14: Life and Death

There was no gradual transition. One moment, he was floating amid the light, listening to it murmur to him. It was telling him things that only a part of him actually heard and processed; far better that way, he knew. The human mind wasn't meant to encompass some of this information. It was enough that he knew it on some level and would be driven to act on it when the time came. It wasn't as if he was unfamiliar with the concept of being an instrument of a higher purpose.

In the next moment, he was opening his eyes and staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling. There was a rather surprising presence in the room. "Where are we?" Nathan asked, his voice rough with disuse - but human-sounding, lacking the added resonance of the Phoenix. It had withdrawn to the back of his mind, like a sea of fire lapping gently at the shore of his thoughts. Giving him room, he thought, as a way of emphasizing that this wasn't possession. It knew about Stryfe, of course. It knew everything about him.

He sat up slowly, ignoring the light-headedness as he looked around. The room was definitely unfamiliar, but the sleek elegance of the furniture and decor made him think of Emma.

Over by the windows, Erik was filling a glass of water from a crystal pitcher. He brought it over to the bed and Nathan took it, feeling a little bemused at the realization that waking up to find Magneto watching over him had not only not been alarming, but was actually something of a relief.

"To answer your question," Erik said, "Emma's penthouse in New York. Hope is-"

"-in the next room. I remember now." Nathan was already reaching out to her, but the Phoenix murmured reassuringly, the waves in his mind reaching a little higher to show him that Hope was sealed in a healing sleep. "She's going to be all right," Nathan said absently, the resonance creeping back into his voice. Flames flickered around his hands, including the one holding the glass of water. "It was a little rough with us, that's all." His throat felt like sandpaper, so he took a long sip of the water as the Phoenix retreated again.

Erik sat down, regarding him thoughtfully. "Interesting. How do you feel?"

"Probably better than the Red Hulk does at the moment." Nathan offered a faint smile at the raised eyebrow he got for the comment. "Sorry. I know, I'll be expected to be repentant about that." He'd have to work on making a good show of it, he supposed. The less reason he gave anyone to start muttering about Dark Phoenix the better.

"Not by me," Erik pointed out wryly. "But it was a serious question, Nathan. Are you all right?"

"I'm... here. In control." It was the best answer he could give at the moment. He hurt all over in an odd sort of way, as if every cell in his body ached. But his mind was clear and a quick internal assessment showed no sign of psychic damage. There had been, he thought.

Nathan took another sip of water, then pushed the blankets aside and swung his legs across to the floor so that he could sit up properly. The light-headedness was still lingering, and his shoulders slumped a little as he turned his mind's eye outward. His telepathy was still impossibly sharp. Every mind in the penthouse was an open book. Minds far beyond the penthouse, as well.

"Illyana is coming back with Rachel," he said slowly. "Emma and Ororo are at Avengers Tower, talking about rescuing Scott with... Stark. And Logan." His voice went flat, and the waves of fire were suddenly crashing violently into his thoughts, his control beginning to slip in the space between one heartbeat and the next.

"Emma and Ororo told me about what seemed to trigger your manifestation back at the safehouse. I had no idea Logan had such thoughts, or rest assured, I would have confronted him about it long ago. But I am curious. How did you know?" Erik's icy blue eyes were locked on Nathan, contemplative and yet very intent.

"How did I know what?" Nathan was beginning to feel strangely disassociated. There was a mirror in front of his mind's eyes, a mirror where his reflection was getting ready for war and all he could do was stare at it and wonder if he really wanted to reassert control. Surely it was safer to remove Logan now...

"How did you know about what Logan and Hope had agreed?" Erik asked, his voice steady but oddly sharp. "Nathan. Focus on me. Answer the question."

"I... I don't know. I don't think I did, until that moment..." Nathan stopped, taking a deep breath. He folded his hands around the glass of water, ignoring the flames, and bowed his head for a moment. Another deep breath, then another, and the mirror faded. He was whole again.

