Title: The Giving Season (part 3 of 4)
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Disclaimers, etc. located in Part I
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 faÃ§ade 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.