AN: This has been a very, very long time coming. I'm sorry I haven't been around to update any of my stories; life just has other things in mind. I still stand by my pledge to respond personally via PM to all reviewers. I hope you all enjoy this, and I'll hopefully get back to more writing in the near future. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Disclaimer: I own nothing related to XME.

Cumin

Christmas Eve had finally settled onto the Xavier Institute's grounds with a blanket of snow that had been Storm's early Christmas gift to the students. The sun was slowly making its way down to more westerly parts of the world, leaving behind nothing but a lingering orange glow. The driveway was flanked on both sides by ice sculptures in varying degrees of taste, courtesy of Bobby's powers and the New Mutants' imaginations.

Inside, a feast of sorts was taking place; though the majority of the young men and women taking part in the dinner had become accustomed to such fare, most would have previously deemed the massive quantities of home-style cuisine more than worthy of the title. Certainly, nothing less than "banquet" would once have sufficed. Ororo Munroe had outdone herself, as usual.

All the young mutants were laying into the food with gusto, but none more so than the Mansion's "resident famine," as Logan had once been overheard calling him. Kurt Wagner, the Incredible Nightcrawler, certainly lived up to his name at the dinner table.

In the midst of using two chicken drumsticks as props in a dramatic reenactment of an epic sparring match between himself and Scott, Kurt felt his pocket began to vibrate. Both pieces of chicken vanished into his mouth— bones and all— as he dug into his pocket and produced his cell phone. Glancing at the caller ID, he stiffened. He knew that number by heart; it was the last remaining payphone in Bayville. Only one person who had his number would use that phone.

Kurt covered his mouth with a napkin and pulled the two now-stripped bones from his mouth with as much grace as was possible. Excusing himself from his seat with an excuse about a long night of projects, he heaped extra-large portions of each course onto his plate. Knowing smiles went around the table; the Fuzzy One's appetite was legendary, and it was not uncommon for him to pop back to the table for additional helpings even after he had left.

An elegant flourish with the plate, a deep bow, and Nightcrawler took leave from his audience with his signature bamf.

Three minutes later, bundled in a warm coat and a scarf, Kurt appeared on a treebranch overlooking the phone booth, plate in hand. A stocky figure stood with its head down underneath the nearest lamp. Kurt hopped down from the branch, landing with a gentle crunch on the snow, and walked over to meet Evan Daniels.

"Someone call for a Christmas elf?" Kurt said with a grin. "I think I lost my hat on the ride down from the North Pole, but you can see my credentials if you insist."

"Always joking, K-Man… I've missed that." Evan's voice had deepened since Kurt had last seen him, but there was something more jarring about it— the tone was hollow, monotonous.

Kurt managed a bow. "Why thank you. My humor often goes underappreciated at the Institute, though I hold out hope that Herr Logan will eventually crack a smile. Still, as they say, absence makes my jokes grow better."

"Well, it's definitely been a long absence," Evan said, lifting his head up and into the light.

A gasp escaped Kurt's mouth, not at the sight of the bony ridges that had now almost fully encrusted Spyke's brow, nor at his now-sunken cheeks, but at his eyes. Even after months of living with the Morlocks, Evan's eyes had always had a tiny spark left over, an inextinguishable reminder that Kurt's old friend was still in there.

No longer.

His eyes were hollow, sunken, haunted. There was something behind them now that spoke of having witnessed terrible things. Kurt had to avert his gaze after just a few long seconds.

Evan gave a short bark that might have been supposed to pass for laughter. "So I've gotten that pretty, eh?"

"No, not that… Not from me of all people. I just…" Kurt looked into those eyes once more, pleading with his own for an answer. "Evan, what has living down there done to you?" His voice was barely above a whisper.

"Taught me how to grow up, be a leader. When Callisto goes topside, I'm in charge. When we get raided, I lead the team to push them out of the sewers. Y'know how Scott worries all the time, K-Man? I know why now."

For the first time in a very long time, Kurt was speechless.

Evan's face fell. "Dammit, I came up here to say hi and now I'm just making you sad. Don't worry so much, it's all fine. I'm fine."

"Ja." Kurt swallowed and searched for a new topic. "So… apart from that, how has life been, Evan?"

"Pretty good, K-Man, pretty good. The other day a new restaurant opened up, and the dumpster's right next to a manhole." He had a satisfied light in his eyes, the kind Scott always wore after leading the X-Men to victory. It was odd to see it on Evan. "There's enough food coming in that we can feed the kids as much as they want and even have some left for the grown-ups."

Kurt's face fell. So that was what constituted a good life for Evan now…

Seeing Kurt's expression, Evan rushed to make things better. "Seriously, Kurt, it's not bad! A few weeks ago we got a new guy, and he's even better than the Healer. Serious injuries don't drain him as much. Even after the two raids this past week, we still haven't lost anyone."

The blue mutant looked down, trying to hide the tears that were welling up in his eyes. He knew he couldn't speak or his voice would betray him.

Evan looked down, then to one side, then the other, anywhere but Kurt's face. "I'm sorry, Kurt, I… I don't know. Things are different down there. But I'm okay. Really."

"Ja. All right." Kurt cleared his throat, shook his head and tried again to switch gears. His eyes fell on the plate in his hand. "Oh, I brought you some dinner." His furry hands held out the plate heaped with food.

Evan took the plate, steam wafting straight into his face. "Auntie O cooked this," he said. An almost imperceptible smile tugged at his mouth.

"That's right… how did you know?"

A little of that old spark came back to Evan's eyes. "She puts cumin in everything, even the mashed potatoes. It's her little nod to Africa. She told me about it when I was little."

