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you're my only home

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Ororo cries when they take her from the orphanage.

"She should be thanking us," Erik mutters as they head back towards the hotel, dark clouds gathering in their wake. He's not unaware of the assumptions made by the crowd as they watch two white men drag a little African girl off against her will. The orphanage was little and overcrowded and loud and run by an unsavory sort. Charles reported that the man who owns it is training the children in less than legal pursuits.

"She's five years old and it's familiar," Charles says. He glances around and then discreetly touches the top of her head. She stops crying abruptly and immediately falls asleep in Erik's arms. He not sure this looks any better, but if nothing else, it allows them to return to their hotel quickly and quietly to resume their conversation behind closed doors while Ororo sleeps in the bed they've not made use of and the two of them sit on the other.

"She had friends there," Charles says. "She was used to the routine. She'll make friends at the school and get used to the routine there, as well, but it's all a bit much for a five year old."

Erik hasn't had much experience with children since he was a child himself, so he takes Charles at his word, eyeing the girl cautiously as she sleeps curled up in the huge bed.

They play a game of chess while she sleeps. Charles calls to change their flight to one early the next morning and then decides it's time to eat.

"You're leaving me here?" Erik asks dubiously.

"Someone needs to stay with Ororo," Charles says. "I won't be gone long. It will give me a chance to scout out any ill will and smooth things over before it gets...unpleasant."

Erik knows that will involve more telepathy than diplomacy, in all likelihood. He eyes the girl and sighs.

"Be quick," he says, and settles against the headboard of the other bed with his book.

Of course, Charles is hardly gone five minutes when the girl whimpers in her sleep. Erik ignores it. He continues to ignore it as the whimpers turn into sniffles, but his resolve begins to crumble and by the time she's blinking open teary eyes and choking on the first sob, Erik has placed his book on the nightstand and moved over to the other bed.

He doesn't know what to do, really. He knows he should offer some sort of comfort, but he's at a loss as to what the comfort could be. He settles for hovering awkwardly, murmuring, "It was just a dream, little one. You're safe."

Upon spotting Erik, the sniffles turn into hysterics. Much to his surprise, however, they don't seem to be because she's frightened of him. Much the opposite; she curls up close to him, just shy of touching.

"There was a monster!" she cries.

"There's no such thing as monsters," he lies.

"Yes there is!" she sobs.

He sighs. Charles would be much better at this. Still, Charles isn't here and unless he wants to listen to this child scream until Charles returns....

He puts his hand tentatively on her shoulder.

"I promise the monsters can't get you here," he says. She looks up at him through her tears, her lower lip shaking. "You remember my friend Charles? He's out there right now making sure the monsters stay away." He brushes her hair off her forehead. "And if any come here, I'll protect you."

Another fat tear rolls down her cheek. Erik doesn't know where the sudden urge to wipe it away comes from, but he manages to stifle it. It's no use, however; a second later, the girl is launching herself into Erik's arms.

"Promise?" she asks. For such a small thing, her grip is tight and bruising and he can't manage to shake her off. He settles for laying a hand on her back. He can feel her little heart beating wildly in her chest. She's so small that his hand spans her whole back.

"I promise, Schatz," he says, the endearment appearing from nowhere and rolling out of his mouth as if he's accustomed to showing affection to anyone other than Charles.

She doesn't stop crying, but she does nestle closer, burrowing against his chest. He recognizes the movement and barely stifles a groan; it's the same thing Charles does right before he's settling in to sleep. He's going to be stuck with a child sleeping on his chest until Charles arrives to help him pull her off. He's never going to hear the end of it.

He manages to reach his book on the nightstand and flips it open one handed, settling back against the headboard as best he can with the child wrapped around him like a limpet.

***

The city is loud and busy and Ororo clings to Erik's hand as he follows Charles through the crush of bodies and towards the airport. Her fear has faded slightly--her awe at both Charles' power and Erik's had her cheerfully giggling all through dinner and she delighted at the mental projection of all of the children she'd be sharing a house with. The anxiety comes back, however, when they return to the street. She's hesitant to stray from Erik and Charles in a strange reversal of the scene they caused on the way to the hotel.

"We have to move along faster, darling," Charles finally says. They're still a fair distance from the street where they've left their car. They'll make the airport on time, but it's by a smaller and smaller margin every time they're forced to stop because Ororo refuses to move forward. Charles hands Erik his suitcase and kneels down to Ororo's level. "Can I carry you to the car?"

