"I wish you would be more careful," Scott says to Ororo, frowning down at the banner, where she's colored out of the lines. He thinks he sounds enough like the professor for her to listen, but she just sticks her tongue out and goes back to wreathing the banner with rainbow streaks. "Hey! You're using up all the red!"
"You can have mine, Scott," Jean says, pushing her cup of paint over.
Scott reaches to dip his paintbrush, but misjudges the angle and the cup tips over. Paint spills onto the carpet, red sinking in and flowing over to the crisp white of the banner, spreading, glowing--
"Hey, hey," Scott hears through the haze in his head, and then warm hands take his. It's Darwin, Darwin holding his hands the way he holds Alex's when they think no one is looking. "Remember the other day, when you showed me how you can count to a hundred? Can we do it together?"
The rhythm of counting is familiar and Darwin's voice is so gentle that Scott starts to breathe again, though his heart continues pounding in his ears as he counts all the way up to a hundred. When he opens his eyes, he sees Angel and Jean scrubbing the red paint off the carpet. The banner, miraculously, is unstained. Ororo is helping, but she's mostly twisting a cloth in her hands, biting her lower lip.
"I'm sorry," Scott says in a small voice.
Darwin's hands squeeze his again. "No worries, buddy. Accidents happen."
"What accidents?" Alex asks, walking in the door with the scissors and the wrapping paper Raven hadn't been able to find. "Scotty, what's wrong?"
Scott bolts to his brother's side, throwing his arms around him and burying his face in his stomach, breath already hitching with sobs. "Professor Xavier and Hank said that I couldn't hurt anybody with my special glasses on but I made a mess and I got scared and--"
Alex picks him up and starts rubbing his back in little circles. That was the hardest thing about Alex being away in the bad place, no one to hold him and tell him that they could never, never hurt each other. "We're all okay. Shh, we're all okay."
"I'm sorry too," Ororo says, and hugs Alex around the leg, probably because Scott is too high up for her to hug.
"These faces are way too sad for getting ready for a birthday," Angel says with a smile, tweaking Jean's nose. "Right, mami? You kids keep decorating the banner and I'll get the last of this paint out."
Scott wriggles his way out of Alex's grip when Jean holds out a paintbrush to him. It means Jean still wants to be friends, which is so great, because Jean has the prettiest hair and the best smile that he's ever seen, and she reads the Hardy Boys to him after dinner. When he knows enough big words, he's going to read Nancy Drew to her.
"Cute," Darwin says when Scott takes the paintbrush, for some reason. Jean gets all red in the face and Scott selects blue this time, carefully painting in the Y in "birthday."
"Thanks," Alex says, smiling at Darwin, and Scott can't help but smile at the sight. Things have to be okay, because his brother is here and he's happy, they're all happy.
"If it's going to be anywhere, it's going to be at this house," Ororo says, folding her arms. "I want to find it."
"Even if we do find a key in one of these rooms, why would it go to a secret garden?" Jean asks in that serious voice she puts on when she's trying to be bigger than everybody else. Being the oldest of "the little ones," as everyone else calls them, is no reason to pass up an adventure, at least according to Ororo. "You've seen the gardens. We don't have any mysterious hedges. We also don't have any little boys hidden away."
"We could pretend!" Scott says, brightening at this new prospect. Ororo can tell he wants to go exploring instead of sitting here watching the rain, but he always does whatever Jean says.
"Yes! You be Colin, Jean can be Dickon, and I'll be Mary," Ororo says. "We're visiting America and we have to find the Magic so we can bring it back to--to, um--"
"England," Jean fills in with a grin, and Ororo beams back, delighted. Jean is playing!
"Off we go," Ororo says, doing her best impersonation of Charles, which sounds more like Raven doing her silly Charles voice instead of her actually Charles voice.
They set off with a great deal of giggling, fueled by the cake they had for breakfast. Ororo insists that they hide from everyone else, though she does feel a pang of guilt for hiding from Erik on his birthday. When they find the Magic, they'll show him first, she decides, smothering a laugh into the curtains as Charles pretends not to notice them at the window. This is even better than hide and seek!
Once they poke through the fifth dusty room, though, even Ororo's high spirits have flagged. There isn't much that's magical about dusty old sheets, even if they make the chairs underneath look like ghosts. Ororo's stomach growls, reminding her that lunch is soon.
"I don't think there's anything here to find, cousin," Scott says. "We should have tea and biscuits. Mostly biscuits. Why does Professor Xavier call them biscuits? They're not."
"See, we can still play even if we go back," Jean says encouragingly.
Ororo blinks as fast as she can, knotting her hands into fists against the trembling of her lower lip. She is not a baby, and she is not going to cry, no matter how much the storm outside soaks through her mind, promising potential thunder. "I just wanted to find the Magic," she says.
Jean takes her hand. "Didn't you know, Mary? All of the people here are magic. Two can fly, one is blue, two can lift things with their minds, one can talk inside your head... It's not a secret garden, it's a secret school."
