Title:The Giving Season
The Giving Season
The December day was cold and clear, with still winds and a cloudless sky. The snow stood several inches deep in the woods, a crystalline carpet glittering in the sunlight between leafless oaks and maples and deep green pines and firs. Although the rich soil and its summer wealth of vegetation lay buried, the air was still sharp with the scent of living things: deer and chipmunks that had left their tracks in the snow, bright birds that flitted among the evergreens.
Logan drew a deep breath, then let it out slowly as a swirl of warm vapor, taking in the freshness of the winter morning. It was here that he felt most at ease. This realm of violent extremes, with its unpredictable weather, its primal struggle between predator and prey, made more sense to him than the violent extremes of human nature. To him, the wild was the only place where the world seemed calm. Still. Peaceful.
A snowball whizzed past mere inches from Logan’s head, smacking Jubilation Lee in the side of the face as she turned toward Bobby Drake. She squealed as gobs of wet, icy slush dribbled down into the collar of her jacket.
"Okay, that’s it, Popsicle. This means war!"
Logan sighed and continued to trudge down the trail, as all manner of wildlife fled invisibly into the woods before the raucous approach of half a dozen teenagers.
Their very presence in his woods rankled him. It was not by choice that he’d brought them out here to his territory; rather, it was an enforced "favor" to Professor Xavier, one of the endless little chores by which he earned his keep. The mission was to find a Christmas tree, cut it down, and bring it back to the school. Not entirely unprepared for this request, Logan even had a tree in mind: a tall, handsome one, unoccupied by any birds or animals, easily accessible from the trail. It should have been a simple task… save for one thing. Rather than send any responsible adults along to help him, Xavier decided to let the kids volunteer.
Which was a perfectly nice idea—except that less than five minutes’ hike into the woods, the situation had deteriorated into a running snowball fight.
At last the tree loomed into view, a stately fifteen-foot white pine, standing at the edge of a clearing beside the trail. Logan stopped in his tracks, looking over his shoulder at the general melée in his wake. "We’re here."
There were some muffled "oofs" as the last few stray snowballs found their mark, and the students began to gather around him. Still dusting snow from their clothes, they surveyed the tree, with the absurdly critical air of connoisseurs appraising a priceless work of art.
"It kinda bulges on this side," Kitty Pryde offered earnestly, waving a hand at the right side of the tree.
"So we can trim it," replied Marie D’Ancanto, otherwise known as Rogue. "It’s just the right height, and the branches are nice and full. Watcha think, guys?"
Bobby shrugged, a gesture which was repeated by the other two boys, Peter Rasputin and Tommy Krieger.
"It’s got, like, kind of a bare spot up there near the top," Jubilee put in.
"We can fix that," Rogue replied confidently, and turned to Logan. "It’s perfect."
Logan glanced at Tommy. "Get ready to break this thing’s fall," he said, then got down on his hands and knees and crawled halfway underneath the pine’s low-hanging boughs. He ignored the teasing wolf whistle which came from behind him, most likely from Jubilee; sometimes she was even bolder than Rogue when it came to messing with him.
After clearing away the snow from the base of the tree, he extended a single adamantium claw, and with a few powerful sweeps, all but severed the trunk. It gave way with a sharp crack and began to fall toward the clearing—only to stop dead at a forty-five degree angle, then gently sink the rest of the way to the ground, caught by Tommy’s telekinesis. He couldn’t lift it on his own, but he could ease its descent, and help to spare it from damage.
As Logan pushed himself to his feet, Rogue folded her arms and gave him a private smile. "That wasn’t so bad, now, was it?"
Busy scraping threads of sticky pine sap from his claw, Logan merely rolled his eyes at her, then gave the rest of the students his best obey-or-die look. "Okay. Let’s get moving."
The kids couldn’t have moved faster if superhuman speed were a part of their mutant powers.
Half an hour later, Professor Charles Xavier watched from the window of his study as the tree brigade came home, coated with snow and laboriously hauling their prize.
"From here, it’s rather hard to tell if those are my students or walking snowmen." Charles turned his smile upon a woman who sat across from him at the table beside the window. "I think I’m going to be making this up to Logan for quite some time."
Helen Conover returned his smile rather pensively.
The retired stage actress had been joining Charles for Sunday brunch every week since Halloween, when she had turned her nearby mansion into a highly successful haunted house—with some magic provided by the Xavier School’s young mutant charges. Although she was a widow, and had seen her share of pain, her losses had not stolen her tremendous capacity for life and love. She accepted mutants wholeheartedly, and the school’s residents welcomed her in turn. Charles in particular was drawn to her; she gave new light to his eternal search for hope.
Now that light seemed clouded, and he frowned, raising a finger to tap his chin thoughtfully. "You’ve been quiet this morning. Is there something you’d like to talk about?"
Pursing her lips, Helen shrugged slightly and gazed down into her teacup. "Roger called me last night. He and Allison… want to visit for Christmas."
The announcement surprised Charles. Allison was Helen’s daughter, Roger her son-in-law; they were the parents of her grandson, Kenneth, who had committed suicide two years before in an institution for mutant children. There had been a rift between her and the couple ever since. Charles knew this, and accepted that the loss was one reason for Helen’s compassion toward his students: an attempt to atone for having never successfully intervened in Kenny’s short and tragic life.
She bore no guilt in his mind, and eventually, he hoped to expel it from hers. Perhaps forgiving her daughter could be a step toward forgiving herself.
"Why would Roger call you, and not Allison herself?" Charles asked.
Helen smiled wryly. "I got the impression the whole trip was his idea. He seemed excited. He said something about celebrating, because he’s been made a full partner in his law firm, but… there was something else. I don’t know." Her expression sobered, and she shook her head. "Roger was always a good man. He didn’t want… things to happen… the way they did."
"So did you agree to their visit?"
"I don’t know yet." Helen’s gaze reverted to her Darjeeling. "I told him I’d have to think about it. The way Allison and I left off…"
Charles answered quietly, "I think you should say yes. I’d like to meet them."
Helen glanced up sharply. "Oh, but Charles, I couldn’t bring them here. Not to a school for—"
"For the gifted?" Charles smiled. "That’s all they need to be told. Besides… I happen to know that you still love your daughter."
Gradually Helen’s troubled expression smoothed into a smile. "So you’ve been reading my mind again?"
"Not as a mutant," Charles replied, with a sparkle in his eyes. "Only as a man."
To his satisfaction, he was rewarded by Helen’s soft laughter.
Downstairs, Jean Grey was presiding over a scene of pandemonium.
Logan and his six "helpers" had gotten the tree indoors, and were now attempting to install it in front of the staircase. This was proving mainly to involve Logan, Peter, and Bobby grappling with the towering conifer by sheer brute force, while Tommy and Jean struggled to steady it with their telekinetic powers. Meanwhile, Rogue, Jubilee, and Kitty stood by as self-appointed directors—none of whom could come to a concensus as to which was the tree’s best side.
"Turn it a little more counter-clockwise—no, no, to your right."
"But then that bare patch is going to show! You need to turn it all the way around."
"We could cover up the bald spot, but it’s got that saggy part around the bottom."
"I bet you’ve heard that said about you a lot, Jubes."
Mentally letting go of her grip on the tree, Jean raised a hand to rub the bridge of her nose. She ignored the grunts of surprise from the boys as they suddenly took the share of weight she had been supporting. A headache was beginning to roll around in her skull, its epicenter directly proportionate to the direction the girls wanted the tree to be moved.
Her eyes opened when she heard the voice of her fiancé. Scott Summers was coming up the hallway, and he called out in an encouraging tone, "Hey, that looks pretty good, guys."
"It needs work," Kitty allowed critically, putting her hands on her hips as she surveyed the tree, which was swaying ominously in the grasp of its handlers. Peter had shifted into his armored state to avoid pokes and scratches from the pine needles, but his companions were not as fortunate; Logan’s muttered swearing was quietly echoed now and then, in somewhat milder terms, by Bobby.
"You could get in here and give us a hand, One-Eye," Logan grumbled.
Glancing down at his pristinely fresh shirt and slacks, Scott balked. "I think you guys are handling it."
"Whoa, okay! Ya almost got it. Just a little more to the left," Rogue suddenly interrupted, causing Jean to smile inwardly. When it came to defusing Scott and Logan, the girl was a regular bomb technician.
With a final grunt of effort, Logan gave the tree a shove that was backed up by Peter and Bobby, then let go of the trunk and stepped back. It remained upright, and while Jean noted a few places that would need trimming or filling in, it looked to her as if it really was shown to its best advantage. Still standing off to the side, the girls broke into applause.
Logan clearly wasn’t waiting around for any appreciation of his labors. With one last cynical glance at the tree, he turned and headed for the front door.
"Hey, wait!" Rogue called after him, and when he paused to glance back at her, she shrugged hopefully. "Aren’t you gonna stay and help us decorate the tree?"
For an instant, Jean thought she saw a flicker of… something… in Logan’s eyes.
"No," he said gruffly, and continued on his way.
"Logan," Jean began, taking a step forward to follow him. But Scott put a hand on her arm, and she heard his voice in her mind: Let him go.
