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and now you will not be alone any more

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"I'm not doing it again!"

Erik looks up from his book with an interested sort of alarm. That's Alex's voice raised, shouting really, as he stomps down the corridor. There's no shortage of raised voices in the house, but usually the volume is due to teasing or merriment or the childish arguments than only housebound teenagers and children can come up with. There's anger in Alex's tone now, a barely contained frustration that has Erik simultaneously curious and wary.

"I'm sorry, Alex," Charles' voice echoes after him. "I honestly didn't expect--"

"I'm done!" Alex shouts and then, because Erik is not particularly lucky, he stomps into the library and slams the door behind him.

He looks as surprised to see Erik as Erik is to see him, though Erik hides his shock behind his detached facade while Alex prefers to gape openly.

"Sorry, Erik," he says. "I didn't realize you were in here."

"Clearly," Erik says. He's curious as to what the ruckus is about. He and Charles have had long discussions about Alex's abilities, his limits, and the best way to push him. Charles had insisted that his genial confidence was the way to go, cited all the progress made before Cuba, but Erik wasn't entirely convinced. This, perhaps, is the proof he needs to attempt his own training methods.

He doesn't want to ask, though, so he returns to his book and waits. He barely finishes another sentence before Alex sits down across from him and says, "It's just that the professor is crazy."

"Is he?" Erik asks, not looking up from his book.

"I mean, have you seen him behind the wheel of a car?"

"I--what?" It's not often that Erik is thrown for a loop, but he's finding it happens with increasing frequency now that he lives with six teenagers and three children. He blames the non-linear nature of their minds as well as Charles, because some days it's just easier to blame Charles for everything about his life now, bad and good.

"He's insane!" Alex says. "I think he must have mind-whammied the instructor to get his license in the first place. And he thinks he can teach me--"

"Charles is teaching you how to drive?" Erik asks. The pieces click into place, starting with a conversation over last night's dinner about who would be running into town to pick up groceries this week.

"Not if I have any say in it," Alex mutters. "Have you ever seen him drive?"

Erik has seen Charles drive, mostly on long, empty roads in the American midwest. His attention has the tendency to wander and he has trouble remembering to keep his eyes on the road. He's also a bit of a speed demon. Erik didn't mind it, but then, whenever Erik is in a car, he's ultimately the one with the most control over the vehicle. He can see how it would be a problem for a boy who doesn't know how to drive in the first place and has fairly alarming issues with control.

"I suppose it might seem a bit...." Erik searches for a word.

"Life-threatening? Dangerous? Horrifying?"

"Intense," Erik says, and Alex snorts.

"Whatever, man," he says. "I'll just have Sean or Raven or Darwin teach me."

"Who do you think taught Raven to drive, most likely?" Erik asks, and Alex visibly pales. Then, for reasons beyond Erik's comprehension, he says, "I can teach you."

He not the only one shocked by the offer, if the face Alex makes is anything to go by. He squints at Erik, as if he thinks it's a trick, but before he can ask any more questions, the door to the library swings open again.

"Alex," Charles says, "I do hope you've had time to calm down. I apologize for before, but if we could continue our lesson--"

"Erik's going to teach me," Alex says quickly, and Charles cycles through a series of expressions that whip by too fast for Erik to interpret. He ends on a pleased smile, however, and it seems genuine.

"That's wonderful!" Charles says. "I'll leave you to it, then! Good luck!"

And then, hands in pockets, Charles meanders out of the library and down the hall.

Erik watches him. Erik's always watching Charles, always has been watching Charles, even though Charles assures him, repeatedly, that he's not going to disappear the moment Erik turns his back.

"You don't really have to," Alex says. "I mean, it can't be hard. Sean can do it."

"It's not," Erik says. "But, like most things, it involves concentration and focus." He doesn't say, Which we both know you lack, but it's hanging in the air between them nonetheless. Alex narrows his eyes.

"Then it will be a piece of cake," he says defiantly, and all but stalks out of the room and towards the driveway.

It takes Erik a few seconds to realize that he's supposed to follow, that apparently Alex has decided that it's best to get this over with.

He leaves his book on the coffee table, page marked neatly with a business card he appropriated from Charles' desk. He imagines he'll be back sooner rather than later.

