A Holiday Vignette
Vincent's puzzlement deepened. Catherine was hiding a bubbling excitement behind her sweetly placid smile, and as she spoke to him of her latest case, he let his mind drift to the few clues she had given him.
Clue #1: She had insisted on a midnight stroll through the park later tonight.
Clue #2: She had brought down a basket which she kept behind her chair, carefully covered with a quilt. His keen sense of smell detected brownies and Earl Grey, and from the muffled clinking sounds when she put her burden down, he assumed a thermos and mugs were part of the mystery.
Walking in the park after midnight, even sitting beneath the trees with a thermos of tea and a treat, were things they did on occasion, especially during the coldest months, when most city dwellers could be counted on to stay home in their warm apartments at that hour. But on this night...on Christmas...with so much activity going on Below, why would she insist they make such a trip?
"...and Joe said he wished he'd thought of that!" Catherine finished her story with an expectant gaze, obviously awaiting his reaction. But what reaction was called for? Tilting his head as he shook it, he admitted, "I apologize, Catherine. My attention was momentarily elsewhere."
Catherine smirked. "I noticed. That's why I just told you that Moreno had brought a dragon into the break room to heat our coffee." Her smirk turned into an understanding smile as she took in his mortified expression. "What has you so preoccupied?"
Struggling against the desire to hide his curiosity, he forced himself to admit, "I know you're repressing feelings of delight, and I was trying to imagine what they could be about."
"Ahhhh." She half-turned in her chair and bent her head toward the covered basket, then craned her neck to look up at him.
He nodded. "Why is it imperative we go Above tonight?"
"It's...a...surprise." She nodded, decisive, her lips set in a firm line, even as she struggled to keep their corners from lifting into a smile.
"Yes. Of course." He admitted defeat with a shrug. He would find out when she decided to tell him. Meanwhile, she was enjoying keeping him in suspense, so that would be his gift to her...along with the set of matching crystal earrings he had in his vest pocket. "Shall we join the others?"
Catherine rose and held out her hand to him. "Let's!"
Hours had passed since their conversation, and Catherine's joy was burgeoning in an ever more distracting manner beneath the surface of her smile. Just after midnight they had left Father's library along with a number of tunnel dwellers after one last holiday toast. By ones and twos the others had drifted towards their own chambers, and Catherine and Vincent finally were alone again.
"I'll get the basket," he offered, wondering if Catherine's surprise might be hiding inside. But she only nodded, so he knew there was nothing within it to resolve the mystery. After retrieving it and their cloaks, Vincent ambled with his Beloved toward the park entrance. Their conversation centered on the evening's delights - the music, the fellowship, William's eggnog. When they closed the gate and emerged from the final tunnel, they turned right and began to walk through the trees to their favorite path, one which avoided the more heavily trafficked areas of the park. There was a large old chestnut there with massive overhanging branches - one of the few survivors of the plague which had wiped out nearly all the chestnut trees decades ago. It was their spot, as hidden and secure as any place in a public park could be. He knew they would spread their blanket beneath the sheltering branches and....
In the shadows he noticed there was something new beneath their tree.
Catherine's joy crested and broke free. With an eager laugh, she tugged on Vincent's hand to pull him forward. In a moment they were standing before the bench, and Catherine's smile was wide and full of the happiness she no longer struggled to contain. "Merry Christmas, Vincent!"
He looked from the bench to her, then back again. There was a small
rectangular plaque set into the top slat at the back of the bench. He
bent in the darkness to try to read it, but even his sharp eyes could
not make out the words in the midnight blackness. Suddenly Catherine
dropped his hand and reached into the basket. She grasped a long
cylinder and flicked a switch; the focused beam from a flashlight
illuminated the words:
"I donated the bench to aid the Central Park Conservancy's work in keeping the park beautiful. For that, I got to suggest a spot for the bench and wording for a plaque. I thought this would be more comfortable for us than a blanket as we sit here in years to come. The blanket's fine for now, but old knees don't bend so easily."
The years to come.
She wanted to spend those years coming here ... with him.
He stared hard at the bench, this permanent structure set below their safe place. It was anchored into the ground. It was built of sturdy wood. It was strong. It definitely would last for all those years she had mentioned.
Anxious that he hadn't spoken since she'd shown him her surprise, Catherine murmured, "Do you like it?"
He tore his eyes from the plaque and his mind from contemplation of the thought behind her gift. "It's perfect, Catherine."
The flashlight tumbled from her grasp as strong arms lifted her. In the deeper shadows of the overhanging branches, no one could see the embrace between a tall, hooded man and the woman he adored, or their heads bend toward each other ... or the use they made of their bench.