One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.

Category: X-Men: The Movie

Language: English

Rating: T

Words: 7,912

Featuring Characters: Kristen Sparks / Cyclops (Alternate female version of Scott Summers, 24), Jean Grey / Marvel Girl (Saved from dying as The Phoenix, 25), Jonnie Storm / Nova (Alternate female version of Johnny Storm, 25), Euphoria Solstice / The White Queen (Alternate version of Emma Frost), Melanie Haelstrom / Spider Girl (Alternate female version of Peter Parker, 21).

Summary: Jean is finally returning home. AU Jean/Cyclops Femslash. Set seven months after X3.

Disclaimer: X-Men is the property of Marvel, but the character alterations are owned solely by Gaia's Marvel: A Universe United guild and its associates.

Thanks: A special thanks to Ultimate Cyclops.

This was going to be a good day. Or, at least it would be different to other days. I wouldn't admit it – not even to my beautiful, peacefully sleeping Kristen – but I was rather excited at the prospect of breaking routine to lend a hand at the school. I knew I was a long way from redemption but maybe this step would be the first of many, maybe I would finally have something to smile about, or someone to smile at. It was with dry eyes and a slight tweaking to the corners of my lips that I snuggled up to my love for a few extra minutes rest.

It would be an understatement to say that I hadn't been doing very well lately. My day would start with me clinging to Kristen's arm and silently begging her to lie with me just a little longer. Occasionally it had succeeded, but when it hadn't I would be left in bed crying, all alone, as I listened to her getting ready for work, getting ready to go back to the place I felt so exiled from, the place I had grown up and once been so welcomed. I had almost thrown up the first time I heard the front door close, signaling her departure. A long time after that would be spent recovering, still wrapped in the bed sheets and the oh-so-familiar scent of my love.

It hadn't taken me long to learn that reflecting on the past didn't help things, yet my mind still insisted on replaying memories for me as I dragged myself out of bed, drenched my body in the shower and ate the breakfast Kristen had so lovingly prepared for me. She probably figured I wouldn't eat it if I had to do it myself, and she was right. But I could never resist the consideration that radiated off the meal she had made for me.

After that my day, like my body, went no where. I would sit on the couch and let my mind drift away from my corpse, along the bond that had been created on our first and only night of love making since my return. From there, I would just sit in the back of Kristen's mind, watching through her eyes and listening through her ears. It was reassuring, comforting; whereas I took no comfort in inhabiting my own body. Kristen knew I was there, and when she had a spare moment she would talk to me, make sure I was okay and not about to kill myself.

I live for Kristen, not for me, and everyday would be a long, exhausting wait for those brief moments of telepathic communication and the time when she would come home to me. I live for Kristen, always have. I died for her, too. I would do it again. It's not exactly an option anymore though; I have no place with the X-Men – save for that seat in Kristen's mind, but they're unaware of my presence. I sure as hell would throw myself into the path of a bullet for her, given the chance.

She does so much for me, puts up with so much for me, I hope she knows that I never stopped loving her.

As if sensing my gaze, full of worship and appreciation, she opened her eyes. They take my breath away, even after all this time. "Hey," she breathed. She looked surprised to see the half-smile that graced my lips, relieved even.

"Good morning, my love." No longer concerned about waking her I slid an arm over her muscular torso, hugging my body closer to hers.

She reached up to stroke my cheek, wonder written all over her face. It broke my heart to think of what I had been doing to her that a simple smile could get such a reaction. "How are you?"

"I'm really good, actually," I confessed somewhat sheepishly, bringing my face close enough to hers to kiss her cheek. She turned her head, apparently unimpressed by where I had chosen to plant my lips. I couldn't help but grin as she pressed our mouths together.

"How did that happen?" She wanted to know next, though she appeared torn between receiving an answer and kissing me again, I couldn't say the same wasn't true for me.

I shrugged and touched my nose to hers, wiggling it slightly. "I'm not entirely sure, I just… I think this is going to be good for me, getting out of the house and seeing everyone, actually doing something for once. I feel like I've been wasting away here, like I don't have a purpose."

Kristen just smiled and shook her head. "You have a purpose, baby. It's being here with me."

It was difficult to avert my eyes from her stunningly gorgeous features, but I managed. With a frown marring my face I opened my mouth to argue, "But I haven't really been here. I've been quiet and unresponsive and really… not good," I finished lamely, my vocabulary failing me.

