Hero hums to herself as she strings up the fairy lights, positioning them carefully atop the tiny nails her Mum hammered into the rafters of the porch years ago, so they could line the porch roof with lights at the holidays.
Usually, Mum puts up the lights, while Mumma frets and holds the ladder so she won’t fall. This year, though, they’re both with Leo at the hospital. He fell while instructing some of his football players on their place-kicking, and he’s been feeling out of sorts, lately. Hero is sure it’s nothing. It’s fine, just a routine checkup today. She takes a deep breath and tries to put the whole thing out of mind- there’s no use worrying now.
Lately, it feels like worrying is all she ever does. She’s worried about her grades, and what she’s going to be doing next year, and whether she’ll get into any of the universities she’s considering. She’s worried about all her friends in Wellington, Beatrice especially; after the latest video, all she’s wanted to do is to enfold her cousin in a warm hug. She had to settle for a tearful Skype call instead, but she hasn’t heard much from anyone else. Anyway, Hero is worried, and out of all these worries, the most pressing is Leo- but there’s nothing she can do about that. She can’t dwell, not when they don’t even know if there’s anything to worry about, yet.
That’s why she’s up on this ladder. It’s not even a week into December yet, but Hero thinks a little holiday cheer will do everyone good, so she’s decorating the house as a surprise for when her family gets home. There are also cookies in the oven, set on a loud enough timer that she should be able to hear it even if it goes off while she’s still outside. A small old radio sits in the windowsill, playing instrumental Christmas music- the Nutcracker Suite. She’s even found a candy-cane striped scrunchie and tied back her long blonde hair, and the circle skirt she’s wearing is red with white trim.
Hero Duke is going to find some festive cheer in this glum situation, if it kills her. And then she’s going right back to studying for her upcoming end of term exams.
Finally, her mind is clear, and the only things she’s focused on are the lights, and the Nutcracker Suite. She’s humming along to the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, wishing she was on the ground so that she could twirl around to the music. Tchaikovsky just begs for twirling.
“Hello, Hero,” says a soft voice, and suddenly she sees a dark figure out of the corner of her eye. Startled, she drops the strand of lights with a shriek. “Oh! John, it’s you,” she gasps, recognizing the boy’s slight frame and wild hair.
“My apologies if I scared you,” he says simply. “Apparently, this mixing bowl belongs to your mothers, and Ann wondered if I wouldn’t mind dropping it by. I didn’t.” John sets a blue spun-glass bowl on the ground next to the box of extra fairy lights.
“Oh, that was awfully sweet of you, thank you,” Hero says, grasping at the fallen strand of lights, which is hanging on a nail just out of her reach. “Would you like to come- ahhh!”
Overstepping her balance, Hero starts to panic as she feels herself falling. She crashes off the ladder, but suddenly, instead of the hard wooden floor of the porch, she lands on something warm, soft and hard at the same time- the chest of John Donaldson. He tries to catch her, on instinct, but she’s too heavy, and they tumble to the ground.
“Oof,” John groans, sprawled on the ground, Hero draped over him, mortified.
“Oh my God, John, are you okay?” She quickly hauls herself off of him, moving away to give him space, wincing where she banged her elbow hard on the floorboards.
John sighs, picking his lanky body off the ground and using the handrail on the porch to haul himself to his feet. Holding out a hand to Hero, who has been kneeling nearby, he helps her up as well. When she looks up at him, he’s blushing. She’s just practically crushed him, and he’s the one who’s embarrassed. It’s cute, in a strange sort of way.
“I’m so sorry, I can’t believe I just did that,” she says.
“Don’t worry about it, I’m fine. Are you okay?” he asks, looking up at the fairy lights still dangling in the doorway. “Maybe you should move the ladder for the next bit.”
“That’s- probably a good idea, actually,” Hero nods, sizing up the ladder and the lights herself. “Hey, I can take care of all this later. Would you like to come in? I haven’t seen you in a while. We can catch up.”
“That sounds nice,” says John, picking up the mixing bowl again and following her into the house, where they spend the afternoon just talking. It’s nice, the awkwardness of the ladder mishap vanishing into the hum of easy conversation. He even helps her with the decorating, but first-
“Tea and cookies?” Hero asks. “It’ll be a minute.”
“Your speciality,” says John. “Perfect.”
The smile that he shoots her then is genuine. John is still guarded, quiet, but when he smiles at Hero, it’s like his whole being lights up, and despite all the grey and black he still likes to wear, he looks for all the world almost… angelic. Quite a change, from last year. He’s worked hard to be happier than he was last year, healthier. She’s so glad for him.
Hero just can’t help but smile back, and although she doesn’t know it, John is thinking that somehow she glows, when she smiles, almost brighter than the fairy lights.