Disclaimers: A Change in Season is an original work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Summary in a Nutshell: The frozen snowscape of a New York Christmas literally throws Elen out of her old life and into the warm arms of Gwen.
Thanks to: B.M. Morgan, the Tavern Wall, and most especially the wonderful folks at the Bardic Circle for their beta assistance. It's always a pleasure to be shredded by professionals *g*.
Dedication: This one is for Xenalicious, a connoisseur of all things smut. I hope you'll forgive the inclusion of a plot in your story.
Romantic Relations Alert: This story contains romance and its expression between two consenting adults of the same gender. If your religion, politics, or opinions are likely to be offended by such, please don't ruin your day by continuing further.
Copyright January 2003 All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced without the prior express permission of the author, except for the purpose of personal enjoyment provided that all disclaimers remain intact.
Comments and/or constructive criticism can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for taking the time to read this little tale.
Tufts of snow touched her nose, tickled her skin, like tiny, playful children. Elen smiled to herself, watching as the faces of those approaching her showed similar expressions of transformation. Like the city itself, its people were softening. In a bell-like jingle of a storefront door and the sudden rush of warmth and holiday song that escaped outside as she passed by, Elen felt something in herself thaw a little in spite of the skin-chapping cold. Smiling was easier and suddenly everyone felt like a neighbour.
Two weeks until Christmas and the snow had finally come, and unexpectedly Elen's own ghosts of Christmas Past were pulling free from the dark, musty closets where she shoved everything that didn't pertain to work, stretching and looking round with an air that suggested that now, more than ever, anything might be possible.
Well, anything other than getting more than thirty minutes for lunch, she thought mournfully as she gripped the packages tighter in her leather gloves and quickened her pace. Presents for her sister's family weighed her down, the twine bag handles digging into her fingers. She was going to be late getting back. "And won't Edward love that," Elen muttered aloud. Passers-by didn't even spare her a glance; a New Yorker talking to herself was hardly anything out of the ordinary, after all.
It didn't matter that she had spent the last two years practically glued to her boss' side, enduring work hours that, outside the U.S., would be considered inhumane. Or that her meals were eaten only in disjointed snatches at her desk. Or that her social life was severely lacking, not to even bother mentioning any opportunities for finding love. Or, rather, it didn't matter to Edward - whose opinion was generally the only one that mattered these days. One of the handful of partners in the firm, he drove her just as hard as he did himself and it was no surprise that the man was twice divorced and paying alimony and support for the three children he never took the time to see. Eighty-hour weeks were not uncommon. Nor was spending her weekends at the office racking up billable hours for him while her boss spent "face time" with the clients.
Tired and fed up, Elen had dropped her work and made a break for it, tossing aside any thoughts of the imminent bar exam and her jackass boss with her latest brief, and had taken to the street. She was glad she had; the brilliantly pristine snowfall, the rush and flow of the people and the cold air had revived her flagging spirits considerably. Elen felt almost human again, a state of being that most of the other legal secretaries had promised her would eventually become mythical; a holy grail attainable only to the pure of heart. And didn't everyone know that no such thing existed in any law firm in the land?
She tried to hold on to the small taste of grace her outing had granted her, adding to it the sound of shovels scraping in a gravelly rhythm against the sidewalk as the maintenance staff cleared the stairs leading up to Kaufman, Shyler & Roth's grand front doors. Taxis, high-class cars and limousines performed an intricate dance to the accompaniment of blaring horns as they vied for space at the curb. Oblivious to her presence, a group of men in black and charcoal suits cut her off in mid-step as they took to the stairs, leaving behind a peppering of legal jargon along with the cloud of their breath.
Elen, forced to stop abruptly or collide with them, felt her footing slip as she struggled with her packages for balance. In that tilting 'you've passed the point of no return' way the world has of telling you you're fucked, she knew she was going to fall. Hard. New York is always a bad place to have an accident. Unless you're a lawyer. Gravity took over and swept her heels out from under her.
Her sudden downward motion was abruptly halted when a pair of white-gloved hands grabbed her firmly under the arms and pulled her back against a solid surface. As quickly as she had lost her balance, Elen found herself deposited on her feet again, breathless as much from the rescue as her anticipated mishap. Twisting around, she came face to face with an open, tri-cornered smile bright enough to vie with the snow. Raising her eyes further, past the pert nose and the sprinkle of fading freckles, Elen's gaze came to rest on a pair of warm, hazel eyes that shifted from a dark outer edge to the lighter, gold-flecked tones ringing the pupils.
"Are you all right, Ms Foss?"
A feminine voice? The long and heavy navy uniform coat, cut in an old-fashioned English style with its added half cape covering shoulders and chest, smartly framed the woman's form. Deep gold banding edged the coat, its look set to perfection by the short Kensington top hat that sat jauntily atop her saviour's head.
"Oh God, I'm so sorry," Elen replied, realising suddenly that she had been staring at the other woman who still held her in a secure grasp. "Thank you." She shook her head and eased away, bemused to feel herself flushing.
"No harm done, Ms Foss." She was treated to the lovely smile again. "Your shoes are gorgeous, but might I suggest a different selection of footwear for your next outing?" They both glanced down at the fashionable, yet highly impractical heels she was wearing.
"Ah," Elen nodded slowly. "Yes. It didn't look that bad out when I left earlier?" she offered sheepishly.
The doorwoman tsk'd, but then immediately reached out to relieve Elen of several of her bags. "Allow me."
"Wait. You don't have to-" Her protests were handily ignored and in a matter of moments Elen found herself divested of all her packages. She was left in possession of nothing save her handbag and, she discovered, a new sense of composure as the other woman drew herself up and then gave Elen a nod to proceed towards the brass-edged doors. Another of the firm's doormen touched his fingers to his hat and held the door open for her and her parcel-laden shadow, permitting them into the opulent interior of the firm's lobby as if she were some wealthy client with a servant in tow.
The warmth of the building gathered her in and she gratefully pulled her scarf loose and slowed to a halt next to the stately marble fountain filling the centre of the open foyer. "Thank you again. I can take it from here."
But the woman made no move to hand the purchases over. "If you would care to the lead the way, I'll bring these to your office."
"That's not necessary, Miss, I-"
"-can... Excuse me?"
"My name is Gwen."
Years of proper schooling prompted her automatic response: "It's a pleasure to meet you." Just in time she kept herself from popping out a hand to shake. "Now-"
"The pleasure is mine, Ms Foss."
The impeccable manners were a nice change from what she was used to, but it was starting to get on her nerves. "Quite. Now, if you please?"
Gwen smiled pleasantly. "Whenever you're ready."
Elen gritted her teeth. "You're not going to give those to me, are you?"
"Not without a scene, ma'am." A sparkle in those hazel eyes was at odds with the professionally serene face looking back at her. "I'm mindful of the busy schedule that Mr Roth keeps, so shall we head upstairs?"
"Damn it." She had forgotten about the time in the fluster on the stairs outside. "Fine already. Let's go." If she wants to play dogsbody, let her! I don't have time to argue any more. Elen turned and headed for the elevators without a backward glance, suspecting that this over-eager doorwoman was likely keeping a correct distance of two paces in her wake.
"Floor please?" Williams, the bent, gnomish-looking old man who operated the lift, looked at her expectantly as she and Gwen stepped inside the compartment.
"63rd," Elen replied automatically, her attention on the woman standing stiffly at her side while the doors slid quietly closed. "I haven't seen you at the front before. Are you new to the firm?"
"No, ma'am. Just recently promoted from lobby reception to door service."
"Working outside in the cold is a promotion?"
"It... has its perks, Ms Foss."
"Alabaster skin from frost-bite?" Elen hazarded. "Danger pay for dealing with kamikaze cabbies and self-centred lawyers?" Williams shifted and gave a low harrumphing sound, like an old furnace rumbling to life.
Gwen's smile, which she had fought to contain, suddenly blossomed free, as if flushed out of hiding by Williams' wordless censure. "So you've worked the front door, too?" The amusement added vibrant animation to her face; a kind of expressiveness that Elen found at once both delightful and contagious.
Williams' softly disapproving tone had the effect of a whiplash, and Gwen's good-natured energy was submerged beneath a blandly interested expression. But Elen could still see evidence of a light in Gwen's eye, ripples of humour that refused to be stilled. Their eyes shared silent, secret laughter behind Williams' back; a pair of rambunctious children defying their elders.
The elevator slowed, paused, and docked, and everyone looked at the digital face display above the doors, waiting for the chime. The door panels slid open and Elen immediately stepped into the corridor and turned left, completely oblivious to the rich broadloom, mahogany dĄcor, or leather and brass accents. Unlike her companion. Elen smirked when she looked back to find Gwen's eyes discretely trying to look every which way at once as they weaved their way through the human traffic. "Been up here before?"
"Never," the doorwoman admitted, her curiosity and seemingly easy-going nature undaunted by the impressive surroundings. "It's... nice."
"It's hideously pretentious," Elen said, waving her hand at a leather couch. "I think that piece alone could pay my rent for half a year. If the place looks rich then it stands to reason that the firm is successful. If it's successful, then we must have a high percentage of cases litigated in our favour, right? It's for show for the clients' sake," she confided. "Insurance companies do the same thing. Besides, the owners like its built-in intimidation factor; makes women and the weak more malleable. Or so I've been told. Verbatim."
Gwen's expression registered surprise. "They said that?"
"Sure. Who's going to tell them otherwise when they're the ones offering legal advice to the mega-corporations?" Elen slowed down as she approached her desk, its low partition walls adjoined on either side by her fellow legal secretaries' desks. "Welcome to the 'pool'," she said, indicating the flurry of intense, yet muted activity going on in the centre of the office. A mix of secretaries and paralegals, predominantly women, resided here, serving as the unseen right hand to the partners and their boundless army of lawyers.
She peeled off her winter coat and slung it over her chair. "You can put that stuff over here," she said, clearing space on her desk by removing a pile of folders. The doorwoman eased the packages down, her crisp appearance subtly marred by the faint sheen of perspiration across her brow. Doubtless wearing the heavy coat indoors was taking its toll. "Would you like something cold to drink?"
Gwen shook her head. "I should probably get back downstairs." At her voice, a few of the nearer secretaries looked up.
"Is that Gwen?"
"Mercy, girl, look at you in that coat. Could they make you look any more manly in that thing?"
Elen watched in amazement as the other women paused in their work to greet her stubborn helper. All signs of mechanized rigidity melted before her eyes as Gwen leaned against the edge of the partition and offered them her playful smile. "Why, Mrs Darcy, you flirtatious creature! Your compliments go straight to my head." Gwen plucked her top hat from her head and fanned herself with it, revealing a fall of wavy, blonde hair. "Best not let Mr Darcy hear you speak like that; he'll think you're fixing to set horns on his head." The ladies in Elen's particular cube square cackled.
The older black woman, whom Elen had always respected for her encyclopaedic knowledge, classy wardrobe, and ability to maintain a marriage of some thirty-odd years even with a workhorse office schedule, shocked Elen by chuckling and waving a dismissive hand. "You're a bona-fide troublemaker. Consider yourself lucky I'm not young enough to give you some of it back."
"Mrs Darcy, I have no doubt you'd have me running rings around the building in the desperate hopes of earning a single, kind smile from you."
