Hi. A few things to start off with: this story takes place after Ultimate X-Men volume 19: Absolute Power and ignores the events of Ultimates 3, Who Killed the Scarlet Witch?. As for the events of Ultimatum and its derivative books … well, you'll have to read on to find out. Oh, and I do not known the Ultimate Universe. Marvel does.

ASHES

Chapter One

High above the teaming thousands, seated upon a throne of cloud: it's the perfect place for a god.

More substance than form, a smile stretches across the lips of this particular deity as she sits in judgment, observing the workings of the mortal world. It is a world she helped fashioned, a world that is, by and large, an extension of herself, and she is intrigued by its pace, its structure, its inhabitants.

Its inhabitants most of all. They are her children – the ultimate expression of her divine creativity – and she watches them now with the loving gaze of a mother monitoring a sandbox play date between neighborhood children. She can feel them scurrying below her. She sees them all at once, all over the globe, every human being brought into perfect, omnipotent focus. Oblivious to her immortal gaze, the things called "humans" go about the daily grind, reenacting their various rituals of meaning. Births are celebrated. Deaths are mourned. Weddings are celebrated. Invisible, their Mother sees these things, catalogues them, but finds herself unable to perceive their meaning. The rites of the humans confound her. What is this thing called "money" and why does it hold such sway? Is it not mere paper, branded with an image? Is it the design or the number that gives it its power? And death, the weeping and this dark ceremony called "funeral". Such displays of emotion over something even the most ignorant human knows is inevitable. Why do they grieve so? Do they not know that life is circular, that with every death, a newborn arises to take the place of the dead? Surely they must, but then why this unwarranted sadness?

Pulling back her vision, the unacknowledged god shrugs. They are not perfect, her children, but she overlooks their flaws to see the good inside. They can be taught, that's the important thing. And from what she has seen, the majority of them appear open to learn.

She nods, anticipating the day when she will make her presence known to them. The day when her host form will become strong enough to house her manifestation. It is a day soon to come, she feels sure, and when it does, there will be many lessons to be learned, things to be gleaned.

High above her unknowing subjects, a god watches.

The city lies in wait below. New York. A complex grid of intersecting roads, streets, and interchanges. A luminous jewel of prismatic colors. Monoliths of steel, glass, and stone mimic the hustle and bustle of the denizens below as each fights the other for space, competing vertically as well as in terms of square footage. Modern Towers of Babel, all – straining to brush the floor of heaven with metal fingertips.

They come close, but then "close" is a relative term.

For the red-haired god remains slightly out of reach. Cross-legged, she inwardly praises the mortals for their ability to pound this city into existence. To create something out of nothing is the zenith of achievement, after all, and New York certainly is something. It's almost enough to impress a god.

Down, now. Down into the lighted canyons. Invisible, undetected.

Leaving her compact, physical form behind, she dips low and spreads herself over the city like a fog. Mostly she is content to bear witness to the wondrous sights – the blinking advertisements, yellow taxicabs honking their displeasure at the clogged roadways, a naked man playing out a tune on his guitar for change – but occasionally she takes it upon herself to enter the minds of her children to experience things from their perspective.

Pedestrians, street vendors, nannies, children, placard-toting lunatics warning the coming of the apocalypse, she samples them like fruit, taking a bite then returning them to the tree. And it is in this manner, lost amongst the honking horns and droning chatter, that she comes upon those whose faces are familiar.

From a set of eyes that are not her own, she detects movement in a nearby alleyway. Commanding the head atop this neck to turn, she observes a chunk of shadow break free from its moorings. Off it scuttles, deeper into the narrow passage. And though the creature's face is hidden from view, the blue, forked tail protruding from its ragged slacks proves a much better identifier. It's Kurt Wagner, Nightcrawler, solider of the X-Men, king of the Morlocks. She sees him, not six feet away from the body she currently inhabits. Ignoring the frantic voice of the city, she focuses in on this one creature so that she can hear his footfalls even as he hurries down the alley and disappears from view. And then comes another sound – a muffled BAMF – signaling Kurt's teleportation from here to wherever there might be.

Above the city, above Kurt, the god shakes her head in genuine sympathy. How horrible it must be for him, for all those who do not fit in to humanity's readymade categories. To know you must keep out of sight or else risk stares and jeers and the violence that inevitably follows. To understand that you have been deemed untouchable by your fellow man – a notion you reinforce by likening yourself to the shadows.

Sad. It's very sad. The god is troubled. Her heart aches for her unwanted children.

Parting ways with human eyes, she cannot help but reflect on their hypocrisy. Value the soul, appearances are only skin-deep, books and their covers and all that. These are the things they tell their children. These are the values instilled, morals reinforced by way of fables, et cetera.

But the values are only words. And how soon the fables are forgotten by the children who learn them.

Ignorance. Prejudice. When the day of revealing dawns, these will be no more. The lessons of tolerance and acceptance will be the first to be taught.

All is not lost, however. For now, basking in the pink neon glow of Times Square, another outsider is spotted, one who refuses to shrink away and hide. His name is Warren Worthington the Third, and he is out on a date with his girlfriend.

He walks. People stare. They are helpless not to. Their eyes are drawn to him. Momentarily caught between one step and another, they pause, crane their heads, then continue on as if stunned before sneaking quick peeks backward. Words are whispered and giggles muffled. A few people, absorbed in the act of texting, sense they are on a collision course with someone and look up. When they see what they do, they literally jump back, mouths agape, and retreat off into the crowd, never to be seen again. Others, those marginally braver than their compatriots, wait until Warren has passed before making a move. Being careful not to make too much noise, they sneak up behind the young mutant and have their fun. There are the usual jacking-off motions, the punching of air. Some, no doubt feeling particularly inspired, tuck their arms in tight and flap.

The throng hiss muffled laughter. The god who sees all this transpire is not amused.

Warren does not seem to mind, however. He takes in all in good stride. He smiles for photographs. When sheets of paper are handed to him, he obliges with autographs. He can take no more than three steps forward until the process is repeated.

Eventually the uneasiness of seeing a mutant out and about disappears. Wariness gives way to a circus-like atmosphere. People rush forward, crushing, yelling things – threats, favors, admiration, condemnation. Camera phones are raised aloft. Shutters click all around in an almost insectial language. Warren's hair is pulled. Something wet trickles down the back of his neck.

Clearly frightened, he leans over and murmurs something to his girlfriend, his Adam's apple visually accentuating the words. At once, his marked lover goes on the offensive. Hurling obscenities, she lunges forward, toppling an Asian tourist hoping for a photo op. Next, she gives the bird to every camera chronicling the event. Finally, when a space is cleared, she claps her hands together, swooping her arms out wide and bringing them together with a sound like the crack of a bullwhip.

