Most of the residents of Royal Woods, MI found the current weather to be pleasant, considering the more unnerving possibilities that a late December winter afternoon could bring about.
There was snow, but not so much that driving and pedestrian traveling was all but impossible. The heavy, dark gray clouds were the only blight that marred the beauty of the wintry landscape, and even they had their merits—there was nothing quite like watching the light, fluffy streams of snow flurries gently fluttering to the ground, even if they were bred from such a bleak-looking source that clung overhead like a foreboding harbinger of affliction.
Clyde McBride agreed with that sentiment, although he couldn't quite commit to such a task; not when he was out and about and when being mindful of his surroundings was about as imperative as being properly dressed for trudging through the snow-covered sidewalks towards to his best friend's house in 29°F weather.
Through chattering teeth and a forged resolve, he told himself that it would all be over with soon. The stinging wisps of cold air seeping through his coat and nearly chilling his skin to the bone would be nothing but a distant memory once he reached his destination. He could've asked his dads to drive him there, but Clyde figured that the cold wouldn't be that bad for him. He didn't bother to think otherwise until he was about halfway there, and he felt like his limbs could freeze and snap off at any moment.
But comfortable or not, Clyde planned to see his current mission through to the end. With this being the first day of winter break, and about five days before Christmas, he wanted to squeeze in just about every second of free time he could commit to hanging out with Lincoln before they'd have to go their separate ways to spend time with their respective families for the holidays.
After another ten minutes of walking, shivering and all, Clyde found himself standing before the front door of the Loud residence. His hasty press of the doorbell (which was mercifully fixed as of last summer) was the only arm motion that he allowed before it went back to being tucked against his body in a desperate bid to keep himself as warm as he possibly could before the door opened and someone (hopefully) invited him in.
The five seconds it took for someone to answer him couldn't have come fast enough, but Clyde was still grateful for the sight of the door opening, nonetheless. It was made all the better once he saw who it was that decided to greet him—even if it was by the tiniest smidge, warmth sank into his body once his eyes caught the ever-peppy grin of Leni Loud.
"Hi, Clyde!" Leni said, her cheeriness not deterred by the blustering waves of frosty air that now blew through the house.
"H-hey, Leni," Clyde stuttered weakly through a forced, shivering smile, his pained expression forged from the intent of meeting Leni's hospitable smile with one of his own.
Ever the empathetic one, Leni was quick to pick up on his distress and quickly gestured for Clyde to come inside. The boy didn't need to be told twice, and he hurried inside while Leni shut the door behind her.
'Aaaaaaah, sweet relief,' Clyde thought once the pleasant room temperature soaked in and soothed his aching, cold joints and muscles.
While he slipped out of his boots and lined them up by the door, Leni took the liberty of taking off his hat and scarf. Appreciating the consideration, Clyde removed his coat and gloves and handed them to Leni, thinking she wouldn't mind handling those either. He smiled, a grin that wasn't nearly as frigid as the one before, when she accepted them without complaint.
"If you're looking for Lincoln, you'll have to wait a while," Leni said as she walked over to the couch and neatly laid his clothes along its back. "He's out doing Christmas shopping with Dad."
"I know," Clyde told her as he followed her. "Lincoln told me when I called him earlier. He said I could just wait for him at his house while he's gone."
But before he could take another step, his body froze under the weight of guilt—he hadn't bothered to consider calling up anyone else before he showed up. Even though he got the okay from Lincoln, there was still the chance that this unexpected visit was imposing on Leni and just about anyone else who probably had better things to do than tend to his needs.
Reservedly, Clyde cast his gaze down on the floor with his head bowed. "You don't mind, do you?" he asked, hoping that he wasn't unintentionally being a nuisance.
Leni shook her head, her hair swishing to and fro. "No way!" she chirped. "You're, like, my friend too, Clyde! You're always welcome here!"
Her kind, assuring words brought his spirits back to life in and instant. Without the fear of barging in to slow him down, he helped himself to a seat on the couch while Leni made her way to the kitchen. She stopped once she reached the archway of the dining room and looked over her shoulder at Clyde.
"You want some hot cocoa to warm you up?" she offered. "If you do, you'll have to take yours without marshmallows." She flashed a sheepish grin and snickered behind her hand. "My fault, by the way. I just can't help myself."
Clyde chuckled. "It's alright, Leni," he said. "I don't need any cocoa."
Once he told her as much, she turned around and ventured up the stairs instead. Clyde was too preoccupied with simply sitting back and looking around the living room to ask her where she was off to. As he took in all the decorations—bolstering a lively, delightful aura that didn't fail to set him in the Christmas mood—he wondered where Lincoln's other sisters were. He hadn't seen or heard signs of anyone else hanging around, so perhaps that everyone, besides Leni, had used the opportunity of winter break to go paint the town red.
