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Miranda Blake sighed & gently towel-dried her wet hair as she took the 1st few steps out of her new bathroom, the door she'd opened to get out allowing the billowing, perfumed air from her shower onto her landing. It was Sunday, it was the 1 day a week that she allowed herself to just be, without thinking about the various obligations on her time & her mind & she was enjoying every minute. She'd gotten up very late for her, 11:00am, she'd slept in until & had proceeded to take a very leisurely shower, using her favourite & as it happened, most wonderfully scented shower gel & shampoo & was just thinking about which movie she could watch & whether she could put off doing her weekly shop for another day when she heard a thump outside her front door. She froze. That wasn’t a good sign. Her peaceful morning abruptly derailed, she waited by her banister, watching the tall blurred shape of whoever was on her doorstep moving something around their feet & then straighten, through the frosted window pane. Disappointedly lowering the towel from her hair, she spread it gently over the railing in front of her & combed her fingers lightly through her blonde hair & her blue eyes was still trained on the smoky glass set in her front door, she padded silently down the stairs, one hand grazing the banister as she pulled her robe tighter around her with the other. Then came the sound she'd been dreading, the noise that meant she wouldn’t be getting to watch her favourite film or avoid thinking about the outside world for another couple of hours. Whoever was on the other side of her front door had knocked, not timidly but there was definitely a certain reticence to the sound, as if the unknown person wasn’t sure they should be there. Flicking at a glance in her mirror which was in the hallway, checking that she at least looked semi-presentable, she gathered her robe around her neck out of habit & slid back the lock, pulling the door open cautiously.

On her doorstep, looking distinctly uncomfortable & ruffled, was Max Winter. Frowning, she peered around her door & wished she'd answered his knock in more than her admittedly thick but not particularly sensible robe. Max, for his part, didn’t seem any happier upon seeing her open the door, just resigned, which once she might have reacted to but couldn’t work up the energy to banter while stood in this predicament. Thankfully, she didn’t catch the way his eyes lingered over the hand at her throat or on the curve of her hips which was made evident by the tie at her waist.

"Max?" She questioned instead, moving slightly further around her door & for the 1st time taking in the suitcase & assorted plastic bags littered around his feet. She tried not to react but felt both her eyebrows rise a little anyway, before shifting her gaze back to her compañero.

“Carmen chucked me out." He offered as an explanation, motioning towards the bags & looking, Miranda couldn't help thinking, a little bit forlorn. She pressed her lips together, knowing what he hadn’t asked was more important than what he had voiced. Her current thoughts regarding Max & her best friend’s relationship weren’t favourable. She took a swift breath & stepped back, opening the door slightly.

"You'd better come then." She said as letting him into her apartment despite the warning in her own mind that it wasn’t a good idea. Determined to get a handle on the different emotions which now is at play inside of her, she held the door open & waited for Max as he lugged his assorted of baggage inside her home, a stubborn silence surrounding him that told her she would have to open conversation again once he'd finished. As the last bag made it over the threshold of her doorstep & was deposited at the bottom of her stairs, Miranda was eventually forced to ask the pressing question. The awkward silence wasn’t like them at all. "Why did Carmen?" She drifted off as his eyes darted away from hers, telling her without words that she most likely didn’t want to know the answer to that question. Despite her not finishing, he seemed to want to answer & almost forced himself around to face her.

"I was trying to tell her that I loved her & I said someone else's name." His voice was very quiet, trying to soften the blow perhaps & yet Miranda still flinched before she folded her arms around her rapidly cooling body, she pushed the door closed to give her face a second to become unreadable & banish her thoughts from her blue irises, before turning back to her compañero, though she didn’t meet his steady gaze. She didn't trust herself enough to look him straight in his sad blue eyes.

"What did Carmen say?" She managed to speak around the sizeable lump in her throat, though her voice shook audibly. Again, she winced, this time at the show of weakness on her part.

"That she knew all along. That we were kidding ourselves." His tone was low & flat but she could still detect a faint trace of the bitterness she knew so well from her own experience.

"Oh." She answered, though there was more confusion than understanding in the sound. Miranda couldn't work out what the undertone was here, something serious was just under the surface & she couldn't figure out what she was missing. Max didn't seem ready to give her an answer yet either, despite Miranda being aware he had to know she'd figured out there was something he wasn't saying.

"She didn't want me in the apartment anymore which was fair enough but I don't have anywhere else I can go. Don't make me ask Miranda." It took a moment of concentration but she managed not to betray the tug his words caused within her. As the conflicting emotions began to storm inside her as she finally risked a tiny glance up into his doe blue eyes & saw desperation mixed with something much warmer which confused her even more. Darting her own gaze away, she slipped past his imposing presence into her living room; it was strange, she hadn't felt so aware of him in quite a while, now the once-familiar sense of him was rapidly overcoming her mind. She heard him follow her through the doorway, wishing almost that he hadn't. It was harder to think clearly when he was close.

"Look, Max," she managed to say after a few moments, putting a lot of effort into finding her sensible side again, "You can stay for a few days but" She didn't want to refuse but what choice did she have?

"But?" He cut in sharply. "Oh, don't worry Miranda, I'll stay out of your way." If his voice had been any harsher, she would’ve said he'd spat that at her but even when he was angry & she acknowledged he had a right to be, he still somehow made it sound better, like it was his fault as well, not just hers. She heard his feet scuff her floor, turning to head for the stairs probably, his expression likely every bit as bitter as his voice. Hurriedly, she called after him, turning to face him at last. She owed him an explanation, one she knew she couldn’t give, for being so reluctant. It wasn't his fault; it was hers.

"Max, it's not like that. I just, I don't do the entertaining thing much." It was a limp apology & a worse explanation but the best she could do for the moment. Despite that, it seemed to restore some of his humanity & his voice softened slightly as he turned back to her.

"Like I said, I'll stay out of your way." That was a slight improvement but she could tell he was still angry with her; she knew he held that right, was entitled to it but wasn't sure that was the reason he was glaring a little. Letting out an inaudible sigh, she let him go with a nod & padded out of sight of the door, to her mobile phone which was on top off the coffee table.

"The spare bedroom is upstairs, 1st door on the left." She lifted her voice so he could hear her then listened for him picking up all of his bags & starting up her stairs, no doubt with a dark expression her feeble words had done nothing to lift. Taking a slow breath, she bent slightly to pick up her mobile phone & dialled a number she knew so well by now, then slipped the earpiece under her still damp hair so she could listen. After a lot of waiting, far too much for it not to mean something, her friend picked up.

“Carmen Lorenzo speaking." That voice, which was usually so bubbly & alive, sounded incredibly irritated & Miranda practically recoiled from it before answering, in a much more cheerful voice than she had previously thought she was capable of faking.

"Carmen, it's Miranda." There was an awkward beat of silence as she waited for a reply, probably Carmen deciding what reaction to choose.

