Caroline Dempsey opened the door to face a dark, empty apartment. She set her duffel bag down near the hall closet and flicked on the light switch. It was still empty and no long dark but cleaner that it had been one year before, which let her know that Miranda had just recently left.
Caroline walked over to the "Wall of Glass" as the girls had termed it and opened three of the five sliding glass doors. The warm San Francisco Bay breeze blew gently into the large, high-ceilinged living room and Caroline smiled. She had missed it. The phone rang and she walked over to a table by the couch to answer it.
"Hello." She hooked the phone under her ear and walked back out to the balcony.
"Hi, is Miranda there?"
"She isn't in at the moment, may I ask who's speaking?" Caroline's formal background helped to culture her speech in polite situations.
"This is Brian. What's your name?"
"I'm Caroline, her roommate."
"Yeah, she talks about you all the time. So, you're back?"
"Yes, I arrived home about ten minutes ago, actually."
"She'll be glad you're back. She was missing you. Okay, so just tell her I called and I'm going out now, so I'll call when I get home."
"Sure thing. Bye." Caroline clicked the "off" button on the phone as she heard the locked slide on the front door. Caroline walked into the hall just as Miranda opened the door. Miranda looked up, an astonished look on her face.
"Cary!" Miranda set her bags down and ran to Caroline, throwing her arms around her. "You're back early!"
"The expedition ended early, so they let us go home. You don't know how much I missed warm weather. Oh, by the way, Brian just called. " Caroline picked up two of the four bags.
"Oh, did he?" Miranda was already on her way to the phone.
"Yeah, but he said he's call back; he was on his way out." Caroline glanced at Miranda. "Is this the same Brian you cursed to Hell and back?" Miranda nodded sheepishly. "Mind filling me in?"
"Well, about 3 months after you left I got really lonely, so I went to stay with my parents, but for Christmas they decided to celebrate their second honeymoon in Europe. So then like a week after they left, I went Christmas shopping and I ran into Kevin in the mall."
"What were they doing in Chicago?" Caroline was confused.
"They were on Oprah and while they were there they decided to finish their Christmas shopping." Miranda looked thoughtful. "I guess." Caroline shrugged.
"But that doesn't explain how he came to be calling you again." Miranda walked into the kitchen and started to fill the kettle with water. "Are you guys dating again?"
"No and I don't think we will. It'd be too hard on both of us and besides, he has a new girlfriend already. They've been together since last Halloween."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"No, it's alright not your fault, anyway. Besides, I think he'd be a really
great friend." Caroline and Miranda exchanged a smile.
The phone rang and Miranda cursed herself for leaving the portable inside. She jumped off the lounge chair and ran to catch the phone.
"Hello?" She was out of breath.
"Heya, cutie pie."
"Hi Kev, what's up?"
"Planning a party for D. Wanna come?"
"You're part of the surprise! You know how much Howie loves you, it'd be the best gift he ever got." Miranda could hear Kevin smile behind his words.
"27, huh?" she said thoughtfully.
"Yes, now don't ever change the subject again." Miranda laughed.
"Well, Caroline's back. Can she come?"
"Ooh, Cary's back?" Kevin sound five shades brighter.
"Yes." Miranda laughed again. "When do you want us there?"
"Uh your tickets are for 10:15 Florida time in the morning. At the United terminal, they'll be waiting for you. Either myself or AJ will pick you up, probably AJ because I have to keep D occupied."
"Tomorrow." Kevin sounded sheepish.
"I know, I know, I'm sorry but the party's Friday night and there were no flights available for Friday morning. Don't hate me!"
"Oh, I don't, I would just appreciate a little more notice next time!" Kevin laughed.
"Thanks Miry. I'll see you tomorrow!" Miranda said goodbye and hung up the
phone and went to find Caroline.
"We're supposed to meet him at his Expedition. That's what the note said." Miranda scooped her long brown hair back into a high ponytail as they walked to the luggage area. She spotted her red and black duffel bag right away and grabbed it up. They had to wait a few minutes for Caroline's bag but as soon as they saw I, they grabbed it and started for the main terminal door.
Almost immediately Miranda saw the huge black Expedition parked on the side and the tall, lanky man leaning against it. He had on torn jeans and a leather jacked with a black cowboy hat pulled low. He caught her gaze and a lazy smile crossed his face. "Miranda!" She dropped her bags and flew into his open arms. He hugged her tight before holding her at arm's length.
"You're grown up again." AJ grinned.
"Sorry, I keep doing that, don't I? The next time I don't see you guys for 8 months, I promise not to grow." AJ laughed as he walked over to get her bags.
"So where are we staying?" Miranda asked from the passenger seat of the Expedition.
"My house. See, Howie can't know you're here. We've arranged a "meeting" for tomorrow night, that's why he's coming over. We've got his whole family in on the surprise and everything."
