I know I delayed too long in posting this part. I was hoping to find the time and the proper frame of mind to edit it further. However, I finally decided that you probably aren't expecting perfection from me and would rather just have it now. So here it is, not trimmed down nearly as much as it should be (the whole story needs to lose about 40,000 words of meandering), and Jesse's parts in this chapter are only setup for Part Two, and this is melancholy more than loud. But since you all know a second part had been planned, and surely have an idea of it in your minds, I've left this as what it was meant to be, as something other than a climactic end, because it is not truly the end. One door closes with this, but I prefer to leave the fandom with another one open.

Also, this chapter goes out to Audrey. The longest chapter for the person who sent me the longest feedback. It just seemed fitting.

-----

-----

Adam had invented the strand? That couldn't be true... and yet he'd just confessed to it.

"What?" Emma gasped in stunned disbelief. This had to be some kind of sick, twisted, and horribly inappropriate joke. Except nobody was laughing, and Adam was far from smiling. She stepped backward in order to place herself protectively between Adam and Brennan. She felt devastated... betrayed.

Everything that had happened, all that had been done to Brennan, it was all because of Adam. "Why would you do this?" she asked, her voice small and afraid. "How could you do this?"

"He didn't," Shalimar said defensively. She wouldn't believe that Adam could ever hurt any of them. He was Adam - he was their guardian. "Tell her you didn't do this to Brennan."

"I had no knowledge of Mason's actions," Adam assured them. "Until tonight, I swear to you, I did not know."

Emma could only stare at him, too nervous to use her power properly. She wanted to read him and find out if he was lying, but she was frightened. A possible betrayal from Adam truly scared her, as did his constant use of Eckhart's first name. They'd once been friends. And Eckhart had obviously said something to Brennan to make him doubt Adam. He'd asked her if she trusted Adam, really trusted him with her life. She'd dismissed it as paranoia, but now... Why hadn't she asked him the reason for his worry - the real reason? Something had to have triggered the distrust. Was there more than he'd let on?

Before her shock could flare into anger, Emma decided she might need to listen to Adam's side of all this. What if he did have a logical explanation for his involvement? It would be best to hear it before she let her emotions get even more out of control. If she became too upset, her power would be like a loaded gun. And if he didn't talk faster, she thought she might kill him.

"Emma, if you do anything to Adam, you'll regret it," Shalimar stated firmly, seeing the intense gaze she had locked on him. "He's the only one who can help Brennan."

That approached worked and Emma dropped her focus to the floor, closing her eyes and squelching any bad thoughts before she could project them.

"That's better." Shalimar crossed her arms over her chest. "Now, Adam, I assume there's more you wanted to say."

He nodded. "I did create the strand, but I had no part in what was done to Brennan. I thought I'd destroyed all my research years ago."

Emma trained her eyes back on Adam, but she held her power in check. "What else do you know? What's going to happen to Brennan?"

"He's going to die." This time it was Jesse who spoke from the doorway as he entered the lab. "I checked everything, and we're not broadcasting any signals. Eckhart really did just let us go. Why would he do that without any demented twists? Which makes me think he merely finds it funny to let us go home and then watch Brennan die anyway. Tell me I'm not right."

Letting them take their ill teammate home could also be viewed as a sign of compassion, except they all knew better. Eckhart had purposefully done this to him, and there'd been no trace of compassion in that. He'd had the chance to take all of Mutant X captive, but this hurt more. Being safe yet being helpless was worse.

The furrow of Adam's brow deepened. "Let me finish some more tests and try to stabilize Brennan," he replied. "Then perhaps I should start at the beginning."

-----

"I told you they never laid a hand on me," Emma mumbled as Adam finished examining her. Other than some slight bruising, she was physically fine. She stared down at the floor as if ashamed to have come through this unscathed while Brennan had been treated so brutally. "Nobody touched me."

