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Chapter 17: Celebrations
Lex
palladian23 wrote in superwebnovel
Author's Notes: Warnings for this chapter - Bad language! I know I talked about posting this a couple months ago, so take a look at my icon, a smaller version of the character study my fabulous artist Snowzapped created for Lex. If you want to see a full-sized version of this picture (and trust me, you do - it's awesome!), you can find it at the Super page on FB: https://www.facebook.com/SuperAWebNovel

As always, a good deal of thanks needs to go to my wonderful editor gwoman for her work on this chapter, and her support during the whole time I've been writing this story! : )


Back to Chapter 16

Over the next two weeks, Lex did a lot of prep work in the evenings for the upcoming party. She got a hot air popper and popped an immense amount of popcorn and sat at the kitchen island in the evenings, stringing it along with cranberries and usually managing to rope Casey or Riss (after Lex reminded her that using biodegradable decorations had been Riss' idea) into the project. They’d sit up talking and working for hours and making the entire place smell like popcorn.

Casey painted vivid pictures of Christmases at the farmhouse with her parents and brother and sister, describing the way they’d decorate the tree, go skating at the local pond, and get ideas about what to give each other by talking to each other's school friends. As for the day itself, Casey's mom and dad would come for the kids and bring them all down in front of the tree to open their presents. After that, they’d have breakfast, then spend the rest of the day visiting local relatives, opening more presents, playing with their cousins, and then all have a big dinner together. Lex listened to her stories avidly, laughing and smiling, almost able to picture herself there.

Her evenings working with Riss were quieter. Often they worked in complete silence with Riss taking an occasional break to look at something she’d been monitoring on her laptop. But one evening in particular Riss talked for a little while, managing to convey a world different than any Lex had known. Riss’ stories of holidays in the city sounded less lavish than Casey’s, but it seemed like she and her mother had worked hard to make them just as special, giving their whole apartment a thorough cleaning, carefully making gifts for one another, and decorating a potted tree year after year as it grew bigger. Riss didn't really remember any holidays with her father, who'd died in a construction accident around the time she turned two, but she seemed to enjoy her memories of spending time with her mother and playing with friends.

Lex listened silently, thinking that it sounded like a lot of fun. When Riss finished her story, Lex told her as much. Riss fell silent again for a few minutes, then turned to Lex and raised an eyebrow, obviously waiting for Lex’s stories. Sighing, Lex let her gaze drift to the floor, memories of the unbearably tense holidays she’d experienced running through her mind. She looked across the kitchen island at Riss a moment later and saw understanding in the other woman’s eye. Lex cleared her throat, and then began tentatively.

“I do remember going sledding one year when we got out of school. For some reason, the snow came early, and we all went to a nearby park with a big hill. We snuck the dogs out with us, and my brothers and sisters and I spent the whole afternoon sledding with the other kids. It just about drove the dogs crazy, but all the other kids liked the dogs too, so we had a really good time.”

Riss nodded, continuing to work on the popcorn string. “Sounds like fun,” she replied. After a few minutes of silence, she turned to look at Lex again. “You know, you can tell me what it was really like, if you want to.”

Lex looked up from her popcorn string uncertainly. “You probably don't want to hear about that. I don't have many good stories about those times.”

“If you want to tell me, I'd be glad to listen.”

Hesitating again, Lex looked up to find Riss' cool, calm gaze on her. “OK, but you told your story in five minutes or less, so that's what I'll do.”

Riss nodded, and Lex quickly painted a picture of the holidays in the house where she grew up. Sometimes her parents gave fine presents, but for the children of the house, the whole time had always been spent as if walking on a field full of landmines. Lex's mother seemed to use the time off as an excuse for numerous screaming and fighting matches, which her father compensated for by giving Lex “extra training” later on. As she stopped speaking, Lex looked up at Riss again, feeling her stomach crawl uncomfortably. Riss watched Lex closely, still listening intently.

“That’s enough of that, I think,” Lex concluded, her voice jumping with nervousness.

“Sorry to hear that's how it was,” Riss replied softly, a thread of concern clear in her tone.

Lex nodded and looked down again, re-starting work on her popcorn chain, and feeling a little more relaxed now that she’d shared her own stories, and smiled as she continued.

Some time later, Lex found herself having trouble concentrating as she worked with Mr. Chen the day before the party. She continually lost focus and had to repeat the forms many times to do them correctly or had to ask Mr. Chen to repeat his instruction because she couldn't pick things up as easily as she usually did. Finally, Mr. Chen called for her to sit across from him on the wooden floor of the martial arts gym.