"Shameless, isn't she?" Marla, a fellow schoolmate of Elen's, commented aloud in her hard Brooklyn accent.
"Ms Vezinni, you wound me." Gwen pressed a white-gloved hand to her heart, a kicked puppy expression reshaping her eyes.
"Oh pooh, Gwen, she's just jealous because her boyfriend can't offer a compliment as well as you do," Sonya joined in, causing Elen's jaw to drop. A proper Southern lady, Sonya had always struck her as too uptight and snobbish to engage in... to play along with... Elen wasn't even sure what this was. Their laughter coloured her confusion further, leaving her to wonder how it was that a group of mature, conservative women could have been so transformed as these tittering women appeared to be.
A throat cleared and all conversation dropped away with startling speed. The Devil, in the form of steel-haired Mrs Goyle, had emerged from her lair. A purported relation to the senior partner on his wife's side, Mrs Goyle had reigned supreme over the secretaries' pool since the firm was nothing more than a two-office affair across the river in New Jersey. If anyone knew her first name, no one used it; not even the partners. Elen wondered if she had been born with one, or simply christened thus after being chiselled from the pavement as rumoured.
Mrs Goyle raised one sharp brow and glared at the interloper. "Is the firm installing doormen on every floor now?" Her voice, hard and edged, reached to the far side of the office and activity stilled as the staff became aware of drama unfolding in their midst. "Our third quarter earnings must have been better than I thought."
Elen gripped her hands at her sides. Don't say anything. Don't say anything. She'll eat you alive. Thankfully, Gwen's glib tongue seemed to have discovered some self-restraint at last for she merely put her hat back on and shook her head. "No, ma'am." Those eyes, now serious and solemn, lowered to avoid direct contact.
"Don't tell me you're lost then?" The arch tone was highly sceptical.
It was painful to watch. Like the cruel teacher of memory putting a disruptive child on the spot. Elen couldn't bear it any longer. "Gwen was kind enough to help me bring some packages to my desk after I nearly had an accident outside."
The piercing grey eyes found Elen, nailed her to the spot, flickered to Gwen and returned again; dissecting, judging. "How nice." Elen wondered which part of that she found 'nice'; Gwen's help or her own near tumble down the stairs.
"Unless your doorman can help you make your deadline on the Debussy file, I suggest you send her on her way. And I need those summary reports for the Shire Corp.; Mr Roth has been asking for them for the last hour." The nasty twitch at the corner of Mrs Goyle's mouth-as near to a smile as the old witch might ever come-sent as clear a message as if she had spoken; Elen's absence had been noted, and not only by Mrs Goyle.
Elen raised her chin, striving to remain unmoved by either the sheer force of Mrs Goyle's personality or the veiled threat. "I'll give them to Edward in a moment."
Apparently satisfied that her point had been made, Mrs Goyle let her gaze rake over the rest of the staff before returning to her office. The door was left open, and Elen didn't doubt that the old woman was listening if not watching them outright to make sure her orders were followed directly. She reached out to touch Gwen's arm. "Thank you again. I really appreciate the help. And... um... the rescue." She withdrew her hand, suddenly feeling self-conscious but wishing she didn't.
Gwen touched her gloved fingers to the brim of her hat, dipping her head slightly in acknowledgment. "Ms Foss, it was entirely my pleasure." There was a smile for her and a wink for her co-workers. "A pleasant day to you, ladies." Her withdrawal was a thing of elegance, an understated swirl of long, dark folds that fit both the woman and the surroundings, framing the moment in Elen's mind as something deeply and startlingly... romantic. She stared down the hallway after the quickly retreating figure, wondering just how long it had been since her last date if that particular adjective had sprung to mind. If this were a Victorian novel - Gwen paused at the corner, hesitated for just a heartbeat, and glanced back. Towards her. Even across the distance between them, Elen sensed the lingering brush of Gwen's eyes just before the other woman disappeared from view. There and gone. It almost made Elen doubt her senses that Gwen had been there at all.
"Elen, child, what's this about an accident?" Sonya asked in her light Louisiana drawl. "Are you all right?"
Elen started from her thoughts, realising suddenly that she had been staring down the now empty corridor. "What? Oh. I'm fine. A bunch of hotshots cut me off on the stairs into the building and knocked me down. Gwen happened to be there to help me catch my balance."
"Just in the right place at the right time," Kiesha nodded to the other women as if she had been saying so all along. "The girl's got timing."
Marla sighed. "Unlike the rest of those jerks. The more money they make the less manners they have. Promise me you won't get like that when you pass the bar, El."
"It's horrible," Sonya said, registering her outrage. "Was it that snooty Van Saunders fellow? He always has an entourage with him."
"Assholes," Kiesha Darcy added succinctly, making the other women snicker.
"What is with you three today?" Elen demanded as she drew off her scarf, set her coat aside on her hanger and sat down at her desk. "I feel like I'm at a slumber party."
"Gwen gets me going every time," Kiesha confessed and drew her bifocals more snugly on her nose. "The girl has a flirt streak in her a mile wide."
Sonya nodded. "She's a sweetie, isn't she?"
Elen looked back and forth between them. "You talk like you've known her for ages. I think this is the first I've ever seen her."
Kiesha passed a stack of correspondence over the partition to her. "Where have you been? She's been working the front doors since August."
How the hell could I not have noticed? "But... she said she'd only recently been promoted."
"Given the firm's boys' club mentality, it's taken her ages to get the job. I imagine that as far as she's concerned it's recent." Kiesha fingered through her Rolodex as she distractedly replied.
"I love how she seems to know everyone's name," Marla commented. "All I get from the other doormen is a grunt that vaguely resembles 'good morning' if I'm lucky."
"The poor dear," Sonya said. "She probably feels she has to try twice as hard just to be taken seriously. I mean, really, you'd think being a doorman was the exclusive domain of men. Have you ever even seen a woman doorman in New York before? If it weren't such a fluke I'd think the firm was getting progressive."
"Well, she certainly seems to believe in personal customer service," Marla said, her eyes shifting slyly towards Elen who was following the conversation with interest. "I don't know anyone else she's carried packages for."
"It's only because I nearly wiped out on the stairs," Elen protested, not even sure why she was doing so in the first place. "She's probably done the same thing for lots of people."
"Uh huh," Kiesha nodded sagely. "And given them the same look from down a crowded hallway, too, I'll bet."
"I see that Gwen isn't the only troublemaker," Elen shot back, ignoring the warmth in her face. "If you'll excuse me? I have a file to give to Edward." With haughty dignity that was entirely faked, she rose to her feet and marched away to the sounds of her friends' laughter.
But in her heart, she rather hoped that Keisha was wrong.
* * *
Elen stared at the clock on her desk, hoping that the sharp green numbers she was seeing might change to something much more reasonable. "It's not really ten-thirty-two. C'mon. You're just fooling with me."
The clock's face flickered. Ten-thirty-three.
She sighed and rubbed her eyes, trying to remember the last time she had managed to be home before eight in the evening. Even by the office's standards she was here rather late. The partners had long since left and she only vaguely remembered hearing Sonya's farewell over an hour ago.
The Debussy file she had inherited several weeks ago was a nightmare of inaccuracies and missing documents, covered with frustrated notations from the last secretary who had had less luck than she in resolving the problems. The former employee had stood up one day, declared the legal profession to be full of nothing but whores sold to the highest bidder, and left to work at a Starbucks (or so rumour had it). Crisp, clear handwriting on the older documents gradually deteriorated to an almost incomprehensible scrawl as she worked through the newer material and finally to her own notes. With a client meeting looming in two days and the case's state of chaos, Edward was in a total froth over it. Which meant the lawyers were constantly at her for letters and transaction records and other miscellaneous research. From what little she could piece together, the company's accounting records and activities were so highly suspect that it was hardly a wonder to her that the IRS was sending in auditors. No doubt Edward would pull off some wizardry and find enough loopholes, shelters, or offshore holdings to rework the numbers and foil the investigation; there was nothing Edward loved better than bearding the lion in his own den. And once again, she predicted for herself, Debussy would avoid paying corporate tax for another year.
"Screw it. They can wait until tomorrow to have their skeletons buried." Fed up with the whole stenchy thing, she piled the papers together in the folder and stuck them in her bag before heading to the cloakroom to grab her coat. Retrieving her packages from beneath her desk reminded her of her lunchtime excitement, bringing to mind a pair of hazel-brown eyes and a flashing smile as she walked through the quiet, dimly lit hallway to the elevator.
I wonder if she's still down there? Should I say something? Yes? No? Maybe? The elevator's arrival interrupted her musings, but an unexpected sense of nervous anticipation warmed her chest as the elevator descended to the lobby, and she found herself rehearsing her comments, wanting to find some eloquent way to express her gratitude again. Maybe offer to take her for coffee? No, no... it wasn't that big a deal. But I might have broken my neck if not for her... The night staffer at the elevator controls glanced at her several times and edged closer to the corner, making Elen wonder if she were mumbling out loud.
"Main lobby," the young man announced quietly after the chime.
She slipped out the door before the panels had a chance to slide completely open and was glad of the much cooler air in the open foyer as she paused to wrap her scarf more securely around her neck. Each step towards the doors was accented by the pounding of her heart as it accelerated in her chest. Just say what I want to say and then I'm out of here. Before I trip on my tongue and make an ass of myself.
Elen could see the streetlights glittering through the glass as she approached and a dark-cloaked figure drew closer as she did, pulling the door open with practiced timing to give her a clear path to the stairs. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," the doorman said. Elen thought she recognised him, but she had to admit that she never really paid much attention to the staff at the door. With a quick glance around she noticed that there was only this gentleman and one other working this evening. "Is Gwen still here?" When the doorman's thin lips pursed, Elen was suddenly reminded of Keisha's comments and wondered if the man harboured resentment at Gwen's presence among their ranks.
"Gwen's shift ended at five, ma'am."
She stared at him in dismay. Well...damn. "Thank you anyway," Elen murmured, feeling the weight of disappointment drop down on her hope like a stone, squashing it flat. Even the festive lights and the fresh, crisp snow couldn't do it for her anymore.
He nodded and Elen hurried on her way, but carefully this time; she didn't think he looked the type to catch her if she slipped.
* * *
Christmas shopping. Her niece needed one more present. And candy canes. What would Christmas be without candy canes? And she wanted a few more of those tassel decorations for her tree. A few of those scrubby things for the kitchen sink. And lunch, right? If she were going to go out, she might as well get some lunch...
Justification. The human mind was capable of justifying almost anything if given enough time. Elen had a whole morning to figure it out, consciously or not, and when she excused herself almost nervously from their workstation, part of her almost expected one of her friends to call her on it. Lunch two days in a row? Unheard of! But it was busy and it was the season and only Marla had the presence of mind to lift a hand in acknowledgement as Elen babbled her excuses and left the floor.
Sunlight flooded the foyer, reflecting almost painfully off the polished marble tiles. Squinting, Elen made her way to the doors and, as expected, the portal opened before her. The snow, not quite as pristine as yesterday, still had a cheerful crispness to it, marred only by the dirt-scudded curbs.
"Good day, Ms Foss."
Her heart smacked her in the chest when she realised that Gwen was standing right at her side. "Oh!" Elen pressed a hand to her front. "I didn't realise it was you." As if.
