Title: The Giving Season (part 2 of 4)
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Disclaimers, etc. located in Part I
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 fiancÃ© 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.
"Herein," 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."
"Yes. Einen 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.