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One evening over dessert, Charles says, "I thought we might take the day off training and go into the city."

"You thought," Moira says, flat, which saves Erik the trouble of making a comment of his own. Sean shattered a bathroom mirror this morning, and they're going through fire extinguishers at an alarming rate. He can think of few security risks greater than turning teenage mutants loose in a teeming city.

"Which city?" Alex asks, earning him a scathing glance from Raven.

"New York," she replies, sounding every inch the socialite. "Just because you live in a cave--"

"Not all of us got out much," Darwin says quietly, and Raven's face flushes. He flashes her a smile, though, and the tension between the children smooths out, just like that.

Not all the tension, however. Erik quirks an eyebrow at Charles and asks, "And what are we to do in New York City?" Thus far he's avoided picking up the affectation of calling it the city, but given the company he keeps, he suspects it's a matter of time.

"Christmas shopping," Charles and Raven say at the same time, then exchange a smile. "It's about that time of year," Charles continues. "I recognize that, er, all of you might not share our enthusiasm for the season, but we've been working so hard these past few weeks that I feel we've earned ourselves a holiday."

"He just likes buying presents for people. It makes him feel important," Raven stage whispers to Angel, who snorts.

"Yes, thank you, Raven. We'll be getting up early tomorrow in order to take the train. Breakfast is at seven."

The children take that as a dismissal and begin clearing the plates, bickering over whose turn it is to do the dishes. Charles watches them go with a fondness Erik can actually feel, warm as a fall of sunlight through a window.

They're not children, you know, Charles says. Exuberant, yes, but they're nearly adults.

Erik pinches the bridge of his nose in a vain attempt to ward off the oncoming headache. He and Charles have their fair share of disagreements, most recently regarding firearms training, but this is the most spectacularly stupid idea Charles has had in weeks. There are times when he seems like little more than a child himself.

You're the one who wants to let them have weapons, Charles says, mental voice going sharp. That's certainly more dangerous than a supervised excursion into a public space, because really, they've all got experience functioning in society. Yes, even Alex. He's not so afraid of himself anymore, you know. Erik, really, enjoyment serves a purpose as well. We must function as a team if we are to send these children into combat--

The metal fixtures on the walls and the cutlery begin to vibrate, and Charles's voice in Erik's head is drowned out by the rush of anger. When Charles becomes fixated on an idea, he never stops, making counterarguments before Erik's arguments cohere into actual thought. Erik lays a hand over his knife and fork, caught between exposing their potential violence and holding it in check.

At that point, Moira slams her fist on the table, and they both turn to her, startled into remembering her presence.

"I would appreciate an end to the guns debate," Moira says, calm despite the irritated cast to her features. "Erik, not all mutations create an instinctive understanding of weaponry. Let the others get their abilities under control before they start learning new skills. Charles, I'm against this field trip to New York, but I can't exactly say no now that you've told everyone, which is precisely why you did. If one of those inexperienced kids brings public exposure to mutantkind in one of the biggest cities in the world, it's on your head."

They all fall silent after that. Erik nudges the prongs of his fork back into the proper shape.

Charles rises from his chair with a tight smile. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to bed. We have a busy day tomorrow."

The cutlery is all back to its original shape. Erik looks up to find Moira watching him, chin propped up with one fist. "Nice of you to fix the good silver after wrecking it."

"Do you want something?" he asks.

"Just to say that I might not let your kids play with guns, but I'm not unreasonable." Moira shakes her head, expression indecipherable. "At any minute, the CIA could decide that its mutants aren't worth the risk. It wasn't long ago that the United States was locking up people in its own camps."

Erik has never spoken of his past to anyone except Charles, but the CIA is sure to have done some investigation by now. "Is this a threat, Agent MacTaggert?"

"It's a warning, provided anyone here is smart enough to listen to it. Charles has every hope for the future, but he doesn't have--a sense of history."

"That's one way of putting it," Erik says. English is a ridiculous language for talking around what you really mean, or perhaps it's a byproduct of the people that speak it.

"It's all I've got," Moira says. "Tomorrow might actually be fun, as long as we make it out alive."

Erik is less optimistic about their prospects, but, faced with an evening empty of chess games, keeps his thoughts to himself.

*

Breakfast ought to be an awkward affair, but Erik makes sure his morning run leaves him too tired to make conversation. The children are so excited about the upcoming trip that Charles ends up smiling and laughing right along with them. Moira sips coffee and flips through a dossier without saying anything, but she does make a face at Charles when he offers her the milk.

"You'd never make it as a waitress," Raven tells her brother, punching him in the shoulder. "Moira takes her coffee black every time."

"Like a moonless night," Moira says, raising her cup in a toast.

