Heaven's Edge

Alhazred - [email protected]

X-Men and all related material is © Marvel.

Pyro liked his uniform.

Not that it was a uniform in the traditional sense. The Brotherhood, after all, didn't want to overtly announce its presence, but that was fine. Magneto had the highest-profile uniform of them all and that didn't say much. Although, Magneto had also given Pyro an old leather bomber jacket and an equally old pair of finger-less leather gloves. Old, but very well taken care of. Magneto said he'd worn them around Pyro's age, a time when he and Xavier were still on good speaking terms.

Pyro didn't think they even made finger-less gloves back then. And he was beginning to suspect Magneto had one mother of a leather fetish, but who was he to judge? The jacket was equally nice, the back decorated with a fiery angel, embroidered with the words 'Heaven's Edge' in fancy handwriting across his shoulders.

He liked his uniform. Even if the parts Magneto hadn't given him from days of yore were a simple T-shirt and jeans.

Right now, he liked it because he was the only one not wearing a suit and tie in the office building. Not that anyone cared; he was a perfectly legitimate visitor. Magneto had even mentioned that the place was an equal opportunity employer for mutants. That would explain why he wasn't afraid of Xavier having influence here. Places where mutants were welcome didn't have any that needed to be saved now, did they?

Still, a single software company and that island in the Caribbean...Genosha, Pyro remembered, they were far cries from worldwide acceptance. He had yet to decide if he was as disappointed as Magneto when the whole idea of reversing Stryker's Cerebro flopped at the last second.

In any case, Pyro looked again at the directions Magneto had given him to his destination. The elevator ride to the 42nd floor hadn't taken long, now all he needed to do was find this guy. "Josh Bryant, 42nd floor, office 10," the note read. Unfortunately, the offices didn't seem to be well arranged. The first one he saw after stepping out of the elevator was a triple-digit number.

Nevertheless, he found 10 soon enough. Flicking his lighter open and closed out of habit, he knocked on the door. A male voice came from within. "It's open."

Upon opening the door, Pyro's senses were assaulted with an atmosphere entirely different than the pristine orderly hallway he came in from. The room was dark with a rug, not a curtain but a rug stapled over the window to block out all sunlight. In fact, the bank of computer monitors on the wall provided the only light at all. The air smelled faintly of Chinese take-out and various soft drinks.

"Um...hi?" Pyro ventured.

The room's sole occupant responded with an optimistic, hearty "hi" in kind. The computer screens featured mostly programming code being written. Pyro didn't understand it and he wasn't sure he wanted to try, but it looked like this guy was writing three programs at once.

Said guy turned his chair around to face Pyro, putting a pair of glasses on his face. The coding froze and didn't move anymore as Pyro's eyebrows went up. "No no, lemmie guess. You must be...John, was it?"

Pyro blinked. "Yeah. You're..."

"Call me 'Bool,'" the programmer answered, amused despite himself. "'Cause after all, everything is either true or false."

Pyro wondered how Magneto had met him. He was a bit plump with shoulder-length hair and a beard. He screamed 'geek.'

"Here, you came to get this," Bool added, opening a drawer and pulling out a magnetic-optical disc. "Mags having already paid me and it's nothing illegal, y'know. Tell him I still will not write viruses for him."

"Right," Pyro tapped the disk against his lighter once, more speechless at the surealty of the setting he'd wandered into than anything. "So...how long have you known Magneto?"

"We met at a computer show a few years back. He accidentally erased the hard drive in my laptop," Bool lifted up a finger to accentuate his story, "and was promptly amazed at how all I had to do to restore it was look at the case."

"And he didn't...recruit you?" Pyro raised an eyebrow. Surely this guy was a mutant.

"Actually, I said no. Something about making obscene amounts of money sitting here and programming software faster then the entire rest of the staff." Bool took his glasses off once more and blinked; as his eyes opened, they were no longer eyes in the strictest sense. Where once there was white, blue and black was now static, the kind of static one saw on television when there was bad reception. If he really listened, Pyro could even hear the static buzzes and pops. A slight grin on his face, Bool turned his chair back around and though his hands touched none of the computer equipment, more code started being written across the monitors.

Pyro took his leave of the programmer, blinking once he was back in the hallway and his eyes had to readjust. "What a geek..."

Leaving the building, Pyro contemplated the various ways of getting transportation to where he wanted to go. He didn't care for the subway, subways were catastrophes waiting to happen for persecuted minorities. Needless to say, when a rather nice car pulled up near him as he walked along, he was a bit surprised.

"Need a lift?" the rather pretty woman in the driver's seat asked. She was blonde, a little ditzy looking...

And Pyro didn't trust her as far as he could throw her. "Excuse me?"