Light erupts forward, seemingly from nowhere. Yellow, blue, pink, white – burning ribbons of spun vibrance. For a collection of seconds, even the lights of Times Square are overwhelmed. The humans stagger bank, shielding eyes, yelling curses in surprise. Shopping bags are dropped to the littered street and promptly crushed in the mass exodus that follows. The homo sapiens, who were first afraid of this mutant in their midst, and then curious, now turn tail and scream in absolute terror as their world explodes around them.

What they do not see is Warren spreading his wings. It is a magnificent sight, this blonde-haired angel, and as he takes off, lover in tow, the observant god finds herself wishing she had such beautiful envoys at her disposal.

But that is only a wistful thought, and it is quickly forgotten by what comes next.

It begins as a trickling across the consciousness, like ripples spreading across the surface a pond – a simile that soon proves to be all too accurate.

For the shoreline is receding. Rapidly.

Rain comes next. A steady torrent of it.

Nearly lost among the cloudbank, the god's host form jerks from its meditative stance. Green eyes flash alert. An expression crosses its formerly serene features. A human (or mutant, for that matter) observer looking up at this floating woman through a telescope might be inclined to classify her facial contortions as "surprise", and truthfully, such an estimation would not be far off. Because though the entity this body houses considers itself omnipotent, it now discovers that it has not yet fully risen above its body's human limitations.

Surprised by its feelings of anxiety, and incapable of predicting what might come next, her physical body frantically reels its consciousness back as though it's a fishing line that's snagged a marlin. She is … not exactly frightened, but alarmed. Something is happening. Something has slipped under her gaze of detection – something dangerous.

And then she sees it.

The sea has turned traitor.

A wave has risen from the water like a fist poised to strike. Taller than the tallest building, wider than the entire island of Manhattan, it advances forward, unstoppable. Boats are torn from their docks and are sucked backward into the churning wall. The sun, already dimmed into a haze by angry clouds, is devoured in a single gulp. The noise is everything.

In its path lies the whole of the city. The buildings with their dainty windows colored yellow stand firm, overconfident that they can withstand this onslaught.

The wave has reached the rank of a tsunami. It seems to leap and hurl in a continuous forward summersault, growing ever larger by the second. Wreckage tumbles inside its transparent shell, like chopped fruit inside a blender – yachts, sightseeing barges, fishing boats and ferries. All torn to flotsam.

And now another sound rises above the tsunami's roar. It is the sound of seven million people screaming in unison, and though their mother hears their cries, she turns away.

They are already dead.

- - - xxx - - -

Come on, you can do it. Pull it together, Summers. Concentrate. This isn't rocket science.

Well, maybe it wasn't, but for Scott Summers, leader and soul of the X-Men, getting to sleep these days was becoming more and more like a mathematical equation. There were all these little factors – the night, the silence, the hush of the mind's voice, the closing of the eyes – and they all had to line up and work together. They had to coincide exactly to produce that elusive thing called "sleep".

Parts one, two, and four of the equation were in place, but the hushing of the mind's voice thing? Not so much. Active as ever, even at this late hour, the gray organ housed inside a casing of skull continued to chirp out its many different observances and recommendations on subjects ranging from politics to ecology. The continuing oil crisis? Easily resolved. Convert all cars to run on fuel derived from vegetable oil and suck Alaska's resources in the meantime. The obesity epidemic? An FDA takeover of McDonald's and half your problem's solved right there. And global warming? Not even a legitimate concern, if the state's snowfall totals last year were any indication.

In the handful of hours since hitting the sack, the insomnia-riddled mind of Scott Summers had accomplished the marvelous feat of solving every problem known to mankind - except the riddle of its own restlessness. But then, it wasn't much of a riddle, was it? No, of course not. Scott knew why he couldn't sleep. Had known it since his swirling head had first hit the pillow a week and a half ago, seeking rest but not finding any.

It was banshee. That damned drug.

A little less than two weeks after the initial injection, and still he felt wired. Which made no sense because, according to a recent tox screen, his body held only minimal traces of the drug, barely enough to send a pike through the screening machine. But if that were true, why did he still crave it? Even now, nearly smothered beneath bed linens, he could feel the banshee burning red through his veins. The nuclear heat he had known before might've been replaced by glowing embers, but it was still fire nonetheless. Fire in the blood. Making him crazy. Making him want more.

Being careful to keep his eyes tightly shut, Scott drew up in bed. Bearing his teeth, he smacked his pillow into submission. Fluffed it. Smacked it again.

Banshee. He hated even thinking about it, though lately thinking about it was all he seemed capable of doing. It was bad, the drug was bad, but man how nice it'd been at the time! Scott smiled, unable to help himself. By using the power-enhancing drug, he had gained the power of flight and super speed. By using banshee, he had flown to the moon – literally, had flown to the moon. And there, hovering contentedly above the lunar rock, he had opened his naked eyes to take in the sight few mortals had ever seen. The earth in the moon's place, rising, ringed with light from the sun. And the colors! The sapphire of the oceans, the rich mineral browns of the land … colors. Looking back, he recalled how he had been able to name them all, all those majestic hues, and how he had wept afterward, moved beyond joy that he even remembered what "blue" meant.

But banshee was bad. Jean had told him so. Banshee was bad and therefore he was bad for ever having taken it.

"Bad boy," Scott murmured deliriously into his pillow. "I'm a baaaad boy."

And with that being the case, maybe now Jean would stop being such a frigid tease and reciprocate some of his advances, her having that well-known weakness of hers for the tall, dark and dangerous type.

Well, strike the "tall" part.

Jean. What a little ginger she was. A little ginger teacher's pet. It was her fault he was going through withdraws like this, her fault he couldn't sleep at night! In the blink of an eye she could erase it all from his memory and stop this suffering. But did she? No. Of course not. No, she would rather watch him struggle through the recovery process. Lessons to be learned and all that.

Growing ever more awake and enraged by the minute, Scott threw himself over onto his other side. The bed squeaked and rattled in protest.

Jean. It was all her fault. Wait, no. Actually it was Peter's fault. If it hadn't been for him handing over the drug in the first place and exposing the team to banshee… No, hold on. That wasn't really accurate either. It was Jean-Paul's fault, Peter's boy pal. If it hadn't been for Jean-Paul, those Alpha Flight dudes would've never set foot on Xavier property and the team would've never had to use the drug in the first place.

Scott sighed.