Her hand cupped my cheek and forced me to look at her again, expression serious as she shook her head this time. "No, it's okay. I understand."

"I want to make it up to you," I insisted, pressing my lips back against hers for a moment. It was a struggle to get myself to break away from even that slight peck. I wanted to go back for more even as I pulled away. "Would…" I paused, momentarily losing my nerve. I tried again, "Would you go out to dinner with me tonight?" She didn't answer immediately and her expression turned contemplative as she scrutinized my face, as if trying to find evidence to prove that this wasn't the real me. I pushed on, stalling the inevitable refusal. "Or we could just stay in and order something, pizza or Chinese or that French stuff you like… We don't even have to do dinner at all, I can just go downstairs now and make you breakfast, maybe a nice lunch to take today. I could pack a picnic basket and we could go outside at lunch and eat under that tree like we did when we were teenagers. Unless you don't have time, that'd be oka–" She cut off my otherwise unstoppable rambling with a well-placed finger to my lips.

"That all sounds amazing. Now how am I supposed to choose?"

"You don't have to, I want to make it up to you," I said again, "We can do all of it. Maybe not all today, we could spread it out and do just one thing everyday," I reasoned.

"I think someone's scared of all that cooking, you've gotten used to being lazy and letting me do all the work," Kristen teased. I don't think she really meant anything by it, but my face fell regardless. She kissed me until I was smiling again. Did I mention how much I love her? "How about we start with a shower? Then we'll both make breakfast."

Kristen usually wasn't one to waste time in the bathroom, bathing or otherwise, but a lot of giggling went on, a lot of water went down the drain. We came to familiarize ourselves with each others bodies again, as if we had forgotten each curve and freckle. We washed each others hair, scrubbed each others bodies, and I even let her shave my legs, not caring if she cut me, which, of course, she didn't. It felt so good to be laughing and smiling again, I couldn't believe I had wasted so much time without this.

Likewise went for the making of breakfast, though a lot more kissing was involved. At one point we were so into it that we forgot completely that we were supposed to be watching the eggs and accidentally burnt them. Which only lead to more laughing and making out, after we had gotten rid of them and their stench into the waste disposal, of course. We were all over each other all morning, even going so far as to risk choking to death on bacon just to snuggle up together on the couch – we couldn't decide who got to sit in who's lap.

My love had even gone so far as to carry me upstairs, after our traditional battle with the suds in the sink while washing up the dishes. She had dumped me unceremoniously on the mattress in the middle of our bedroom then proceeded to climb on top of me and really make out with me, and although we hadn't bothered to put anything but underwear on after the shower, it went no further than that. It was really just as well, with the time it took me to decide on what to wear for my first day back we would have been late if we had let it go on.

Both our smiles were still very much in place when we arrived at the mansion and, hand-in-hand, walked the corridors as if we had been doing it every day, as if there had been no Phoenix. She thought I wouldn't notice, but Kristen was certainly taking us on a more scenic, less populated route to the office of Euphoria Solstice - the acting headmistress. I didn't mind, I needed the time to prepare myself to reenter that particular room anyway.

Professor Charles Xavier had been my mentor, my father figure. He had saved me from Ravencroft Asylum for the Criminally Insane, he had taken me under his wing and taught me how to use my powers, and he had introduced me to Kristen. He had locked up the Phoenix, and he had lost his life for it. I had killed him. She had killed him, out of vengeance or simply because he had been in her way, because he had annoyed her. I haven't been able to narrow it down, I don't want to. Out of all the people I killed, out of all the families I brought so much heart ache to, out of everything I regretted letting the Phoenix do, it was him I shed the most tears for. He had affected the lives of so many and I had murdered him.

The closer we got to what was now The White Queen's office the more my smiled faulted. Kristen kept pressure on my hand, stopping every few yards to kiss me and reassure me that everything was fine. Again and again I forced my smile for her and claimed that I was alright to keep going. The unfortunate thing about the bond is that she knows when I'm lying. She let it go though, she knew that I couldn't be convinced into talking about it, not specifically at least.

I love her so much, yet that's the one thing that hasn't been said this morning, it hasn't been said in a very long time. I'm not sure why.

"Are you ready, baby?" We had reached the door, and I'm fairly sure I had just been standing there staring at it for a little while. Xavier's door had always been open.