"Y'know, lift. You get in car, I drive. Maybe we'll fall in love at first site. I have a very magnetic personality."

Click. Pyro got it then. Mystique was having fun. He chuckled and moved to open the back door, but he paused when someone bumped into him.

"Sorry," the stranger said, one hand on Pyro's arm to steady himself from the impact. His voice was thick with a New Orleans accent. And a pair of pitch-black sunglasses hid his eyes.

"No problem," Pyro stared at him as he walked away for a moment, before he opened the door and realized...that his inside-coat pocket was much lighter then it should have been. Quickly, he reached for the disc Bool had given him, but it was gone. His wallet was gone too, but he was more concerned about the disc.

"What is it," Mystique asked, her tone growing serious.

"He picked my pocket."

His tone was severe enough for her to know that whatever was taken was not expendable. "Close the door, you go on foot."

And Pyro had no objections to this. In fact, he welcomed the opportunity the run the little thief down and burn him into ash if he was still as pissed off by the time he caught up.

He ran down the sidewalk, around the people cluttering it, turning onto a new street when the pickpocket wasn't in site across from him. Sure enough, there he was, calm as ever...until he heard running footfalls and looked behind himself.

"Come back here," Pyro yelled. If he was going to be seen, he might as well be seen and heard. The thief glanced back at him for a moment before running off himself, the old brown duster he wore kicking up as he did so.

This chase was going to happen on Pyro's own terms, a fact demonstrated when he flicked his lighter on and sent a blaze of fire into the air, over the heads of several amazed and scared onlookers. The flames splashed down just on another street the sneaky guy looked like he was going to cross, and Pyro was quick to spread it. Forced into a certain direction, the thief ran between two buildings.

Pyro ran there in time to see his prey cursing his luck; the passage was a dead end. Still, it seemed the Cajun was up for a fight. Pyro slowed to a walk and approached. If he'd learned anything from Sabretooth, it was that a slow walk could be really intimidating.

He let the wall of fire die out, it was taking too much effort and he wanted to give it his all when he brought this guy down a peg. Besides, he would have to get passed him to escape.

"Ah, a mutant," the Cajun said. "Nowadays you have to run DNA tests before robbing someone."

"Yeah, you, do," Pyro stopped stalking towards him. "You gonna give me back my stuff now?"

"Now where's the fun in that," was the answer. The thief reached into a pocket and pulled out what looked like twenty or so playing cards. He shuffled them expertly, though Pyro couldn't fathom why.

Until he tossed one and it exploded on the ground, almost knocking Pyro from his feet. "Why do I have the feeling I'm not the only mutant here?"

"Good guess, Mon Ami," the thief said. He reached up and took off his sunglasses. Whereas Bool's eyes were rather bizarre, the thief's were creepy, a dark black with red in the center. "What's your name?"

"St. John," Pyro held his lighter tightly in his hand, flicking it on behind his back. "And my real name is Pyro."

"A Saint, eh? My name's Gambit. Remember it." With that, Gambit hurled three cards at once.

Pyro dived around, forced forward more when these too exploded.

Pyro retaliated in kind; the flame from his lighter made a decent fireball. The burning remains of the explosive playing cards behind him made two more. He hurled one at Gambit, only to see it skillfully avoided. He tossed the second and third; this time Gambit reached into a pocket and pulled out a small metal rod.

The small rod quickly telescoped out in both directions until it was a long staff, one that Gambit used to effectively pole-vault over the approaching flames and land a kick square on Pyro's chest. His hand held his lighter like an iron vise, but for the time being he was occupied with other matters as he felt his back hit ground.

Gambit didn't stop there; he brought his staff up and promptly tried to crack Pyro's face open with the end of it, but Pyro was quick enough to move out of the way. Desperate for breathing room, he grabbed Gambit's ankle and pulled.

Gambit went down in a heap, but he was up as soon as Pyro was as well, and for a moment, neither did anything beyond approaching and retreating from the other.

Pyro lit his lighter again and tried something less direct. Gambit started to swing at him, but the walls and creatures of fire that bit back kept him away. Pyro pressed on, forming a serpent-dragon from his flame, waving a hand so the tail curled around his body and the head snapped at Gambit further as he stepped forward.

Behind Gambit in the road, a car screeched to a halt. The sudden noise startled the gathering crowd of onlookers, and out of said car stepped a rather pretty woman. Gambit wished he had more time to pay attention and he wished he knew why she was walking towards a mutant brawl.

But he cared a lot more when she grabbed him by the shoulder, spun him around and slapped him. He glared at her briefly, turning to see Pyro back up for some reason, then turned back to her.