Who would've ever guessed Colossus was gay?

Downstairs, the parlor clock struck the ungodly hour of three in the morning. Scott heard its chimes resounding off the empty halls of the mansion like cattle bells.

Enough. He had to sleep.

Except he couldn't.

Totally disconnected, yet completely involved with his brain's electric jumbling of thoughts, Scott sprawled himself out corpselike under the covers. He wiggled his fingers and toes. He listened as a dog barked somewhere outside, hoping, he supposed, that the repetitive noise would lull him to rest. It didn't. And half an hour later, it stopped completely.

Scott wondered if Rogue and Nightcrawler were having this much trouble in the sleeping department. They had partaken, too. Angel and Dazzler, too, but they had left the school, unable to stave their addictions. Neither had left a forwarding address, but Scott could envision their likely placement in life's grand sprawl. Dazzler was probably hooking herself to finance their habit, and Angel … well, that bit was murky. Poor kid. He seemed like a real nice dude, Angel, not the sort to get involved with drugs.

Oh, and you're Mr. Honor Student all of the sudden?

Scott pursed his lips. There went his mind again, commenting on things it had no business thinking about.

Again he wondered what Rogue and Nightcrawler were doing. Tossing and turning, he hoped. Because that would mean it wasn't just him, that he wasn't as weak as he currently felt.

Onward waned the night. Another quarter hour chimed, muffled only slightly by Scott's closed bedroom door. From further down the hall came the sound of snoring.

Finding the situation completely helpless, Scott sighed, rolled over once more, and began to contemplate the benefits of a 4 am Danger Room session.

That was when he heard it – a piercing scream followed by the sound of breaking glass.

He did not think. He did not allow himself time to think. In that split second, the issue of banshee addiction was forgotten completely and he jumped into action without a moment's pause, a finely tuned instrument merely reacting to a stimulus. Throwing a hand madly at the bedside nightstand, he fished, found his ruby quartz wraparounds, kicked the covers from his person, and took off. Allowing himself to open his eyes for the first time since going to bed, he saw the door before him and rammed it with his shoulder. The portal flew open, disgorging Scott into the hall amid the sound of splintering wood.

Alone in the dark hall, and dressed in nothing but his standard pajama fare of tank top and briefs, he charged steadily forward, being careful as to not exhaust himself before confronting the situation at hand. The scream had since abated, but he could still feel its echo vibrating through the corridor. A half-dozen scenarios flew through his mind with the speed of a Rolodex in a windstorm and he analyzed each in a micro instant. The Brotherhood of Mutants, a rogue sentinel attack, revenge of the Weapon X program, a drunken Logan returning from parts unknown – all more than capable of shattering glass and eliciting a scream.

Up ahead, another bedroom door was tentatively opened. A bleary-eyed Toad emerged. Seeing Scott charging up the hall, he took a wobbly step back into his room, probably more than a little afraid of being trampled.

"Hey," he began, "whu-"

But before the next syllable could be completed, another scream, this one more of a yelp than an actual cry, pierced the recovering air. This time Scott recognized the tortured wail as belonging to Jean.

Leaving Toad half asleep and perplexed, Scott blew onward, newly propelled. The wood paneling covering the walls of the mansion flew by in a single brown blur. His bare feet stomped and padded as the floor below alternated between hardwood and carpet. Jean's room was at the far end of the hall, the last door on the left.

Jean. Jean's scream. Immediately the idea of a drunken Logan's return became the most plausible of all the likely scenarios. After the whole banshee incident, he had left the institute, seemingly for good, vowing never to return for fear of accidentally eviscerating Xavier – the man who had created the drug using Logan's own blood as one of the primary ingredients. There had been a lot of swearing and one final door slam as he had left, toting but a single plastic grocery bag as a makeshift suitcase, but now the little stink was probably back. Unable to keep his promise to the contrary and helpless to ignore his animalistic cravings, he had broken into Jean's room through the window in hopes of a little late-night rendezvous.

Well, fine. Good. A part of Scott sincerely hoped this proved to be the case. He'd been forgiving in the past, extending the hand of friendship even after the little punk had bedded Jean in Washington, even after that try of attempted murder during the Savage Land mission, but this – trying to cop a feel with Jean while she was officially spoken for? No, it was too much. Too much. Some things were simply inexcusable.

An optic blast to the face. Full power. Yeah, that would sear his adamantium black.

And so, fantasizing about his upcoming duel with Wolverine the way a pubescent boy might fantasize about shagging his homeroom teacher, Scott contorted his features into a fighter's sneer, gripped the doorknob to Jean's room, and shoved.

And froze.

The room was empty. Empty, that was, except for the shuddering, crying thing hunched in a fetal position atop Jean's bed. Its hair was a knotted bird's nest of red tangles protruding from the opening of a bedcover cocoon. Its arms, stark white and shaking violently, were wrapped snug around its trembling frame as though the lack of any other hands had left it no other option but to comfort itself. And it was rocking. Slowly, evenly. Back and forth. Back and forth.

A sliver of drool ran from the corner of its partially open mouth and fell, staining the exposed mattress.

Such was the sight that greeted Scott upon entering Jeans room – and because the drooling, weeping thing on that bed was so unlike the sassy, brassy girl he had come to know and love, it took him a minute to understand that the two were one and the same. Specifically, it took him precisely seven seconds to realize this, and by the time the seventh had fully elapsed, he was already in the room.

He moved without thinking, just as he had when he'd first heard the scream. Leaving the safety of the doorway, he plowed forward with such swiftness that at first he didn't understand exactly how he was moving. Then he made sense of it, realized it was his legs doing the work, and his brain took over, lending guidance to a reflex action.

He'd only made it halfway into the room, however, when something sharp bit into the sole of his foot, temporarily throwing his stride off balance. The pain was quick, precise, and though it hindered him only momentarily, it nevertheless gave him pause enough to survey the bedroom for the first time since opening its door.

The place was in shambles. The window behind Jean's bed had shattered inward, layering the floor with shards of glass – one of which he had stepped on. The bed itself was askew, having moved quite a few inches from its normal location to a spot cattycorner with the computer desk. Jean's prized Beanie Baby collection, which she kept stacked atop the dresser, had been flung from their sacred positions. Several lay scattered across the floor like road kill. Stretch the Ostrich had been decapitated. Even the ceiling fan looked a little loose. Curtains flapped in a nonexistent breeze.

"Jean!"

She reacted like a deer caught in headlights. Up jerked her head. Her eyes went large – so large that Scott could see lines of red stretching across the corners. If the lids were to roll up any further, he thought it possible that her eyes might just plop out of her head and onto the floor.