"Maybe I could get back into waitressing," Angel says, depositing another heaping plate of scrambled eggs on the table. "Not that I don't appreciate the free ride, Professor, but a girl has to make a living." She smiles, but it doesn't reach her eyes, and a rush of sympathy chases away the last of Erik's exhaustion. Charles worries that she's going to run off some night, like she almost took Shaw's invitation. Erik doesn't have the words to tell her that he knows what it is to live in perpetual transition, that flight is easier than having a place to land.

She knows. Charles's voice in his mind is a swirl of emotion: reassurance, sadness, a touch of envy. You're very good with them, you know. Aloud, Charles says, "Technically, the CIA is funding everything. I suppose we can sort out matters of income after our sojourn."

"We're all students now," Hank adds, blushing when Raven gives his hand a brief squeeze.

Alex says something through a mouthful of eggs that is apparently comprehensible to native English speakers, because Darwin bumps his shoulder against Alex's and Angel gives him a real smile, sweet and almost shy.

"I'm not done with high school either, and I'm okay," Sean says.

"You're, what, twelve?"

"Sixteen!"

"I can't believe you just volunteered more money from the government," Moira says over the sound of Alex and Sean's bickering. The coffee must have kicked in, because she laughs. "I don't think it can afford to feed your orphans."

Erik scrapes some margarine onto his toast. Moira has stopped using "we" in reference to her job; he's not sure of the significance yet, but it does make her presence more tolerable. He casts out his senses to the clock on the kitchen wall and says, "We should go soon."

Charles must interpret that as a blessing, because the grin he flashes Erik is blinding, and the warmth at the back of Erik's mind lingers for the entire ride to the train station. Erik still thinks that this trip is a terrible idea, but Charles Xavier is a relentless enough force, bending minds rather than metal.

Their group receives some stares at the train station, most more curious than hostile. The children are at least developing some instincts, Erik will give them that: they close ranks immediately, Raven looping an arm each through Darwin's and Hank's, Angel slipping her hands into Alex's and Sean's. The couple to their left looks scandalized. Erik favors them with a cutting smile. Humans. What would they do if Raven wore her natural form?

Probably phone the police. Honestly, Erik, I hope for peaceful mutant-human relations one day--peaceful relations between all groups--but shock tactics won't get us anywhere.

Stop eavesdropping, Charles.

The train rattles into the station. They climb on board and Erik settles into his seat, closing his eyes with something like a sigh. He has no intention of going to sleep, but with so much metal brings a rare sense of security, of control. The railroad stretches ahead like a promise.

You're poetic about transport, Charles says, sitting next to him. Why is it that you like trains better than cars? The latter seems a more independent means of travel.

You never listen to me when I tell you not to eavesdrop, Erik replies.

My friend, I'll listen to you when you mean it.

It shouldn't be this easy between them. It isn't, really--last night is proof enough of that--but it is so damnably difficult to stay angry with Charles. Good intentions shouldn't be enough to make up for such overweening arrogance, and yet when Charles pulls out his travel set chess, Erik helps him set up the pieces anyway.

Nearby, the children entertain themselves with a few rounds of poker. Moira shakes her head at the lot of them and produces a crossword puzzle and a pen from her purse. Charles spares the crossword a brief, longing glance, but Moira says, "Not on your life, Xavier."

"I wasn't going to," Charles protests, wide-eyed.

"I've seen what your crossword help looks like. Remember when I had to throw the Times one away?"

"Reasonable people do theirs in pencil, and anyway, that crossword was wrong."

"Check," Erik says, rather than allow the discussion to continue.

Charles frowns, looking at the chessboard. "How did that happen?"

"You have a distractable nature."

"I am quite capable of intense focus when necessary." Charles's voice dips low, then he clears his throat and resettles himself in his seat. "You've read my thesis, have you not? That's proof enough."

"I'll let you know when I'm finished with it." Erik suppresses a laugh at Charles's crestfallen expression. In truth, his thesis is fascinating, revelatory of the brutally sharp intellect that Charles keeps hidden under an aura of geniality. It is also long, the language dense, and Erik can manage only so much before bed. "Make your move, Charles."

Charles mutters something that sounds like "I already have," but he shifts his king out of danger.

*

Erik knows at least a dozen different ways to kill a man. None of them seem quite gruesome enough for Charles at the moment, although pulling down a skyscraper and dropping it on his head has a certain appeal.

Shopping isn't going well.

Most of the others would disagree, he suspects. Alex looks less than thrilled about clothes shopping, but Darwin keeps distracting him with questions about the perfect Christmas gift. Sean has acquired a bag of potato chips from somewhere, which he's sharing with Hank. Angel is wearing a bright yellow jacket that Raven commanded her to "buy before I punch you in the face." Raven and Charles have identical smiles, which might be a result of Raven's mutation or the mixture of excitement and pleasure they've displayed throughout the entire expedition.

