December 18th, a week before Christmas. Paris was alive with the holiday spirit; wreaths of pine and holly, tied with glittering red and gold bows, adorned the doors and windows of every building. Displays of candy canes and sugared violets enticed customers through shop doors. Children eagerly gathered outside the toy store, breath fogging glass as they eyed the gleaming model train set on polished tracks.
Restaurants opened doors to usher in guests, the delicious aroma of roasted turkey, accompanied by fragrant rosemary and melted butter wafting through the air. Snowdrifts were piled up on the streets, pure sheets of white lining roofs and crystal flakes settling in hair. Inside, hidden away from the cold, people curled up in front of the fireplace, steaming mugs of cocoa clutched in hands and shiny presents tucked under the ornament-laden boughs of trees.
And in one particular orphanage in the 15th arrondissement, the children rushed down the stairs to greet their special visitor—
“Père Noël!” The girl clapped her hands together, eyes sparkling as she stared up at the man in front of her.
The boy standing behind her elbowed her. “ Imbécile ,” he hissed. “That’s not Père Noël, he’s supposed to be an old man!” Another girl who looked to be the same age as him chided him. “Thomas, don’t be rude.”
Arthur gave the children assembled in front of him a charming smile. “Père Noël wasn’t feeling too well, so he asked me to fill in for him today! He even asked my charming assistant to help me.” He gestured to Iris, who waved at the children surrounding them. She smoothed down her skirt, richly dyed wool with red and green holly embroidered around the hem.
“But don’t worry; we’ll be extra careful and make sure that Père Noël receives all of your wishes for Christmas.”
It was at that moment that Sister Èlise chose to finally make an appearance. “Thank you for coming on such short notice, M. Arthur. Children, why don’t you go make the parlour ready for our guests? Whoever does it the fastest gets a treat~”
She gently ushered the rowdy bunch out of the room. The kids scampered off, eager to be the first to win a treat from the nun. Èlise sighed.
“Ever since we had that incident with Si… with Amélie, we haven’t had many sponsors for the orphanage.” Her gaze lingered on the open door of the parlor; the children had divided themselves into teams, with the older ones instructing the younger kids what to do. Her veil covered her face.
“I’m afraid the little chance we had at giving these children a good life is ruined beyond repair now.”
Iris clasped Èlise’s hands and gave the other woman a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of the children for today.” Arthur nodded. “Of course. We couldn’t very well turn down such a heartfelt request for assistance, could we?”
The sister gave a weary smile back, and squeezed Iris’s hands. “Thank you so much, both of you. May God bless both of you.” Arthur waved it off.
“Please, you’re giving us too much credit. Now, shall we go check on the children? You mustn't let them get bored for too long, you know.”
They spent the day being run ragged, entertaining the children with stories and games to keep them from causing mischief. While Iris was playing hide and seek with the older ones in the garden, some of the younger kids had cornered Arthur and—
“Can you really send all our wishes to Père Noël?” The group stared up at him, amazed; Thomas scoffed. Arthur grinned at the circle of bright-eyed children sitting around him. “Of course! Now, name anything you want and I’m sure that Père Noël will be happy to grant it.”
Thomas turned at this, staring hard at Arthur incredulously. “Seriously? He’ll give us anything?” At Arthur’s nod, he sat back, crossing his arms. “Okay. What if I want a family for Christmas?”
Arthur leveled him with a mischievous smirk. “Then you’ll get a family for Christmas. Is that all you want?” A chorus of ‘oooh’s went up around the circle as the others glanced between Thomas and Arthur. The boy stared him down for a few more minutes, before he ‘hmph’ed and turned his head away.
Arthur clapped his hands. “Alright! Since Thomas so graciously volunteered himself to go first, we’ll go around the circle and say what we want for Christmas! How does that sound?”
Cheers went up. As each child’s turn came, they eagerly described what they wanted from Père Noël for the upcoming holiday, from a small puppy to a grand piano. He mentally noted each request; he’d have to do a lot of shopping when he got back to the mansion.
Then came the turn of a little girl, dressed from head to toe in black, brown hair pulled into two thin braids. An uncomfortable silence fell over the group, hushed whispers breaking out between some of the others.
Arthur studied her curiously. She couldn’t have been any older than six or seven, but her face was pinched with an unbearable sadness, shoulders drooping with the weight of it. “What’s your name, little one?” The girl mumbled something into her collar that he couldn't catch. “Come again?”
