‘You’re humming,’ says Carolyn, in a far more accusatory tone than the occasion would typically warrant.
‘I am,’ Herc replies smoothly, without turning around. He dusts the rolling pin with flour and starts to flatten out - whatever it is he is baking this time. ‘Is there a reason I shouldn’t be?’
‘Is there a reason you should?’ Carolyn challenges, her hands going automatically to her hips as she raises her eyebrows with disapproval.
‘It’s Christmas,’ Herc reminds her. Carolyn sniffs, unimpressed.
‘It is December twenty-fourth. It is not Christmas for another fifteen hours.’
Herc shrugs, and Carolyn can just tell he is smiling. Smirking, more likely, with infuriating superiority.
‘You may want to tell that to Arthur,’ Herc indicates the ceiling with a jerk of his head, still with his back to Carolyn. Carolyn does not have to strain to hear the sounds of her son making his usual Christmas Eve racket upstairs, complete with off-key singing and the ominous clatter of dropped presents waiting to be wrapped.
‘Perhaps I expect better from you,’ Carolyn replies shortly, quickly smothering the unexpected twitch of her lips - as if they were going to smile all of their own accord.
‘He’s just excited,’ says Herc, now putting the rolling pin aside and picking up one of an assortment of cookie-cutters stacked to his right.
‘Do let me know if you ever come across Arthur when he is not excited. I’ve yet to witness such an occurrence myself.’
‘Come now,’ Herc finally turns around, and Carolyn was right - he is smiling, that infuriating brand of smile that he must know she loathes. (He must know she cannot refuse it.) ‘You wouldn’t have us any other way.’
‘I wouldn’t count on that, if I were you,’ Carolyn argues severely. Herc’s expression does not change, unless it is that his eyes twinkle just a little brighter with fond amusement. Carolyn scowls. Herc chuckles.
‘I do apologise,’ he soothes, stepping towards her. ‘Perhaps I ought to find some way to make it up to you?’
‘Oh leave off,’ Carolyn scolds, swatting Herc’s arm irritably.
‘Certainly, if you wish it,’ Herc relents, stepping quickly back and turning once more to his baking. Carolyn blinks, wrong-footed by Herc’s uncharacteristically rapid capitulation.
Herc glances over his shoulder, lips quirking mischievously - and flicks a pinch of flour straight into Carolyn's face. Carolyn splutters and coughs, momentarily too surprised to be annoyed.
‘Something wrong dear?’ Herc questions, smirking and overly casual. The fool.
‘You will regret that, Hercules.’
‘Oh yes,’ Carolyn moves faster than Herc has a chance of reacting. One - two steps and she is across the kitchen - swipe, lift, pour - and one - two steps back again while Herc is still shrieking and wriggling with the unpleasant shock of half a mug of cold water down the back of his shirt. He reaches around stupidly, as though trying to grab the liquid away from his skin, but it has trickled all the way down his spine and into the waistband of his trousers.
‘Right,’ says Herc decisively - though his voice is still somewhat higher pitched than usual. ‘If that’s how we’re playing it -’ and it turns out that Herc can move as fast as Carolyn when the occasion calls for it, because he has hardly finished speaking when his hands - his large, smooth, flour-coated hands are on Carolyn’s cheeks, and his merry, grinning, ridiculous lips are pressed against hers -
And Carolyn pokes him firmly in the ribs, right in that spot, and he is squirming again, ticklish but determined, running powdery fingers through her hair and still beaming, and Carolyn can’t be having that, so she pulls away and shakes her head so that her hair flicks his nose -
Carolyn and Hercules pull apart abruptly.
‘Arthur!’ Carolyn exclaims, twisting around to face her son and immensely grateful that she has never been prone to blushing. She steps firmly on Herc’s foot to wipe the self-satisfied smirk from his face.
Arthur is standing in the kitchen doorway clutching a handful of brightly coloured Christmas cards, wearing a too-big woolly jumper emblazoned with a sparkling snowman, complete with protruding 3D carrot nose, with a rather faded Santa hat almost as old as he is perched upon his tousled hair.
‘Oh,’ Arthur pauses, apparently forgetting for a moment why he is here. ‘Umm - you’ve got flour on your… you’ve got flour on you,’ he informs Carolyn awkwardly. Carolyn automatically goes through the motions of dusting herself off, throwing Herc irritable looks out of the corner of her eye.
‘Did you want something?’ she asks eventually, when Arthur has been standing in silence for almost thirty seconds.
‘Oh! Oh yes - which card do you think Douglas would prefer, the confused pigeon or the sarcastic penguin?’ He holds out both for inspection by his mother.
‘That’s not a pigeon, dear heart, that is a partridge.’
