doesn't have time. After a lightning fast shower, she slips the dress on - it gets easier with every attempt - and digs out the shoes she chose to go with it. She's operating almost on automatic as she applies her make-up and perfume, but then she has to stop and think again about how best to complete the outfit. She never did get around to hunting down exactly the right jewelry to go with the dress. There didn't seem much point in the end. After a moment of indecision, she settles on a pair of long, dangly jet earrings and a delicate matching pendant. She takes a long look at her reflection in the full-length mirror. The dress is as fabulous as always, just right for a function like this one, but the overall effect is just not quite right and she's painfully aware that it's not only the fault of the jewelry. However, it will do. It will have to. Now she only needs one more thing.

Miranda's house is likely to be overheated. It usually is at this time of year. The dress will be fine once she gets there. She'll probably even be grateful for the bare arms and shoulders by the end of the evening. But she needs a coat to go over the top of it until she gets there. Emily owns a number of coats that might do, at a pinch, but in the end she settles for the gunmetal Anna Sui number, trimmed in fur, that Andrea brought back from Paris. She makes the choice none too soon: she's only just put on the coat when Roy texts her to let her know he'll be there in another minute.

The car is just pulling up at the curb when she gets outside. More surprising is the fact that when she opens the car door she discovers Miranda waiting inside, and she's wearing the black velvet Dior opera cloak. Emily smiles in appreciation. Miranda must have looked magnificent. Arriving for the Dior show wearing that, she would have eclipsed everyone else present.

"Pay attention," says Miranda as soon as Emily gets into the car, and she proceeds to outline the name and position of every one of the invited guests, the names of their spouses, whether to be present or not, their interests and work histories - in short, the bare bones of everything important Emily is likely to need to know in order to engage them in conversation and, hopefully, keep them entertained. Emily's head is spinning by the time the car draws up outside Miranda's town house, but she's taken most of the information on board.

Emily gets out first, so she's waiting by the front steps and has a front row seat for the spectacle of Miranda, emerging like a glorious black butterfly from her cocoon. On Miranda, the opera cloak is breathtaking, flaring out just enough at the sides and the back billowing ever so slightly as the breeze catches it and, most especially, with the hood pushed back to reveal her silver hair in perfect contrast against the velvet. A glittering, flower-shaped pin provides the perfect finishing touch. Emily could probably stand here just short of forever, drinking in the sight, but Miranda wastes no time going inside and Emily has no choice but to follow.

Emily feels a pang of disappointment as Miranda stops in the entrance way to take off the cloak. She sees Emily watching her remove the pin and says, "It's the same design as the original, which was created by Mitchel Maer especially to go with this cloak. Of course, he specialized in costume jewelry. This version... isn't costume jewelry." She grimaces slightly, and then narrows her eyes, focusing sharply on what Emily's wearing. "Resorting to cast-offs, Emily?" she inquires.

"Uh, well-" Emily begins.

"I told Andrea that that she would look acceptable in that. She objected to the fur, of course. I'd thought... but it appears she off-loaded it elsewhere, after all."

Emily bites her lip. "Andrea gave me a few things from, Paris, yes," she admits. "She needed someone to take them off her hands, and so I agreed to help her out." She starts undoing the fastenings down the front of the coat so she has an excuse not to look Miranda in the eye for a moment.

"How very magnanimous of you," Miranda says. She sounds almost amused. This changes a bare second later, though. "What are you doing, wearing that?" she raps out, and Emily looks up from hanging her coat on the hallway stand to find that Miranda is pointing an accusing finger right at her. Right at the Bill Blass dress.

"As I said," Emily replies, aware that she needs to tread very, very carefully, "I helped Andrea out by taking a few things from Paris off her hands. This was one of them."

"I chose that dress for Andrea. She had no right..." Miranda shakes her head, as though forcing herself back into the moment. "The guests will be here at any moment. You'd better be ready." She slips the cloak off her shoulders, and Emily can't help but gasp. Miranda's evening gown is all shimmering silver, catching the light with her every movement and casting even Emily's Bill Blass dress in the shade. The dress is so out there that it's ridiculous. It should look like some sort of glitzy artificial Christmas tree, and on anyone else that would certainly be the effect, but somehow, in some way, Miranda pulls it off and makes it something stunning, instead. In that dress, she's eye-catching in the very best way.

