The Park Bench

Author: Debbie
Rating: PG
Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended
Summary: Written for Armchair's furniture challenge. An H/D tale told from an outside perspective.

With thanks to Glissando for betaing.

People rarely see him, this small, unassuming man.  His green overalls and grey-brown hair blend perfectly with his workplace, and his short stature somehow makes him even easier for park visitors to overlook.  He is the gardener, and though few ever notice him, he himself notices a great deal.  He, who can spot the smallest shoot of a weed in his begonia beds, has seen countless couples and tramps and children come through his domain, and has observed joy and heartache and a thousand other things, usually while the subjects themselves are unaware of his presence.

The park isn't large, but it has many hidden nooks and corners.  It is the gardener's job to know where they all are, so even the smallest, most hidden alcove looks well tended.  However, most people never seem interested in finding these secret treasures.  They stay in the larger courtyards and grassy regions, enjoying the still-lovely repose, never knowing that there is far more to the otherwise ordinary-seeming gardens.

In one of these little corners is a park bench.

It stands in one of the more remote and hidden regions; the narrow path originates in the gap of a thorn-hedge, and winds through a wooded section before spilling out into a cosy but surprisingly large space, complete with a bright patch of grass and rimmed with wildflowers and blooming shrubs.  From the bench you can see a small glimpse of a stream down the hill.  The gardener does his best to keep even this lonely spot tidy, but in all his years, few have ever come by to notice his efforts.

There was a brief time, however, when the bench had regular patrons.  They appeared suddenly on a bright spring afternoon, the sort of day that lures even the worst allergy sufferer out-of-doors.  A day when hardly a cloud marred the bright blue sky, and the combination of sunshine and slight breeze and sparkling colours brought hundreds of winter-weary folk outside.

It had been awhile since he had tended the area, and had been hunched over some stubborn weeds behind the shrubs when the sound of voices startled him.  He supposed he had been too busy working to notice their approaching footsteps – or perhaps it was just that it had been ages since he'd last seen any patrons in this spot.  But when he peered over the bushes, there they were:  two men, one fair, one dark.  They seemed about the same age, and were of similar builds – trim and fit, though the blond one was slightly taller and more angular, and the one with messy black hair had slightly darker skin, and wore glasses.  They were dressed comfortably but neatly in twill trousers with button-down shirts; no ties.

It seemed they had used the glorious weather as an excuse to escape whatever stuffy offices they surely worked in.  After looking around the little clearing with a calculating air, the blond gave a short nod, as if it passed whatever criteria he had in mind, and the two of them sat on the worn park bench and began to work.  The gardener went back to his own work, watching the men as he did so.  They had pulled out some papers, and seemed to be discussing the contents; there was something odd about the paper, however.  It seemed very old – almost like parchment.  The gardener wondered what sort of work they did; were they historians of some sort?

Whatever it was, it didn't take long to spark an argument.  Though the men didn't raise their voices enough for him to understand, he could see it in their body language.  The blond scowled, looking almost sulky, while the dark-haired man gestured impatiently over one of the pieces of parchment.  The blond shook his head in reply, and the other pushed his hands through his hair in frustration; from his position, the gardener could see an odd scar over the dark eyebrow.  Some low but sharp words were exchanged by both men, and then, with surprising speed, they settled down again and went on as if nothing had happened.  It seemed almost a matter of routine, as if they were used to disagreeing.

The gardener worked his way around the clearing, pulling weeds, staying hidden, and was on the verge of moving on when he noticed how quiet it suddenly was.  Not that the men had made much noise, but the murmur of their voices had kept a steady background to the gardener's labours.  Yet it was abruptly quiet, and a quick glance at the now-empty park bench confirmed that they had gone – just as suddenly as they had arrived.

That day had proved to be the calm before the storm – literally.  The next several days were filled with grey skies and rainshowers.  Few visitors came to the park, and the nook with the bench was empty as usual.

At the end of the week, however, blue skies – and the two men - returned.  How they managed to find dry spots on the damp wooden bench was a mystery to him, but they didn't seem to be suffering at all.  Once again, they sat in the sun and pored over various bits of parchment, even using what looked suspiciously like quills to jot down a few notes.  Did historians use quills?  The gardener had never been much of a scholar; he didn't know.  Perhaps this was just some funny quirk of the mystery firm: a gimmick to make the employees appreciate their modern trappings more.  Who knew?