Moira, wise woman that she is, looks almost as ready for murder as Erik feels.

"How did I end up having eight children?" Moira asks, raising her hands up towards the sky.

"I find it offensive that you count me among your children," Erik says, shifting one of their many shopping bags from his left hand to his right. Despite his refusal to take part in this orgy of frivolous spending, he's been saddled with the majority of their purchases.

"You wanted to give them guns, Erik. Stop looking at me like that. When you don't need the reminder anymore, I'll stop bringing it up."

The headache has reached unbearable levels when Charles, casting Erik a sympathetic glance, asks, "How would everyone feel about a bit of sport?"

"Thank God," Alex blurts out, then dredges up enough social grace to look embarrassed. "Uh, I really like sports."

Charles beams. "It's a lovely time of year for ice skating."

"Ice skating?" Raven asks, and then she and Charles have one of their incomprehensible silent sibling conversations, with a great deal of eyebrow raising on her part. "Sure, Charles, if you think we'll all survive the process."

"I love ice skating, you know that," is all he says in response.

Somehow, Charles's enthusiasm is enough to move them all on towards the Rockefeller Center, where they find a crowd of people ice skating before an enormous Christmas tree. Erik's head is beginning to clear. Memories of the camps obscure most of his other, happier childhood memories, but he can recall the glide of metal over ice, the bite of cold air. Did his father teach him to skate, twenty-five years ago? There was a man there, a man with a red scarf and a kind face.

While Charles is renting the skates, Hank offers to stay behind and watch the bags. Raven and Angel exchange a look, then Raven claps a hand over Alex's mouth as Angel says, "Honey, we'll make sure no one sees you putting the skates on." Erik makes a mental note to pair them together more often during sparring, since they're developing a level of communication to rival Alex and Darwin's.

"I'm going to stay and watch the bags, anyway," Moira says, pulling a battered copy of Tender Is the Night from her bag. "I like to cultivate an air of dignity, and ice skating won't help. You kids have fun."

Erik laces up his skates within moments and then glides out onto the ice, cutting a swathe between couples and families. He loses himself in the motion for a few moments, lengthening his stride to increase his speed, the metal of his skates sounding a clear and frosty note, beautiful in its simplicity. He completes a lap and then checks on the others. The children are all skating around with ease, chattering about their new purchases. Erik feels a flicker of pride: of course they would be good skaters after all their physical training. They're learning, and learning well.

Charles is--Charles is in a heap, two feet from where they stepped onto the ice.

As Erik skates over to him, he can hear Moira's poor attempt at muffling her laughter. "Are you all right?" Erik asks, extending a hand.

"Perfectly fine, thank you," Charles answers, using Erik's hand to pull himself upright. He tries to, at any rate: he makes it up on one foot before he collapses again, nearly taking Erik with him. "It's been a long time since I've been ice skating."

"I thought you loved ice skating."

Charles flushes. "I do! I'm just--not any good at it. Your assistance would be much appreciated."

It takes two hands and his mutation to steady Charles, and after that, Erik is forced to wrap an arm around Charles's waist. "I should have known that someone who wrote three hundred pages on genetic mutation would have a bizarre concept of fun."

"You have no concept of fun beyond playing chess and throwing knives," Charles retorts, then clutches at Erik's shoulder. "Oh, dear God, how do people stay upright on these things?"

"Fool," Erik says, though it comes out more affectionate than insulting. He tightens his grip around Charles's waist and begins inching forward, just enough to provide the illusion of moving. Charles sucks in a breath, but then Erik feels him forcing his shoulders to relax, and Charles lets out a breathy little laugh.

"This isn't so bad."

They tip over shortly after, but they both end up laughing on the ice like two of the many small children milling about the place. Raven skates by for the express purpose of mocking her brother, and Charles threatens to take all her new clothes back to the store. She pulls a face as Erik helps Charles up for the third time, with a little judicious manipulation of his belt buckle to keep him vertical. Really, Erik could assist him with powers alone, but he tucks Charles under his arm again in spite of the fact. It's late in the afternoon and the cold is beginning to set in, and Charles radiates warmth.

One lap passes, then another. Erik is concentrating on what's in front of him, on potential obstacles in their way, but he can feel Charles smiling, the glow of contentment brushing against his own mind. The rest of the world recedes before this: this small happiness, and the slide of their skates over the ice.

"I enjoy other things," Erik says, picking up the thread of their earlier conversation.

Charles turns his head to look up at him, which Erik can see out of the corner of his eye. "But you forget."

"Focus is necessary. Discipline."

"Obsession," Charles counters, and Erik has to look him full in the face.

