“Away in a manger. No crib for a bed. The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.”
Raven frowned and got up from the sofa, following the serious little voice.
“The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay. The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”
“Kurt?” she said.
“The cattle are – yes, Mama?”
He was in the dining room. Raven popped her head through the door and saw her little boy standing at the head of the table, his Christmas carol book in hand and his teddies lined up to face him. “What’re you doing, kiddo?” she asked.
“I’m being a vicar,” he said, his brilliant smile lighting up his face. “Would you like to come to my service?”
“Uhhh, OK. Where did you learn about this?”
“We had a vicar read us a story about Jesus in school yesterday. Jesus didn’t have a bed! His mummy put him in the hay, wouldn’t that be scratchy?”
“I imagine it would,” she said, smiling fondly at him and lifting one of the teddies up to hold it on her lap when she sat down. Playing preachers… this was a new one, even for Kurt. This is what happens when your local school is Church of England, it seems.
Kurt turned the page in his carol book and held it out in front of him, clearing his throat. “Once in Royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed.”
Raven pressed her lips together and tried not to laugh hysterically.
Irene had to hold herself up on the kitchen counter she was laughing so hard. “It’s totally not funny,” Raven grinned. “How have we raised such a devout little Christian? Us!”
“Aww, sweetie,” Irene said, pulling herself together at last. “How will your atheist heart cope?”
“Wine, probably,” she said. Irene snorted and giggled again. Raven took her hand and placed a wet plate into it for her to dry, then turned back to the sink. “Seriously, though, I’m not… properly atheist. I do like Christmas. I think.”
“Ooh, high praise, Mrs Xavier,” Irene grinned, and reached up for the crockery cabinet. “It doesn’t matter what you think about Christmas, as long as you accept the children are going to be mad for it.”
“Is that so?” Raven teased.
“It is very so,” Irene said, raising her eyebrows. “Literally. Every single possible future. Both kids. Covered in glitter.”
“Ugh,” Raven shuddered and flickered her scales. “Why does it have to be glitter?”
“Mm, well, you can always appeal to their eco-warrior side by telling them how harmful it is to the environment. Though I can guarantee Anne-Marie’s already learned about biodegradable glitter. Might as well just embrace it.”
“Embrace it, huh?” Raven said, and Irene shrieked as Raven wrapped her arms around her waist, kissing her neck and squeezing her close with her hands still covered in dishwashing suds.
“Ugh, you’re such a git!” Irene squeaked, giggling as Raven nibbled her shoulder. “Oh, no you don’t… Anne-Marie’s coming into the kitchen in less than two minutes, I do not want a damp handprint on my breasts for our teenage daughter to see!”
“You’re no fun,” Raven pouted, but kept her hands around Irene’s waist, snuggling in closer. Irene smirked and squeezed Raven’s arms, leaning back into her.
“I do like Christmas,” she said quietly. “Really. I just… I don’t like the whole… religious aspect.”
Irene laughed. “Hate to break it to you, but that’s kind of the point of it.”
Raven sighed. Irene stroked the backs of her hands, going quiet for a moment, then “Ah,” she said softly.
Irene smiled. “You’re going to tell me why you like Christmas. Or what you like about it. It’s very sweet, darling.”
Raven grinned and kissed her cheek. “I am pretty sweet,” she said.
She heard footsteps and turned her head to watch Anne-Marie come in and smile at them in a tentatively long-suffering way. “You guys are a little bit gross, you know?” she said. Her eyes flickered away and back to them, as if she was worried that even now, after almost a whole year of living with them, that they’d reject her for some banter.
Raven wasn’t having that. She crossed the room lightning fast and grabbed Anne-Marie around the waist, blowing raspberries on her cheek until she felt light-headed and Anne-Marie’s skin was flickering blue while she shrieked and giggled and pushed her away. “You love it,” Raven grinned.
Anne-Marie shook her head, still laughing, and shape-shifted into Raven. Raven slumped onto a chair and fanned herself like she’d just run a marathon. “You shouldn’t do that, it makes you so tired,” Anne-Marie said.
“Worth it to make you giggle like that,” Raven said, and squeezed Anne-Marie’s gloved hand. Anne-Marie squeezed back and smiled at her, turning back into herself slowly as Raven’s power transfer ended.
“What are you doing?” Kurt asked, appearing in a puff of blue smoke and porting straight into Irene’s outstretched arms. “Are we playing a game? I heard Anne-Marie laughing. Can I play?”
“We’re playing tickle Kurt!” Irene said, and dug her fingers into his ribs, making him squeal and squirm, his tail whipping around wildly and his eyes scrunched tight.
Raven watched her family and felt her heart burn like a furnace, flooding warmth through every inch of her.
Irene sighed and rolled over in bed to nudge her nose against Raven’s temple. “You can’t sleep, huh?”