Just as he was about to scope out some of the stockings over the fireplace, Leni quickly bounded down the stairs, her arms suspiciously folded behind her back. Clyde deduced that with the way Leni was heading towards him—her body shifting around to ensure that he wouldn't be able to gander even the quickest peek at her back—she was hiding something that was meant to be a surprise to him.
Eventually, she closed the distance between them, standing before Clyde as he looked up at her.
"So, Clyde, can I, like, get your opinion on something?" Leni asked.
"Uh, sure," Clyde said, not sensing any harm in indulging her. "On what, exactly?"
"See, I usually like to go all out with fashion for Christmas," Leni began to explain, "but I wanted to try a little something different this year. I'm still gonna go with a holiday-themed pair of shoes and a dress to match, but I was thinking that an accessory could really spice up the ensemble."
Without a second's delay, Leni whipped her arms out in front of her, revealing what she had kept hidden.
"Ta-da!" she exclaimed, her fingers tightly wrapped around either side of a head wreath. She gently settled it on her head, making sure that it fit snugly. Afterwards, she bent down at the waist to give Clyde a better look.
"So, like, how does it look?" she asked, hoping for a glowing remark.
She wasn't one to get torn apart from disapproval for her fashion ideas, but she had totes worked hard to put this one into place, and she hoped that it wouldn't come across as silly. She had spent the better part of a whole week gathering these cute little plants that she thought would look positively adorbs as a head wreath, like the ones that flower girls wore at weddings. And the best part was, they had either white or red berries attached to them; like, everyone knew that red and white were the top choices for any respectable Christmas fashion statement.
But after twenty seconds crawled by without a word from Clyde, Leni began to worry that maybe…maybe she had done something wrong—his shocked and reddened face gave a lot of credibility to that idea. She cringed at the thought, hating the idea that she had overstepped her boundaries and committed some faux pas that made Clyde uncomfortable. Despite this, she made no move to stand back a little to give him some space.
"Uh…Clyde? Are you okay?" Leni asked, her brow furrowed in concern.
It was all Clyde could do not babble and stutter like an idiot at the realization of the situation that Leni had unwittingly trapped them both in. Of course, it wasn't like they were bound to go through with such a tradition, but that didn't make the position of Leni, wearing a wreath of mistletoe around and over her head—and over his head with the angle she had bent down at—any less nerve-racking.
"Um…y-yeah," Clyde said nervously, his stuttering having nothing to do with the cold that raged on outside. "It's just that…um, you do know what that is right?"
Leni frowned. "Of course, I do. It's a head wreath," she said matter-of-factly, her tone sounding slightly offended.
Clyde was quick to correct the incidental slight. "No, no!" he said, calming down once he saw that Leni was willing to hear him out. "I mean, do you know what the head wreath is made out of?"
Leni just shot him a quizzical look. "Plants?" she guessed.
"But do you know what kind of plant?"
Leni racked her mind at the query for a few seconds, but found herself giving up nearly as quickly as she started. She shrugged, leaving Clyde with no choice but to fill in the blanks himself.
"It's…uh…" He closed his eyes as he felt another hot blush scorch his cheeks. "…m-mistletoe."
And just like that, a switch flicked on in Leni's head, and she was greeted with all the circumstances that her actions had brought about. She looked back down at Clyde's clearly embarrassed expression and gasped.
"Ooooooooooh," she drawled understandably, looking back up at the mistletoe wreath and back down at Clyde again.
Well…okay then. This was certainly not what Leni had meant to happen.
A cute head accessory? Yes. A situation where tradition compelled them to kiss? Absolutely not.
But to Leni, a misstep didn't exactly make a quandary. One of the highlights of last year's Christmas party, thrown to cheer up Mr. Grouse, was Lori giving Clyde a kiss on the cheek while they stood underneath the mistletoe. The dazed, happy look on his face, afterwards, was just too cute and priceless for words! Her big sister had certainly done a great thing for Clyde that day.
And now, she had the chance to do the same thing, albeit by mistake. Where was the harm in that?
Making up her mind, she grasped Clyde by the shoulders, spurring the boy into opening his eyes and looking back at her. Leni giggled at the awestruck, puzzled face he made.
"Weeeeeeell, it is tradition," Leni said, her teasing tone and leaning in eliciting babbles and stutters that she found adorable.
It all happened in a flash—her lips pressed against his cheek, and his body stiffened as tiny, surprised squeak slipped out of his agape mouth. When she withdrew, she flashed a self-satisfied smile as the memory of Lori's kindness aligned with Clyde's current expression; she had to hold herself back from giggling at how his body swayed slightly as he held his kissed cheek with one hand while a silly grin spread across his face.
But just before Leni could call it a day, thinking that all her work was over, she was jostled into reconsideration when she remembered her wreath.
"But you know, now that I think about it, I used twenty-three mistletoe plants for the wreath…" Her unfinished thought made Clyde snap out of his flushed stupor. "So, it looks like I'll just have to kiss you twenty-two more times!"
On that afternoon, Clyde realized, as he watched Leni lean in for another kiss on the cheek, that this was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most wonderful time of the year.