"Yes," I managed to get out without croaking or having to clear my throat beforehand. Kristen opened the door, surprising me, Euphoria seemed the type to bite someone's head off if they didn't knock first. I had to remind myself that Kristen was just as much in charge here as the blonde was. I hastily cast aside all notions that it would have been the two of us doing that job if I hadn't gone crazy and killed so many people.

I held my head high as I stepped into the room and tried not to look too hard at the almost life size portrait of the professor that hung above Euphoria's desk. Kristen pulled my chair out for me and I sat, feeling very much like I was here for a lecture, or a job interview. Maybe I was still being assessed on whether or not depression combined with the trauma of being back here was going to bring Phoenix out again. My love pulled a high back chair around from the other side of the desk and positioned it next to mine, earning her a sharp glare from Euphoria. I was relieved that she wasn't going to be sitting on the other side of the table, sided against me. Without a word she put her hand on my leg.

"I trust you've taken your medication this morning?" Was the headmistress' first question. I had expected it, so it didn't cause me any grief.

"Yes, I have."

"And you've been taking them regularly?" She persevered without hesitation, as if she was reading these questions off from a list.


"Are you healthy?" She could have meant mentally, but I chose to take it in the literal sense. It stumped me anyway. I hadn't been eating well, I hadn't been exercising, and I had lost all remnants of muscle…

"She is." Kristen answered for me, giving my thigh an affectionate squeeze. I should have known she had my back. Reassurance shot through the bond and I instantly relaxed in my seat, covering Kristen's hand with my own in a wordless display of gratitude. Only then did I let Euphoria have my full attention once more. Her eyebrows, thin and more than likely plucked daily, had risen considerably and she marked something down on a bit of paper. I figured it was just for show; I already had the job. Still, the questions kept coming and I answered them easily. Kristen filled in the information every time I hesitated, which was not all that frequently. I occasionally felt the blonde probing my mind but I didn't react to it. Then, finally, we were allowed to leave.

I stepped out into the corridor while my love exchanged a few private words with the headmistress, and came face to face with Jonnie Storm. I flinched, but she just flashed me that cocky grin of hers and swept me up into a hug even as Kristen appeared in the doorway behind me, anxiety filtering from her mind to mine. I was stiff in the embrace at first, but Nova didn't let up, she just kept on squeezing me until I relaxed and then she finally released me. Kristen hurriedly grabbed up my hand, showing the youngest member of the Fantastic Four just who I belonged to.

Jonnie, pretending not to notice, was still beaming at me. "And so the prodigal daughter returns. You look good," she exclaimed, as if she was surprised to see me looking so well. I didn't hold it against her.

"Yeah," I smiled back, "You look good too, JJ."

"Of course I do. Losing my best friend is no cause to turn down the heat," she responded lightheartedly. I closed my eyes for a moment and swallowed. She didn't give me any time to dwell of what she had said before she was hugging me again. "Welcome home, Jeannie." This time I hugged her back. Maybe I wasn't as exiled as I had thought.

"This isn't exactly your home, hot stuff. What are you doing here?" I asked, managing to pry myself out of her arms and relieve some of the tension that had been radiating off of my lover. I didn't pick up her hand, but instead wrapped an arm around her waist and tugged her forward so she stood next to me, rather than behind.

The younger Storm sibling looked slightly uncomfortable. "I wish I could say that I was here throwing you a surprise party, but I didn't even realize you were going to be back today, and I'm not that good. Reed actually dragged me out of bed this morning to bring me over for a training session with you guys. Apparently it'd be good PR." She thrust her hands into her pockets, accepting that she wouldn't be getting another hug. "I wouldn't have needed to be dragged all this way if I had known you were going to be in there with us."

I frowned and looked to Kristen, parting my lips, but she was already addressing my unspoken concerns."Jean's going to be watching from the control room. Euphie thought that would be best."

Although I hadn't been told about it, I have my friend a nod as if to say that I couldn't have said it better myself. And really, I couldn't have. It was common knowledge that the X-Men, sometimes accompanied by the new recruits, used the Danger Room to train every morning during the week, but somehow it had managed to slip my mind both last night and this morning. I wasn't sure what to make of my positioning during the exercise; I was torn between being pleased that I wouldn't have to see the faces of my comrades up close and being offended that "Euphie" was not going to permit me to don my leather suit to train with them.