The head caterer walks out of the dining room and into the hallway at that point, and that puts an end to any further conversation on the subject of her clothes, much to Emily's relief. He requests that Miranda check that the pre-dinner drinks and accompanying hors d'oeuvres are to her liking, which Miranda immediately deputizes to Emily since "You know everything about that, don't you, Emily?" Checking through the rest of the menu with the caterer keeps Emily occupied for the next few minutes, and then the doorbell rings and the evening really gets underway.

As it turns out, Emily pulls off her role in the proceedings surprisingly well, especially considering she was dropped in the deep end at the last minute. She makes her way through the entire guest list of Very Important People, smiling and charming them all well enough even to satisfy Miranda. She even chats for a short time with John Galliano himself. She's struck dumb at first, when he pauses partway through a conversation with Miranda to ask her opinion about the appeal of his most recent ready-to-wear collection for the more youthful end of the market. Emily manages to get out some sort of reply that seems to satisfy them both well enough, much to her relief. Of course she'd known that Galliano was on the guest list, but knowing that and having him in the same room, having him strike up a conversation with you, are two very different things.

At dinner she's seated next to James Holt and across from Donna Karan. The conversation grows louder as the wine flows freely. Emily keeps wanting to pinch herself to make sure that this is real. This is the sort of thing that she used to dream of before she came to America and got the job at Runway as Miranda's assistant, but lately she'd really begun to think that maybe it was just never going to happen. She's never been so pleased to be proved wrong.

"-and I thought she was just ignoring me, but it turned out she was deaf!" James says, roaring with laughter, though Emily can't quite work out why that's meant to be funny. Maybe if she'd been paying attention to the rest of the anecdote...

"Reminds me of the crazy white cat my mother used to own," Donna says with an amused smile. "She swore it behaved like that because it was too much of an aristocat to pay mere humans any heed, but it was just like every other white cat with blue eyes. Couldn't hear a thing."

Emily chokes on a mouthful of squid ink risotto. James comes to her rescue immediately, calling over the waiter and having her glass topped up with more champagne. Emily smoothes over the moment by asking if he can give her the inside scoop on the amount of black likely to be featured in his up-coming fall collection. James laughs and waves an admonishing finger at her and tells her she'll have to wait, just like everybody else.

The party breaks up quite late. A few of the guests linger over their brandy, including Galliano. He's in high spirits after the success of the Dior tribute show, which has allowed him to get a head start on all the other designers who are gearing up to show their fall collections at Fashion Week in February. Eventually, though, even Galliano makes his goodbyes and suddenly only Miranda and Emily remain, plus the caterers, who have almost finished clearing things up. It all feels very anti-climactic, which turns out to be kind of ironic when, hardly a minute after Galliano has departed, the front door bursts open and Andrea Sachs stalks in. Her hair is flying every which way and there's a determined light in her eyes.

"We need to talk. Now," she tells Miranda bluntly.

Miranda goes white. Then red. And then she grabs Andrea by the arm and all but drags her into the office at the end of the hall.

Emily remains stands there, gaping, after the office door closes behind them. There's only one thought in her head, going round and round in an endless loop: Andrea never returned Miranda's front door key after she left Runway!

The fast-dropping temperature is what rouses her at last; the front door is still standing wide open. Emily closes it, and sees off the caterers a few minutes later, thanking them for all their hard work that's helped made the evening such a success. All the time the office door remains closed.

Emily should call Roy and ask him to drive her home now. She's knows that's what she should do. And yet, Miranda specifically required her presence here tonight. She should stay to check whether Miranda requires anything more from her before she goes home. She's still dithering when the office door bursts open and Andrea races down the hallway without sparing Emily so much as a glance and out the front door, leaving it wide open once again. Miranda appears a split second later, sees the door open and practically flies down the hallway, only stopping to grab her cloak off the hallway stand, and then she, too, has disappeared out the door.