She raised her head; there were dark circles under her eyes. “My name is Christine.” Her voice was so small that he could barely hear it. The girl sitting right next to Arthur leaned over and whispered, “Don’t mind her, Monsieur. She’s been that dull for a long while, ever since her sister fell ill three years ago. She stays up every night to take care of her.” Her voice was growing fainter, drowned out by the ringing in Arthur’s ears.
He’s been sick for so long, Doctor. Is he ever going to get better?
“…sieur. Monsieur?” Arthur shook his head. “Is everything okay?” He smiled at the children reassuringly. Not now, old chap, keep it together .
“Of course! I was just surprised, is all.” He looked at Christine again. Gently, he spoke to her again. “Is there anything you want to ask for?”
Christine stared at the floor, as if wishing she could disappear into the thick carpet. “She doesn’t want anything except for her sister to get better, Monsieur. We just leave her alone.” The girl next to Arthur whispered.
Arthur swallowed hard. He took a deep breath to compose himself, and tried to brush over the awkward silence. “Well, is that everyone?”
The handful of kids who hadn’t shared their wishes clambered to be the first to tell what they wanted. Arthur listened to them intently, trying to push the girl in the black dress to the back of his mind.
It wasn’t until they were walking back to the mansion that Iris saw Arthur again, and subsequently, noticed something was off about him. He didn’t tease her or make any jokes as they walked, no quips about her being a cute helper of Père Noël like earlier that day. In the golden light of the sun, he seemed almost… melancholy.
“Arthur?” He hummed in response, eyes still pointed straight ahead. He didn’t even look at her. “Is everything alright with you?” Iris took one of his hands in hers, squeezing it.
“Everything’s fine, love.” She stopped. Arthur paused, and gave her one of his trademark cheeky grins. It didn't reach his eyes.
Iris lifted her free hand, cradling his cheek. “Everything is most definitely not fine. Something is bothering you. I can tell.” Arthur leaned into her touch. Memories swam under the surface of his mind, clouding his thoughts.
“When I was entertaining the children… there was this girl. Her name was Christine.” Iris nodded for him to continue.
“I asked her what she wanted for Christmas. I was trying to get the kids into a holiday mood, trying to cheer them up. And when her turn came ‘round, she… she said she wanted her sister to smile for Christmas. Her sister… her sister’s been sick for the last three years, and—” Arthur’s voice cracked.
Iris tugged him closer, resting his head on her shoulders. “It’s okay, Arthur. You’re not in the hospital anymore. This isn’t Jack. It’s okay.” Her voice flowed over him; she rubbed his back soothingly.
“But it’s the same damn thing!” He raised his head to look at her; his eyes were filled with anguish. “It’s the same damn thing, and I won’t be able to do a bloody thing about it like the utterly useless—”
“Arthur.” She cut him off. “You are not useless, Arthur. Listen to me. Whatever she asked for, we’re going to be able to grant it, and you'll make her smile. I know you will. Do you believe in me?” Arthur hesitated, and gave a slow nod; Iris smiled. “Good, because I believe in you. You can do this.” She gave him a quick kiss on the lips.
Arthur laughed; the tension in his shoulders drained. “How on earth did I ever find a woman like you?” Slipping his arms around her waist, he rested his forehead against hers, the last rays of the setting sun falling over them. Iris giggled.
“Well, you tried to scare me off at first, then you made a bet with me—” He cut her off with another kiss. “You're a silly woman,” he whispered. Her smile widened.
“Then that makes me a silly woman in love with a silly man. Now let’s go home. We have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”
December 25th. Christmas day.
Arthur stared holes into the wood of the orphanage door. He had gotten all of the gifts that the children had requested, including a baby grand piano that could easily fit in the parlor of the orphanage. Next to him, Iris was holding Vic and King’s leashes. (It hadn't been easy trying to convince Theo to let Arthur borrow his dog for the day, but somehow with Iris and Vincent’s combined efforts he had managed it).
He’d left the mansion feeling prepared for anything that could possibly go wrong, but now that he was actually at the orphanage, his head seemed to spin. He felt his hand being squeezed, and looked down. Iris had covered his hand with hers; her eyes were so gentle as she smiled at him. It’s going to be okay . He nodded, trying to smile, but his face seemed to be stuck.