"Did the number of doorwomen in the city double overnight without my knowledge?" Gwen asked, her expression both amazed and hopeful. "If that's the case I can entirely understand the confusion."
Elen laughed. "No, I'm sorry. I only meant... I didn't... You're... oh, never mind." Being flustered only embarrassed her further, and she rubbed her nose, trying to erase the blush. Oh my god, I am such a spaz...
"Ah, I see." Gwen's features fell playfully in dismay. "Well, it's been a long time since yesterday, so I imagine it's understandable that you might not remember me. Obviously my first impressions need a bit of polish yet."
"What?" She shook her head, still smiling. "Oh, you made an impression all right."
"Did I? Well, I must say, so did you. It's not every day that I have lovely ladies falling into my arms."
Lovely? Elen considered herself a worldly woman, too far beyond the first flush of innocent naivety to be affected by such broad flattery, but nonetheless she was still charmed. Compliments, even indirect ones, were as rare as an empty taxi in this city. And Keisha wasn't kidding about the flirt streak. It did strike her as curious that Gwen would be quite so...blatant in her flirtations, but it appeared that the women of Kaufman, Shyler & Roth didn't object. In fact, they seemed to give as good as they got. Well, far be for me to upset the status quo."Lovely, hm? Have many women fallen into your arms?"
"Ms Foss, I assure you that I'm not one to rescue and tell."
"Oh?" Elen laughed at Gwen's turn of phrase, finding pleasure in the doorwoman's own smile of enjoyment. "Is that ri-"
Startled, Elen spun around to find herself confronted by an ageing, well-dressed gentleman, his cheeks as red as apples, but whether because of the cold or his apparent anger, she was hard pressed to say. "Edward, what is it?" People quickly made way as he strode the remaining distance to the door where she stood. The stark fury was unnerving; Edward, though gruff and curt, had never been the volatile type.
"Where the hell is the Debussy file?" he demanded in a tight voice.
"I have it upstairs. Is there a problem?"
"I needed that fucking file this morning. Why do you think I made it a priority yesterday?"
He swore at me. The anger had been off-putting to start with, but to be yelled at, sworn at... and on the steps of a prominent law firm in front a sizeable chunk of New York on its lunch hour, in front of Gwen... she could have died on the spot. Where was an open manhole cover when you needed one? "You said the meeting wasn't for another couple of days..." she managed weakly.
Through his perfect, gritted teeth, he growled, "Look over my shoulder, Elen."
Behind Edward, she could see a collection of men in overcoats and fine Italian silk suits standing down by the curb, speaking quietly amongst themselves while darting glances her way. "They're here."
"No shit. Is the file done? Atkisson said he needed January through March for disclosure and he still didn't have it."
"Up until March like you asked. I had it sent over."
"I just spoke to him and he doesn't have it. Goddamnit, Elen, if you mess this account up-"
"Edward, I sent it over. Did Atkisson even talk to his secretary this morning? She's got five boxes of research."
"Great." But his tone suggested it was anything but. "Is the conference room set up?"
The man must be either working on next to no sleep or more frazzled than he appeared; it was entirely unlike Edward to lose track of details like this. "For tomorrow. You said a couple of days-"
"Get your ass upstairs and get a room. If this account has penalties assessed because things haven't been done correctly, you can take a permanent lunch. Got me?"
His words hit her like a slap and her mouth worked for a moment, but nothing would emerge. Finally she jerked her head in a weak nod and made feeble motions of silent apology. He humphed, practically growling at her before he turned to leave, only to waver and fall abruptly on his backside. The man gave a grunt of pain and slapped the slushy black mat in retaliation.
Though tempted to leave him there, Elen, mindful of her continued career, reached down to help him. "Edward! Are you all right?"
In spite of his wrathful expression, one or two chuckles could still be heard. A pratfall was a pratfall after all.
"Sir! It's been so slippery here the past couple days, you have to watch your footing even with the matting." Gwen gave him a hand up, using a handkerchief taken from some hidden pocket to dust the sludge and wet from his pinstripes, but the damage was done; the seat of his pants was sodden and scummy.
"Let it be!" he snarled, batting Gwen's hands away. "Sunovabitch."
She watched him stomp down the stairs and towards the group of men who made concerned faces and, no doubt, mouthed platitudes that would mollify his bent ego. In the moment of relief that followed his absence, Elen shifted her eyes to the doorwoman who was presently folding her kerchief and stowing it safely away with professional aplomb. "You really shouldn't have done that."
"It wasn't nice to trip him," she clarified in a murmur. "He's going to be impossible for the rest of day."
"He deserved it," Gwen replied, just as softly. "Imagine; threatening you that way. He ought to be ashamed, speaking to a lady in that manner." The freckles stood out strongly, the woman's indignation plain.
The doorwoman's chivalrous nature was endearing, all the more so for its obvious sincerity. "Saving me again? You're starting to make a habit of this."
"Consider it a mutual defence pact; I thought I was going to be swallowed whole yesterday," Gwen reminded her. She suddenly straightened and pulled the door open behind her. "You'd better head inside; he's coming back."
Knowing she had to hurry, Elen still paused just long enough to lay her hand on Gwen's forearm and give it a gentle squeeze. "Thank you." Their eyes held for just a moment and then she headed inside, taking with her the feel of the cold air and a quiet whisper.
"Hang in there."
It was like a warm hand on her shoulder and Elen took a deep breath as she headed quickly for the elevators, strengthened by Gwen's support.
* * *
The next week and a half passed in a blur of paperwork and meetings. Holidays didn't exist on a lawyer's calendar; only the ebb and flow of the court's docket were observed, and by default, Elen was obliged to do likewise to accommodate her boss' schedule. Christmas Eve Day, a Tuesday this year, was barely a cause for celebration. All those who had managed to wrangle vacation time had already flown for freedom. The rest of Elen's compatriots, like herself, were at the office at the start of business or earlier, trying to use the court's recess time to catch up on files due to trial at the first of the year. The firm would grudgingly close its doors that afternoon through to Thursday, but the staff was expected to show up bright and early on Friday.
Having pulled fourteen to sixteen hour days every day since the spectacle in front of the building, Elen was anything but bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning. The only bright spot in her days seemed to be the few minutes she spared in the mornings to share a greeting with Gwen before the doorwoman saw her into the building and on her way. They were only brief moments, but still the other woman managed to find the words to give Elen a smile or a laugh; perhaps not much, but it was a rope to a drowning woman when she found herself wondering what the hell she was doing there.
Like now, for instance. As if blinking free of a trance, Elen became aware of the extent of the disaster littering her desk. Sheaves of paper covered every surface. What wasn't paper was a folder, or a book, or a sticky note referring to a different folder, book or piece of paper. It was inches thick and it was an unholy nightmare.
Elen dropped her head into her hands. "I'm going to die."
"Only if you're lucky," Marla muttered from over the partition. Her desk didn't look too much different. And the stark neatness of Keisha and Sonya's desks (who had somehow managed to get time off for the holidays) only seemed to make their own desks look twice as bad by contrast.
"I'm serious," Elen said, throwing her pen on her desk. "If the work doesn't do it, Edward will."
She nodded, appreciating Marla's sympathetic tone. "I can see now why the paralegal left; this file is just... god, I can't believe these people haven't been charged and sent to jail already."
"Shh!" Marla waved her hand in Elen's direction while looking towards Mrs Goyle's door. "Jesus, Elen, you want to get into trouble?"
"I'm only speaking the truth." The file she grabbed with one hand was a solid weight in her fist, made all the heavier for the 'indiscretions' it contained. "This is probably the dirtiest file I've laid eyes on. Edward's going to have to pull loopholes out of his ass if he's going to save these people."
Marla let out a reluctant laugh at the image. "And I thought my clients were bad. At least you wouldn't go to jail with them, right?"
Elen very carefully lowered her head onto the pile of paper in front of her and whimpered, "That makes me feel soooo much better."
"If it's any consolation, you can pack it up in about..." Marla paused to glance at her wristwatch. "...fifteen minutes."
"Don't tease me. It's not nice."
"No, really," Marla insisted. "It's twelve-forty-five now. You should get out of here. Stop by our place tonight; we're doing prime rib and Nick made his famous shrimp spread. Some of our old school chums are coming over aaaaaand..." She leaned over the partition, waggled her eyebrows, and whispered, "Leila will be there."
"Again, don't tease me," Elen muttered, lifting her head enough to rest it on her palm. "Leila is about as dangerous as nitro-glycerine and just as unstable."
Marla grinned. "I wouldn't know anything about that."
"Pfft. I wasn't the only one experimenting in university as I recall." Fatigue was loosening her tongue and not in a good way if the speed with which Marla's expression altered was anything to go by. Oh damn, forgot that was a non-topic. "Sorry, sorry. C'mon, Nick would probably be impressed." Shit, stepped in it again...
"But I doubt management would be, so shut up already," Marla whispered forcefully. "Do yourself a favour and get the hell out of here as soon as you can, okay? You obviously need some sleep." She turned away and began straightening up her files in crisp, neat piles, her mouth a tight, narrow line.
Elen rubbed her eyes and sighed. It was amazing how quickly a conversation could veer out of control. In a matter of a couple of weeks all the magic of the season had been sucked away, rendering the once magical landscape of the city into nothing more than a monochromatic blanket of cold, bland aloofness. The city was strange and gaudy and commercial, and Elen couldn't help but take offence at the convenient goodwill that everyone seemed to adopt so close to Christmas while she was left to remember a small taste of grace that now seemed beyond her reach. Out of reach and fast disappearing from memory to the point of making her feel cranky and Scrooge-ish, and Marla certainly didn't deserve that.
"You're right, and I'm sorry I've been such a bear lately," Elen said. "I'll just try to finish up a few more things and then get out of here at a decent time. Besides, I've got a train to catch tonight; my sister is expecting me so I won't be able to stop by this evening."
"I'm sorry... give my best to Nick though, but do not give my contact information to Leila. Got me? One close encounter with her was quite enough." She grinned for good measure, hoping that Marla would accept her rather pathetic apology.
"I'm so glad you're getting out of the city! You need a break. Don't think that I haven't noticed that the only thing that's made you smile the past couple of weeks is Gwen."
"What?! That's not true!" I'm not blushing, I'm not blushing, I'm not bl-
Marla began to laugh. "Wow, quick objection there, counsellor?"
"No... yes. I guess. I don't know. She's been really nice."
"And what?" Elen said. "I don't have time for Gwens or Leilas right now. I barely have time for my sister and her family. Speaking of which, I'd better get back to it or else I'm never going to get out here." She eyed her desk morosely, wondering how on earth she would get everything done in time to meet Edward's deadlines.
"Just don't let yourself get stuck here," Marla warned as she stood and gathered up her belongings. "The forecast is looking stormy and you don't want to be late to the train station."
"I'll take a cab," she promised. "You have fun tonight. Say hi to everyone for me."
"I will. Merry Christmas, huh?"
Elen dredged up a small smile, wishing she could feel it. "You, too. Take care." She returned Marla's wave and then watched as her friend left the office; the woman's step becoming quick and light as the burdens of her job dropped away the farther she got from her desk.