Jonnie wasn't as convinced by my acting skills as I would have hoped, but she didn't press on any further. "Even better. You'll be much easier to impress when you're not having to fight off your own killer robots."

"Sentinels," my love corrected her, and I dimly recalled her speaking to me excitedly about the "killer robots" Kitty and Hank had worked together to design for a challenging Danger Room simulation. Unfortunately, I hadn't shared her excitement that night, too consumed by my own swirling emotions to ask any questions or fuel her enthusiasm with my own. "Now go suit up."

"Yes, master," JJ rolled her eyes. But she sauntered off all the same, just not before flashing me one last, warm smile.

Once she was out of ear shot my beautiful brunette lover took me a little ways away from the office we had exited then twirled me around to face her. "Are you still okay, baby?"

My hand had landed on her arm, on one of those so well defined muscles of hers that I couldn't help but admire, and I let my fingers stroke over that section of raised flesh, smiling encouragingly. "It'll take more than you chasing away my best friend to turn this party upside-down."

Kristen raised her eyebrows and grinned at me, the expression was so delightful that my own smile widened, how long had it been since I had been the cause of such a gorgeous smile? Too long. "A party, is it? You know what happens at parties, Doctor Grey..."

She was flirting with me, that wasn't a voice I could ever mistake so easily, and I was pleased to indulge her. It had been far too long. "One party in particular springs to mind, though if I'm recalling correctly we had much more fun... elsewhere, than we did on the dance floor."

"It's not my fault you were born with two left feet to compensate for that killer smile," she teased, and I just had to whack her, lightly of course. "Hey, hey," she protested laughingly, grasping my hands in hers, "that was as much of a compliment as it was an insult. Now put those away, I have a job for them later and I wouldn't want them to get damaged in the mean time."

I rolled my eyes, "Sounds like someone has been reading one of my more awful romance novels again."

"I practiced in front of the mirror, too," she blushed, "I had planned to use it on our honeymoon, maybe whisper it in your ear at the reception but..."

"Things came up," I quickly supplied for her, earning myself a grateful, somewhat relieved smile. "Well, just so you know, that would have made me very, very-" I had been planning to say something along the lines of aroused, but Euphoria's made-up face suddenly appearing in the doorway of her office had seemed to tell me that that wouldn't have been a very wise choice on my first day back. So I allowed Kristen's imagination and a few unnecessary hints from my end of the bond to fill in the blanks.

"It's this way to the Danger Room, ladies," the headmistress informed us, the scowl in her voice rather than on her face. She had undoubtedly learned her lesson about wrinkles after multiple botox injections.

Pressing my lips together in a thin line I managed to look not quite as flustered as Kristen as we followed after her, careful not to get too close to those jagged stiletto heels and feeling for all the world like two hormonal teenagers who had just been busted on the verge of doing the nasty. I caught my love's hand in my own as we trooped into the elevator, repressing the defiant grin that wanted so badly to make itself known.

Although I was reluctant to let go of that hand once the automated doors of the elevator had parted to allow us our escape at the lower levels, I did find a way to overcome my fears once we came to the Danger Room itself: Kristen did have to go get changed, and I couldn't look like some creepy lurker by following her in when there was no need for me to be there. Then there was the fact that the faces of my teammates didn't look nearly so threatening in reality as they had in my dreams.

Riene, Karin, Rogue, Orin, Piotr, Kitty, even Logan, were all smiling and chatting cheerfully amongst themselves, looking as respectable as they should in their neat, black uniforms. And then there was me, clinging to Kristen's hand like the new kid at school hiding behind their teachers skirt and she tried to introduce them to the class. They were not intimidating in the least, and I was shaking so badly that my usually sharp mind didn't even register the presence of the blue and white clad Fantastic Four, nor the red and black clad lone heroine, Spider-Girl. Still, my love kissed me on the forehead and left me on my own. If I had been in my right mind I would have recognized that as a sign that she was confident I could do this on my own, but as it was I was ready to run out of there and go find some bathroom or supply closet to lock myself in.

There was no way I could make this work, no way to save myself from being eaten alive by the very people I had once fought side-by-side with. I had killed so many people, fought against the X-Men, with Magneto and his mutant army, aimed to kill the people I loved and undo everything the mutant community had achieved. I had been so foolish in thinking I would be worthy of their forgiveness or any kind of redemption. I was going to hell no matter how hard I tried to make amends.