Only it wasn't 'her' anymore, it was...Pyro? In two places at once? Confused, Gambit turned back around in time for Pyro to punch in the face. Mystique had reverted to her true form by this point as Gambit swung his staff and spun it over his head, catching Pyro in the face and sending him for a stumble.

He missed Mystique entirely and she caught the staff. Still in Gambit's hands, she twisted so it jabbed him in the gut before using it as a lever to leap over and kick him in the face.

She landed gracefully facing him a lunge position, and Pyro had recovered as well, but the altercation would go no further. Much to Gambit's disbelief, his staff twisted itself out of his hands, a magnetic hum resonating as it smoothly bent and bound his arms to the side. He thought Mystique responsible, until another voice spoke behind him.

"You gave my siblings a good run for their money, pickpocket."

Gambit turned around, seeing that the speaker was an old man dressed in a wool overcoat, a fedora hugging gray hair to his head. Magneto went on. "Alas, the game is up."

Gambit's arms were free at the elbows; he used this fact to get a card into his hand and raised enough to throw, and Magneto answered the threat with a wave of his hand. Gambit's staff tightened around him, and he winced as it grew harder to breath.

"Alright," the thief conceded, dropping the card. It fluttered to the ground and didn't explode. Despite his bravado, he knew when to quit.

Magneto lowered his hand, and the staff bent back to it's original state, clattering to the ground. Gambit made no move to pick it up yet, though he seemed more amused than anything. How often did a simple theft incite three mutants to triple-team the thief?

"Win some, lose some, eh, Mon Ami?"

"Yeah," Pyro smiled, deliberately sarcastic in every move he made. He reached a hand out to receive the disc Gambit had taken a few seconds before it was even offered. And once he had it in his hand, he said, "And my wallet. With the cash."

"Oh my, how could I forget that," Gambit chuckled. After returning that as well, he kicked his staff into his hands, clicked a switch to make it shrink back down, and took a bow before he left. "Cheery bye."

...traitor...

"That was amusing," Mystique commented, taking on a more 'normal' form lest anything else frighten any of the crowd into doing something foolish. She looked over at Pyro; the younger mutant seemed distracted, as if he heard something. He was certainly looking around for something. "Pyro. Pyro."

"Hmm?" He snapped out of it as Magneto motioned for them to follow him. The onlookers parted to let them all through, half-wired to watch in curiosity and half-scared to death. "Did you just...hear something?"

"No," Mystique answered, getting back in the driver's seat. Magneto sat in back, leaving Pyro for shotgun. He listened as he talked with Mystique, curious. So was Mystique. "What did 'it' sound like?"

"It sounded like," he paused, and didn't finish that sentence. He looked back into the alley as she drove off, almost seeing someone familiar standing there. "Nothing."

It had sounded like 'Traitor.'

"We'll skip town and go further south," Magneto spoke. Mystique nodded and took an appropriate turn to start them on their journey. "I'm sure Charles will hear about our exploits shortly. We'll be long gone."

"Maybe along the way," Mystique smiled, "I can teach St. John to properly fight hand-to-hand."

Pyro blinked, let out a squeak, and clicked his lighter louder than usual.