For all that this isolated corner had been neglected before, now it had semi-regular visitors in these two men.  They didn't come on any particular schedule, but on especially nice days they would show up in their usual abrupt fashion, stay for awhile, and then leave just as silently.  The gardener didn't know why he found these two so fascinating, but he began to hurry through his other duties, in order to spend more time in the clearing.  Days they did not come, he felt oddly disappointed.

One day, after they had finished discussing and arguing and pacing and placating, the man with the glasses reached into the bag he usually carried, and pulled out a couple of sandwiches.  He handed one over to his partner, who apparently wasn't too keen on picnics.  One blond eyebrow arched, and he eyed the proffered sandwich with suspicion.  However, after a few moments, he sighed in resignation, accepted his lunch, and took a bite; judging by the expression which next appeared on the pale, pointed face, he didn't think much of the dark-haired man's culinary skills.  The gardener held his breath, watching to see if another of their usual arguments would ensue, but the chef in question merely punched his colleague amicably on the arm, and laughed.

That first lunch spawned others (although the gardener noticed that the blond man brought his own lunch after that).  There was still no rhyme or reason to their visits; they seemed to come to their bench on their own whims.  And, more often than not, they began to come without any visible responsibilities.  No quills, no parchment; they'd just sit side-by-side on the bench, watch the birds or gaze at the stream, and just talk.  Their habit of arguing seemed to extend beyond their professional positions but, as before, their squabbles never lasted long, and seemed somehow to add to the strength of their friendship, rather than detract from it.

After a time, they seemed to grow more comfortable saying nothing at all.  By now, the gardener was finding their presence not only fascinating, but soothing.  It was a bit like his own life, reminding him of his own friendships.

Until he caught them kissing.

He'd been busy clearing away a large branch which had fallen during the previous night's storm, and didn't manage to slip off to the hidden clearing until mid-afternoon.  The path came out behind the bench, but even from that angle there was no mistaking the activity.  

The gardener barely managed to smother his stunned gasp.  His initial reaction was to be disgusted, to turn away, yet he found himself rooted to the spot in the shadows at the edge of the trees.  Emotions warred within him – it was wrong, it was unnatural!  Yet he had seen these two men together so many times now that, despite his prejudice, it didn't seem so odd.  Without knowing a thing about them, he nonetheless had been watching their body language for weeks.  Getting over his shock, he now saw the hesitation in their kissing, as if they, too, were unsure what to think.  But it didn't last long; hands came up to cup the blond's neck, pulling him closer, while pale fingers tangled in the messy black hair.  The kisses grew deeper.

The gardener did turn away then.  He still wasn't sure how he felt, but even the strangest couples deserved some privacy.

The next time the two men came by, he eyed them a little suspiciously, wondering what exactly they had in mind for their visit.  At first, it seemed much as it always had been; they sat comfortably on the bench, talking, joking, arguing.  This time, however, kisses punctuated their exchanges.  Nothing like the rather heated session he had previously run from; these were more comfortable, less urgent.  Despite his previous reaction, the gardener found himself smiling.  He had to admit, it wasn't really so different from what he and his wife had done, back in the days of their courtship.  Yes, it was still strange but … well … they seemed happy.

Months passed, and the gardener saw them less frequently.  Perhaps the hot summer had driven them back indoors, someplace cooler.  Perhaps they were just busy.  But they still came by periodically, to have lunch or to share a quiet moment.  He grew used to seeing them kiss and touch each other, although he still scuttled out quickly if it appeared to get too serious.  He noticed, however, that they seemed to be getting tense, haggard.  Not with each other – their relationship seemed as solid and comfortable as ever – but at something else in their lives.  They grew quieter during their visits to the park bench, as if this unremarkable little corner was their only refuge.