I hadn't seen her excuse herself from the rest of her team, but suddenly Jonnie was by my side, whispering words of comfort in my ear, words I barely heard through the white noise of anxiety. A few words did break through however. "C'mon Jeannie, you can do this. Kristen believes in you."

Apparently I needed to hear those words from someone else's mouth to clarify it for me, to assure me that I wasn't just making these things up in my head, because as soon as those words were out of JJ's mouth I was ready: ready to be enveloped by my friends.

By the time Kristen had come out of the change room it was as if Phoenix had never existed, and as if I had never died. I was talking and smiling and catching up on everything I had missed, albeit with the Fantastic Four and Spider-Girl rather than the X-Men. Kristen and I could have just gotten back from our Honeymoon; there was no hostility or intimidation or any intrusive questions concerning my whereabouts for the past seven or so months.

Even so, it was a relief to feel my lover's arm snake around my waist from behind and pull me back against her chest. I relaxed immediately and tilted my head back against her shoulder, briefly pressing my lips to the line of her jaw, repressing a wince at the reappearance of her visor. "Hey," I breathed dreamily, wrapping my arms over hers and obliging she tightened her grip on me. We really could have just gotten back from her Honeymoon, that was how hard it was not to be putting my mouth against hers or keeping skin contact with her in some way.

"I'm so proud of you," she whispered in my ear, quietly enough for no one else to overhear. Her warm breath against my skin made the tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, but that wasn't what made me turn around and kiss her hard on the mouth. Right there. In front of everyone. I shocked myself, but Kristen even more so. She took a few moments longer than usual to react, but respond she did. With her hands on my cheeks she kissed me back as if it would stop the world from ending. Once upon a time, it had.

Eventually, we managed to pry ourselves apart, our lips, anyway. With the breathless smile I had fallen in love with she dropped her hands to my rear and gave it a playful squeeze. "Go on, get that sexy little ass upstairs. I have some showing off to do."

She certainly delivered on the "showing off" part. Every time I found my mouth agape and closed it again, I would find it on the floor not a second later. Of course, I had watched Danger Room sessions from the control room before, but this time... watching Kristen take charge and really throw herself into the fray... it was like falling in love all over again. Well, kind of.

I had forgotten just how powerful she was, how strong and fearless - never mind that the danger was only simulated - and just... amazing she was. I had forgotten that she was a fighter. It wasn't just physical either, she was a strategist. She knew just what each member of the team could do and made sure they were behaving appropriately, performing to the best of their abilities, even those not a part of the X-Men. It was hard to believe that she had ever needed a second in command, or even needed one now.

The threat of the Brotherhood had more of less perished at Alcatraz, what with Magneto being powerless and their numbers conveniently diminished, so the likelihood of them coming up against a battle scenario to the scale they were fighting at now was low. An odd mutant would pop up every now and again, but they hardly needed the whole team for that. But we had all learnt from experience that you could never be over prepared in a crisis situation.

As I watched, part of me was itching to get down there, going over in my head just what I would do when, just how I would face this if it was me down there. Of course, everything I came up with was trumped by Kristen's ideas. Obviously, there was a lot more to it then just hopping into a uniform and starting up the session. There was a whole lot of planning and brainstorming and discussing that happened beforehand. There was debriefing, then more discussion if they hadn't achieved their goal, more practicing and training and exercises. It was an endless cycle, and while I wanted to be involved again... I didn't.

For now it was enough just watching, however, enough to just sit back and admire how far my friends had come, how far we had all come. The girls who were once our babies, Kitty and Karin were all grown up now. Rogue had fought it out for years and was finally at one with his life-changing abilities. Piotr, our gentle giant, had managed to overcome all obstacles in his path, and Reine had truly become a part of the team. Then there were the originals; Logan, Orin, Kristen and myself. From those scared, lonely, and confused teenagers we had evolved into mature, responsible adults, capable of being the role-models the students needed - despite the expectations of the people who had sought to have us exterminated. Well, three out of four had evolved. One had regressed.

The mutant community as a whole had come along way, without even the redheaded, female mutant activist the professor had insisted was needed to be its voice. The cure was legal, it was out there, and it was being distributed to all who sought the means of escape from being different. Only small, temporary doses were allowed into military and police apparatus, however. Mutant registration was still being debated over, as it will be for the next century, no matter the decision made now.