It's there, somewhere, the answer to the question Erik doesn't remember asking: in the shadows under Charles's eyes, in the worried frown, in the orange light of sunset on Charles's hair, in the press of their bodies against each other. Erik reaches across Charles to catch his free hand with his, Charles's fingertips cold in his absurd fingerless gloves. Erik squeezes once, and lets go.

After they crash into another skater a few minutes later, Charles declares that it's time to go home.

*

The children are quiet for the whole journey back to the mansion, with Sean even nodding off to sleep on the train and then again in the car. Charles remains silent as well, rubbing his hands together as though cold long after they should have been warm. Erik closes his eyes against the sight and listens to the ringing of metal, always metal.

"We're gonna make dinner and clean up as a thank you for today," Angel says upon their return, hands going to her hips when Alex sighs. "Right, everybody?"

"I'll set the table," Raven sighs, but she pecks her brother on the cheek on her way out.

Charles unwinds his scarf from his neck, draping it over his coat hanging in the closet. Erik watches him blow on his fingers and waits for the balance to tip again, that fragile balance they established on the ice.

"I need to go, um, hang up the skirt I bought," Moira says, and all but runs out of the foyer.

"Bit chilly in here," Charles murmurs.

For the second time that day, Erik reaches for Charles without purpose beyond physical contact, pressing both of his hands between his as if in prayer. Charles goes still save for the dilation of his pupils and a soft, sharp inhalation of breath. Charles's hands are small and cold under his fingers, but in the back of his mind, like an echo of a voice he has not heard, he can feel large, warm hands enveloping his. Erik bows his head until his nose almost brushes Charles's forehead.

It's strange, you know. I've been a telepath for my entire life. I always know what people think and how they feel, but I don't necessarily understand it. Charles smiles, tremulous as the peace they have established between them. I can feel your--your regard for me, but I don't know how to respond appropriately, because you don't think about it with any sort of conscious intent.

The words fall directly into Erik's mind, stones into still water. Erik's hands tighten unconsciously, pushing until Charles winces. Erik lets his hands fall, but he's still standing close, too close, close enough that the sigh he exhales ruffles Charles's hair. Shaping what he wants to say is a struggle, one that begins in German and morphs into French and then finally, painfully, translates to English.

"A weapon does not compromise, does not bend," Erik says. "A weapon does not feel." He shakes his head, cutting off Charles's protest before it starts. "You tell me that I am not a weapon, that I am a man, but who I am, how I think of myself--it's not so easy to change."

"That much, I can understand," Charles says aloud. Closes his eyes. Swallows.

Erik cups his face, like his mother did to him long ago. As soon as he touches Charles, the faint impression of desire nerves hope confusion doubles, more raw emotion than he has processed since the night he last laid eyes on Shaw, the night he met Charles. "You're changing me all the time," Erik says, and kisses him.

Oh, Charles says, and then he responds with enthusiasm, wrapping his arms around Erik and drawing him even closer. You're changing me, too, every moment we spend together. This time Charles's words in Erik's head leave joy in their wake, the distant ringing of bells, reverberating deep and sonorous.

Erik backs Charles up until he is pressed against the wall, parting his lips to slide his tongue against Charles's, slick and warm. Charles is no longer transmitting speech, but finally crosses Erik's mind and the thought is not entirely of his own creation.

He breaks away from Charles, burying his face in his hair instead. "We should really take this upstairs," he says, and he can feel the shiver that goes through Charles. They've bridged their differences, and yet Erik feels as though he is standing on the edge of a precipice, looking down into dark waters.

It's just me, Charles says. I'm with you.

And like that, Erik falls.

They stand in that position for some time, breathing together, unwilling to separate long enough to move to a different room. Eventually, Charles spreads his hands against Erik's chest, one hand over his heart, and pushes gently. "Raven's coming to tell us that dinner is ready," he says by way of explanation.

Not a minute later, Raven rounds the corner. Smirking, she says, "I thought you might still be here. Come and get it."

"Thank you, Raven."

"If you haven't gotten it already."

"Thank you, Raven."

Erik follows Charles into the dining room, where the children are carrying in dinner. It looks like simple fare, spaghetti and salad and baskets of bread, but the smell is enough to remind his stomach that he had plenty of exercise today.

Angel calls out a greeting to them both, her face lighting up the way it always does when she presents her cooking, and then she goes back to ordering the boys around. Darwin laughs, kisses the side of her head, and sets down the butter. Alex and Sean appear to be having a contest to see how many dinner rolls can fit in the human mouth. Hank, blushing, pulls out a chair for Raven, who gives him a wink. Moira caps her pen, having evidently just finished her crossword.

"This looks wonderful," Charles says, pulling out a chair of his own.

Erik folds his arms, surveying the room. "You did well today," he says at last, and sits down to eat.