"Wow this must be hard for you, keeping a secret like that!" Caroline commented. AJ met her eyes in the rearview mirror and stuck his tongue out at her.
"Oh, Miry, by the way we didn't invite Brian's girlfriend. To make things more comfortable for you."
"And what did Brian think of that?" Miranda said quietly.
"Well, we left it up to Nick to tell him, so we'll find out when they all come to dinner tonight. And even though things are starting to get patched up with you and Brian, Kevin and him are still on eggshells and if Brian didn't like what Nick told him, he might be mad at you, too. AJ pulled into his driveway.
"I understand. Why don't you guys like her?"
"Did I say that?" AJ got out of the SUV and opened Miranda's and Caroline's doors.
"No, that's just the impression I got."
"Well to be honest, she's a bit of a ditz. Do you remember Courtney?" Miranda's eyes widened and she nodded. "Worse. Stupider and blonder." AJ sighed as he pushed open the door and set their bags down. "I have no idea what he sees in her."
There was a knock on Miranda's bedroom door as she finished her makeup.
"Come in!" She called. AJ stepped inside and shut the door behind him.
"Yes, dear?" AJ came over and picked up her brush and started running in through her long hair.
"Uh, well, I just got off the phone with Kevin, Brian's bringing Jordan." Miranda's eyes met AJ's in the mirror.
"You are so kidding me."
"No, I'm not. Kevin tried to talk him out of it, but he didn't want to tell Brian you were here, you know, for a surprise. So, well, we were talking, and we think we should try and convince him that it's not you."
"Huh?" AJ gave a frustrated sigh and put the brush on the dresser and stuffed his hands in his jeans pockets, a very un-AJ like thing to do.
"Well, you're good with voices, so you can change your voice, and like maybe change your demeanor a little, not be so down-to-earth, and we decided we could call you Stacey."
"No, I'm not gonna fool Brian like that."
"Okay, we figured you'd say that. Then we have one other idea."
"Well, we pretend that you and I have secretly been seeing each other these past 8 months or so and just didn't want to tell Brian because we didn't want to hurt him or anything." AJ blushed and Miranda sighed.
"I'll think about it. Now get out, I have to get dressed."
Miranda stirred the spoon a bit more before holding it up to her mouth to taste. She tasted it again before calling AJ. He appeared in the doorway.
"Come over here and taste this." She held the spoon to his lips.
"Mm...that's good. But add a bit more paprika." The bell rang and AJ smiled at her, looking just as nervous as she did. As he went to answer the door, Miranda pulled the biscuits from the oven and placed them in a basket.
"Miry!" She heard her name yelled and went to the kitchen door to see Kevin running up the stairs. He ran up to her and threw his arms around her, twirling her in a circle. She laughed and hugged him back tight.
"Let me at her!" Miranda looked up to see Nick run up to them and engulf them both in a huge hug. AJ just stood leaning against the door, smiling at them.
"Hey, guys, let her breathe. Why don't we get y'all some drinks and Miry can finish."
"AJ, come here again!" Miranda called from her pot. AJ came into the kitchen, now jacket and hatless and sporting his normal glasses and went up to her.
"Taste." She held the serving spoon up to his lips and, watching her, tasted it. He smiled and licked his lips.
"Damn good, I'm telling ya." He ran his hand over her hair before kissing her forehead lightly. He wrapped one arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, resting his head on hers. "I'm so glad you're back." Miranda pulled away and looked up at him. AJ ran his thumb over her cheek before kissing her lips lightly. He stared at her for a moment before smiling again.
"Let's go set the table."
Miranda stared down at her plate and blinked back the tears. All night long, Brian had been fawning over Jordan and she wondered if he was doing it more than usual for her benefit. Currently he was feeding Jordan pieces of his biscuit. Miranda took a deep breath and picked up hers and AJ's plates and headed into the kitchen. She calmly, quietly placed them into the sink and began to scrub them. She felt hands on her shoulders and knew it was AJ.
"I'm so sorry, baby." Miranda just shook her head. "Sweetie, I'm sorry. He's not normally this bad…your being here surprised him and I don't think he wanted to Jordan by ignoring her.
"So, he can ignore me instead? I've been his friend for almost four years and even with everything he says about friendships exceed everything else, he chooses his girlfriend of ten months over me. It doesn't even matter that I'm his ex, it's the whole principle. He's a different person with her around and I don't like it. I don't like who he is." Miranda tore herself away and ran out the open door.
AJ walked up to Miranda, but she didn't hear him. She was at the edge of the pool, her legs dangling in, but lying back, her arms beneath her head.
"Miranda." AJ whispered her name softly before sitting next to her.
