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Wishing On A Golden Star

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1

At eight years old, Effie’s favorite holiday was Christmas.

She loved it more than she loved Halloween or the Games season. The Capitol was dressed for the occasion, the city was always full of blinding twinkling lights and of so many colors it sometimes made her little head spin. She loved the huge tree that seemed to reach the sky on Main Square, she loved the daily Christmas parade in the City Circle, she loved the songs, she loved how joyful people looked when they dashed in and out of stores with their arms full of presents for their loved ones…

She loved her own home – something she confusedly felt shouldn’t happen only around Christmas but it was hard to remember to love it the rest of the year. For Christmas, the house was decorated, as if the colors from outside were slipping inside, contaminating her mother’s sterilized idea of what proper decoration should be. There were tinsels everywhere, pine cones and beautiful snowflakes made out of glass… The tree was big and dotted with bright red and gold baubles… A growing sea of presents were piled underneath and there was a sparkling golden star on top of it. Effie desperately wanted to be like that star one day. It looked peaceful and happy over there, far from the people walking bellow – and everyone loved stars.

The knowledge that the amount of presents would have grown when she came home was satisfying and she was happy, completely carefree, wishing she could saunter and run around in sheer joy but knowing ladies would never indulge in such a childish displays. Instead of sauntering and running, she walked with her head high and a bright smile on her face, holding tight to her grandfather’s gloved hand as they strolled through the Capitol’s streets.

She loved outings with her grandfather Timotheo. He was a funny man and her mother often commented that she wished he would behave a little more properly but Effie didn’t mind the lapses in manners. It was rather constraining to be a perfect lady all the time and she wasn’t as good as her sister Lyssa was at it. She wished she could be more like her grandfather sometimes and come down to breakfast in pajamas if she wanted to. But that was a secret she would never ever confide in her mother. Her mother would lecture and lecture… Ladies didn’t have lazy days. Ladies ought to be perfect all the time. Ladies didn’t let anyone see them without wigs and make-up because ladies simply couldn’t afford not to be beautiful. Those were important rules to Elindra Trinket and her daughters lived by them.

“I have a surprise for you, my little princess…” Timotheo declared as they crossed the street toward the biggest park in town.

She loved the nickname. It was a special nickname just for her. She was her grandfather’s little princess and Lyssa was his little dove. It was special and precious and she knew Lyssa loved it just as much as she did.

“Is it a new doll?” she asked, looking at him with bright blue eyes. She blinked several times, trying to adjust to the still unfamiliar weight of the fake eyelashes. She had only been wearing them for a couple of weeks and she was glad to finally be granted the right to imitate Lyssa and their mother but they were more inconvenient than she had thought.

“Don’t you have enough dolls?” Timotheo teased gently.

“One has never enough guests to a party.” she recited dutifully.

A flash of annoyance passed over her grandfather’s face but it was quickly replaced by fondness before she could ask what she had done wrong.

“Dolls are made to play with, Euphemia, not to train to host parties.” he said. “In any case, it is not a toy.”

“Is it a new dress?” she tried to guess, as they passed the huge metallic arch that marked the entrance to the park. Greenery immediately replaced the more familiar towering shape of buildings and it made Effie nervous, just like every time. She wasn’t sure she liked plants, not when there were so many that were taller than her and when they were everywhere and could probably swallow her whole. “Oh! Are we going to the zoo?” She pointed at the directions board even though she didn’t need to. She had been in the park often enough that she could probably navigate it on her own despite its size. The zoo was on the left and the botanic garden was straight ahead.

“Not today.” he grinned. “It is much better. Something you never did before.”

That was exciting and she had to watch herself closely not to bounce on her feet in her enthusiasm. She chatted happily while her grandfather led her through cleanly traced paths in the park. She talked all the while and, unlike her mother, Timotheo didn’t chide her for it. He listened to her babble seriously and offered opinions.

At some point, they stopped next to the frozen pond and Effie forgot to keep talking to watch the people gliding on the ice. There were several groups of friends laughing and stumbling, picking each other up and obviously having a lot of fun but her eyes were, as always, attracted to the more graceful skaters, those who seemed to belong there. There was a woman who made jumps and twirls and Effie would have gape if it hadn’t been so unladylike.

“What do you say, my little princess?” her grandfather nudged her gently.

She furrowed her brown, confused. “Are we going to watch? Is it the surprise?”

It wasn’t the best surprise ever but she didn’t mind. She liked watching people skating on the frozen pond. Her mother never wanted to stop when they strolled by and Lyssa had no interest for the activity so Effie was often left to trail after them, craning her neck to catch a glimpse.

“We are going to skate.” Timotheo corrected. “That’s my surprise.”

Effie blinked and then immediately chewed on her bottom lip – a habit Elindra had unsuccessfully been trying to break her out of since forever – looking at the frozen water with envy. “I can’t, Grandfather.” she whispered regretfully. “Mother will be mad. Ladies don’t make a spectacle of themselves like that. It is not glamorous.”

She butchered the pronunciation of that word, she thought, but she didn’t care. Her little heart was crushed.

“We won’t tell your mother.” he countered. “This will be our secret.”

She bit on her bottom lip harder. Temptation was too strong. “Isn’t it like a lie? It is bad form to lie although Mother says a lady sometimes has to. She says ladies have to be desirable at all costs and so we can lie if it’s for that.”

Another flash on annoyance passed on her grandfather’s face.

“Well, then. Here you have it, Effie. A tiny lie won’t hurt.” he shrugged.

Shrugging was rude but Effie didn’t remind him. She nodded eagerly with a smile so wide it almost hurt.

In a matter of minutes, Timotheo had rented skates for both of them and Effie took her first tentative step on the ice. She fell on her bottom before thirty seconds had passed. Instead of crying, she laughed.

Her grandfather taught her everything he knew and when they called it quit, after two hours, she could skate by herself. She was nowhere near ready to twirl and jump like the pretty lady was doing but, at least, she wasn’t at risk of falling every two seconds.

He bought her a cup of hot cocoa with whipped cream on top and they sat on a bench to watch the other skaters. She knew it was getting late because the light was decreasing and the street lights were switching on. She also knew her mother would be mad if they were late for dinner but she thought she would be mad anyway because it was too late and Effie wouldn’t have time to change and so she would have to appear to dinner in her outing dress instead of in one of her evening dresses. She carefully spooned the whipped cream before it melted. It was a race against time and she loved it.

“Did you bring Lyssa here yesterday, Grandfather?” she asked, once the cream was all gone. The question was bothering her. Her grandfather was always fair with them, if he took Lyssa out one day, he would offer an outing to Effie the next. Sometimes they both went at the same time, he brought them to the circus or to the zoo, but she and Lyssandra didn’t like the same things anymore and Lyssa tended to consider her a baby because she was now ten and allowed to wear heels when Effie was still in flat shinny shoes.

