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After Eight

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Gary had felt a gentle hand on his shoulder as he was fumbling around with his jacket. “Thanks for defending my honour back there,” Miranda said with a shy smile. “You didn’t have to do that.”

"Don’t be silly," he said, feeling sheepish. "Any friend would have done the same. Hey, all I ask is that you let me help with the food next time, yeah?"

Miranda had gasped in mock horror. “Oi, don’t knock M&S!” she broke into a grin and they giggled before hugging goodbye. He’d found himself lingering for a second before quickly letting go, acutely aware that Mike and Stevie were still there.

It had been an easy decision in the end. He wasn’t sure where he and Rose were going anyway, and if she was going to talk like that about his best friend, well… Still, it stung to arrive with a girlfriend and now be leaving alone.

He brushed some stray soap suds from his ear as he and Stevie made their way downstairs through the shop. Penny had been sent home earlier - she’d passed out while making foam angels and had to be revived with some strong coffee and a biscuit. He and Stevie had made a cursory attempt at helping Miranda clean up the kitchen, but Stevie had been shooting him hints and they soon decided to make an exit.

"So Miranda and Mike are pretty serious, huh?" Gary asked, instantly regretting his question.

"Oh dear," said Stevie with a knowing tone in her voice. "See, I knew this would happen."

"What?"

"Jealous, are we?"

"Of course not."

"You so DO still want it to be on," she muttered under her breath, before whacking him across the upper arm. "Why do you only ever realise you have feelings for her when you can’t have her?"

He winced. She was surprisingly strong, but her words had struck a deeper nerve. “What are you talking about?” he hissed through gritted teeth. He wondered how soundproof the flat was.

"What am I talking about?" Stevie looked incredulous. "You should have seen your face when Mi– "

"You know what, forget it," Gary interrupted. He rubbed his temples, frustrated at how obvious that had been. Great, who else had noticed?

Stevie rolled her eyes and took a calming breath. “It was nice of you standing up for her you know,” she said softly. “And I’m sorry about you and Rose. Are you going to be okay?” she genuinely looked concerned now, although he wasn’t sure if it was out of sympathy or pity.

Gary sighed and shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’ll be fine,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s for the best.” He managed a weak smile before nudging her on the shoulder. “Anyway, shouldn’t you be with your traffic warden boyfriend?” he teased.

"He had to go," she replied curtly. "Something about his cat being hungry." Their eyes met and they snickered quietly.

Stevie checked the lock on the shop door as they stepped onto the street. “Just do me a favour okay?” she asked as she got into her car, her words forming clouds in the chilly night air. “Don’t forget how you’re feeling right now.”

Gary had bewilderedly agreed before waving her off and walking back towards the restaurant.

For a long time, he hadn’t allowed himself to think of him and Miranda being more than friends. Their last proper attempt at dating had ended disastrously, and he refused to risk almost destroying their friendship again. It was better to be just friends. Purely platonic.

Still, seeing her with Mike had been doing his head in, but even he hadn’t been prepared for tonight. As he’d watched Mike tell Miranda that he loved her, those long suppressed feelings all came roaring back and threatened to boil over. He’d seen the delight in Miranda’s smile, but in that moment, he only felt jealousy and regret as he wondered if he’d lost her for good this time. Quirky. He’d never been able to say those three words to anyone, and yet they came so easily and sincerely from Mike. Before he knew it, he’d found himself wondering if it could have been him and Miranda having the foam fight.

He hated to admit it, but Miranda and Mike did make a sweet couple. Okay, maybe Mike was a little boring – but he embraced all of Miranda’s oddities and truly liked her for who she was. Loved her for who she was. And he wasn’t afraid of things like commitment and feelings. She deserves someone like that. She deserves to move on if I can’t give her that.

And most importantly, Miranda’s happy, he remimded himself. She’d assured him of that at Stevie’s birthday party a few weeks earlier, not that he’d needed her word for it. He’d seen the warmth and affection in her eyes when Mike had showed up that night, her knight in shining armour. And now Mike loves her. A tiny part of him notes that Miranda didn’t say it back, but he quickly squashes that particular thought.

I’m happy for them, he repeated to himself as he unlocked the restaurant door, ignoring the gnawing inside of him.

Chapter Text

“There we go.” Mike handed Miranda a mug of tea and pressed a kiss to her forehead as she took a sip. Two sugars and milk, just the way she liked it. He’d been staying over whenever he could, and even though it had only been a few weeks, they had already established a Saturday routine of lazy drawn-out breakfasts that stretched into lunch. It was never brunch, for that meant skipping either breakfast or lunch, and that would be sacrilege.

While it might have seemed mundane to others, Miranda savoured each domestic moment shared with him with relish. After her heartache over Gary, a relationship that progressed with relative ease was a most effective tonic. No romantic milestone was taken for granted, and when it came to milestones, they had passed a significant one last night. (And no, she wasn't referring to that one -  minds out of the gutter please.)

Mike, her beautiful sweet Marple, had told her he loved her. It may have been in the midst of a meltdown, but she had been fully herself and he still loved her the way she was. Her heart had bloomed upon hearing the words she'd yearned for, and she couldn’t have asked for more.

So why couldn’t she say it back?

The realisation that she was unable to return the sentiment yet had been haunting her since. And she did not know it yet, but the seeds of another revelation were being sown.

She had successfully suppressed the most mortifying moments of the dinner party, but fragments of the evening were still racing through her mind, replaying themselves until she had scrutinised every moment to oblivion.

Fourteen hours earlier...

 “Foam fight!”

Mike swatted some foam at Miranda while her back was turned. “Not fair!” she cried, scooping up a handful of suds and flinging them back in his direction. He ducked behind the kitchen counter, and Gary, who was caught in the crossfire, copped a face full of bubbles.