Jesse took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze, clearly wanting to say something to comfort her but uncertain as to what. She was in shock, on the verge of breaking into tears once more. She'd been withdrawn the entire time Adam had attempted questioning her.

"Jess, you next." Adam motioned for him to take Emma's seat, watching as his fingers became a little tighter around hers again for an instant before releasing her hand. "I'd like to check your back."

As the two moved to comply, the computer beeped in signal that the analysis of Brennan's blood sample was complete. "Go," Jesse urged. "I'm alright."

Needing no further encouragement, Adam quickly went to check the results. Although if Brennan truly had been given the Messiah Strand but was now falling ill, he knew there was only one thing that would explain it. Adam told himself that it was impossible, yet if the strand existed...

He prayed his suspicions were wrong, but the tests showed proof of what he'd already known. This was all part of the game. Mason could have ended things back on that roof, yet a simple victory wasn't enough. Their relationship had always been about proving themselves better than the other.

This was therefore a war of wit and cunning, of skill, and of the mind. Mason needed him to be forced into a willing surrender. Adam's triumph years ago would be his undoing now.

"Adam, what is it?" Shalimar eventually asked after an interminable silence.

It was a rather long story he wasn't inclined to relive. He quickly shook away the memories. "You've all seen this twice before," he told them, "in a manner of speaking."

"How do you mean?" Jesse inquired. "You've never mentioned anything like this before."

"Not the strand," Adam corrected, "the virus."

-----

Emma followed more closely at his heels than his own shadow as Adam worked. She had assisted him in the lab on numerous occasions, so he knew she could comprehend his actions without him being forced to explain them. In fact, she likely knew too much. He saw her nervous glances when he finally began giving Brennan drugs to help control the pain, opting to hook up a steady supply of morphine.

This was the first time he'd decided to use a continuous dose rather than injections. None of his kids had ever been in this situation before, and that surely would concern them. Giving the painkiller in this fashion could just mean Adam wanted the drug to enter Brennan's system slowly, but it held the implication that Adam was expecting him to remain in a great deal of pain for an extended period of time. He said nothing to alleviate those fears, because they were unfortunately more than justified.

Other than trying to control the pain, Adam could only administer more sedatives - taking Brennan from being lightly under to just short of inducing a coma - and also antibiotics to boost his immune system. He glanced at Emma as she put her face in her hands. Did she suspect Brennan would never wake up again?

When he stopped working, Shalimar looked troubled. "That's it?" With Brennan's symptoms, they all knew antibiotics wouldn't be enough. She cast a furtive glance at Jesse, and Adam wondered if she was thinking he'd been right about this. Adam couldn't do anything that would prevent their friend from dying.

"Why don't you all sit down for a minute," Adam requested. The three of them perched themselves on the edge of one of the other tables in the room while Adam took the only chair. He hesitated.

"I was working with genetic engineering for quite a few years before New Mutants and Genomex," Adam finally began. "Ferals, Moleculars, Psionics, and Elementals came only after several other attempts at treating various problems by means of gene therapy and manipulation.

"One of those attempts was the Messiah Strand. I suppose you could call it similar to another type of mutation, only this was intentional. It was designed to bind with the DNA and give unimaginable regenerative abilities. In theory, it would restore perfect health." He paused briefly there before continuing. "I chose to overlook several obvious problems."

"Like what?" Shalimar wanted to know.

He took a fairly deep breath and cleared his throat. "Like the fact that if I was able to stabilize the strand, this result would become permanent. It would essentially stop the aging process." His brow furrowed more deeply as he frowned. "I'd discovered the key to immortality."

"How was that a bad thing?" Shalimar leaned forward like a child eager to discover what happened next.

Jesse, however, was predictably apprehensive of where this was leading, his mind already a step ahead. "He'd just given himself the ability to play God, Shal."

"You have to understand the benefits," Adam interrupted. "The Messiah Strand would be a cure for anything - imagine a world without cancer or AIDS..."