“No.” he chuckled. “She would have hated it. I took her to a fashion show. Didn’t she tell you?”

She started bouncing her legs under the bench but caught herself and crossed them at the ankles, as was proper. “I think she told Mother when she was brushing her hair. I heard them laugh from my room. Lyssa wants to be a model when she’s all grown up. Mother says she doesn’t have to wait that long.”

“What do you want to do?” he asked.

Answering the golden star at the top of the tree felt too childish so she settled for her usual choice. “A princess.”

“You will need a prince for that, then.” Timotheo teased with a fond smile.

“Like in fairytales?” she grinned but her grin faded and she took a sip of her chocolate. “Fairytales don’t exist though. People don’t love like that.”

A little boy and a little girl ran past their bench, laughing hard as they chased each other, and Effie was torn between disapproving their behavior and envying them. She couldn’t remember the last time she ran. She shouldn’t want to run. It wasn’t ladylike. She was certain Lyssa never had to fight the impulse to run.

“I loved your grandmother like that.” Timotheo objected softly, his gaze lost in a faraway past. “Did you know my father didn’t want me to marry her?” She shook her head, leaning in with interest to better hear the story. Her grandmother was hardly more to her than a face on the glossy paper of a photograph, she had never known her. “She wasn’t from the same social circle. Well… It was another time, another world. The Games didn’t exist yet and the war…” He waved that off. “You don’t need to know about all this. Not yet in any case. You just need to know I loved her more than anything and I gave up everything to be with her so I can attest that real love does exist.”

She didn’t understand everything and she thought maybe it was just a story. Another world, one without Games, didn’t make sense to her.

“Does Mother love Father like that?” she asked, already knowing the answer to that question.

Timotheo was careful to keep his disapprobation out of his voice but she heard it anyway. She didn’t understand why her grandfather and her mother seemed to be so at odds. She thought it was because he always acted so aloof but she wasn’t sure.

“Your mother was always ambitious. She had big dreams and she realized most of them.” he replied. “I gave up on my inheritance for your grandmother and your mother never understood that. Poverty didn’t suit her, so money was one of those dreams. Your father gave her that. I am sure she loves him for it.”

Again, she didn’t understand and she didn’t try to. It felt too much like something she didn’t want to know so she pretended it didn’t exist, just like she pretended she couldn’t hear the deafening silence in her house.

“Mother was a huge star.” Effie added helpfully with a longing sigh. “She is so beautiful…”

“Your father certainly thought so.” her grandfather smiled. “He was head over heels for her, at least. Everyone was back then.”

“Mother says we have to be practical when we choose a husband.” she declared with hesitation. “She says it’s very important not to let our heart rule our head.”

“It is not so easy, Euphemia.” Timotheo sighed, shaking his head. “The heart wants what it wants regardless of what your head tells you. You will understand when you fall in love.”

She finished her hot cocoa, mulling this over. “How do you know it is love?”

He wiped her upper lip with his thumb and she was horrified to realize she had been sporting a chocolate mustache. She immediately dug in the pocket of her coat for the round mirror Elindra had gifted her with for her birthday and checked that there were no more traces of cocoa.

Timotheo watched her with an amusement tainted by sorrow. “What is your favorite thing, Effie?”

She frowned a little, distracted by her reflection. “Do you mean my favorite thing like my favorite dress?”

“No, your favorite thing in the whole world.” he corrected. “What would you do forever if you could? What can’t you bear losing?”

It was a difficult question for such a little girl but Effie took the time to think before she answered. There were a lot of things she liked. Gossiping with her friends, shopping for new clothes, her ballet classes and the piano lessons…

“I like spending time with you.” she offered and she was rewarded with a gentle pat on her head and a kiss on her brow. She liked the kiss but she hoped he hadn’t messed up her wig too much because her mother would be annoyed.

“Well, that’s how you know you love someone.” her grandfather explained. “When they are your favorite thing. And when you feel that way about them, you should ask them what their favorite thing are. If their answer is you, then you know they love you too.”

That seemed like a reasonable idea but she found herself pouting. “Nobody will choose me. Everyone loves Lyssa better because she’s prettier.”

“Now, that is just ridiculous.” Timotheo frowned. “I don’t know where you got that idea…”

“She won more pageants than me.” she sulked. “She never loses.”

And Effie had the disappointing habit of finishing second which she hated maybe even more than her mother did.

“Pageants don’t mean anything, Effie.” her grandfather promised. “Whoever will love you won’t care about that at all and he won’t look at your sister twice. It’s you he will love, not what you look like. He will love you for everything good in you and despite your flaws. You will see.”

That sounds like a fairytale.” she chuckled.

“True love feels like a fairytale.” Timotheo smiled. “It hurts sometimes. But that’s how you know it’s real.” He looked up at the dark sky. Night had crept up on them. “I should take you home before your mother has a fit.”

She obediently got on her feet. “Will you bring me back sometimes? I would like to ice skate again.”

If he said no, she wouldn’t insist, ladies didn’t throw tantrums after all, but she would be sad. She had tasted freedom on the ice today and she suspected it was addictive.

“Of course, my little princess.” her grandfather granted. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

They came back every year.

And Effie never stopped loving it.

2

When Effie was twelve, Timotheo wasn’t there to bring her to the pond for the first time in years. His passing was still fresh and even Christmas and its bright lights couldn’t coax her out of the profound state of sorrow she was in. The house felt as gloomy as ever despite the tinsels and the sparkly baubles Lyssa brought her back every time she went out with her friends. Her sister was desperate to comfort her but there was no comforting anyone from death.

Her mother chided her about indulging her grief sometimes, encouraging her to go out to tea parties and dragging her on endless shopping trips with her, but her rebukes weren’t as stern as what Effie was used to. There was pain in Elindra’s eyes and she tended to reach out to squeeze her daughter’s shoulder, smooth her dress, straighten her wig or correct her make-up. Effie wasn’t completely used to her mother fussing over her in that fashion, it was usually Lyssa’s prerogative. However Lyssa hadn’t been as close to Timotheo as she had been and she suspected that was something Elindra and Lyssa couldn’t share. This grief belonged primly to Elindra and Effie.

Still, Elindra never stopped smiling and Effie marveled at how good an actress she was.

She wished she could be the same way.

On Christmas day, the mood wasn’t as cheerful as it used to be on previous years. The big armchair by the fireplace where her grandfather used to sit remained empty and the golden star on the Christmas tree seemed to be mocking her.