"I see what you're doing," he said in his own voice again. The flames flickered and vanished. He was angry about a great many things, Nathan told himself; he needed to be careful. Becoming crazed by the need to protect the people he loved was the best way to fail. Again. "Fine. I'm thinking, not just reacting. I'd still like to rip his head off for it."

"I'm not actually saying that you shouldn't." Erik's words were precise, judicious, and a brief, wintry smile tugged at Nathan's lips. "Simply that now is probably not the time. If I may offer a piece of advice without being presumptuous? From a failed father to a rather more successful one..." Nathan nodded, and Erik went on in the same careful tone. "Ignore Logan for the time being. Let us handle him, if he needs to be handled. Focus your attention on Hope instead. She is very young, to be wielding this kind of power-"

"She's better suited to it than I am," Nathan said almost absently. "This is what she was born to do."

The eyebrow went up again. "Be that as it may," Erik said, although he was looking thoughtful again. "You are the one she trusts. I would venture to suggest that she would never have made that agreement with Logan if she hadn't been under the mistaken impression that you were dead. As such, the agreement itself is likely... moot. If she feels she's losing control, she'll come to you for help. Not to Logan to end her life."

"I still can't trust him." Nathan took another sip of his water, bleak worry twisting in his chest. "He'll be watching all three of us."

"And we'll be watching him. Look after Hope, Nathan." Erik was giving him that very intent look again. "If the Phoenix has a purpose for everything it does, surely that's yours."

Nathan considered it for a moment, then nodded. "That," he said with a flash of dark humor, "and killing Shi'ar. I'm just getting started with that." And in the back of his mind, the Phoenix murmured approvingly.

Alex set the phone down, staring blankly at it. His brain was still struggling to process what he'd just been told. On top of everything else that had happened in the last several days, this seemed... impossible. Unfair. Connected, he thought. Had to be.

"Summers?" Odd that it was Namor who opted to approach him, but Alex supposed his expression gave away the fact that something had happened. The Atlantean regarded him through narrowed eyes more wary than concerned. "Ill news?"

"That was the police in Anchorage." Alex kept his voice low. They were in the living room of the penthouse; Laurie was curled up watching the news, while Nemesis sat at the desk, his fingers flying over the laptop he'd cajoled out of Emma as soon as he'd arrived last night. The girl at least didn't need to hear this - she'd been through enough - and he wasn't sure he could tolerate any witticisms from Nemesis at the moment.

"Lorna gave them the number here. They..." He stopped, taking a carefully measured breath as emotion started to bleed through the shock. "My grandparents are dead."

Namor was silent for a moment. Alex looked up at him and saw the realization forming. "Both of them," Namor said slowly. "Yesterday?"

Alex nodded slowly. "There was... an explosion at their house. Around the same time as the attack here. Their bodies were recovered, but the police say it looks like they were dead before the fire. I don't..." He stopped, his jaw clenching hard. Grief could wait until later. Would have to wait until later. "This is not a coincidence," he said harshly. "There's no way."

"It would seem unlikely. But why?"

"I know why."

Alex froze as he saw Rachel coming down the stairs. She had woken up last night, not long after Illyana had brought her back to the penthouse. Like Nathan and Hope, she'd seemed generally... calm, but now there were flames taking shape around her again and her face was a mask of cold rage. Alex knew just by looking at her that she'd made the same connection he had, that this was very likely history repeating itself. At least Nathan and Hope were at the Baxter Building, and hopefully not picking up on this. One angry Phoenix at a time.

"The Shi'ar massacred the Grey family trying to wipe out a Phoenix-compatible genome," Rachel said to Namor. The flames around her were growing brighter and her eyes were like emerald fire. "Obviously they've concluded that the Summers genome is just as dangerous."

"It makes sense," Alex said more flatly. His grandparents' smiling faces lingered in his mind, and it was taking an act of will to keep his expression level, to keep himself from lashing out with a fist or a plasma burst to break something. Damn them for this. Damn them all to hell.