“So,” he began, trying to catch her eye, “are you worried about something?”

She’d been avoiding his look due to her nervousness at being caught, but she finally glanced at him and sighed.

“Well,” Lex explained, “I'm just afraid things won’t go well, you know what I mean?”

He laughed then. “Lex, I’ve worked here on and off for the past couple of years, and the whole time I’ve been here, I’ve never even heard of anyone planning a party of any kind. So, I think at the very least that you won’t suffer by comparison. To the contrary, I think you should already feel it’s been a success since I hear you’ve gotten most of your team members to help you.”

Lex smiled softly. “Do you really think so?”

Mr. Chen fixed her with his eyes again. “I do. I also think after we sit for a few moments more, we should do an hour of Tai Chi, and then you should take the rest of the day off and spend some time in the hot tub. One of the reasons you're not moving the way you're used to today is that it looks like all your muscles are very tense.”

“Won't I fall behind?” Lex asked, some concern showing in her voice.

“Your progress has been good enough that we're much ahead of where I thought we'd be,” Mr. Chen admitted. “Taking the rest of the day off won't change that.”

“Besides,” he added after a few minutes of moving through an introductory Tai Chi form, limbs moving in concert with Lex’s in the mirror, “caring for the people who are important to you should always take priority. You need to relax today because I know you're not going to tomorrow.”

“All right, all right,” she said, smiling at his reflection in the mirror as she followed his careful movements.

As he was leaving, Mr. Chen reminded Lex that he, Lily, and Lily's son would be arriving for the party tomorrow after dinnertime. She waved at him as he left and continued her stretches, and then moved to the hot tub after a short while.

The next day, Lex woke about as early as she usually did, but after a fast shower and laying out her dress clothes so she could quickly change later, she made her way downstairs, surprising herself by almost skipping. Maybe her conversation with Mr. Chen had helped, because Lex felt excited and happy that day. She rounded the corner into the kitchen, expecting to see Casey but surprised to see her friend surrounded by baking ingredients and already hard at work. Casey looked up and smiled when she spotted Lex.

“Hey, sleepyhead,” Casey said, smiling broadly.

“How long have you been at work?” Lex asked, looking at racks of already cooling cookies in amazement. “Everything smells so good!” She breathed deeply then, taking in more of the scent of spices and sweetness.

“Oh, a couple of hours.”

“A couple of hours!? Let me hurry up and decorate, and then I'll help you,” Lex replied, quickly moving to start some water for tea and to find something for breakfast.

“Don't worry about it. I got up extra early so that I knew I'd have plenty of time to make everything I planned,” Casey said, picking up a piece of paper with floury hands and waving it in Lex's general direction.

As she got closer to read it, Lex's eyes opened wide. “You're really going to make all of this? Today? I'd better get moving, then. I should be able to put everything up in a couple of hours, and then you can tell me how I can help you.”

Casey just smiled and nodded, continuing to mix ingredients in a large bowl. Lex ate quickly, looking around at everything in progress and realizing that the several ovens in the kitchen all looked to be already in use. When she’d finished, she put her dishes in the dishwasher along with a lot of cooking-related gear and started it up. Then she smiled at Casey as she made her way out of the kitchen.

“I'll be back as soon as I can.”

She started with a box of greens that she'd picked up earlier that week. Lex had not gotten many, aware that Riss would probably frown on the cut pine boughs, but she'd thought a few would be necessary, and she arranged them on the tables in the open room on the first floor, which brought a fresh fir smell to the air. To these she added some votive candles in blue and green holders.

A few days previously the tree had arrived, a fir a couple of feet tall in a big pot, and Lex had asked Casey to help her carry it inside when it came. She had been quite patient as Lex had determined the best place for the tree, finally putting it between the ends of the couches and the picture windows looking out over the water. She looked at the placement again, and after deciding that it still looked good, began decorating the tree.

Lex had gotten a few bags of small apples and oranges, and after a lot of experimentation had figured out a way to hang them using the type of colorful ribbon normally used to decorate gifts during that time of year. Working quickly, she tied cage-like arrangements of ribbon around the fruit and left a loop at the top, which she then hung over some of the sturdier tree limbs. For the more delicate limbs she hung them with candy canes, and then strung the tree with the popcorn/cranberry strings, finishing it with a few strings of tiny white lights.