Her father tried to cheer her up by showering her with presents, her mother kept reminding her to sit straighter and Lyssa proudly gifted her with a golden pendant in the shape of a star. Effie forced herself to smile and thank them for their respective presents, drown in a sea of open boxes full of new dresses and wigs and make-up and perfumes and jewelry, her smile softening only when they thanked her for the gifts she had chosen.

Eventually, when it narrowed down to only a couple of wrapped presents, Elindra handed her a small box. “That comes from your grandfather. I don’t approve, as you very well know, but he bought it without asking for my opinion. As always.”

She took the time to unwrap it and set the glossy paper and the green ribbon aside for safekeeping. There were two tickets for that year’s Victory Tour events in the box. They were platinum tickets for every public appearances of the victor, something she had been begging her parents for ever since Haymitch Abernathy had won the Quarter Quell and had been denied at every turn because proper ladies didn’t support underdogs from Twelve, Quarter Quell victor or not.

Her sight blurred and it took her a second to realize she was crying.

“Euphemia, ladies don’t…” Elindra warned but it was too late. Her lips wobbled and the sobs wrecked her body and she was horrified to find herself crying so hard in the living-room because nobody ever cried in public in her family. They all stood shell-shocked, watching her with wide eyes, clearly not knowing how to react faced with this breach in protocol.

She waited for one of them to break free of the spell and embrace her but it seemed to be too much to ask. Humiliated by her lack of control and emotional outburst she fled to her room and she remained locked up in it until she was sure she would never lose control like that again. Lyssa brought her some tea and carried all her abandoned gifts to her bedroom, completed with the wrapping paper and ribbon she had set aside. Her sister hugged her and offered to go with her to the Tour’s events – which was a nice offer since Lyssa had no interest whatsoever in Haymitch, she had been rooting for the girl from One, like everyone else in Effie’s circle of acquaintances – something Effie accepted.

Her mother knocked on the door a little later. She didn’t ask if Effie felt better but she helped her correct her smudged make up and she spent a long time styling her wig for the party, trying to comfort her the only way she knew how. Effie wished they knew how to talk about more important things than make-up and clothes but Elindra wasn’t fond of showing emotions.

Effie spent the rest of the day sitting in the big armchair by the fire, clutching her precious Victory Tour tickets and deciding what she would say to Haymitch during the signing session that concluded the events, probably the only occasion she would have of being close enough to talk to him. She would tell him she loved him, she vowed, because her grandfather had always said it was capital to tell people you loved them before it was too late. And she very much loved Haymitch. From his first moments strutting up that stage during the Reaping, she had known how different he would be from Twelve’s usual tributes. He looked dashing, entirely dashing, and she had a secret stash of posters and trading cards safely hidden underneath her bed – far from her mother’s disapproving eyes. He was handsome and clever and she knew with certainty he would fall in love with her as soon as he would see her. Like a fairytale.

The Tour started two weeks after Christmas and Effie missed nothing of it on TV. Slowly the grief deserted her and she learned to live her life again. It was a whole month before Twelve’s team reached the Capitol and Effie was at the train station with her sister and their governess to wave and welcome the latest victor. Haymitch looked grim faced when he stepped out of the train and it only grew grimmer when his escort – a beautiful woman named Cara who had a rose tattooed on her cheek – whispered something to him. He smiled shortly after and waved at his fan, going as far as signing a few papers and posing for pictures but he seemed off.

Effie decided he was having a bad day and it was of no consequences.

He looked entirely too handsome in real life for her to care.

Haymitch was also funny.

Every interview with him was immediately a hit. He was sarcastic – something her mother completely loathed but her father smiled at when his wife’s back was turned – and he was sometimes a little mean but people loved him. She was in the audience during his interview with Caesar and she grinned like a maniac when the host asked him if he had found a special girl at home and Haymitch, after tossing him a look that was all pain and disbelief, answered that it hadn’t quite worked out as he had hoped. There was sarcasm in his voice and bitterness and Effie decided he had a broken heart and it was awfully romantic because she would heal it for him. Caesar looked uncertain for a second but soon had the conversation flowing again.

She attended every event her tickets gave her access to – it didn’t stretch to the party at the Presidential Mansion sadly but she bode her time until the day of the signing. There was a long line of people stretching around the curb of the store he was signing at and a lot of Peacekeepers for security reasons. Lyssa complained about having to stand in the cold in high heels but Effie felt neither the pain nor the cold, she was clutching her favorite poster to her chest, her heart beating fast.

Finally, after hours, it was their turn to approach the table behind which he was sitting. There was a small space between the end of the queue and the table and when the Peacekeeper waved her in, she didn’t rush like she had seen other girls doing. She walked with pose and distinction like her mother had drilled it into her head, knowing it would impress him.

He didn’t even look up.

She slid her poster on the table and he signed it mechanically.

“I love you.” She rushed the words out in a single daring breath. Her heart was beating so hard in her chest she could swear it was about to break free. “You are my favorite thing in the whole world. I love you and…”

“Yeah, you and every last clown in this city.” he mocked. He looked up finally, smoky grey eyes bore into hers and her breath caught because they were stunning. He looked her up and down and she instinctively jutted her chin in the air which seemed to amuse him because he smirked. “How old are you, kid?”

She blinked.

“I am twelve. I am not a child. And this is no way to address a lady.” she commented.

“A word for the wise, Princess…” he sneered. “Don’t lose your time loving me ‘cause I sure as hell will never love a girl like you.”

It was the pet name more than the words that hurt. She felt as if he had slapped her and she recoiled. Every dreams her grandfather had insisted were possible crumbled to dust. She balled her shaking fingers into fists and turned around without picking up her poster or waiting for her sister despite Lyssa’s pleas for her to slow down.

“What happened? What did he say?” her sister asked, handing her the signed poster she had obviously grabbed for her.

“Mother is right. He is a ruffian and I never wish to talk about him again.” Effie declared.

Her mother was right.

Love was for children and dreamers and Effie was better than that.

She left that store with an iron determination to prove she was better than what people saw in her. She would do great things. She would be someone.

Eyes bright, chin up, smile on.

3

The golden star was still at the top of her tree, she had snatched it from her parents’ house when she had left for good nine years earlier – as soon as she had been of age to do it really.

At twenty-seven, Effie wasn’t certain she loved Christmas anymore but she still thought that star looked peaceful and happy, alone and completely out of reach at the top of the tree. It was even more obvious when she was lying at the foot of the tree, her back arching with the occasional shot of pleasure.

Her fingers tightened in Haymitch’s hair as her climax built, forcing his head closer, making him chuckle between her thighs. He purposely slowed down his ministrations and she mewled in frustration.

