A/N: After far too long a wait, here it is! I won't keep you with bad excuses, I'll just let you read. Enjoy!
"Let's go to your hotel first," Stella suggested twenty minutes later. They had finished doing the dishes, and Mac had convinced her to sit down for awhile. She leaned up against him and laid her head on his shoulder. "We'll get you to your hotel so you can get your stuff and check out early." She took his hand.
"Is that so?" Mac asked with a smile. She nodded earnestly. Mac laughed and kissed her on the cheek as he hit the elevator button.
"Well, it sounds like a good idea to me," he said. The elevators dinged open and they stepped inside it. Stella hit the ground floor button.
"So I was thinking we could take my car to the hotel, and then drive back and start in the French Quarter, work our way around from there," Stella said as the elevator went down to the first floor. They held hands as they walked through the lobby towards the back lot.
"What kind of car is it?" Mac asked her. She smiled mysteriously.
"It's a surprise," she said. "I got it when I got down here, because it reminded me of the city. And you," she added shyly. Mac looked down at her amusedly.
"Of me?" he asked. She nodded. "Come on," she said. "I want to beat what they laughingly call rush hour here."
"Not so bad, huh?"
"Their rush hour is New York's middle of the morning, but with less swearing cabbies," she said, rolling her eyes. Mac laughed.
"But you still want to beat it?" he asked, chuckling, as they exited the apartment complex.
"It's still an inconvenience," Stella said. She led him over to a black Chevy Avalanche, just like the trucks they had in New York.
"An Avalanche?" he asked her. "Did you really like them that much?"
Stella shrugged. "They're nice. They have a lot of room, it was a good deal, and like I said, it reminds me of you and New York."
Mac smiled. "Well, as long as you like it…" he said, kissing her on the cheek. She smiled.
"I do," she said. "I just hope you like today." She let go of his hand and went to the driver's side.
"I'm driving," she said unnecessarily.
"Well, yeah, it's your car, isn't it?" Mac pointed out.
"Sorry, force of habit," Stella apologized. "My partner's a really bad driver, but he won't admit it, so I have to beat him to the driver's seat if I don't want to die."
Mac chuckled. "Well, since you know the laws, not to mention the city, I'll gladly let you drive." He kissed her cheek and went around the front of the truck to get in the passenger's side.
He buckled his seatbelt and looked up to see Stella staring at him critically.
"Yes?" he asked her. She pursed her lips.
"You never shaved," she said. Mac rubbed his hand against his cheek thoughtfully.
"I haven't," he said. "Not in a few days. I've been busy."
"Yeah, I know," she said as she started the car, rolling her eyes. "Believe me, I know."
"Don't worry, I'll shave at the hotel," Mac assured her. she shocked him by shaking her head.
"No, don't!" she said. "I mean, it looks good on you. You should keep it," she added, her cheeks turning the slightest shade of pink.
Mac looked at her. "Okay," he said slowly, a look on his face that suggested he was just agreeing to please her. She shifted the truck into reverse, and it jolted backwards suddenly.
"Sorry, sorry," Stella muttered apologetically. "I need to get that checked out, it keeps doing that."
"Don't worry about it," Mac said. "The whiplash isn't that bad." He gripped the back of his neck teasingly, and she rolled her eyes while the truck shifted smoothly into drive and rolled forward perfectly. Mac kept looking at her while she navigated her way through the New Orleans streets. He noticed the way her eyes narrowed slightly when someone tried to cut her off, the way she sat back, relaxed, humming softly to herself. They made it to the hotel in good time—the traffic was beyond light by New York's standards—and soon enough, they were pulling into the parking lot. Stella surprised him by pulling into a parking space and going in with him.
"You could have stayed in the car," Mac offered. "It only would have taken a moment."
"I don't mind," she said. They walked in, Mac's hand snaking its way around her waist to pull her closer to him. They walked casually towards the elevators and waited once they got on in a comfortable silence. The elevator stopped at the second floor to let on an elderly couple. They smiled at Mac and Stella politely.