Elen sighed in envy. If only. Conversations and laughter flowed by her as her co-workers set their work aside too and headed for the elevator. Singly or in groups they disappeared from view until only she remained. Except for Mrs Goyle who had yet to emerge from her lair. The quiet of the office exacerbated the sense of lonely abandonment, the silent touch of snow flurries against the windows adding a feel of isolation to the mood.
"Bah, humbug," she muttered and returned to her work.
* * *
"What are you still doing here?"
Mrs Goyle's presence next to her elbow scared the hell out of Elen and she jumped in her chair. "Christ!"
"I'm sorry," she said, pressing a hand to her racing heart. "You startled me."
"It's after three and the office is closing."
Elen glanced down at her files in dismay. "I can't leave this. Not yet."
"Your dedication is admirable, but it's time to go," the old woman said firmly.
"Mrs Goyle, Edward needs these files in order for Friday. I can't leave yet. Please? Surely security can lock up the office after I'm finished?"
The secretarial matriarch's stare was long and sharp, but finally the woman gave a dismissive sniff. "I doubt a few more hours will make a difference, but do as you will. Stay out of the offices and turn off the lights before you go." And that was that. Mrs Goyle took her coat and her bag, locked her own office door, and left the office in that slow, regal carriage of hers, giving Elen a suspicious glare as she passed by.
Elen stared after her and muttered, "Merry Christmas to you too, you old hag." Now, truly alone, she tried to refocus her mind and get back to work.
* * *
"Shit." She was going to be late. Elen threw her files haphazardly together and ran them over to Edward's mailbox. Far beyond the point where she was seeing double, Elen finally had to stop for fear of doing more harm than good. Debussy would have its hands full enough as it was without her adding fuel to the fire by making new mistakes.
Elen grabbed her bags and her coat and hustled down the corridor, fidgeting impatiently while she waited for the elevator to show up. Surprisingly, or perhaps not since the firm could be rather cheap at times, the lift was empty of its usual evening shift-worker. "God forbid that some tight-assed partner should have to dirty his finger by pressing a button himself." The sarcasm felt good. Or maybe it was bitterness. Elen was too fed up to tell right now.
The elevator descended smoothly to the quiet accompaniment of Christmas music piped in through the speakers. Orchestral strains of Carol of the Bells sounded thinly in the lift and Elen wished it would stop; the rhythmic chiming was almost enough to give her a headache. Released at last, she stepped from the elevator into the lit foyer, its cavernous space eerily silent except for the echo of her shoes on the tiles and the oddly full yet hollow sound of the Christmas music here in the lobby. She could hear the hum of electrical cord that powered the lights for the twenty-foot tree that had been set up to one side by the security desk. It was, she had to admit, rather pretty and she slowed to admire it as she passed by before striding towards the doors, wondering why the staff had let the windows completely frost over. Elen couldn't even see the street it was so thick on the panes.
"You're here late."
Elen paused and turned to see the familiar form in the heavy navy coat. "Gwen? What are you doing here? I thought you normally leave at five." The blonde doorwoman rose to her feet from behind the security counter and came around the side to greet her.
"Apparently seniority counts for something amongst the door crew," Gwen told her. "Being the newest, I get the honour of the longer shift so the others could leave for their holiday."
She looked around. "But what about security?"
"They would normally show up at nine."
Something about the phrasing of Gwen's comment planted a sense of foreboding. "Normally? What's that supposed to mean?"
"Look outside," the doorwoman prompted.
Elen shook her head. "I can't... the frost..." She looked at the door again, suddenly realising what Gwen meant. It wasn't frost on the windows; it was a whiteout. Marla had warned the weather was supposed to turn, but she hadn't realised it was going to get this bad. "Oh my god, I can't even see the sidewalk." She tried to look up and down the street, wondering if any cabs were still running, but either the weather was too nasty to see the headlights or else no one was venturing out on the roads right now. "Can you call me a taxi?"
Gwen looked back at her as though she were cracked. "Ms Foss, when I called for the last person who asked me two hours ago, the dispatcher outright laughed at me and hung up. If anyone is driving out there right now, they're either an independent cabbie, desperate or totally crazy. The forecast is calling for at least a foot of snow tonight. If you go out in that you'll probably freeze to death before you can get home. I'm not even sure the subways are running."
Trapped. She was trapped in the building. Elen felt her shoulders slump with helpless disappointment. What a place to be stuck in on Christmas Eve. "It figures," she said finally, giving a despondent laugh. "Now what am I going to do?"
"I'm terribly sorry," Gwen said softly. "You were planning on spending this evening with family, weren't you?"
Her brow furrowed as she blinked at the doorwoman. "How did you know that?"
"You told me yourself. Last Friday morning," she reminded Elen. "How hard have you been pushing yourself that you forgot?"
"Too hard, probably." Elen sighed and looked at the storm raging beyond the doors, an occasional wispy moan of wind passing between the cracks and crevasses the rubber insulation couldn't keep out. "I guess this means I'll have more time to work on that damn file now. Lucky Edward."
She glanced sharply at Gwen. "You have no idea how important this is."
The other woman stepped closer, the hazel eyes-just a little higher than her own-examining her intently. Gwen's gaze had weight, intent, and Elen found herself feeling suddenly self-conscious beneath its almost palpable caress. "There are things far more important. Such as: when's the last time you relaxed? Or: have you even eaten today? And: shouldn't you let yourself have some fun for a change?"
Elen threw an arm out sharply to indicate the chill and empty foyer. "And where the hell am I going to find some fun in here?"
The corner of Gwen's mouth lifted until that tri-cornered smile-the same one that Elen had been greeted with upon their eventful first meeting-was in full force. "Ah," she said, tapping the brim of her hat, "you might be surprised. It's merely a matter of knowing where to look." A white-gloved hand was held out to Elen. "Why not come with me?"
Elen stared at Gwen's hand, thinking about all the work that still awaited her upstairs, all the studying she still had yet to do for her exam. "I really shouldn't..." she answered, but she couldn't help staring longingly at Gwen's hand. It had been so long since she had hung out with anyone other than her co-workers that Elen wasn't even sure she still had any friends any more. How sad was that?
"C'mon, just for a little while," Gwen wheedled, her smile still firmly in place. "If you don't fully enjoy yourself, I promise that I'll personally escort you back to your desk."
Offered the out, Elen reached out and laid her hand in Gwen's, the thick cotton of the glove delightfully warm against her bare skin. The doorwoman immediately tugged on Elen's hand, drawing her along and surprising Elen when her hand wasn't immediately released. "Where are we going?" she thought to ask even as the feel of Gwen's hand wrapped securely around her own distracted her. It felt so nice, even if it was a feeling inspired by a woman who was, at best, a friendly stranger.
She glanced backwards. "What about the doors?"
"Locked and sequenced through the security system. Anyone tries to bust in and the police will know about it." Gwen paused in thought for a second. "Mind you, I don't know how they'll be able to do anything about it, but they'll at least know."
Elen shook her head, smiling-mostly because she didn't know quite what else to do as Gwen took her past an 'Employees Only' door and through a small labyrinth of dull grey hallways before stopping at a large double door. "Here we are!" Gwen announced.
Before she could inquire where 'here' exactly was, Gwen reached out and pushed one of the doors in, revealing a large staff room on the other side. Laughter tumbled over them and Gwen flashed a bright smile at Elen before pulling them both inside.
The place was a kitchen and staff room combined, its steel, grey and white interior a stark contrast to the opulence Elen was used to upstairs. The room was noticeably brightened however by the strings of lights around the room and the presence of a small, three-foot potted Christmas tree on the centre of one of the tables. A few of the maintenance staff à cafeteria cooks, night cleaners and a couple of uniformed valets à sat around the tables, their own holiday celebrations already underway. At Gwen's appearance the others called out in greeting and the doorwoman pulled a reluctant Elen along beside her, preventing her from hanging back as was her first instinct.
"Everyone? This is Elen Foss. The weather trapped her here with us; a poor reward for slaving away for the partners. Ms Foss? This is Gina, Tula, Maria, Jonesy-"
Elen tried to follow along with the introductions, but was hopelessly lost after the fifth name. All of them gave her a friendly smile, their voices peppered with the accents of New York's boroughs and backgrounds as they happily made room for the two women at one of the tables. "Please, just call me Elen," she said as a plastic glass was set in front of her and wine poured into it. Another hand laid a plate next to it and within moments it was filled with food and cookies; she realised that these were the leftovers from the holiday fare offered in the staff meetings earlier in the day. Someone else flipped a switch on a control panel next to a sound system and Bing Crosby crooned carols to them while the conversation wove its threads through the traditional hymns of the season.
Gwen, she observed, seemed quite at home amongst them, laughing and joking, as the uniforms were loosened and the stiff, faceless professionalism dropped away now that their employers' eyes had left them. It was small and cheery and almost entirely uncomfortable. Only the knowledge of having no place else to go kept her from excusing herself immediately and seeking some way home since, obviously, any thought of getting out of the city was pointless now. As it was, Elen wasn't even certain where she might end up sleeping tonight if she couldn't leave.
Which brought her back to her aborted plans and her sister. "Gwen, you have to excuse me," she murmured to the woman by her side.
"What's wrong?" Gwen asked, immediately looking concerned. "You haven't even been here long enough to know if you're not having fun yet."
"I need my Rolodex from upstairs to make a call. If my sister doesn't hear from me she's going to be worried."
Gwen stuffed a few sweets in her pocket, grabbed their glasses and a half-full bottle of wine and stood up. "Let's go then. Don't forget your drink."
"Chica, where are you going?" the one named Maria asked. "You promised us a table dance, remember?" The other people at the table hooted and laughed. One of the cleaning women brandished a dollar bill as incentive.
"Is that right?" Elen gave Gwen a look of amused interest.
The blonde woman's expression turned saucy and teasing, and she offered the group a wink and flapped a hand at them. "You animals can wait. Have a few more drinks to loosen you up and we'll see you guys later after Ms Foss-"
"Elen. My name is Elen." She grinned and received a smile in return.
"-Elen makes her phone call. Okay? Okay." Gwen gave Elen her glass and waved the wine bottle. "After you."
"Don't stay gone too long, chica; I'll come looking for you."
"I've always wanted to be hunted down by a hot Latina woman, Maria, so don't say such things unless you mean it." Gwen blew Maria a kiss to the sounds of more laughter and then she bumped the door open enough for Elen to precede her out of the room. "After you."
Where she had felt ill at ease actually being in the room, Elen inexplicably felt the loss of companionship as soon as they left. But Gwen was urging her along, back through the maze of hallways and into the building's lobby again.
Outside the glass doors, the winter storm buffeted the city in earnest. The whiteout persisted and even in the short time since she had been here last, the storm had stretched its hand up to the door and left its touch against the glass in a small slope of snow. "Looks like we're going to be here a while," Elen sighed.
"We'll pass the time somehow."
"Yeah, apparently you table dance. That ought to be good entertainment."
They stepped into the elevator together and Gwen studiously kept her expression bland as she replied, "Why, Ms Foss, are you a connoisseur of such diversions?"
"You never know," she said cheekily, feeling herself respond yet again to Gwen's flirtatious banter. "And it's Elen, thank you very much; you're making me feel old."
"My dear, you're the farthest thing from it," Gwen assured her. "Especially when one can find such excellent comparison in the example set by your office gargoyle. Did she come with the building or did someone conjure her?"