The thought was tinged with a familiar disdain, and it made Jean’s heart hurt. With a sharp sigh she pulled her arm away from Scott’s hand, giving him a look of reproach. His lips thinned, but his eyes were invisible behind ruby quartz lenses, and he said nothing before he turned back to the students.
"Okay, guys. If you’re up for it, we can go ahead and get the boxes down from the attic before lunch. After that we’ll get everyone together to start trimming the tree."
The six teenagers followed Scott up the stairs. Rogue brought up the rear of the group, and pausing on the bottom step, she turned. As she briefly gripped the banister with gloved fingers, she glanced meaningfully back at Jean. She was all too aware of the ripple of tension which her schoolmates had overlooked—and Jean read a determined statement in the girl’s expression.
You work on Mister Summers. I’ll handle Logan.
Without waiting for any acknowledgment, Rogue turned to climb the stairs after the others, and Jean shook her head with a sigh. "All I want for Christmas is peace on earth… or at least a reasonable facsimile in my own household."
The rematch with the tree came after lunch, proving once again that nothing was ever done quite normally at Xavier’s School.
No ladder was employed to decorate the towering tree. Some of its upper regions could be reached from the gallery landing, but for the most part, the mutants accomplished the job with a combination of telekinesis, flight, and Kurt Wagner’s teleporting acrobatics. Nearly the entire household took part in the effort, under the watchful eye of Professor Xavier, who had spent decades collecting the treasure trove of antique and heirloom ornaments which were carefully hung upon the branches.
There were incidents, of course; there always were. While helping Scott wire the lights, Bobby shattered a few bulbs he had accidentally frozen. Jubilee dropped and broke a glass ball, although fortunately not an old or valuable one. Kitty and Theresa tried to untangle a mess of garland, but only succeeded in making it even more snarled.
Yet the end result was more than worth any snags along the way, when everyone stood back to watch as Kurt bamfed for an instant to the treetop, placing a beautiful hundred-year-old angel figure at its peak. With this traditional final touch completed, a spontaneous round of applause broke out.
The only person absent from the warmth and closeness of the scene was Logan.
After the other students and teachers had dispersed, Rogue lay sprawled halfway beneath the tree, staring blankly up into the twinkling lights as she pondered what to do about her friend. For all he resisted taking part in the holiday festivities, she was convinced there was something in him that wanted to, very much. Perhaps her emotional clue lay in the shades of him which she had absorbed when he saved her life, and which gave her a perception of him that she didn’t always understand, but had learned to trust.
Just as the beginnings of an idea were taking shape in her mind, Kitty’s face suddenly loomed over her. "Are you dead?"
"Yes," Rogue retorted, completely deadpan.
"Oh. Okay. In that case, I call dibs on your jewelry and your Shania Twain CDs. Seen Peter?"
"Went out with Mister Summers and some of the other guys to put lights up outside."
"Thanks." Kitty jogged off toward the door. It opened just as she reached it, and Peter stepped in, catching her around the waist in one brawny arm.
"Hey, guess what I found," he said mischievously.
Smiling, Kitty’s boyfriend took his other hand from behind his back and held up a sprig of mistletoe, dark green with a cluster of white berries. He pulled Kitty over to the stairs and stretched upward to hang the sliver of greenery on the garland wrapped around the banister, then grinned down at her. With an impish look, she proffered her pursed lips, and he kissed her, quickly but firmly.
Rogue turned away and curled into a fetal position, an ugly feeling stirring within her.
More than any other time of year, she felt her lack of physical contact at Christmas. As she watched those close to her abound with kisses and hugs and the holding of hands, she could only stand apart, her deadly skin wrapped in layers of clothes. Everyone tried to make things better for her, especially Bobby, but it just wasn’t the same. The touch of skin to skin meant something, a connection to a life outside of one’s self—a connection of which she was forever incapable.
Her dark thoughts were interrupted when Bobby passed through, looking slightly dazed. He didn’t appear to notice her until she sat up and said softly, "Hey."
"Oh. Hey." Bobby hesitated for a moment, then stepped over and dropped himself on the floor beside her. For a moment Rogue felt an intense longing to snuggle against him, to lay her cheek against his and feel his warmth; but as always, she resisted it, and for a moment they sat in mutual silence.
"I thought you were out with Mister Summers," she said at last.
"Um." Bobby gave a weak shrug. "My dad called."
This came as a surprise to Rogue. Since their disastrous discovery that he was a mutant, Bobby had heard just once from his family—and that only to make sure he was physically safe. A police siege and the near-torching of their house by his former best friend had managed to thoroughly terrify the Drakes of their own son… but maybe now they were ready to work things out?
For a moment, Rogue felt a swell of hope for Bobby—followed just as quickly by dismay for herself. "So are you going home for Christmas?"
A lonely shadow flickered across Bobby’s face. "No," he said quietly.
Feeling mixed sadness and relief, Rogue leaned over to lay her head against his shoulder. Her gloved hand reached out to stroke his. "I’m sorry, Bobby. But I’m glad you’ll be with me."
Managing a wan smile, Bobby put his arm around her. "Dad sounded pretty cool about things. I mean, it’s almost like he’s kinda proud something in his genes made me ‘special’, you know? But Mom and Ronnie…" He sobered, his eyes filling with quiet pain. "They’re scared of me, Rogue."
"I know how that goes."
They lapsed into sympathetic silence again, and Rogue guiltily felt a little better to know that Bobby could understand—at least in part—her feelings of isolation. Both were alone, but they were alone together.
Gradually her thoughts returned to another lone soul—one whose solitude was self-imposed. She could almost feel angry at Logan for refusing closeness, when others longed for it so deeply… but all she really felt was sadness for him. He was the one most hurt by his distance. In all his months at the school, he should have learned it didn’t have to be that way.
Maybe, Rogue thought, I just haven’t tried hard enough to prove it to him.
Her fledgling idea stirred once more, and she looked up at Bobby. "Listen, since you’re going to be here for Christmas after all, maybe you can help me with something."
Pulling away slightly, Bobby glanced down into her face with quizzical skepticism. "Yeah…?"
"I need you to freeze over the basketball court."
Bobby’s jaw dropped. "Are you kidding?"
"I think we should have a skating party on Christmas. I’m sure the Professor wouldn’t mind. It’d be a lot of fun. We could even play some hockey… maybe."
"Okay, I see where this is going." Bobby straightened, giving Rogue a dubious look. "Logan’s in one of his run-for-the-border moods, and you want to give him a reason to hang out with us on Christmas. Am I right or am I right?"
Gathering every ounce of her Southern charm, Rogue met his gaze with her most winsome look, and simply said, "Please."
A moment passed without sound or movement from either of them.
Then, with a deep sigh, Bobby flung his arms out to his sides and slumped over backwards on the floor.
The front walkway of Helen Conover’s handsome Victorian home, Old Willows Place, had a habit of being meticulously neat. It had always been that way, but particularly so in the last few months—and were there ever any neighbors close enough to observe the comings and goings, they would have realized why. The flagstones were religiously swept or snowshoveled for the convenience of a wheelchair, the same purpose for which a wooden ramp had been installed over the porch steps.
On the bright morning of December the twenty-third, Charles Xavier rolled up that familiar path with some feelings of uncertainty. Helen had called briefly the night before to tell him her daughter and son-in-law had arrived, and he was welcome to visit and be introduced any time. Somewhat anxious to get a bearing on the character of the couple, he took up the invitation at his earliest convenience.
Helen met him at the door, clad in a mulberry-colored dress that was a bit more formal than her custom. She was putting on a cheerful face, but Charles could feel the tension underlying it, and certainly he could not fail to notice the heightened decorousness of her demeanor.
"Good morning, Charles. We were just sitting down for tea and muffins. Please, come in."
It struck him that she did not lead him to her cozy sitting room, with its miniature museum of her life and her acting accomplishments, but to the less intimate breakfast nook by the kitchen. A couple were sitting at the table, and they rose out of habitual courtesy as Charles entered.
A statuesque blonde of forty, Allison Hale bore a distinct resemblance to her mother, although her features seemed slightly harder and more angular. Her shoulder-length hair was salon-groomed and dyed to artificial perfection, her makeup was flawless, and her blue-gray silk pantsuit came from an expensive label. She had a studied socialite poise that contrasted sharply, in Charles’ eyes, with Helen’s natural grace. Her smile was merely perfunctory, and failed to reflect in her eyes.
There was one other fact Charles immediately realized about Allison. He prudently decided to let someone else bring up the subject—but he knew then that the situation was far more complicated than even Helen could have yet imagined.
Roger Hale, at first glance, was far more relaxed in temperament than his wife. Dark-haired and brown-eyed, he wore slacks and a polo shirt that were expensive, but casual. He had broad shoulders, rugged features, and a smile that was genuinely affable. His was the air of a self-made man, more varied and grounded in his life experiences than the woman he had married young.
Upon being introduced by Helen, it was Roger who took the initiative in greetings. With a hearty "Pleasure to meet you, Professor," he thrust out a hand for a firm, masculine handshake.
When Allison’s turn came, her hand was almost limp in Charles’ grasp. "How nice to meet you. Mother has been telling us all about you."