She strung some more of the popcorn/cranberry strings around the walls of the room, and hung some streamers from one corner to another. Finally, she cleaned all of the leftover pieces up except some of the pine branches, which she pushed to the back of a table running the length of the back of a couch. Casey had told her that she'd need somewhere to put snacks, so that would be the place, Lex decided. Afterwards, Lex ran upstairs to get her gifts for everyone and then settled them underneath the tree. She stepped back to the entrance to the room to survey everything and then smiled at the effect. The room looked ready for a winter holiday rather than bland and empty, as it usually did. Satisfied, she turned and hurried back into the kitchen.

Finding an unused apron hanging near the ovens, Lex put it on and asked Casey, “What do you need me to do?”

Lex then got swept up in gathering ingredients, cutting, chopping, measuring, and hand mixing them under Casey's direction. Somehow Casey managed to keep track of multiple items in the oven, monitor several things in the process of being made, and carry on a complicated conversation with Lex all at the same time. The two of them had been discussing the finer points of baking a couple of hours later when Riss arrived. Lex stopped for a moment, surprised since she'd never seen Riss up and about that early in the day.

“Hey,” she greeted Riss with a smile. “I hope we didn't wake you.”

Riss gave her a tiny grin in return. “You two were making so much noise there was no chance I could keep sleeping.”

Casey snorted with laughter, her expression full of disbelief. “Sorry about that,” she replied, giving Riss a cheeky smirk.

Riss just nodded, trying to keep a straight face. “Looks like you two could use some help, though. What needs to be done?”

“There's a spare apron hanging over there, so put it on, pull up a stool, and let's get cracking,” said Casey. “We'll figure out something for you to do.”

As the three of them settled in around the kitchen island, Lex and Casey continued talking, with Riss adding an occasional comment or question. But after a little while, Riss sighed.

“It's too quiet. I'm used to listening to music all the time, except when Lex is working with me. I'll be back in a minute,” she said, slipping out of her apron and exiting the kitchen.

After a few minutes Riss returned with an Mp3 player hooked up to some computer speakers. Cool electronic music with a subtle and entrancing beat sounded out the moment she turned everything on. Riss smiled and sat back down to work as the other two listened for a moment before resuming what they'd been doing. After a little while, a song came on that Lex recognized from some of her evenings out with Casey and Serena, and she unconsciously began singing along as she chopped up some walnuts. After a few minutes, though, Lex recalled her location and her head snapped up to look at Riss and Casey. Lex could see the hint of a smile on her friend's face as Casey worked at kneading something on a floured board.

“Why did you stop?” Riss asked a second later. “You never told me you had such a good voice.”

“Well, I've been working on my singing lately,” Lex responded with some embarrassment, hoping Riss wasn't just joking.

“In that case, I'm going to change the settings to bring up more vocal music,” Riss replied, wiping off her hands on her apron before fiddling with the Mp3 player.

Lex felt too shy to sing the next song that came up, but the one following that was actually a favorite of hers. As she began to sing, Riss chimed in as well, singing harmony along with Lex.

“My mom did subject me to a few years in the church choir,” Riss admitted after Lex pierced her with a questioning stare.

Soon Casey joined in on a song, and then they all sang together, laughing and encouraging each other to take the lead on different parts of the songs. In the middle of singing one song together, Lex turned around after hearing a sound behind her.

Serena stood there, surveying the room with a good natured smirk. She wore a dark green dress that fell slightly longer and seemed looser than the clothes she usually wore, paired with black leather boots that came up under her knees with short, flat heels. A long red silk scarf tied around her waist completed the outfit, and she wore a long black leather trench coat and gloves as well. Her makeup looked subtle, and she'd pulled her hair up in a sophisticated style.

“I've never heard so much noise around here,” Serena said with a frown that threatened to break into laughter, shaking her head. “You people actually look like you're having a good time or something!”

They all laughed in return, even Riss breaking out a small chuckle.

“You look beautiful,” Lex said. “Are you heading out to your parent's house?”

“Yes,” Serena replied, with a sigh. “I wish I could stay for dinner here, though; it smells delicious. I'm sure it'll be a lot more fun, too. Anyway, I'll be back in a few hours.”

“All right,” Casey said with a nod. “Don't worry, there should still be plenty of food left when you get back.”

“That's exactly what I'm worried about! All right girls, don't sing the house down while I'm away,” Serena said with a wave, and disappeared.

Riss looked at Lex. “I don't know if I'll ever get used to her just vanishing like that,” she said with a shake of her head.

Lex smiled and kept working, continuing her singing along with the next song that played. After another hour or so, the three of them realized that they'd put the last dish into the oven. They just sat for a moment, then, exchanging grins until Casey stood up.

“I guess I should get to some of these dishes,” she said, heading for the sink.