The first twenty minutes are utterly unbearable, but eventually Alex and Erik stop glaring at each other and begin to work together. By the time the sun is setting, Alex is driving Moira's old Ford up and down the driveway with relative ease and looks disappointed when it's time to park it for the night.

"We'll have another go tomorrow, if you want," Erik says. "But I think you've got the basics."

"Cool," Alex says. "Thanks, Erik."

He exits the car and jogs back up to the house for dinner, leaving Erik behind, momentarily stunned.

He makes sure Moira's car is locked (not that, if it were even possible to get past the gates, someone would choose Moira's rust bucket over the garage full of classic cars) and returns to the house. Charles is waiting for him in the foyer.

"How did it go?" he asks with one of those impish smiles that means he knows something he's not telling.

"Fine," Erik says. "He picked it up very quickly."

"I'm glad," Charles says and, after looking around, leans over to kiss the corner of his mouth.

Erik's not sure what he did to earn the kiss, but he's not about to argue.

"I really don't understand what the problem is," Charles says. "I'm not that bad of a driver, honestly."

Erik shakes his head. "Come to dinner, Charles," he says.

***

Erik's reading the paper and sharing a mid-morning pot of coffee with Moira and Raven when Sean comes into the kitchen a few days later.

"Raven, can you fix this?" he asks, thrusting a shirt towards her.

"What?" Raven asks, raising an eyebrow. "Why? What's wrong with it?"

"I pulled off a button," he says. "And I'm supposed to go grocery shopping with Angel later and there's that girl--"

"Well, what am I supposed to do about it?" Raven asks.

"I don't know," Sean says. "You're a girl. Don't you know this stuff?"

Raven's gold eyes narrow dangerously and Erik does his best to hold in a chuckle.

"Try again," she says, and Sean takes a step back. He eyes Moira, dubiously, but she gives him a level look over the top of her book and then returns to her reading.

"It's not hard," Erik says with a sigh when Sean looks as though he might actually burst into tears at the prospect of talking to this girl in a shirt with a missing button. "I'll show you. It's a good skill to have on hand. You never known when you might need it."

"Like to fix clothes in the field?" Sean asks, scratching his head.

"And to sew up bullet wounds," Erik says. He smiles with all his teeth, just to watch Sean squirm. "Come on. There's a sewing kit in the library."

Sean is wary, but follows him anyway, and it's not until they're halfway to the library that's become something like Erik's office that he realizes what he's doing and stops abruptly. What the hell does he care if Sean manages to impress some random human girl at the grocery store? This isn't his responsibility; Sean can learn to sew from Hank or Angel. There's a perfectly good pot of coffee in the kitchen and Moira will probably finish it while he's gone.

"Erm, can we...?" Sean asks, and Erik sighs. He's halfway there already. He might as well just teach the boy. It is a good skill to have, after all.

"Yes, yes, come on," Erik says.

Erik teaches Sean how to tread a needle and then swiftly instructs him on how to reattach a button. Sean's frustratingly slow with it, but he does manage to nail it eventually and he punches Erik on the shoulder in triumph once the button is secured. He immediately realizes his mistake, but before Erik can do more than glare, Charles is standing in the doorway, hands in his pockets.

"Sean," he says, "Angel's looking for you. Are you ready to go shopping?"

"Almost!" Sean all but squeaks, and he rushes from the room, already pulling off his t-shirt as he slips past Charles and clomps up the stairs.

Erik watches him go, shaking his head. It takes him a moment to notice Charles staring at him, smiling.

"What?" he asks.

"Nothing," Charles says.

"You're insufferable," Erik mutters, because he's clearly missing something. Charles won't stop smiling.

"Mm, and yet you love me despite my flaws," Charles says.

Erik glares silently at that, but only because he knows it would do no good to protest--Charles can read the truth in his mind, after all.

***

Erik's at the halfway point of his run, cooling down and resting against a tree, when he hears the sniffles. Hasty investigation (if one of the children is hurt, Charles will be devastated, even if it's their own fault), reveals Raven, huddled against the side of a tree, sniffling into her hands. He's torn between asking if she's okay on the off-chance she's hurt and quietly backing away from what's clearly an emotional trouble.

The decision is taken from his hands when Raven glances up and notices him.