Elen laughed. "We've been wondering the same thing ourselves. Oops, here we are." Once again, Elen led the way down the corridor and into the dimly lit office where only one or two of the overhead lights remained on as part of the emergency lighting. "This should only take a few minutes. Why don't you undo that coat of yours? You're going to roast." She peeled off her own coat and tossed her belongings down on the desk.
Gwen nodded and began plucking the cotton gloves from her hands while Elen took a seat on her now pristine desk, the better to finger through her address book. The ring tone sounded softly in her ear after she dialled and she followed the doorwoman with her eyes as she waited for someone to pick up the phone. The light from the city à a faint blue-white glow cast in the continuously shifting curtain of sleeting snow that hissed against the glass - gathered itself in the folds of Gwen's coat. It burnished the dark gold trim and winked off the polished brass buttons as practiced fingers unhooked the material to let it flow open in relaxed folds. The top hat was removed, allowing the waves of hair to tumble free and over the back of the coat's high collar, the gradual transformation from restrained propriety to unbound and alluring femininity parching Elen's throat. The coat's panels hung open, revealing a hint of shape beneath its dark exterior; a slow unveiling, a soft and distracting mystery to be unriddled.
"-llo?Hello? Is anyone there? Must be a wrong numb-"
"Debra?" Elen croaked, suddenly realising that the line had been picked up. She swallowed to regain some moisture in her mouth so she could continue. "Deb, it's Elen."
"Elen! Tom, it's Elen; go get your keys. Sweetie, you got in earlier than you thought, huh? This is great. Nadia is so excited she's practically bouncing."
Elen averted her eyes from Gwen, reaching down instead to play with a pen lying on her desk. "I didn't make it to Grand Central. The weather got too bad for me to even get there."
"Yeah. As it is I'm not even sure I'm going to be able to get home tonight."
"Waitasecond. Are you still at the office? You were supposed to leave hours ago."
Elen winced, knowing she was in for it. "I know, but we've got this really big client that needed work for a deadline. And Edward-"
"I don't give woolly god damn about Edward or his deadlines. We haven't seen you in months. It's Christmas, Elen. I would have thought you'd at least make the effort for Christmas if nothing else."
The guilt was crushing, especially since this wouldn't be the first time she missed a gathering at her sister's place, inadvertent this time or not. "I didn't know it was going to snow! I had every reason to think I'd still get there on time."
"Nadia's going to be so disappointed."
"That's not fair, Deb, and you know it. I couldn't get away any sooner; the client is in trouble with the IRS and things aren't looking good, especially with Edward threatening to fire me if they go down in flames." Just saying it out loud made the situation that much more depressing. She sighed. A twin sigh came over the line back to her in echoing reflection.
"Why didn't you tell me before that it was this bad?"
"I... there just wasn't time. I've been working almost constantly... It... I didn't want to worry you, I guess." Like I'm going to tell you that I forgot to bother calling.
"What do you want to do now?" Debra asked, now more exasperated than angry.
"I'll get a train out there as soon as the weather clears a bit. I still want to come out for the holidays. Will you tell Nadia that I'll be there as soon as I can? I have presents for her."
A small, resigned chuckle tickled her ear. "You'd better, she's been dying to see you, El. We all have. Hurry out when you can. Give us a call and Tom will come to the station to get you."
"Love you, kiddo."
The rare emotional sentiment from her older sister made Elen writhe inside, uncomfortable with it, yet touched all the same. "You, too."
She felt Gwen watching her while she said her goodbyes, felt her move closer as she hung up the phone. The other woman's bare hand came to rest on her shoulder, and its intense warmth struck Elen.
"I'm sorry you missed your train. Being away from family is always the hardest at Christmas."
"Yeah." A thought suddenly occurred to her. "What about you though? Don't you have anywhere to be?" Can I be any more self-absorbed? A quiet, inner voice argued lack of practice, but Elen wasn't about to excuse herself for being so inconsiderate.
The smile Gwen gave her was infinitely sad. "Not especially. Another reason I was a good candidate for tonight's shift."
"No family? Surely you have friends...?" Gwen was one of the most friendly, outgoing women she had ever met. It was inconceivable that she would be without a horde of friends.
"Oh, plenty of those," Gwen was quick to agree. "Just... no family or significant other to share the evening with."
"That's not right."
One navy shoulder lifted and fell. "That's the way it goes sometimes." Gwen strolled between the desks and through an open door of the main conference room where the large windows afforded a stunning view from which to observe the twisting, swirling weather outside as the wind whipped it into frenzied patterns. The gentle curves and angles of her face were painted in soft relief by the faint light stealing in from the snow-swept city. Her hair framed her face in a wavy halo, giving her the appearance of an earthbound angel, strong and ethereal, deep in contemplation of the storm.
Elen slowly followed, quietly, almost afraid to disturb her. "I'm sorry," she murmured at last. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"No," Gwen said and then turned to look at Elen directly. "You haven't upset me in the least. In fact, through an odd twist of circumstance, I'll actually enjoy better company tonight than I might otherwise have had any right to hope for. It's likely wrong of me to feel this way, but... I'm glad you're here."
Elen found the sincerity, both shy and serious in its expression, so very sweet. As if the words had given her permission to do so, Elen came closer until she stood beside Gwen at the window. "When I think of all the people I could possibly have been stuck here with, I'm thinking that I got pretty lucky myself."
"What? Mr Roth or Gargoyle wouldn't have suited you better?" the doorwoman said, her playful grin firmly re-established.
"Oh my god, no! You actually have manners and are so much better looking." It came off as flirtatious flattery, but Elen found herself genuinely meaning it. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Right?
One blonde brow arched up. "Is that so?"
"Quite. And from the way you speak I have to think that you may even be better educated than they are. How is that anyway?" Elen asked, her curiosity suddenly piqued as she stumbled onto another facet of Gwen she had noticed, yet never given further thought towards.
"You can't think that I've always been a doorman," Gwen said, chuckling.
"No, that makes you sound like you sprung into being looking the way you do." Which isn't half bad. Okay, we need to stop right there. It was all perfectly fine so long as it stayed within the realms of flirtation. But in this isolated moment, with the soft filtered light and the way this woman was looking at her and this way Gwen had about her, dressed as she was in her uniform... For the first time in ages Elen found herself yearning for something to happen. So alien an emotion, Elen almost didn't recognise it and now that she had, she didn't really know what to do about it. Better to stay on track with less dangerous thoughts. "What were you before?"
A pained look flitted across Gwen's face and Elen regretted having pried. Before she could take back the question though, the blonde woman turned to look out the window again, her breath frosting the cold glass as she answered, "A graduate student. Majors in classical literature and economics. Not that there's much to be done with English upon graduation, so I became financial consultant."
"Wow, that's not a bad way to make a living."
"Mmm." Gwen nodded, still looking out into the city.
"How did you end up here? I'd think there'd be a lot of money to be made down on Wall Street."
"Certainly," Gwen agreed, "if you're willing to pay for it."
"There's something less than moral about it all at times, even when you're working within the lines of the law. And when you aren't..." Gwen shook her head slowly. "I've met some pretty empty people. All they lived for were the lines on the monthly NASDAQ chart and what percentage they got when their clients cleaned up. It was high-pressure intensity without meaning."
"Some would say that earning money was the meaning." Elen looked out window too, troubled by how closely Gwen's situation seemed to mirror her own. "It has its place. It's important too. Don't you think?"
"That depends entirely upon whose perspective you get, I suppose. But wouldn't it be tragic if that's all that was important?"
Those hazel brown eyes turned her way, giving her a look of knowing that made Elen shy away, look elsewhere. "Of course," she answered.
When Elen didn't say anything further, Gwen took up her story again. "It was just before Christmas last year that this board of directors came to me and a few other people I worked with, complaining about the earnings. Things were taking a dip, the markets were still a mess and, of course, the shareholders were screaming. There was absolutely no way to increase profits before the deadline. So you know what we proposed? Lay-offs. Scaling back. Restructuring. Whatever fancy word you care to use when you tell a large group of hard working people that they no longer have gainful employment with you. Oh, it was slick and smooth and made the company's book look fabulous. Double-digit dividends! Wasn't this wonderful? But like that," Gwen snapped her fingers, a sharp popping sound like a bubble bursting, "like that, over fifteen hundred families had their lives permanently rearranged for them right before the holidays because someone couldn't settle for five percent profits instead of the eleven percent they ended up with.
"I was there, invited to celebrate with the board, when they delivered the notices to the staff. Elen, they didn't even give most of them more than a day to vacate. I heard afterwards through sources that security was on hand to make sure these folks didn't steal or wreck anything on their way out. Treating the staff like criminals." Gwen sighed. "One of the women, a phone rep I think, cornered me in the hallway. She was trying so hard not to cry while she quietly kept asking me to explain it to her, to justify it to her, to give her something to tell her kids when she tried to explain why they had heat instead of presents for Christmas. And I couldn't. I couldn't! Not without saying, coldly, that reducing employee overhead was the only quick way to increase profit margins.
"And that's when it finally hit me, what I was really doing." She turned haunted eyes on Elen. "I was good at what I did. Can you imagine how many other people I affected that way, how many lives I ruined, while helping small groups of very wealthy people get even wealthier?"
"You're not to blame. You can't take that kind of responsibility," Elen argued. "The companies made the decisions. It was their choice."
"I facilitated it! I helped make it happen, any which way I could."
"What on earth could you possibly have done to stop it?"
Blonde locks fell over Gwen's eyes as she looked down towards the street, her arms crossing over her chest. "I could have tried to talk them out of it. Tried harder to find business solutions that didn't affect the staff first. Or, if they wouldn't listen, at least try to get them to offer compensation packages to lessen the blow instead of wholesale and immediate firings."
"So, what finally happened?"
"I left. Quit the business. I didn't have the stomach for it any longer and it cost me more than I realised. Most of the people in that kind of world usually want you around only for what you can do for them; give them, who you can connect them with. Even people you consider friends will behave like rats who sense a sinking ship and flee for dry land. I lost my job, my reputation, my lover... everything." She gave a hollow laugh. "And you know what I was left with? The money I'd made on commissions. Except it doesn't add up to much when your sense of happiness, self, or purpose resemble the leavings on the floor of an abattoir."
The story was incredible and Elen was stunned, never having imagined the life the other woman might have led prior to their chance meeting on the stairs. "What did you do then?"
"Tried to get myself together again. I was fortunate to have a full bank account; god knows that most of the people I'd ruined weren't as lucky. I don't think I'm a philanthropist; I'm not that good of a person, but I decided on trying something a little humbler and smaller for a change. Something that would let me have a simpler life where I could leave at the end of the day knowing I hadn't hurt anyone. So I took a position in the lobby as a receptionist. I got to meet people. The day was less hectic and the people I dealt with had souls. Maria? Downstairs? She's a single mom with three kids. She works nights while her mother stays with them so that she can be there in the mornings to spend time with her kids before sending them to school. And she still likes to volunteer on the weekends for her Church group when she has the energy. Can you imagine how little sleep she goes on? Jonesy, without fail, invites me over for Sunday dinner every week. His wife makes a wicked pot roast. Why? Because he likes to argue with me over whatever's headlining in the paper while we watch the Jets on television.