Rachel reached the bottom of the stairs, moving towards them so fluidly that her feet barely seemed to touch the ground. "So," she went on, "they killed Philip and Deborah to contain the threat, when really, it doesn't make any difference at all. It's like firing a gun at a tsunami. Two... sweet, kind elderly people are gone, and it's not going to change a thing. They think they're protecting themselves. All they've ensured is that we're going to make them suffer before we kill them all."

Alex supposed he should be disturbed by the matter-of-fact way she'd said that. If she hadn't been talking about people trying to wipe out his entire family, he might have been. "Scott," he said, his voice dropping again as his hands tightened into fists at his side. "What about Scott?"

"If they'd simply wanted Cyclops dead," Nemesis said without looking up from his laptop, "I imagine they'd have left him bleeding out on the floor of Wolverine's study. Nor does a corpse make good bait." Laurie was watching and listening, her eyes wide and horrified. "I'd be more worried about yourself right now, Havok. You're an obvious target."

"He's right," Rachel said, that burning gaze locked on him. "They'll come for you when they can; you're on their list. But we won't let them have you. We'll burn all of them down to ashes." Her teeth were bared in a smile that had nothing humorous about it. "I won't be caught unprepared again," she growled.

"The police are expecting me to come to Anchorage," Alex said slowly. Forcing himself to think, instead of just react. "To identify the bodies and make the necessary arrangements."

"It could be a trap," Namor objected. "Your grandparents wouldn't thank you for endangering your life to see to their funeral rituals, Summers." He stopped, looking mildly exasperated with himself, and then smiled humorlessly. "Unless that's the point, of course."

"Of course it is," Alex said calmly. "We need intel, don't we? Scott's not the only one who can be used as bait." They had some time before they could launch a rescue mission; the ship wasn't ready yet. And right now, he didn't feel like sitting around and waiting.

"A plan worthy of your brother," Namor said approvingly.

"I'll take that as a compliment. What do you say, Ray?" Alex asked, turning his attention back to his niece. "Think you could let us keep some of them alive for long enough to talk if we go up there and lay a trap of our own?" They had a much better chance of pulling this off with no injuries to anyone on their side if they had the Phoenix along for the ride. He'd have to call Ororo and tell her what he was planning. She could tell the Avengers or not, as she chose. Right now I don't give a fuck.

"If it's a commando unit, you can have the leader," Rachel said fiercely, the flames leaping eagerly around her. "The rest of them are mine."

So are we going to talk about the elephant in the room?

I don't know what you mean, Tony.

Come on, Reed. You hid the fact that you were playing Storm's errand boy from me. What else are you hiding? I'm willing to bet you've got more of this figured out than you're sharing.

Hope laid on the gurney as the machine rotated around her, and wondered if they realized she could hear them as they argued up there in the control booth. Maybe she should say something? No, she thought abruptly, better to listen. She might hear something useful. Nathan still didn't trust the Avengers, and she wasn't sure Ororo and the others really did either.

Part of her wished Franklin would sneak in her to keep her company, like he had the first time his father had run tests on her. But there was no sign of him. Maybe he didn't want to get grounded again. Nathan had wanted to be in here with her while the machine was running, but Dr. Richards had told him that it would make the results useless. I can only analyze one power signature at a time. Besides, he'd pointed out with a faint smile, the door won't stop you if she needs you. Just indulge me and have a seat in the hall for now.

Nathan had grumbled, but he'd stayed outside. He hadn't budged from the door, though. Hope started to reach out to him and realized that he was distracted by something, talking to someone telepathically and getting increasingly perturbed. Hope swallowed, retreating back inside her own head. She'd find out soon enough what was going on. More bad news, from the feel of it.

Share, Reed. Come on. The X-Men are being ridiculously close-mouthed on the subject of what they do or don't know about the Phoenix's reason for coming. There has to be a reason for that. Something they don't want us to know.