"Where are you two from?" the man asked Mac.
"Um, New York," Mac said, looking down at Stella to make sure she was okay with the generalization. She smiled and nodded.
"Oh, how sweet," the woman said. "We're from Chicago."
"Oh, really?" Stella's eyebrows almost disappeared into her hair as she looked up at Mac. "He's originally from there."
"Oh, really?" the man asked.
"Yeah," Mac said. "I, uh grew up on the North Side."
"Oh, really? Herb and I live in Blue Island."
"South side?" Mac said. "Yeah, I knew someone from there."
"I don't doubt you do," Herb said affectionately. "What about you, ma'am? You grow up in Chicago, too?"
"Oh, me?" Stella said. "Oh, no, I've lived in New York all my life."
"You two met in the Big Apple, then?" Herb's wife asked.
"Yeah," Mac said.
"Oh, how exciting!" Herb said. "And when did you two get married?"
"Married?" Mac asked blankly. "We're not married."
"Oh, pardon me," Herb said. "I—you two looked so natural and comfortable together, naturally I assumed…" he trailed off, looking embarrassed.
"Herb, you crazy old man," his wife chided him. To Stella and Mac, she said "I'm sorry, he fancies himself a good people-reader and a bit of a romantic."
"I can't help it," Herb complained. "They reminded me of us at that age."
"Oh, leave them alone," Herb's wife hit him gently on the shoulder. "I'm so sorry, he does this all the time, I really don't know why…" The elevator doors opened with a ding, and she tugged on his sleeve.
"Come on, you nut, this is our floor," she said.
"I'm coming," Herb said. "Well it was nice meeting you two, and I hope he pops the question soon, eh?" he winked at Stella, who was working hard to keep the smile off of her face.
"Oh, get out, get out…" Herb's wife shooed him off the elevator. "Enjoy your trip!" she called as the doors slid shut. Stella smiled.
"Well," she said lightly, with only the trace of a giggle. "That was… interesting."
"I'll say," Mac said, but was spared from continuing the conversation by the elevator door opening again.
"Come on, this is our floor—I mean, my floor," Mac said hastily. They stepped off the elevator and Mac led Stella to his room. He unlocked it and let them in.
Stella looked around the room. Like most hotel rooms, it featured a small dresser, a TV, a floor-length mirror, and a desk in the far corner. The blinds on the window were drawn, and Stella saw reflected in the mirror a bathroom and a small closet. At the center of the room was a bed. Stella shuddered at the thought of the sheer amounts of body fluids present on those sheets.
"Just don't think about it," Mac said. He had noticed her shudder. "My bag's over in the corner." He walked over to it and opened it to get a change of clothes and saw his bag of toiletries.
"Hey, Stell?" Mac called over his shoulder. "Mind if I take a shower before we get going?"
"Sure," she said from over by the desk. Mac grabbed his clothes and his toiletries and took a quick shower. He decided to listen to Stella and forgo shaving, at least today. Ten minutes later, he and Stella were walking out of the hotel and into the bright sunlight, carrying his luggage. He put it into the back of the Avalanche and then got into the car and faced a grinning Stella.
"You ready?" she asked. Mac nodded.
"All right," Stella began. "We're gonna start with the French Quarter. It's the closest, and it's my favorite part of the city." Her eyes lit up as she struggled to describe it to Mac. "It's so… surreal. It feels like a Disney movie, with all the colors, and the balconies, and the—oh, you'll just have to wait, it's fantastic!" she let out a little squeal, unable to help herself. As much as she loved New York, New Orleans was unique and amazing in ways that New York couldn't compare with if it tried. "We're going to Café Du Monde's first, and then we'll just work our way through it. Sound good?"
"Café Du Monde?" Mac asked. "But we just ate."