"Oh, Erik," she says quickly. "What are you--" She rubs her eyes and forces a smile, and for all that her ability is disguise, it's still clear she's upset. "Sorry, I was just--out. Wandering."

Erik's prepared to take that at face value, but he hesitates anyway. Raven looks miserable and he's guessing that Hank is the source of her tears. He should really call Charles to come sort her out, but he has a flash of Charles' solution to this--wrapping Raven up in cotton wool like the overprotective older brother that he is--and rethinks that course of action. Raven doesn't look like she needs to be wrapped in cotton wool--she looks like she wants to...talk.

He wonders, desperately, if he has time to run and get Moira.

"Is it--are you--" Erik is terrible at this, really, but that seems to be enough because Raven's lower lip starts to quiver and then she's crying again.

"I know he doesn't mean it, but he says these things like--like he doesn't even care. Like he has to settle now that he looks like he does and, 'oh, I suppose Raven's the only one left, she's ugly and blue too!' And I know that's not what he means--" Erik is less sure, but he says nothing. "--but then he doesn't even realize he's said something wrong and--"

And then Raven is getting tears and, likely, snot all over his shirt as she clings to his shoulder. He pats her back, awkwardly. This is so much more Charles' purview. Erik may be able to bolster Raven's self-esteem, but he's not particularly adept at inter-personal relationships, as Charles reminds him daily. He personally thinks that Raven would be much better off focusing on coming into her own than pursuing Hank, but he also understands teenagers and hormones and, embarrassingly, the heady allure of wanting someone and having them want you.

He pets Raven's hair.

"I speak from personal experience when I say that sometimes scientists are so concerned with studying quantifiable things that they forget that human emotions are not quantifiable," he says. It gets Raven to laugh and her tears taper off and Erik feels slightly more even keeled when she steps back and wipes her eyes.

"Sorry about that," she says.

"It's fine," Erik says stiffly, looking anywhere but at Raven.

"No," she says. "I shouldn't--anyway. It's not a big deal. Go on, finish your run."

Erik does, somewhat awkwardly, and feeling the whole time like there was something else he should have said, something that would have made it better. He finds he wanted to make it better, which is slightly disturbing and just makes him run faster.

When he gets back to the house, showers and joins the others for breakfast, Raven plants a kiss on his cheek when she walks by. Erik can feel himself flush, but resolutely says nothing, concentrating on the newspaper and his coffee. Charles' hand comes to rest on his knee underneath the table, and Erik steadfastly ignores it.

Thank you, Charles thinks.

For what? Erik asks.

For taking care of my sister, Charles replies.

I didn't do anything, Erik insists, but Charles smiles that same stupid beguiling smile and returns to his tea and toast and Erik prays the matter is dropped for good.

***

Erik ignores the knock on the door.

When it continues, he rolls over and pulls a pillow over his head.

When it's joined by soft cries, Charles elbows him sharply.

"Don't be so cold, Erik," he murmurs, and then rolls out of bed, hastily pulls on his dressing gown, and opens the door. The light from the hallway is nearly blinding after the dark of the bedroom, and Erik has to squint as Ororo runs into the room, right past Charles, and scampers up onto the bed to cling to him.

"What's the matter?" he asks, his voice rough after being pulled from slumber.

"I had a bad dream!" Ororo sobs into his shoulder. "There was a monster and it was after me, like before I came home with you and it said it ate my Mommy and Daddy and it would eat me too and I couldn't find you, I couldn't find you, Erik, or Charles or Moira or anyone and the monster was there and he was real and he had sharp teeth and red eyes and he was going to eat me and--"

The sobs catch up with her and the words die in favor of choked off noises and cries. The girl's latched onto him like a limpet and he has to struggle to sit upright, for all that she weighs next to nothing. Charles joins them, rubbing Ororo's back soothingly.

"It's okay, darling," he says. "It was just a dream. We're here now. Nothing's going to get you in the house."

"What if he comes?" Ororo insists, looking up at Charles with teary eyes. "What if the monster comes here?"

Charles brushes the tears off her cheeks so tenderly it makes something in Erik's chest seize up.

"If the monster comes here, we'll fight it," Erik says, his tone booking no argument. "And we'll win. But it was just a dream, liebling. You can tell it was a dream because in real life, Charles and I would never leave you alone."

