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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.