"Ungh!" She reached for him. Her fingers motioned desperately. "Mmaah!" Tears were running down her face.

Taking more shards to the feet, Scott lunged forward. At the foot of the bed, he jumped and landed alongside her, very nearly sending her through the roof in the process. He took her hand. Cold as ice.

"Jean, it's - "

"Nnuagh!" A frantic shake of the head. More tears. "Huyaaaaah!"

"Jean, it's me! Scott!

But she continued to wail, hurling hysteric cries at the ceiling - shoving him back and pulling him in with equal measure. She had wiggled out of her protective blanket shell and now had her face pressed against Scott's tank, soaking it thoroughly with tears. He could feel them, wet against his chest. He could also feel his heartbeat, wild and painful, thumping so hard it was vibrating Jean's head like the skin of a snare drum. He was afraid. Simply put, he was terrified. He didn't know what to do or how to help. He'd seen Jean like this a time or two before, but those instances were so long in the past that he'd thought ….

"Focus, Jean," he tried. His voice sounded pitiful to his ears, uncertain and perfectly expressing the fear knowing at the insides of his guts. He hated that. If there was one thing he prided himself on, it was his ability to maintain a tough façade in the face of danger, no matter his true feelings. Magneto, the Brotherhood of Mutants, he'd faced them all with a leader's confidence. But this, seeing his girlfriend raving like a lunatic with spittle running down her chin, was too much for even the tough Scott Summers to handle. Supposing this was another psychic attack? Complete with visions of goblins and the whole bit? How would he help her then?

He swallowed. "Jean, can you focus?"

"Huuh?" It sounded like a question.

"Yeah, just take it slow. One thing at a time."

The sobbing abated, replaced by sniffles. Jean's arms went snug against Scott's neck. He lowered his face to hers. Her eyes had closed. Her breathing had returned nearly to normal. Except for the condition of the room and the shimmering tracks down her face where tears had slid, the current scene might've been mistaken as a normal snuggling session between two lovers.

Little by little, Jean relaxed.

Lying atop the stripped bed in nothing but their underwear, Scott and Jean held the embrace - Scott speaking in soothing tones while Jean remained silent with her head to his chest. And in that instant, Scott felt very ashamed for ever having blamed Jean for his addiction to banshee. It didn't matter that she had put the glasses back on him. Nor did it matter that he was seeing her now solely in shades of red. None of it did. What mattered was her. Her and this. The feeling of her freshly shampooed hair slipping through his fingers, the touch of her smooth arm across his hairy one, the gentle rise and fall of her body as she began to breathe easy once more. Those things were what mattered now – that, and above all, the knowledge that she was resting here in his arms trusting and secure.

"There we go, baby," he whispered, stroking and massaging. "Everything's fine now. Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all."

Jean smiled dreamily. Scott could feel the last bit of tension evaporate from her muscles. She sighed. It seemed she was readying herself to speak.

He waited, expecting confirmations of love.

"Mmm-mm. Charles."

Scott's mouth dropped open.

Light blazed.

Blinking against the sudden harshness, Scott jerked his head in the direction of the room's light switch. An audience had assembled. Crammed like sardines into the narrow space of the doorframe, eyes wide, faces concerned, wearing nightgowns and pj's, were his fellow X-Men. Beast, Storm, Iceman, Nightcrawler, Rogue – Jean's scream had summoned them all in record time.

Wow. They can really haul ass when they want to, Scott thought absently.

Oh, but they weren't alone. Oh, no. For there, seated in the middle, in his usual position of prominence, looking extraordinarily dapper for four in the morning, was Professor Charles Xavier – founder, mentor, and supposed father figure to the X-Men.

Leaving the others grouped in the hall, the Professor pushed himself in. Glass crunched beneath the tires of his wheelchair. Even at this early hour, Xavier had obviously taken time to adhere to the standards of modesty. While the majority of the onlookers were garbed in nightwear, the Professor – always the epitome of sense and decorum – had thought to throw a terrycloth robe over his pajamas. The pajamas being silk and embroidered with an entwined "CX", of course. Maybe he had foreseen this whole episode. Being the world-class psychic he was, he probably had. Knowing the exact time of the night at which this would take place, he'd allotted himself enough time to make himself presentable. A nice robe, a dab of cologne, a good waxing of the ol' chrome dome …

Have to look nice for the pet.

Scott bit hard into his lip and focused in on Xavier.

"We're fine here, Professor," he explained. He spoke slow, careful to keep his voice under control. "Jean just had a bad dream. It's all good."

Quite oblivious to the hint that his services would not be required, the Professor rolled on. He maneuvered deftly through the chaos of broken furniture and scattered animals before finally coming to rest at Scott's elbow. He did not address his student in any way.

An almost crippling annoyance seized Scott at this. What was the big deal about a bad dream? Why did Xavier have to stick his bald head in and make a spectacle out of a simple night terror? Just when Jean was calming down, too…

Something was whispered between Bobby and Rogue. Whatever it was was cut short with a single look from Scott.

Then Jean squirmed slightly beneath his touch and his attention was transferred from the two blushing teenagers back to its rightful place. He gave her a reassuring squeeze.

She opened her eyes. Dreamily, she scanned the room – seeing but perhaps not taking anything in – then settled in on Scott. He smiled. She frowned. Looking more confused than ever, she rolled her head weightlessly back on her neck to continue searching for what she had yet to find.

Brain damage? Scott's heart lapsed into arrhythmia at the mere consideration. He didn't want to think so, but the minds of telepaths were so fundamentally different from other, non-psychic brains, that he didn't have a clue as to their workings. And Jean was certainly acting like … Had she maybe struck her head while thrashing in bed? Or even worse, had she somehow linked her mind with that of a death-row inmate in the minutes before the lethal injection was to be administered? Had that accidental use of power resulted in the "death" of her mind?

It was crazy, that assumption, but holding onto Jean, watching her eyes roll around like marbles in a basin, he found himself entertaining all manner of outlandish theories.

Suddenly the hands that had been holding onto him loosened. Jean's eyes stabilized. With what looked like an almost painful contraction of the pupils, they focused in not on Scott, but on a place closer to the floor. A place –

Xavier.

Again Scott's mouth dropped and just as it did, he felt Jean pulling away. He made an effort to hold on to her, if for no other reason than not wanting to see her go rushing to the Professor, but his grip was poor and her motivation too strong. A moment's struggle and she was in the arms of Xavier, curled childlike at his feet, arms latched tight around his waist.

More whispers.