"Oh hi. Miranda. Great to hear from you." The rancour that dripped from her friend’s voice sent a freezing cold shiver down Miranda’s spine as it wasn't like Carmen at all & did a good job preparing her for what would likely turn out to be a very unpleasant conversation.

"Carmen, what's going on?" Miranda questioned, hunching her shoulders, making sure she couldn’t be seen from the door.

"I'm sure Max will explain it when he gets there, if he's not arrived already." Thinking quickly, Miranda decided not to tell Carmen that her compañero was already there, feeling sure that it would do more harm than good. Instead, Miranda played as innocent as possible in the hopes she would draw more answers from her friend than she had from Max. If indeed she wanted to hear the answers.

"Why, what's happened?" Miranda bluffed; her concern real but better conveyed than it might have ordinarily been.

"Like I said, he can explain." There was something going on here; something that was making her friend not just hostile to Max but her as well & she was determined to find out what it was.

"No, come on Carmen, what's wrong?" The question hung in the air around her, both desperate to be answered & ignored at the same time.

"We're finished Miranda. Over. He's not coming back here again." There was a disturbing finality to her friend’s tone that she fought against half of her rejoicing over while the other half of her was shot through with worry.

"Why?" She let the concern show through in her voice as she gripped the phone a little tighter.

"He doesn't love me, Miranda. He never did." Miranda felt a twist of guilt choke her for a second, as she wondered who could’ve captivated Max so completely that he'd even given his feelings away from her friend.

"What are you talking about?" Miranda said as she tried to keep her own voice low but she was also trying to swallow the emotion which was rising up in her own throat.

"Why did he say someone else's name, then? He was saying 'I love you' & it wasn't to me!" Miranda was so confused about how she was feeling, she was trying to take into account her friend's feelings without letting her own cloud the issue, she nimbly avoided asking the one question that would probably solve her burning throat & concentrated on Carmen’s slightly shaking voice.

"Carmen, did you talk to Max about it before you packed him off around here? It might just have been a stupid mistake; you know he doesn't always say the right thing."

"It wasn't a mistake." Carmen ground out from between what Miranda suspected were tightly clenched teeth. "I've known for a while it's not me that he really cares about. We had a good time & I enjoyed every second we had together but I knew, I knew this would happen eventually."

"Knew what would happen? Carmen, you're not making sense." She knew she was purposefully clouding the issue, not wanting to understand because while Max being with her friend had been hard enough, seeing him with someone else was just too difficult to bear. But it seemed her sister had finally lost patience with her.

"It's you, Miranda! He's in love with you!" Her friend’s words attacked Miranda’s mind, stealing her sensibility & freezing her entire body. She couldn't process the idea for a minute. " Miranda?" Carmen s voice over the phone intruded on her thoughts & she shook herself, trying to find an appropriate response which her ragged & very audible breathing certainly wasn't.

"Carmen, how on earth can you know that?" Miranda asked shakily, unable to find anything else to say.

"I told him. He didn't deny it." The younger brunette felt her breath hitch at her friend’s words but tried not to show how much the words meant; how much they shouldn't have meant.

"Carmen, maybe he was just confused, I'm sure”

"He wasn't confused Miranda. I should have seen it really. Anyway, he's bound to be round there soon." Panicking, she remembered the man probably slumped on her spare bed upstairs; she understood now the undercurrent that had flowed from him in their previous conversation. He blamed her & he blamed himself for the dissolution of a relationship he had been happy in, yet she sensed part of him was relieved the deception with himself & the people around him was finally over. He was glad to be here, with her, though he wasn't about to voice the thought yet. Miranda shook her head, so confused she wasn't sure if she just wanted that to be true or if it actually was.

"Why the hell did you send him around here?" Even to her own ears, her voice was strained & while she expected hostility from Carmen at the tone, she was surprised after a few words.

"Well, where would you have him go? Anyway," Carmen's voice paused & Miranda heard her sigh over the phone, before continuing in a somewhat gentler tone, "I think you two need to talk, properly, not your usual 'Yeah, I'm fine' crap. He might be the one who can help you Miranda, he'd be a good thing for you & don't bother telling me he means nothing; I know you'd be lying." The insight her friend showed into her own heart let alone Max’s was a surprise, an uncomfortable thought because naturally, Miranda didn’t like anyone getting that close but, in another way, it was wonderful that even though she doubted Carmen, did understand at least part of her.

" Carmen, if there's any chance you two could sort this”

"No, there isn't. I can't be with someone while he's in love with someone else; it's not fair on either of us. Just talk to him Miranda, it can't do any harm." Miranda was about to point out it could do a lot of harm when she heard Max coming back down the stairs & she knew she had to get off the phone. She didn't want Carmen to know she'd been not lying but not telling the truth.

"I don't know about that. I've got to go; I'll call you later." Miranda hurriedly replied, trying to lower her voice without Carmen realising she was doing so, turning even further away from the sounds Max made as he moved down her stairs, in the hopes she would be able to place the mobile phone down out of sight before he came in. She had thought he'd stay in his room & fume for a little while before resurfacing; now she wasn't prepared. She waited for her friend to say goodbye then hung up, slipping the phone onto the nearby chair just as she heard him reach the door.

“That Carmen?" A familiar voice asked, all traces of his temper from earlier evaporated & the soothing tone was more than enough to calm her as well. She felt her uneasiness fade as she whipped around, trying not to look too guilty. Unconsciously, she'd already made the decision not to tell him she knew what he'd said; she wasn't ready for the discussion that would follow & wouldn’t be able to stand the awkwardness inevitable afterwards. Especially not if he was going to be living here while they tried to deal with it.

"Err yeah. She's not in a particularly talkative mood from what I can tell." Miranda replied, her eyes skipping past him as she pulled her robe slightly tighter around her body. She felt so exposed. Even though it was his mistake, his feelings that had been revealed, she still felt so unbearably vulnerable. Probably a consequence of Carmen's cutting comments early, though her robe, which was a far cry from her usual formal attire, wasn't helping. She could feel Max’s eyes burning into her & she avoided returning the look, instead starting forward & moving around him to go upstairs & get changed.

"Did she tell you” Max began but Miranda knew him well enough to know exactly what he was about to ask &, like she'd already concluded, she wasn't ready.

"No." Her voice was low but firm. Resolute. To tell him he was not to ask that again. "She was pretty upset. She didn't really want to talk to me." The hurt from not being to convince her friend to confide in her still stung, drawing honesty that she realised a second after speaking was a massive mistake. It would only make him try & explain which was what she had determined he would not do, so she cut across him again.

"Well, that might be”

"I'm going to do the food shopping after I change, is there anything you want?" It had been a flash of inspiration, getting away from Max under a suitable explanation that would hopefully allow her to be out for as long as she needed & give her time to process & distance herself but if her perception wasn't altered by her own hopes, she could have sworn she saw a flash of disappointment on her compañero's face as she spoke.