We had come a long way from being that small, outcast minority the professor had strode to change. I thanked the X-Men for showing the world that we're not all bad. But I blame the Phoenix for showing everyone that some of aren't just bad, but psychopathic mass murderers.

When the simulation finished, with congratulations of the success of the mission from the robotic, automated voice of the Danger Room, I was the first down the stairs and through the door at the bottom of them. Granted, my only competition was the headmistress, and in those heels I wouldn't have been running either, but I still counted it as an accomplishment. I threw myself into a sweating, panting Cyclops' arms, enthusiastically rattling off profuse compliments to everyone in earshot.

"I take it you were impressed?" My love laughed, setting me back on my feet even as I continued to blurt out my praise in another adjective-rich rant. Again, it was her finger on my lips that cut off my excited ramblings, but this time I didn't let it go without making as if to bite the tip of it, which only gained me another laugh. "I have to go get changed, then we're all heading back upstairs to crash in front of the tv for a while. Did you want to do something else just the two of us or..." She trailed off uncertainly and I was reminded of that shy, inverted fifteen year old that had asked me to be her girlfriend so long ago.

"I don't mind," I told her, shrugging my shoulders, "I want to do more catching up with everyone, but I could do that later. It doesn't matter."

"Are you sure?" She pressed on, strong, familiar hands on my waist drawing me in closer.

"Yep," I answered brightly, giving her a chaste kiss to the lips, "Whatever you want to do."

What Kristen wanted to do once she was changed out of her leather X-Men uniform actually turned out to be a whole lot of kissing and cuddling under that tree I had wanted for our picnic. With all the students inside having breakfast and generally preparing themselves for the school day we were all alone outside, basking in the warm morning sun and the cool breeze coming off the lake. It was the ideal time of day really, with no yelling or other interruptions coming from the basketball courts, no kids coming up to ask with help making their lunch or doing their homework or whining about someone pulling their hair or stealing their ball. It was quiet, peaceful, perfect.

My love was lying on her stomach, propped up on one elbow while her other hand rested on my stomach, fingers caressing my clothed skin. I lay on my back beside her, my closest arm up so my hand could reach her cheek. "I missed you," she whispered, leaning down to kiss me.

I'd been dead for a year. For me, it had passed in the blink of an eye, for Kristen it had been excruciating. Of course she hadn't known that I would come back, I hadn't known that I would come back. I had stepped - well, limped - out of the jet with the full intention of giving my life for my team, for Kristen. I had been completely obliterated by the wave that I had known no one else could stop. But I hadn't died. I'd had a funeral, a body-less grave, a fiancé who I'd left behind to suffer without me, but I hadn't been dead.

"I wasn't... I didn't know..." I stammered, trying to find some way to convey that I had had no concept of any time actually passing while I had been wrapped in the protective, rejuvenating cocoon under the thousands of tonnes of water that had crushed me. "But I missed you, too."

She just nodded and gave me a sad smile before casting those beautiful blue eyes away from me and down to the grass. "I kept thinking that I could have stopped you from leaving, that I could have saved you or... or gone in your place. I could have done so many things differently and you would have still been here with me. You wouldn't have..."

"Sshh, baby. I know. I know exactly what I did to you. And I'm so, so sorry. I didn't mean for it to happen, well, I did, but I wasn't thinking. I just wanted to save you. It seemed like the only way so..." I swallowed hard, my eyes burning and begging me to let them close. I did, and dropping my fingers from my lover's cheek I covered my face with my hands. As much as I didn't want to have this conversation, it was necessary, we had put it off for far too long already. Kristen knew that as well as I did.

"You could have let me help. I could have held the wave off for you, Karin could have 'ported you back up with us, you could have done it from inside the jet!" She exclaimed, removing her hand from my stomach to drag her fingers roughly through her hair. "I'm sorry," she quickly apologized, calm once more. It wasn't often that my love lost it like that, but as much as we couldn't go back and change the past this was something that was always going to haunt her. She pushed herself up into a sitting position and gently wrapped her fingers around my palms, carefully taking my hands away from my face, cringing when she saw my cheeks; pink, splotchy, and stained by tears.

