Thank you and love to Elizabeth Marshall for her sensitive and brilliant editing. {}

LATE CITY FINAL

By Hedeia



"But I didn't know that was going to happen!" I protested.

"No? All right. I'm intrigued.  I'd love to know what was going through your mind.  Would you care to elaborate?  Was it spontaneous?  Or more pre-meditated: you actually intended to aggravate the Mayor to the point that he required heavy sedation?"

"Pardon?" I asked politely.

He exhaled shortly.  "All right.  Let's start here.  Why were you there in the first place?"

"No," I said quickly, hoping that was the right answer.

"No…what?" he asked in return.

"No, sir?" I offered.

"Tris," he enunciated carefully.  "I did not ask you a yes or no question.  'No' is therefore a meaningless response."

"Sorry," I said unrepentantly.  Outside the glass wall of the office my colleagues buzzed around, pads in hand, phone cords stretched taut.  Listening, recording, writing.  I tapped my foot impatiently.  I wanted to go be a part of THAT, not stuck here in scold-land.

Bosses.  They suck.

And editor bosses?  They're another breed entirely.  Pick pick pick over every word!  Lighten UP already, I wanted to tell John Winter, along with another thing or two.  Come to think of it…

But he cut me off before I could start venting.  "How old are you?"

"Twenty two," I said slowly, not sure where this was going.

"And do you have any curiosity at all about what twenty three looks like?"

"I don't think death threats are part of your editorial job," I said uneasily.

"On the contrary," he gave me a trademark piercing look.  "They're how I maintain my sanity.  Even," another look, "under the most trying of circumstances."

I shifted in place and tried not to roll my eyes.  Yet another dressing-down and it wasn't easy to concentrate.

You wouldn't be able to either, if your boss were so…well…undressable.

And the fact that John was unshakably calm, irritatingly logical, and particularly gorgeous in the crisp shirt he was wearing today, didn't make this particular gauntlet any more fun to run.

"Here," John flipped expertly through his rolodex for a brief moment, then handed me a card.

"What's this?"

"It's the direct extension for Petra, in the legal department."  He fixed me with an irritatingly amused look.  "So I don't have to bail you out of jail again."

"Very funny," I scowled.  "They released me on my own recognizance and you know it."

He put his reading glasses back on, a sign he was through with me, but I hovered an extra minute, because, damn, those glasses looked great on him.

"Can I help you with something else, Cates?"

Yes. Sweep the papers off your desk with that strong right arm and take me, right here, right now, no holds barred, no…

"Er, no sir, that's all."

"Well," He removed the pen from behind his ear and let it hover a centimeter or two over the spreadsheets.  "You're a reporter.  Go…report."

"I'm on it."

"Oh, and Tris?"

I turned back.

"Wake up."

"What?"

"Wake up.  Didn't you hear the alarm?  Tris?"  Something was nudging me insistently and I swatted at it.

John caught my hand and kissed it.  "Up, Tris."

I rolled over as far as I could for the grip on my hand, and stretched lazily.

"I was having the best dream; you woke me right at the good part," I sighed.

He leaned over me to nuzzle my neck.  "Actually," he growled in my ear, "I woke you up a little early…just in case you were in the mood for a good part…"


"So what was your dream about?" John asked when he joined me in the shower.

"Um," I foamed shampoo between my hands and rubbed it into his hair, enjoying the feeling of his scalp under my fingers.  He groaned.  "Ease up or we'll be here all morning, babe."

"That's fine with me."  I leaned against him for a moment, letting the water pulse over me.  "I'm in no hurry."

"I know."  He kissed my forehead.  His wet eyelashes looked like stars.  "But we have to get moving sometime.  Come on, sweetheart."  He reached to turn the taps off and I leaned harder.

"Do we have to?" I asked quietly, knowing the answer.

"Yeah," he kissed me one more time and I could feel his chest rise and fall with his sigh.


* * * * * * *


The kinder he was, the more patient, the harder I gritted my teeth.

They were set firmly together when he slid a plate in front of me, poured a tall glass of water. 