"No, that's alright. I'll get my stuff." No, she had been right, there was definitely an edge of dissatisfaction to his voice. Again, it tugged at her, drawing a spike of nicety from Miranda, even though she'd been trying to keep as icy as possible.

"If I'm going, Max." The olive-branch made him smile a little & she couldn't help but return the action.

"Alright. Beer?" That almost made her laugh.

"Anything specific?"

"No. Just alcohol." There was a lightness to his expression as he answered, a joke that always provoked the same feeling from her, despite trying for the opposite.

"You are not getting legless under my roof, Mr Winter." Her voice was playfully stern, her eyes beginning to shine.

"Not even a little?" He whined, shoving his hands in his pockets & inclining his head, with all the attitude of a 5-year-old.

"Most certainly not." She returned, folding her arms with a mock-stubborn tilt of her head, sending her slightly curling damp hair falling over her face.

"But Miss Blake!" Max protested childishly & Miranda smiled amusedly in return, unable to keep hold on the urge to laugh. In the back of her mind, she acknowledged they shouldn’t be getting along this well, considering the various emotions as play here; where has all her awkwardness from earlier disappeared to? How did Max always manage to disable her wall defences so very easily?

"That's my final word on the matter. Anything else apart from alcohol?" Miranda enquired, moving past him & pausing at the doorframe with a raised eyebrow.

"Well, if you get the stuff for a curry, stir-fry or a paella. I could cook one night. To say thank you." He shrugged, eyes cautiously searching out hers & she had to concentrate again on suppressing the touched smile at his thoughtful words.

"You don't need to do that, Max. It's only for a few days." She reminded, determined to keep the boundaries for now.

"I want to, though." His voice was so wonderfully honest, so caring & she had to keep a seriously tight hold on her reaction before it could betray how much those words had meant.
There was a flicker of thought in her mind that clarified, just in case it wasn't clear enough already, what a spectacularly bad idea it was to let Max stay, let him do anything for her, because she knew part of her welcomed the closer contact that had been missing virtually since the start of term. She couldn’t bring herself to refuse the determined & gentle look in his eyes though, not when the thought was a kind one & for her benefit.

"Oh alright." She relented, before she felt a spark of mischief light her eyes & she continued with a slight smirk, "You can cook then? I'm not going to be on standby with a fire extinguisher, am I?" Miranda joked, leaning a hand against the wall beside her as she partially turned back to him.

"What exactly are you implying?" He returned, mock-outrage not quite swallowing the sparkle in his blue eyes & his warm smile which was reflected in her own expression.

"Nothing at all. Just that I would like my kitchen still standing by the time you're done." Miranda shot back; her serious expression also belied by the happy light dancing in her bright blue orbs.

"Ha! Funny. Not. Well, you'll be taking all this back when I do cook for you." Max prophesied with a warm natural proud smile. "I'm fully domesticated, you know." He added as he pretending to huff before he leant against the chair back which was behind him.

"We'll see, won't we? I might pick up a fire blanket while I'm out, just in case." Miranda smirked fully then & she caught the narrowing of Max’s blue eyes at the joke but slid away & up her stairs before he could reply. Her heartbeat, she could tell, was slightly elevated & she could barely keep the smile she was dying to wear down. Was its excitement? Happiness? Nerves? She couldn't identify exactly what she was feeling. Slipping into her bedroom, Miranda leant against the door & closed it behind her, taking a deep breath. Max & Carmen were no longer together. Finally, the thought was allowed to register completely & although she knew it was wrong, she couldn’t stop the flash of gladness that went through her at the realisation, making her slightly giddy & her knees feel a little weak.

Shrugging off that uncomfortable thought with her robe, she averted her eyes purposefully from any of the mirrors before yanking a pair of jeans & a dark forest-green top from her wardrobe & getting dressed while looking at herself as little as possible. Brushing on a little, faintly-coloured lip balm, she grabbed her purse & mobile & slid them into her pockets & she looked presentable once more, then briefly ran the hairdryer over her hair. At last, she was feeling confident enough to face the world & more importantly, Max.

***

Gliding down the stairs, she listened for any clue that would tell her where her new lodger was. Hearing the TV on & knowing she hadn't put it on, she summarised he was in her living room. She leant slightly into the doorway & confirmed the suspicion before grabbing her coat off the hook & pulling it on. The stirring of warmth that went through her at the sight of Max sprawled on her sofa, completely relaxed, scared her slightly & if she had not thought it would make her clinically insane, she would have told her body & emotions to behave because feelings like that were simply not appropriate.

"Alright Max, I'm going, see you in a while." She called, doing up a couple of buttons & yanking the tie close around her waist. She heard movement inside the room but didn't think anything of it until she picked up her keys from the table in the hall & turned to the door, only to find Max in front of her.

"D'you mind if I come with?" He asked gently, leaning on the doorframe as she had done. Miranda was tempted because she never enjoyed this necessary chore & his company might make the trip pleasant but if there was one thing she couldn't stand, it was being treated like a porcelain doll even all these weeks after what happened. She hated being pitied. If that was his reason for volunteering, then he would be better staying here. She'd only end up being angry with him & he wouldn't understand why.

"I can manage Max." She replied, with a slight edge to her voice, adjusting the front of her coat & flicking him a look to assess his motives.

"I know. It just might take my mind off things." She could hardly refuse after he said that, so she nodded reluctantly & opened the door for them both, brushing off the twist of her stomach as worry rather than excitement. She heard him crunch over her gravel towards his car & tried not to smile at how natural this seemed.

***

Miranda hadn't realised her hands were shaking slightly until she attempted locking her front door & had several goes before finally fitting the key into the lock, feeling more conscious of Max's eyes on her every second she delayed, which didn’t help her wavering fingers. Irritated with herself, she banished the flashes of pleasure & nerves with a concentrated thought before turning & going over to his car. She went to the passenger’s side door to find that was where Max was stood & he got in & drove away towards the nearest supermarket.

***

They drew up to a set of traffic lights & Miranda let one of her own hands raise a little shakily off the window to rest on his. The action both calmed & excited her, if that were possible & she could feel his gaze laying heavily on her while she tried to find something to say. Then the lights began to change & she had to take her hand away. To her surprise, he left his on her shoulder until they were on a moving road. She was getting used to the comforting weight when he slowly lifted his fingers & brushed a few hairs behind her ear softly then retreated, probably unsure how she would react to such a personal & affectionate gesture. Miranda could feel her heartbeat thumping in her chest & her head, felt a swell of emotion that was so much more than friendly gratitude but for now, that was all she could show. She let her soft smile glide over her mouth in answer to his action & said quietly, with as much happiness as she dared feel.