Scott let them talk. He felt like screaming himself. Because all at once he understood. It hadn't been him and Jean in each other's arms. It'd been Jean and the Professor. It hadn't been his stroking of her hair that had calmed her; it'd been the Professor's telepathic voice, drifting soft like lullabies into her mind. And it hadn't been his name she had whispered, either.

A playground taunt occurred to him then, blaring like a dark whistle in his brain: Jean and Charles sitting in a tree / K-I-S-S-I-N-G

He shook his head, but it refused to be silenced.

First comes love / then comes marriage / then comes Charles with the baby carriage!

Those whispers. What were they whispering about that they couldn't openly say to his face?

"Scott?" For the first time since entering the room, the Professor spoke. Out loud, at any rate. "I wonder if you would mind stepping out into the hall while I attend to Miss Grey here."

Actually, he did mind. Somehow the thought of leaving the Professor alone with Jean, particularly with her in such a state of undress, wasn't an appealing one. Yet for all his outstanding leadership qualities - the stern looks, the commanding presence - he was still very much the obedient pupil at heart, apt to obeying the orders of his superiors.

That didn't mean, however, that he had to be happy about it.

Begrudgingly, and without a word to the Professor, Scott arose and headed for the door, stepping on more pieces of broken glass along the way. It must've hurt, what with his feet bleeding red tracks in their wake, but his face remained the very epitome of stoic tolerance. Sensing this, the group at the door wisely parted to make way. Surprisingly even the smart-mouthed Bobby kept his shut.

Scott made his way back to his room in silence. At only one point during the journey was the quiet broken, and that was when an inquisitive Toad stuck his head back into the hall to ask if everything was okay. Scott's answer involved the last of the cold shoulders he had left to give.

"Well pardon me for breathing!" Toad hissed before retreating back into his room.

Alone in his, Scott sat mutely on the edge of his bed. His feet throbbed but did not bleed. The wound had already clotted, forming a thick scab over the cuts that would be picked off tomorrow. It must've healed in the hall. Looking around, Scott didn't see any blood splatters on his carpet. Of course, seeing everything in hues of red made such detection difficult, but…

Still, not wanting to take any chances, and really just looking for something to take up time, he lifted himself up off the bed and backtracked over to the door – passing an inspector's eye over the flooring. No spotting. Good. Without even realizing it, Scott nodded in approval. Of all the X-Men and their bedrooms, his was unquestionably the neatest. Where Jean had her eclectic knickknacks, and Ororo her scented candles, Scott had clear countertops and open closet space. His clothing was arranged by color and occasion. Open the door to that spacious, clutter-free closet, and the viewer was greeted to a veritable rainbow of polos pared with their respective slacks. Pull open one of the bureau drawers, and that same viewer would likely flee the room in terror when faced with more of the same. Every sock was matched to a mate and then placed neatly into the appropriate drawer. His underwear was rolled to accommodate for more pairs. And the 15-inch Mac, which the Xavier Institute bestowed upon all students during enrollment, he had hidden in a cubby for fear that it looked too conspicuous otherwise.

Scott thought of it as being organized. Bobby, in his typical phraseology, called it being "anal".

Maybe he had a point. Maybe it was a little austere. But that was the way Scott liked it. The stark cleanliness relaxed him. This was where he came for meditation. This was where he slept – underneath the framed seal of the United States Army, which for sentimental reasons was the only expression of personality he allowed in his room.

But the best times, the times he most enjoyed, were those instances when his place became his and Jean's place. Late at night, usually. While the others had gone to sleep. Planned or not, Jean slipping under the covers, snuggling warm. Him comforting her after a bad dream. The comforting occasionally leading to something more…

Scott's lips pursed.

Well, maybe that wasn't the best thing to think about now.

Indeed. Casting all other thoughts aside, and standing perfectly still in the middle of his room, Scott listened. Though his mutant powers began and ended with the whole optic-blast thing, another, more subtle ability had developed itself over the course of his early adolescence. Namely, an increased perception of sounds and noises as heard by the human ear. Because when the opening of your eyes meant death and destruction for all things you happened to gaze upon, you tended to adjust rather quickly, as did your other senses. Now, for example, standing in his room, he could hear Bobby wish Rogue good night at the end of the hall. Somebody yawned, and such were the quality of Scott's ears that he immediately identified the sleepyhead as Storm. And those heavy, shuffling footsteps? None other than Beast's.

He heard all this and more – the whirl of the air conditioning, that continued snoring in the adjoining room (Firestar most likely, though this was just a guess; she hadn't been part of the team long enough for Scott to catalogue her idiosyncrasies) – but the conversation he most wanted to hear remained shrouded in silence.

Ah, but wasn't that to be expected when dealing with telepaths?

Scott frowned. He hated it when Jean and the Professor did this type of thing. It made him nervous not knowing what they were talking about. And you knew when they were doing it. You knew from the looks they gave each other. Sometimes it was downright creepy. Especially during mealtimes. One minute everything would be all clanking silverware and hushed requests to pass the potatoes, and the next, Jean was hooting and hollering in front of a stunned dining room, doubled over with laughter and red in the face. And just as you were trying to recall the number for the mental hospital, you realized from the bemused look on Xavier's face, that he had just told a telepathic funny.

Excuse me, Miss Grey, but might you happen to have Prince Albert in a can? If so, you'd be well advised to let him out. Yuk-yuk-yuk.

Another quarter hour was struck. Five o'clock was just around the corner. Outside, the night sky whispered rumors of dawn.

They had to be done by now, surely.

Scott retraced his steps back to the doorway. Pausing there for a moment, he poked his head out into the dormitory corridor in the direction of Jean's room. Other than his, hers was the only door open along the hall. That was good at least. Whatever she and the Professor were doing, it couldn't be that bad if they hadn't needed to shut the door in order to do it.

Was he even still inside?

Only one way to find out.

Letting go of his doorframe, Scott stepped out into the hall. At that exact moment, a shadow stretched itself out inside the yellow rectangle of light emanating from Jean's room. Bulky, squat, and consisting of interlocking wheels and spokes, the silhouette was obviously the Professor's. Whatever his business with Jean, he had finished it.

The recognition froze Scott in mid step. Rarely ever did he experience feelings of uncertainty, but on those infrequent instances when they did arise, they hit with all the force of a sledgehammer to the kneecaps. And it was precisely because such feelings were few and far between, that Scott had yet to devise a method of coping with them. Which left him in the position he found himself in now – trembling and locked in place, not knowing what to do or how to react. Was retreat the more favorable option here, or would it be better to stand firm and hold ground?