“Let me clean out the dishwasher first,” Lex said. “It should be full of clean ones now.”

After finishing clean up and checking to see when everything would be ready, Lex realized she had about an hour before dinner would be done, so she ran upstairs to take a quick shower and get dressed. When she hurried back downstairs, her passage greeted by savory and spicy scents, she was wearing a long black skirt and a green sweater. She saw that Riss had changed into clean black jeans and a navy hooded sweatshirt. She and Riss joined Casey in taking things out of the oven and transferring food into serving dishes until finally everything had been set out. Lex and Riss looked at each other for a moment over the kitchen island, then Lex heard her own stomach growl and the two of them smiled.

“Are we waiting for anyone else, Casey?” Lex asked.

Casey shook her head. “No, it's just the three of us for dinner. Are you two ready to eat?”

With some relief, Lex nodded and sat down, noticing that Riss seemed almost as hungry as Lex. As she looked around the table, though, she wasn't quite sure where to start. Casey had roasted the two halves of a small pumpkin and then filled them, one with a rice pilaf cooked in broth with lots of vegetables, and the other with a sweet spiced couscous with pine nuts and cranberries. Also, they'd made mashed sweet potatoes, a faux roast with stuffing in the middle, a bowl of extra stuffing, and a fresh cranberry and orange sauce. Riss had cut up raw carrots and celery sticks, and they'd also made freshly baked rolls with a deep gold color and a heavenly smell. After taking a little of everything, Lex sat back down and started to eat, suddenly even hungrier than she had been shortly before.

“So, tell me,” Lex said after she'd eaten a few bites and found that everything tasted just as delicious as it looked, “how did you make all of this while Riss and I just cut up, measured, and stirred things?”

Casey laughed. “It was much easier to have the ingredients ready so that I could just assemble everything and start it cooking. Thanks, guys, for all your help.”

Lex looked over at Riss, who was nodding and chewing. Once she'd swallowed her food, she said, “It all even tastes good.”

“You sound like you doubted it would,” Casey replied with a smug smile.

The three of them all laughed then, and the meal continued with discussions of cooking and music as another interesting title began to play on Riss' mp3 player. Once everyone had eaten their fill and sat contented around the kitchen island, Casey asked, “So, what should we do next?”

“I vote for eating some dessert when the Chens get here, and after that, opening some presents,” Lex replied with a grin. “We should probably clean up a bit first, though.”

Casey chuckled and nodded in response. The three of them moved to begin packing the rest of the dinner away into the refrigerator and clearing away the dishes. Lex began rinsing the dishes and handing them to Casey to put in the dishwasher, and as Lex's mind wandered to the subject, she suddenly asked, “So, do you guys have any New Year’s resolutions or anything you're looking forward to getting done in the new year?”

Lex remained quiet as the other two women appeared to be deep in thought, then Casey spoke up again. “That's easy. Get stronger and sharper. But I guess that's what I try for every day, so the coming year's no different. How about you, Lex?”

“Well,” she began tentatively, although she'd been thinking on the topic for weeks, “it seems like everyone here, except for maybe Joan and I, have abilities that are way beyond what most people can do. I guess my hope for this coming year is that I can figure out a way to become more...extraordinary.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” said Riss almost inaudibly, shooting Lex a look from under her eyebrows as she drew close to the sink.

Lex had heard Riss and felt a little puzzled by her statement, but Casey hadn't heard over the running water, so she raised her head, a slight frown on her face.

“What's that, Riss? What's your goal for this year?”

Riss was silent for a moment, her eyes abstracted, and then she spoke in a normal tone of voice, but something about her statement seemed to ring out louder than that. “I want to be freer.”

The other two became thoughtful, and Casey nodded. “That's a good goal. I think we could all use that.”

They continued to talk about their plans for the upcoming year as they finished cleaning up the kitchen and then moved all of the desserts onto the long table in the living room. Casey had made a chocolate cake with chocolate icing, several plates of assorted cookies, and apple and pumpkin pies. They'd also made a pot of coffee, which Riss immediately took a cup of, and they laid teas and mugs out in the kitchen for the guests about to come. Finally, Lex and Riss both planted themselves on one of the couches in the common room to wait for Casey to finish showering and changing and to wait for the Chens to arrive.

Riss turned her attention to a laptop she’d earlier stowed in the cushions on one end of the couch while Lex appreciated the opportunity to rest for the first time all day.

Lex pulled her attention back from her thoughts and watching the circling seagulls outside a bit later when Casey rejoined them. A few minutes after that, everyone heard the front door opening.