On the other hand, maybe it wasn't such a bad idea. He could practically feel the bruise forming around his right eye.

~~~

The Holiday Inn Mystique had landed them in was a good deal nicer then many of the places the three traveling members of the Brotherhood stayed during their trip down the west coast. Pyro didn't particularly care for the driving, but at least Sabretooth wasn't with them to growl incessantly in similar protest.

He didn't totally mind sharing a room with Mystique, either, awkward as it was. She was amused at his utter inability to spend a night in her presence without being incredibly flustered by her flirting, he was happy she didn't snore.

Currently, he was happy she was already asleep as he stood at the balcony and looked out. The incident with that crazy pickpocket not withstanding, he was bothered by what had happened right after. Traitor...traitor...he knew he'd heard it. A woman, perhaps...Mystique? If she was feeling sadistic, maybe, but he hadn't heard it from where she was standing.

In fact, it had seemed to come from everywhere. Traitor...

"Traitor...traitor!"

Pyro's hands grabbed onto the railings so fast that it made a noise, his fingers tightening so much his knuckles went white. That had been real. Real and just the same as before, but who was it, he looked around, turning to look at the room and then back to look outside. Who was torturing him like this?

Franticly, he scanned the hotel grounds as best he could from the vantage point he had. The second floor wasn't very high up. But as soon as he looked down...there she was, down. Near the pool, looking back up at him, pure hate in her eyes...no, not hate, flames.

And the worst of it all, Pyro thought, he recognized her. "Dr. Grey?"

"Traitor!" she bellowed, mouth not moving, her body framed in a growing, golden flame.

"That I heard."

Pyro turned to see Mystique as she scrambled out of bed, the nightgown she had draped over herself shape-shifting away. Any other time, Pyro would have found it amusing and perhaps vaguely disturbing that she used her gift, her vast gift that could turn her into anything she wanted...to make a nightgown at night.

But now, he forced himself to look back and...she was gone, as simply as she had appeared. No flames, nothing.

"It was..." Pyro stammered, trying to release his grip on the railing. Couldn't he just be left alone? Why couldn't they understand why he'd left, they...Pyro thought on that. They. What if they were all... "X-Men."

Mystique woke Magneto. Magneto took them right downstairs; Pyro was comforted by the fact that Magneto didn't talk to him like he'd lost his mind when they'd found nothing.

"And it was Dr. Grey you saw," Magneto asked one more time. His tone of voice suggested something was off.

"Yeah," Pyro nodded, flicking his lighter on and off, his eyes still wandering at random, looking for the hidden enemies who increasingly seemed non-existent. "But she looked...different."

"That's not their style," Magneto said to himself. "I wonder if something else is going on here."

"Traitor..."

This time, Magneto heard it as well, Jean Grey's voice, just a whisper, from everywhere but nowhere. The three of them backed up out of the wide, open space, waiting for something to happen...and five minutes later, they were still waiting.

Pyro watched Magneto pull something from his pocket; it was one of the X-Men's comm-links, probably taken from the jet when no one was looking. He turned it on and put it to his head.

A few seconds later, Magneto spoke. "Hello, Charles. No, I expect you didn't. Fine, thank you."

Wondering how on earth Xavier and Magneto were still on speaking terms, Pyro walked up to him; he wanted to hear the other end of the conversation, but Magneto looked at him and shook his head no.

Pyro stopped.

"Funny," Magneto's eyebrows went up, "I was about to ask if you already knew where I was. We seem to be getting late-night visits from one of your telepaths. ...I see."

The look on Magneto's face turned from curiosity to confusion, and then, almost, to sadness. "Yes, that was a brave thing. Please accept my apologies and condolences, Charles, I had no idea." He looked at Pyro as he ended his conversation. "Yes, I'll give St. John your best wishes. One more thing...did she happen to appear on fire, the last time you saw her? Thank you, goodbye Charles."

Click.

Pyro couldn't stop himself. "And?"

"Dr. Grey died at Alkali Lake."

Pyro was shocked, not just from the fact that he had just seen her here five minutes ago. He'd liked Dr. Grey. She was one of the better teachers at Xavier's school, never so quick to judge him for his behavior, however often he was 'politely' asked to control himself. Ironically, the professor never did that either. Not that it had been enough to keep him there.

And now she was dead. But she was here, or he was going insane. Magneto turned to him. "Are you sure you saw what you saw?"

"I know what I saw," Pyro answered.

"Alright." Magneto said.

Pyro added, "I'm not crazy."

"I believe you."

"Traitor."

Pyro looked passed Magneto to the source of the voice, for it had a concrete source this time. And there she was, standing there...almost normal. He almost wanted to kill her, strangle her on the spot and have her dying words be why she couldn't leave him alone. But he still hadn't done it by the time Magneto and Mystique had turned to look; something about the idea that she was supposed to be dead gave him pause.

And then, once again, she was gone.

And an uncomfortable silence settled. Pyro hated uncomfortable silences. "Can we go now?"

"I think we will," Magneto was thinking in different terms, "Mystique, call Toad. Tell him to bring the helicopter. We're going to take a close look at Alkali Lake."

~~~

Sabretooth was getting shafted.

With a ghost haunting him and no sleep for an entire trip across the country and into Canada, Pyro could think of nothing else other than the fact that Sabretooth was getting shafted. He had called one or twice to tell Magneto that Toad would be up and hopping shortly.

And now, here was Toad flying them around in Magneto's 'borrowed' US Senate chopper, and poor Sabretooth was back at home, being bored. Pyro knew the feeling.

In fact, he'd have given anything to know it right now. He had been awake since the helicopter left the West Coast at least a day ago, had been awake for the two refuel stops, and he really didn't want to know what was waiting for them at Alkali Lake. Assuming anything was waiting at all.

The area was warmer than the snow suggested, though he didn't mind. Much like Bobby and other mutants with elemental gifts, Pyro liked heat.

"Fan out," Magneto ordered, the helicopter blades having not even stopped. Toad had only now locked the doors. "Secure the area. Everyone return once we've lost sight of each other, we'll move elsewhere in a group."

Small patrol boats had been visible in the lake for some time, probably investigating the dam breakage and the not-so-secret underground base of William Stryker. Toad hopped along a little and asked, in that disturbingly British accent of his, "What are we looking for?"

