Jono was dying.
Those Weapon X bastards had fixed up his body and planted a device in his chest to allow him to regulate his powers to avoid another chest explosion. But irony of ironies, the damn thing had gone haywire and blown up on him, causing the exact thing it had been made specifically to prevent. But this time, it was different. A hole in his chest, he could live with - he'd done so for a good few years, after all - but it was his power, the internal perpetual psionic energy furnace, that allowed him to go on. But something was wrong. The furnace was extinguished.
That's how he knew he was dying. He laughed at the irony of it all - or he did as best he could without anything left inside his torso to allow such a thing. He couldn't see the full extent of his injury as his body was totally devoid of energy, but he could still feel the damage; he could feel how it had conformed perfectly to the specifics of his old injury. His body would be left in much the same state it had been in in life.
He thought about it often; death. Realistically, he never should have survived his powers manifesting in the first place. But he had for a while and the thought was always there, at the back of his mind. He'd seen friends die: Sean, Ev, Angelo, Maggot...
He could see them, all four of them smiling, along with every other X-Man who had ever died and not come back. They were all here to welcome him into the afterlife, whatever that may be.
"Jono m'boy," Sean said in his welcoming Irish accent. Jono tried to reach out but he was too weak to move a muscle. "It's not your time, son," Sean said, and Jono felt strangely hurt by that. He should be happy, he supposed, that he was supposed to live on, but he wasn't. Life had always found a way to kick him when he was down. Granted, some of that was down to his own social ineptitude.
He thought of Paige. He thought about how had had colossally screwed that up by backing down after telling her in all but words that he loved her. He wanted this. He wanted death. He'd give the reaper a hug and buy him a bloody beer if he could, but as Sean said, it wasn't to be.
One-by-one, the X-Men disappeared. It was as if his friends, his family, were abandoning him. In the end, even Ev and Angelo left him, only Sean remaining behind.
"Wake up, Jono," he said, before his form shifted and morphed into that of Scott Summers.
"Wake up, Jono!" he repeated frantically. "Logan, hurry it up!" he called back over his shoulder.
"Goin' as fast as I can, Cyke!" his compatriot called back as he pushed some large container towards them.
"You're going to be alright, Jono," Cyclops assured him, but he wasn't so sure that was good news.
He was too tired to carry on anyway. He would either wake up alive later, or not wake up at all. He supposed he'd leave it up to fate to decide, as he closed his eyes and let the darkness swallow him.
Waking up to find Paige at his bedside, weeping over the fear he might die soothed Jono's pain more than any medicine or advanced technology ever could, even if it tore him up inside to see Paige so upset. This would only get worse as Paige's life took a downward spiral, but at least he knew that their last argument wouldn't be their final interaction.
She and Monet got him caught up on the mass depowering and the casualties, of the goings on at the mansion and with spin-off X-groups around the globe. Others occasionally stopped by: Jubilee, depowered like him, had moved back to New York to be closer to everybody. She admitted that the proximity was all that kept her going some days, before she suddenly realised who she was talking to and feebly attempted to backpedal.
Lacking the capacity to communicate verbally or telepathically anymore, Jono had been given a simple remote to press to respond "Yes" or "No". There were a few other options to allow him to make certain requests, but this still meant that conversation was largely one-sided and the other party would need to speak specifically so as to allow him to respond with his limited word range.
"No. No." He pressed the button a few times and gave a thumbs up with his free hand to make his point. He wanted to assure her the she hadn't offended him or anything. In truth, simply having her here, speaking her mind, reminded him of the good old days. He tried to smile, but with only one lip, he could tell it looked forced, even without seeing it himself. Even so, she smiled at that. There was a clear sense of pity in her eyes, which probably made him feel more uncomfortable than his incomplete body ever could. She told him she had been offered a big opportunity to do some good without her powers, but she was on the fence about it.
"Go for it," he told her through a thumbs up and a press of the "Yes" button. It was why she'd wanted to be an X-Man, right? To make a difference. She seemed to get the message, such as it was. She squeezed his hand and thanked him, said she'd be taking the offer, but that meant she'd have less time to visit him.
It was hard to hear her say that, especially when Emma was busy managing damn near the entire mutant population on Earth, Paige was struggling to continue doing her part in assisting Emma, and M was busy in District X. But Jono had never been one to let himself hold others back. It was bad enough his own life was a wretched mess; he wasn't going to let himself become the cause of other people's lives ending up the same way. He assured her he'd be fine, even if they both knew that wasn't the case.