Ororo considers this, her face more serious than any five year old has a right to be.

"I want Erik to do it," she finally says. "He said he'll fight the monster."

Monster? asks Charles.

I don't know, Erik says. Her nightmare monster, I suppose.

He's not accustomed to holding children, but it's easy enough to hand Charles the suitcases and stoop down. Ororo throws her arms around his neck and clings to him, doing half the job of holding for him. He lifts her easily into his arms and settles her weight at his hip.

"I suggest we move with haste," Erik says, and frowns when he turns and catches a mysterious sort of smile on Charles' face. "What?"

"Nothing, my dear," he says. "Let's go, then."

Ororo settles into his embrace, resting her head on his shoulder. A phantom aura of warmth follows him all the way back to the waiting car.

***

Ororo settles in well with the other children. She's fascinated by the older ones, Raven especially, and ten year old Scott is eager to show her around and take responsibility for getting her settled. She takes to the mansion just as well as Charles predicted, exploring rooms and running all about, listening with great interest to stories Raven tells about the games she and Charles played in their youth.

She still follows Erik around like a shadow, however. Whenever he's walking the grounds or attending to issues in the house, he can feel the metal she wears following not far behind. She rises early, early enough to sit with him in the kitchen when he drinks his first cup of coffee after his morning run.

She's not shy. She babbles at him about everything she's learning, all of the other children, what she's watched on television, the stories Raven tells her before bed. She's unrelenting in her presence, ignoring his sour moods and dark looks in a way that no one else but Charles dares.

"She's a child," Charles says as they play chess one evening. "And for some strange reason, she's decided that she loves you best."

It's horribly true. Ororo is affectionate towards all of them--Charles gets his share of cuddles and insistent hugs and badgering attention as well--but she spends the most time by far trailing after Erik.

"God only knows why," Erik mutters.

"You're very loveable," Charles says, smiling around the edge of his glass of scotch.

Erik ignores him. His ears certainly don't go red at the compliment.

It's not love. It's fascination, maybe, and respect. Erik's done nothing to earn love from Ororo; she doesn't know him nearly well enough to give him that, and if she ever did, she'd probably change her opinion about whether he was worthy of it in the first place. He's done terrible things. Worse, he doesn't regret the terrible things he's done.

No, it's not love. It will pass and she'll find someone else to dote on. He remains staunchly convinced of that for a solid two weeks. At the end of those two weeks, Ororo wanders into the library when he's searching for a book and stares at him for a moment.

"Yes?" he finally asks. She breaks into a brilliant grin and runs across the room, hugging his legs tightly.

"I love you, Erik," she says, looking up at him without even a hint of judgment or hesitance. Erik thinks, in that moment, he could tell her all the cruel things he's done and the strength of her conviction wouldn't waver. She would still love him, despite all of it. It's an overwhelming feeling.

He doesn't tell her any of those things, though. Because, inexplicably, he feels the same way.

"I love you, too, Schatzi," he says.

Charles was the first person he said those words to in very many years. Ororo is the second.

***

Jean Grey is their first actual student, the first pupil not recruited to fight or taken from a cruel home. She has parents whom Erik is supposed to impress by wearing a nice suit and smiling non-threateningly. He talks to them about English literature and the multitude of languages he speaks, while Charles rhapsodizes about science and the state of the art technology and the benefits of the large, open campus.

"This all sounds lovely, Dr. Xavier," Mr. Grey says, "But you should know, our Jeannie...she has these...fits sometimes."

It's amazing what the human mind will repress and forgive. Jean Grey had a psychic episode powerful enough to catch Charles' attention. By all accounts, she gave her entire block a headache for a day solid.

"We have the best doctors on staff," Charles assures him. "Jean's not the only special child who has come to our attention." He sends Erik a pulse of amusement at his own clever line. Erik barely resists rolling his eyes.

It works, though. Jean has a quiet talk with Charles and then eagerly begs her parents to be allowed to attend the Xavier Academy. Within a week, they have Jean on campus.

Ororo adores her.

Jean is sweet and bright and, at eleven, the oldest of the younger set of children. Scott is similarly rapt, though Erik surmises his reasons are slightly different. But Jean is happy for the attention and Ororo is thrilled to give her a tour of the school and grounds.