"I'm hoping we know it when we see it," Magneto answered.

Thinking they most certainly would, Pyro choose a direction and walked. 'Fanning out' was easier than it sounded, really. Mystique was closest, Magneto after her, and Toad was at the other end of the search.

Toad had landed them fairly close to the new shore. Tops of trees still poked up out of the lake, and Pyro wondered how Colonel Stryker felt when the water hit that slab of concrete Magneto had chained him too.

He hoped it had hurt. He hoped it hurt like all the cliched movie lines and Titanic survivor stories said hitting cold water felt like. Being stabbed everywhere. Not going numb nearly as soon as you'd like. Because the Cerebro attack had been pure, untainted agony, and he hoped Stryker had felt even more.

Bitter thoughts in his mind, Pyro stepped down as close as he dared to the water. The hill was fairly stable with little snow on top of dirt. Stryker was near here, the helipad they had taken off from wasn't far away.

Growing more exhausted, Pyro looked down at his reflection in the water. The dark circles and bags under his eyes weren't a pretty site, and neither was the bruise from Gambit's staff, but sleep just hadn't been an option. Magneto had even asked him about it, but Pyro wasn't about to admit he was scared of hearing Dr. Grey in his dreams.

He hated cold, but he needed something to wake him up. Reminded of Bobby finding humor in icing him out of bed when he slept late, Pyro crouched down and dipped his hands into the waters of Alkali Lake.

He'd splashed himself in the face so fast that it wasn't until the water was already dripping off he realized it was hot. Not the hot of abnormally warm water in Canada, but just-below-boiling-hot.

Pyro backed away. "This isn't right."

Traitor...

It came from behind. Pyro turned and...there was nothing, an occurrence that was starting to become common. He looked back over the lake, only he didn't see the lake.

He didn't see the lake because Jean Grey was right in front of him.

And he couldn't move.

She looked absolutely harmless, like an old picture. She was smiling, her hair was long like it had been not long ago. "Hello, John."

Pyro fumbled for his lighter, too surprised to move quickly. Her mind hurled him onto his back, several feet away, and held him there. Held him completely. His hand was wrapped tightly around his lighter but he couldn't even move his thumb to flick it open.

And Jean was standing over him in short order, bending down after that, her eyes ablaze in that odd, gold fire. Some of it flickered around her body as well. "You didn't think I'd forgotten, did you?"

He swallowed hard. "The thought hadn't crossed my mind."

"Good," she looked into his eyes, neither of them blinking. Pyro didn't think he could tear himself away if he wanted to.

Conversation, Pyro decided, was going to continue before he went insane. But his trembling voice didn't. "So what are you now? The Phoenix cliche, born from death and fire? I know a lot about fire."

"I do, too," she brought that hand up so he could see, so he could see those flames form talons from her nails. "Phoenix? For a short time, maybe. Jean to Phoenix to Dark Phoenix...a progression as natural as death. Goodbye, John."

She raised her hand, fully intending to skewer him.

And then she was gone. Toad had jumped through the air and landed on her. Pyro felt the telekinetic grip on him loosen, he pulled himself to his feet, seeing Toad still crouched on top of Jean...the Dark Phoenix.

Pyro could hear Toad, almost see him smiling. "I remember you, Lady."

He tried to smack her in the face with his tongue; it stopped in midair and she hurled him away like she'd done to Pyro before. As soon as she saw Pyro standing, she tried to do it again.

But this time, he fought it. He didn't even know he could, he wasn't a telepath, after all, but he took a step forward, her will trying to force him back...and he realized it was her fire. Her telekinesis was manifesting as fire.

And Pyro liked fire. He raised a hand towards her and felt for the flames, tougher than what he created with his lighter, already owned by someone else. Nevertheless, he pushed. And this time, she lost her footing and fell back.

But he couldn't hold her, she was too strong and she stood up with ease.

Both of them tore their attention away from each other long enough to look at the water when the tell-tale hum of Magneto's powers started to resonate from the lake. The water from the shoreline and a good deal farther out started rippling as a cloud of...something arose from it.

"My dear," Magneto said, floating down from atop the trees, one hand moving gently to form the particles of metal into something more solid. "Didn't you know this lake was named for the high metal content?"

Pyro watched in awe as the metal fog swirled and moved, spinning around Jean...around Dark Phoenix like a tornado, forming a solid metal sphere with her at the center. Magneto floated to the ground beside his mutant brother, pleased that his containment orb worked, not daring to let air inside until Jean was unconscious. "That should hold her."

But Pyro could feel the fire inside the orb, the flame of Hell, a passion that seared flesh and metal alike. "No...it won't."