‘Oh.’ Arthur turns the card onto its side, as though viewing the subject from the side might clear the matter up. ‘That explains why it’s so confused.’
‘...Yes,’ Carolyn agrees doubtfully. ‘In any case, I’d give the penguin to Douglas, it’s more his style.’
‘You really think so?’
‘Okay. It’s just that, the pigeon - I mean, the partridge sings when you open it, and Douglas likes music, so I thought maybe -’
‘Why don’t you save that one for Tiffy?’ Carolyn interrupts.
‘Oh I already wrote Tiffy’s card. Did you know there’s this shop where you can record your own messages in the card? I recorded myself singing Merry Christmas - the lady in the shop said she’d never heard anything like it!’
‘I don’t doubt it,’ Carolyn replies drily, though as ever Arthur simply beams in response.
‘Aww, thanks Mum. I can make a singing one for you too if you like, only I -’
‘No, that’s alright Arthur. You save your singing for Tiffy, I’m sure she’ll be thrilled.’
Which is, Carolyn thinks, the absolute truth, unlikely as it might seem. The two of them are absolutely sappy for each other; she has never seen anything quite like it. She is glad, she supposes, for her son’s happiness. A little worried too of course; much as he usually bounces back quite quickly (he is Arthur after all), Carolyn has seen him heartbroken more than once and she has no desire to do so again. More than either of these, though, she suspects she is rather… proud. It is a pleasant feeling, though not one she plans to shout about overmuch.
‘Okay so that means I’ve got the penguins for Douglas, the sleigh for Martin, and now I just need one for Theresa - what sort of Christmas card do you think a Princess would want?’
‘Give her the one with the dragon in a teacup,’ Herc chimes in helpfully.
‘Do you think she’d like that?’
‘I think she would love it,’ Herc confirms, to which Arthur responds with a joyful little hop that almost knocks his head against the doorframe.
‘This is going to be the best Christmas ever!’ he exclaims.
‘You said that last year,’ Herc reminds him, though without any annoyance.
‘And the year before,’ Carolyn agrees with a sigh. Arthur and Herc both know her well enough to recognise the smile in her voice even if it does not appear on her face. Both of them also know well enough not to mention it aloud.
It is late, and Hercules is humming again. The entire house smells of cinnamon and nutmeg; there are multi-coloured fairy-lights strung around every window, and Arthur is heaping what seems like every blanket they possess into a single armchair.
‘Eggnog for two; hot chocolate for one?’ Hercules calls, carrying a tray of three mugs through from the kitchen.
‘Ooh, does it have -?’
‘The works, as requested,’ Hercules interrupts, taking a step back to avoid being bowled over by Arthur as the younger man clambers over the sofa to reach him. Arthur takes the hot chocolate with a rush of thanks and slurps it quickly, smearing his face with cream in the process and grinning fit to burst.
‘I have a feeling that I’m going to need something stronger than eggnog to get through the next few days,’ Carolyn remarks drily as she retrieves her own drink with one hand, a blanket with the other, and settles into her chosen seat.
‘Yours has extra bourbon, don’t worry,’ Herc replies, leaning over to kiss Carolyn’s cheek. Carolyn accepts the gesture with unusual good grace and sips her drink approvingly.
‘Okay, so we’ve got a choice of films,’ Arthur announces, suddenly businesslike. He places his hot chocolate with exaggerated care on a small side table and leans down to a stack of DVDs, which he proceeds to rifle through. ‘Shall we have a vote?’
‘Why don’t you just surprise us?’ Herc suggests, sitting beside Carolyn on the sofa and pulling her blanket to cover his own knees as well as hers. Carolyn tugs it back proprietorially, to which Herc responds by simply shifting closer and putting an arm around her shoulder.
‘Are you sure?’ Arthur checks doubtfully, now kneeling on the floor with three DVDs in each hand. He glances at Carolyn for approval.
‘Go on,’ Carolyn rolls her eyes. ‘Take your pick.’
‘Aww, thanks Mum!’ Arthur exclaims, immediately shuffling the cases rather roughly as he searches for one which is just that bit more brilliant than the others.
‘We may have just made a terrible mistake,’ Herc admits with an amused twist of his lips.
‘It's Christmas,’ Carolyn tells him, somewhat smugly, ‘as you so astutely continue to remind me.’
‘Yes…’ Herc agrees slowly.
‘Ooh, what about this one?’ Arthur interrupts before Carolyn can respond.
‘Again, dear heart?’ Carolyn sighs with fond exasperation.
‘It's got my name on it, Mum!’ Arthur protests joyfully.
‘Yes,’ Carolyn rolls her eyes. ‘We know.’
Nevertheless, she is smiling when Arthur starts the DVD, and still smiling when she falls asleep leaning on Herc’s shoulder just over an hour later.