She had been his escort for four years and his lover for one and a half – if she could even call herself that because she wasn’t sure accidental tumbles in a bed made them lovers – they still hated each other but they had learned to work around that. With Finnick Odair’s Victory Tour approaching, the Capitol was in uproar and demanded meat to feed the wolves. Victors had been called back weeks earlier in an attempt at pacifying the public with their favorite heroes until their latest darling could arrive. Haymitch was all Twelve had to offer but he hadn’t been overly happy at having to come to the Capitol in the middle of winter.

Christmas seemed to be a foreign concept to him, something he didn’t care for and as such, he had felt no qualms in showing up at her apartment’s door on Christmas day, tipsy, and waving an untouched bottle of tequila as a peace offering. The tequila bottle was half poured on her pink rug now from when they had knocked the coffee table off earlier.

They had been at it all day, rolling on the floor like animals, and she should have been disgusted and horrified by her own behavior but she couldn’t bother to care, not when his tongue was coaxing her closer to the edge.

She came with a cry, her sight flashing white and, for a second, she was reminded of the rush when you lost control of your skates and you glided freely on the ice. It had been years since she had done that. She had never gone back to the pond without her grandfather. It had never felt right.

Hot kisses on her stomach required her attention and she stopped staring at the star to look down at him. His hair was in total disarray, his stubble was wet and, again, she felt as if she should be squeamish but instead she used the fingers still gripping his hair to pull him up into a violent kiss. It didn’t matter if she was rough, he didn’t mind rough, she didn’t either. There was a sort of truth in their violent lovemaking, in the bruises and teeth marks and nails scratches they left on the other’s body.

His hand ran on her naked side all the way up to her breast. He started toying with her nipple again, it was sensitive from too much sucking and pinching and she groaned in his mouth, the tinge of pain not worth the spark of pleasure this time. She covered his hand with hers, stilling it. She could feel his arousal against her stomach.

“Did you take something?” she frowned. He kept kissing her. Her mouth, her jaw, her neck… “Haymitch. Did you take something?”

“Why? You’re bored already?” he mumbled against her collarbone. “Plenty of things we haven’t tried yet.”

“We had four rounds already.” she insisted. “That’s a lot for a thirty years old man.”

“Lucky you.” he snorted, nipping at the soft skin of her collarbone with too much strength. It would leave a mark.

Haymitch.” she snapped.

He rolled his eyes but propped himself on his elbows so he could look at her. “Chaff got himself a girl and he had plans to enjoy it all night. The guy from Six sell him those blue pills so he offered some. Why? You got better things to do than letting me fuck you today?”

There was something in his vulgarity that always thrilled her. Her mother would have fainted at this sort of language and maybe that was, in part, where the appeal came from. Unlike her other Capitol boyfriends or the men her mother introduced her to, Haymitch never treated her like a lady. Sometimes he even treated her like a whore and she was ashamed by how turned on that made her feel. He never pretended, that was what she liked. He wanted her but he didn’t love her – and never would, his words still rang in her ears all those years later – and he never tried to make her think he did, something other Capitol men would have done without guilt.

“How many did you take? And do you even know what it was?” she sighed. “Some pills are dangerous. I know of a man who took too many and who remained erected for hours.”

“Sounds like fun.” he snorted, rubbing against her in a way that made her arch her back again.

“It is painful and dangerous and not fun at all.” she countered, her nails digging in his back. “And I don’t intend to spend Christmas day at the Games clinic or to explain how you managed to get yourself in that condition.”

“It’s fine. Chaff used some before.” he grumbled. “I only took one anyway and I don’t think I’m up for much more than a last round, sweetheart. Stop bitching.”

She sighed and wrapped her legs around his waist. “I certainly hope so because I am definitely not up for more. I am not sure I will be able to walk straight as it is.”

A proud smirk appeared on his lips. He looked like a peacock and that annoyed her. She flipped them over so he was the one flat on his back and she was straddling his hips. His hands shot to her waist. “What are you doing?”

Plenty of things we haven’t tried yet.” she taunted. “I like being on top too sometimes, you know.”

He wasn’t exactly happy with that, she could tell, even when she slid on him deliberately slowly. He watched her with some mistrust and he was guarded even though she let him set the rhythm by guiding her hips.

“Do you want to switch?” she asked after a few minutes of awkward silence. Sex was never awkward between them, it was everything thing else that was.

For a second, she thought he would accept her offer but, instead, he used his grip on her hips to sat up. It required some shifting but the angle was deeper and she couldn’t help a moan.

“Still counts as you being on top, right?” he asked, burying his face between her breasts.

She was higher than him and she still mostly had the upper hand so she grabbed his shoulders for balance and granted him that concession. He needed to feel in control, it was fine, so did she.

After he came, he flopped down on his back and she followed, collapsing on his chest, panting and utterly satisfied. She could have slept for a week.

A hand tentatively rested at the small of her back. It was the closest to cuddling they had ever come to. It was flirting with a line she wasn’t sure she was comfortable crossing but she didn’t have the required energy to move.

The phone started ringing not very long after that, startling her from her slumber.

“Aren’t you going to get that?” Haymitch mumbled, just as sleepy as she felt.

“It must be my mother.” she sighed. “I am late for Christmas dinner.”

And she would not only be late but she would never make it in time for dinner. She was nowhere near ready. She wasn’t wearing the right wig, the dress she had been planning on wearing would never cover the marks he had left on her body and the time she would need to get presentable added to the time it would take her to go to their house would assure she would arrive after dessert.

“You didn’t say you had plans.” he frowned. “You never talk about your family. Didn’t even know you had one.”

“You never talk about yours.” she retorted.

“They’re dead.” he snarled, his finger clenching against her skin. “What else do you need to know?” His heart was racing under her cheek and she drew soothing patterns on his side until he relaxed. She kept her mouth shut, knowing anything she would say would aggravate him. After a while, he sighed. “I hate Christmas. That’s why I took the pills, I thought we could have our own pity party. Should have known you would be a Christmas obsessed person.” He snorted, his eyes on the tree.

“Do you want to get drunk and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist?” she whispered, lifting her head a little to watch him.

He studied her, brushed his fingers against her cheek and then looked away. “You should go to your dinner.”

“Why? So they can remind me just how much of a failure I am?” she scoffed. “Or so my mother can fling more men old enough to be my father at me in hope I will finally marry one and stop being an embarrassment?”

He lifted his eyebrows. “Sounds bitchy.”

Her lips twitched. She ought to chide him for that comment really but she pushed herself from him instead. “Save what you can from the tequila and get whatever liquor you’d like from the cabinet while I call my parents, would you?”

“Bossy.” he complained with a slow smirk, very much ogling her as she walked around him naked. He wrapped his hand around her calf. “Maybe I can go for a sixth round after all.”