"But this is what I mean," Gwen continued earnestly, reaching out now to lay her hand on Elen's arm. The touch forced their gazes to meet and Elen wanted to resist it, to not feel or acknowledge the point the other woman so obviously wanted to make. "They're not in it for themselves. Money's important, but there's more than that. And when I started working and found that when I could give people a smile or make them laugh or help out in some small way, it was as if I'd given myself something of me back."
It was too apropos for coincidence, and Elen darted a glance outside before giving Gwen a wary look. "You're not, by any chance, the Ghost of Christmas Present, are you?"
The doorwoman's jaw dropped open, worked, and then she finally spluttered, "Am I what?!"
"No, no, that's silly," Elen added quickly, more to herself than Gwen, feeling utterly ridiculous. "Sorry. I must be tired."
"You must be a lot of things if you asked me that," Gwen laughed, though not unkindly. "Where did that particular question come from? No, really," she insisted, seeing that Elen wasn't going to answer. "You asked that for a reason."
"It's only that..." She didn't want to get into this now. The evening had been going rather nicely without her ruining things. But Gwen slipped warm fingers into hers and gave her this expression of interested concern, and for once in a long, long time, Elen felt it was okay for something to be about her, rather than about looking after someone else's problems or deadlines. She tried again. "Lately, I've been feeling really burned out, especially the past few months. Things are always hectic around here, but we had a few people quit, some in rather dramatic fashion, but no one has been hired yet to take their place so we've been divvying up the work. With so many more clients to juggle, it's been pretty stressful."
"I'm sure it doesn't help to have a senior partner cuss you out on the steps during the lunch rush hour either."
The reminder of her rather public dressing-down made her cringe with angry shame. "No," she muttered. "It doesn't. The fact that Edward is getting this upset over a client who's so obviously... corrupt... and that I'm working my ass off not only to save them, but to put them in a position to continue doing exactly what they're doing..." Elen shrugged. "Just by virtue of association I feel... dirty."
"Why here then?" Gwen asked softly.
"In university, I discovered an interest in criminology and society, which led to an interest in law. I took night school to get certified and was, amazingly I thought, accepted here as a legal secretary. I've been studying for ages so I could take the bar exam and finally be a lawyer in my own right."
"So it was a dream? Becoming a lawyer?"
"I thought it was."
"I thought I could make a difference. Get rich in the process." Elen shrugged, feeling uncomfortable with her honesty. "I guess I'm not as much of a philanthropist as I thought either."
"But you started off with positive intentions," Gwen reminded her.
The fury of the storm outside had lessened somewhat, the wind dying down enough to see the building across the street and the lantern-like glow of the streetlights far below. Everything was covered in a layer of white and nothing stirred that she could see. Everything was buried, like her once positive intentions. "I lost my way at some point," Elen admitted in a small voice. "I wanted to get to the goal line so badly I started ignoring everything else. I'd skip the parties to finish up work, or go out and then come back to the office to study for a while. I got so wrapped up in things here that I came home one night to find half my apartment empty and the cat gone and a dear Jane letter sitting on the counter." She still remembered the shock of it, the cutting edge of her own obliviousness that had led to that moment. Only in retrospect had she realised that the signs had been there all along, if only she had stopped long enough to pay attention. The emptiness of the apartment had been a stark accusation, and Elen couldn't stand to be there any more than necessary.
"With no one to go home to, I just threw myself into the work, thinking that if I did well I'd get noticed and promoted. It happened, but then I had even less time to study because of the work hours and it didn't matter how much money I made because I was barely out of the office long enough to spend it." The more she shared, the faster it spilled out, and Elen found herself distressed to the point of tears now that she was finally facing up to the whole of it.
"My mother died of cancer years ago, and my father passed away not long after I graduated. My sister Deb is all the family I have left and I hardly ever see her and her family. Almost every time we make plans to get together, something comes up that Edward makes it impossible for me to leave. A trial, a problem with discovery, letters that have to go out, a conference to arrange..." She shook her head. "And each time I didn't dare leave, because... well..." She gave a watery laugh and the tears started to run down her face. "...you saw Edward."
"A total bastard, if you ask me," Gwen declared. "Why do you stay?"
"Where else could I make this kind of money while I try to pass the bar?"
"Elen..." Gwen shook her head, the light catching the lines of sadness and pity etching her face. "What on earth good does the money do you if it makes you feel like this?"
"You think I should just quit? Is that it?" Elen replied sharply, feeling defensive. She pulled her hands free and took a step away, turning to look out the window. A spider web of frost grew where her breath touched the window, and she closed her eyes against the burning sensation that threatened. Whether from the fatigue or the tears, she couldn't tell any more.
"I think you should think long and hard about what it is you really want," Gwen returned, staying where she was. "Your boss treats you with absolutely no respect, you work insane hours with no breaks, have very little or no social life, abhor your clients' ethics, and despite the fact that you're an intelligent, witty and very beautiful woman, you have no time to share your life with someone. I see it with the people that pass through my door every day; you make of yourself an automaton, shallow and unfeeling, lacking that spark of humanity that makes you give a damn à about anything. If your priority truly is money then your situation is ideal; you'll pass the bar and join the ranks of lawyers like the ones you've dealt with here every day. If you want something different in your life... Elen, you need to make that decision and commit to it now before you lose all desire to change."
Humanity. She had been warned once that given enough time it would cease to be a concern. Elen remembered how the memory of that conversation had come to her just a couple weeks ago as she had freed herself from her self-imposed isolation to wander the city, remembered that remarkable sense of renewed vitality. Just a taste of it, short and fleeting, but a taste all the same. Gwen's words showed her just how empty her life truly was. The future looked just as bleak. Lonely. Meaningless.
In the darkness of the room with the chill seeping through the window and into her bones, she wrapped her arms around herself in an effort to stave off the sudden tremors. Her tears scalded her skin, and Elen covered her face with one hand, her shoulders shaking as she struggled not to sob aloud.
Warm hands turned her and Elen found herself pressed against Gwen's chest, the edges of the heavy coat drawn up around her and her body held securely in the other woman's arms. She buried her face against the smooth skin of Gwen's throat, weeping to the sound of comforting nonsense murmured in her ear. The touch, gentle and slow, became a lifeline, and Elen pressed herself closer, looping her arms around Gwen's waist within the confines of the coat, sighing through her tears when Gwen held her tighter. "Don't let go," she begged. "Please."
"I won't," Gwen said against her ear. "I won't."
The warmth of her breath was a moist caress and Elen shivered, gripping the back of Gwen's shirt in her fists. It had been so long, so very long since the last time she had enjoyed even this level of closeness. Shamelessly, she revelled in the feel of the hand stroking her hair and allowed herself to cry, to let it out; all the frustration and weariness. In time the tears slowed and, feeling hollow and drained, she let out a hesitant and shaky breath of contentment. Suffused with gratitude, Elen pressed close and slid her hands across Gwen's back to hug her tightly.
Beyond all expectation, she felt Gwen tremble. The two of them stilled, barely breathing. Elen blinked, her eyes searching blindly in the shadowed fall of blonde hair. Tentatively, experimentally, she brushed her fingers against Gwen's spine, light and questioning, and was rewarded with a soft intake of breath and the feel of the doorwoman's hand twitching against the base of her scalp in response.
It was an odd moment; the knowledge of Gwen's interest seemingly broadcasted to some part of her with blinding clarity. The knowing was a wild rush of fearful exhilaration seated in the pit of her belly and Elen swallowed hard, tasting the tang of risk upon her tongue, coppery and warm, visceral. She knew she shouldn't. There was no space or place for this complication in her life right now. But she wanted this. Needed this touch as if it was a link back to herself, a way back to where she should have been all along.
Slowly, she brushed her trembling lips against Gwen's throat, tasting the salty moisture of her own tears on the other woman's skin. Another breath, sharper this time, and Elen found herself wanting to hear it again. To be the cause of it. Using the tip of her tongue, she removed another tear, erasing its existence and painting something much more incendiary in its place.
"Oh..." Gwen whispered on a shorten breath, reflexively clutching Elen closer, drawing Elen hard again her body beneath the comforting weight of the navy coat.
Emboldened, Elen planted heavy, wet kisses against the pebbled flesh, wondering abstractedly what might grow from them as she reached Gwen's jaw. The other woman's head reared back and she was pierced by the stripe of autumn that glinted in Gwen's eyes; hints of ruddy leaves and mottled greens, gilded in captured flecks of sunlit gold. There was surprise, but only for an instant, only for as long as it took for the distance between them to be spanned and her slightly open mouth pressed against Gwen's lips.
Oh my god. Beneath the pressure of the slow, languorous kiss, she felt Gwen's lips part slowly as if without her conscious thought; a response as instinctual as the rose flush of heat upon a woman's skin, or the heaviness that parts a woman's thighs in moist and sultry invitation.
"You're so beautiful." The words, spoken into her mouth, were swallowed whole, and Elen went into search of more. Lovely words, accentuated and shaped by the tongue that slipped overtop of hers. Would they taste as wonderful as they sounded? She lured Gwen's tongue back into her mouth and twined them together, sucking gently, fully, in search of the feelings that eluded her, the resonance of sensations, the tantalising promise of something that had missing for far too long.
Elen appreciated Gwen's intensity. Liked the sureness of her touch. There was nothing tentative about the blonde woman's hands against her body; only a rough gentleness that took the measure of her as Gwen pressed Elen against the edge of the table, shaping and stroking her like a sculptor working unformed clay. A part of her cried out to be reshaped, remade.
The rasp of their breath allowed no more space for words and Elen had no more need of them; not when the arch of Gwen's neck or her own deep-throated groan conveyed far more than such paltry constructs ever could. Her blazer was edged off her shoulders and allowed to fall to the conference table behind her. The rustle of cloth was a sudden signal and Elen's skin, abruptly aware of itself, suffered its confinement only until their combined effort could remove it. Silk pooled back over her shoulders and down her back, and Elen gasped at the cold air and her own arousal as Gwen's teeth found her shoulder and bit in, causing Elen to buck against her and gasp again.
The words, muttered against skin, were an aphrodisiac, a heady spell that, combined with the heat of Gwen's mouth, sent her into a frenzy. She grabbed Gwen by the lapels and pulled her up roughly, seeking her mouth again. Where her shirt gaped open, the front of the doorwoman's coat rubbed against the lace of her bra, the stimulation rendering her stiff and taut as she buried her hands in the thick fall of blonde hair and kissed Gwen hard.
Hot palms pulled the edges of her blouse free and slid up her sides, dipped around back and suddenly Elen felt the clasp of her bra released. They parted long enough for her to pull her skirt from her hips, to abandon the bra, and then join again; their hands alternately tugging at Gwen's own clothes or seeking purchase on the slopes and curves of Elen's body.
Gwen pulled loose, ripped her coat off and spread it on the table, her expression hungry as she lifted Elen onto the table and pressed her back into the warm nest of the inner lining.
Shirt. Belt buckle. Tie. Pants. Elen wasn't even sure how they managed it and frankly, when the bare flesh of Gwen's belly met her own, she no longer gave a damn. Her hands slid across Gwen's skin, reading her with a Braille-like urgency, shifting until her knee slipped between opened thighs and touched molten heat that stopped them both, halted them abruptly in mid-motion. Gwen's brow contracted, as if in pain, but when her eyes opened, Elen could see the birth of a tender passion that suddenly eased the charged air surrounding them, gentling it.