Charles didn’t bother to question Helen on this count with so much as a glance; he trusted implicitly to her discretion regarding him and his school. Instead he smiled politely at Allison as he replied, "And I’ve heard a great deal about you, Mrs. Hale."
"Oh, I can imagine."
Allison withdrew her hand and sat down, prompting Roger and Helen to do the same, and Charles drew his wheelchair up to the table. Old Willows Place was always overflowing with food, and this morning was no exception; an elegant spread of muffins, croissants, and accompanying jams was laid out alongside the tea service. Observing that the Hales had already helped themselves, Charles did likewise.
"I understand congratulations are in order," he began tentatively, looking at Roger. "Helen tells me you’ve made great advances in your law firm."
Roger grinned. "That’s right. I’ve just become a full partner in Thompson, Gladney and Hale. The old man was pretty pleased with some of the malpractice damages I won for our clients this year, and I’ve got some really impressive cases lined up for the next." Wearing an expression of pride, he bit into a muffin, chewed minimally, and swallowed. "And you? Running your own private school, you must do pretty well."
"I manage," Charles answered with a smile.
"Well," Allison said, in a neutral tone, "It’s a good thing you’re my mother’s neighbor. With Father gone, she needs a hobby, and I’m sure she’s been a great help with after-school activities."
The emphasis was slight, but it was there. Roger coughed into his napkin, and Helen looked daggers at her daughter.
"Your mother is a very kind and compassionate woman," Charles replied evenly.
Clearing his throat, Roger attempted to change the subject—though unbeknownst to him, he only managed to lead it into another minefield. "I was wondering, Professor. School for the gifted… what does that mean, exactly? Do you teach high-IQ students or something?"
Although he sensed a flare of concern from Helen, Charles retained his aplomb. "In my experience, a high intelligence quotient is not always an indicator of talent. My students possess many forms of exceptional abilities. Most would be unable to develop their skills properly in an ordinary schooling environment."
Roger’s eyebrows bounced. "Sounds pretty exclusive."
"Not as much so as you might think." Charles slowly stirred his tea. "In fact, you’re both quite welcome to pay us a visit, and see for yourselves. I believe you’ll find that in all the respects that matter, our students are perfectly average young people."
"Perhaps we’ll do that," Allison murmured, her eyes narrowing.
"Of course we will!" Roger affirmed. "I’d like to meet your students… I love kids." He paused, for a moment becoming solemn, but quickly appeared to shake off the feeling. His eyes brightened, and turning to Helen, he continued.
"As a matter of fact, that’s another reason we’re celebrating. We were going to surprise you on Christmas morning… but now seems like just as good a time as any to tell you." He broke into a smile as he concluded proudly, "Allie and I are going to have a baby."
This, finally, was the revelation of the fact Charles had first sensed about Allison.
"What?" Helen gasped, her hand rising to clasp over her mouth. She was stunned, and Charles knew it was not with the usual joy of a woman who had just learned she was to be a grandmother. He felt the sudden rush of fear in her—fear for the child—and understood what she was afraid of.
If the child grew to be a mutant, would Allison and Roger fear it as they had their firstborn?
Charles knew the statistics. Cases of mutant siblings were not probable, but neither were they rare; he had known and taught and worked with several, over the years. He had also seen the parents of mutants opt for sterilization rather than risk bearing another. Fear of one’s own offspring was the greatest tragedy he had ever witnessed, and he did so far too often.
He was witnessing it now. At the announcement, Allison had grown pale and shrunk into herself, discreetly clutching her abdomen with fingers that were twisted into an almost claw-like pose. She was terrified of that spark of life within her.
Roger, by contrast, was clearly excited as he nodded a confirmation to Helen. "She’s about ten weeks along now. We’re hoping for a girl," he added with a smile, the plural pronoun a feeble effort to include Allison in a happiness and hope which she obviously did not share.
At last Helen’s hands dropped into her lap, her fingers knotting nervously together. She looked at Allison. "Do you know…?"
"I’ve had every test a dozen doctors could think of," Allison replied stiffly. "Not one of them could tell us anything."
"But it’s going to be okay!" Roger declared, somewhat defiantly. "This time we’re going to have a healthy, normal baby." Then glancing at Charles, "Excuse me, Professor. Our son…"
"Charles knows about Kenny," Helen interrupted, with an uncharacteristic edge to her voice, earning an angry glare from Allison.
"Well, isn’t that cozy," the younger woman snapped. She turned a suspicious glare on Charles. "So have you judged us already, or do you realize what a one-sided view of the story my mother tells?"
"If I had judged you, I wouldn’t be here now," Charles replied calmly. "I think you were a mother who loved her son… and when faced with a situation you didn’t understand or know how to cope with, you made an unfortunate mistake."
"Mistake…!" Allison choked out—then abruptly rose and stormed out of the room.
"Allison!" Helen protested. Rising, she spared Roger and Charles a pained glance, then hurried after her daughter.
The two men were left sitting in the middle of a rather awkward silence, until finally Roger heaved a sigh and stared down into his cup of black coffee. "I’m sorry about that. Allison is…"
"Is a wounded and frightened woman," Charles finished for him, causing the younger man to look up at him appreciatively.
"She was a great mother… she really was. I don’t want you to think she wasn’t." Roger faltered. "She loved Kenny. It’s only… when he changed…"
"Believe me, I know that it’s difficult to accept, and it can be frightening—sometimes even dangerous, until a mutant child learns to control his abilities. But he was still your son, who loved and needed you."
Roger’s voice caught. "I didn’t want to send him to Fordham… but Allison just couldn’t take it any more. She threatened to leave. So I thought, just for a little while—a few months maybe, and they’d help Kenny get a handle on himself, and then we’d be together again. Happily ever after." He passed a hand over his face, shaking his head. "But the months turned into years, and they kept telling us it would hurt Kenny’s ‘progress’ for us to see him… and then it was too late."
A tear escaped from the corner of Roger’s eye. He brushed it away with the back of his hand, then looked up at Charles, almost searchingly.
"I regret it every day of my life."
"I know," Charles said softly. "And you’ll go on living with it. I can’t give you absolution, but I understand that you only wanted to do what you thought was best." He shook his head. "What matters now is your child yet to be born. I can see that Allison doesn’t want to have it."
"She wanted to have an abortion," Roger replied, in a tone suddenly empty of emotion. "This time I was the one who threatened a divorce, if she did. I want this baby. As for Allie… I don’t think she’s as afraid of it being a mutant as she is afraid it’ll be Kenny’s story, all over again."
"It doesn’t have to be. We may not know for several years, but it’s far from certain that the child will even be a mutant. Even if it is, there are people who can truly help you, if you’ll allow them to… and I’d like very much to be one of them."
Roger sniffed slightly, recollecting himself, and gave Charles a fragile smile. "I’m glad."
Scott Summers was two-thirds of the way through a stack of science tests that needed grading when he felt a nudge against his leg.
In the middle of Mutant Central, a person might have feared that almost anything could be the culprit—but Scott knew exactly what it was. With a sigh, he leaned back in his chair and looked down at the pale-gray feline who gazed expectantly up at him from the floor. "Not now, Puck."
The cat meowed demandingly.
"I mean it. Whatever it is, you can wait another ten minutes." Scott turned back to the remaining ungraded papers.
Two seconds later, Puck launched himself up onto the desk—and the outbound stack of graded tests just "happened" to be his landing site.
As Scott watched the carefully organized paperwork flutter to the floor in an artificial snowstorm, Puck sat down on his haunches and nonchalantly stretched out a hind leg to lick himself.
"You win," Scott muttered through clenched teeth, pushing his chair away from the desk. Puck immediately ceased his preening, jumped down to the floor, and trotted to the half-open doorway, where he paused and looked back with an inquiring trill. Scott rose and followed with a disgusted shake of his head.
When her fiancé walked into the kitchen on the heels of the cat, Jean Grey looked up with an amused smile from a half-mixed bowl of cookie dough. "Hello, Master." The words were addressed to Puck.
"Oh, stop." Scott bent down and opened a cabinet, taking out a can of cat food. "I thought you had dinner an hour ago."
"Who, me?" Jean asked.
"No. Him." Half a dozen steps to the cat’s bowl; Scott picked it up, went to the sink, and began to clean out the leftovers. "Why aren’t the kids feeding him, anyway? He’s supposed to be their cat."
Puck let out a peremptory yowl. Jean smiled.
"They did feed him an hour ago. I guess he wants something different. And I guess your cat wants you to get it for him."
Scott shoved the can into the electric canopener, his muttered "Et tu, Jean" drowned out by the whir of the machine. He dumped the catfood into the bowl with practiced movements and set it down on the floor. Puck sidled over, insisting on a few token ear scratches, then sniffed the bowl appreciatively and buried his nose in the tuna. Having thus been dismissed, Scott sat down at the table and watched as Jean scraped a mass of pale-yellow dough onto a cookie sheet.
"Do you want some help with that?" Scott asked.
For answer, Jean pushed the sheet toward him and held out a rolling pin. "Have at it. Maybe it’ll help you work off some of that tension."