Emily stands there and just stares at the open door for a second, not sure what she should do. She's not really aware of making the decision, but then she's pulling on her coat and following after Andrea and Miranda. At least she makes sure to shut the door behind her.

It doesn't take much to work out which way they went. There's been a light snowfall at some point in the evening, and it's not hard to spot the disturbance in the soft snow made by their shoes. Emily hears them before she sees them. They're in a small park a little way down the street and they're not making much effort to keep their voices down. Maybe they think they're not close enough to any houses for it to matter, or maybe they're too angry to care. Emily creeps a bit closer but is careful to keep to the shadows behind a small stand of trees.

"I still don't see why you changed your mind!" Miranda is saying. Emily's never heard her raise her voice like this. She's never heard Miranda raise her voice at all.

"Oh, come on, Miranda. Who do you think was ever going to buy that I was supposed to be your friend?" And Emily's never heard Andrea talk to Miranda like this. She's never heard anyone talk to Miranda like this.

"Aren't you?" Miranda says, voice softer now. She sounds... bruised. Almost hurt.

"I'm... I don't know what I am to you. That's part of the problem. I don't know what this was supposed to mean, other than that you wanted to show everyone that you were very definitely not seeing anyone this soon after the break-up of your marriage." Andrea's voice swells with anger as she reaches the end.

"It wasn't about that. Not just about that," Miranda amends.

"Then... what. Tell me."

Miranda is silent.

"Well, I suppose I've got my answer right there," Andrea says bitterly. "See you around, Miranda. Or, then again, maybe not." And then she's off again, moving as quickly as possible across the snow-covered ground to the sidewalk.

Miranda turns to go in pursuit, but she's barely gone more than a couple of steps when the hem of her cloak catches on a low-lying, snow-covered bush. Miranda pulls at it impatiently, but that only seems to snag it further. Miranda considers the cloak for a second, then she looks down the street, just in time to see Andrea disappear around the corner. That decides her. Miranda drops the cloak and runs.

Emily catches her breath, sure that Miranda's going to slip over on an icy patch. It's hard enough to run in heels like that even when it hasn't been snowing. But Miranda somehow makes it down to the corner without mishap and then she, too, disappears out of Emily's sight. Emily stands there, stunned. It seems to be the night for it.

The beautiful Dior opera cloak is still lying where Miranda discarded it. Emily walks over and carefully dislodges it from the bush. She's relieved to discover that it hasn't been torn. She folds it over her arm and sets off down the street in the direction in which the other two went. Miranda is bound to worry about the cloak once she comes to her senses. She'll come back to retrieve it, for sure. How could she not? And Emily will have it ready and waiting for her, because it's her job to follow Miranda around and pick up after her. Or, better yet, she could find Miranda and return the cloak before Miranda has a chance to come looking for it. Emily could follow them now. They probably haven't got far. She can just take a look around the corner, in any case, and if they're still arguing she doesn't have to let them know she's there, while if they're nowhere to be seen it won't matter. Either way, she can return to Miranda's house and leave the cloak there for her instead.

But they are to be seen. Very much so. Emily turns the corner and goes still at the sight that meets her eyes. Miranda's evening gown shimmers and sparkles in the moonlight, but it's not the most eye-catching aspect of the scene before Emily. Miranda and Andrea aren't arguing anymore. They're not talking at all. It's impossible to carry on a conversation when you're in the middle of a kiss, after all. Miranda's arms are wrapped around Andrea, pulling her close, and Andrea's hands are twined in Miranda's hair, making a thorough mess of the oh-so-carefully styled signature coiffure. Miranda doesn't appear to care. They're oblivious to every single thing but each other.

Emily swallows hard. It's clear that they've done this before. This shouldn't come to her as as much of a shock as it's proving to be. It shouldn't, but it does. She's always kept her eyes so firmly fixed on Miranda's clearly established heterosexuality. It's always been the factor, before every other consideration, that's kept Miranda untouchable and perpetually out of reach. And now... Now Andrea has got this on top of every other one of Emily's most cherished dreams. She hopes that Andrea values this one more than the others. She hopes that she doesn't throw this one away.