Taking a deep breath, he raised his hand and rapped three times on the door. It swung open, revealing two girls dressed in identical holly-patterned frocks with bows in their hair. “Monsieur!” They grabbed one of his hands each, pulling him forward into the orphanage. Iris followed, both dogs straining at their leashes.
“Doggies!” The twins shrieked, immediately letting go of Arthur’s hands to run to pet the two dogs. Vic barked eagerly, delighted at the attention; the other kids must have heard it, as a crowd had formed in a few minutes around Vic and King. Arthur parted the sea of kids, allowing Iris to lead the dogs into the parlor.
“Make sure not to crowd them, children!” Sister Èlise called out to the children. Turning to Iris and Arthur, the weariness in her face seemed to finally lift. “You two have done such a wonderful thing for the orphanage. I don’t know how we can ever repay you—” Arthur held a finger up to her lips.
“Don’t worry about paying us back. Just let them enjoy this gift for today.” His eyes sparkled. Sister Èlise nodded. Arthur scanned the room carefully, looking for twin brown braids. “Where’s Christine?”
The nun’s eyes creased with concern at the mention of the girl’s name. “She’s with her sister. We offered to take care of Marie for the day so she could enjoy herself, but…” Her sentence trailed off, needing no more explanation.
Arthur flaunted a comforting smile. “Well, that’s too bad.” He winked at Sister Elise. “You don’t have to look so worried. I can take care of children.” The sister flushed, and hurriedly left the room.
Chuckling to himself, Arthur gathered a group of kids hovering on the outsides of the dog-petting club. “Who wants to play a game of hide and seek?” Their faces lit up and they dashed off, eager to be the winners of the game.
Arthur searched out all the children one by one, explaining to them what clues they had left behind that gave them away—a stray thread caught here, the scuff mark of a show against a wall there. Every time he did, the growing number of kids trailing behind him clapped in delight.
Eventually they all returned to the parlor, exhausted from playing for so long. Some of the children immediately ran off to the kitchen, eager to find the sources of the delicious smells coming from that direction. Arthur seated himself on a lounge chair, observing the room idly; Iris was entertaining two little girls with a pair of dolls in her hands. No doubt she was retelling one of his stories, judging by the shocked gasps and cheers every so often from the trio.
One of the older girls poked her head through the parlor doorway. “Thomas, Sister Elise is calling for you!” The boy in question tilted his head in confusion, hand frozen above King’s head. She shrugged. “She says there’s a couple here that wants to see you? She thinks they might be here to take you home.” Thomas froze. He slowly turned his head.
Arthur was smirking from ear to ear.
Thomas sputtered. “You! You… how did you—”
“Go on now, mate. Time waits for no one, you know.”
Thomas’s eyes widened. He nodded, and bolted out of the room, slamming the door shut in his haste. Arthur grinned. Out of the corner of his eyes he could see Iris bending to whisper to one of the girls, and then leaving the room.
She returned a few minutes later with a girl no more than five years old in tow. She was tiny and pale, almost sickly. Her faded pink smock hung off her thin frame.
The children noticed her standing in the doorway and one by one, they went silent. The crowd parted like the sea for her. Slowly, she shuffled into the room, still holding on to Iris for support. Vic noticed her first; he padded over to her, wet nose sniffing curiously at her. She lifted a hand, scratching the dog under his chin. Content, Vic barked and turned around to settle on the floor right at her feet, brown eyes staring up at her expectantly.
She settled to the floor; the dog rested his head in her lap. Stroking his ears carefully, the girl smiled. The room seemed to let out a collective sigh at that. King got up and joined her as well, settling down on her other side with his tail wagging eagerly.
The door banged open at that exact moment.
Christine was standing outside, breathing hard like she’d run a marathon. “What did you do to my sister, you—” Here eyes fell on the girl in the pink smock and her voice choked. Marie looked up; slowly, her face brightened. “Tine!”
Iris joined Arthur at his side, both of them watching the sisters to see what they would do next. Christine stumbled into the room, kneeling in front of her sister. Marie took her hand. "You're… okay?"
"I feel well today. Well enough to come out." Marie smiled. "I'm getting better, so you don't have to worry about me too much." Her voice was too soft for anyone but her sister to hear.