“Brilliant,” she heard him mumble.

At the end of the evening, Stevie and an increasingly sullen Gary hung back to help clean up the kitchen. A less obliging Penny was bundled into a cab with an espresso.  “I am, call I what, sompletely cober,” she’d slurred. With luck, she wouldn’t remember the night at all.

Mike wiped up the last of the foam around the sink and put his arm around Miranda. “Well, I think that went rather well,” he said cheerfully, before pulling her towards him and planting a kiss on her cheek.

“It did for some,” Gary muttered under his breath.

“Look at the time!” Stevie interjected with alarm. “Why, it’s almost nine-thirty... Gary, you said you’d give me a lift home, remember? We’d best be taking our leave,” she declared, grabbing Gary by his sleeve and dragging him towards the door.

“What?!” he protested. “But your car is outsi-“

Outside the mechanics, I know. Bloody hybrids. It’s not easy being an eco-warrior, you know.”

As coats and bags were gathered, Stevie squeezed Miranda’s shoulders and yanked her down to her own height. “You’re welcome!” she’d whispered. Miranda could only hug her back, grateful for her friend’s intervention. Mike and Gary managed to exchange civil goodbyes, and she thanked him for standing up for her. She neglected to mention the blob of foam that remained on his ear, because she decided it was rather endearing.

After Stevie and Gary had left, she thought she heard them arguing outside, but they were gone before she could be sure.

***

Each time her thoughts returned to Gary this morning, she remembered his breakup with Rose with a growing sense of guilt. A tiny part of her was glad, and that only made her feel worse.

As Mike pottered around the kitchen cracking eggs and foraging through the fridge, she contemplated texting Gary and checking in with him. When she picked up her phone, there was a message from her mother. dREADFUL HANGOOVER. NOT FUN1! SEND HELP.

She typed out a message to Gary, but as her thumb hovered over the send button, she hesitated. Perhaps it’s too impersonal. I’ll mention it in person. What if I make it worse? She sighed and deleted the text with a heavy heart.

It was difficult to admit, but a distance had crept into their friendship lately. It was hardly unexpected with them seeing new people, but it unsettled her all the same. When she’d hugged him goodbye last night, his embrace was warm and familiar, and she’d been left longing for their friendship from a simpler time, if such a time had ever existed. Mike had been a pleasant distraction when Gary was with Rose, but now that Rose was gone and Mike was drawing ever closer, the delicate balance of their friendship had become more precarious than ever.

She was jolted out of her brooding by Mike, who joined on her on the sofa.

 “You looked a million miles away there,” he said, settling down next to her, their knees touching. He set down two identical plates. “I made use of the leftovers. It’s penis pasta frittata, I’m afraid,” he said sheepishly.

 She burst out laughing before taking a bite. “Not bad. It’s certainly better than what our guests had,” she said, cringing at the memory. Her eye was drawn to the ceiling, where a stubborn piece of crepe remained. “Will your dad be alright? He’s going to hate me forever now,” she lamented.

“Oh, don’t worry about him. Dad’s a tough cookie, he’ll get over it,” he reassured her. “What about your mum?”

“Please. Getting drunk and insulting everyone is a typical Friday night for her.”

They were tucking into their food when Mike broached the subject she was dreading.

“So I didn’t know you and Gary had a thing,” he teased. “Were you ever going to tell me?”

Miranda knew he was trying to be jovial, but there was tension there too. She gulped down a mouthful of tea and played with her cup. “I'm sorry. I didn't want you to find out like that." Bloody Stevie and mum couldn't keep their mouths shut. “Are you upset?”

“It’s fine,” he said. “I just wasn’t expecting that conversation over dinner is all.” He cocked his head. “How long have you guys known each other anyway?” he asked.

“Well, we met at uni, so that would be... five years, seeing as I’m in my twenties, of course,” she said with a grin. “After graduation he went off travelling and I didn't see him for ages. He came back a few years ago and started working at the restaurant, around the time Stevie and I opened the shop.” She paused, unsure of how deep she should go into their murky history. “We ended up going on a few dates to see if anything could happen... it didn’t work out.”

“How long did it go on for? Stevie said you guys were on and off.”

She squirmed in her seat. Damn, she’d forgotten he was a journalist. “I don’t know. A while, I guess,” she admitted, not knowing the answer herself. Had it started from when she’d first run into him at the restaurant, or from their “date” shortly after? Was it from when Stevie and Clive sent them on their ill-fated evening at Wilson’s? Did it go back to when he’d first left Surrey and she’d wondered whether she'd ever see him again?

“It sounds complicated,” he said.

“No! I mean it was on and off, but it’s not like we were actually together most of the time. It was literally two or three dates. Nothing came of it. It all went tits up and we decided we were better off as friends.” She winced at her choice of words. Her face warmed and she tried to turn away surreptitiously.

He gave her an inquiring look. "Do you wish it had worked out?"

"No, of course not,” she snapped. It came out harsher than she intended. She composed herself and looked him in the eye. “He’s a friend,” she said firmly.

He nodded, seemingly satisfied with her answers. “Okay.”

Her agitation was soothed when she saw the earnest devotion in his eyes. “Mike, you’ve made me happier than I’ve been in a long time.”

His lips grew into a smile and he took her hand. “Likewise,” he murmured. “You know what I said last night… I know it hasn’t been long, but I meant every word.”

She laced their fingers together in response. “I know you did,” she said, resting her head on his shoulder. She’d been gradually falling for him, and a glimmer of a future she’d never expected had been emerging. It was there, beckoning, if she wanted it.  “It meant a lot to me too.”

It wasn’t what he’d wanted to hear, but she hoped it was enough for the present. It’ll come with time, she reassured herself. How could it not?