Taking a step closer, Kurt said, "She misses you, you know. A lot."

Evan's face hardened, and the spark vanished as quickly as it had come. "Yeah. I know."

Too late, Kurt realized he had made a mistake, but he wasn't about to let this opportunity slip away. Evan was right in front of him, for the first time in months, and Kurt had to try. "You could come back to the Institute…"

"No, Kurt. I can't." Evan's tone was harsh, authoritative.

"Then just a visit? Just to come see—"

"I said no, Kurt. I… I'm not the kid they remember anymore. It's better that they remember me the way I was. Especially Auntie O… She needs to remember her Evan, not me."

A single tear fell from Kurt's face and dropped into the snow, leaving a tiny hole.

Evan shook his head violently. "This is wrong. This isn't at all what I meant this to be like. I shouldn't have called… you were having a good time, and I called and you came and all I'm doing is hurting you—"

He was cut off abruptly by two arms encircling him. Kurt squeezed gently, then gasped as sharp pains shot through his entire upper body. Pulling away out of reflex, he looked at Evan.

The young man's torso was bristling with needle-thin spikes, no more than half an inch long. But the look on his face was just as shocked as Kurt's.

"Oh god, K-Man, are you ok? I don't know what happened, my power's never done that before, it's just no one down there ever… No one touches like that. No one hugs."

"Worth it then," Kurt gasped. "Can you pop them back in, though? I'd like to try that again… without the acupuncture."

Evan closed his eyes, and the needles receded back into his skin. "I don't know if I can stop them from coming back out again. Defense mechanisms are what keep me alive down there. Just in case, you shouldn't—"

Again Kurt's arms wrapped around Evan, and again the needles shot to the surface. Kurt gasped in pain, but this time he held on, letting them dig into his arms, chest and cheek.

"What the hell are you doing, Kurt? Stop it!" Evan yelled, trying in vain to pull away.

"Not a chance…" Kurt replied through gritted teeth. "It's Christmas… and you're getting… a hug."

Evan stood stock still, apparently having given up the fight and not wanting to injure Kurt further. Seconds passed, and Kurt exhaled slowly as the spikes began to retract, sliding out of the dozens of puncture wounds. A few agonizing moments later, they had retracted fully, and Kurt felt Evan's arms encircle him.

Drops of water fell on Kurt's head. That was odd; if anything, it should have been snowing, not raining. He looked up to find streams of tears running down Evan's face. Kurt returned his head to the taller mutant's chest, trying to capture the moment and hold it for as long as possible before it ended. After a time that seemed all too short, the arms surrounding him loosened.

Wiping his eyes in embarrasment, Evan sniffed and looked down at Kurt. "Thanks, K-Man," he said quietly. "You can't imagine how much that meant to me. I haven't had a hug since… well… the last time you gave me one."

Kurt just nodded.

"I've gotta go now, Kurt. But I'll try to come back up and see you more often. Thanks for… everything."

"All right. You take care of yourself, Evan."

As Evan turned to go, a voice gently sounded in Kurt's head. Kurt, if you wouldn't mind, could you please relay a message to Mr. Daniels?

Smiling, Kurt called out. "Evan! Wait a minute. The Professor has something to tell you."

Evan stopped, a sheepish smile on his face. "I should have known."

"Tomorrow morning, bring a party of Morlocks to the manhole just southeast of your hideout. In the alley, behind a fake brick wall, you will find backpacks filled with food, fresh water, and emergency gear, as well as heavy coats and blankets."

Evan's eyes lit up with gratitude. "Thanks, teach," he whispered, and his smile got a bit wider. A little jolt told Kurt that Evan had received a reply.

Thank you, Kurt. There is one more favor I have to ask of you, if you are willing…

Kurt closed his eyes for a moment, stiffened, then relaxed. When he opened them again, they were brimming with tears. "Evan. I can't tell you how much I've missed you, child."

The Bavarian accent had vanished, replaced by a rich and regal intonation. Only one person Evan had ever known had that tone of voice.

"Auntie O?"

"Yes, child. I cannot talk long; this is very taxing for the Professor and Kurt, but I had to see you again." Ororo looked warmly at her nephew through Kurt's golden eyes.

"I'm sorry, Auntie O, I—"

"No, Evan. You have nothing for which you should be sorry. I understand your responsibilities, and I want you to know how proud I am of the man you've become."

Evan's voice was small. "Auntie O, I miss you so much."

"And I you, child. But know that I love you, and that I will always love you. Merry Christmas, Evan."

"I love you too... Merry Christmas, Auntie O."

Kurt's eyes closed, and suddenly he swayed and dropped to his knees in the snow. His mind was foggy and his wounds burned, but there was a gigantic grin on his face. Taking a few deep breaths, he collected himself and rose to his feet.

"Did you enjoy your visitor?"

Evan had unabashed tears streaming down his smiling face, and the old spark had returned to his eyes, hopefully for good. "Yeah, K-Man. I did. Thank you."

Kurt rested a furry hand on his friend's shoulder, resting in between two large spikes. "Take care of yourself, Evan."

"I will. You too." With that, Evan turned and walked away, carrying his aunt's food to his friends in the sewers.

A puff of smoke, and Kurt was back in the Mansion. A knock on his open door caused him to look over. Logan stood in the doorway.

"How's the porcupine?" he asked.

"He's… he's all right. He'll be fine."

Logan nodded. "Bet he's grown up fast… faster than I'd want for any of you kids." He shook his head and looked back at Kurt. "Three AM, I'm going out to set up Chuck's little care package for the Morlocks. Wanna come?"

Kurt smiled. "Ja, I'd like that."