"And this is Erik," she says breathlessly once she's pulled Jean by the hand into the study where Charles and Erik and Moira are discussing lesson plans. She lets go of Jean's hand and hugs Erik's legs, then puts one hand on the pocket of his slacks and wraps the other around his belt, using them as leverage in a fair attempt to physically climb him. Erik takes pity on her and uses the zipper in her dress to give her a boost. She delights in the casual display of power and throws her arms around his neck.

"Erik is the best," Ororo informs Jean. She adds, breathlessly, "And so is Charles and so is Raven and so is Moira and so is everyone!" but Erik allows himself a moment of smug glee that's not lost on Charles or Moira. Moira rolls her eyes, but Charles just grins at him. Erik grins right back.

***

With Jean already entrenched in the house and Charles and Hank working out the latest round of Cerebro bugs, Erik decides to take a few days to return to Europe and tie up the last of his loose ends. He doesn't plan on bringing everything back--who knows when he'll need to hide somewhere quickly and quietly, who knows when he'll need to break into one of his stores of cash--but he's not entirely comfortable living off of Charles' fortune. He'd rather be able to contribute something of his own if he's going to be here for some time.

The kiss Charles gives him as he leaves for the airport reminds him that he'd very much like to be here for some time.

It's not a long trip. He's gone less than a week, all told, but it feels long after spending every moment with Charles and the children for the last several months. He misses Charles, who's gotten under his skin in ways that no one else has ever managed. He won't say he misses the children, but he feels their absence--he's grown used to the noise and the bustle. He returns happy for the time to put his head in order, but ready to be back. He assumes his return will hardly be noticed until dinner.

He misjudges that part.

Charles slides into his mind the second he turns up the drive, warm and familiar and comfortable, curling through his head in a way that Erik has already become accustomed to. No words pass between them, but there's a feeling of home and warmth and gratitude. Something else, too, something that Erik can't put his finger on until he parks the car in the garage and enters the main house.

Charles grabs him before he can turn the corridor, pressing him against the wall and kissing him before he can go any further. The kisses aren't desperate, exactly, but they're close, and Charles all but melts into him. Erik kisses back eagerly--he's missed Charles, he's missed this, it's frightening how quickly he began to rely on it--and makes an abortive, questioning noise when Charles pulls away just as abruptly as he began.

"I just wanted to do that before I missed the chance," Charles pants against his collarbone, leaning his weight on Erik, palms against Erik's chest.

"What do you--"

Before Charles can reply--before Erik can even finish the question--he hears the sound of shoes on wood floors and a high-pitched, "Erik's home!" He barely has a moment to react before Ororo is throwing herself around the corner and clinging to Erik's leg.

"You're home!" she repeats, her grip so tight that when he moves his leg, she moves with it. "You were gone and you didn't say!"

"I told everyone I was going," Erik says. He looks at Charles and raises his eyebrows.

"I think your exact words," Charles says, "were 'I'm going out.'"

"So?" Erik asks. "I did go out."

"Yes, well, usually when you say that, you're back by dinner," Charles says dryly. Erik shakes his head, but when he looks out into the hall, all of the children have gathered. Moira is there, too, looking far too amused at the scene.

"You knew where I was," Erik says.

"Yes," Charles says. "But they wouldn't believe me, for some reason, until they saw for themselves that you were coming back."

"Of course I was coming back," Erik says, rolling his eyes. "This is my--"

He stops. He looks at all of the teenagers gathered in the hall, at Scott and Jean hovering a little closer, at Ororo clinging to his leg. He leans over and gently pries her limbs away from him, then lifts her up and hugs her tightly. She hugs back just as fiercely, her little heart beating against his chest.

"Look at me, little one," he says, pulling back just enough for Ororo to turn her gaze up at him. "I'll always come back, because this is my home."

"Good," Ororo says, and wraps her arms around his neck.

"Now he gets it," Raven says, but not unkindly, and that seems to be Jean's cue to give Erik a slightly more dignified hug around the middle. Scott looks like he wants to join in, but he lingers at the fringes, just beyond Jean's elbow. Charles also looks like he wants to join in, and Erik knows that he's just waiting for the privacy of their bedroom to show Erik how much he missed him and how happy he is that Erik is home.

"This is my home," Erik says, "and you're my family. Why would I want to be any place else?"

There's a warm mix of approval and delight in the back of his mind and Jean's hair is soft when he strokes his hand over the crown of her head. There's dinner waiting and Ororo is pressing a sloppy kiss to his cheek. There's really nowhere else he'd rather be.