Rolling his eyes behind his glasses, Scott obeyed and began rolling out the dough, while Jean turned to the oven and took out a previous batch of cookies. Their sweet smell permeated the kitchen, and Scott couldn’t resist a smile as the fragrance put him in mind of simpler times. Leaving the cookies to cool, Jean picked up a tube of white icing and began to put faces on a squad of gingerbread men.
For several minutes, they were both silently preoccupied. Then, without looking up at Scott, Jean remarked casually, "I’ve been meaning to talk to you about Logan."
The lingering smile was instantly wiped from Scott’s face. "Oh?"
"I’m a little worried about him. He’s been more standoffish than usual lately."
"Oh, come on, you can’t be surprised if he’s a Scrooge about Christmas. ‘Peace on Earth, good will toward men’ isn’t exactly a philosophy he relates to." Scott pushed the now thoroughly flattened sheet of dough back toward Jean.
"You might be surprised." Jean started punching shapes out of the dough with a tree-shaped cookie cutter. "Anyway, I think it’s something else. I think he feels more alone than ever at this time of year."
"Alone? In this house?" Scott reached out to pinch a piece of discarded dough from the tray, popped it into his mouth, and irritably chewed the sweet lump of sugar and flour.
"You know what I mean." Jean stretched out her hand, and a container of green sprinkles slid across the counter into her grasp. "We’ve all got childhood memories of Christmas to ground us in what this time of year means to us. He doesn’t. He can’t share these feelings that bring the rest of us closer together, and it only makes him feel further set apart."
Puck jumped onto the table at Scott’s elbow and fastidiously began to wash. Scott watched with sudden, minute interest as the rough pink tongue smoothed the soft gray fur.
"Well, really. How hard could it be just to loosen up and enjoy Christmas?"
A smile quirked across Jean’s lips. "You tell me."
Okay, so he’d walked right into that one. Scott gritted his teeth. "I am loose, Jean."
"Great. Then you can prove it by having a talk with Logan."
"Why me? I’m the last person you should be asking to have a heart-to-heart with him!"
"Exactly," Jean replied, and flashing him her most winning smile, she turned to put the next batch of cookies into the oven.
Scott heaved a sigh, dropping his forehead onto the tabletop with a thump—but his satisfying wallow in self-pity was cut short when Puck began to lick his ear, whiskers tickling his neck.
Well, at least someone in this house still loves me…
Ororo Munroe always found herself hesitating at Kurt Wagner’s door.
It wasn’t that she didn’t feel welcome in the private sanctum of the gentle, blue-skinned German; quite the contrary, he welcomed everyone, and her above all others. Rather, it was that there was a kind of sanctity to the room, a solemn hush that one felt rude to disrupt. When she did knock, it always turned out to be so lightly that she wasn’t sure he would hear her—but he did, every time.
"Hallo," Kurt called out softly, and Ororo stepped in to find the room illuminated only by candlelight. The dancing light of the flames played in strange and eerie ways off the posters on the walls. Some were one-sheets from old pirate movies; others were garish German circus advertisements, a few of which rendered rather frightening depictions of Kurt himself. They looked all the more demonic in those flickering shadows, adding to the ironic contrast of a well-worn Bible which lay open on the bed, and the rosary beads clutched in the tri-digit hands of the figure kneeling beside it.
"Oh… I’m sorry, Kurt," Ororo all but whispered, taking in the scene. "I didn’t mean to interrupt you."
"You didn’t," Kurt replied with a shy duck of his head, rising to his feet. "My prayers were finished. I was only thinking."
With a rueful smile, Kurt picked up the Bible from the bed, carefully marking his place with a frayed piece of ribbon before he closed it and clutched it to his chest. "About Christmas." His broad fingers played gently over the cover, and with reverence he set it down on the bedside table.
Not certain how to respond to Kurt’s thoughtful solemnity about what was, to her, a bright and exciting holiday, Ororo simply shrugged. "Some of the kids and I are going to roast chestnuts downstairs. I thought you might like to join us."
"Ja. Ein moment." Kurt switched on the lamp, then turned to the candles arranged on top of the low bookcase, and began to extinguish their flames with a brass snuffer. While he was doing so, Ororo’s gaze wandered back to his Bible, and she stepped over to pick it up. The leather cover was old and cracked, the once gilded page edges now yellow.
"It looks like you could use a new Bible for Christmas," Ororo observed softly.
Kurt turned, for a moment looking somewhat surprised—but then he smiled. "It isn’t the covering, but the words. That one has always served me." He paused, hesitating. "What I wish…"
Ororo carefully set the Bible down. "What?"
"Nichts," Kurt murmured demurely, his yellow eyes suddenly downcast.
"No, really. What is it you want for Christmas?"
Slowly Kurt raised his eyes. "I wish I could go to Christmas Eve Mass. It’s been so long. Most of all, I wish I could go undisguised, and stand before God in His house as I am… without making anyone afraid."
Ororo’s heart twisted, a lump rising in her throat. It was a wish so simple and so pure—yet spoken with a heartbreaking sadness, a resignation to its impossibility. What else but fear could one with the appearance of a demon expect to be met with in a church?
There of all places, it should have been love instead.
Impulsively, Ororo put her hands on Kurt’s shoulders, searching his eyes. "You will go to Mass tomorrow night, Kurt. I’ll go with you—and if anyone has something to say about it, they can say it to me."
An expression of wonder spread across Kurt’s tattooed face.
Just after sunrise on Christmas Eve, Scott went looking for Logan, and found the Wolverine.
He was outside by the old woodshed at the edge of the property, his rugged figure almost blending into the darkness of the treeline behind him—save for the gleam of sunlight on his claws, as they came down hard on an upended log. Logan picked up the split pieces and placed them on a growing stack of firewood, then set up another log and repeated the process.
Scott cursed inwardly. He had set out to have the "talk" which Jean was so insistent upon, but a claws-out confrontation with a moody Wolverine before breakfast was not what he’d had in mind. Shaking his head, he steeled himself and advanced warily across the snow-covered ground.
Clearly Logan was aware of his approach, and was deliberately ignoring him. If he was hoping Scott would just collect some firewood and leave, he was going to be disappointed.
"Looks like you’ve been at this all morning," Scott began tentatively, halting at a few yards’ distance from the blade-wielding woodsman.
The cloud of cigar smoke Logan exhaled was evidence of a sigh, but he did not meet Scott’s gaze. "I won’t be around to cut any more for a while. I’m going up north of the border for a few days. ’Til after New Year’s, maybe."
It was an announcement which did not surprise Scott, but vaguely disturbed him. He stood absorbing the idea for a few moments before he answered.
"I suppose you know Jean and Rogue will kill me if they hear I didn’t try to talk you out of this."
"It’d be a nice bonus," Logan replied flippantly, at last looking up at Scott as he positioned another log to be split. "Look, I know everything you’re going to think of saying, so let’s pretend I’ve already heard it."
"That would make it nice and easy for you, wouldn’t it?" Scott shoved his hands into the pockets of his bomber jacket. "You know I’m not going to let you off the hook like that. Stop being selfish."
Logan extinguished his cigar before leveling a hard look on Scott. "Selfish?"
"Yes. Rogue and Jean and everyone else want you to be here tomorrow—and whatever it is that’s put you in this mood of yours, it’s not as important as they are. Christmas is about being with the people who care about you, Logan. It’s called family… and whether you appreciate it or not, you’ve got one."
It was a difficult admission for Scott to make—and apparently just as difficult for Logan to hear. He flinched slightly and turned back to the tree stump that served as a chopping block, smashing his claws down on the log which sat there. His force was enough to send the adamantium blades down the entire length of the log and into the surface of the stump beneath.
Unfazed, Scott arched his eyebrows. "Maybe Jean was right. She thinks you’re uncomfortable because you can’t remember what Christmas was like for you, when you were young."
"No," Logan murmured, turning his head, but not quite looking back over his shoulder.
Even without eye contact, something in Logan’s low, terse tone triggered a visceral understanding in Scott. His eyes widening behind his glasses, he dared to take a few steps forward.
"It’s not about what you don’t remember… but something you do remember." He waited for a reply, and when none was forthcoming, he pressed quietly, "You do remember something, don’t you?"
"Something." With swift, harsh movements, Logan picked up a heavy log in one hand and placed it on the stump. Then he paused, standing still for a long moment, and finally turned to face Scott.
Beneath the surface of the simple, grim confession, there was a current of pain and confusion that humbled even Scott. He frowned, searching for a reply that would be adequate, but in the end he could only come up with another question. "Did you lose someone you cared about on Christmas?"
Logan’s clenched right fist dropped to his side, the exposed claws slowly withdrawing beneath his skin.
"I don’t know," he said softly.
Scott dropped his gaze to the snowy ground. "I’m sorry," he said, wondering how many of his remembered years Logan had carried that sad scrap of memory and its lingering hurt. Logan said nothing, but stared off into the woods, absently rubbing his raw knuckles as they healed.
"It can be different, you know," Scott said at last. "What I said was true. Whether I like it or not… you do have a family here. They can make Christmas mean something better to you."
Logan shifted his weight and put his hands on his hips. His gaze did not turn from the silent forest beyond the woodshed, but something in his face softened, just a little bit.
"Are you going to stay?" Scott asked bluntly.