"Now imagine this in the wrong hands," Jesse countered. "Or imagine it available to everyone. Nobody would say no to being young forever."

"But think of the advances we'd have," Shalimar argued. "Think what could have been accomplished if Einstein had lived longer. Or Edison, or Mozart. Or John Lennon."

Jesse was still shaking his head in disagreement. "What if everybody could live forever? I'm not saying it wouldn't be amazing to be able to have the time to read every book in an entire library, or to essentially be able to do everything, I suppose. But the world is already overpopulated. We'd exhaust all our resources, and..."

"What about sick children?" Emma finally spoke, cutting off Jesse. "Do you save their lives if it means they'll never grow up? Either way, they'd never grow up."

Adam sighed. "You lot are far more precocious than I was at your age."

Emma's next question promptly ended the debate. "So is Brennan going to die?" She paused, and Adam wondered if she meant now or ever. "And where have we seen this twice before?"

Adam nodded. "Before we got sidetracked, I was getting to that part." He was tempted to get up and pace, but he remained stiffly seated. "Back then, I think you're already aware, all of my research was either academically or governmentally funded?"

Shalimar and Jesse nodded.

"I worked along side Mason Eckhart in those days," he continued, knowing they knew not much more than that, "and it came to my attention that my research was a subject of much interest. Like Jesse pointed out, if in the wrong hands, Messiah could conceivably shift world powers."

"So the government got involved," concluded Jesse.

"Correct. They commissioned Mason to develop a counteragent. It was a project known strictly as LCFR-216. Beyond that, it was classified, as my work also became. It wasn't until I'd nearly completed the ground work for the strand that I became aware of exactly what 216--"

Jesse suddenly made an amused noise that was practically a snort. "Sorry," he said quickly. "The whole project code thing, I just got that."

Shalimar and Emma both gave him strange looks.

"As it turned out," Adam resumed, "a counteragent was impossible, so they were developing a virus that would, in laymen's terms, strip the DNA of the Messiah Strand. It was upon discovering this that I claimed a mistake in my theory and then destroyed all my research. Or so I thought."

"But you said the Messiah Strand was like a mutancy," Shalimar responded in confusion. "You can't strip that away. It's impossible."

"That's what we've been through twice," Emma realized. "First with the Russians and then..."

"Richard's serum," Shalimar finished for her, her eyes suddenly damp.

"So then great, right?" Jesse said, a bit of hope returning to his grim expression. "Adam, you were able to reverse that both times. I mean, Brennan and Shal are both still here after all."

"I wouldn't be if Richard hadn't died," Shalimar replied quietly.

Jesse had the sense to look apologetic for not thinking before he spoke.

"And this is different, isn't it?" Emma asked Adam. "What we've seen was where trying to strip powers would unintentionally cause severe side effects. But you called this 216 project a virus. There's no way to reverse a mutancy, so it's meant to kill carriers of the Messiah Strand, isn't it? That's why you destroyed your research, wasn't it, Adam, because you'd inadvertently caused the necessity for the creation of something designed to end life, the opposite of what you sought to achieve?"

"Yes, what Brennan's been infected with is considerably more..." he struggled over choosing the right words, "ruthless in its approach than what we've previously encountered. In order to destroy the strand, it will tear Brennan apart internally. And without the strand, he won't survive."

Jesse wrapped his arm around Emma who'd started trembling. "Is there a cure?" he asked.

Adam took a long time to answer. "No."

"But you can find one," Shalimar insisted. "You can still use our previous experiences to find one."

It didn't work like that. This was entirely different and they all knew it, but nobody mentioned that. And there was always a chance Adam would discover a solution despite likely needing to start from scratch.

"I'll try." Adam then stood. "I should get to work. And you all look ready to drop, so I suggest you go to bed and try to get some sleep."

"I'd rather stay here," Emma objected despite knowing it wasn't a request.