As Jubilee's visit did indeed become more and more sparse, Jono had to wonder if she had understood his intent. She still held out hope that a cure to restore their powers could be found, but Jono had always had a very different mindset to Jubilation Lee.
He spent a long while in the hospital - weeks, months, he had no idea. Time was a concept that no longer mattered aside from the clock ticking down to the inevitable failure of the technology keeping him alive or the collateral damage from a super-powered battle ending his miserable existence.
Any one of his friends would tell him there was hope in all of this being undone, but they'd only be trying to convince themselves. Jono knew this was it. He wasn't stupid or naive enough to hope there would come a day when he would miraculously recover and go back to his old life... but sometimes, on very rare occasions, he wished more than anything that he was.
Jono was assigned an elderly therapist to help see him through his transition, probably hired by Emma or Scott. His name was Dr. Hartley - well, that was his alias, anyway. He seemed friendly enough. That is, until he abducted Jono from the hospital and took him to the secret hideaway of Clan Akkaba, a cult that worshipped En Sabah Nur, Apocalypse. They were also his blood descendants.
Jono's family, as it happened, had direct ties to Apocalypse as his family had been a part of the clan up through his great-grandfather. Even after leaving the clan, the old man had always insisted on the family receiving the clan's crest as a brand on their chests 'just in case'. Jono had always thought the old man was crazy, until he'd been taken by the clan and forced through a procedure that left him changed physically.
He stared at the stranger in the bathroom mirror. He looked a little like Jono, but his skin was grey, his pronounced lips blue, and his eyes bright red. And they'd reapplied that damn chest tattoo as well; the one good thing about his chest going Hiroshima. Jono had been changed to resemble how one might imagine Apocalypse himself looked in his youth. For what reason, he really had no idea.
It was a strange sensation, feeling the intense mixture of emotion he did. On the one hand, he looked like Apocalypse, one of the greatest threats the world had ever seen. On the other, his jaw and chest were restored. He could speak, eat, taste, breathe for the first time in years. It was like a wish granted by some trickster genie, twisting the wish into a curse.
"Hey... Jono?" Jubilee asked slowly as her reflection came into view behind his. "Are you...?"
"I'm fine, Jubes," he replied, realising then how alien it was for both of them to hear him physically say her name. "It's just this..." He buttoned up his shirt to cover the bright red brand. "This is gonna take some getting used to."
Jubilee stepped beside him. "Well, you adjusted to looking like the impact zone of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs in short order, so something like this should be no problem."
He chuckled. God, how long had it been since he'd been able to smile. How long had it been since he'd wanted to smile? He patted her on the head teasingly before leaving the bathroom, and the somewhat miffed Jubilee, behind.
After his transformation, Jono had escaped Clan Akkaba. Well, escaped wasn't necessarily the most accurate description of Apocalypse himself letting Jono go when he had rejected them. He had rejected Excalibur too immediately upon leaving. Pete Wisdom had been visiting Jono right before his abduction and had evidently scrambled the team to help find him.
Jono was tired of the lack of control he had over his own life. Things had been going well with Gayle before his face exploded, leaving her crippled and forcing him to move to the States and join an amateur superhero team. Then, the school had shut down after one of his friends was murdered and the two advisers started to go off the deep end. He had been given the choice to join the X-Men, but what else was there for him outside of that? Unlike the others, he couldn't live a normal life, so joining up with the next freak show was his only option. Xavier knew that and the invitation was just a formality.
Paige's relationship with Warren was outside of his control. The mission to infiltrate Weapon Plus was his only option aside from prison, in light of his bar fight with Warren. Losing his powers, getting abducted, being born into a family with ties to Apocalypse, none of it was within his control and Jono was sick to death of it.
That was why he had blown up at them. It wasn't their fault, he knew that even then, but he had to vent somehow. He had expressed his desire to be left alone in a speech about that would make Churchill blush, and told the premier superhero team of the British Isles to sod off.
Jono respected them, of course - anyone who risked their lives for other people was okay in his books - but he was still conflicted on what they had done. On the one hand, yes, they did leave him alone, but Captain Britain was the brother of the X-Men's Psylocke, and his teams typically consisted of X-Men, both present and former. As such, he had direct ties with the institute, allowing him to get in touch and keep them informed on Jono's situation.