But she could no more stop herself than halt the storm that raged outside, and Elen pressed forward, feeling Gwen's legs part to accept her closer, enveloping her senses in a musky heat that dizzied her even as it whetted her appetite. The woman groaned her pleasure, huffing sharply as Elen nursed at her breast.
Hands returned to her body, as intent on giving as receiving, and Elen gave a cry as a hand cupped her womanhood and then dipped deep into the pool of moisture gathering between her legs. Her spine arched itself and Elen pulled her knee up hard between Gwen's legs, the force of it bringing the doorwoman on top of her and forcing those searching fingers deeper inside of her.
"Christ!" Gwen moaned, the weight of her hair tumbling loose and free over her shoulders to brush teasingly against Elen's breasts. "...Elen..." she murmured between clenched teeth. "Elen..."
"Yes." Gwen's fingers moved inside of her, the trapped hand pressing firmly between the folds and forcing a whimpering sob from Elen's throat. It had been so long that she had forgotten how this even felt.
So good so good oh god oh fuck yes- "More!" she gasped, pulling Gwen's mouth to her own, the kiss hard and wet as a third finger pressed inwards in a quick, slippery thrust.
She blindly stared at the ceiling overhead, one hand gripping Gwen's neck, the other forming white imprints where it clutched the other woman's back, feeling the shift and flow of muscle over Gwen's ribcage. An undulating rhythm was taking over, making her blind, stoked by the panting groans in her ear as her lover painted wet heat across her thigh. Everything was hot and straining, building until she sobbed forth her need, the force of her climax slamming through her. Overwhelmed by its power, Elen cried out, tears trickling into her temples as her body rode the primal wave, the point of connection where Gwen remained, throbbing strongly in time to her erratic heartbeat. Weakly she mouthed Gwen's nipples, feeling the other woman's own rise to completion. Reaching down, she added her hand to the fray, pressing hard into the juncture of Gwen's thighs, the blonde woman's arousal coating her hand quickly.
"Elen..." Strain shaped her name, and Elen rubbed firmly and suddenly Gwen was there, shuddering and gasping as her own orgasm found her. "Unnghgod..."
Everything slowed and Gwen collapsed in slow motion atop Elen's body, covering her in sweat-sheened heat. She could feel both their efforts to regain their breath, the rise and fall of their bellies against each other, the radiating rings of sensation that still sang through her abdomen.
Elen closed her eyes. She felt limp and heavy, bonelessly loose. Waves of hair spilled across her chest and she could hear Gwen swallow hard a few times and did the same herself, suddenly aware of how dry her throat was. A brush of lips touched her shoulder. The side of her throat.
With effort, Elen moved her hand and stroked the bare, pebbled skin of Gwen's upper arm. Beyond that there was no movement; beyond their breathing there was no sound but the faintest hiss of the snow against the window. Glancing down, she could see the slope of Gwen's shoulder, the smooth, unblemished skin tinted bluish-grey in the half-light from outside. An unexpected peace stole through her in this pocket of languid silence. For the first time in recent memory she felt untroubled, empty of the clamorous thoughts and responsibilities that had plagued her. For this alone she was grateful, but more than that she revelled in this rush of emotion and sensation that filled her and made her feel this incredible sense of well-being.
"Are you still alive?" Gwen's muffled voice asked her from somewhere in the vicinity of her chest.
For the first time in years. "Barely. You?"
"Nope," she muttered, "a beautiful and savage woman ambushed and sucked the life out of me. But I died well."
"That's something at least. You're fairly talkative for a corpse though."
"Aren't I just?" Gwen's voice became clearer as she turned her head. "Nothing but a wraith remains."
The rich, hazel eyes, liquid and full, held Elen in tender regard. The look made her breath catch and she knew a kind of shy wonder at her own unexpectedly strong response to it. With her body still thrumming with the lingering thrall, the touch of Gwen's body had fed a heretofore-unacknowledged need, but the hunger had not yet passed. "Maybe you just need a good reason to recover?"
A blonde brow lifted. "Like...?"
Slowly, Elen turned them over and raised herself above Gwen, marvelling at the way the light played over the lines of her body, the way it created pools of shadow from which the islands of her breasts arose to crested peaks. Such scaleable heights made her mouth water. She watched her hand stroke the soft skin and then followed the path of her fingers with her lips, tasting the inviting flesh with unhurried deliberateness, occasionally moaning into Gwen's body as her actions stirred her own ardour again. Trembling hands plucked at her hair, her nape and shoulders, and Elen knew that she was not the only one affected.
"Gotta give you-" She trailed her tongue around the well of Gwen's navel. "-back your will to live."
Gwen gave a breathy laugh. "Thief! I knew it was you!"
Elen forewent a reply and instead let her instincts guide her down the shallow slope to the fine dusting of hairs that tickled her chin. "Shame on me," she murmured, inhaling deeply and rubbing her chin back and forth until Gwen lifted her hips in encouragement, "Can you ever forgive me?"
"I don't kn-know. Perhaps if you convinced me of your-god!-sincerity?"
The way Gwen shivered under her touch filled Elen with a sense of power; imbuing her with a heady and seductive confidence. She slid down the doorwoman's body, loving the vitality of her, the intensive reality of the lines of tension that revealed themselves in the tightening of stomach muscles or the flex of her thighs. Long legs parted themselves willingly, cradling Elen between raised knees. Cupping slender hips, Elen used the contact to brace herself when the mouth-watering scent of Gwen's essence dizzied her.
Without preamble, she lowered her mouth and covered the swollen apex. Gwen gave a deep, explosive grunt of surprise and Elen felt her scalp taken in a firm grasp, fingers twitching in response to her explorations. Giving in to the urge, Elen slid a soft, pliant tongue across the inner petals, down and down until she could drink from the source, lick it deep, like a hummingbird in search of nectar. Gwen's fingers on her tightened and the hips beneath her hands began a dance of passion, carried along upon an insistent rhythm dictated by the beat of her tongue along sensitive flesh.
A strained whimper met her ears and Elen smiled for a fleeting moment before sucking in earnest.
Another light lick. "Don't worry." No, Gwen needn't have worried herself at all. Elen wanted this with an intensity that surprised her, wanted to give something back.
"What?" Startled and concerned, Elen immediately drew back, wondering if she had gotten carried away.
"No, not you," Gwen was quick to reassure. "Something in my coat. Here." She flipped the edge of the coat over and dug into a side pocket, withdrawing a handful of items. "Forgot I put these here." Gwen emptied her hand on the dark shiny wood of the table, revealing foil-covered candies, loose mints and a candy cane. "Not the kind of poking I enjoy, if you take my meaning."
Elen brushed her lips across sensitive skin, answering, "No, I imagine not," before returning to her self-appointed task, watching as Gwen's head sagged back into the navy pillow. It occurred to her that it was like a French kiss of another sort, and deftly she applied her tongue in like manner, loving the liquid throb of the heartbeat that ranged so far from its source that she could feel it, even here.
"...uh god, Elen...please..." Gwen's body writhed eloquently beneath her ministrations. "Please..." A broken sob followed this last work of pleading, and Elen shifted her position, reached out and found that which would fulfil the urgent request.
"Gwen," she murmured, and wild eyes, clouded with unsated pleasure, lifted to find her. With slow and deliberate naughtiness, Elen peeled the wrapper off the candy cane and fed the spiralling candy into her mouth, its length into her mouth.
Gwen's eyes widened.
Elen winked at her.
"That's a sizeable candy cane, Ms Foss," the doorwoman managed to croak.
"That it is," she agreed after pulling it from her mouth. It was one of those eight inch ones without the curved hook at the end, but what it lacked in a hanging fixture it more than made up for in diameter. At least to Elen's way of thinking. That was positively raunchy. She wasn't sure if she wanted to blush or congratulate herself. The peppermint treat was returned to her mouth where she slid it in and out a time or two, turning it 'round, just for the joy of seeing Gwen's jaw discernibly drop. Any worry Elen might have had was allayed at seeing how the sight had increased the other woman's breathing.
"Tell me," Elen said, her own voice husky as she thought of what she intended, "do you like candy canes?"
The sound of the swallow was audible and Gwen nodded, quickly, her eyes never leaving the sticky confection in Elen's hand.
"I hoped you'd say that." And she lowered her head once more, finding her path blindly into wet heat, savouring the taste and scent and sound of her lover at her pleasure. Elen teased her mercilessly, the tip of the candy cane nosing forward only to retreat again. Over and over again while she continued to ply her lips in an argument far more persuasive than any she might in a court of law. A clawed hand gripped her shoulder hard and Elen gave in, pressing forward and Gwen cried out in grateful song for the reprieve, for the glorious sensation of being filled. It slid in as smoothly as her tongue had and Elen, mesmerised, watched the hypnotic flow of the red and white spiral as it disappeared and reappeared in a demanding rhythm.
Curious, she dragged her tongue across Gwen's opening, lingering at the point of connection, tasting the commingling of flavours, salty sweat and musky mint. The touch of her tongue here, the feel of the pleasant intrusion, drove Gwen further into passionate madness and her cries grew loud in the room, a sobbing demand for completion.
Her own belly tightening in sympathy, Elen latched onto her firmly and used one hand against Gwen's abdomen to pin her down, limiting the doorwoman's movement as she strove to give this woman everything she had to offer. Strong thighs snapped shut on her like a trap and Elen fought with her, holding her still as she thrust and sucked as strongly as she dared.
"Oh my Christ!" The last word was a growl torn from a strained throat and Gwen stiffened abruptly, her hips rising from the table as orgasm struck with fierce intensity. Elen felt it when it happened, felt her own body tremble from the inside out in response to its strength. Together they rode out wave after wave and Elen, half trapped, half still in control, gradually slowed her movements until some limit had been reached as Gwen's frame unlocked and deposited her back on their makeshift bedding, silent and unmoving. So very, very still.
"Le petite mort," Elen whispered against sensitive skin that shivered in response to the touch of her breath. The little death. And like one arising from the pallet of the grave, Gwen gave a deep, shuddering gasp, her chest suddenly heaving for air and her skin awash in gooseflesh as the tremors hit. Concerned-it was chillier in here now than during the day-Elen flipped the edges of the coat closer around Gwen's body. "Are you all right?"
"Mmhmm," was Gwen's languorous reply. "Splen'nid."
Elen chuckled, very well pleased with herself.
"Don' fergit your toy tho'..."
Hmm, yes. With a somewhat evil glint to her eye, Elen gave the scene a once-over and then once again carefully applied her tongue. A hiss and wince cut the air, and Elen gentled her touch further, giving Gwen a distraction to focus upon as she took care of the other matter. A contented sigh blanketed her ears and Elen felt a sudden, deep tenderness overtake her, filling her with a kind of happiness that she hadn't known in years. Intent on only conveying it, Elen wordlessly painted her feelings upon the landscape of Gwen's body, drinking in the rich flavour of her like a heady wine and giving back her gratitude for the ending of a solitude that might otherwise have meant her downfall; a soul lost in the long winter of a barren and lifeless existence.