"Did you pack me a lunchbox?" I asked.  It was hard to be irritable when John was so sweet, but I was going to do my damnedest.

"Nope," he said, apparently as determined to ignore my mood as I was to encourage it.  "But I am taking you to lunch today."

I pushed a piece of toast around my plate.  "And will you play with me at recess too, until I make new friends?"

John got up to stand behind me and rested his hands on my tense shoulders, rubbing gently.  "We both know how quickly you make friends, Tris," he said soothingly; his fingers, firm but yielding, delivered the rest of the message: straighten up.  I accepted it as gratefully as I accepted the massage.  I knew my tone was pushing it.   "You'll be playing dodgeball and butts-up with the best of them in no time," John promised.

I smiled into my placemat.  "But you're the only one I want to play butts-up with," I pointed out.

"Good. Keep it that way."  He dropped a kiss on my hair.  "Oh, and Tris?" 

I looked up.

"If you keep up this attitude, you're not going to like the game of butts-up we end up playing…"

Point taken.

* * * * * * *

There were good things about my new job.  There were.

Like the ease of getting it.  Nothing like working in a chatty industry for ten years, where everyone and their uncle knows you're quitting.  I left the Sun at seven o'clock one day and had a few places to choose from by the time the evening news started. 

And now I was off.  And there were some good things.

"My commute is halved, I don't have to change trains, and I got a raise," I recited to John as we walked to the subway.

"But…"

"But I haven't had a new job in ten years, and I'm nervous," I confessed.

He linked his arm through mine.  "I know."

"And my last new job…well…my boss was kind of a tyrant," I said slyly.

"Really? I seem to recall him being miraculously patient and tolerant," John said mildly.  "Something of a saint, even."

"Nah," I said.  "He seemed that way on the outside, maybe, but cross him, and you'd suffer."

"Not that you'd ever cross him," John said.  "I know you've always had the utmost respect for authority figures.  I'm sure you were endlessly obedient."

"You know me," I said sweetly.

"I'm lucky like that," John said softly, and ushered me ahead of him through the turnstile.

* * * * * * *

I hadn't been in the office long before a phone call buzzed through for me; I separated myself from updating my contact list to engage myself with the new phone system.  Several buttons later I was connected.

"How's God's gift to journalism?"

"Depends," I said suspiciously.  "How'd you track me down, Scarlett?"

"They don't call it investigative reporting for nothing, Tris."

"Whatever.  Did Dana tell you?"

"Nope. I had to read the press release myself like a big boy.  Quite an exit."

"It was nothing," I said modestly, preening a little since Scarlett couldn't exactly see me long-distance. 

"So? How's the new rag?"

"Hopping," I said, checking the clock at the bottom of my computer screen.  "It's barely seven-thirty your time; you're at work already?"

"Eager beaver, Cates.  Don't tell me your cub days are so far behind you?"

"Ever heard of 'Respect your elders', Shea?"

"Nah," he laughed.  "But speaking of elders, my editor's a hardass."

"Cry me a river, kid," I said, crossing my legs.  "You should have seen my first editor."

"John 'Pussycat' Winter?"

"Don't say that to his face," I warned, grinning.

"Yeah, well, we don't all end up marrying our editors," Scarlett groused.

"I know," I said cheerfully. "I'm special."


* * * * * * *


"So? How is it?"

John and I relaxed in a back booth at Pierre's, where they know us and are endlessly nice about my endless dietary restrictions.  Buell, my favorite waiter, had just alerted the kitchen to fix the usual ("Steamed chicken and rice, no salt, no oil, no butter, no nothing," he'd said succinctly upon our arrival).  I tipped my head back and took a deep breath.

"It's okay."

John nudged my knee with his, gently, under the table.  "Would you care to elaborate?"

"No," I said honestly.

He lifted an eyebrow.

"No, sir?"

I watched him try to suppress a smile.  It's just so damned cute close up. 

"Maybe I'm being too unspecific," he said.  "Let's try this: How's Joseph? Still breathing?"

"For now."  I ripped the soft part out of the inside of my bread.

"Talk to me, Tris."

"Is that an order?"

"Naturally," John flashed me his utterly white smile. 