"Not to eat, just yet," Stella said with a little chuckle. "Are you kidding me? The place is packed with tourists in the morning. We'll just sit there for awhile, maybe look at… well, you'll see," she said with a smile. She turned a corner and parked in an alley. The alley was dingy and gray, but there were a few parking spots carved into the side.
"Wow," Mac said before he could help himself. "I can definitely see the appeal."
She rolled her eyes at him, but smiled in his direction. "Come on, it's this way," she said, getting out and gesturing out of the mouth of the alley. Mac followed her obediently, sniffing the air. He could barely smell the sea now, covered up as it was by motor oil, grease, coffee, a light flowery scent, engine exhaust, and something Mac couldn't identify—a pastry of some kind, something that made his stomach, already full from toast, eggs, and coffee, grumble quietly under its breath.
"What is that?" Mac asked, amazed. Stella turned back to look at him and smiled. "Café Du Monde's," she said simply. "Come on." Mac quickened his stride to catch up with her, and they exited the alley together and turned right. They walked down for awhile, not talking, just looking around.
"Still totally blown away," Mac commented dryly after a few minutes of the street, which looked seedy at worst, the admittedly brighter colors of what looked like a residential area muted by the slight overcast of the sun. Stella scoffed and punched him lightly on the arm.
"We're almost there," she assured him. In the next moment, three things happened: they turned the corner, the sun came out, and Mac felt his eyes widen. They stopped, and Mac's hand, which had been holding Stella's, let go.
"Wow," he said, working hard to keep his jaw from dropping. He ran his hand over his mouth, looking around. "Wow."
Somehow, in the second it had taken to turn the corner, they had been transported from a city street to something closely resembling a movie set. Bright whites and vivid colors were splashed on the houses, shining brightly in the sudden sunshine. A white tent stood to the side, gleaming as it protected the people underneath it. On his left, a row of connected squat little buildings stood side by side, united by Greco-roman columns, but on his left…
"It's like they chopped three stories off of a Manhattan block, then handed it to a bunch of finger-painting kids and said 'get cracking,'" Mac said, awestruck.
Stella laughed at that, slipping her arm around his waist. "Yeah," she said, admiring the row of brightly colored buildings. "You're right."
"And what is that smell?" Mac asked, sniffing the air again. "God, it's like… what is that? Bread?"
"Café Du Monde's," Stella said again in explanation. "They have this little pastry, beignet, and it's just… mm! It's delicious. But we'll wait a bit, I can practically already see the lines from here," she said with a laugh. "Let's walk the other way a bit."
"Okay," Mac said. He turned in the direction she was going and noticed a glittering off to his right. With a jolt, Mac realized that that was the Gulf of Mexico. He turned back to look once more at the beautiful buildings that almost glowed in the sunlight, with awnings and plants hanging off of them, half expecting to see a camera crew peeking out of one of the windows. What a mixture this city was.
"Mac!" Stella called. She was a good thirty feet ahead of him, apparently having not realized he'd stopped.
"I'm coming," he said. He shook his head, trying to regain his composure, and walked over to Stella. She smiled.
"You're having fun already?" she asked. Mac nodded, and Stella laughed.
"Your eyes are shining, Mac. You look like a kid who just got told he was going to Disneyworld."
"Who needs Disneyworld," Mac said as dryly as he could manage, "When you have a real city that looks like it?"
She shook her head at him. "I expected you to be impressed, and I guess I was right. What's up?" she slipped her arm around his waist again, and Mac's arm went automatically around hers.
"I don't know," Mac said quietly. He looked around, taking in his new surroundings. "Every day, back in New York, I take in death and destruction. It never bothered me much before, but lately, it's… well, it's getting to me." His mind flashed briefly to Olivia, and to his first partner. He watched his first partner bleed out against the car again in his mind's eye, his mood darkening. So much death, so much hate. He shook his head and put on a smile. He wasn't going to think about things like that now. Not while he was with Stella. He only had a limited time with her, and he was determined to let her show him the time of his life in New Orleans.
"Come on," he said enthusiastically. "Let's go check out DuPonte's."