Lex tried not to run excitedly out to greet the Chens, but then she had to catch up to Casey and the two of them spilled out into the front hall like children. Mr. Chen and Lily had both come, and Lily also held the hand of a young boy. Everyone exchanged greetings, and then Lily brought her hand up to urge the boy forward towards the other women.

“Ron, these are my co-workers. This is Lex, Casey, and Riss. Please say hello to them.”

He looked up a little dubiously, especially when he had to tip his head back to see Casey's face, but he stepped forward and bowed to each of them, then managed a quiet, “Hello.”

Casey laughed and knelt in front of him. “Lily, he's adorable,” she said, and then to Ron, “Hey, Ron, I'm Casey. Why don't you come in here and we can get you some cookies?”

Lily frowned as Casey drew Ron off into the front room. “Not too many sweets,” she called after them. Lex smiled a moment later as she heard Ron's exclamation once he saw the decorated tree and table full of baked goods.

“How about some tea or coffee?” Lex asked as the other four stepped into the kitchen.

Riss and Lily poured themselves coffee before moving into the common room, while Lex and Mr. Chen waited, Lex leaning on the kitchen counter, while water heated for tea. After asking how his family celebrations had gone, Lex looked straight at her teacher for a moment.

“Mr. Chen, thanks for coming out. I hope this didn't take time away from your family, but I'm really glad you could make it,” Lex said quietly, stumbling slightly over her words due to sudden shyness.

“I'm glad we could come,” he replied, carefully watching the tea kettle on the stove. “The rest of my family gets tired early, anyway.”

Lex smiled to herself as she got the cups ready for the tea. When they emerged into the other room a few minutes later, they both smiled at the chaos of Casey and Ron playing on the floor, examining all the presents under the tree. Lily and Riss had perched on a couch nearby, watching the other two. Lily talked in low tones about how the day had gone so far while Riss nodded in response.

Casey started serving up dessert once they'd all arrived, insisting that everyone had to at least try something. Lex decided to have a little piece of everything, and found the chocolate cake rich and decadent, the apple pie sweet with just the right bite of cinnamon, and the pumpkin pie mildly sweet with a rich custard. Ron wanted to do the same thing, but Lily insisted that he choose one thing that he wanted, so he had a piece of pumpkin pie instead, declaring it to be his favorite. Since he and Casey still sat together on the floor, when his mom wasn't looking, Casey sneaked him bites of her piece of chocolate cake, much to his pleasure. About halfway through dessert, Lex heard a small noise in the front hall, and looked up to see Serena standing by the kitchen door, a look of surprise on her face, as well as the tracks of tears. A split second later, the apparition had disappeared.

Feeling a shiver run down her spine as she wondered what had gone wrong, Lex got up and leaned down to whisper into Casey's ear. “Can you wait to open presents until I get back?”

Casey nodded, giving Lex a serious look as she ruffled Ron's hair. “Don't worry, we'll keep ourselves entertained until then,” she muttered.

“Excuse me for a few minutes,” Lex said to the room at large. “I'll be right back.”

She cut a large piece of cake and then went to the kitchen to quickly make some tea, glad that the water had retained some heat. Once done, she put everything on a tray and hurried upstairs. When she got to Serena's room, she knocked but heard nothing.

“Serena,” Lex called out, “I'm coming in.”

She had to adjust her eyes a bit as she did, since the only illumination in the room came from a small lamp on the bedside table, but eventually she could see Serena sitting at the vanity table crying. Lex swallowed against a lump in her own throat and brought the tray over, leaving the tea and cake in front of Serena.

“My beautiful girl, what's wrong?” Lex asked, putting down the tray and picking up a hairbrush.

Lex took the hair sticks out of the long hair in front of her, bringing Serena's askew hairstyle completely down and then began brushing her hair out. At first, Serena just kept silently crying, looking into the mirror, but after a while she closed her eyes and leaned her head back, relaxing her shoulders against Lex.

“My parents want me to marry this dork of a distant cousin who's been kissing my father's ass for the past few years and following him around. They say they want him to run the company when my dad retires in a few years and they only want someone 'with the family name' to run the business. I told him they should just have him change his name, but they said some dumb shit about how someone closely related should be running it, even if it's just by marriage. I'm not marrying him. I don't–” Serena broke off and paused for a few moments, looking alarmed, and then sighed, her shoulders drooping. “I don't care if they disown me, I'm not marrying the guy.”

Lex thought for a few moments, switching to a comb to smooth out a small section of Serena's hair so she could braid it. “Did they ever talk to you about running the company?”