Emily turns and leaves before the other two surface long enough to notice that she was ever there at all. She walks down the street, not really aware of which direction she's going in. It takes her a while to realize that Miranda's house is back the other way. It doesn't matter. She walks a bit further, and eventually hails a passing cab. It's only when the taxi drops her off outside her front door that she realizes she's still carrying the cloak. She'll have to return it to Miranda tomorrow. Perhaps she should send it anonymously by mail, to avoid any awkward questions.

It doesn't matter right now. Emily walks through to the bedroom, shrugs off her coat, and pauses before the mirror. She surveys her reflection. The dress still doesn't look right. It still feels like it doesn't belong. She feels like she doesn't belong in it. But as she continues to stare at the dress in the mirror and the pale, hollow-eyed girl wearing it, she suddenly knows what to do. Now it's so incredibly obvious. It's all been leading up to this.

She picks up the cloak from the bed where she left it, unfolds it and slips it over her shoulders, pulls the hood up and over her hair. The satin lining is cool against her bare shoulders. She expects the hem to brush her toes, but it doesn't. It's lying at mid-calf. Just exactly right - just like everything else is, when she lets herself look in the mirror again.

The hood frames her face, the dark fabric emphasizing her pale skin even more than before, and lending her that ethereal waif look she's always striven for and never quite achieved. But even more importantly than that, the cloak itself frames the dress, covering up her lack of proper curves and drawing the eye of the viewer - herself - in another way entirely. The edges of the cloak hang straight down on either side as the dress peeps out from beneath, mysterious and coy, suddenly given context, suddenly making sense.

And then it's easy. Easy to let her hands run over the plush velvet and slide down into the satin interior. Easy to let the cloak spill on to the floor and let herself follow it down so she's lying in a soft, dark pool. Easy, then, to let her fingers run over the tulle at the bodice, to reach behind and unhook what needs to be unhooked. Easy to let her hands slide up and under, to let her fingers find. Easy to push up her hips, easy to find the rhythm, easy to make the sounds she wants to make. Easy to be part of it all at last.

She lies there for who knows how long, letting herself float in the aftermath. She thinks maybe she could lie there forever, half-sleeping and half-awake. It's tempting. But then something hits her in the side of the head, quite hard. Emily opens her eyes to find a pair of blue eyes staring back at her from a fluffy, pure white face. Then Westwood head-butts her again, just to make sure she notices.

Emily strokes a hand over his head and down along his neck. "So, you're deaf. And I'm apparently so blind that I can't even see what's right in front of me. We make quite a pair, don't we?" she says, continuing to stroke him all the while. After a moment, Westwood starts purring. He doesn't do that very often. It sounds like he's swallowed a chainsaw. They're possibly the worst owner and pet in the entire world, and perhaps they deserve each other. Westwood chooses that moment to nip Emily's stroking hand, but he doesn't do it all that hard. It's a warning, Emily realizes abruptly. Cat language for "I've had enough of that right now." Emily leaves off stroking and Westwood doesn't nip her a second time. Perhaps there's some hope for them after all.

Emily gets to her feet. The dress is a wreck. Nothing that can't be fixed with careful dry-cleaning, but she's glad that no one's around to ask how it got that way. She slips it carefully back on its hanger and returns it to the hook on the back of the door. Then she retrieves the cloak from the floor. She's intending to fold it up, in readiness to be mailed back to Miranda, but somehow it ends up on the hanger with the Bill Blass dress instead. Just as when she was wearing it, the dress is transformed by the addition of the cloak. Emily no longer feels as though it is mocking her. She stands there and looks at it for a long moment.

Maybe she'll return the cloak to Miranda; maybe she won't. Regardless of what she ends up doing, she'll leave it where it is for now. It looks right, hanging on the back of her door with the dress - Andy's dress - nestled within its folds, in its rightful place.