“Congratulation. I am sure I will enjoy watching you and your hand.” she retorted, escaping his grip with a chuckle.

Here you have it, Effie. A tiny lie won’t hurt, her grandfather’s voice echoed in her mind as she spun a convincing tale of coughing and flue for her mother’s benefit. Haymitch’s eyes remained on her all the time, watching her, even as he straightened the tequila bottle and grabbed more alcohol from her cabinet.

Her mother was disappointed, naturally, and she ranted for a long time – time enough for Effie to tap on the panel next to the window to close the blinds and project an image of a pine trees forest. Haymitch’s arms wrapped around her waist long before her mother was finished complaining and when he lowered his mouth on the side of her neck, she stopped listening to whatever Elindra was saying.

It felt liked hours before she finally hung up but it couldn’t have been more than five minutes.

“You lie with a straight face.” Haymitch commented. He sounded surprised by that but she didn’t know why he would be. Surely he must have known by now that her escort act was nothing but that : an act. A necessary one.

“I have been lying for so long that sometimes I don’t even remember who I am underneath the mask.” she confessed and immediately regretted it. One had to be practical in this world. There was no place for little girls who dreamed of being a star on top of a tree or for stupid teenagers who thought love actually existed. Love was for children and weak people who lacked ambition. Sex was a weapon. She had stood by those principles all her life, wielding one to better use the other. Until Haymitch… Haymitch had reappeared in her life to put it upside down again. He had a gift for that.

Lips kept roaming on her neck for a moment and then he moved away. She felt the loss of his warmth acutely but she didn’t say anything, she followed him to the couch and accepted the glass he poured her.

They drank in silence. Haymitch didn’t do small talk and Effie was too tired to make the effort, particularly when alcohol started taking its toll on her. She curled up on the couch with her head cushioned on his thigh. She wasn’t drunk yet, tipsy at most, and even though he had been knocking down shots steadily, she knew he wasn’t drunk either. She thought they had fucked each other brainless, that it was an actual thing that could happened and that they had just experimented it in Technicolor.

It took her a while to realize he wasn’t petting the wig as she had thought he was but taking out pin after pin. She scrambled up in a sitting position, reaching out to steady the loose blue heap of synthetic hair.

“What are you doing?” she hissed, defensive and a little scared.

He didn’t even have the decency to look apologetic even though trying to take off a lady’s wig was such a breach of form no Capitol man would ever have dared try it.

“I want you naked.” he shrugged.

“I am naked.” she retorted. “Do you need glasses? Should I arrange an appointment with an optician?”

“You know what I mean.” he growled. “Don’t play coy.”

“No.” she snapped. She shook her head, still steadying her wig with one hand, and she covered her breasts with her other arm, feeling exposed. It was a stupid feeling. He had seen and kissed every inch of her body.

“It’s Christmas. I get a present.” he smirked. “That’s the rule. You don’t want to be rude, do you, Trinket?”

“I let you have sex with me five times.” she scowled. “That’s enough of a present.”

“And you got six orgasms out of that when I only got five.” he countered. “You owe me.”

She licked her lips, annoyed. They were careful about keeping everything even between them. It was a constant fight for power and control. She didn’t want to owe him anything and it didn’t matter if it had been freely given or not, he would taunt her with this until she took the upper hand back.

“I will give you a blow job.” she suggested.

“Not what I want.” His smirk deepened. “Come on, let me see.”

“Why? So you can mock me for being ugly?” she replied. “You keep saying I look horrible when I am at my best. Did it occur to you that I don’t want to hear what you think of me at my worst?”

“I won’t mock.” he promised and he sounded serious enough that she almost believed him.

“Yes, you will.” she whispered, her eyes burning with tears she hastily blinked back.

“I promise I won’t.” he sighed, gently tugging on the wig. “Let me see under the mask, Princess, I want to see.”

“Just the wig or the make-up too?” she asked. Just thinking about doing it was frightening but she felt a thrill nonetheless. The same thrill as when she secretly went ice-skating or when she had sex with a District man. It was the thrill you felt when you were playing with fire.

“Both.” he requested with open curiosity.

She nodded slowly and she relinquished her hold on the wig, leaving him free to finish taking it off. Eventually, he succeeded. She stared at the blue wig in his hand, aware that her plain blond hair was now on display. He took off the couple of pins tying it into place and it fell on her shoulders, curls framing her face and she closed her eyes, not wishing to see the disappointment in his gaze.

His fingers ran through her hair, coiled around a strand only to let the curl bounce back into place… He petted and touched for a long moment and then he let his hand trail down her jaw and gently nudged her chin in his direction.

“Take the make-up off.” he asked. “Please, sweetheart.”

He rarely ever said please so she nodded and headed to her bathroom. He followed and sat on the edge of the bathtub to watch as she worked with trembling fingers. It was a long process and a tedious one. Effie Trinket slowly disappeared, layer by layer, until there was only a naked woman with blond hair and skin reddened by the scrubbing. She automatically applied the lotions and creams to hydrate her skin and slow down the appearance of wrinkles.

She felt the shift of air but she didn’t dare glance up. She didn’t like watching her reflection when she looked like that. She didn’t like what she saw.

Hands fell on her shoulders, gently turning her around until her back was to the mirror. He cupped her face in his hand, and retraced her features with his thumbs, learning shapes the make-up had somehow sharpened or softened. After a few minutes, his hands brushed her hair back and tilted her head up until she had no choice but to meet his eyes.

They were still smoky grey and they still took her breath away every time.

“You’re beautiful.” he stated.

Her face contorted as she fought tears that had no reason of being. She had never cried in front of anyone since her twelfth Christmas and she wouldn’t start again now.

He seemed to understand though because he wrapped his arms around her and drew her into a hug.

“You’re beautiful.” he repeated, again and again until she stopped trembling. She didn’t know who kissed the other first but it was an odd sort of kiss. Tender and sweet. It was a kiss her twelve year old self had dreamed about. She wasn’t twelve anymore though and so she deepened it, not protesting when he picked her up and carried her to bed.

Later, when they were both recovering – or trying to because she was now certain she would regret this the following day – with sweaty skins sticking together and his forehead pressed against her shoulder, she cradled the back of his head in her hand and licked her lips. “Haymitch, what is your favorite thing?”

“What?” he croaked, confused and too tired to try and make sense of what she was asking.

What was she asking anyway?

“Nothing.” she murmured. “Silly question.”

“You’re full of those.” he snorted, rolling on his back and drawing her closer.

They shared a bed for the first time that night.

It was the best Christmas she had in a while.

4

The Christmas after Katniss and Peeta finally made Twelve a winning District was both a great one and an awful one.