Adam walked over to a cabinet and, upon returning, handed Emma a small cup with several pills in it. "Since you've been fighting off a cold, I'd like for you to at least take some vitamins. There should be orange juice in the kitchen refrigerator."

"I don't want any orange juice," Emma said stubbornly.

Shalimar hopped off the edge of the table where she'd been sitting. "Come on, I'll go with you." She gave Adam a look that said she'd handle it. Emma reluctantly went with her.

Once they were gone, Jesse gave Adam a suspicious look. "You said you'd like for her to take some vitamins, but you never said that's what you gave her. How long is she going to be out?"

Adam smiled at the intuitive young man. "Several hours at least. We're all highly stressed, and that has to be negatively affecting her. Right now, rest is the best thing for her. You might want to go help Shalimar get her to bed before she falls asleep."

"Yeah, okay." He started to follow the girls to the kitchen but then looked back to Adam once more. "If Shal and I head to bed also, you'll wake us if there's anything..."

Adam nodded. "I will."

"Okay," Jesse said again before going.

Watching him leave, Adam wondered if he'd done the right thing by lying to his kids. There was a cure for 216, but returning Brennan to Mason was the only way to get it.

Brennan was only dying because the Messiah Strand was not yet at full strength. If it were allowed to become stable, not even the virus that had been created to stop it would be enough to kill him.

That realization, made years ago, had been what caused Adam to destroy his research.

-----

Shalimar pulled the blanket up over Emma again as Jesse helped tuck her in for the second time. "I think she's finally asleep," she commented.

Taking no chances on Emma attempting to go back to Brennan, Jesse tucked the edges of her sheet under the mattress. She'd be more comfortable in her bed than passed out in the lab. "Alright, that ought to hold her for a few seconds. Snug as a bug." If she really wanted to get up, she still could easily. But Jesse wanted that to be after she slept off Adam's pills.

Shalimar stroked Emma's hair as she stirred slightly. "It must have been horrible for her," she remarked.

"Do you think Bren will recover?" Jesse asked as she sat on the floor and leaned against the side of the bed.

"Sure. Adam's a genius, right?" She didn't sound as confident as she wanted to. She didn't feel it either. "He'll find a way to stop the virus."

Jesse sat down as well. "I didn't mean that. I meant if Adam does save him." He paused, looking to be sure Emma was really asleep. "Eckhart tortured him, Shal."

"I know..."

"I don't think I could handle it," Jesse added. "If it had been me--"

"It wasn't you!" she suddenly snapped at him. "Don't say that, Jess."

"Why not? It could have been me. Eckhart had me also." He'd messed up and allowed himself to be captured.

She got up and turned her back to him. "Because I don't know what I'd do if it had been you." He stood as well and she spun and wrapped him in her arms. Jesse had always been incredibly sensitive. "I can't bear the thought of anyone hurting you. I'm glad it wasn't you."

"I won't say it again," he apologized, wincing from her grip but letting her rest her head on his shoulder. "I know I'm not as strong as Brennan is. He'll get through this and be fine."

She lifted her head. "Jesse, I wasn't--"

"It's okay," he quickly assured her. "I like that you watch out for me. I know I don't always handle things as well as the rest of you. Like when I saw that computer screen, I lost it. Those things were done to Brennan. It's never supposed to be somebody you know, that's not supposed to happen... But you kept your head and got us out of there. I needed you today."

She hugged him even more tightly, oblivious to the spike of pain which shot through his back at her action. "I wasn't under control back there either," she confessed. "And I'm not glad it wasn't you because I think you're weak, Jess. I'm grateful it was Brennan and not you because I love you more. It's selfish and terrible, but you matter more. Oh god, what if Brennan dies now and I said that? I didn't want this to happen to Bren either. I didn't mean it."

Jesse rubbed her back, seeing that she needed to be comforted and reassured as much as he did. Although it hurt to have her backtracking so quickly to erase her words. Was it really so terrible if she prefer something bad happen to Brennan rather than him? He supposed it was and sighed deeply. "I know you didn't. It's okay."