He could see the orb shake and hear Jean rattle despite Magneto's best efforts. The elder mutant tried to hold it together, but he was failing and she would be free in short order. "St. John, I believe you're right. Perhaps it's time for a bit of a strategic retreat."

'Retreat' was hiding on the other side of the hill they were standing on, Dark Phoenix growing more violent by the minute. But Pyro didn't want to leave without settling this. Neither did the others. Mystique joined them before Pyro even heard her approach. A thought struck him. "Why would she do this, anyway? How could she?"

"Yes, it's quite a puzzle," Magneto thought, sliding his helmet on. "Unless...she used Cerebro."

Pyro didn't understand how that was possible, it had been Xavier on Cerebro in the base, regardless of whatever Dr. Grey had been doing to stop it. "Come again?"

"This is obviously the natural zenith of her gift," Magneto went on. "Tell me, St. John, what happened when you first discovered your talent?"

"I put a kitchen fire out," Pyro answered. It hadn't been that big of a deal, it was so extraordinary and dependent on something others shied from in fear that being a mutant was easy to hide.

"I myself tore down a gate at," Magneto started, "well, I tore down a gate, about as complicated as what happened to you. But when telepaths feel their powers emerge..."

Magneto looked at the top of the hill and winced as they heard his spherical prison shatter, a few pieces actually flying well over their heads to land in the forest. Dark Phoenix would find them. "When telepaths gain their abilities, they lose their minds. They can't stand the massive influx of voices and thoughts and they can't control it. You know what I did to your friend?"

Pyro nodded, and he listened as Magneto went on. "Charles was otherwise incapacitated, and they didn't know where I was. So she probably used Cerebro herself, without the mental capacity Charles has to handle it. One thing we could never fix about the machine is that it doesn't care if the user has no access to their full power. It makes access. And here she is all over again, growing too powerful, too fast to handle it."

It made sense. In fact, Pyro found it to be elegantly simple. She had gone mad. The trick was figuring out how to calm her down. Magneto seemed to already have an idea, and he was looking at Mystique.

They moved before Dark Phoenix even thought of climbing the hill. Mystique climbed it first, but Dark Phoenix didn't know that. Because Mystique didn't look like Mystique anymore, and Pyro, watching from farther away, was shocked that she hadn't even bothered to telepathically verify the sight before her.

For the first time, her fire went out. "Scott?"

Mystique didn't say a word, she let the look speak for itself without tipping her off to scan her, and she trudged up the snowy hill. Dark Phoenix, in turn, backed away and down, as if Jean had come back and didn't believe this was possible.

She was right.

All the while, Pyro and Toad climbed a tree. Literally; Toad did most of the climbing with Pyro hanging onto him for dear life, and when they finally reached the highest stable branch on the tree, he leapt off again, landing on a tree closer to Mystique as Jean continued backing away from her.

And then, finally, Dark Phoenix came back...and so did the flame in her eyes, on her skin, and, Pyro could feel it even from far away...in her heart. "You can't have her!"

Mystique reverted, seeing no sense in keeping the form. Perhaps the shift would further enrage the firebird, distracting her. It didn't. Dark Phoenix levitated clear off the ground with her telekinesis, as if propelled by the flames, sending waves of them at Mystique.

Mystique didn't budge, because she knew Magneto was close by and he promptly raised a wall in front of her with the metal from the river; Powerful as the force hitting the metal was, it wasn't strong enough to destroy metal that dynamically shaped to withstand force. Rising more, Dark Phoenix caught of sight of Toad...and then Pyro. Mystique was forgotten instantly. "Traitor!"

Pyro tried to stare her down, to stop her from seeing his fear even though she could see it in his mind. He tried to keep eye contact with her, but when he blinked...she was gone.

A gust of wind diverted his attention; she had moved fast or teleported like Nightcrawler, because now she was standing on the branch of a tree across from him, this one partially submerged in the lake. Dark Phoenix didn't shout. She didn't look angry. She merely spoke. "I will see you destroyed."

Shrugging his coat off, Pyro flicked his lighter open, the hand holding it far out to his side. He could be more creative than a fantasy fire bird. "Bring it."

Grabbing the flame from his lighter, he pulled and wrapped it around his arm, the flame splitting into a double-helix One line spread to his opposite shoulder and grew, reaching out and upward in the shape of the serpent-dragon that had served him against Gambit. The other trailed down and emerged from his side in the same manner, both flames lancing out at his will, the points of origin moving to his hands as he manipulated them. One slashed out; Dark Phoenix's flame grew more brilliant as she levitated into the air so quickly she appeared to be leaping. But the flames connected, the reaction exploding into a shock wave that spread out in a circle, not a sphere but a ring of pure fire.