Christine nodded. She let her forehead rest against Marie's, hands still linked.
One by one, the other kids approached them, no longer scared of accidentally facing Christine’s wrath. One girl, who looked to be the same age as Marie, tentatively offered her the china doll she clutched in one hand.
Arthur murmured, “Now, how exactly did you manage to sneak a sick girl out of bed and down the stairs without her sister noticing?”
Iris whispered back, “I just told here there was a very handsome Père Noël waiting for her downstairs with two puppies as her Christmas gift. Although,” her eyes glanced briefly at the two sisters surrounded by the other orphanage children. “I think that she had that strength in her already. Her sister’s been taking good care of her. Reminds me a little of someone I know.”
Arthur looked a bit taken aback, before a flush creeped up his neck and ears. “Cheeky little bird, aren’t you?”
“I have to be, if I want to keep up with you.” There was a twinkle in her eye at the last statement.
“Mademoiselle!” Iris whipped around to see who had called her. A group of girls were sitting around Marie and Christine, dolls in hand. “Mademoiselle, tell us the story you were telling earlier! With the box of pearls and the missing inheritance!”
Iris glanced at Arthur from the corner of her eye. “I told you that you would make her smile, didn’t I?” She hurried off to the eager group and took her place.
Arthur watched her, eyes softening; a rueful smile touched his lips. “Yeah. I guess I did, in a way.”
Iris was cleaning up the last of the dishes from the large dining table when they found her. It hadn’t been easy to feed 40 children, especially when she had to make sure that all of them stayed in their seats and didn’t make too much of a mess, but somehow she managed to wrangle her way through it. She had just finished arranging the vase of primroses in the center of the pristine white tablecloth when a voice called her name.
"Mademoiselle?" Iris looked up. Marie and Christine were standing before her. They gave her near-identical beaming smiles. "Monsieur is looking for you. He says he has a gift for you."
She raised an eyebrow. They each grabbed one of her hands and led her out of the room, round corners and down the stairs out to the foyer. Arthur was waiting there, hands in his pockets as he whistled something to himself. The sisters let go of her at the same time.
“Enjoy your gift Mademoiselle!” Christine waved over her shoulder with a look far too sly for a seven year old girl. Iris could only blink for a few minutes at their retreating backs, before she turned and hurried towards Arthur.
"Arthur, the girls told me you had something you wanted to give me?"
Arthur lifted an eyebrow. “Is that so? A little bird told me that you were the one with a gift.”
Iris could hear children giggling behind the corner. She peeked at them from the corner of her eye; they were looking at something on the ceiling and snickering behind their hands. Arthur must have had the same idea that she had, because they both looked up at the same time.
A sprig of waxy leaves and glistening white berries hung from the ceiling… right above Arthur’s head. Iris felt her cheeks burn. Looking back down, she saw Arthur looking at her deviously, a smirk on his face. “Well?” He stepped closer; Iris resisted the urge to step back. “It's tradition.”
Blood roared in her ears. “T-there are children watching…” Even she knew that was a feeble attempt at protest. Arthur leaned in closer; she felt his next words more than heard them. “The children are the rascals who set this up in the first place.” Vaguely, she registered the giggling grow louder as her face flushed even more.
“Iris.” Her eyes darted up to meet Arthur’s. At the question that swirled in the depths of his blue eyes. May I? She nodded, eyes fluttering shut right as their lips met. He hummed, one arm snaking around her waist and pulling her closer to his body. Iris tangled her hands in his hair, drawing back for breath, and then diving back in for a deeper kiss.
The children were cheering from around the corner. Iris buried her face in her hands to hide her burning cheeks. "You rascals come on out now!" Footsteps thudded on the carpet as the children scattered, shrieking in delight while Arthur played at chasing after them.
He returned to Iris, holding her gently. "Iris?"
"Hmm?" She still had her face buried in her hands.
"I love you."
Her surprised face popped up from behind her hands. Just enough for Arthur to land a kiss on her nose. "Arthur!" She squealed. His laugh rang out. "I… I love you too." An adorable blush graced her cheeks as she uttered the words, he thought.
She laid her head on his chest, feeling the steady thump-thump-thump of his heart beating. A hand came up to stroke her hair, and she felt Arthur press another soft kiss to the top of her head.
"Merry Christmas, Arthur."
"Merry Christmas to you too, my love."