She was unaware that she wept until she tasted the different tang of salt upon her tongue, yet she did not stop. Gwen's hand was upon her brow and suddenly Elen felt the second series of tremors shake them both, underscored by a long, quivering sigh. Tired and satisfied, Elen rested her chest against the soft skin of Gwen's inner thigh and closed her eyes.
Her name, barely whispered, drew her eyes open again. "Hm?"
"Come here to me."
With difficulty, Elen pushed herself to her hands and knees and traversed the short distance to kneel at the other woman's side. Warm hands drew her down and in moments she felt herself enfolded in a tangle of limbs and smooth, soft skin. It was a glorious sensation and she hummed a comfortable breath in response.
Gwen slid her hand into Elen's hair and pulled her near for a slow, shallow kiss; a caress of lips and the tips of tongues made soft by the most pleasant of exercises. "You," the doorwoman murmured against her mouth, "are a dangerous creature."
"You have forever altered the season out of all proportion for me."
Noses were brushed together. "I will never, ever think of candy canes in the same way again."
Elen snorted a laugh and then licked her lips, catching the faint remains of the myriad of flavours. "If you think I'm dangerous, consider yourself fortunate that you've never partaken of Leila Richard's company. There's a woman who's dangerous enough to warrant a Surgeon General's warning on her backside." She closed her eyes as she spoke, enjoying the feel of Gwen's fingers stroking lightly across her skin; welcome travellers upon the long hidden terrain of her body.
"I take it that you have?"
"Once. That's all it took, thank you."
"I'll take note of the warning then."
"Speaking of dangerous women, you don't think there's actually a chance that Maria is going to come looking for you, is there?" She surveyed their present situation and the piles of discarded clothes, wondering what the Latino woman might have to say about it.
"I certainly hope not; after what you've just done to me I wouldn't be fit to handle her and I hate to disappoint."
Elen laughed again and lightly smacked the woman's midriff. "You're incorrigible."
"I live to serve."
"But not to table dance."
"My dear Elen, I've already done a fair bit of table dancing this evening, wouldn't you say?"
She muffled her laughter against Gwen's shoulder, grateful that the office was deserted. "Oh my god. I'm so glad those other women with their dollar bills weren't here."
"Indeed. Especially since they wouldn't have had anywhere to slip them. I was divested of my clothes rather handily some time ago."
"I was inspired. And that was before I saw the navy thong you were wearing."
Gwen slid her arms around her shoulders and Elen sighed again at the feel of skin against skin. "Then I'll dare to hope that your muse speaks to you again."
It was as gentle and sweet an invitation Elen could have ever have hoped to hear, and the expression on Gwen's face, serene and sincere, defied her to turn away from the feelings stirring within her.
"That is the most beautiful smile I have ever seen you wear," Gwen whispered. She lifted a finger and Elen felt its tip trace the outline of her lips. "Shame on you for having a smile this lovely and never sharing it before now."
"Flatterer." But Elen blushed nonetheless.
"Truth," Gwen insisted. "I wish you could see yourself right now."
She put a hand to herself, almost self-consciously. "I must look a mess."
"No," the blonde woman said, shaking her head as she drew Elen's hand away from her face. "No. Your hair is free and loose, and your face has a glow that's echoed in your eyes like candle flame. I've never seen you appear so relaxed and at ease before. It's as if I'm seeing you again for the first time, but this time-it's the real you I'm seeing. And I... I really like what I see."
Elen couldn't find the words to form an answer, so full of feeling that it seemed to preclude the possibility of speaking. Looking back and forth between Gwen's eyes, she could find no trace of guile, nor hint of deceit; only a need for truth to be spoken and accepted. Feeling more than she thought she might be capable of containing, Elen lifted her chin and brushed her lips against those of the other woman, once, twice, and again, hoping to show Gwen, in lieu of words, what was in her heart.
"I never want to see you unhappy again," she heard as she was turned and covered by a warm and loving touch. It unlocked something inside of her, banished the dread and eased her fears, and Elen revelled in this lightness of being that had seeped inside to nearly overwhelm her.
If anything further was said, it was lost in the whisper of a sigh, a hint of sound like the snow that brushed the glass and kissed its panes. Like a gift given in the season, her sense of wonder and grace had been restored to her and with it, she reached for the spark of herself, that elusive and fragile light. In a promise written in the expression of her body, Elen vowed never to lose it again.
* * *
Eight months later...
Elen put the newspaper down on the desk and took another bite of her muffin. Breakfast in the mornings was still a novelty and though she wondered if it would negatively impact her waistline, Gwen kept assuring her that a bit of meat on her bones wouldn't do her any harm.
Gwen... She glanced at the handful of snapshots pegged to her cube wall - Gwen and her at Coney Island, a dollop of ketchup on her chin when the wandering photographer had caught them with their hotdogs (Gwen had paid for it, insisting it was too adorable to pass up). A shot of Gwen leaning over the pier, the sunlight reflecting off her hair as she stood in profile with the ocean behind her. One more picture of the two of them together with her niece from just a few weeks back. I think Deb was too charmed by you to ever know what hit her when I brought you with me.
The phone suddenly rang and she swallowed her bite of muffin before scooping up the receiver and putting it to her ear. "Legal Aid, Elen speaking."
"Good morning, Ms Foss."
Speak of the devil. She smiled. "You are trying to make me feel old, aren't you?"
"As if I could. Rather, chalk it up to old habits dying hard," came the warm response on the line.
"So to what do I owe the pleasure of this mid-morning call?"
"Did you see the paper yet this morning?"
"I've got it right here. Very interesting story on page two."
"So interesting that a limo screamed up to the curb promptly at eight and vomited out six Debussy folks who very nearly crashed through the glass in their haste to enter the building. I barely opened the door in time."
It probably wasn't nice, but Elen felt a niggle of satisfaction at the news. "In a rush, were they?" she asked dryly.
"Bumblebees in a bottle, as my grandmother would say. The firm is a madhouse today with people coming and going, and the press hunting around like bitches in heat. I'm very glad you're not here for this."
"Me too. Edward's probably on the verge of a heart attack."
"Rumour from Mrs Darcy is that he cussed out Mrs Goyle who promptly hauled off and slapped him silly, declaring that her sister-Mr Roth's aunt, I gather-would be hearing about this."
Elen picked the plump blueberry out of the muffin caking, examined it and then popped it into her mouth, entirely relaxed. "I've always wondered what the relation was there."
"So, with strife within and a veritable public relations nightmare with their client happening without, the firm has its hands full."
"I'm so very happy to hear that. Though I'm sorry you're stuck dealing with it."
"Seeing as you're partially responsible for this mess, don't you think some kind of compensation would be in order?"
"I thought you supported my decision to resign," Elen said, but she was grinning into the phone.
"Indeed, I often reminisce with glee on that final scene in the lobby where you told Mr Roth to shove Debussy up his rectum; he being a big enough asshole for it to fit."
"God, I can't believe I said that."
"He wasn't going to let you go without a fight; who else did he have who knew anything about the file? The timing was crucial, especially given that the last person-what-decided to go off and be a prostitute?"
Elen laughed out loud before she could slap a hand over her mouth to stifle it. "He said lawyers were prostitutes sold to the highest bidder and he was going to go work at Starbucks or something instead."
"A more karmic-friendly profession, I've no doubt. But you're getting off track."
"Recompense for dealing with your former employer and the fifth estate. Remember?"
"You know, I don't remember you being quite this manipulative when I met you."
"That was before I knew you could cook or do that particular trick with your tongue where you-"
"Quite." She tried hard to fight the blush growing in her cheeks. A couple of her work mates glanced her way, saw her expression and looked away. They were smiling, too, and Elen still couldn't quite get used to the pleasant change.
"Dinner at my place tonight. And I'll treat you to a parfait when we drive upstate to see my sister this weekend." They still maintained separate places. Elen had moved to something more modest when she left the firm, but had insisted on a continued sense of independent autonomy while they slowly explored this new relationship together. Gwen's lease would be up in a couple of months and Elen had a feeling that she might be interested in discussing the idea of sharing space. As it was, they had fallen into the habit of spending a few nights of the week at each other's apartments and it was working out far better than Elen expected. Bits of Gwen lived in her apartment now in the form of clothes and belongings, and Elen found that she really liked that. Their presence was a reminder that it was all real, that she was no longer alone.
"Nadia's a cute kid," Gwen was saying, ."I promised her a game of catch next time. Think Debra and Tom would mind if I picked her up a new mitt? Nadia seems to really like the idea of being a catcher and that fielder's glove just ain't going to cut it."
Touched by her thoughtfulness, Elen breathed a soft sigh and bit her lip.
"Do you think they'd mind?"
"No, I think it's an awesome idea."
"Great. I'll pick one up before I come over tonight. Do you need me to get anything while I'm out?"
"Nope. Just bring me you."
"I live to serve."
"I'll remember you said that when there's dirty dishes to be done."
"Taking advantage of my gentle nature, eh? Speaking of taking advantage; when are you leaving today?"
"And not a minute later." It was amazing how much of a life one could have if it wasn't spent in the office. Ever since she had left the firm, Gwen had made it her job to reintroduce Elen to her own town, and to her amazement and dismay, she practically felt like a tourist it had been so long since she had really been anywhere in New York.
Movement caught her eye and she saw her boss come in and settle into the cube across from hers. The flaming redhead gave her a friendly wave and Elen lifted a hand in response. "There's Denise. I'm going to have to go."
"Certainly. Have a great day and I'll see you tonight."
"You too." She hesitated for just a second, and then added, "Love you."
Surprised silence for barely a heartbeat before Gwen's very happy voice echoed down the line. "Love you, too, sweetheart. Bye."
"Bye." The phone clicked gently as she returned the receiver to its cradle. She stared at the old, beige phone, but hardly saw it at all as she replayed that last bit of conversation.
Elen jerked her to the right to find Denise looking back at her, a Cheshire-like smile on her face. "Huh? Oh! Yeah, it was."
"You have got to be the mooniest thing I've seen in months. It's so cute."
Oh, lord. She hid her face in one hand and groaned.
"And your girlfriend's pretty cute, too, come to think of it."
Elen's brows jumped a notch. "Didn't you tell me that you're married?"
"Yeah, but if a charming and romantic lover swept through here in uniform looking for me like yours tends to, I'd drop Zack in a second. Are all lesbians like that?"
Do I need a new toaster oven? Hmm. "No, unfortunately; I just managed to find a good one."
"Lucky girl." Denise stood up and took several folders in hand. "Okay, we've got a negligent landlord who's not doing proper maintenance, a class action against a drug company that another office in New Jersey told me about that I think is related to our group's case, and Mrs Havarski is coming in at eleven for her deposition. Ready for a day of crime fighting, O Sidekick?"
She grabbed a pen and pad, stood up and smiled. Studying for the bar was going to take a little longer, but for the first time since leaving school Elen actually felt like she was getting somewhere. The office she worked in was musty and old, and where the dĄcor at the firm could have paid for rent, she wasn't sure she would have been able to pay anyone to take the furniture at this place. But for once, it was the law that mattered, the system, the higher ideals of justice and fairness that she had been looking for all along. And at the end of the day, she could really see where she was in the fight; and no matter how much ground she won or lost, she finally felt like she was on the right side of it all. With a real life and a loving woman to share it with, Elen couldn't have been happier. "More than ready. Lead the way."
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