"I'm sorry, Jean. I just... you were here, we were supposed to be getting married, and then you were just gone. It didn't make any sense, and I told myself over and over again that it was just some stupid nightmare that I had gotten from that same guy who gave you your dreams. And then I was going to wake up and you would be there beside me and I could just kiss you and touch you and everything would be okay. But then you weren't here when I opened my eyes, and I just couldn't handle it. I missed you so much, and it hurt so badly and I couldn't be around anything or anyone that would remind me of you. So I left the mansion and the X-Men, but then you were back and... well, you know what happened. And then with the depression and everything... It was so hard and I didn't know what I was supposed to do and you were..." Her words failed her then, just as mine had done to me earlier and she moved to lay back down beside me, this time with her head on my chest. No words were needed, however, I could imagine what it had been like even without the memories flashing through my mind, courtesy once more of the link between our minds, though I doubted she knew she was transmitting them to me.

I touched her hair, stroked my fingers through it and dropped tender kiss after tender kiss to the top of her head, whispering affectionate words of encouragement. Her body shuddered once, twice, and a choked sob penetrated through her lips. Wincing, I screwed my eyes shut as tight as I could, restraining from crying by force of will alone. "I'm so sorry, beautiful. But I love you, and I'd do it all over again if it meant I could save you from dying."

She lifted herself up slightly, just enough to look into my eyes, shaking her head ardently. "It killed me, Jean. You killed me. I was still here but I wanted to die. I didn't think I could go on without you. I loved you, you were my life, and then you were gone."

I nodded my understanding and sniffled, wrapping my arms tightly around Kristen's middle and hugging her hard against my body. "I won't ever leave you again."

"No," she agreed, "you won't. Because I'm never letting you go."

As upsetting as some parts of that conversation had been - especially combined with the powerful, overwhelming emotions that had filtered through our bond - my epiphany that morning was still holding firm and I managed to resist the urge to go running back to our house to dive under the covers with my tail between my legs. Life gets complicated sometimes and finding the will to go on can be difficult, holding onto that will when times get tough can be even harder. But as long as I have Kristen I have a reason to live and to stay strong and to keep fighting day in and day out. I'm going to do everything in my power to keep myself from falling back into the place I spent the last seven months, because I never want to do that to myself or to my love again.

After all of our tears had been kissed away and we have revelled in the light, intimate touches and the wonder of being back in each other's arms for what could have been hours we had slowly made our way back towards the main building of the school; it was just about time for us to part ways.

When we reached the door she gently tugged us to a stop and stepped in front of me, clasping both my hands in hers. Her gaze was level, serious, but with an underlying tone of worry that I knew only I could recognise. "If something happens..." she started.

"I know what to do," I kindly finished for her, smiling slightly and tapping my forehead with a lone finger before bringing our lips together.

Nothing was going to happen, I was determined to see this through without incident. This was certainly something I was capable of, although I had never gotten a teaching degree or anything similar I had played substitute before when one of the actual, certified teachers were busy or sick. Of course I would have preferred a science class over mathematics, but as long as I didn't have to search through memories of my youth - and possibly be overcome by nostalgia - in order to explain something, I'd be golden. My first class alledgedly only had a test to do anyway, and only needed someone to watch over them and chastise any wandering eyes. It would be easy, simple. I would be fine. But if it made Kristen feel better to have some kind of back up plan then I wouldn't deny her that pleasure.

She walked me to class in silence, lost in her own thoughts. I didn't intrude or purposefully listen in - I still held strong to the attitude of my younger years; mind reading was the ultimate invasion of privacy - but every so often a new wave of emotion would come my way. The dominant feeling was worry, and it would have been a blow to my pride to know that she didn't believe in me only I was well aware that I hadn't done much of late to prove to her that I was ready for this.

Last night had been like any other, we had curled up on the couch and watched whatever had been showing in absolute silence. She had checked to make sure that I was still okay with spending my day at the mansion, and I had confirmed that I was in just a handful of words then laid my head down on her shoulder. I had hardy been someone my love would want to come home to; quiet, uncooperative, stoic. There had been some days when I had been sure she would not come home at all. And why should she? I had made no attempt at changing, though every morning I had told myself that I needed to, if only for her.