Pyro felt it pass right through his body, whereas Toad made sure to duck down more while the tops of trees were neatly burned off in all directions. Undaunted, Pyro re-steadied his precarious footing and pulled his right arm back, sending the dragon at his target's midsection. The flame's 'teeth' clamped on Dark Phoenix's midsection, and Pyro found he could hold her with his own fire, but this did not turn the tide of battle.

Angered, Dark Phoenix retaliated with her own powers; Pyro saw smaller, faster streaks of golden flame erupt from around his and streak toward him; he brought the other dragon up and the streaks met it at different points, neither of them able to push through the opposing force. For a few seconds, the two stayed locked in the stalemate, bathing this part of Alkali Lake in majestic, flowing oranges.

"Now's as good a time as any," Toad commented from his vantage point. Pyro glanced down at him and nodded; Toad, in turn, braced himself to move while Pyro let go of his fire, using his now free hands to hurl a fireball at Dark Phoenix.

Neither of them noticed if it hit or not, the intent was to keep her distracted a few seconds more. Pyro thought about where exactly he should step to keep his balance on the thin wood he stood on, and he moved before he had a chance to consider the insanity of this idea.

Running exactly two steps before he was out of usable space, Pyro leapt from the tree. So did Toad, and they met in midair, Toad giving Pyro a piggyback ride once more. Unperturbed, Toad landed on the tree Dark Phoenix had stood on not long ago, or what was left of the top before he jumped again, straight at the levitating form above.

This time, Pyro pushed off.

Toad went back down and perched perfectly on a tree more sunk in the water, low enough that it hadn't been hit by the ring of fire earlier. But Pyro collided with Dark Phoenix in mid air.

She hadn't been expecting that. His shoulder connected to her face, and they fell side-by-side, making an undignified splash when they landed in the lake.

It was true, what they said in the movies. At least, some of it was. Maybe it was just that he liked heat, but Pyro could almost feel metal cutting flesh when he hit the water; without Dark Phoenix to warm it, the Canadian waters had turned frigid once more.

It was good incentive to get out. His hands and feet were almost numb already and the lake spillage had turned the snow on the hillside into ice, but he managed to scramble up until his head was out of the water.

"Above average my ass," he gasped, breathing heavily, freezing cold. He tried flicking his lighter to make a very large fire, but wet, it wouldn't give him the spark he needed. Magneto and Mystique had soon joined Toad at the shoreline, about ready to jump in after him. Suddenly, he stopped scrambling to get out and looked around. "Where is she?"

Glancing back at his newfound family, Pyro caught the look of shock on their faces; he turned to see Dark Phoenix rising again, not just rising, but burning brighter than before with flames shaped in the form of that bird she readily claimed to be.

Pyro would have none of it.

He gave up on climbing and instead, he let himself fall into what was knee-deep water where he stood. The slope of the hill brought him down more before he hit his knees, but he didn't care. Even Dark Phoenix wasn't fast enough to see what he was doing and react.

Falling against her, Pyro forced his arms up. They were heavy, from the cold and the water drenching his clothes, but he let his weight keep him there, his head on her shoulder, his arms wrapped around her back, he locked his hands together to hold himself in place.

Dark Phoenix tried to shove him off, but she almost fell as well as he felt for her flame...and willed it to snuff out.

The Dark Phoenix grew smaller. The flames diminished. They resisted, and Pyro had never felt that before, a fire that fought obeying him.

It only encouraged him to try harder. And when there was nothing left, when Jean was free to sleep without her insanity destroying everything around her, when she went limp, then Pyro fell.

He could feel himself falling to the side before he went numb, either from the water or pushing himself too hard. The shore no longer held its appeal as the warm, edge of paradise because getting there would require effort and he had no more give.