"I didn't expect it to be like this. I guess part of me thought it was all going to be the same. I don't know I could've been such an idiot." Miranda's voice caught and she was silent for a moment. AJ placed his hand on her tummy and leaned down, close to her face.
"It's not your fault. It is NOT your fault. You're still the same sweet Miranda that I met on her 15th birthday as you are now. You're sweeter, even. You don't even know how much you mean to any of us, especially me. You have no idea." AJ sighed and pulled Miranda up before wrapping his arms around her. She laid her head on his shoulder, wrapping her arms around his torso. "I'm going to be completely honest with you. When you first started going out with Brian, and we all knew that you weren't technically supposed to because you're were a minor and he was technically an adult, and that y'all could get in trouble, I wanted so, so bad to convince him of that because I wanted you so much. I was 17 and for the first time in my life, I was completely, madly, head-over-heels in love and I couldn't do anything about it. Since then, when I realized I couldn't have you, I learned to make the best of what I could have and I still consider you one of my best friends in the entire world. And there's only one person who's my bestest friend and I consider you that person. I don't want to see you hurt and I'm telling you, you're not the one that's changed." AJ could feel her breath against his neck even though she was silent.
"AJ, I didn't know hearts can really break. I thought it was just something people said, a figure of speech." She pulled back and looked into his eyes. "Tonight taught me different, that hearts really can break; first with Brian and now with you."
"What did I do, I'm sorry."
"No, no, sweetie. If I'd known how you'd felt before, maybe none of this would have ever happened." Miranda smiled up at him and he kissed her softly.
"I don't ever want to hurt you, Miranda." He saw something out of the corner of his eye and looked closely. Brian was standing in the kitchen window, looking out at them. AJ turned back to Miranda. "I don't ever want you hurt." He kissed her again before helping her to her feet. "Let's go eat some ice cream."
The phone rang and Miranda reached over to pick it up.
"Hi, Miry, is AJ there?"
"Oh, hi, Brian. Um, yeah, let me find him for you." Miranda left the room and went into AJ's, where he was lying in just a pair of sweatpants, reading a book. Miranda giggled. "You look very studious, darling. Telephone." Miranda held the phone out to him, but he grabbed her wrist and pulled her close.
"Gimme a kiss." He kissed her lips gently and smiled up at her before taking the phone.
"Hello? oh, hey Rok, sup? yeah, the party's at nine tonight no, I don't need you to bring anything okay, cool so I'll see you tonight what? " AJ paused and caught Miranda's eye, raising his eyebrows. "I'm your last resort? what did he say? did Train tell you why she wasn't invited?Well, honestly, it's because we can't stand her no, I ain't gonna apologize, you know I don't like her and she's not one of my friends and she's not invited to a party I'm throwing then you get bored, big deal, if you can't spend time with us well, you know, we would've appreciated it if you'd given us prior warning about bringing Jordan last night what's going on between Miry and me is none of your business your girlfriend's not invited and if you don't like it, you don't have to come, but I hope you wouldn't do something like that to D." AJ hit the "off" button on the phone and took his glasses off, rubbing his fingers over his eyes.
Miranda knocked on AJ's bedroom door and heard him call from inside. She stepped in and he was standing in the middle of the room, wearing just a pair of black slacks and his glasses.
"I was wondering" she started.
"Yeeees?" Miranda grinned.
"You know that vest you wore to the Billboards?"
"The tan one? Yeah, what about it?"
"Can I wear it?" AJ laughed.
"Because it would look really cool, that's why." AJ pointed into the closet and slipped his muscleman shirt over his head. Miranda stepped into the closet and slipped her T-shirt off. She pulled the vest on and buttoned the first two buttons, leaving her tummy-button exposed. She pulled off her sweatpants and pulled on her black, Mudd 30" bell-bottoms. She walked into the room and spun in a little circle for AJ and he whistled.
"Wait a minute!" he exclaimed. "What's this?" He pushed aside the sides of the vest and ran a finger over her tummy. Circling her bellybutton was a Celtic braid, done in blue and silver. "When did you get this done?"
"New Year's Day after I got back to 'Cisco. Do you like?"
"I love!" AJ grinned and made her spin around again. "What are you doing with your hair, are you leaving it like that?"
"Yeah, does it look okay?"
"Yeah, but it looks shorter."
"Oh, well I just curled it a little bit, that's all. Honest." AJ went back to getting ready and Miranda flopped down on the bed.
"I'm scared. I still don't know how to act around Brian."
"Sweetie, you'll be the perfect hostess. Just be yourself and you'll be great. Honest."
The phone rang and Miranda set down the spoon to answer it.
"Can I speak to Miranda Bailey please?"
"May I ask who's speaking?"
"Yes, this is Gloria Starr from the National Enquirer, I was wondering-"
"Sorry, she's not here right now." Miranda slammed the phone down and sighed.
It was starting.