"Thank you Max." She sensed rather than saw his returning smile but didn't give him chance to say anymore as they were pulling into the supermarket. After turning into a much-searched-for parking space at the supermarket, Miranda could feel the shivers receding, her control returning with it & was thankful. Shooting her compañero a quick smile, now she felt she could without giving too much away, she exited the car & grabbed her keys, slotting them into her back pocket after locking up.

"You got a pound for the trolley?" Max called over the car as normal as ever & she almost laughed in return.

"Nope. I've got a token." She replied, slipping the pound-shaped token off her key ring & holding it up for him as they reached each other's side. He glanced at it & grinned, taking it from her without a word & heading towards the line of linked trolleys waiting by the shop's entrance. Again, Miranda was swamped by an unavoidable feeling of familiarity, as if they had always been doing this. It was wonderfully comforting but dreadful as well, she shouldn't be letting him this close. Especially when Carmen was still connected to him, even if they weren't dating anymore, Miranda still shouldn't be feeling this way so soon but her & Max were good friends or had been & she realised she really wanted that back. She decided to try & keep this as normal as possible & ignored the tingling in her fingertips from where his skin had touched hers in taking the token. She tugged at her coat to settle her mind & strode into the shop, with Max following just behind with a trolley. Knowing he would take her lead; she entered the first isle & began choosing apples.

"Braeburn?" Came Max's voice from behind her & she turned, a bag of apples hanging from one hand, an eyebrow arched in question.

"Yes, problem?" She queried, a light in her eyes that told him she was amused.

"I like 'Pink Ladies'." Max replied, pouting a little, pulling the trolley up next to her as he once more adopted a whine in his voice. Miranda considered turning that remark back on him but decided it probably wasn't appropriate under the circumstances & settled for rolling her eyes & adding 3 of his type of apples to the bag. The action was greeted by a grateful smile & she shook her head in mock-exasperation before placing the apples in the bottom of the trolley & moving on to clementines. They continued in much the same way all around the shop, though it was surprising how similar their tastes were. For most of the meals, she was just adjusting to an extra portion, not changing anything. She also added the ingredients for his curry, after some prompting & a little actual prodding on his part. To her mind's dismay but her heart's delight, she'd squirmed under his fingers & let out a laugh that sounded almost foreign because it had been so long since she'd least heard it. She was sure she looked surprised after she'd realised what she'd done. Max had looked pretty pleased with himself though. All the while, that comforting familiarity she'd felt earlier lingered, the feeling that she could do this forever, that they had been doing this forever, warming her all the way though & easing away her defences. It was a difference that was unnoticeable to her, thankfully, as she would have done everything, she could to reverse it although Max couldn't help but see the change & welcome it. They'd reached the end of the supermarket & were heading towards a till when the sweets stand had caught Max's eye & he'd quite literally dragged Miranda over to have a look for something. It was a little bewildering, the range of different sugary stuff you could buy now. Miranda had never been particularly fond of sweets but apparently Max had a sweet tooth which was why there was a cheesecake nestled comfortably in the top of the trolley, for dessert when Max cooked, so he said, though Miranda had a sneaking suspicion that some would be missing by the end of tonight. "Oh Miranda, what about a gobstopper?" Max asked, waving his hand vaguely at one shelf & Miranda was dragged out of her thoughts. She was a little off-kilter from the whole experience so her next words were not thought about before being spoken; if she hadn't been so relaxed, she would have realised how telling her words were.

"What's a gobstopper?"

"What?" Max spun to face her from the shelves he'd been admiring, clearly a little shocked & maybe a tiny bit amused. "Miss Blake, know what a gobstopper is?" He teased, nudging her lightly with his arm before reaching past her & holding one up. Miranda quickly suppressed the flutter of excitement at his proximity.

"Well, I never did like. Whoa. That's massive!" Miranda exclaimed, staring at the oversized sweet in Max 's hand. She heard him chuckle again & she raised her eyes to his, amusement twisting both their expressions.

"That's the point. Gobstopper." He repeated, holding it out to her. She gingerly took hold of one edge of the packaging & held it out in front of her.

"I can think of a few people who could do with one of these." Miranda laughed, before dropping the confection in their trolley. Max moving next to her so he could speak into her ear & they both moved out of the isle into the clear space before they reached the tills. Miranda glanced up at the comment, ignoring the flutter of pleasure at his breath brushing her neck & face & they both shared a laugh, knowing exactly who the other was thinking of.
"You read my mind Max." Miranda answered, a musical lilt from the laughter in her voice that she not only enjoyed but was sure Max was pleased with as well. Luckily, they found an empty till & began to unpack the heaped food onto the conveyer belt. Together, their efforts were flawless & halved the time it would have taken.

"Ah ha! Curry. Can't forget that." Max tapped the jar of sauce in a satisfied way & placed it ready on the till while Miranda couldn’t resist having one more dig.

"You still have time to back out, Max. For the sake of the kitchen." She tried to apply a light pleading tone but could barely keep her face straight as he levelled his gaze with a challenged look in his eyes.

"I’m cooking, end of." He mock-glowered & went back to unpacking while Miranda gave in to her smile & went past the checkout girl to begin packing up the food, sharing a look of exasperation with the young woman that was all sisterly camaraderie.

"It's always a blessing & a curse when they cook, isn't it? My husband always manages to burn something when he's in the kitchen but the rest tastes great." The woman commented idly, passing food across the barcode reader automatically without thought. The implication of the words didn't hit Miranda until a couple of seconds later, after she'd already smile in agreement. When she did realise, she froze, completely unsure what to do. Before she could say anything, Max had interjecting, naturally enough,

"We're not married." Why was she suddenly flooded with disappointment?

"Well, you should be. Smashing couple like you, what have you got to lose? Sooner the better, I say; after all, time is on your side." The woman replied with barely a flicker of her expression, clearly not bothered by her mistake & Miranda tried to assume the same attitude, hoping Max hadn’t seen her conflicting emotions just then however she couldn’t keep back the flush at such an obvious leading remark & by the way Max was now focussed on the food still in the trolley, she would guess he felt the same way. The rest of the unloading & packing was done in silence, both Max & Miranda contemplating why this woman, who didn't know them, thought they would make a good couple. Neither willing to admit just yet they agreed with her.

"Right, that's 76.85€ please." The silence was broken & both the other two went for their wallet & purse as they moved towards the card machine, nearly bumping into each other in the process, sending Miranda’s pulse skyrocketing again.

"Miranda, I can get this, most of that food is for me anyway." Max waved at the bagged-up groceries & slid out a card but Miranda shook her head & knocked him lightly out of the way with a teasing smile.

"Don't kid yourself. My appetite is just as good as yours. I'll get it." She gave him a stern look & slipped her card into the machine, turning her back on him with a satisfied nod. She caught the cashier sharing a look with Max as she entered her PIN & turned her head in time to raise an eyebrow at him. He grinned & moved past her, skimming her back slightly because of the lack of space & sending shivers running all over her. She had to bite her lip a minute to hide the hitch in her breath.

