Title: The Giving Season (part 1 of 4)
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Rating/Warnings: Extremely mild PG, due to parenthood topics.
Characters: Ensemble, including a return appearance by my OC, Helen Conover.
Setting: Direct sequel to my story "A Haunting in Westchester".
Summary: In a houseful of mutants, some Christmas wishes don't come true easily.
Disclaimer: Marvel and Fox own the characters that sell. Except for Puck, all original characters are mine.
Credit: Puck originated in the story "Curiosity and the X-Cat", by Mara Greengrass. Thanks for letting me play with him, Mara!
Notes: After posting my Halloween fic "A Haunting in Westchester", I was asked about writing a holiday story. With several other stories on my plate, I wasn't planning to do one this year—but the mutants had other ideas. I submit this as a gift to my regular reader-reviewers. Happy New Year to all!
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.