“What is this?”
“What does it look like, Lizzie?”
“It looks like a heart.”
“...gingerbread. It’s a gingerbread heart.”
“A gingerbread heart with a message. The capital's finest frosted font.”
“Yes, I can see that. To my favorite profiler.”
It seems entirely absurd, this whole scene. A highjacked lunch break, a positively jolly criminal occupying the chair on the other side of her desk and some sugary souvenir lying in front of her. She thinks she doesn't have the patience for any of it today.
“I had it made", he continues. "One can’t really find phrases like that at a Christmas market.”
“I have to say, Lizzie, your enthusiasm is utterly contagious. I feel virtually giddy.” His voice is dripping with sarcasm.
“I apologize. It’s nice.”
“Considerate. And sweet. Not just in the literal sense.”
“Sweet.” He mulls it over, nods contently. ”I’ll take sweet.”
“And what’s the occasion?”
“Oh, you haven’t noticed?”
“I thought it would have been rather obvious. The lights, the decorations. The delectable scent of mulled wine.”
“Red.” She rolls her eyes, thinks they really ought to put in more effective security measures. Maybe then she could get some work done in peace. “Yes, I’m aware it’s Christmas. Not exactly what I meant.”
“It’s something of an incentive to get you in the spirit. We can’t have you sit at your desk like a post office grinch.”
He receives an irritated sigh as a response, knows he's pushing his luck.
“Is that all, Red?”
“Not quite. I’m also here to issue an invitation.”
“I'd like you to accompany me to the Christmas market tonight. Surely, this paperwork can rest for another day."
“I don't think I'm in the mood—"
"I promise I will make it worth your while, Lizzie. This," he points at the pastry in front of her in rather exaggerated fashion, "is only the beginning."
She can't help but smile at that. Yes, maybe she should leave the office behind for a few hours and yes, maybe she hasn't been in the most pleasant mood and yes, maybe he's the only one who could brighten her day a little. And yes, maybe he already knows he has won her over completely.
“Fantastic," he interrupts her thoughts after studying her expression. "I’ll be back around six to pick you up."
As he's heading towards the door, elegantly adjusting his fedora in line with his steps, she stops him.
“Make it five. And thank you for the heart.”
“Anytime, Lizzie. It’s all yours.”
She thinks he's the only one who can turn such corny lines into something entirely endearing.
She thinks he knows exactly what he's doing.
The truth was, is and has been for at least a few months now (maybe longer if she would be completely honest with herself which she so rarely is these days) that she would have agreed to just about any of his sometimes outrageous, sometimes downright charming ideas.
(It's so simple, really. She just wanted to spend time with him.)
She thought it was all a little over the top, the Christmas markets with their overpriced sweets and their odd selection of shops and gifts, the commerce and the crowds and the way her body would eventually freeze up from the windchill, making the whole experience usually end with numb fingers, but somehow she trusted him to keep his promise, make it worth her while, to keep her warm (come on, she scolds herself), and when she grabs her coat ten minutes before the clock strikes five because she's just a little too eager, she knows she's in trouble.
The jolly criminal is perfectly on time.
"I'm glad to see you didn't change your mind."
"I had nothing better to do tonight, Red."
"You always know how to make a man feel special, Lizzie." He looks over at the car waiting for them, then back at her, offers his arm for her to take. "Shall we?"
Sometimes, just sometimes, she's completely fine with being proven wrong.
More often than not, Raymond Reddington has something to do with it.
There's something about him that makes her see the world in a different light, that makes her pay closer attention to detail (not the profiling kind, the life kind), that makes her appreciate certain crafts. There's something in the way he carries himself, how people look at him with silent admiration, sometimes awe, like a movie star from the 1940s walking down the street, turning heads with seemingly no effort at all. An aura with no objective. At least not now. At least not when he's smoothly guiding her through the crowds, his hand on her arm, sometimes hovering at the small of her back, sometimes circling her wrist not to lose her, and when he stops, it's not for anything gingerbread-related at all.
"Let's warm you up," he says, gestures at a man behind a counter and hands her a mug with a steaming hot beverage a few moments later. "Mulled wine. A Christmas classic."
It's all strangely cozy and intimate, even with hundreds of people passing them by on this crowded December evening, and the first sip is nothing short of magical, bringing her body temperature right back to normal.
"This is good, Red. Very good."
"I told you, Lizzie, my repertoire goes far beyond frosting calligraphy."
"Is that so? And what else is on the schedule for tonight?"
"You're just going to have to find out," he tells her in a tone both daring, both exhilarating, before he clinks his cup against hers. "To my favorite profiler. And to finding that ever elusive Christmas spirit."
Later that night, as he's walking her back to her apartment, both having forgotten about the option of a car ride altogether, the city is beautifully quiet.
"I have to say, Red," she begins, feeling bold suddenly, "a personalized gingerbread heart might just be the most creative pickup strategy I have ever come across."
She can see him watching her out of the corner of her eye, one eyebrow raised, caught somewhere between surprise and adoration.
"Pickup strategy. Aren't you presumptuous, Lizzie?"
She stops then, reaches for his arm to turn him around to face her.
"Wasn't it, Red?" She searches his eyes for an answer, uncertain of what she will find. "Wasn't it?"
There's silence, and a soft smile, and something unspoken in the space between them, something like you already know the answer to that, something like I'm tired of waiting and aren't you, something heavy.
"Let's keep walking, Lizzie. We're almost there," he says and takes a few steps before she follows him.
He's right, of course. Her apartment is right around the corner.
And maybe she should say something to break the silence, maybe her words struck a chord, maybe neither of them are ready to have this type of discussion.
But it's his turn. He still owes her an answer.
When they reach her building, his eyes catch something that makes him pause.
"What is it?" she asks and he merely points at the wreath hanging above the entrance.
"Mistletoe. Now what was it about mistletoe…" He steps closer until he's right in front of her and his expression is so open, so clear, so full of the answers she has been seeking, and she kisses him without wasting another second, she kisses him because she has no patience left and because she wants to, because he wants her to, because of a completely ridiculous, considerate, sweet gingerbread heart that he had left on her desk earlier that day.
"Ah yes. That was it," he says after she pulls away, his voice sounding almost broken.
"You should come up," she proposes. "I have mulled wine."
"And I have nothing better to do."
"You always know how to make a woman feel special, Red." She unlocks the door and leads him inside."Speaking of, what are you doing Christmas Eve?"
"You tell me, Lizzie. What am I doing?"
"Dinner. At my place."
"Very well then. Dinner it is."
Sometime close to midnight, with her head resting on his shoulder and the world at peace, he presses his lips against her hair.
“You know, Lizzie, I’d like to let you in on a secret.”
“And what’s that?” she asks sleepily.
“The wreath earlier. That wasn’t mistletoe.”
He can't see it, but her smile is anything but innocent.
“I’d like to let you in on a secret as well, Red.”
“I was perfectly aware.”