"Any cashback?" The young woman asked & Miranda shook her head, only just regaining enough breath to speak. The girl grinned knowingly at her as she tapped a few keys & then turned to grab the rapidly printing receipt which she handed to Miranda once she'd torn it off & Miranda put it, along with her card, back in her purse. "Have a nice evening." The woman offered as Max began to push the trolley away & Miranda took a place at his side. The older woman knew there was a definitely intended double-entendre in those words but didn't bother to react, in the hopes Max hadn't noticed & the cashier would assume Miranda hadn't either. Flashing a smile at the younger woman, they walked away & out into the car park.

***

Together, as naturally as if they'd done it 1000 times before, they unloaded into the car & Max wheeled he trolley back while Miranda got in & got the engine going with barely a word spoken but far too many easy smiles exchanged. Just as she was wondering whether to put the radio on, Max opened his door & got in, handing her the token at the same time. She smiled her thanks & reattached the token to her keys before Max pulling out of the car park & they heading back to her house. With a quick glance at the car's clock, she realised that trip had taken twice as long as it usually did but she found to her great surprise, she didn't care. She'd enjoyed it.

"So, what are we eating when we get home?" Max asked cheerfully & Miranda smiled again, knowing the poor man had probably gotten his appetite back being around all that food & was now quite hungry. She also ignored his use of the word 'home' knowing she'd read too far into the implications.

"It's paella." Miranda answered, peering in both directions at a junction before moving smoothly onto the right road.

"Good, I really feel like paella tonight." Max agreed contentedly, leaning back in his seat, tiredness overcoming him for a minute & Miranda couldn’t shut off the guilt rising within her anymore, despite the warnings in her mind.

" Max, look, you can stay as long as you need to, alright? I don't mind." Miranda told him quietly, her eyes ahead of her though once again she could feel his on her.

"Thanks Miranda." Max replied, his words touchingly heartfelt & she knew she'd done the right thing. It wasn't right to let her insecurities go before doing the best thing for him. Miranda nodded, in reply to him & in confirmation of her thoughts, then let a comfortable silence fall for a little while, though she knew there were many things both of them wanted to say to fill it. Then Max began to speak again, "I'm sorry, I don't want to be in the way but”

"It's alright Max. Really." Miranda added, throwing him a smile as she drove on & he seemed satisfied with that. Her mind in a whirl of unanswered questions, she was pulling into her own drive far sooner than she expected. Trying to ignore the urge to reassure him further than was needed, she got out & went to unlock the front door before retrieving some groceries from the back of his car, brushing Max's shoulder as she did so. Now, even the flash of emotion from the touch was beginning to seem familiar.

 

***

They unloaded & Miranda packed it all away while Max watched, trying to memorise where everything went & which cupboards he would need tonight rather than the shape of Miranda's mouth, the shade of her eyes, the line of her jaw, the fall of her hair, as if he didn't already have most of that committed to memory already. Finally, she had a moment to appreciate her situation. Though she felt incredibly guilty for admitting it, Carmen had in fact done her a huge favour in sending Max around to her. They hadn't gotten along this well personally in weeks, possibly months & it had done more for her healing process than she'd thought anything could. She'd actually been out & not worried about her scar or her surroundings at all the whole time. For the first time, she'd completely let go of her defences, her worries, all of it, she'd been practically back to normal & she would not stop herself being glad over that. She would also not try & pretend it had less to do with her & everything to do with Max however that was where her concern rose from. Up until this morning, this man had been living with her friend, had been in what Miranda had considered to be a successful relationship with Carmen & yet both he & Carmen now believed he had been in love with Miranda the entire time. How could that be right? How could it be true? Moreover, was it right that he should be here, with her, helping her & she enjoying the company, when by association, she had done a terrible thing to her friend? Sighing, she realised she had little choice in the matter. She'd already told Max he could stay as long as he needed & as long as he was here & acting as natural as this afternoon had been, Miranda knew she had no control over how she felt; she could regulate her reactions but not the underlying emotions. So, despite her own guilt, there was nothing she could do. She would not shove Max away again, not now they'd reconnected, because she wouldn't be able to tell him why & he didn't deserve that; she would just have to be careful how close she let him get. Miranda shook herself from her thoughts & started preparing their meal, conscious of the water now boiling. She'd been thinking for just a little too long. Quickly, she added the rice to the bubbling pan & then started heating the sauce, putting the slight tremble of her hands down to her being slightly cold, despite the kitchen being quite warm, refusing to acknowledge she was happy or excited. She could now hear Max open a drawer in the living room, looking for the cutlery & mats for the table no doubt & Miranda smiled lightly before calling through,

"They're in the tall cabinet drawer, on the left, tablecloth's underneath my laptop on one of the chairs by the table." She heard a muffled 'thank you' through the wall & laughed a little, checking on the food & fetching plates, generally concentrating on details to keep her mind on more neutral trains of thought. Only another minute or so & the rice would be done. So, Miranda retrieved the salt & pepper from one of her cupboards, along with parmesan cheese in case Max fancied some. She knew somehow he'd been there in a minute to get them & sure enough, the moment Miranda had turned back to stir the pasta & sauce, she heard him enter the kitchen though her back was to the door & without a word, she pointed at the table, not turning around until she'd finished with the paella. Despite her delay, when she had expected him to react & move, he had remained by the doorway, an amused look on his face that didn’t quite cover the tender edge in his eyes.

"Now you're reading my mind." Max commented & for some reason, Miranda felt a flush begin creeping across her cheeks. It might have been down to the seeming hidden meaning in his words & she was glad he couldn’t see her thoughts as her imagination ran a little into dangerous territory. Flicking her eyes away from him & hopefully away from the images her mind had supplied of them in far too close quarters, Miranda hurriedly moved away to drain the pasta. "Can I help with anything?" Max's gentle voice slightly surprised her, he was closer than she had expected & she didn't think she'd imagined the brush of his breath again her hair & neck.

"Could you check the sauce is hot enough & if it is, take it off the hob." Miranda was pleased how normal her voice sounded, only the barest detectable trace of breathiness. With a confusing mix of relief & disappointment, she felt Max move away to do as she asked, though it was as if the prickling hairs on the back of her neck were telling her his gaze was very much resting on her. She tried to ignore that, lifting the colander out of her sink & tipping a portion onto each plate, another menial task saving her from dwelling too much on what was happening between them. She was about to turn & ask for the sauce when the pan appeared next to her & she couldn't move for a minute as he leant across her & poured half on one pile of paella & half on the other. Smiling to cover her fluttering excitement, she took hold of both plates & picked them up, ready to carry them into the other room when his voice again made her pause.

"You want anything to drink?" Biting her lip briefly, Miranda considered & then nodded towards the fridge.