For a moment, Logan’s eyes flickered in Scott’s direction. "I haven’t decided."
Although his voice was still quiet, something in its tone signaled that this was as much of an answer as Scott could expect. At least he had tried. He would respect Logan’s rare confidence, and not reveal what he had learned, but Jean would know anyway—and he knew she would be proud of him. That was enough to make the effort worthwhile.
With a simple, wordless shrug, Scott turned and walked away, leaving Logan alone with his thoughts.
At mid-morning, Helen called Charles, alerting him that the Hales wanted to take up his invitation for a visit. The three arrived fifteen minutes later. Fortunately, students and staff were well accustomed to putting on a normal façade for guests; by the time the doorbell rang, the school was deep into "visit from unenlightened parents" mode, and had been transformed into a scene of almost suspicious tranquility.
Flanked by Scott and Jean, Charles guided Helen and the Hales through the public rooms and hallways of the mansion, rattling off a dry and statistic-filled narration. Few students were in evidence, as it was taken for granted that visitors would expect most of them to be home with their families for Christmas; a few really were, but Kurt and Ororo were keeping many of the rest amused with playful mock wargames in the danger room. Those who remained above ground went on in perfectly ordinary fashion with the activities of the holiday study break: tending to their assigned chores, playing games, watching television. There was not the slightest indication that this place was more than an overpriced private school.
Charles watched the Hales carefully. Cheerful and interested, Roger was clearly taking it all at face value, but Allison scrutinized everything in a tense and wary manner. To his concern, the Professor realized she had some suspicion that the school sheltered mutants, and he feared their conversation of the day before had allowed her to infer too much. Yet as the tour wound on, Allison appeared to relax slightly, her doubts allayed by the ordinary and rather pedantic environment of the school.
The tour ended in the gameroom, where they found Rogue and Bobby playing a hotly contested game of table hockey. They paused in their play to greet Helen—well aware that she was never without candy in her pockets.
"Good morning, dears," Helen said warmly, handing them each a piece of maple-flavored toffee wrapped in bright foil. She nodded to the Hales. "This is my daughter Allison, and my son-in-law Roger."
Smiling innocently, Rogue stretched out a gloved hand. "Hi. I’m Marie. This is Bobby."
"I’m… charmed," Allison replied, shaking Rogue’s hand with a bemused expression, which was apparently prompted by the gloves. Bobby, meanwhile, was the recipient of Roger’s effusive handshake, and he met it with a grip that was equally firm and self-assured—and thankfully did not induce frostbite for once.
"Are you boyfriend, girlfriend?" Roger asked amiably.
Bobby gave Rogue a fawning glance and put his arm around her. "Yeah."
"That’s great. You two look cute together." Roger grinned at Allison, taking her hand to draw her closer to him. "I met Allie here when I was about your age."
Allison’s frozen expression thawed slightly as she met her husband’s loving gaze, her limp fingers almost reflexively tightening around his. Watching them with interest, Charles felt his curiosity stirred, and allowed his mind to skim the very surface of her thoughts.
There… A picnic in a park, on a beautiful spring day. Roger, twenty years younger, handsome and strong, making Allison laugh as he tried unsuccessfully to juggle a pair of apples. He was her entire world, and she was his.
She had loved him then—and she was remembering suddenly that she still did, even after pain and loss had done such damage to them both.
It was a single, glowing snapshot of the hope Charles had spent his life seeking.
Withdrawing his mind swiftly from the memory of that intimate moment, he turned to give Helen a faint smile. By virtue of maternal instinct, she too had noticed the weakening of her daughter’s defenses; smiling in return, she touched the back of Charles’ hand very lightly, just for a moment. The touch conveyed more to him than his telepathy ever could have.
Feeling a warmth in his heart, Charles turned back to Allison and Roger. "We’d be delighted if you would join us for lunch. Come this way."
With the Professor leading, and with Rogue and Bobby now tagging along, the group made its way back down the halls toward the dining room. In front of the main staircase, they paused to admire the Christmas tree. Charles noticed with pleasure that as they stood there, Allison’s hand sought and found Roger’s, and the couple exchanged a quick, gentle glance.
Then something halfway up the tree trunk mysteriously jingled.
Allison gave a start, letting go of Roger’s hand. "What was that?"
Scott had already stepped forward, peering up into the branches. Abruptly his shoulders slumped, and with a deep sigh, he looked back at the group. "It’s just the cat. Looks like he climbed the tree." Turning back to the lighted evergreen, he put his hands on his hips. "Come down out of there, Puck!"
No one expected a cat to obey, of course… but for once, unfortunately, he did.
Scott gasped and instinctively held out his arms to catch the gray furball that suddenly rocketed out of the branches, the end of a garland rope caught on his claws—dragging the entire tree with him as a result. In a kind of majestic slow-motion, it sagged forward, then began to topple toward the stunned onlookers who stood before it.
And then, abruptly, it halted, frozen in mid-collapse.
There came the sound of a few glass balls breaking on the floor, and then a silence fell over the ominously comical scene. Seven of the tilted tree’s eight near-victims were left either cringing away from it or staring in astonishment at it; the latter included Scott, who still clutched the squirming cat awkwardly in his arms. But the eighth person was Jean, who stood with hands outstretched and muscles tensed, invisibly supporting the tree by means of telekinesis. With a mental effort, she pushed it back into its proper upright position, then turned sheepishly to face the others.
Allison looked from the tree to the extremely chagrined mutant, and her expression told an eloquent story of dawning realization—a process of thought that ended in sheer horror. Wide-eyed, she slowly backed away from Jean.
"You’re a mutant," she breathed, and rounded upon Charles, her shock swiftly giving way to anger. "You… you’re all mutants!"
Before Charles could reply, Helen stepped forward, reaching out to her daughter. "Honey, I can explain—"
"No. You can’t. Just get away." Trembling violently, hands raised in an almost defensive posture, Allison recoiled from her mother. "I have to leave. I’m leaving. Stay away."
With that halting announcement, Allison turned and bolted for the door. Roger rushed after her—but not before sparing Charles and Helen a glance that was both bewildered and regretful.
To Charles’ surprise, Helen did not immediately follow, but turned to him. Her voice was heavy with tears restrained, but her expression was resolute.
"Charles, if you have to… to make them forget…"
The suggestion amazed Charles, and he reached out to take Helen’s hands, giving them a quick squeeze. "You know I wouldn’t do that. Go to them, Helen."
Nodding dazedly, Helen released his hands and went after the Hales.
Rogue and Bobby had watched the disaster unfold in nervous silence. Now they glanced at each other, and by unspoken mutual agreement, beat a hasty retreat from the awkward scene before they could be asked to help clean up.
Scott let out a long breath between his teeth. "We’re having cat for Christmas dinner," he growled, letting go of Puck. The cat landed on the floor with a plaintive mew, and sat down amongst the broken Christmas ornaments to clean the pine needles out of his fur.
Jean approached Charles, red-faced with embarrassment and contrition. "Professor, I’m so sorry. It was instinct. I just…"
"It’s alright, Jean," her teacher said quietly. "We all react according to our nature."
"Will Mrs. Hale’s reaction be to try to expose us?" Scott asked grimly.
"I don’t believe so. She may fear that her mother’s involvement with us puts too much at stake. Besides, it isn’t mutants she fears… it’s the pain that often comes to those who share our lives."
With that, Charles started toward the front door, carefully maneuvering his wheelchair around the broken glass on the floor. He noted ruefully that one of his favorite ornaments, a very old and beautiful carousel horse, lay with its gilded pole broken off.
At least that could be repaired… but he wasn’t sure the same was true of Helen’s reconciliation with her daughter.
When Charles arrived at Old Willows Place several minutes later, he was met by a distraught Helen in the foyer. "Allison is packing to leave. I don’t know what she might do."
"Give me a chance to talk to her," Charles said, quietly and calmly.
Helen gave a slight start. "Will you…?"
"No." Charles placed a hand upon hers as it rested on the arm of his wheelchair. "Whatever happens, I’m not going to tamper with Allison’s thoughts. She has the right to her own decisions."
At that moment, Roger stepped into the foyer. Helen swiftly drew back her hand, but not before Roger had seen it being held by Charles. He glanced back and forth between them both, his gaze finally coming to rest on the Professor.
"For what it’s worth, I don’t blame you," he said softly. His eyes shifted back to Helen, and there was a deeper shade of meaning in his voice as he added, "Either of you."
"I’d like to talk with Allison," Charles said quickly.
Roger said nothing, but turned and went to the foot of the staircase. Looking up toward the second-floor landing, he called out with surprising firmness, "Allison."
A door slammed somewhere above, and a moment later Allison appeared, hurrying down the stairs with a suitcase in her hand. Upon seeing Charles in the entryway to the foyer, she froze.
Helen and Roger exchanged a look, and of one accord, they retreated down the hall in the direction of the sitting-room.
Moving very slowly this time, Allison came the rest of the way down the steps. At the foot of the stairs, she set down the suitcase and put her hands on her hips, staring coldly at Charles. "I have nothing to say to you."
"Then listen." Charles moved his wheelchair forward. "I apologize for not being open with you. I had hoped to tell you everything in time, when you were ready to understand. I want to help you, Allison."
