She's happy to spend the holidays with her friends, she truly is. And the fact that Benedick has somehow managed to pull a few strings and rent out a cottage in rural Scotland for them to spend Christmas and New Years in, makes it even more magical. It's surprisingly still cheaper than a plane ticket back to Auckland and they're supposed to meet up there on the 21st, but Hero has to work up until the 24th, which is why she's standing in line for security check on Christmas Eve, at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Watching people in an airport on Christmas Eve only makes her more sad. She's supposed to be happy, excited, looking forward to the next few days. But there's the gnawing feeling of her mum and mumma all the way down in New Zealand, celebrating Christmas without her. She misses her family, now more than during the entire last year. Being in an airport on Christmas Eve just makes her wish she could get on a different plane, to a different city. Being in an airport on Christmas Eve makes her wish she could go home.
Of course there's delays, even on her just-2 hour-flight to Edinburgh. Luckily, when Hero comes through the gates at Edinburgh Airport, her cousin is waiting there, clad in a thick coat, wearing ridiculous reindeer antlers, something only Beatrice would do. She has come back down to Edinburgh just to pick her up and it works in their favour now, as it is too late to catch a train up to the small town where their holiday cottage is located.
“Let's just pick up your bags and get them to the flat, 'kay?”, Beatrice says and Hero almost cries in relief when she hugs her cousin. She realises she might not have known what to do if Bea hadn't been here. Stuck in a city she'd only visited a few times before, with the only people she knows there already in a cottage up North, too late in the night to get herself up to said cottage. It would have been a nightmare.
Bea takes her out for dinner since the fridge at their Edinburgh flat is almost empty. It's a strange thing, sitting in small Chinese restaurant just before midnight on Christmas Eve. If she were home right now, Hero would be curled up on the sofa with her mothers, watching holiday movies. Now she watches the snowflakes fall down on the streets of Edinburgh instead.
“I almost- I didn't notice”, she says, gesturing at the white flurry.
Beatrice lets out a laugh. “How could you not? You're going to love it up at the cottage, we've already had a few snowball fights. It's almost ridiculously Christmas-y.”
Hero takes a sip of her mango juice and pushes a strand of stray hair out of her face.
“Don't you miss New Zealand Christmas?”, she asks. “You know, being with your family and everything...”
“I guess... But I have Ben here. And you this year. You're my family as well.”
Beatrice absent-mindedly plays around with her engagement ring. It's not her first Christmas abroad, so she must have gotten used to it.
“Do you ever think you will be moving back to New Zealand?”, Hero asks.
Her cousin has left home more than five years ago to travel the world and then she ended up in Edinburgh, studying Ecological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, Ben always right beside her. She's got a BA now, working on her MA part time as well as being a part of a research group at some institute that Hero can't even spell the name of.
There have been a few rare occasions where Bea and Ben have come back to New Zealand but it's always just been a month or so. Scotland is their home now, they have friends here, a whole life different to the one back in Auckland.
“I don't know”, Bea replies. “I've been thinking about it, there sure would be some interesting work fields for me in New Zealand – I just don't know what Ben would do with a BA in English and Scottish Literature down there.”
“He could become a stay-at-home-dad.”, Hero says jokingly.
“I'm sure he would be all up for that. I'd just have to get pregnant and carry around a small living creature in my womb for nine months and then endure another year of sleepless nights or so...”
Bea stares off into the distance and Hero realises that this is probably not the first time that her cousin has had these thoughts. She's not ready yet. It scares her, it's written on her face.
“Hey.” Hero grabs her cousins hand. “It's going to be okay, yeah?”
Bea smiles at her, an unusually soft smile.
She doesn't sleep very well, given the circumstances. While Beatrice snores away on her side of the double bed, Hero stares at the ceiling, wondering about her cousin and her family and home. Auckland used to be her home. Then Wellington. Now it's her little one-bedroom apartment in Paris.
Part of her is still longing for Wellington but she knows that if she went back there now, it wouldn't be the same. Mo and Fin have taken their last year at uni off to travel and work on their thesis projects on the go. Last time Hero has heard of them, they were in Portland, Oregon, planning to spend Christmas with friends they have met on their travels.
And then there's John. Not so far away in London. Only a few hours on the train or bus but still too far to make a trip every weekend. Missing him is a constant. She was supposed to see him tonight, at the cottage. He's gotten there earlier this week, with Pedro and Balth, sending her snapchats of a decorated Christmas tree and snow-covered landscapes and Ben and Bea being disgustingly cute.
Nine more hours she tells herself and rolls onto her side, hugging a throw pillow to her chest, trying to find some comfort so she can sleep.
Since she's not the only one missing her boyfriend, Bea has been convinced to get on one of the earlier trains. With every minute, every mile closer to their destination, Hero grows more restless. Bea pulls her fingers from her mouth so she doesn't start biting her nails, a nervous habit she thought she had given up on years ago.
“Hero”, Beatrice says. “We'll get there, okay?”
“I know”, Hero mutters. “I'm sorry.”
“It's okay. You haven't seen him in what- 3 months?”
“Last time was my birthday.”
“God, I wouldn't know how to deal with being away from Ben for that long. Remember that one time he went home for his parent's silver wedding anniversary and I couldn't go because I had to sit two exams in the time? That almost drove me up the walls.”
Hero smiles at her cousin.
After a moment of silence, Beatrice speaks again.
“I know I haven't- I didn't always approve of John. But I want you to know that- that's all in the past. I know I've said it before but-”
“Bea, you don't have to-”
“You belong together. There's no way to think- I wasn't sure- I was wrong. I haven't seen how much he's grown, how much you've grown, until you both came over here. And I'm sorry I ever doubted you.”