"There's a bottle of wine in there. Unless you're having beer?" Miranda smiled, as Max moved towards where she had indicated. He shook his head & opened the fridge, taking the bottle from the inside shelf & letting the door swing closed behind him & looking around for glasses. Shaking her head, Miranda moved out of the room & into her living room, setting down the warm plates on the mats before moving towards the cabinet he'd gotten the cutlery from earlier, which also happened to be where she kept her wine glasses. Thankfully, Max had followed her & set down the bottle in the middle of the table before taking his own seat. Miranda grabbed 2 glasses & nudged the cupboard closed with her arm as she turned back & set one down in front of Max. He took the initiative & poured them both a good glass of the red liquid while Miranda, out of habit, leant back to other chair where her laptop was usually left after she'd finished working, probably at some ungodly hour on a Saturday night but it wasn't there.

"Wasn't my laptop here?" She asked, eyes already darting around the room in search of her missing paperwork.

"Yeah, I put it by the sofa. What do you want it for?" Max asked, setting down Miranda's glass (now filled) & frowning a little up at the woman whose gaze was on her couch.

"Well, I thought we might as well get some work done" She began, starting to move towards her briefcase before he abruptly cut her off.

"I’m not doing paperwork now. I want to eat, I'm hungry!" His voice had sounded serious but the tone had lightened to a joking whine towards the end & Miranda relented, going back to the table & taking her seat.

"Sorry, I forgot men can't multitask." She grinning at Max as she slid her chair underneath her & his eyebrows shot up indignantly.

"& I forgot my compañera was such a slave-driver." He shot back with a smug smirk & Miranda rolled her eyes.

"Slave driver indeed. It's only by chance you get your work done at all these days." Miranda returned, laughing as she picked up her fork. Max huffed & did the same.

"Well, as long as I do get it done, we don't need to work while we're eating, do we?" He pointed out, spearing a piece of ravioli & drawing it up to his mouth as he raised a pointed eyebrow at his friend.

"Fair enough." Miranda conceded, taking a sip of her win to hide her smile at his exasperation. "I don't usually have anyone to talk to at dinner, so I work, it's a habit." She explained, beginning to dig into her own food with an appetite that she hadn't realised she possessed until just now. At any other time, she probably has been embarrassed telling anyone that, thinking it was a self-pitying reflection on her sad & lonely life but right now, she felt comfortable sharing that with him & trusting him to see it in the right way &, of course, he did.

"Well, take advantage of the company while you can then, eh?" Max smiled & Miranda almost rolled her eyes again.

***

They sat down to eat when Miranda had finished making it.

“Miranda this looks lovely, thank you” He said

“You’re welcome, can you pass me the pepper please?” He did so their hands brushing as he gave it to her, their eyes met & for a minute they were mesmerised. Miranda shook herself out of the spell & shook the pepper on her dinner.

“Mmmm. This is delicious” said Max biting into his food.

“Ah well that’s what happens when you live on your own, you get good at cooking” She laughed

“Well not me, I don’t know how, I’m a dreadful cook” He laughed

“Men always are” Miranda joked

“Hey! If they’re all that bad then what’s Sebastia Serra doing on the TV?” He joked. He was very amused by the fact that Miranda had managed to raise him up from 0 to 100 on the happy scale. He couldn’t explain it she just had a way with him. When they had finished Max got up to clear their plates away.

“Oh Max, don’t worry about that I’ll do it” She protested

“I’ll do it. You cooked; you can help me with the washing up”

“I have a dishwasher”

“I know so do I but there is a pan that needs washing am I correct? You can’t put that in the dishwasher”

“Oh yeah I forgot about that. Ok you can wash I’ll dry”

“Deal” He smiled clearing the plates. Miranda watched him with interest as he loaded the things into the dishwasher, sipping her glass of wine. He got up & ran some hot soapy water in the bowl. He touched the water & quickly withdrew his hand as it was boiling hot.
“Owww scheisse. your tap water is like kettle water!” He said nursing his scalded hand. Miranda giggled & went to the draw & took out a pair of marigolds & waved them in his face.

“Here silly” She laughed

“Ok” He said reluctantly taking them & putting them on. He started to scrub the pan Miranda couldn’t help but laugh at him in his rubber gloves. “Oi you what are you laughing at” He said & flicked some foam at her, she put up her hands to protect her face.

“Hey I can’t help it if you look funny” He decided that her comment merited another splash with the foam & she decided to get her own back by hitting him with her tea towel. She giggled when he winced because clearly play acting.

“Right that’s it” He said & he ripped off the marigolds & went over & started to tickle her ribs, Miranda struggled of course

“No Max! No!” She said in between laughing uncontrollably “That’s cheating!” She turned around to face him

“Who says?” He asked softly realising how close she was & how much closer he wanted her to be. She stopped laughing & looked into his blue eyes.

“Have you finished that pan yet?” She asked interrupting the moment

“Oh yeah” He said suddenly remembering it & picked up the rubber gloves & went to finish it, Miranda sighed if only she thought if only.

***

After taking ages to do the messy clean up, Miranda & Max were sat on her sofa & they were deciding what to watch on the television.

“What time is it?” said Max looking at the clock “Oh no! The football’s finished” He whined

“If you hadn’t taken so much time washing that pan then you wouldn’t have missed it” Miranda teased

“Hey, if I recall correctly then you were wasting time as much as I was”

“Whatever Winter, as if I’d have let you watch it anyway” She flicked through the channels & found a TV channel in English where the film ‘Titanic’ was on. “Oh, I love this film & I haven’t seen it in ages”

“Oh no, come on not this”

“Max, it’s a cult film!”

“It’s been on so many times. It’s just damn annoying”

“Yeah, well guess what we’re watching it because I’ve got the remote” She teased waving it at him.

“Not for long” he said as he tries to lunged his 6ft 2ins frame & try to take it from her but he wasn’t quick enough for her small frame.

“Too slow” She laughed as he lunged again & yet again, he missed “Oi! get off. It’s my house, my television, my remote” She laughed hitting him on the arm with it

“Owww. Do you have to hit me all the time?” But he was laughing with her.

“Oh, come on you know you love it really” she joked

“Yeah it’s a good job too”

“Shuuuuush the films starting”

“Ok, ok” He said kicking his shoes off & putting his feet up on the coffee table & they settled down to watch the film. The adverts came on & Max cursed. “Oh, I was really getting into that!” He complained. Miranda laughed getting up, she drew the curtains & lit some of the candles that were dotted around the room. She turned the lamp on in the corner.
“Candles eh?”