On the bright side, she was the queen of the party that year. Nobody dared make any remark about her job or her lack of husband, her mother was happily showing her off to all her guests – and not so subtly introducing to powerful aging men in search of a second or third wife to replace their recently divorced one – stating again and again how good Effie looked, how thin and pretty she was, and how proud a mother she had made her.

Apparently, that year, Elindra had decided she had always believed in Effie.

Effie didn’t mind. She was used to it. This was how the Capitol worked. Smoke and screens.

Her mind kept wandering to her victors though, wondering how they were faring. Sweet Peeta who called her sometimes, just to chat, and Katniss who took so much delight in aggravating her. She was impatient for Victory Tour to start, she was impatient to see them both again.

She was impatient to see Haymitch too.

She had been thinking about him more than usual lately, their no string attached affair taking entirely too much space in her mind. She didn’t remember the last time she had been with someone else – or rather, yes, she remembered, it had been five years earlier and it wasn’t exactly a good memory.

The party was loud and Effie longed for her own apartment. Lyssa’s children kept chasing each other throughout the house despite Elindra’s strict rebukes and it made her dizzy to watch them. Lyssa didn’t seem to care, happy to leave the educating to their mother until Effie finally exploded and snapped at them to behave or else. Her voice was authoritative, not exactly nice, and the part of the room she was standing in instantly fell silent. The children weren’t used to her being stern or raising her voice, she usually was the funny Aunt who brought gifts. She wasn’t much of anything to them, really. The youngest, Timotheo, started crying and Lyssa immediately hurried over, shooting her an irritated look.

“If you want to shout on children, make your own.” her sister snapped defensively, gathering her boys close to her.

That was a nasty blow below the belt and Effie pursed her lips. “Perhaps you should try shouting at yours more often, Lyssandra. They are becoming small ruffians.”

Their father was quick to laugh the scene off as a quarrel between sisters and their guests went back to their champagne. Effie only lasted ten more minutes before excusing herself on account of a headache she didn’t have to fake. It was still early to make an escape, they hadn’t even sat down to dinner yet but she was at the end of her rope already.

“You were out of line with your sister, Euphemia.” Elindra clicked her tongue as she walked her back to the front door. “I expect you to apologize.”

“Why did she have children if it’s to ignore them?” she retorted. “They are human beings, not toys you can take off the shelf when it suits you. Grandfather understood the difference. He…”

“Is that what this is about?” her mother cut her off in a dismissive tone Effie was only too used to hearing – interrupting people was only rude when it was her who was being interrupted. “Are you still mad about Lyssa calling her second son after my father?”

Effie pursed her lips. “She didn’t even care…”

“She cared. She loved him too.” Elindra lectured her. She pursed her lips and placed her hand on her arm. “I know you wanted to call your son Timotheo, darling, and I am certain your grandfather would have been very proud of that, but the fact of the matter is you are not getting any younger and it would be time to…”

“To make a marriage of convenience?” Effie finished for her. “Certainly not, Mother.” She forced herself to calm down and pecked her mother’s cheek. “It is a lovely party. I am sorry I have to leave early, enjoy your night”

It was even lovelier being far away from it.

The phone was ringing when she reached her apartment and she picked up without checking the ID caller.

“Effie Trinket, speaking.” she hummed, shedding off her coat.

“Oh, hi, Effie! I didn’t think you would be home, I was going to leave a message…” Peeta sounded embarrassed.

Effie grinned, happy to hear his voice. “I just came back as a matter of fact. How are you? How are things in Twelve? Are you all having a merry Christmas?”

There was a small silence. “Well… Katniss is with her family and they invited the Hawthornes… Haymitch was on his way to getting drunk last time I checked but I left him some food so I know he won’t starve at least.”

“I see.” she commented. “And you, dear? Are you going to join your family?”

Silence stretched again, uncomfortable. “Christmas isn’t such a big deal here, you know… It’s not really important.”

“What you mean is that you are going to sit in this big house of yours all alone all night and you are so bored already that you called me.” she clarified.

“No one parties like Effie Trinket.” Peeta grinned cheekily.

She found herself laughing at that. “That is very, very true.”

“I just wanted to say merry Christmas, really.” the boy said.

“You are sweet.” she smiled.

Tell that to Katniss.” he sighed.

“Oh, I am certain I will have numerous occasions of reminding her in the upcoming weeks.” Effie replied, already dreading having to coach the girl. She inflected some cheer to her voice nonetheless, it wouldn’t do to let the boy pick up on her doubts. “Are you excited about Victory Tour?”

“Sure.” Peeta replied flatly. “I know someone is excited though. Care to guess who?” His voice was teasing and she couldn’t help but smile softly, pleased that she had lifted his spirits a little.

“Katniss?” she suggested. That sounded unlikely but she couldn’t think of anyone else who would be happy to go on a tour of Panem.

“Nope.” Peeta replied, making the p pop. “I will give you a hint… He’s on a quest to prove a human body can survive on liquor only.”

She frowned a little, toeing her heels off and wandering to her bedroom. The phone safely wedged between her cheek and her shoulder, she started taking pins off her wig. “Haymitch hates traveling.”

Maybe. But he doesn’t hate you…” the boy mocked gently. “I helped him to bed the other day because he was… Well, he wasn’t in a pretty state. And all he could talk about was you. Did you know you have the prettiest blue eyes, Effie? Apparently, he could drown in them.” Peeta was obviously trying really hard not to laugh and failing. “There are other parts of you he liked but I tried really hard not to listen so don’t count on me to repeat them.”

“Now, dear, you shouldn’t make fun of an alcoholic.” she chided him gently, tousling her blonde hair before wandering back to the living-room. “He obviously didn’t know what he was saying. Who knows who he even was talking about…”

“Well, I guess, ‘Effie my princess’ quite covered that…” Peeta chortled. “He was in a very good mood. He wouldn’t shut up about you.”

“Peeta…” she hesitated awkwardly.

“It’s alright.” the boy offered. “I just thought it was funny. I think he misses you.”

“I think you are very much mistaken in this.” she retorted. “Whatever he misses… It isn’t me.”

Peeta stayed silent for a moment and she could hear the hint of pain in his voice when he spoke again. “Why do people fall in love with the wrong person, Effie? How does that work?”

“My grandfather used to say you know you love someone when they are your favorite thing, the one thing you can’t bear to lose.” she hummed. “And you know they love you when you are theirs.”

“My favorite thing is listening to Katniss sing.” Peeta offered. “Or just being with her, really.”

“Well, he told me once that when you are sure of your own feelings, you should ask them what their favorite thing is.” Effie sighed. “But to be honest with you, I never found the courage to ask that question myself.”