Serena snorted. “I don't think so. They never said anything that I can remember. I figure I'm just an embarrassment to them, why would they want me running my family's business?” She paused for a few seconds then, obviously sorting through some old memories. “But now I'm wondering if maybe they did eventually want me to take over. It wasn’t ever anything they came right out and told me, though.”

Serena picked up the cake and took a small bite, then looked up at Lex in the mirror, all without moving her head. “What are you thinking about? I can see that something's is going on in that big brain of yours.”

Lex responded slowly, still mentally assessing the situation. “Serena, I know you're upset, but could you come downstairs for a while? There are some presents for you, and I know everyone would like to have you there. If you do, I promise I'll see if I can think of a good alternative to propose to your parents so that hopefully you won't have to make such a hard choice. Deal?”

Laughing and picking the cake up, Serena stood. “Deal. If you're on the case, I'm not worried. Let me change and I'll be right down.”

Lex went back downstairs, everyone's eyes on her as she took the final step into the common room. “Serena will be joining us in a little while to open presents. Should we try to figure out who each package belongs to so that we can just start unwrapping them once she gets here?”

By the time Serena joined them, Casey and Ron had divided most of the gifts into little piles for everyone, still laughing and giggling on the floor, playing around and examining all of the wrapped packages.

The two of them started the unwrapping pandemonium, Casey allowing Ron to open most of her presents, too. At one point, the little boy was excited enough about a gift to run over to his mom and show her. It was a set of the first few anime DVDs from one of Lex's favorite series, and Lex found herself looking at the floor in mild embarrassment.

“I didn't know if he was a fan, so I got a gift receipt so that you can switch up for other videos, if you want,” Lex said, finally pulling her eyes up to meet Lily's. The other woman was shaking her head a little.

“Yes, he's a fan, that's why he's so excited,” she explained as Ron ran over to hug “Auntie Lex.”

Casey's presents included two new dresses, one from Lex, a short, cornflower blue piece with a V-neck, but it appeared modest next to the one Serena picked out, a black latex dress cut low in front and back with a mid-thigh length and grommets and lacing running down one side to just below the hip instead of a regular seam. Looking at the dress, it seemed that was the only way to get into it. Serena cheered and raised her fist to the sky when Casey took it out of the box and looked at it somewhat dubiously.

“Finally, you'll have something other than jeans to wear when you go out with Lex and me! You should wear that when we go back to the Nest the next time. Vinnie asks me about you every time I go there now.”

Casey blushed, shaking her head with a snort of laughter as she bundled it back into the box before Ron could have a good look at the dress. She also thanked Riss profusely for her gift, a small collection of vegan cookbooks. Riss shrugged in response, saying, “Well, I've eaten enough of your cooking, I figured I should do something to help out other than prep work.”

Serena seemed happiest with Lex's gift, a certificate from a local adult toy and clothing store. “I figured you could find something you liked for the next time we go out,” Lex explained. “They came highly recommended by some friends of mine that like to wear leather, so I think you'll like whatever you get from them.” She also liked Casey's gift a lot: a pair of short engineer's boots. Serena immediately put them on, and Lex thought they looked amazingly good on her tiny feet.

Lily got a collection of small, expensive things: a black and gold silk scarf from Lex; some exclusive perfume Serena had picked out; a thin, exquisite metal watch with a second hand from Casey; and a GPS from Riss. When Lily looked at Riss in surprise at the last item, exclaiming that she'd wanted one, Riss just raised an eyebrow. “I heard,” she said, smiling a little.

Mr. Chen just gazed at the gifts he'd received from his students for a moment before looking up at them with a small smile to bow and thank them. Lex and Casey had gotten their heads together and had liked the idea of getting a really nice set of brushes and a paperweight for his calligraphy. They'd found the brushes easily enough, but had trouble finding a paperweight they both liked until Casey shopped in Chinatown one day and happened on a small shop where she found it. The weight had been carved from green stone and showed a curling, curving dragon spread out long with a good heft to it. Casey and Lex both grinned at each other excitedly when they saw his reaction.

Riss seemed quite taken by Lex's gift, a new, super thin laptop. “Most of the ones you have seem to be the old bulky kind,” Lex explained. “I thought you might like one of the newer models, with better specs than what you'd get off the shelf.” Riss finally turned her attention from it long enough to thank Lex, her fingers still on the keyboard, obviously wanting to investigate right away.