Xavier's shadow crawled up the wall. The man himself appeared an instant later. As Scott watched, the Professor propelled himself forward with a single spin of his wheels, coming precariously close to both the wall and the Monet watercolor hanging there. About two inches from the baseboard, though, the wheelchair's tires swerved to the left and the contraption's trajectory was altered, sending Xavier rolling safely away in the direction of the elevator.

Scott moved forward with a sigh of relief.

Up ahead, the wheelchair halted. Hands straining to assist in the movement, Xavier craned around backward.

The two men locked eyes. Neither moved. Each looked the role of a gunslinger - eyes narrowed, fingers taunt and ready to pull a nonexistent trigger. Unconsciously, Scott felt his lip rise up into a snarl. Suddenly the mansion hallway was transformed into the stage of a spaghetti Western, complete with out-of-sight stagehands preparing to toss a couple of tumbleweeds into the shot. It seemed to be the moment of truth, the moment of some great reveal, and Scott steadied himself for what would likely come next. He trained his eyes on Xavier, but kept his mind focused inward. When dealing with a telepath as skilled as the Professor, the shielding of thoughts was, at best, only a temporary defense. Scott knew this, but threw up every mental blockade he could think of nevertheless in the hopes he would at least feel them crumbling. He wanted to know if his mind was being toyed with – and after living with the Professor all these years, he had become quite accustomed to the feeling. Usually it felt like someone tickling a finger across the hairs on the nape of your neck. A brief sensation, made all the briefer depending on the skill of the psychic, but always perceptible.

The slightest itch, the faintest tickle, and Scott was prepared to throw down, plain and simple.

But he felt nothing. The hairs along his neck remained undisturbed. And when he saw the Professor break eye contact, sigh, and then roll away, shoulders hunched, another wallop of uncertainty struck him in the gut – its second occurrence of the evening. That look in Xavier's eyes … had it been it guilt? Perhaps, though it'd been over too quick for him to place the emotion shimmering there.

Around the bend in the hall came the sound of elevator doors sliding open. There was a rustling as Xavier boarded. The doors again. Then the hum of its motors as it lifted its passenger to the mansion's upper levels.

Good job, Summers, Scott thought. You had a perfectly good opportunity to apologize and you blew it. Nice. He's the only father you've ever really known, in case you hadn't noticed.

And on the heels of that thought: Hey, I'll apologize when he apologizes! He's the one that started it. Remember?

Yes, he did. He did remember, and the memory aroused the same feelings in him now as it did then. But he also didn't think he could take much more of this prolonged silent treatment. Avoiding the Professor when he entered a room, exchanging only the most perfunctory of words and the snappy undercurrent of hostility that came with them – it was beyond childish. It was shameful. The best thing to do, Scott knew, was to simply seek Xavier out and "open up a dialogue" (as Beast would've said). But this would never come about for two very simple reasons. For one thing, at this point in the process, Scott couldn't imagine himself bestowing the forgiveness that would likely be the expected result of such a dialogue. For another, Xavier seemed to be operating under the belief that the less anyone spoke about it, the more likely it was that the entire issue would be forgotten completely. And so it was that no conversations were initiated and no apologies issued. And since both men were more alike than they realized – stubborn and prideful among other things – the chances of a truce being drawn between them were decreasing every day.

It was a sad situation all around. But then maybe the time had come for him to sever ties with Xavier. For most of his life he had defined himself by how he related to others. He'd been a brother, a student, and a leader without ever truly being Scott Summers the individual. Maybe this rift with Xavier was a sign that he should start finding his own way. Figuring things out for himself.

Yes. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. At twenty years old (pushing twenty-one) he'd been dependent on others for far too long already. He had missed the chance for self-discovery that usually came along with coming-of-age. From now on things would be different. No more relying on other people. No more Scott the Dutiful Pupil. Maybe even no more Cyclops. He didn't know. All he did know was that the only person through whom he would define himself now was coming out of her room to meet him.

As usual the sight of Jean brought a smile to his face.

Except for her hair, which still looked uncharacteristically tousled, she appeared to have recuperated completely from the panic that had so griped her a moment ago. Her eyes were alert; her walk was steady. And when she saw Scott standing there, she grinned and walked into the arms he had open for her.

"Hey, babe," he welcomed. "Everything alright? You okay?"

She nodded against his chest. "Am now. The Professor helped guide me back."

I'm sure he did. Scott rolled his eyes.

"Bad dream?"

Laughing, Jean pulled away from the embrace. "What gave it away?" Then, in a more serious tone: "Sorry if I scared you. You now how it is with us telekinetics – we sneeze, and all of a sudden we turn into Carrie at the prom."

"Don't worry about it. I'm just glad you're okay. For a minute there, things were kind of …." He trailed off, uncertain how to continue. "Want to tell me about it?"

Jean gasped in a mock exclamation of surprise. "Scott Summers, you know not what it is you ask! Do you not know the first dream rule? If you tell it before breakfast, it'll come true."

"Oh, really?" Scott grinned. "Damn, I wish I would've known that before. I don't know about you, but I've had a few fantasies I wouldn't mind coming true."

"Yeah, well, don't get too hopeful there. I think that rule pertains just to nightmares. Suffice it to say, though, I will never watch Day After Tomorrow right before bed again."

"Well, what are your sleeping arrangements for tonight going to be?"

"Me in the game room in front of the TV, gonked out on sleep medication waiting for the purple moth to take effect. Why do you ask?"

Scott sighed as another fantasy went up in smoke. "Just curious."

Jean planted a smooch on his cheek. "I love it when you play innocent. By the way, you might want to think about hitting the sack yourself. The 60 Minutes people will be here in a few hours, and we want to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the cameras, don't we?"

Oh yeah. He'd nearly forgotten about that. As far as the rest of the world knew, Professor Charles Xavier was dead, the victim of a mysterious bomb blast outside an abandoned Finnish military compound whose exact location remained undisclosed. His body, charred to a skeleton, had been retrieved at the sight and brought stateside by way of the X-Men. What nobody had realized at the time, however, was that the body was merely a highly advanced fake, and that the real, very much alive Xavier, had been transported into the future. The reason for this deceit had included training. According to Xavier's captor, something big was on the horizon, looming over the future – the battle to end all battles – and unless Xavier could be properly trained to combat the threat, a virtual apocalypse was inevitable.