"Help me?" Allison snapped, with a tremor of incredulity in her voice. "How? By preying on my mother’s feelings about what happened to my son? By wrapping her up in this… this whatever it is you’re doing? Or did you just want to seduce her for yourself?"
Charles smiled sadly and shook his head. "I can assure you, I’ve never intended anything of the kind. Your mother is a very good friend to me and to my students—because she chose to be. I still hope you might become one as well." Although Allison snorted angrily, Charles went on, "I know you don’t hate mutants; your mother could never have raised a child who was capable of hate. But you’ve suffered hurt in the past, and you face uncertainty in the future. You feel that mutation itself is to blame, and you’re afraid of it… but you don’t have to be. That’s what I wanted you to learn from visiting my school."
"You don’t know," Allison shot back. Her hand moved to her abdomen, perhaps unthinkingly. "You don’t know what it’s like, to lose your child because this… thing happened to him. You don’t know what it’s like to face years of wondering if your baby is going to be normal… or if it’s going to grow up to be something people are afraid of."
"And do you know," Charles asked steadily, "what it’s like to be a mutant? Did you ever try to understand what was happening to Kenny through his eyes? Did you make an effort to learn and grow with him, before you turned to doctors who treated him like an invalid instead of a child?"
Allison stared at Charles, shaking with anger, but her eyes were brimming with tears. "I loved Kenny."
"I know that. But sometimes, I’m afraid we don’t take the time to understand the needs of those we love… until it’s too late." Charles gazed earnestly at her. "Let me help you understand, Allison. I’m sure it’s what Kenny would want, for the sake of your new child."
His words found Allison’s heart at last. Very slowly, she sank down onto the bottom step of the staircase. She lowered her head, wrapped her arms around her knees, and curled into a ball, as her shoulders began to shake with quiet sobs.
Charles drew his wheelchair close. He placed his hand on Allison’s shoulder, and when she looked up with a start, he offered her his handkerchief. Wordlessly she took it and wiped her eyes, smudging it with traces of her eyeliner in the process; Charles didn’t mind. At last she met his gaze, looking broken, and humbled, and as beautiful as her mother.
As she demurely gave back the handkerchief, Charles took it, and held out his other hand to her. "Take my hand. I want you to meet someone." When she hesitated, he pointed out with a gentle humor, "Mutation is not something catching, you know."
Sniffling slightly, Allison set her jaw as if she had been challenged, and took Charles’ hand. This time her grip was firm. He placed her hand upon her abdomen, his fingers still touching hers. Closing his eyes, he reached out with his mind, seeking his perception of her unborn child; then he opened his senses to her, letting her feel the small life within her womb, just as he felt it.
"Oh, it is a girl!" Allison gasped softly, her fingers trembling beneath his.
"Yes," Charles whispered. "And whether she proves to be a mutant or not, your child will love you, and will look to you and her father to protect and teach her." He slowly withdrew his hand and his telepathy, and as Allison gazed up at him in bewildered amazement, he smiled at her. "Of course, some say it takes a village to raise a child."
Allison chuckled ruefully, and although there were new tears shining in her eyes, they did not fall. "Is that what you have to offer?"
He gave a whimsical shrug. "School. Village. It’s much the same thing."
Rubbing the last traces of dampness from her cheeks, Allison stood up and cleared her throat. "I need some time to think."
"Of course." Charles turned his wheelchair and rolled into the foyer, adding over his shoulder, "I hope to see you tomorrow. The students are having an ice-skating party, and you’re welcome to join us."
As he reached the front door, he heard Allison murmur thoughtfully, "We’ll see."
Father Edward O’Bannon was a firm believer in miracles. However, he had never expected one to happen in his church on Christmas Eve.
It came just as Mass was about to begin, heralded in a most humble way by the creak of the old chapel’s door. A ripple of murmurs passed through the room as a shadowy figure appeared at the threshold. For a moment, he stood silhouetted in the glow of the streetlamp beyond; then he stepped into the candlelight, slowly and warily, like a timid animal.
As this dark stranger moved forward, there arose a collective gasp of fear from the parishioners, and those nearest him shied away.
Father O’Bannon was nearsighted, a condition helped none by the flickering candles. Frowning, he settled his spectacles on his nose and squinted at the newcomer—and what he saw made him reach reflexively for the crucifix that hung from his rosary beads.
The creature was dark, all but jet-black in the dimness, with pointed ears and glittering yellow eyes. Behind it, a long, serpentine tail with a pointed tip twitched and slithered. It moved in a slight crouch, as if it would be just as comfortable on four limbs as on two. Now and then, in the shifting light, there came a glimpse of strange symbols etched upon its face.
The words of a prayer passed over Father O’Bannon’s lips, but he could force no sound out of a throat that was constricted by fear. How could it be that a demon had entered the house of God?
He found his answer in the figure who followed the demon.
She was a vision of beauty, dressed in white, with warm brown skin and a cascade of ivory-colored hair. Her dark eyes were keen and alert, yet there was a deep gentleness in them, as she looked upon the demon and placed her delicate hand on his shoulder. Then she turned, her gaze a silent question as it swept across the entire congregation.
Who will speak?
There were none who would defy her, and gradually, the murmurs quieted. Not one parishioner moved from their seat.
Satisfied, the beauty nodded an encouragement to the demon. He shyly seated himself in a crouch on the end of a pew… and then, from somewhere within the recesses of his old dark coat, he produced a rosary. His guardian sat down beside him, folding her hands, and watched him nervously caress the beads with his own misshapen fingers.
All at once, Father O’Bannon felt as if a great light had been revealed to him. His humble church had been chosen to witness a Christmas miracle; one of the Devil’s own demons had repented, and had come to seek God, with an angel sent to show him the way.
If God Himself had opened the doors of the church to this creature, then surely it was His will that Father O’Bannon should welcome him—and he would.
Slowly, the priest smiled at the angel… and she smiled back.
"M’rie? …M’rie, wake up."
With a stifled groan, Rogue rolled over in bed, and instinctively wrapped the blankets more tightly around her bare arms—not because she was cold, but to avoid accidental contact with the small figure who stood beside her bed. With her wispy blonde hair and large blue eyes, eight-year-old Kristen Mayhew looked just like Cindy Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
"Mmmph… what is it, sweetie?" Rogue mumbled. Made softhearted by her frustrated nurturing instincts, she was seen as a sort of big sister by many younger children at the school, who often called upon her at all hours to read stories or to scare away monsters under the bed. She assumed now that perhaps Kristen’s own ‘Ghoulie’ in the closet needed a talking-to, even if it was Christmas Eve.
But instead, Kristen announced matter-of-factly, "I heard Santa Claus on the roof."
As she sat up and reached for her gloves on the nightstand, Rogue looked at the clock. It was not yet six a.m., but she knew morning would soon be breaking. "Santa was probably here and gone a few hours ago. He knows people will be waking up soon. Are you sure it wasn’t a squirrel or a bird?"
Kristen shook her head emphatically.
Rogue let out a resigned sigh and stood up, pulling on her robe. "Okay. Let’s go see." She took Kristen’s hand, and together they crept down the hall. When they reached the stairs, Kristen peeked eagerly through the banisters, but there was no sign of Saint Nick unloading packages below.
They went downstairs, just to make sure, and Rogue sat on the bottom step with a warm feeling inside as she watched Kristen explore. The little girl’s eyes grew wide as she saw that the heap of presents under the tree had doubled in size overnight, and that an empty cup and plate now sat in place of the milk and cookies she had personally left for Santa Claus.
"You were right," Kristen conceded sagely, coming back to where Rogue sat. "Santa must have been here earlier."
"That’s right." Rogue grinned. "By now, I bet he’s in California, because it’s not morning there yet. Do you suppose a lot of the movie stars out there in Hollywood are on his ‘naughty’ list?"
The joke made Kristen giggle. Rogue shrugged. "Okay, come on. Back to bed for a little bit."
"But I’m awake now," Kristen protested mildly.
"Well, I’ll tell you what. You can pick out a present to go ahead and open, so you can play with it in bed until everybody else wakes up. It’ll be our little secret. Okay?"
Smiling happily, Kristen went to the tree and chose a package with her name on it, which she opened on the spot. She was soon clutching a brand-new Barbie doll as she followed Rogue upstairs.
When the child was settled in bed once more, Rogue went back downstairs to clean up the wrapping paper discarded on the floor. Just as she reached the bottom of the steps, she could have sworn she heard the sound of the front door closing. Her heart skipped a beat at the thought of a teacher finding that a present had already been opened, but there was no sign of anyone else stirring in the house—except for Puck, who wandered over to rub against her leg. She smiled and bent down to scratch his ears, but when she withdrew her hand, she found a residue of gray-brown dust on her glove.
"Where have you been?" she asked the cat incredulously.
He merely stared up at her with a faint mew.
Rogue returned to her room, but she was unable to go back to sleep. She laid quietly in bed until she heard the rest of the household beginning to awaken; then she dressed and went downstairs to help the teachers manage the impending chaos. It was Professor Xavier’s rule that breakfast came first, even on Christmas morning, which meant that the impatient younger children needed some coaxing to eat.