Ororo sniffles and raises her hand to wipe her nose.

"Promise?" she asks with all the gravity and desperation of her six years.

"We promise," Charles says, and leans over to kiss her forehead.

She goes willingly back to bed after that, climbing into Charles' arms and letting him carry her back to her room. Erik pulls the pillow back over his head, cursing his luck and ruing the day he became guardian to nine mutant children. He hears footsteps approaching--too light to be Charles--and sighs again. The nature of his relationship with Charles is an open secret among the inhabitants of the house, taken better by some than others. The last thing he needs at--he feels out the hands of the clock on the nightstand--two in the morning is a stilted conversation with Hank where he refuses to look at the rumpled bed.

"What's wrong?"

Thankfully, it's just Moira. Erik feels something like relief and doesn't bother removing the pillow from his face.

"Ororo had a nightmare. Charles is taking care of it," he says.

"The trials and tribulations of being a father," Moira says. Erik makes a rude gesture at her and she just laughs. There was a time when no one would dare laugh at him, and Erik frequently wishes he could return to it.

"Oh, hello, Moira," Charles murmurs, signaling his arrival. "I'm sorry, did we wake you? Ororo had a bit of a bad dream."

"Erik told me," Moira says. "It's fine. Sweet dreams, Charles."

Erik wants to tell Moira to die in a fire, but talking is too much effort. When the door finally closes and Charles returns to bed, pressing himself up against Erik's side, Erik can barely manage the energy to wrap an arm around him.

"She always comes to you first, you know," Charles says, but he doesn't sound jealous, he sounds oddly proud.

"I know," Erik grunts.

"She thinks you'll protect her."

"I will."

"I know that, too," Charles murmurs against his forehead. He presses his lips there, lingering. Erik can feel them smiling against his skin. "Sleep well, love."

Erik doesn't have the strength to decipher the layers of meaning in Charles' voice; he's asleep within moments.

***

"Cumin," Angel says, and Erik twitches a finger and floats the jar across the kitchen to her.

"I'll trade you for the milk," Erik says, and Angel slides the bottle of milk across the counter to him.

It's pleasant, these afternoons in the kitchen. Erik can hear the others outside, playing American football in the yard, can feel Charles' mind curling around his. He can let it all fade into the background--Darwin cheering Scott on, Raven shouting at Sean that powers are cheating--and focus on the calming repetition of cooking and the quiet companionship of Angel.

Things had been strained in those weeks after Cuba, strained for all of them. The teenagers were nervous around each other, Charles and Erik spent days feeling out each other's rough edges and nights trying to forget them entirely, and Angel had wandered around silently, not sure where she fit in at all.

It got easier with time. Everyone learned their place, Erik became more comfortable with the idea of the school, because more eager to build it with Charles, began smiling when Charles touched his wrist in the afternoons over tea. The teens banded together to help with the younger children, put aside their differences, began laughing more.

It wasn't the perfect world Charles wanted, but it was easier than Erik ever imagined. It was nice. It was comfortable in a way that Erik couldn't put his finger on.

Cooking with Angel was one of those things that had helped restore the peace. The teens and adults cooked on a rota, but Erik and Angel were the only two who actively enjoyed it. Charles, delighted to see their common ground, made sure they worked together as frequently as possible. At first Erik resented the handling, but working with Angel was a sight more soothing than working with anyone else and he came to appreciate it. They came to a silent understanding that they had more in common than they thought--that they were both trying to make minute things up to Charles, betrayals they couldn't quite name out loud but that they hoped were soothed by warm meals and properly brewed tea.

There's a noise in the hallway, a quiet scuttling despite the antics of the children outside. Angel glances at him and raises her eyebrows but says nothing. Erik gets the message as clear as any telepath and continues what he's doing until he catches sight of Jean's curious green eyes peering around the corner.

Their little kitchen elf. Jean gives Erik hope that he and Angel won't be the only ones feeding the masses, one day.

"Do you need something, Jean?" he asks.

The girl creeps into the kitchen, peering up at the counters.

"Can I watch?" she asks hesitantly.

"Of course you can," Angel says, as she always does when Jean visits the kitchen. She pats the counter. "Erik will help you up so you can get a better view." She looks at Erik expectantly and Erik sighs and lifts the girl to sit on the edge of the counter. "Do you want to help us make lunch?"