"With secret laser boys," Scott adds.
"And a secret weather girl!" Ororo exclaims, buoyed up onto her toes by a puff of wind. Charles says that someday she'll be able to fly, too.
They race back downstairs for lunch, where Erik takes one look at their dusty hands and faces and tells them to wash up before they eat. Ororo screws up her face and scrubs it with only a little fuss because, as Angel reminds her with a look, it's Erik's birthday.
"What have you been doing to get yourselves so dirty?" Erik asks when they return, setting a plate of sandwiches on the table.
"Playing Secret Garden," Ororo answers, selecting a peanut butter and jelly. "But since we're all magic, we changed it to secret school, and we're not from England anymore."
"I should hope I am," Charles says, entering the kitchen and taking a sandwich. He always seems to know whenever Erik makes food. "Perhaps we ought to change the school's name to the Secret Kindergarten."
"I think it would confuse the Americans," Erik says. He has his special smile on, the one that means he's so happy he can't hide it. Ororo wriggles in her seat, delighted.
"We have the best school! Happy birthday again!" she declares through a mouthful of sandwich. Somehow, Erik seems to understand everything she means.
The house is still quiet when Jean wakes up. She rolls over, reaching out: everyone else's minds flicker like starlight, cool across the remnants of whatever dream woke her. Even Charles feels like he's asleep, though her power can do no more than confirm he's in the house. He must be tired; Charles seems to wake at every nightmare, if only so he can send Jean back to sleep.
You have so much power, darling, Charles said to her when he found her. I know it hurts you. I would like to show you how to use it, and how wondrous it can be.
Sleep refuses to come back. Jean sighs, slipping out from underneath the covers. She takes time dressing, hoping that the sun will have risen by the time she buckles her shoes, but the skies remain stubbornly dark, save for a pale line of gray on the horizon and the last star's watery light. She brushes out her hair and ties a green ribbon in it, making a face at herself in the mirror. Raven and Angel have such beautiful hair. Raven can have whatever kind of hair she wants, actually, but Jean loves her real red hair the best.
The mental horizon brightens before the real one does: Erik is awake. Jean doesn't know how anyone can sleep through such a mind coming to life. The feel of his mind used to scare her, so many edges and echoes she could get lost just listening, but Charles showed her how to shut some of it out and now Erik softens around her in a way that means love. She was frightened yesterday, feeling all those angles again, but then he came back for birthday cake and love, love, love was all anyone could feel.
Erik's not going running, though. Jean walks towards Charles's study, trailing her fingers along the wall. Her mother used to scold her for dirtying the walls, but this house is much bigger and no one seems to mind the occasional fingerprint.
"I thought I heard a mouse," Erik says when Jean pushes open the door. He sets his book aside. "Why in the world are you awake?"
"Why aren't you running?" Jean counters, hopping up onto the couch to sit beside him.
"It's the day after my surprise party. I'm celebrating my survival."
She laughs and picks up the book he set down. "The Once and Future King again?" She remembers Charles and Erik discussing Sir Lancelot over the dinner table once, complicated currents swirling in the air between them until Darwin cleared his throat and Raven told them to get a room. "Is it a very good book?"
"It is," he agrees, taking the book back. "I think we'll save this one until you're a bit older, though."
"Because you'd rather not teach me about sad things," Jean says, earning her a surprised look.
"Telepaths," Erik says, then gives her a smile that's half-sad. "No, Jean, I'd rather not. There are already too many that you know. There will be time enough for talk of love and betrayal."
"Maybe on my next birthday," Jean says, thrilling at the sound of Erik's words without much concern for the content. Charles talks to her like a grown-up because sometimes he forgets who's listening, but Erik talks to her like a grown-up because he thinks she's smart.
"The sun's up," Erik observes, glancing out the window. "Would you like to help me make breakfast?"
"Yes!" Jean is off the couch before Erik, setting off at a walk as fast as she can manage without actually running in the hallway. There's something magic about cooking, about how putting together so many different things makes one delicious thing.
"We'll need eggs," Erik says, opening the refrigerator with a gesture of his hand.
"We had eggs two days ago! What about pancakes?"
"We had cake yesterday."
"Please?" Jean asks, and Erik sighs.
The whole downstairs smells like pancakes by the time everyone else wakes. Angel and Raven come downstairs and make a show of trying a pancake, each kissing Jean on the forehead for a job well done. Charles and Moira arrive at the same time and exchange a single look: Moira dives for the coffee, Charles the newspaper. Alex and Scott walk through the doorway together, their hair sticking up in identical places, and Darwin follows right behind with a teasing comment. Ororo skips into the kitchen and Hank comes in with three books in his hands.
Jean pours syrup over her own plate, content just to listen to the hum of conversation and the pulse of minds underneath. It's like stars again, but stars arranged in a constellation, a family of lights.