At least this was how Scott understood it. The exact details regarding his stay in the future, the Professor kept to himself. In the end, though, he had returned to the past, fully trained, and together with Jean's new Phoenix abilities, they had defeated Apocalypse, the terror to end all terrors, in the blink of an eye. Yet despite this great accomplishment, Xavier remained legally dead – a status that he retained until a money-hungry stewardess snapped his picture with a camera phone during a return plane trip from Muir Island. The picture sold to the tabloids for an exorbitant sum, Xavier was called into S.H.E.I.L.D. for questioning, and an interview with 60 Minutes was scheduled so that he might explain to a bewildered world why he was alive two months after his televised funeral.

"See you in the morning, handsome," Jean said, offering up one final kiss.

"Sleep tight," Scott returned.

He watched her leave, clothed in pink pajamas and trailing a cheetah-printed blanket in her wake. Heading in the direction of the game room, she stopped halfway there, unwittingly mimicking the Professor, and turned to face Scott once more.

"Oh, and dearest? One more thing."

"Hmm?"

She threw the blanket up in the air. "For crying out loud, put on some pants! What are you trying to do, advertise?"

Scott waved her on. "Goodnight, Jean."

She smiled. "Goodnight, Scott."

- - - xxx - - -

Six minutes and two Lunesta later, Jean Grey found herself teetering on the verge of sleep, eyes heavy, thoughts sluggish. Sprawled out atop the game room's plush sofa beneath her cozy cheetah throw, she yawned for what seemed like the twentieth time and tried to make sense of the flashing lights before her. She had turned the television on at random and stumbled upon a Kardashian marathon. From what she could glean of the episode's plot, the son had somehow ingested Bruce Jenner's impotency medication, thus leaving him in a permanent state of arousal. The mom was worried. The sisters (Kourtney? Kim? Both? Neither?) were highly amused. Luckily for the television audience, the cameras, by pure coincidence, had caught the entire incident on tape.

Mesmerized, Jean watched until the first commercial break. Then, the trance broken, she shook her head clear and swept a hand along the floor in search of the remote. Finding nothing but the cases of X-Box games, she focused on the TV itself, found the off switch, and depressed it with a concentrated burst of telekinesis.

The darkness that followed was abrupt and startling. Jean gulped. She snuggled deeper into her blanket until she achieved a fetal position. Normally not one so easily spooked, especially but something as childish as the dark, she nevertheless found herself regretting not taking Scott up on his offer. The game room was so vast, so open. So exposed. Anything could be lurking. Plus, she was alone.

The idea of heading back to Scott's room blinked through her mind, but she discarded it quickly. The sleeping pills were taking effect and she doubted she had the energy to get up. And on the off chance she did, she wasn't about to go walking through that shadowy hallway again.

Oh, please. Get serious. You can lift a fire engine with your mind. Your other form is that of a giant firebird. You've tussled with Magneto, defeated Apocalypse, and now you're saying you're afraid of the dark? How old are we again?

A very mature twenty, thank you, Jean answered back. And then, taking a quick look around: Would it break the bank to put a nightlight in here? For crying out loud!

Her vision settled on the TV. Its red power indicator gleamed like a hungry eye.

It's that dream's fault.

Pulling the blanket noose-tight around her neck, she took another hesitant glance around the room. Dark shapes crowded all around. Pinpricks of light flashed quietly on and off.

It was just a dream.

Jean closed her eyes, suddenly very afraid for no logical reason.

Don't you know that? It was just a dream brought on by a stupid movie and an overabundance of caffeine in your system. End of story.

Maybe. Probably. Except it was never that clear-cut with psychics. Ordinary people have bad dreams and call them "nightmares". Psychics have bad dreams and spend the following morning fretting about whether or not they might have accessed a premonition, a vision of things to come.

Jean's bowels loosened at that. She remembered the huge wave. She recalled the city, unable to move from its grounded place lying helplessly in its path. The swiftness with which day turned to night. The screams as her friends were carried away in its watery grip. The wrenching pain of death as hundreds perished. That, a premonition? Jean decided at once that that wasn't the case here.

I won't … let it …. be.

And with that final thought, she tumbled over the edge of waking and fell into the chasm of sleep - but not before opening her eyes one final time and seeing that those menacing shapes crowded around her were just pinball machines. Nothing more.

- - - xxx - - -

Meanwhile, 27 miles away, in one of New York's project-bordering-on-ghetto neighborhoods, another dream was ending. A dream that was, by any reasonable standard, a nightmare.

To look at the dreamer, an ignorant observer might've thought the poor woman was having some sort of seizure. Jerking, rolling, tumbling, moaning, she had long since kicked herself out from underneath her covers. The multiple sheets she required to stay warm, even in the hottest of summers, now lay crumpled and meaningless at the foot of her bed. Of the six pillows she slept with, four had been thrown across the room and another lost forever in the crevice between bed and wall. Rusty mattress springs squeaked out a desperate rhythm. The bed's headboard thumped maddeningly against the wall behind, an action that would soon wake up the residents in the neighboring apartment if dreamer's fit did not soon cease.

As it was currently, however, the neighbors' sleep was peaceful. But had they known what was occurring in apartment 913, it is reasonable to suggest that they would have roused themselves immediately and forgone the phone in favor of knocking on 913's door, calling in a loud voice: "Miss Irene, are you okay in there? Miss Irene?" before finally kicking in the door to check on the occupant.

For this wasn't some random, faceless, acquaintance whose comings and goings remained unnoticed. No, this was Irene Adler (or "Miss Irene" as she was affectionately known to the occupants of the ninth floor), confidant and resident foster grandmother of the Crescent Heights apartment complex – a woman whose very smile shattered the stereotype of the indifferent New Yorker.

Except now those same lips she used to smile and greet good morning were pulled back into a soundless scream. With one frail, semi-arthritic hand, she clutched at her chest, ripping small tears in the fabric of her nightgown. Beneath closed lids, her eyes swept from side to side as they took in a sight only she could see. Then, arching her back and gasping in such a way that would have seriously alarmed her neighbors (a death rattle; there she goes; oh Miss Irene, come back to us, please!), she coughed, gurgled up a throat full of mucus, and awoke.

But waking did little to throw off the nightmare. Panting, her wrinkled features eschewed into a heart-breaking expression of utter fear, Miss Irene spun quickly around as though to verify she current place in the world. What she saw was comforting. It was her room – her own room in her own apartment. She was back. She was safe.

Still, she had to be sure. Squinting her eyes in an effort to see past the advancing glaucoma, the tiny Miss Irene took in the features of her bedroom. The more she saw, the more she relaxed. Eventually she felt calm enough to reach for the glass of water she always kept on her nightstand.