If Erik didn't know better, he would think her birthday had come early, the way Jean's eyes light up. He certainly wouldn't be able to tell that this was becoming a weekly occurance. "Oh, yes!" she says. "Can I?"

"Of course," Angel says. "Right, Erik?"

"Fine," Erik mutters, but he finds himself explaining what he's doing as he goes through the motions and even lifting Jean up to fetch him bowls and ingredients out of high cabinets. She stirs very carefully when Erik offers her the wooden spoon, beaming up at him, and Erik really doesn't know what it is about him that makes the younger students flock to him. He's not at all nice and he's definitely intimidating and strict and gruff and--

"--and yet you put it all aside for those you care about," Charles murmurs.

Erik turns around quickly--he hadn't even heard Charles come in, but Jean merely says, "Hi, Professor," without looking up from her stirring. "I'm helping with lunch!"

"Very good, Jean," Charles says. He crosses the kitchen and strokes her hair fondly as he glances over her shoulder and into the pot she's stirring. "It looks marvelous."

"I don't put anything aside," Erik says, straightening to his full height and trying on his best glare for size. Angel just smirks and continues with her own preparation because, off course, his best glare has never been any match for Charles, who wraps his arms around Erik's waist and smiles up at him, that same stupid beguiling smile, before returning his attention to Jean and the pot on the stove.

***

The morning of Erik's birthday, he immediately knows something is wrong. The days when Charles wakes before Erik returns from his run are few and far between. While Charles doesn't dawdle in bed, precisely, he likes to stay under the covers until his alarm goes off at six-thirty, when Erik's already been up for an hour.

This morning, though, Charles has clearly just left when Erik returns to the bedroom, sweaty and warm and energized. He looks around, peering into the bathroom and down the hall, but Charles is nowhere to be found.

Erik checks the clock. It's definitely only 6:20.

Erik showers quickly and efficiently. He gets dressed and heads down to the kitchen and it all abruptly makes sense.

"I tried to stop them," Charles says quietly as he gapes at what the kitchen has been transformed into. "I tried to tell them that you'd rather--that it was something special to you. But, you know children."

There's a banner hanging between the cabinets that says "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ERIK!" The letters are outlined precisely in black, but painted over in a myriad of colors that stray in and out of the lines. There's a cake, though it's far too early for sweets, decorated by what is clearly Angel's precise hand. The three youngest children are wearing hats, though Scott keeps pulling at the elastic on his. Moira's got a carafe that's clearly full of coffee, when wrestling coffee from her in the morning is usually more difficult than wrestling state secrets from her. There are presents on the table. There are candles on the cake. There are--

Erik turns on his heel and marches out of the kitchen.

He hears Charles making apologies for him, but he blocks it out, squeezing his eyes shut and willing himself not to hear as he follows the familiar path to the library. He hasn't celebrated his birthday in years, not since before the war, not since his mother had made his favorite treats and stroked his hair off his forehead, teary-eyed as she told him how he was growing, how soon he'd stop being her little boy and become a man and he had told her, No, no, Mama, I will always be yours, always and--

"I'm so sorry, love," Charles says quietly. Erik comes back to himself, blinking at the wetness in his eyes and unsurprised to see Charles standing not five feet away, looking like it's his world coming down all around him. "I tried to explain, but Raven heard Moira and I talking and--the children wanted to do something for you. They didn't understand."

Charles had known, of course, pulled it out of his brain half by accident one night months ago. Kept it close and secret all these weeks and then surprised him last night with a new translation of The Odyssey and a very fine bottle of wine and a slow, languorous night in bed. Erik had appreciated that, the observance that went without words, without speaking, something quiet and private the night before. It had made his chest ache, the way that Charles had kissed him and whispered into his ear, "And to many, many more."

Charles touches his back now, fingers running soothingly up and down his spine. "They're children, Erik," he says. "Even the older ones. They want you to feel welcomed. They want you to feel loved. They want you to understand that you're a part of all of this, too."