After all this time, the gardener still knew almost nothing about them, except that they seemed to work together in some strange parchment-using profession, had a rather lively friendship, and had, odd as it seemed, fallen in love.  He wondered who they really were, making up fantastic careers and backgrounds for them in his mind while he worked.  The one with glasses – he loved to get around on an old bicycle, which would account for his perpetually messy hair.  Maybe that funny scar over his eye came from running into a tree branch or something.  Something horribly embarrassing, that he would probably twist into a much more impressive story, like … being mugged or attacked by lions.  The blond seemed more aristocratic; he probably drove some sleek car, all the while shaking his head at his partner's insistence on pedaling everywhere.  Rings had appeared on their hands by early fall; slim, silver bands.  He wondered whose idea that had been, and if there really was such a thing as marriage between two men.  He laughed at the thought of either man wearing a dress.

Imagining their real careers – that was harder.  Museum directors?  Historians?  Religious scholars?  What jobs used parchment?  An image of a treasure map – "X marks the spot" – popped into his head, and he laughed again.  These two seemed far too urbane to do something so fantastical as that!  About as unlikely as being wizards or elves, or whatever the fairy tales said.  

But what could cause them such anxiety?  Just the usual realm of job frustration?  Or something more worrisome?  Were they in trouble?  He hoped not.

The men's visits became still less frequent, and then stopped altogether.  The gardener wasn't too worried; likely the growing chill meant they wouldn't be back until spring. He waited patiently, doing his simple winter tasks, making sure nothing would be too unmanageable in the spring.  He took special care with the weather-beaten bench and surrounding area, wanting everything to be ready for visitors – particular visitors - when it warmed up again.

Spring finally returned, but the bench stood empty.  He tried to dispel his disappointment; perhaps the men had moved, or grown tired of the place.  Or perhaps their jobs, whatever they were, simply kept them too busy.  But he couldn't help frequently checking back at the hidden corner, or keeping his eyes out for their light and dark heads whenever he worked in the area.

It was on a half-sunny Monday, while he was busy weeding the tulip beds, when he suddenly saw a splash of silver-blond out of the corner of his eye.  As always, the man had appeared rather abruptly – the gardener hadn't ever been able to figure out how they moved so stealthily.  Grinning, he felt an unexpected rush of warmth to see them finally return.  But … where was the dark-haired one?  His smile faded as he noticed the utter devastation on the blond's face.  He had come alone; had the relationship ended?

The man moved slowly to the familiar wooden bench and paused, looking down at the spot where the two of them had spent so much time.  Then, with a small choked noise, he sat down, burying his face in his hands.  The silver ring gleamed on his finger, and the gardener felt a moment of hope that perhaps the men were still together after all.  Then he noticed the matching ring on a chain around the blond's neck.  Together, the tears and the ownerless ring could only mean one thing.  No.  Oh no.  No, no, no.  It couldn't be.  Was this what had worried them so much last fall?  Had they been in some kind of danger?

The gardener knew this was a private moment, far more so than whatever physical encounters the two had shared over the summer.  But he couldn't turn away; he, too, felt a pang of loss, though obviously far milder than what the blond was enduring.  He needed to share this moment of sorrow, even if it was from behind a hedgerow.  

The mourner finally pulled his hands away from his face began to speak.  Though alone on the bench, he still sat to one side, as if his partner were still next to him, listening.  As usual, the gardener could not fully catch all the words being said, but he understood that this was a farewell of sorts.  The funerals and formalities were probably long over, and yet the blond's grieving was not complete without a visit to their place.

Despite the baritone murmur, it felt unnaturally quiet.  There was no answering bass, no teasing tones or sharp disagreements, or even a soothing murmured echo.  Just the one voice, low and often choked, spilling into the otherwise silent and empty space.

When he was done, the blond rose and looked around the clearing one last time.  One pale hand closed around the ring on the chain; he took a deep breath.  Then he turned and walked toward the path and did not look back.  The gardener watched him leave, and blinked in surprise when the man seemed to vanish.  He rubbed his eyes momentarily, then decided he had been too caught up in his own thoughts to really be paying accurate  attention to anything else.

The seasons continued on in their unrelenting pattern, and the gardener returned to his work, as usual.  But it was not the same.  Though the bench had frequently stood empty before the arrival of the two men, it felt far emptier once they were gone.  Yet he still found  himself lingering over his chores on those days when he tended to the area.  He filled the silence with his memories of arguments and laughter and the scratch of quills on parchment.

And whenever he looked at the weather-beaten bench, he filled the empty seat with a vision of  two unlikely people joined in a perfect kiss.


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