Hey, at least he's honest.

"So far, it's just okay.  Really."

I was saved by the Buell, who arrived at that moment with our lunch order. 

(Remind me to tip him BIG)


* * * * * * *


"So," John said casually a block or so away from my office, having insisted chivalrously on walking me back, "Should I drop you here so I don't embarrass you?"

I hooked an arm around his neck.  "You can kiss me here, if that's what you're asking…"

He untangled me.  "Down, boy."

"Rain check?"  I called as he started to leave.

He turned around with a grin.  "Any time, kiddo." 

He reached out and straightened my collar, and then he was off.  I watched the back of his head for half a block before he turned around and mouthed "Go!" with mock ferocity. 

And then I went.


* * * * * * *


"How was your day?" John met me at the door with a kiss. 

"Okay," I shrugged, slipped out of my coat and watched it fall to the floor.  John, tactful to the core, just watched me until I picked it up and yanked it onto a hook.  I kicked off my dress shoes without untying them and padded to the big windows in the living room.  It had been raining on and off all afternoon and the view was gray and more gray.

I turned away from the window, averting my eyes from the coffee table, where I knew a copy of my last article in the Sun was among the stack of newsprint.  Bylined, sealed and delivered, late city final edition.

"Okay?"  John followed me into the living room and dropped to the couch.  He patted the cushion beside him.  "Sit."

I dragged my feet over.

"What?" I asked, admittedly not too politely.

He put an arm around me and I hunched tensely under it. 

"How was your day?" he asked again, gently.

"I said it was okay!  Just how much detail do you require?" I demanded.  "Maybe you could have me wired so I don't have to repeat the whole day when I get home.  Or I could do a live webcast from work.  Tris Cates reporting in from his new office chair, which only has 320 degrees of swivel.  The ratings would soar, don't you think?"

I stopped for breath, suddenly nervous

John stood up.  "We're taking a walk."

"Why?" I knew my voice was dangerously close to a whine, but why stop now?

"Because you need a walk," John said calmly.  He held his hand out.

"No, I don't," I responded daringly.  "If you need a walk, you go take one."

"Then I guess you need a spanking."

"A walk it is."  I stood up, glaring.  I'd just toe my work shoes back on, beg foot pain after a block or two.  Those soles are unbendable.

Like something else I know.

"Sweats and sneaks," John said with annoying cheerfulness.  "Move, Tris." 

Damn.

Sweatpantsed, sneakered, suitably suited up, I resisted, nobly, the urge to stick my tongue out and before I knew it I was sulking across town, being towed inexorably toward the park, which was as gray and freezing as the rest of the city. 

"Stop dragging your feet," John cautioned.  "You'll leave grooves in the pavement."

I scowled at him.  "Forced marches violate my human rights," I informed him.

"Duly noted," John said. 

"What's the point of this walk?" I asked a few minutes later, exasperated, as we walked along the footpath. 

"I'll let you know," John replied, infuriatingly.

"You'll let me know WHEN?"  Impatience crept into my tone.  Hell, it stomped in.

"Pick up the pace, soldier," was all John said, and proceeded to drag me faster along the path. 

He's not nearly this mean when we play Sergeant-Major and Stubborn Private in bed.

"It's starting to rain again," I told John.  "We'll probably get pneumonia."

John didn't answer, just flipped the Velcro patch at the neck of my parka and pulled the hood over my head. 

I scowled at him from under the nylon shield.

"How much farther?"  I asked.

John didn't answer.

A few droplets splashed the ground in front of me, then the rain eased off

On and on we walked.

Left

Left

Left, right, left

Left

Left

I left my ma in New Orleans with forty-five cents and a can of beans 'cause I thought it was Right

Right

Right for my country, whoop-si-do

"I'm cold," I complained. 

John didn't answer.

But he just snuggled me against his side, which admittedly solved the temperature problem. 

And we kept walking.

The sky was a sad slate-gray.  I jammed my free hand into my pocket, and wound my other one around John. 

There were enough joggers and bladers and strollers that the park didn't feel abandoned, but the cool, damp weather left it feeling chilly and vaguely depressing.