“I don’t need to…” the boy whispered. “Katniss’ favorite thing is hunting in the woods with Gale.”

“I am certain you are mistaken. Katniss does love spending time with you much more than she does with her cousin.” Effie briefly closed her eyes before staring at the golden star on the tree, the cheer in her voice contrasting sharply with the pain of her face. “This is very depressing talk for a Christmas eve. Now, I do hope you have good TV reception in Twelve because I intend to find the worst Christmas movie they are showing and force you to watch it with me.”

They found a channel he could get in Twelve and they spent the rest of the night watching, making ridiculous comments to make the other laugh. Effie played stupid on purpose and Peeta humored her. It wasn’t her best Christmas ever but it was good enough.

“Effie?” Peeta asked, more seriously than she’d have liked as it was getting late. “What’s your favorite thing?”

Being wrapped in strong arms that made her feel safe.

The smell of whiskey, cheap soap and faint sweat.

A raspy voice that panted in her ear that she was beautiful as he was about to be overcome by bliss.

“Why, fashion, dear!” she laughed. “What else?”

5

The first Christmas after the war, the Capitol was devoid of colors and twinkling lights. It was depressing like only a dead thing gutted open could be. There were still pits in the city, there were still ruins and shelter that had been temporary for months now.

Effie stood at the newly repaired window of her once ransacked apartment and couldn’t decide if she was one of the lucky few or if she was part of the unlucky ones. On one hand, she was still alive; on the other, she had nothing left.

Almost nothing left, she corrected herself when a blanket was draped around her naked body.

“There’s no heating, remember?” Haymitch grumbled. “You can’t walk around naked, you’ll freeze.”

His tone was short and impatient, as always when she acted a bit off. It had been months since she had been rescued from her cells now but she still felt trapped most days, she still didn’t feel free. She was scarred and would remain so for the rest of her life. He insisted it didn’t matter and, because he was the only man who had seen her without wig and make-up and had told her she was beautiful, she believed him. It didn’t mean she felt at ease in this body that had been bruised and battered, broken and stitched back together. Her mind felt shattered too sometimes.

“It’s Christmas.” she hummed.

It was funny how many things could be different from one year to the next, she mused. The previous year, she had been annoyed with her mother, angry with her sister, irritated by her nephews and hadn’t spared a thought for a father who had barely spoken more than three words to her. And now… Now she didn’t have a mother, a sister, nephews or a father anymore. It was funny. Somehow. In a twisted way. It was easier to pretend it was.

“Yeah?” he frowned. “Already?”

He ran his hands up and down her arms to warm her up but she wasn’t cold. She didn’t feel the cold anymore, she had spent too many months freezing in a cell. She had learned to compose with it, she carried it in her heart now, it was a shard of ice that caused pain but never seemed to melt.

“Do you remember the Christmas you spent in the city?” she asked. “That time you took Chaff’s magic pills and we had sex six times? Right under the Christmas tree…”

There was no Christmas tree this year. No tinsels and baubles. No presents. No joy.

“Ten years ago.” he confirmed, pressing a kiss against the side of her neck. “Wanna try to break the record?”

“No.” she answered honestly and he didn’t try to insist, simply wrapping his arms around her. He was dressed because he wasn’t immune to the cold, a thick woolen sweater that itched where it brushed against her naked skin. She leaned against his chest, watching the dead city through her windows. “I don’t know where the star is…”

“Which one?” he asked, glancing up at the grey sky. “It’s a bit early for stars though, Princess.”

It was still light and they had spent most of the day huddled together in bed, taking advantage of the short respite in Katniss’ trial. This trial was lagging, stretching on and on, and Effie was tired of it. She helped where she could of course, she helped Plutarch and Haymitch build her defense and she never hesitated to pull an all-nighter if necessary but the truth was that she was tired and she longed for some days of calm.

She truly resented Katniss’ mother leaving them to deal with everything.

“My golden star…” she whispered. “The one on top of the tree. I think it was lost when they ransacked my apartment. I loved it. I had it since my childhood. I used to wish I could be just like it, golden and pretty and on top of the world…” She turned around, her back to the window, and buried her nose in his neck. “You may laugh if you wish.”

“Don’t feel like laughing.” he sighed. “Look… Effie, we need to talk.”

She closed her eyes. “No, we really don’t.”

“Effie…” he insisted.

“If you still think you can hide anything from me, you are very much mistaken. Don’t you ever learn from your mistakes? You and Plutarch aren’t as discrete as you think you are.” she snapped. “Next time you choose to talk about battle plans in my living-room, check that I am truly asleep in my bed.”

They mostly lived in her apartment despite the lack of heating. He used to have a room at the Presidential Mansion but he had only been too happy to seize the excuse of the city still being too unsettled for her to be safe on her own to move in with her and leave Snow’s former domain behind. Plutarch came and went as he wished and she also resented her apartment not being completely hers anymore. She resented a lot of things.

“Assuming the judges accept the plea that Katniss is unstable and, as such, not responsible for her own actions, you will request her to be released in your custody.” she replied. “And you think the only way they will agree to that is if you take her far away from the city.”

“Twelve.” he said. “It’s not official yet but Plutarch tested the water and they will agree to it if I got her back in Twelve and keep her there.”

“Twelve…” she repeated. “Are you alright with going back?”

If the city was in ruins, Twelve wasn’t in a better condition. Those places were haunted for both of them.

“No choice.” he shrugged. “No point thinking about it.” He briefly cradled the back of her head in his hand before running his fingers through the shorter curls. It barely reached her chin now. She had to cut almost all of it after her stay in prison, it was beyond repair. “Effie, I want you to…”

“Don’t.” she begged.

“But…” he insisted.

She cut him off by pressing a long kiss against his throat. “Don’t ask me now or I will spend the rest of my life wondering if you want me to come out of guilt for what happened to me or because you truly want me to go with you.”

He cleared his throat. “Could answer that right now, sweetheart…”

“Perhaps. But I am not sure I would believe you.” she confessed. “And it is neither here nor there anyway. Peeta is nowhere near ready to adjust back to a normal life. He will need someone with him and a place to stay once they release him. I will bring him back to Twelve when he is ready and we will see then, shall we?”

“You and Peeta staying behind in the Capitol… Worked so well last time.” he scoffed.

She sighed and rested her cheek against his shoulder, burrowing in his possessive embrace.

“They are both ours, Haymitch.” she whispered. “But Katniss was always more yours and Peeta was always more mine. You need to go with her just like I need to stay with him.”

She was right and he knew it. He let out a long breath, propping his chin on the top of her head.

“Still don’t like it.” he grumbled.