Tony Stark was a very... complex person, Hope thought, skimming lightly over the surface of his thoughts. His mind worked like some sort of impossibly complicated machine, with so many moving parts that it was actually hard to read him, at least for someone like her who was only borrowing telepathy. But she was fairly sure that he already had some idea of the answer to his question, and was just asking Dr. Richards to see if someone he respected would confirm it.

Why don't you ask one of our Phoenix hosts? We're got two right here to hand...

Dr. Richards did know, Hope realized. His mind was just as focused as Stark's, but where Stark's was a machine, his was all... orderly patterns. Like equations in light. Though she couldn't quite tell why he wasn't telling Stark. He seemed to feel cautious about the truth. Almost protective.

I thought of that. But in case you hadn't noticed, Cable's not being all that communicative today. And I really think we want to avoid any appearance of an Avenger attempting to interrogate Hope.

Then I'd say let them tell us in their own time. You and your team have a lot to make up for, Tony. Hope heard Stark start to protest, but Dr. Richards continued calmly. I know what happened on Utopia wasn't your fault, but the situation is what it is. If you want to salvage it, you've got to trust them. That's the only way they're going to trust you.

#Who knew Reed could be that emotionally literate?# Hope blinked up at the red-haired woman who leaned over the gurney, a sad little smile tugging at her lips as she put her finger to her lips. #Shh.#

#I know you,# Hope thought, shocked but not all that surprised. Red hair, green eyes - Jean Grey's face, but so much more than Jean Grey. She was in white and gold, and there was something important about that color combination. Something good. She just couldn't put her finger on what exactly it was. It was something the Phoenix had told her while she'd been sleeping.

#And I've known you since the moment you were conceived.# Those luminous green eyes were suddenly so sad that Hope found herself blinking rapidly, trying to hold back tears of her own. #I am so sorry, Hope. For everything you've been through. Some of it was unavoidable and some of it was necessary, but so much of it was cruel.#

#... what is, is, right?# Hope sent, fighting for composure. The question earned her a gentle smile and a look of such love that the urge to cry quickly faded. One glowing hand reached out as if to stroke her hair; Hope could almost feel it, although she knew perfectly well that 'Jean' wasn't really there.

#I need you to promise me something, sweetheart.# Stark was still badgering Dr. Richards in the control booth, and outside in the hall, Nathan was seething with rage, but Hope kept all her attention on the image of Jean, knowing that this had to be important. #Whatever happens now, you have to stay on Earth. Don't go on that rescue mission. Don't go into space to fight the Shi'ar. Promise me that you'll stay on Earth.#

#But... I can help,# Hope protested. #I can fight. I fought in New York-#

#I know you can fight. I know you'd fight for the people you love until you draw your last breath. It's who you are, and it's not just me seeing your father in you that makes me say that.# At the back of Hope's mind, the Phoenix seemed to open like a flower to the sun, and she was flooded with love and determination and fierce protectiveness. #But we came to Nathan and Rachel for one reason. We came to you for another. You have to make it through this, Hope. You're the only one who can finish it.#

#But I don't want anyone else to die for me!# Hope sent back, embarassed at how hard it suddenly was to keep the tears back. If she had to stay on Earth, Nathan would be going into space without her, just like he'd gone forward in time without her, and the thought terrified her. She couldn't lose him again. She just couldn't.

#You have to live for them, Hope, or all of this was for nothing. I know it's hard. But what you have to do is too important.# She leaned down, and this time Hope did feel the light kiss on her forehead. #Promise me.#

#I promise.#

And then she was gone and the door was sliding open. Nathan strode in, surrounded by fire and ignoring the protests from the control booth. #Hope, get up,# he said, agitated. #We've got to go. We're too exposed here.#

Hope sat up immediately. #What's happened?# But even as she formed the words, their minds connected like magnets drawn to each other by the power they shared.

And she saw two burning houses in Alaska.

"He's alive?" Warbird said, surprised, as she stepped into the interrogation chamber. "This is not what you told the Chancellor. I was ordered to confirm his death." She had been rather disappointed to hear that Scott Summers had lasted barely twelve hours in the hands of the interrogation specialists before his heart had stopped. Hardly an impressive showing, after all she had heard about the human known as Cyclops during her time at the school.