“Yeah I love my candles. I always put them on of an evening I find them very relaxing”

“I have to admit they do have a calming effect” & turning back to the television he realised the film was about to start up again “Ah the films back on” He said cheerfully. Miranda sat back down, very aware of Max’s arm that was laid on the back of the sofa. They settled down again occasionally reaching over to the coffee table into the crisp bowl. They got to the part of the film where Jack dies & Rose is left sobbing & heartbroken & Max realised something & without meaning he said something thinking aloud “Why don’t I feel like that?” He said so softly that Miranda barely heard him

“Sorry Max?”

“Look at her she’s lost the love of her life & you can see it on her face, I’ve just lost my relationship with Carmen & I don’t feel sad or heartbroken I feel cold & distant & the worst thing is that I feel glad” He paused. “That I don’t even know Carmen & I know that I don’t love her & I never did, I lied to make her happy, I lied whenever I put my arm around her or kissed her or touched her, it was untrue, all of it an endless mass of lies & deceit. I’m as bad as she is”

“Oh Max, don’t say that, don’t you ever say that, you put your own feelings aside to make her happy, that was a completely unselfish act & it shows you up for the caring person you really are” Miranda said. before Max pulled her into a tight, tender hug. He held on to her never wanting to let go. When they eventually did pull apart Max somehow found his face inches from Miranda’s, he made a move to lean in closer but Miranda couldn't find the strength to push him away a second time as he embraced her again, pressing a light kiss to her hair as she laid her cheek against his shirt. They remained like that for a few minutes, his hand once more gliding along her spine & her fingers curling into the material above his chest. The assured feel of that hold was wonderful & dried her tears more effectively than anything Miranda had ever experienced. Eventually, they had to move apart, though Miranda knew the reluctance to withdraw was not just in her lingering fingertips.

"Thank you, Max. I think I'll go to bed, if that's alright." Miranda said quietly, eyes darting to his face, which nodded & began to move away towards the slightly open door, not at all offended by her wanting to be alone but when his voice broke the silence again.

"Miranda?" He ventured & she looked around, a faint smile greeting him as he paused before leaving her room. "No more thinking tonight, ok?" He half-smiled & she felt her eyes brighten as his flawless understanding of her once again showed itself.

"Ok." She replied softly & he stepped out of the room with a nod, closing the door behind him. Breathing deeply, Miranda felt the scent of the pasta tickle her nose & a little of her appetite returned. 'You're truly wonderful, Max. She said in her mind with an affection she could never have voiced out loud before going to her bed.

***

It was around about 1 o’clock in the morning that Max got up to go to the toilet which was down the corridor. On his way back he passed by Miranda’s room he saw that the door was slightly ajar & he couldn’t resist peeking around it. As he’d often wondered what Miranda looked like when she was asleep but when he saw it with his own blue eyes, he realised that she looked even more beautiful in her sleep than he could have ever imagined. She looks so angelic he thought she looks at peace when she’s asleep. He carefully opened the door a little more & tip toed into the room. He sat beside her on the bed for a while, for how long he was uncertain. All he knew was that she looked so breathtakingly beautiful to him at that moment that he couldn’t bear to take his eyes away. Finally, he decided that he should leave her alone, he gently stroked her cheek & he then departing back to his own room. Leaving Miranda asleep blissfully unaware that she’d had a night visitor.

***

THE NEXT MORNING

Miranda flicked on the coffee machine, blinking still a little slower than usual despite being dressed & visibly ready for the day. She had thought her sleep would be restless last night, what with Max only being down the corridor. She hadn't heard her compañero stir yet & she would have to wake him if she didn't get any signs of him surfacing soon but then she heard heavy footsteps coming down the stairs & turned to see the man himself enter her kitchen also dressed but also seemingly as sleepy as she was.

"Morning." He greeted her, voice slightly croaky & she smiled in return.

“Good morning." She asked, “Did you sleep well?” Miranda added as she slotted 2 sliced of freshy bought bread into the toaster & lowered them into the machine. She received a grunt in reply & had to squash another smile at his lack of morning awareness. She heard him practically fall onto the stool by her kitchen counter & got out another mug from the cupboard above her, knowing he would need it. After a few seconds, the coffee 'ping'-ed & she quickly poured him a black one before shoving it across the surface towards him which he accepted gratefully. Miranda had poured herself one & was about to take a long sip when the toaster also shot up & she gingerly took the slices out & dropped them onto a plate. Leaving Max to his coffee for a minute, she got the jam & butter from the fridge along with the milk. They'd bought cereal for his breakfast yesterday, so she knew that was what he'd he having & got that out of its cupboard as well. Surprisingly, the quiet that surrounded them just then didn’t feel awkward at all, it was the silence of two people who didn't need to make idle conversation & Miranda was glad of that. She wasn't sure either of them had the mental capacity to think of a neutral enough topic to make conversation this early in a morning.
Smiling at how similar & different they both were, she placed the box of cereal along with a bowl & milk in front of Max & set to on her toast, lathering it with jam & holding the plate underneath her as she took a bite. Then she heard a spluttering behind her & turned to see Max regarding his coffee with suspicion before turning his eyes to hers.

"Sugar?" His request made her laugh & she remembered his sweet tooth, fetching the bowl from another surface & handing it to him. After he'd added the sugar & taken a few deep drafts of his newly sweetened drink, he seemed to wake up a bit & his eyes swept over her, taking in the thick layer of jam on her toast with an amused smile. "I thought I was the one with a sweet tooth?" He grinned & Miranda shrugged, another teasing smile playing around her mouth as she took another bite. Max let his eyes linger on her a little longer than necessary before turning his attention to his own breakfast. She let the comment pass & finished eating before rinsing her plate & leaving it by the sink.

"Max, I was thinking," Miranda spoke, facing him & walking over to lean on the counter on the opposite side of him “Max”

“Ja.”

"Have you got feelings for me?" she said. Max didn't say anything which confirmed her suspicions. They both stopped talking, their faces became serious & intense & their eyes met, Max moved his face closer to hers, for once she didn’t move hers away, she was transfixed, their lips met & they kissed, giving in to the desires of a lifetime. Max felt like he was flying he could hardly believe that he was finally, after everything they’d been through together, kissing the girl he’d wanted for so long. The best bit was that he could feel now that she wanted it too, the way her lips moved against his own was enough to tell him that. He went to put his hand up to her face

"You can't choose who you fall in love with," he said. “I love you, alright? I love you, Miranda Blake. I have done for virtually the whole time I've known you."

“Max, I'm sorry but”

"If you're going to tell me you don't feel the same, don't bother. I know you well enough by now to know it'd be a lie. We have something, look at yesterday, look at earlier in the car, I could barely keep myself from telling you how I felt & I know you felt at least part of that." His voice was increasingly desperate as he moved towards her, practically begging her to listen, to understand, to accept but for every step he took, she took another back, navigating with flicks of her head so she didn't hit any of the tables, trying to keep a manageable distance between them.

"Max, we would never work. We just wouldn't. You'd get very fed up me very quickly. I can’t not keep people at arm's length." Miranda tried to explain but her compañero kept advancing forward, not threatening but definitely determined.