“It will be fine.” she promised. “We have to believe it will be.”

“I’m not great at leaps of faith.” he reminded her.

“I know.” she chuckled, leaning back a little to look at him. “But I will take one for both of us. What is your favorite thing? The one thing you can’t bear to lose?” He opened his mouth to answer but she pressed her fingers against his lips to prevent the words from coming out. “No. Just think about it. You will tell me in Twelve next time I ask you.” She raised on tiptoes and kissed him softly, teasing him into deepening the kiss. “Now take me back to bed, Haymitch.”

“Want to get drunk and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist?” he snorted, echoing her words from so long ago.

“Very much so.” she answered. “We don’t have any alcohol though. I will have to content myself with you.”

He was very good at making her forget the rest of the world anyway.

6

The finishing touch on the tree was the golden star she put on top. It was brand new and it didn’t look anything like the one she used to have but Haymitch had bought it for her and she loved it. It was her first Christmas in Twelve, the second Christmas since the fall of the Capitol and she was determined for it to be more festive than the last. She didn’t mind doing the decorating on her own, he wasn’t fond of Christmas.

She felt his presence on the threshold and she placed her hands on her hips, watching her work with satisfaction. “What do you think?”

“Great.” Haymitch commented. “Come on, Princess, we have a surprise for you.”

“A surprise?” she repeated, putting on the coat he was handing her. “What is it?”

“You do know what the word surprise means, right?” he snorted.

She rolled her eye with some fondness but followed him out, grabbing her scarf, her woolen hat and her gloves on the way. The children were waiting outside with baskets and bags.

“Are we having a picnic?” she frowned. In that weather?, she thought but didn’t add. She was still trying to get used to the snow covering everything and the freezing cold.

“You’ll see.” Haymitch smirked.

“You will like it, Effie.” Peeta grinned.

They dragged her all the way to the woods and if she wasn’t fond of trekking on an usual day, she was even less fond of it with so much snow in the way. She still hated being surrounded by so much greenery, she still felt as if the wilderness would swallow her whole and never spit her out.

“Do I, at least, get a hint?” she asked, as Haymitch helped her out on a particularly slippery slope.

“It’s something you never did before.” he taunted, snickering with the kids about it as if it was all a big joke.

She was annoyed until they arrived at the frozen lake and she understood what they had in mind. “Ice skating?”

“Don’t worry, it’s safe.” Katniss immediately assured. “I tested it earlier.”

“I’ll hold your hand.” Haymitch teased in a low voice, once the kids had gone back to their chatting. “Keep you steady.” He was so cocky, she humored him, putting on the skates with fake reluctance and letting him help her to the pond. “Go slow.” he advised. “We don’t want you breaking a leg now, Princess…”

“Haymitch…” she hummed, clinging to his hand.

“Yeah?” he mumbled, distracted by the kids who were gliding further away. Peeta was unsteady on his skates and Katniss was helping him, holding to his hands.

“It is absolutely cute you think I don’t know how to ice skate.” she grinned.

“What?” he frowned.

She burst out laughing and then she was gone, dashing away on the ice, outstretching her arms wide to feel the wind just like when she was a child. She wasn’t as steady as she used to be though and it wasn’t long before she lost her balance and waved her arms like a bird trying to take flight.

Her grandfather wasn’t there to catch her but Haymitch did, grabbing her around the waist and trapping her against his chest.

“You held out on me.” he accused.

“I used to love this.” she confessed, using him as leverage to get her balance back. She skated around him a little more carefully. He watched her with a smirk on his lips and she grinned wider. The children were laughing in the distance, too focused on having their own fun to care about what they were doing. She stopped in front of him, searching his grey eyes. “What is your favorite thing, Haymitch? The one thing in the whole world you can’t bear to lose?”

She had waited to ask this question again. She had been scared of the answer maybe but right now felt like the perfect moment.

“Liquor?” he deadpanned. Her smile froze on her lips and she turned away before he could see the pain on her face. She didn’t go far before he grabbed her wrist and pulled her back to him, his eyes briefly glancing up to make sure Katniss and Peeta were still busy and weren’t watching. He wrapped his arms around her and she locked hers around his torso without thinking twice about it. His stubble caught on the wool of her hat when he leaned to whisper in her ear. “This, right now. You and the kids. Safe. Happy.”

She framed his face and kissed him hard on the mouth. He blinked when she drew back, immediately checking the children weren’t watching but they were doing their own share of kissing and very much not paying them any attention. His cheeks were a little flushed but she couldn’t tell if it was the kiss or the cold.

“Thank you.” she giggled. “You just made me a real princess.”

He lifted his eyebrows, fondness and amusement fighting on his face. “Good time as any to break the hard truth to you, sweetheart. Fairytales aren’t real.”

She pursed her lips at his gentle mocking but didn’t let this dampen her spirits.

“True love feels like a fairytale.” she smiled. “It hurts sometimes. But that’s how you know it’s real.”

He tugged her woolen hat a little lower, making sure it was covering her ears. “I’m missing something, yeah?”

“I will tell you one day.” she promised. “But for now, let me gloat, because my twelve year old self is punching the air. Well… That would be very unladylike but… You did break my heart when you vowed you would never love a girl like me, and look at you now…”

“Never said anything about love now, did I?” he grumbled but didn’t dispute the point further, shaking his head at her. “You’re not making any sense, Princess. Not sure why I’m surprised though, you’re never making any sense.”

“This is the best Christmas ever.” she laughed, pulling on his scarf to steal another kiss just because she could. “And you are my favorite thing. You and the children. My family.”

A family who accepted her for who she was and never requested her to be perfect. Perfect didn’t exist between them, they were all more or less suffering from PTSD. Perfect wasn’t what it was about. They were and forever would be a team. This was unconditional and suffered no reservations.

“And I thought your favorite things was this trick of mine with…” he taunted but she didn’t let him finish.

“Please, don’t spoil this moment with your crude jokes.” she cut him off. “I have been waiting for it since I was eight.”

He lifted his hands in a defensive gesture, still smirking.

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen you this happy.” he commented. He tried to sound detached but she saw through it.

“I am happy.” she answered the unspoken question. “Or, at the very least, I think I can learn how to be happy again.”

“Does that mean you’re staying then?” he asked uncertainly.

She thought back to the suitcases she had yet to completely unpack but she didn’t have to think about it for long. Not when they were standing on a frozen pond, with skates on their feet and he had just declared she was his favorite thing.

“Yes.” she smiled. “Yes, I am staying.”

His smirk was threatening to stretch into a full smile and his eyes were twinkling with contentment. “Maybe you’ve got a point then. I had worse Christmas.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck, chuckling in his ear.

There were worse Christmases indeed.