Before she can say anything else, Hero pulls Bea into a hug. It's taken her long enough.
Ben picks them up at the train station, wearing a Santa hat almost as ridiculous as Bea's antlers. In comparison to Edinburgh, where the snow has barely started to stick, the small town they have found themselves in, is covered in a white blanket. It looks unreal and Hero has to pick up a handful to make sure it's not a dream.
“First real white Christmas they had in years”, Ben declares with a grin, hauling her suitcase into the trunk of the car. They all get in and Ben carefully turns back onto the road that leads through the village. “At least that's what the locals say. Thank you Climate Change!”
“Better watch your driving”, Beatrice remarks from the passenger seat. “I can't believe you still haven't put on snow chains.”
“Snow tyres are perfectly reasonable in this weather, Beatrice! And besides, the road is cleared almost all the way up to the cottage.”
Hero smiles to herself in the backseat, watching the two of them bickering and then starting to sing along when “Fairytale Of New York” comes on the radio.
“HAPPY CHRISTMAS YOU ARSE, I PRAY GOD IT'S OUR LAST!”
“And here we are...”
The car rolls up in front of a white and grey stone cottage, set at the bottom of a tree-covered hill. There are Christmas lights hanging in the windows and smoke coming from the chimney. It's idyllic. Hero throws a quick glance at her watch. 9:39 AM. She has finally made it, with plenty of time on Christmas left.
The snow crunches under their feet as they step out of the car and Ben picks up her suitcase again before she can even protest.
“I'm sure you'll need your hands in a few minutes”, he says. “Besides, Bea would kill me if I didn't.”
“Thank you, Benedick.”
She takes her carry-on backpack and follows her cousin to the cottage. Balthazar must've heard them arriving because he's waiting at the door in a Christmas sweater, grinning from ear to ear. Hero hugs him in greeting.
They haven't seen each other just has long as she hasn't seen John, the last time they had all been together being her Birthday party which the boys had organised in Brighton, seeing as Pedro and Balthazar had the space to accommodate everyone for a few nights without it getting too crowded.
“Merry Christmas, Hero.”
“Merry Christmas, Balth.”
“Hero's here!”, comes a shout from an adjoining room and just as soon as she lets go of Balthazar, she's engulfed in a hug from Pedro.
“Hey, I was gone for the night as well!”, Beatrice protests behind her and Hero can't help but let out a short laugh.
It's lovely to see her friends again, even though she's seen much more of them over the past year, what with them being on the same continent again. If Ursula and Meg could've been here, it would have been a perfect package, but plane tickets cost a small fortune. It is after all the reason why Hero is now here instead of Auckland.
Pedro finally releases her from his bear hug and she looks around herself for moment to take in the small hallway they are standing in, a steep staircase leading up to a second floor and the smell of Christmas breakfast coming from what she can only assume is the kitchen.
“We waited with unwrapping the presents for you”, Balth offers. “Thought you might want to do it all together.”
“I'm taking this upstairs”, Ben says and Hero assumes he means her suitcase. “Presents in five?”
“Yeah.” Hero nods absent-mindedly. “Where is-”
There he is. Leaning in the kitchen doorway, his hair rather short but still long enough to procure those lovely curls, a smile that's reserved just for her on his lips.
Without hesitation she steps forward, crosses the space between them in a few quick strides and wraps her arms around his chest. She promised herself she wouldn't cry but now she does, tears dripping into the stitches of his sweater. There's shuffling around her, muttering and steps on the staircase marking the disappearance of the others while John wraps his arms around her, returning her tight embrace.
Then there's only quiet.
And the sound of his heartbeat.
“Sorry I didn't come to pick you up”, he says. “I accidentally slept in and Ben was already gone-”
She loosens her grip on him, looking up at him.
“It doesn't matter”, she whispers. “I'm here now.”
Her hands reach up and brush over the stubble on his cheeks and he smiles down at her. He's stopped with the whole clean-shaven look earlier this year, maybe because too many people still asked for his license (he'll turn 23 next month), and she's grown quite fond of it.
He leans down just a bit and she presses her lips to his cheek. And then his chin. His temple. His forehead. His nose. It scrunches up at that but only because he's grinning, his eyes screwed shut as well. Her last two kisses land on his eyebrows and then her hands slide down his neck and onto his shoulders.
“Missed you too.”
He reaches up to brush a thumb over her cheek and down to her lips. Then he lets out a soft laugh.
“You're really here.”
It's less of a reply and more of a soft sigh from her lips. He carefully removes the beret from her head and she moves again, shrugging out of her coat.
“Here, let me.”
He goes to hang up her coat and put away her hat while she unwraps herself from the huge scarf she has wound around her neck at least three times.
“There you are”, he says with a smile as he turns back to her and she hands him her scarf to hang up as well. “Almost couldn't see your face behind all the fabric.”
“Almost can't see your face behind all the stubble”, she retorts. When he shoots her a wary glance, she adds: “I like the stubble.”
“Didn't have time for a shave yet.”
“You look handsome”, she says, enjoying the blush that's creeping onto his neck and cheeks. Reaching forward, she entwines their fingers and he tugs her back into his arms.
Behind them, Ben comes bounding down the stairs.
“PRESENTS!”, he calls out. “Come on, lovebirds, it's Christmas!”
Beatrice follows right after, a lopsided grin on her face, her hair slightly mussed up and her lips red. They must've taken perfect advantage of the agreed five minutes and Hero can't help but smile at her cousin, her beautiful, still-head-over-heels-in-love cousin who used to swear off relationships and curse the boy – man – that is now her fiancé.
It's Christmas indeed.