He was numb, and the last thing he saw through the water before his eyes closed was Mystique looking over him.

~~~

"Woah," Pyro blinked. He tried to remember how he'd gone from drowning to standing in the woods at dusk. He really couldn't. And where was everyone? Sitting down at a campsite made near the helicopter, a meager campfire going in the middle. Dr. Grey lay at one side, Toad's coat propping her head up, and Magneto's cloak acting as a blanket. Both of them were close enough to the fire to stay at a safe temperature, if not comfortable. And finally, there was Mystique. Mystique, who was lying down, holding someone in her arms to keep them warm where the fire wasn't enough. "Woah!"

Pyro was in Mystique's arms. Lying in her lap, the coat Magneto had given him acting as a poor blanket.

That was unexpected. Pyro didn't know what shocked him more, being held by a blue naked woman (was she naked, he finally wondered,) or seeing the scene from elsewhere? Unless, of course...he had drowned and this was...

"You're not dead."

He hadn't even noticed Dr. Grey sitting on a rock to the side, legs crossed, also in two places at once. She looked normal, finally. Her hair had turned back to the length she'd cut it to. Her eyes bore none of the fire or rage that Dark Phoenix had directed at him. Even so, he wasn't comforted by looks alone. "You're not..."

"No, not right now," she smiled. Obviously, she was responsible for this little out-of-body experience. "I owe you for helping me wake up. Thanks."

"Uh, you're welcome" he tried to think of something to say, but Pyro realized he just didn't understand what had happened to her in the first place. He decided to ask, but an entirely different question came out of his mouth. "Why me?"

"Not for any logical reason," she said.

That wasn't good enough. "Try me."

Pyro was impatient, and he considered prodding her, but he "When was the last time you were angry, John?"

That was an easy question. "In Boston. At Bobby's house."

She continued. "What pissed you off?"

Any other time, her choice language would have shocked Pyro, but this wasn't any other time. "His family practically disowning him. The cops shooting Logan in the head because some punk kid ratted on the mutie freaks. Everything. I just...wanted to see them all burn."

"Imagine what it would feel like if that rage was tangible, and it held onto you no matter how petty or insignificant. Telepaths experience things like that when we can't control our powers; our minds turn against us." Her eyes flared for a moment, as if to get the point across. "For a telekinetic, things tend to manifest physically."

"Phoenix?" Pyro asked.

"Dark Phoenix," she corrected. "Using Cerebro that time was...necessary. And I refused to face the consequences when they turned apparent, what harm could thirty seconds on the thing do?"

It didn't answer his question. But he put the pieces together. And it didn't seem to be any different than before. "Why me? Because the last thing on your mind was the traitor?"

Jean's answer was more succinct than Pyro wanted to hear. It made the words sound sarcastic when he knew they weren't. "You're not a traitor."

"I left," Pyro shuffled his feet. "I think...I think I remember feeling you looking for me that day. It doesn't matter why I left. That's the reaction. Traitor, deserter...even if you understand..."

"I do understand," she stood up. Or at least, her mental projection stood up and walked toward him. Not the false avatar she had allowed him, but his body, lying with Mystique. "And your friends will too, when they realize you did what you thought was right. You just made a choice."

Pyro turned away. "That's what they'll call me if I ever see them again," he said. "We are who we choose to be. I chose."

Finally, she actually laughed. "Maybe it is right. For all we know, you'll pollute the Brotherhood with funny ideas of being nice and keep Magneto under control."

"Not likely," Pyro chuckled, fairly certain she knew damn well that half the reason he went with Magneto was to embrace that lack of control.

"But you're right. It's the natural thought, like so many views we see before even considering it." She paused, looking up at the sky. "Abilities I couldn't control, rage I didn't want to feel and couldn't let go of...you saw the result."

That was good enough for him. "What'll happen to you?"

With a surprisingly casual shrug , Jean said, "I'm fine now. Magneto called Charles, they'll be here soon. That's why you're not a traitor, Pyro. Until you fight for someone who could care less about the value of life, you haven't betrayed the people you care about."

"He didn't care if you died when the dam broke," he answered, confused.

"It's not easy to understand," Jean said. "But you'll get it. If Magneto was just Stryker's mutant counterpart, John, I don't think you'd have gone with him. I'm not saying I agree with him myself, mind you. But you're right, we are who we choose to be. And you chose to be a phoenix because we weren't what you believed in. That takes more courage than defiance."

Pyro woke up. 'Woke up' was a subjective term. He opened his eyes and shivered, only vaguely aware of Mystique so close. He didn't feel much like talking now that it actually involved real physical movement.

But Magneto noticed. "Ah, awake at last. Welcome back to the living, St. John."

He smiled and answered by winking an eye; the campfire grew larger despite the damp wood.

In the sky, a jet flew past searching for a place to land, and Pyro knew it was time to leave. A part of him wanted to stay longer and see Bobby or Rogue. Something told him one of them would be on that plane. He did want his friends to understand him.

But the smart part of him said no, right now wasn't the time. He was tired, hungry, and just plain sick of explaining himself. Even to himself. Being at Heaven's edge didn't always mean it was right to take the step inside.

Right now, Pyro just wanted to go home.

~fin~

A special, very large thanks to everyone who gave me feedback on Never Sound in Slavery. I think that was the most I've ever gotten so quickly on anything I've published online.

Refs

The fight between Pyro and Phoenix is visually based on a scene from Hellsing.

One of Dark Phoenix's lines is straight out of the comics; a cookie to anyone who spots it.

Note Pyro using one of Green Goblin's lines from Spider-Man.