The hell of it is that it's true. As much as he wants to pretend that it's just Charles keeping him here, just the higher calling to find more of their kind, it's not. It hasn't been for months. And he loves Charles--god, does he love Charles, like he'd never imagined loving anyone after his mother was taken from him, loves his not-entirely-straight teeth, the freckles on his nose, his arrogance, his pride, his intelligence, his trust, his insanely beautiful eyes, the miles of pale skin that's Erik's to touch and keep--but he loves Ororo's enthusiasm and Jean's imagination and Scott's bullheadedness. He loves Raven's fiery spirit and Angel's independence and Darwin's pragmatism. He loves the spark of mischief finally coming out in Alex, Hank's wonder of discovery, and Sean's easy-going attitude. He even loves Moira's unwavering loyalty, though he'll never in a million years admit it outside the furthest corners of his mind.

He wants to help them all. He wants to make them better, stronger. He wants to be proud of them. He wants them to be proud of him.

He needs to sit down. He's dizzy. And Charles, smiling that peculiar, impish smile he's been pointing at Erik for weeks, sits down next to him and strokes his hair back.

"Have you figured it out yet?" he asks kindly.

"Yeah," Erik says. His throat is dry. His heart feels like he's just run five miles.

"It's not going to be perfect," Charles says. "It's never going to be what you left behind. But it's still--"

"Family," Erik says. "You're my family now."

Charles kisses him, beaming, his lips gentle and sweet, like a hundred kisses they've exchanged over breakfast while Moira rolls her eyes and hoards coffee, like a hundred looks have have passed between them as they oversee the children training and honing their abilities, like a hundred smiles they've shared watching the teenagers roughhouse and the children make up games and movie nights devolving into who's-claimed-what-seat and who-threw-popcorn-at-whom.

"I was hoping you'd get it soon," Charles says against his mouth. "You're really terrible at this, you know."

Erik should scowl at that, but he finds himself laughing, smiling while something burns in his chest, pulling Charles closer and kissing him again and again because he doesn't have to hide away the things that matter anymore--everyone knows, everyone's always known, and hiding his heart won't keep people like Shaw from finding it and destroying it, but he's stronger than he was as a boy and he'd rather defend it, protect it than leave it locked away to wither and die.

I'd never let your heart die, Charles promises. I'd never let that happen. If you hadn't realized it yourself, hadn't admitted it, I'd have found another way, but I'd never let you be alone. You'll never be alone again, Erik.

How can he be? There are nine young mutants in the other room who need him to teach them how to drive and sew and cook, to help them with their homework, to unload their problems, to reassure them, to push them just hard enough, to help them be all they can possibly be. There's Moira, always flitting around to annoy him and debate him and ask him complicated thematic questions about the sort of novels that put Charles to sleep. And there's Charles, who snoops around in his head and argues with him over chess and makes him design a chore rota and lays his hands on Erik's body with a tenderness Erik feared he'd never feel again.

"I love you," Erik says, and it's not the first time, but Charles' face lights up with it every time anyway.

"And I you," Charles says. "And so do all of them."

"I should probably apologize," Erik says.

"Mm," Charles agrees. "Definitely. And if you wait much longer to do so, I'm afraid Alex and Sean will convince the others to start the cake without you."

"Cake for breakfast?" Erik asks, making a face.

"You'll eat it and you'll like it," Charles says. "That's what family does, sorry to say. They worked very hard."

"I'll bet," Erik mutters, but he rises from the couch and offers Charles his hand, pulling him to his feet.

The cake is too sweet and the presents are mostly useless and handmade, but he lets Ororo sit on his lap as he opens them and thanks everyone for everything. Darwin makes him wear one of the stupid hats in a move that makes even Alex wince in fearful anticipation, but Erik accepts the cardboard monstrosity gracefully, even as Jean giggles at him. He lets Raven and Angel hug him and magnanimously gives Moira first shot at the crossword and finds that he doesn't have to work to keep a smile on his face--it's been there of its own accord all morning. He wonders how long that's been true, how it took him so long to notice how easily the smiles came these days.

Charles reaches across the table as Scott and Sean start a paper-fight that knocks juice onto Raven's dress and makes her screech in surprise and chase Sean around until he's tripping over Alex and the salt shaker is rolling into Hank's lap and the entire kitchen is full of noise and shouts and laughter and movement. Charles takes Erik's hand and squeezes his fingers gently.

"Happy Birthday," he says, his voice low but clear enough to Erik, even in the din.

Erik squeezes back.

"And to many, many more," he says.