“Is it now? When I tell you?” she asked, swallowing.
“Yeah,” Irene said gently, linking their hands together.
Raven stared out of the window and thought back to a cold childhood with only one bright spot. “I like Christmas how they do it here,” she said to the stars. “I like the… the haphazardness of it. How everyone squeezes around the table and uses mismatched chairs. How the grandpa always falls asleep after a massive dinner and the kids see how many cracker crowns they can stack on his head. Everyone trudging off to visit relatives, and having one Christmas dinner with the parents and another with the in-laws, how everyone eats so much and looks forward to the turkey sandwiches the day after even more than the roast itself. I like… the humour and the warmth and the ‘it’s all going to be a bit naff but we’ll have fun anyway’ of it.”
Irene put her head on Raven’s shoulder and her arm over her waist, pressing a kiss to Raven’s collarbone. “Why do you like those bits?” she asked. She had that tone Raven recognised, that ‘I know the answer, but you need to know it as well’ patience.
“Where I grew up it was all about perfection. It was cold and boring and Charles and I had to be the perfect children, god forbid we show how unhappy we were. But… when we were able to sneak away from the formal dinners Sharon insisted on hosting even when she was pissed off her face, Charles and I… we’d steal some baubles and tinsel and dress each other up as Christmas trees. We’d play mutant charades in his bedroom until midnight – I’d mimic actors, Charles would project quotes to me telepathically. Then we’d sneak down to the kitchen and eat cold leftovers sitting on the kitchen counter, just kicking our heels in the moonlight. I just… that’s what I think of when I think of Christmas. That’s what Christmas means. To me, anyway.”
Irene reached up and brushed her fingertips along her cheekbones, picking up teardrops Raven hadn’t even noticed she’d shed. “So to you, Christmas means family.”
“God no,” Raven snorted. “Most of my family was awful, I wanted to forget they existed.”
“No, I mean your real family. Just Charles.”
Raven’s lower lip wobbled embarrassingly. “Yeah,” she said, pushing the sound out around the lump in her throat.
“And now, us?”
Raven nodded vigorously. “Definitely. You guys, you’re the most important thing in the world to me. And I don’t…” she sniffed, her eyes prickling so hard suddenly. “I don’t know how to make that work. That secretive, sneaking around, those precious stolen Christmases. I don’t know how to give anything of that to you guys, to… to show you what you mean to me.”
Irene leaned up and over Raven, wrapping both arms tight around her and holding her as she cried silently into her hair. “Shhh, shhh, my darling. We know. We know.”
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it! No, let me open it! Anne-Marie, let me!”
“Raven told me to do it – no! Kurt! Come back here right now!”
Raven sighed and tightened the nut again, leaving her tools on the floor to come back to. “Kids!” she yelled. “Quit it!”
There was the distinctive crack of teleportation, and Azazel stood in front of her on the stairs, holding a wriggling Kurt under one arm. “I think you have lost something,” he said, one eyebrow raised.
Raven smirked and put her hands on her hips. “Looks like it, huh? Why did you two even ring the doorbell?”
“Janos insists on manners,” Azazel said with a shrug. “But then this little one appears in front of us, and there is much commotion from inside, so I decide to bring us in.”
Raven pursed her lips at Kurt. “What have we said about staying inside the house?”
“That I should?” he said, looking up at her with big eyes and pouty lips.
“Hmm, so why did you bamf outside just now, then?”
“I just really wanted to see them! And I knew it was them and they’re taking me to mass and I’m so excited!”
“You need to listen to Mama, Kroshka, this is to keep you safe,” Azazel said, lifting Kurt up to look at him seriously.
Kurt pouted and reached for Azazel. “OK,” he said, drawing out the last syllable reluctantly.
Raven smiled as Kurt flung his arms around Azazel, then bamfed away, leaving Azazel with empty arms. “Annoying, isn’t it?” She smirked.
Azazel just grinned and hugged her. “Merry Christmas, Raven,” he said, and teleported himself out of her arms. Raven sighed and rolled her eyes, and walked down the regular way.
Irene and Anne-Marie were wrestling Kurt into a thick puffa jacket. Irene stood up halfway through trying to convince Kurt to wear his boots, put one hand out, and caught Kurt as he teleported away. “Nice try, buddy,” she said calmly, tucking him under her arm. “Anne-Marie, dear, could you get his shoes on now please?”
Raven shook her head at her family and shifted into Warren, Kurt’s little friend from school, so she could squeeze past the scrimmage into the kitchen to wash her hands. “What time are you guys getting back?” she called.
“We should be home by eight this evening,” Azazel called.
Raven leaned over to catch Janos’ eye and signed, “Kurt was pretending to be a vicar the other day. I blame you.”
Janos frowned. “You can’t blame me, I’m Catholic. Vicars are C of E. Why was he being a vicar?” He turned to Kurt. “Why were you being a vicar?”