"His first death," the senior of the two specialists said as his subordinate moved around the chamber, tending to equipment and stopping once to give the human an injection. "Perhaps the Praetor did not share his plan? A single, conclusive death, even a painful one, may be interpreted merely as reason for revenge. If cooler heads prevail, the Phoenix hosts may even delay in seeking it, which I understand would not serve the interests of our mission..."

"No. It would not." Warbird studied the human thoughtfully. His breathing was shallow, growing more rapid. He bore several visible injuries and the fading marks of others; they must have used a regenerator, to produce such rapid healing. That couldn't be done too often with humans, given their fragile physiology. "We must resolve this before the firebird reaches Earth. The consequences if we fail are... unpalatable."

The specialist watched her intently, as if waiting for more details. Warbird stared back at him coldly until he dropped his eyes. Presumptuous of him to assume she would share what she knew. Even if she had been free to do so, she would not have discussed it; the darkness of the future they were trying to avert still haunted her.

"In any case," the specialist went on, more meekly, "the Praetor suggested that if we make it clear to them that we are willing to kill and revive him repeatedly, they may act with much more urgency to prevent his suffering. I admit, for all that I've studied the humans it's an interpretation of their psychology that would never have occurred to me."

"Well, the Praetor is human himself, of course," Warbird said absently, her attention flickering to the recording equipment. Once complete, the recording would be transmitted to the Jean Grey School's communications array. "He understands their familial structures far better than we do."

"Very true," the specialist conceded, then glanced at the monitors. "His vital signs are within safe levels again," he told his subordinate. "Strap him into the Kiss," he said, waving a hand at one of the larger pieces of equipment.

Warbird watched the junior specialist start to lift Scott Summers off the table, her hand straying towards the hilt of her sword almost instinctively as she realized that the human was not restrained. That seemed unwise, even if he had been functionally dead.

The impulse was correct, but she was too slow. As soon as the specialist touched him, Scott Summers exploded into action with a speed and ferocity that seemed impossible under the circumstances.

The second specialist died before she could draw her weapon, his neck snapped in an instant. By the time she got her blade clear of its scabbard, Scott Summers had seized the dead male's sidearm and reached out to haul the senior specialist backwards, using him as a shield.

"Is there a reason you didn't have him properly restrained?" Warbird demanded incredulously.

"He was r-recovering from cardiac arrest..." the specialist wheezed.

"You utter fool," Warbird snarled at him, moving to block the door.

"Not his fault. Seems like he missed a few things in his studying," Scott Summers rasped, the weapon pressed to the specialist's neck. "Mutant metabolisms are a tricky thing."

"Do you truly believe I'll hesitate to shoot him?" Warbird asked coldly, already plotting her angle of attack. She would have to be sure not to damage him in a way that could not be repaired, or risk the Praetor's wrath. "He is of no consequence. Put the weapon down, or earn yourself more suffering. I will not tell you-"

Twice, she meant to say, but then the weapon discharged. Warbird stumbled back against the wall, teeth clenched against a scream as searing pain tore through her midsection. Scott Summers shoved the specialist away, shooting him in the head as he stumbled.

"I didn't have any intention of not killing him. You shouldn't have hesitated," Scott Summers said as Warbird's knees gave out, her hands going slack on her sword. She slid down the wall, gasping for breath and staring up in shocked disbelief as the human moved towards her. He tottered slightly on his feet, as if that deadly whirl of action had sapped what little energy he had.

But the hand holding the weapon was steady, and at this range he wouldn't miss. "The docking bay. Directions. Now."

Warbird glared back at him silently, fighting for air, and the human reached down and pulled her sword away from her, holding it in a way that suggested he'd used such weapons before.

"I don't have time for this." His voice sounded almost detached now. "You're not going to tell me, are you?"



And she died on her own sword, impaled like the heedless fool she was.