Lex realized, as everyone’s attention turned towards her, that she’d saved her own presents for last. She reached for the first one, then, as she glanced around at her friends before starting to unwrap it. Once done, she realized Casey had managed to get someone to make a whip, one made of what looked like braided metal. “You could ask Mr. Chen to help you learn how to use it, or I'm sure you could figure it out on your own,” Casey shrugged. “You don't seem too bad with flexible weapons, from what I've seen.

Serena had gotten her a black latex dress, fitted from shoulders to waist and with a square neckline and short sleeves, then a skirt that billowed out a little to fall to just above Lex's knees. She howled when Lex held it up to herself to see how it was going to fit, causing Lex to blush and pack it back into its box. Lily's gift was a large jar of salve that she'd made herself. She explained that if rubbed on sore muscles, it would speed up healing so that most of the damage could be taken care of during a normal night of rest. “Of course,” she added, looking obliquely in Mr. Chen's direction, “it helps if you're not overworked the next day, as well.” Her grandfather raised an eyebrow in response.

Riss had a ghost of a smile as Lex opened her gift, a set of strategy games purported to be able to learn and continue to get more complex as a person played them. “I also improved that crappy laptop they got you when you came here, so that you can actually use it to play these games,” Riss said with an approving nod. Lex smiled but raised an eyebrow in return, wondering when Riss had found the time to do that.

Mr. Chen had given Lex a book about continually improving your singing voice, but then he told her, “Actually, there's something else. Follow me.”

Lex trailed him down to the martial arts studio, where she noted a wooden practice dummy in the corner of the room, reflected infinitely in the mirrors on each wall. She thought she recognized the equipment, probably from a martial arts film she'd watched.

“You can use this to practice your sticking hands when I'm not here, if you don't have anyone else to practice with,” he said, with a nod.

Lex stepped up to the wooden dummy and ran through the first few exercises of sticking hands, a practice designed to tune you into the energy and movements of your opponent, while she swallowed against the sudden ache in her chest. She gave up a minute later, wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands, and cleared her throat, trying to calm herself.

“Thanks Mr. Chen. Thanks for the gifts and for your kindness. You are the greatest teacher I've ever had.”

She had to stop, since her throat was closing and her tears were coming freely now. Lex had pulled a tissue from her pocket, trying to get it under control when she heard Mr. Chen's voice from behind her.

“The only way one can become a great teacher is to have a great student. I have as much to thank you for, Lex.”

The two of them walked silently back upstairs and rejoined the others, who'd been discussing their gifts, the holidays, and everyone's plans for the new year. After a few hours, the Chens had to leave, so Casey gave them all plates of cookies and she packed another piece of pumpkin pie for Ron to have later.

Lex sat back on the couch after they left, feeling relieved that she no longer had hostess duties. Riss and Casey both looked curiously at Serena, who studiously examined her gifts and pointedly looked no one in the eyes until Casey finally spoke out.

“OK, so what happened earlier?”

Serena looked up and sighed, appearing more annoyed than upset about the memory at that point. “My parents want me to marry this idiot who's been following my father around trying to be his business successor.”

Riss' eyebrows nearly met her hair, and Casey seemed taken aback, as well. Lex watched Casey try to put together a response, but Serena waved it away. “Don't worry about it. Lex offered to think of something else to propose to my parents, so I'm not worried,” Serena said, grinning at Lex. After a pause she continued, less enthusiastically. “Anyway, even if they don't go for whatever she comes up with, I'm not marrying him. They can disown me for all I care.”

She looked down for a long moment, then back up at the other women, who'd all fallen silent. “Hey,” Serena said, grinning now, “when I left, I was so pissed that I took their special bottle of cognac. They usually have one out for the holidays, and they hadn't even opened it yet. I think my dad once told me that each bottle costs 50 grand or something like that.”

Lex looked at her in horror while Serena shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Shows you how stupid they are, spending that much money on something people are just going to drink.”

“Are you sure they won't call the police?” Lex asked nervously.

Serena snorted in response. “Not likely. What are they going to do, send them to DC from New York City for a suspected robbery? Anyway, who wants some?”

Casey laughed and raised her hand, and Riss raised an eyebrow, but nodded. When Serena returned, she brought the bottle as well as her Mp3 player.

“OK everyone, have as much as you want. I know you won't have any, Lex, but we've got to listen to my music. Even though the clubs aren't open tonight, we still have plenty of room to dance here.”

Casey pushed the coffee table out of the way, lining it up in front of the tree, and sampled the alcohol once Serena had poured it into the tiny glasses Casey had found in the kitchen. Serena stuck her tongue out after tasting it, Casey had a sour look on her face, and Riss, although carefully expressionless, put her glass down after one sip and never picked it up again.