Raven snickered to herself and repeated Janos’ words aloud for Irene. Irene laughed. “Don’t take it too hard, Janos, he’ll be a Priest after Mass tonight, I’m sure.”
Raven translated Irene’s words into sign for Janos, just in case he misread her lips. Janos’ eyes crinkled up in amusement. “My work here is done,” he signed smugly.
“Are you coming today, Anne-Marie?” Azazel asked.
She looked up, her eyes wide in surprise. “Oh, I thought…” She turned to Raven and Irene.
“You’re welcome to go if you like, love,” Raven said.
“It is not invitation for Kurt because he is my son,” Azazel said. “You are family too.”
“Oh,” said Anne-Marie softly. “Oh… then yes please. If… am I OK wearing this?”
“That’s just fine,” Janos smiled. “Get your coat, and we’ll go to the church.”
“Have fun,” said Irene. Raven put her arm over her shoulder and leaned her chin on her, watching the boys and Anne-Marie wrangle Kurt out of the door. Irene sighed and leaned against Raven. “Right,” she said. “Kids are gone. Get naked.”
Raven laughed and kissed her cheek. “Have we finished wrapping the presents for the kids for tomorrow? Has the turkey defrosted? Is there enough butter? Are we going to peel the potatoes now ready for tomorrow?”
Irene groaned. “You’re no fun.”
Raven stuck her tongue out and checked in the fridge. “What do we need to do with your mom’s marinade? And the cake?”
“Has the cake had more brandy today?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Give it another feed, then.” Irene said, glancing towards the door and checking her watch with her fingers as she sat down. “If it’s not making a room drunk off the fumes, it’s not a real Adler Christmas cake.”
Raven grinned back at her and reached for the bottle of brandy. “So I was thinking about our chat the other night,” she said. “I don’t want to let Kurt stay up late enough for a midnight feast but… do you think we could make a late dinner a bit of a family tradition? You know, maybe on Boxing Day, with the leftovers and everything. All wearing our dressing gowns and eating in the kitchen rather than sitting nicely at the table.”
Irene smiled and sat forward, leaning her chin on her hand. “I think that sounds like a wonderful idea,” she said.
The doorbell rang, and Irene didn’t move. She looked awfully smug about something and Raven narrowed her eyes at her. “You gonna get that?”
“No,” Irene said. “You are.”
Raven rolled her eyes. “Don’t think I believe in your precog thing all the time,” she said, but she put the lid back on the bottle and went to the door. She couldn’t help a little thrill of excitement - Irene clearly had something in mind, maybe a last minute Christmas present.
Although it could also just be a group of elderly carol singers and she was just smug about the fact that she didn’t have to stand with a fake smile on her face and scramble about for some change for the charity bucket.
She opened the door and stared at Charles.
“Hello, Raven,” he said.
“Oh my god,” she said, her hand over her mouth. “Oh my god. Charles! But you said you couldn’t… and you were in… and…” She trailed off and fell into his arms, hugging him tight. Charles chuckled and squeezed her back, and she gave up trying to lean over and just crawled into his lap right there on the doorstep.
“Oof,” he grunted. “Shift into someone smaller, would you?”
She smacked him up the back of the head and squeezed him tight again. “What are you doing here?” She pulled back and looked at him in sudden horror. “Is everyone alright? Is Edie—“
“Everyone’s fine. Erik’s staying in Düsseldorf with Edie, but only because they’ve got plans to visit her brother in a couple of days, and he hasn’t seen Erik in years. They’re both fantastic.”
Raven slumped back against him. “Then how come—“
“Well, you came over for my first Rosh Hashanah as a proper Jew, it’s only right that I should come over for Anne-Marie’s first Christmas as an Xavier!”
“Irene told you, huh?”
“It’s OK,” Irene laughed from behind Raven. “Yes, I told him you missed him. The betrayal! Now, are you going to let your brother in or are you camping out there for the rest of Christmas? I just want to know whether or not to close the door on you, you’re letting all the warm air out.”
Raven wriggled off Charles’ lap and kissed Irene’s cheek, putting her cold hands up Irene’s shirt to get her revenge. Irene shrieked and pushed her away. “Ugh! You have no circulation at all! Coffee, Charles?”
“Tea, please, if you don’t mind? I haven’t had proper English tea in too long.”
Irene flashed a grin back at him and led the way into the kitchen, her skirt swishing and her fingertips brushing along the wall. Charles looked up at Raven as she took his coat and scarf. “It really is so good to see you, Raven,” he said.
She smiled. “Yeah, it’s good to see you too. But you really didn’t have to come all this way. Whatever Irene said, she was exaggerating!”
He cocked his head on one side and his eyes softened. “She said if I didn’t come it wouldn’t cause anything bad. But… I’d miss watching some of the only good things of our past being given to my niece and nephew.”