Once upon a time we had been so close, practically joined by the hip. That passion that everyone had told us would eventually fade, never had. For us, familiarity had not bred contempt. It had only bred more love. If only we could return to that blissful state of being, when everything was so easy, so natural. It seemed like lifetimes ago, but it also seemed like it had been just yesterday. It had changed so quickly, but I guess that is how life goes; one little thing can change everything forever. Though... I suppose that my death wasn't just "one little thing", nor my murderous rampage, or the months and months of distress I had put my love through while I sat in silence.

Now, however, we were hardly sitting in silence. For the moment, the classroom that was first on my schedule was empty of students, which was just as well, considering the discussion we had going. Kristen was perched comfortably on the corner of the teachers desk, and I could feel her eyes on me as I dusted down the blackboard. We were flirting again. Maybe that was what was so great about our relationship; we could have those tough conversations, we could cry and yell, but we could also smile and laugh, we could tease each other and we could flirt, we could argue about the state of the kitchen, but at the end of everything, we were still best friends. It's been that way since the professor first brought my love to the mansion, and it'll always be that way. We've been though so much together, we've been to the end of the world and back, we've made mistakes and we've made love, but we're always here for each other. We always will be.

The bell rang, it seemed longer and louder than I had remembered, but it would still be a few minutes before there were any young mutants in this part of the building.

"Mission time, baby. You ready?" Before I had even registered that she was back on her feet her hands were on my waist, gently steering me away from the board and taking the duster from my hand. Her full lips found my ear and nibbled on the pierced lobe affectionately, her warm breath washed over me and was both reassuring and encouraging.

"Yeah," I breathed, unable to keep the smile off my face. I could do this, I knew I could. It was forty-five minutes of supervising a classroom full of fourteen-year-olds, it wasn't a mission, it wasn't brain surgery; it was easy.

I turned around in my lover's arms to show her my smile and was instantly caught off guard with a hard, passionate kiss that couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds before we broke apart. Kristen grinned at me, and I grinned right back.

Unfortunately, once she had introduced me to the class, instructed them to behave, and abandoned me to my destiny, that precious smile was gone. I sat, frozen, stiff, unmoving and stunned into silence as the whispers that had swept the room intensified in volume, as the questions, the demands turned on me. I couldn't even try to control them, couldn't even part my lips to ask for silence, I couldn't do anything but sit there and "take it like a bitch", as Logan would say.

One should never underestimate the power of innocence, for these adolescents were able to do what my teammates could not. They had no inhibitions, no manners, no regard or consideration. They wanted their answers, and I'm quite sure that a few of them wanted to see me cry. But they never got that satisfaction.

The fire alarm was tripped, the siren ringing through my ears and resonating in the emptiness of my chest, the dark cavern where my soul should have been. Dimly, I was aware of the children scrambling for the door, of them fighting their way out of the room, of their footsteps, joined by many others, charging down the hall. They had forgotten the rule about staying calm. Oh well, it was a drill anyway. There was no fire. Just Kristen's fear, triggered by the link that joins our minds. She thought the Phoenix was taking over again. The alarm was the safest way to get everyone away from me so I could go crazy in peace. So there would be no collateral damage. The X-Men were suiting up, they'd be on their way shortly. I could not seem to find it in me to care.

I had done horrible, horrible things. People were dead because of me. People had lost husbands, wives, parents, children, friends and relatives. For the last seven months I had been selfish. I had only thought of myself and the pain I was feeling. Now, I'm experiencing the grief of others. But not just the people I have affected.

Somewhere in the world there is someone hurting. Somewhere in the world there is someone crying. There is someone bleeding. There is someone dying. There is someone saying goodbye. There is someone who feels like their heart has been ripped from their chest, like they cannot possibly take another step forward, like they're trapped in an endless cycle of despair.

For now, that someone is not me. But it is someone, somewhere, some time. For whatever reason, someone out there is hurting.

It is the knowledge of this, the realization, the feeling, that crashes down on me now. It's a tidal wave on an unsuspecting shore, and it's pulling me under. I'm drowning in misery. And for once it is not my own.

I'm numb to the world now, to the X-Men storming in, battle-ready, alert, prepared to kill me dead.

I kind of wish they would.

But Kristen knows, she always knows. She's sliding up onto the teacher's desk, wrapping her strong arms around me and whispering things in my ear that I do not dare listen to. I drop my head into her lap and allow myself to be overcome by tears.

It's a tidal wave of feelings, and Phoenix is not here to save me.