“This sucks! It tastes like paint thinner!” Serena yelled, and then laughed. She lost interest in the bottle after that, pulling Lex off the couch and telling her to start dancing. After the two of them had danced for a while and Serena sent Casey off to put on her new dress, Serena stopped Lex and faced her.

“Lex,” she said seriously, “you've got to loosen up. It looks like you're going to attack someone or something. Look, get your hips and ass into it. Pretend you're trying to get someone you've had your eye on for a while, someone you're really hot for. Lift your arms up and grind your hips. Try it, come on.”

Lex blushed but did as instructed, trying to feel the beat of the music as she moved. The acoustics in the common room seemed to amplify the dance beats, making it easier to focus on the sound. After a while of following Serena's movements she laughed, moving more easily. Serena danced up next to Lex then, bumping her and giggling.

They fell silent as Casey strode into the room in her new dress. Lex's mouth hung open momentarily as she saw a side of her friend she'd never noticed before. The latex lacing barely seemed adequate to keep Casey in the dress, and neither did the low neckline.

Serena wolf-whistled. “You look like a cross between a bodybuilder and a model. Hey, sexy, come over here and dance with me.”

“I am not wearing this outside the house,” said Casey, crossing her arms under her considerable breasts, a dark look on her face.

Eventually, Serena convinced Casey to join her and Lex and the three of them danced until late. Riss occasionally joined them from her perch on a nearby couch where she'd been busily investigating her new laptop.

Lex remembered thinking as her face hit the pillow early that morning that it had been one of the best parties she'd ever attended. She ignored the twinge she felt as the thought of Kurt crossed her mind, instead allowing herself to slip into happy dreams.

Forward to Chapter 18
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Comments about anything you liked or that you thought could be improved are extremely welcome!


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Belated Happy Winter Solstice from Psycho Gecko

(Anonymous)
Ah yes, a song you like enough that you start singing it without realizing it. For me, that's been History Repeating Part 2 by The Megas.

Poor Mr. Chen and his family. Tsk, tsk. I get the feeling they're all going to die horribly in a freak turkey giblet accident.

Speaking of turkeys, a meatless Christmas? That's going a bit far for me. I got to have chicken in the stuffing, even.

Maybe they could have gotten away with it if they included chocolate chip cheesecake, but that didn't happen either. Something tells me cheesecake isn't vegan. Then again, neither is milk and cookies, especially if you include butter and eggs. As we all know, neither is gellato. It's milk and eggs, bitch. And then there's a plate of chicken parmesan. "Chicken isn't vegan?" Deveganize ray!

That's ok though. They can hate the plants all they want, but somebody has to care for the organisms that can communicate via smell and sound that also perform advanced mathematical calculations. If it won't be those plant-slaughtering vegans, then it'll have to be me guarding the plants. Now let me just get a green leafy unitard and perfume that lets me appear sexy to all men around me. I think it's called "Absinthe on an Empty Stomach". "Warning," it says, "For best use, target the blind."

Doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in my inherent sexiness.

*pushes his chest together to try and form some boobs*

All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.


Re: Belated Happy Winter Solstice from Psycho Gecko

Have I ever told you that your comments are some of the best things about publishing online? Because they are. : )

Sadly, I think everyone's fate in this story may be to die in a freak turkey giblet incident. I think one of the new weapons that's being developed for use in the underground wars campaign is a turkey-giblet thrower, one that sprays them at you at temperatures far beyond boiling, kind of like Dunkin' Donuts coffee. Casey might survive the high heat giblet assault, but she might not be happy about it afterwards.

Vegan chocolate chip cheesecake! That sounds like a fabulous idea, one that I'll probably be searching the internets for later today.

I, for one, cannot wait to see you in the leafy unitard, defender of all things green and calculator-like, and I think you will look fabulous in your close up. :D

Maybe it's just me, but I found this line, “My beautiful girl, what's wrong?" to be "jarring". Maybe it's the "My" but it seemed to suggest a certain level of familiarity that I didn't feel had been demonstrated, at least when it comes to verbal exchanges. I'm not saying it isn't applicable, just that it seemed odd given that she hasn't spoken like that before, I don't believe. Just thought I'd mention since it caused such a strong reaction.

Keep up the great work! ^_^

Thank you for the comment. I know what you mean, however, I think that Lex was trying to give a friend a little of what she knew she might want to cheer her up. Definitely not something she'd say on a regular basis, but more to help out a crying friend.

Thanks for the kind words, and for coming by to read!

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