Raven’s eyes prickled and she looked down at the soft cashmere in her hands. Charles rolled closer and squeezed her wrist. When she met his eyes, he was looking at her with the same weight of history.
Raven grinned and squeezed Anne-Marie and Irene’s hands. “Don’t wake the reindeer, now,” she whispered. Anne-Marie snorted, and put her hand over her mouth when Kurt shushed her crossly. Irene sniggered and turned it into a soft cough.
Charles led the way, wheeling through the dark house out of the spare room and into the kitchen. “Now, what shall we have for our midnight feast?” He asked.
“Turkey sandwiches,” suggested Irene.
Raven snorted. “Sandwiches! We don’t make sandwiches on a midnight feast. Turkey leftovers and chunks of bread are the best you’re going to get.”
“Fine, then, but you’ll have to steal the butter.”
“Is there any cheese left?” Anne-Marie asked.
“Stuffing balls!” Kurt squeaked from over by the fridge. The others hushed him, giggling. “Sorry,” he whispered.
“Don’t forget,” said Charles. “Santa and the reindeer are all very tired, you don’t want to wake them up, do you?”
Raven found a box of Quality Street and dumped them on Charles’ lap, followed by a box of turkey trimmings and the leftover cheese board. Irene found the crackers, Anne-Marie got a bowl of roast potatoes, and Kurt managed to reach his beloved stuffing balls. “OK, everyone ready?” Raven said.
“If you expect me to carry all this stuff you’re going to have to push me,” Charles whispered, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh, well in that case,” she shrugged, and balanced the cake tin on top of the Quality Streets. Charles rolled his eyes and caught the cheeseboard before it slipped off his knee.
Kurt led the way this time, turning back to beckon them through the dark corridors until they got to Charles’ bedroom. He jumped onto the bed and bounced up and down. “Can we talk now? Can we?” he asked in a strained whisper.
Raven laughed and turned the light on, jumping up next to him. “Yes, you can talk! Excellent raid, everyone, let’s see what we got!”
Charles handed the food up to her and transferred himself onto the bed, arranging his legs into a loose cross next to Anne-Marie. “Pass the turkey and crackers, would you?”
“We haven’t got any knives,” said Anne-Marie with a little frown.
“Can’t let that stop you on a Boxing Day raid,” said Charles with a wink to Raven. He picked out a piece of turkey breast and a cracker, and bit a mouthful off each in turn.
Kurt’s eyes widened and he shrieked in delight, grabbing a chunk of cheddar cheese and a stuffing ball and shoving both into his mouth at once.
“Oh God, Kurt, don’t make yourself sick,” Raven laughed at his bulging cheeks.
Irene sat back and broke a piece of Christmas cake off, popping it into her mouth and scattering crumbs down her front. “I’m sorted for dinner with this and the Quality Streets,” she said.
“Save the orange cremes for me, please,” Anne-Marie said around a mouthful of turkey and Stilton.
“Ugh, you’re welcome to those,” Irene laughed.
Raven looked around at her family, passing Tupperwares and cutting boards around, mixing weird combinations of leftover food together and laughing at each other. They’d played mutant charades on Christmas Day, with Kurt teleporting around the room to imitate different characters, and Irene just pointing to the person most likely to guess correctly. Anne-Marie couldn’t find a way to use her mutation to help, but turned out to be a brilliant actress anyway.
Charles glanced up and caught her eye, smiling at her. She knew, though he wouldn’t read her mind, that he had the same train of thought. Two neglected children, creeping through a dark house to steal leftover Christmas dinner, giggling and hushing each other, but through all their humour, knowing that if they actually did wake anyone up, they wouldn’t be dealing with an imaginary philanthropist and his reindeer, but a pair of ogres.
But look what they’d become. Raven slipped her hand into Irene’s and leaned her head on her wife’s shoulder. Now there were two children sneaking around dark corridors and giggling, but with no threat hanging over their heads. All the fun and mild rebellion of eating food in bed with your fingers, but none of the horrible consequences.
They’d made it out of that cold life, both her and Charles. He’d escaped to a little house in Germany, a mutant school and a man who adored him. A ready-made family that actually behaved how family was meant to, with unconditional love and support. A whole new faith, too. He’d brought a menorah with him to England for the couple of days he was staying, saying the prayers softly and with all the dedication Charles poured into every aspect of his life, letting the children take turns to light the candles. She knew he’d be glad to get back home tomorrow, spend the last few days of Hanukkah with his family.
She looked around at her family, and the escape and salvation. At Irene turning her head for the kiss she knew was coming, Kurt earnestly explaining to Charles why it was very important that he have packed lunch on Tuesdays only, and Anne-Marie nibbling on a chocolate and watching everyone with careful, patient eyes.
For the first time since she was a child, Christmas felt real again.