Throughout the meal, Rogue watched and waited for Logan to appear, but there was no sign of him.
When the grownups were finally finished with breakfast, having allowed ample time for the kids to get some nourishment inside them, the Professor gave the signal that prompted a stampede to the Christmas tree—which, after the Puck debacle of the day before, was now wired securely to the staircase banisters. Bobby and Scott took the job of checking labels and handing out presents, and the room was soon awash in a sea of crumpled paper as students and teachers alike opened their gifts.
Sitting in the midst of a noisy group that included Kitty, Jubilee, and Theresa, Rogue received her presents with quiet appreciation, but she felt a growing disappointment in her heart as Logan remained absent. He knew about the skating party; she had told him herself. Evidently the prospect of a hockey game had not enticed him to stay at the school that day, after all.
Once the presents had all been unwrapped, most of the students scattered with their new toys and gifts. Rogue simply sat watching the teachers clean up what looked like the path of a good-sized tornado. The women had turned it into a comical contest: Ororo created miniature whirlwinds to sweep up the discarded paper and boxes from the floor, while Jean used her telekinesis. Kurt and Scott had become their respective teammates, and were bagging the trash for them, the apparent object being to fill a bag the fastest.
For a moment, Rogue felt a stirring of bitter envy. She wondered why she couldn’t have had a useful ability like Storm or Miss Grey, instead of a power that hurt people whether she wanted to or not.
Feeling a tap on her shoulder, she turned to find Bobby smiling brightly at her. "Hey. I’ve got something for you."
"But you already gave me—" Rogue began.
"Yeah, I know. This is special, though." Seizing her gloved hand, Bobby pulled her over to the other side of the tree, out of the busy teachers’ line of sight. He reached beneath his jacket and held up a small, square package wrapped in holly-patterned paper. "Here."
Delighted and curious, Rogue opened the gift. Nestled within the paper was a beautiful scarf made of pink silk, so soft and transparently sheer that she was almost afraid to touch it.
With a smile, she opened her mouth to thank Bobby—but before she could speak, her boyfriend grinned slyly and pointed upward. In puzzled surprise, she looked up to find that they were standing beneath the mistletoe Peter had hung on the staircase rail.
Then, before she had a chance to protest, Bobby raised the end of the scarf to her face and leaned forward to kiss her through it.
Rogue’s heart nearly stopped as she squeezed her eyes shut. The fabric of the scarf was so fine and so thin that she could feel the chill of his breath… and then the warmth of his lips. In that instant, she was terrified that the silk would not be enough to protect him from her mutation.
The veiled kiss lingered for a long, agonizingly wonderful moment, and then Bobby withdrew, his psyche safely intact. Catching her breath, Rogue opened her eyes, and he smiled at her.
"Merry Christmas," he said softly.
Before Rogue could even begin to sort out a coherent reply, they were both startled by Scott as he leaned around the tree—patently feigning ignorance of what had just happened. "Hey, are you guys about ready to skate? Some of the others are getting ready to go out now."
Shooting Bobby one last glance, which was full of sheer amazement at his audacity and the strength of his affection, Rogue turned to Scott and nodded. "Yeah, sure…"
She stepped past Scott and went upstairs to dress for the outdoors, never seeing the discreet low-five that her teacher and her boyfriend exchanged behind her back.
A few minutes later, Rogue came downstairs to find a noisy group of both teachers and students, bundled up in scarves and jackets and carrying their ice skates. Scott took the fore as they all filed outside and made their way over to the basketball court, which Bobby had frozen into a perfect ice rink the evening before.
When the court-turned-rink came into view, Rogue stopped in her tracks… for there, at last, was Logan.
The Canadian was aimlessly stroking back and forth across the ice with his hands on his hips, waiting. He was wearing a very old and worn pair of hockey skates, which Rogue recalled helping to put into storage last spring… and suddenly, a lot of things made sense. The sound Kristen had heard above her room early that morning must have been Logan digging the skates out of the attic. It even explained the layer of dust on Puck’s fur, if the curious cat had somehow climbed up there with him and gone snooping.
All of which was, at the moment, entirely irrelevant. What mattered was that her friend was there.
"Logan!" Rogue exclaimed, running forward to meet him as he moved to the edge of the ice. He graced her with one of his rare warm smiles as he leaned forward to accept her offered hug.
"’Bout time you showed up," he murmured dryly.
She laughed and gave his ribs a squeeze. "Me? It’s about time you showed up! Merry Christmas, Logan."
"Yeah… you too, kid." Ducking his head slightly, Logan pulled away. He glanced at Scott, and Rogue knew that words unspoken passed between them, because Scott folded his arms with a rather cocky grin. Logan snorted faintly in response and turned back to Rogue, shrugging his powerful shoulders.
"So are we playing hockey, or what?"
"Only if I get to be on your team," Rogue answered with a smile.
Logan grinned fiercely. "Throw in the Iceman, and we got a deal."
With a blanket across his lap and a cup of cocoa in his mittened hands, Charles Xavier sat in the morning sun and watched a rip-roaring hockey game on the ice. Logan’s team was far and away in the lead—much to the chagrin of Scott, the captain of an opposing team that was on the verge of mutinying against him by conceding the game. Relishing the impending victory, Logan looked genuinely happy for once, smiling and sometimes even laughing with uncharacteristic ease.
To Charles, the game was an interesting study in leadership. Where Scott had discipline and a tactical mind, Logan had charisma and unpredictability. For all the friction between them, it was a contrast the Professor appreciated, because he was grateful to know that both of their qualities were on his team.
A mixed cheer and groan went up as Logan scored one more goal, and Scott’s team finally surrendered for good. The players scattered across the ice, the victors and vanquished alike congratulating each other for a game well played.
Laughing and breathless, Jean—who, naturally, had played on Scott’s team—skated to the edge of the ice where Charles sat. "That was more exercise than I get in ten danger room workouts."
"You played very well," Charles replied. "By the way, remind me to buy Logan his own pair of ice skates, as a belated Christmas present. That old pair isn’t going to survive such hard play for very long."
Jean shrugged. "They did the job today. Anyway, if Logan could wear one of Scott’s uniforms, I knew he could wear his old skates." She grinned mischievously. "Think we should tell him?"
"That he beat Scott in a pair of Scott’s own skates?" Charles smiled. "I think that would be unnecessarily cruel to your fiancé."
"Hey, it was his idea."
Charles chuckled, but his thoughts turned pensive as his gaze wandered back to the students on the ice. Kitty was showing off the twizzles and mohawks learned in past skating lessons, while Bobby and Tommy were kicking around a pinecone in a rather dangerous game of frozen football. He watched them all without really seeing them, his mind elsewhere for a moment.
Jean smiled sympathetically at her mentor. "She’ll be here, Professor."
Turning, Charles grinned crookedly at her. "I really should remember to be more careful with my thoughts around you. I’m discovering how difficult that is to get used to."
"I didn’t have to read your mind," Jean replied warmly, and tossed him a wink before she skated across the ice to join Scott. From the looks of things, he was fixing to challenge Logan to a rematch.
It was going to be a very long afternoon.
Some distance across the snowy grounds, Ororo heard only faintly the sounds of another ice war brewing. She was not far from the front gates of the school, walking with Kurt; or rather, walking behind him, as the agile teleporter bounded happily through the snow ahead of her. Their visit to church the evening before had left him in a state of inexhaustible good cheer, and even the earlier hockey game had not succeeded in tiring him.
"Hey, slow down!" Ororo laughed, jogging forward to catch up with him. Kurt did not reply, but bounced over the top of a snow-covered hillock… and did not reappear.
"Kurt?" Ororo called in puzzlement, climbing over the top of the mound—only to find him sprawled on his back in the snowdrift beyond, vigorously flapping his limbs in an effort to form a snow angel. The resulting shape was very oddly proportioned, due to the scythe-like sweeps of his long tail, and the sight caused her to burst out laughing.
Kurt responded with a sly smile.
Suddenly his tail flicked out like a whip, coiling around her ankle and pulling her off balance. Ororo let out a small shriek of surprise as she tumbled into the snow beside him—but Kurt was there to catch her.
He did, and he put his arms around her, drawing her close. His gentle yellow eyes gazed into hers.
"I like this," he murmured comfortably.
Ororo blushed and smiled. "You’re going to ruin your snow angel."
"I don’t need it," Kurt replied softly, stroking her cheek. "I have a real angel here with me now."
A small shiver slipped down Ororo’s spine, and it was not a bad feeling at all. She closed her eyes with a contented sigh, resting her head on Kurt’s shoulder, and for a moment simply enjoyed the quiet pleasure of laying beside him in the snow on a beautiful winter’s day.
"Oh… good morning…"
Both mutants sat up with a start, turning toward the source of the awkward greeting. Helen stood on top of the snow mound, apparently having stumbled across the pair while following the clamor from the ice rink across the grounds. She was not alone, either: standing beside her were a couple whom Ororo had not met, but could only assume were Allison and Roger Hale.
Neither appeared to notice Ororo at all. They were far too busy staring at Kurt—Roger with open wonder, and Allison with nervous incredulity. Yet to her credit, despite what Ororo had heard about her, the woman did not run screaming from what must have looked to her like a Smurf from hell.