Whatever point John intended to make with this walk wasn't exactly obvious.  Unless he was testing the power of our flu shots.

I tried forcing a cough, but apparently throats don't work that way.

Then suddenly we were in a clearing.  The trees were saturated black from this afternoon's rainfall and their branches stood out in clear relief, weblike, against the darkening sky - a sky whose mist had suddenly lifted, exposing a deep grey palette spotted with paler, hovering clouds.

I felt my breaths go deeper, as if the low-hanging mist had been holding them back.  The air felt sharp and clean, like night.

I sniffed.  There was something else in the air here.  "John!" I cried, recognizing the scent.  "This is where spring starts."

I leaned against his neck.  "John?  This is the point of our walk, right?"

He kissed the top of my head.  "Exactly.  See? You don't even need me."

"NOT true."  I snuggled closer.  "Not true at all."

"Good.  Happy spring," He said into my hair.

"It's still February," I protested half-heartedly.  Below the cool fabric of his jacket, his heartbeat was warm and strong under my cheek.

"So?" he asked, good-naturedly.

John always had a point.


* * * * * * *


"How was your day?" John asked

I stared up at him open-mouthed (he did NOT just ask me that again) then regretted that mistake when I swallowed a rush of hot water. 

I snapped my mouth shut and let the water flow over me instead.  It was our second shared shower of the day.  If this was a new job perk, I was all for it.

John turned me around gently, soaped my back.  "Well?"  His familiar fingers pressed into the muscles, knowing where each knot was, easing the strain.  I relaxed against him.  I could get used to this.

"It was okay," I said.  "Ow!"

I put a hand behind me to rub the sore spot.  Wet swats HURT.  They're loud, too.  I think this one was still echoing in the shower.

"My poor baby," John lent a hand to rub the sting out.  "You're grievously injured, aren't you."

"Yes, very," I nodded, turned around to press my head into his neck. 

"John?  It really was okay," I said against his shoulder, the soft part where it joins his neck.  It's such a sweet spot.  "I miss the Sun.  I miss you," I added, nipping gently at the flesh under my mouth to illustrate that point, "but you haven't been there in ages.  Joseph is decent and so are the others.  And it's going to be okay."

"Isn't that my line?"  John lifted a hand to stroke my wet hair back, pushing it out of my eyes.  We were going to have a hell of a water bill this month.

"My day was really, truly okay," I said, realizing at that moment I was being honest.

John peeled me off him gently and gave me one strong kiss.  "Good," he said, eyes warm.

He turned the taps off with one hand and used the other to wrap us in enormous bath sheets.  They were clean and fluffy and smelled of good things like showering together and cuddling on long weekend mornings and the years we spent doing our shared laundry in the basements of various apartment buildings, with overflowing Ziploc baggies of Tide and pockets sagging with quarters.

John aimed the blow-dryer at me while I laughed and tried to avoid the blast of heat, wriggling as he fluffed out my hair.  "Stop," he hooked an arm around my waist to pull me to him.  "You're not going to bed with a wet head."

"And whose fault is that?" I teased, but I gave up and sat down on the closed toilet, letting John hold me against his bare stomach while he directed the hot air at my head, running his fingers through the damp strands.

"I look like a French poodle," I lifted my eyebrows as I stared at my reflection in the bedroom mirror, hairbrush in hand.  Tris-in-the-mirror wriggled his eyebrows back at me and his fluffy hair puffed up and down. 

"You look gorgeous," John corrected, drew the comforter down and patted the sheets beside him.  "Bed, Tris."

I sank into the softness of the mattress and rolled over into John's arms.  "Has this really been only one day?"  I asked sleepily, words muffled by the soft fabric of his shirt. 

"Time flies when you're…"

I silenced him with a kiss.

Because I've known John Winter for ten years and I've picked up a lot of pretty handy information.

Like that clichés from John never herald anything good…but that kissing John is bound to herald something better than good.  Better than great.

So I kissed him again, just to be sure. 

"Don't just double-check your work," my first editor said to me once.  "Triple-check it."

So, obedient to the core, I moved in for a third kiss.





END.