Emma had sent Jubilee to find him - or so Jubes herself had claimed. Supposedly, Emma had wanted one of Jono's friends to be there for him and Jubilee, no longer a serving X-Man, was the obvious choice in light of the added workload the rest of them had. Emma had a strange way of being simultaneously coldly pragmatic and warmly comforting.
As for right now, Jono had a choice to make. He stared at the costume that was draped across Jubilee's bed. It was a skin-tight bodysuit, somewhat reminiscent of Spider-Man's, only in orange and white with bulging lenses for eyes. It would serve Jubilee well as Wondra of the New Warriors.
After Stamford, the New Warriors name was brand poison. Only a crazy person would choose that name for a new team, and from what Jubilee had told him, the miraculously alive Night Thrasher was just that - in a supposedly good way. He had invited her to be the new team's drill sergeant, which she had accepted at Jono's encouragement. Jono had seen a couple of news reports of supervillain defeats that Jubilee had later claimed to be her and the other recruits. That had made Jono just a little more hopeful that life could get better from here.
"Given it some more thought?" Jubilee asked as she stood beside him again, looking down at the costume too. "The others are good, but a team needs familiarity. It'd really help me out if I had someone I know and trust fightin' alongside me, y'know?"
"I have thought about it, Jubes," he replied, moving around the bed to the window overlooking the rain-soaked street below. "Fer the longest time, I thought my life had already peaked and it was all downhill from here. The old team gave me some stable footing, but everything broke down in the end and joinin' the X-Men ain't all it's cracked up to be."
Jubilee remained anxiously silent as she moved around the bed to sit down near him.
"I remember... how you looked at me when you found me in that shelter. I could tell right away that it weren't easy lookin' at me, young Apocalypse that I am now. But I noticed, once you brought me back here, how yer stopped lookin' at me like that real quick. It was like we were right back to how we were in the old days. I appreciate that, Jubes."
He turned back to face her. He'd never been good at dealing with other people, especially after his powers manifested, but Jubilee was hanging on his every word and he felt like he knew exactly what to say next.
"It's inspirin', really. No matter how bad things got - and they tend ter get unreasonably bad in our line of work - you and Angelo, yer never let it get ter yer. Lookin' at this objectively, call it cynically if yer want, this whole New Warriors thing is a terrible idea. People hate the New Warriors right now more than they hate mutants, and that's bloody sayin' somethin'. Yer'll be usin' tech to simulate new powers yer've got sod all practice wiv."
Jubilee looked like she was starting to have second thoughts about the whole thing. That wasn't his intention, though.
"But yer still gonna go through with it despite everythin' goin' against yer. Some might say yer too much of a dreamer ter lead a team. Maybe you are. But I feel like, if there were more people like you, Jubes, maybe Xavier's dream wouldn't be just that anymore. So, you ask me if I'll join yer New Warriors? Long as you're there ter lead us... I'm in."
Jubilee beamed as he said this. She leapt to her feet and hugged him tightly. Thinking about it, he wasn't sure if she'd ever hugged him before. Really, he wasn't sure anyone had done so since then. Had the crater and psionic furnace been obstacles keeping people away? He'd forgotten how it felt to be held by another person or to hold them in return. It felt nice.
She pulled away, a sudden mock seriousness playing across her face. "I'm not gonna go easy on yer limey ass just cuz we're old friends, y'know."
Jono shrugged nonchalantly. "Wot yer gonna do, sparky? Put on a light show?"
Jubilee's expression displayed shock, indignation and wry respect all in the space about about two seconds. "What's this? Mr. Starsmore, I do believe that was a joke. I genuinely didn't ya know had it in ya."
"Life's full a' surprised, Ms. Lee," he replied, sounding not as jovial as he might like on account of his voice being... it was probably deeper than it used to be - he barely remembered what his voice had sounded like anymore. It might have been like his telepathic voice, but there really was no way to be sure.
"Ain't that the truth?" she replied wistfully. "But, hey, if we're gonna get you in the team, you'll need some new powers. You looked over that list I gave ya?"
Jono nodded. "Yeah. I know which one I want ter use: Sonics."
Jubilee smiled knowingly. "I thought you might. For Sean?"
Again, Jono nodded. "Fer Sean."
She held out a hand for him to shake, which he did. "Let's do him proud, Jono."
"Yeah. Let's do all of 'em proud."