"Du Monde's," Stella corrected with a smile. But she didn't miss how his smile didn't quite reach his eyes. She reached out and rubbed his arm reassuringly. He looked down at her with another little flash of despair she had seen last night, but it was gone in a moment. She wrapped his arm around her a little closer and they set off down the street.
"Is that music I'm hearing?" Mac asked after a moment. Stella nodded.
"Street musicians, Mac," she said with a smile. "They have those in New York."
"Not like this," Mac returned. The music slowly grew louder as they walked down the street. Mac could hear saxophones and clarinets and trumpets playing a lively, jazzy tune. As they drew nearer, Mac could hear singers and occasionally see flashes of color.
"I'll give you that," Stella said with a smile. "New Orleans definitely does it their own way. Come on, do you want to go to Du Monde's or not?" she indicated the shop on their left with a wide, wooden sign that spelled out The Original Café Du Monde's.
"Nah, let's walk for awhile," Mac said, turning his head towards the sound of the music.
"All right," Stella said easily.
They walked past Du Monde's, with its dark green awnings and tinny jazz music blaring obnoxiously through poorly hidden speakers and headed in the direction of the real music. They passed a few more buildings and then there was a street full of musicians and artists. The musicians stayed to one side of the street, stretching out on the sidewalk. They seemed to work in groups; an alto sax, a trumpet, a clarinet, and a tenor huddled cheerily around the same bass case while the bassist who owned it took a deep and soulful solo. Mac smiled as the familiar pattern overtook him, remembering, briefly, his nights in the jazz club. Music was his one release, his one deviation from his standard norm. He would go to the club, no matter what had happened that week, and work it out among his fellow musicians, jamming and letting the stresses of the week wash away in the jazz. He closed his eyes and listened to the sound, unconsciously holding her tighter. The impromptu band finished the number, and people around them clapped. Mac and Stella joined in, and the musicians smiled as cash rained into the case. The next piece they played was slower, with a blues feel, and Mac pulled Stella closer to him, spinning her gently on her heel.
"Come on," he whispered shyly. "Let's dance."
"Mac, I don't do—I never studied jazz." It was a weak excuse, and sounded so even to her. Mac smiled.
"It's okay," he insisted, moving her hand to his waist and placing his own on her back. "Just follow my lead."
Slowly, they began to move in a circle, Mac elegantly stepping in time to the music while Stella followed, eventually falling into a simple box step. They were aware of passersby making little comments, but they only focused on each other. She began to smile, and Mac did, too, as he spun her out. She spun gracefully back into him, and he caught her with ease, capturing his hand in hers to spin her out again. When she reached the end of the spin, she turned to face him again, pulling him close and wrapping her arms around him properly. Mac's hands settled back over her shoulder and waist, and they continued their box step, swaying in time to the music. When the song ended, Mac pulled away and kissed her hand. A smattering of applause surprised them, and they looked away from each other to see that a larger crowd had gathered. Both he and Stella smiled rather embarrassedly, holding hands.
"Take a bow," the trumpet player advised behind them. "They'll love it."
Mac and Stella looked at each other and shrugged. Then Mac bowed while Stella managed a dainty curtsy, pulling the edges of her dress to the side. The applause increased, and a voice shouted from Mac's left: "Kiss her!"
Mac smiled and brought Stella to him for a sweet and gentle kiss. Someone cheered and several people "aww"-ed, and he felt rather than saw Stella go red. They broke apart as people began raining tips on the band behind them.
Mac fished a twenty out of his wallet and added it to the case.
"Thank you," he told the bass player. The man nodded.
"Thank you," he said. "these tourists, they just love it when people dance. Increases the tips." He winked. "Don't let that pretty woman get away from you, now."
"I won't," Mac said, looking over at where she stood, still a bit pink, waiting for him. "I won't."
Well, guys, what do you think? It's not ALL New Orleans, but I finally managed it. leave a review and tell me what you think!