In terms of decorating, the objects in Miss Irene's bedroom were split evenly between her two passions: her faith and her family. Though the walls here were stained and cracked in places, they were quite strong enough to hold nine album's worth of photos and pictures. Indeed, the western wall was a simulated journey through time, chronicling the life of a family through photographs. Tintype at first, then black and white before finally broadening into color, Miss Irene had lined her walls with the faces of a hundred thousand relatives, some nuclear, most distant. They stared back at her from Christmases and Thanksgivings and Easters, all frozen in time. Memories of bygone years, tools to help her ward of the dementia she feared was inevitable at her age.

But tacked to the eastern wall was where she kept the relics of her faith. Here were the knitted Bible verses, the crucifixes, and the framed admonition to "Love Others as Thyself" – all scattered pell-mell amid scenes from the life of Christ.

These were the things that comforted her, and as she swallowed half a glass of water, she reflected that she was thankful for both.

Replacing the water glass, Miss Irene grimaced. Her back felt afire. Her legs were cramping. Lord only knew what she'd been doing in her sleep.

He gives us the strength to stand what we gots to stand, she thought randomly as she lifted trembling arms to check the status of her hair curlers.

Just then the telephone rang. Miss Irene picked it up without a second's thought.

"Mama? Mama, did I wake you?"

The voice on the other end bore only a passing semblance of composer. Martha was just barely keeping it together. Her mother could hear the tremor beneath it all clear as day.

"You didn't wake me, baby," Miss Irene said calmly.

A sigh was heard on the other end. A sigh that rattled like loose shingles in a wind. "Oh, well, that's good at least. I was afraid that …." A pause. "I had a dream. A … a bad one." Another pause. "I think I had myself a vision."

Miss Irene nodded, not at all surprised. "I know. I saw it, too."

"You think maybe I could - "

"Come on over. I'll put the kettle on. Just be sure not to rush, you hear? Be careful being out this time of night."

"Yeah, yeah, I will. See you soon, Mama."

After responding with a similar promise, Miss Irene returned the phone to its cradle. For a long time she sat motionless in her bed.

So Martha had dreamt the same. Then it was a vision.

Miss Irene nodded. She'd figured as much.

African-American, mother to three, grandmother to four and great-grandmother to one, Miss Irene Adler, at ninety-four years of age, was also the world's oldest living mutant. It was a distinction she herself remained unaware of. Indeed, despite what she had heard on the TV, she wasn't entirely sure what a mutant was. And if confronted with proof that she was a mutant – hard, undeniable genetic proof – she would've dismissed the information entirely. She wasn't a homo superior; she was gifted. Her visions of the future weren't the result of any mutation, but rather a gift bestowed on her by God. It was a gift nearly all the women in her family possessed. Her mother had had it, her grandmother had had it, and she could even remember stories told to her in her girlhood years about her grandmother's mother and how she had accurately predicted the outcome of the Civil War years before war had even been declared.

Blessed. Blessed with the gift that was called "foresight" – a gift which the Lord had conferred upon her when she'd been all of 12 years old. Back in the 20s, that had been. She'd had a cat in those days, a lovable little calico that answered to the name of "Patches". Even now, some eighty years later, the memory of Patches stood out clear and resolute in her mind. And though there were some days when she couldn't remember what she'd had to eat for breakfast, she could still recall, with perfect clarity, the day she had gone out to play only to find the wild Patches staring at her from behind some old and dented trashcans. It'd been love at first sight. The little Irene had scooped the kitten up, taken it inside, and with the permission of her father, had claimed it as her own.

What a companion that little thing had been! And what a good sport, too. Never once did it yowl in protest as it was being dressed in the baby clothes Irene had found for it. And though it must've surely been embarrassed riding around in a baby carriage, it suffered through the indignity happily enough.

Oh, that Patches. In her little girl naivety, Irene had thought the two of them would've been together forever. But the dream had changed all that. That horrible, horrible dream in which Patches had attracted the attention of a gang of neighborhood mongrels. The meeting had ended in blood, and Irene had woken up crying and screaming, certain that her dear kitten was dead. Her parents, summoned by her cries, had tried to calm her, succeeding only after they had brought in a still-sleeping Patches to prove to their daughter that her playmate was still very much alive.

And that had been the end of the story. At least for a while. Satisfied that her dream was nothing more than a dream, Irene had gone about the following week happy as ever. She and Patches continued their normal routine – dress-up, baby strollers, tea parties – until one day, itching to use the bathroom, Irene had left Patches out in the street while she rushed inside to relieve herself. It'd only been a minute, ten tops, but when she returned to the street, she found herself greeted with a scene of horror.

Patches. Decapitated. Its head caught between the jaws of a mangy-looking pit-bull mix, its tail similarly torn from its body and serving as a chew for a bloody-faced black dog.

Patches. Dead. Just like in her dream.

Screaming bloody murder, Miss Irene remembered she had run upstairs to her apartment, screaming for help and totally hysterical. She remained in mourning for weeks.

Then, one night about ten days after the attack, her mother had come into her room, sat on the edge of her bed, and told her the truth. That her dream hadn't been a dream, but rather a vision of the future. It was a gift, her mother had explained as she tenderly stroked her daughter's braided kinky hair, a gift given to her by the Lord Jesus Christ. Just like Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. It was a gift she, too, possessed – as did all the women in their family. And having said that, her mother had arisen, kissed her daughter good night, and left the room.

And that had been the first vision.

Nobody knew, nobody except Martha, that was – her own daughter and bearer of the same wondrous gift. In all her years, Miss Irene had told no one. Partly because it was nobody's business, and partly because she believed bragging about it would lead to pride, which was a sin, which would lead to the loss of her gift.

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, Miss Irene thought serenely. Closing her eyes and clasping her hands, she offered praise to a God, Who, unbeknownst to her, had nothing to do with her gift, at least not directly. What she had to thank for her visions was her X-gene, which was burning brightly tonight.

"… in Jesus' Name, Amen." she finished. Then, her prayer complete, she threw one withered leg over the side of her bed, paused for a great while, and followed suit with the other. Standing up, she noted a wetness trickling down her legs. The front of her nightgown was soaked, as were her bed sheets. It took her only a second to understand what had happened. The horror of this latest vision had caused her to wet the bed.

Ah, the thrills of getting older.

Well, it wasn't to bed helped. A fresh change of clothes and sheets would make it right.

But as she waddled to her bureau, she veered off in the direction of the window. Three shaky steps and she was there.

She yanked down hard on the pulley. At once the Venetian blinds rolled up like a scroll.

She gazed out. And though her vision was poor and getting poorer by the month, she saw, with great relief, that the night sky held none of what she had seen in her dream. For she, too, had dreamt of the world's end, and it had ended not with water, but in flame.