Maybe there was hope for her, after, all.
As for Kurt, he did not object to their staring, but gazed shyly back at them. "Froh Weihnachten," he said in a small voice.
Roger’s eyebrows arched in an expression of pleased fascination, and to Ororo’s surprise, he responded in kind. "Gleichfalls!" Then, with an almost childlike unabashedness that was somehow quite charming, he murmured in an aside to Helen, "This is amazing."
Helen cleared her throat, giving the mutants a somewhat embarrassed smile. "Ororo, Kurt… I’d like you to meet my daughter and son-in-law, Allison and Roger."
Having discovered an unfrightened new friend, Kurt extended his three-fingered hand, which Roger shook without hesitation. Allison edged closer, and although she flinched slightly as the blue mutant turned his amber gaze upon her, she held out her own hand. He took her trembling fingers very gently in his own, and gave a slight bow, causing her to smile hesitantly. The couple then exchanged handshakes with Ororo, who smiled reassuringly at them both.
"The Professor will be happy to see you," she said to Helen, then glanced at the Hales and added, "All of you."
Allison smiled weakly, prying her uneasy gaze away from Kurt. "I’m trying, at least."
"There is nothing to be afraid of here," Kurt answered softly.
Putting his arm around Allison’s shoulders, Roger smiled. "We know that. All of this is just…" He paused and chuckled. "Like I said—amazing."
"The skating party is still in full swing," Ororo informed them. "The Professor is there. Come this way."
As Charles had anticipated, a testosterone-laden exchange of words between Scott and Logan resulted in a hockey rematch. The battle lines were reforming, with a few defections to the opposition on both sides—including Jean, who went over to Logan’s team, much to Scott’s horror and Charles’ amusement.
As the teams shuffled into position, the Professor’s gaze was drawn away from the ice by the sense of a familiar presence. Smiling gladly, he turned to see Ororo and Kurt approaching him, with Helen and the Hales in tow.
"Merry Christmas," Charles said warmly, when they were close enough to hear him.
Helen smiled. "Merry Christmas, Charles," she replied, putting her arm around Allison, who gave her a brief glance full of subdued but very real appreciation. The younger woman’s hand was clutched in Roger’s, but he was proving himself the sportsman Charles had guessed him to be, and his attention was riveted to the ice as the game proceeded. Giving Allison a reassuring grin, he released her hand and sauntered to the edge of the rink to watch.
"I’ll bring out some more hot chocolate," Ororo volunteered tactfully, and turned to head for the mansion. Kurt lingered briefly, his rather nostalgic gaze resting upon their guests, but he hurried after Ororo when she prompted him with a tug on his tail.
Allison herself was gazing wistfully at the students and teachers gliding across the ice. Her hands clasped over her abdomen, her cheeks coloring slightly as she turned a hesitant glance to Charles. "They all look… so happy."
"Many of them have had far less good in their lives than your child has to look forward to," Charles replied softly. "For some, the greatest gift is simply to be alive."
A tear slipped down Allison’s cheek, and she brushed it away, returning her attention to the hockey game as a means of avoiding Charles’ or her mother’s gaze. "I wish Kenny could have been here."
"He’ll always be with us," Helen answered gently.
"And I will be here for you," Charles added. "I want to help you with anything you may need, Allison."
The once-and-future mother sniffled and turned to face Charles, smiling ruefully. "Just time… for now."
Two hockey games later, the residents of Xavier’s School trooped back inside—collectively nursing a few bruises, but otherwise in good spirits. There was a minor incident when Tommy was caught cheating with his telekinesis, but otherwise the games were fairly played, with Logan’s team besting Scott’s by two out of three. A few of the victors insisted that the opposition was only "allowed" their sole win, and this became a subject of good-natured but heated debate as the students shed their cold-weather gear.
Roger had eagerly joined Logan’s team for the final game, borrowing a pair of ice skates to substitute for a worn-out Jubilee. He played well, although watching him on the ice had caused his wife and mother-in-law a great deal of amusement. As the group went inside, he rambled cheerfully to Allison about the highlights of the game, and she listened with demure attentiveness.
Following the couple with Helen at his side, Charles felt a great sense of quiet accomplishment. Allison was beginning to make peace with her fears—even if she had not yet realized it—and she had rediscovered the love of her husband and mother in the process. Restored as a family, they could face whatever the future might hold for Allison’s unborn child; Charles was certain of that.
As they neared the Christmas tree, Helen fell out of pace with Charles’ wheelchair, but a moment later she called his name as she caught up with him. Turning, he watched her advance toward him with hands behind her back. He considered a quick peek into her thoughts, but decided not to spoil the surprise.
"I wanted to thank you for what you’ve done for Allison… for all of us."
"The deed itself was far more than its own reward," Charles replied with a smile.
"Maybe," Helen grinned, bending down beside him. "But I thought a little something more was in order." With that, she held up the sprig of mistletoe which she had plucked from the staircase banister.
Charles uttered a low chuckle. "Very busy little weed, that."
"I don’t doubt it," Helen replied mischievously, and leaned in for a firm kiss—which Charles returned.
Lurking unobserved in the hall, Logan smirked and turned away, setting out to look for Jubilee.
I won the bet fair and square this time, Firecracker…
Logan was sidetracked in his search for Jubilee by the tantalizing odors wafting from the kitchen. Having worked up a considerable appetite during the hockey games, he meandered that way, only to find his fellow teachers busy preparing Christmas dinner. While Ororo and Kurt were fussing over the vegetarian dishes, Jean and Scott were practically wrestling with an enormous turkey, the former holding it steady as the latter struggled to saw into it with a large carving knife.
Ever helpful in his own perverse way, Logan stepped forward. "Move over," he said peremptorily to Scott. Unleashing one claw with a sharp snikt, he made a single neat swipe at the bird, and a serving-sized chunk of meat flopped into the plate beside the serving platter, bones and all.
Unexpectedly, the Professor’s voice spoke up behind him. "Logan, you will please refrain from doing that at the dinner table. Remember that one of our guests is an expectant mother, and should not be alarmed."
One eyebrow arching, Logan turned, sheathing the claw even as he gave the Professor a salute of sarcastic acknowledgment. "Sure thing, Smoochy."
The Professor did not move, and his expression did not change, but Logan winced as he felt a sudden, brief stab of pain in his head. He glared at the telepath, but before he could voice a protest, Ororo looked up from her green bean casserole and interceded.
"Logan, would you mind helping Kurt with the cookies?"
Not sure whether he should like the sound of that or not, Logan stared at the weather witch. She smiled and nodded toward Kurt, who was thoughtfully arranging Jean’s sugar cookies on a tray amidst sprigs of holly and pine. For a food item, and especially one which the kids would demolish in a matter of minutes, it was a display of aesthetics that Logan found absurd.
"You know that ‘domestic diva’ woman went to prison, don’t you?" he rumbled, stalking past Ororo on the way to Kurt and the cookies.
Undeterred, Logan glanced back at Xavier. "I thought your girlfriend likes to do this Keebler Elf crud. Why isn’t she helping out around here?"
The Professor refused to rise to the baiting. "In point of fact, Helen will be hosting us at Old Willows Place on New Year’s Eve, and I didn’t want her to trouble herself for Christmas as well. Besides, she has provided the eggnog for today’s festivities."
Logan’s head came up sharply. "Eggnog?"
"It’s non-alcoholic, Logan," Jean informed him with a roll of her eyes.
The Wolverine simply let out a defeated sigh.
In contrast to the hockey battles and kitchen sniping, Christmas dinner proved to be a relatively peaceful affair. The small tables in the dining room had been pushed together to form a single long table, dressed in a scarlet tablecloth and tall candles, beautifully appointed with the Professor’s finest bone china. Here the residents of Xavier’s School gathered, joined by their three human guests; Helen sat at Charles’ left hand, with Allison and Roger beside her.
Throughout dinner, Charles paused often to smile to himself as he surveyed his students and friends.
Kurt said grace in German before the meal. Jean and Scott sat together, both slipping scraps of turkey to Puck under the table—each unbeknownst to the other. Logan lurked at the far end of the table and behaved himself, every now and then exchanging a few words with Rogue and Bobby. Jubilee made faces at Ororo’s casserole, but smiled saccharinely each time Ororo looked in her direction. Allison and Helen settled deep into conversation, mending the old wounds between them, while Roger observed the two women he loved with quiet happiness.
These were the moments that made all of Charles’ dreams and efforts worthwhile.
When dinner was drawing to a close, and just as thoughts began to turn toward dessert, Charles called the gathering to attention by chiming his fork against his glass. As all eyes turned to him, he looked around at the diverse, expectant faces ringing the table, and smiled in quiet affection.
"I propose a toast," he said clearly, raising his glass, "to friends."
"To family!" Helen suggested with a smile, glancing from Allison to Charles.
Allison met Roger’s tender gaze with a blush, then turned to Charles and added softly, "To the future."
"Hear, hear," Scott said firmly, raising his glass, and a cheer of agreement mingled with the chime of glasses from one end of the table to the other.
© 2004 Jordanna Morgan -send feedback