"So, you do feel the same." He replied simply, with a triumphant gleam in his eye. Miranda could have kicked herself for falling into such an obvious trap.

"That's not what I said." She tried to backtrack, still avoiding desks at she retreating from his advance.

"Exactly. You didn't not say it. You agreed with me."

"No, I just"

"Just what? Miranda, I know you feel this & I know about your barriers, believe me, I haven't ever known anyone with so many but I’m not going to give up on you because of that! It's part of who you are, I don't want to change that. I don't think you've ever been around someone who loves you as much as I do because you obviously think no-one would be willing to work with you on getting those protections down & I want you to know I care about you enough to push, to make you let me in a little bit. I won't hurt you, Miranda, I won't push too far but I’m going to do everything I can to get through to you. I love you." Just as he finished, Miranda's back hit the wall. His tone was desperate, pleading even & the hopeful edge spiked through her determination not to listen. She'd been darting her gaze around her, anywhere except Max, her mind spinning as it tried to deflect his honest intention, his meaningful confession but as he continued to speak, she was slowly losing that battle. The minute she backed against the cold plaster behind her, his words began to pierce through her defences. 'I love you' he said & he meant it, he really meant it. She closed her eyes briefly, taking a long breath to gain back a little composure. Then a familiar scent tickled her nose & when she raised her eyes, she found Max stood barely a foot in front of her, his gaze waiting for hers. She bit her lip slightly, mind whirling as it tried to rationalise, to make sense of the feeling flooding her but she couldn't. Why couldn't she? Why was concentrating so difficult?

Slowly, he reached out a hand & encircled one of her wrists with his fingers, drawing her arm away from the wall & guiding her hand up to him. She waited, paralysed by the unknown, as he curled her arm around until the inside of her wrist was displayed to him. Then he pressed a deep, warm kiss to the pulse point he'd exposed, closing his eyes as he did so. The sensation was incredible, her whole body overly-sensitised already & her neck & knees suddenly went weak, as she released a low but nonetheless audible groan as her eyelids gave in to the urge to slide shut. At the sound, his eyes flickered open & he drew slowly away from her skin, allowing her control to slip somewhat back into place, forcing her eyelids back up. He smiled faintly at her & tugged on her arm, drawing her forward & she nearly stumbled, off balance, in his direction. He let go of her wrist & slid both arms around her waist, bringing her closer even as she tried to take back some form of control over the situation. He always managed to do this somehow completely bypass her sense & bring her usually well-guarded feelings forward.

"Max" she tried to speak, though her voice was low, almost a murmur & one of his arms unwrapped itself from her hips to place three fingers across her mouth.

"Shh." He whispered & she vaguely registered an amusement & frustration at the sound. She hadn't been 'shh'-ed in years, not since she was a child. Then the friction of his skin against her lips drew her attention back to the situation at hand & she had to severely struggle not to let her eyes slip closed again at the feeling of him running light fingertips over her face. With her mind fogged by the emotion, she didn't recognise his next move until it was too late. His hand scooped around the back of her head & held her in place, then he tipped his own forward & gently brushed his lips across hers. It was the mark of how amazing a man he was that that was all he did. A moment of contact, to test both of them, before he drew back & met her eyes with his own. Or rather, she suspected that was his intention. Lowered eyes hooded her gaze again, closed in a fleeting pleasure she could not deny she wanted to experience again. When he saw that, she knew he would know he'd won. She could not fight him anymore. His words from earlier were still pounding in her mind, 'I don't think you've ever been with someone who loves you as much as I do' & he was completely right. She had nothing to be afraid of with him. She raised her eyes with difficulty & met his loving gaze, feeling the adoration pour out of him towards her & she smiled. The signal he needed. He beamed in response & leant back in, firmly moulding his mouth against hers this time, determined to show her how much he'd longed for this moment. Barriers & protections, she'd held in place for years evaporated under his kiss, possibly not forever but certainly for now, as she let herself respond, one hand sliding over his shoulder, the other around his chest, pressing closer as the need to be near him asserted itself. Minutes passed by them unawares, as they acquainted themselves with each other, the kiss deepening & then lessening, as they wished. Miranda was lost in the contact, the feeling, everything about the moment they now had & Max's reactions spoke of a similar absorption. She'd never felt so loved, so honestly desired. Then a sound penetrated their haze; the school bell ringing to signal lessons ending & though they neither of them immediately acknowledged it, they did eventually have to draw away because of it. With a sort of quivering anticipation, they found each other's eyes & smiled, a hand brushing the other's face gently before they moved away completely & the outside world began to filter back into their conscious minds but they didn’t want to part. Hearing lots of feet begin to make their ways into the corridor outside, Miranda lightly brushed a hand down from Max's cheek to find his hand, giving him a light reassuring pressure before stepping away slowly, knowing they could not be caught like this. He nodded & turned to leave, his obligations demanding a stricter time keeping than hers. Miranda assumed he would go & leant back on the wall behind her, her smile still upturning her lips & a wild, delirious happiness shooting through her. Then she heard footsteps coming back towards her & looked up, Max approaching with a determined expression she recognised, he had slid a hand behind her neck & was pressing his lips to hers again & she couldn’t keep herself from returning the movement. After thoroughly kissing her again, he broke gently away & brushed his lips over the tip of her nose, a smile climbing his face again. She laughed & shook her head, her hands that had somehow come to rest on his shoulders being used to push them both slightly away from each other.

"Winter, we have a case waiting for you & I have files that need to be looked at." She teased, a flirtatious smile that was almost a smirk hovering over her mouth. He huffed & brushed another set of butterfly kisses over her cheeks.

"Don't want to go." He muttered into her ear, his husky tone almost making her forget what she should be saying.

"You have to." She insisted although other than speaking, she did very little against letting him continue.

"Do I really have to?" He whined slightly against her jaw, finding the spot that made her release a small, longing moan.

"Yes." She gasped, finally fining the strength to push him away & look sternly into his eyes. "Yes, you do. We can finish this tonight." She told him & saw his eyes light up with hope & anticipation.

"You'll let me take you out to dinner?" He asked excitedly.

"I was thinking a night in at home, movie maybe?" She offered; her own face filled with warm. “Before having warm drink on a cold night.”

"Sounds great to me." He grinned, brushing one last kiss to her mouth before finally pulling away & going over to the door. Miranda pulled herself straight & ran a hand through her somewhat tousled hair, her smile lingering.

"& Winter," he turned back to her again & she let a playful glint into her expression, "If you ever 'shh' me again, you are in serious trouble." Miranda told him & he winked. Taking a deep, slow breath, Miranda waited a moment before following him, wondering how on earth she could feel this happy, seeing Max & sharing one of those incredible kisses again. It seemed almost unreal now that she had ever gone without them.