-----

After Shalimar decided to sit with Emma for a while, Jesse finally excused himself and made it to his room.

Alone at last, he dropped the fa├žade it had taken all his strength to hold, and he let the pain be reflected in his expression. He slowly made his way to the bathroom and leaned against the edge of the sink, then he opened the medicine cabinet and grabbed the bottle of aspirin. Popping off the lid, he shook two pills into his palm. He dumped them into his mouth and turned on the sink, cupping water in his hands and washing down the painkillers.

He waited for the drug to take effect, needing the twinges in his back to stop. It hurt strongly enough for him to be tempted to go to Adam about it. Except he couldn't do that. Jesse couldn't distract him with his minor pains while he needed to focus on Brennan.

A pang of jealousy surfaced, and he let it linger a minute before he pushed it aside. So what if everybody had shown concern for him like that of family. So what if Shalimar didn't favor Jesse over him and Emma decided to fall in love with him. And so what if Brennan had easily gained the respect Jesse had been trying to earn for years and they all knew he'd lead Mutant X if anything were ever to happen to Adam. So what if in Adam's eyes Brennan was everything Jesse couldn't quite be. So what...

He wouldn't envy Brennan the position he was in now. He wouldn't covet the pain just to have Adam look at him with the same kind of pride, Shal concern, and Emma affection. He wasn't that petty. It was just easier to be upset, to dwell on the others' reactions instead of dealing with his own feelings. They'd all let Brennan in. Jesse had let down his walls and allowed himself to care about the ex-criminal. He was like a brother to Jesse now, and how dare he even get close to dying and hurting Jesse like that!

Brennan was the only guy friend that Jesse had. How sad was that? He knew a few other people, of course; it was just hard for him to make real, lasting friendships with anyone. Other mutants always ended up in the underground and being moved away, and with normal people, he was afraid of being a freak. So he hadn't managed to accomplish any good foundations for friendships lately.

So he'd be jealous, and he would be mad, and he'd focus on anything but how it would really feel for him to lose Brennan. "You have everything I've ever wanted, Bren," he spoke silently. "Don't be an idiot and give it all up by dying, or I'll never forgive you."

Carefully, he shrugged out of his jacket, wincing at the pain caused by rotating his shoulders. He dropped it to the floor and then took a moment to catch his breath. He had taken a bullet, and he'd been scolded like a thoughtless child for his actions.

He quickly told himself that was quite enough of his little pity party for himself. He needed to snap out of his bad mood, ignore his jumbled emotions, fix his back, and then go to bed. If he could somehow let his mind go blank of distracting thoughts, he'd be fine. But he couldn't stop thinking about everything.

Bitterly, he peeled off his bloodstained shirt, dragging a streak of red across his skin. He stared at the ruined material, but it didn't really surprise him. He'd felt the pain when the wound had reopened, felt the wetness as it slowly but surely seeped through the bandage.

But he hadn't complained. He never complained.

He hissed through gritted teeth as he removed the bandage next, then wet a washcloth in order to wipe away the blood. The task was difficult with the wound being at his back, but he didn't need any help.

He was the exact same person he always had been and always would be. He suffered in silence and was always fine in the end. Nobody ever needed to worry about him. They just took for granted that he was there and was fine.

When he finished cleaning the area of blood smears, he tossed the cloth into the sink along with his shirt, making a mental note to throw them out later. His jacket could probably stand to be trashed as well unless he wanted to spend hours washing the lining. He didn't bother with re- bandaging the wound; he didn't have the energy.

He sighed wearily. Adam had said they would talk later. But Jesse knew they wouldn't. Laters were strange, indiscriminate moments of time that never actually came. All that existed was the past and the now. And now, they would deal with Brennan, and all of Jesse's problems would become the past. Then eventually, Adam would forget all about Jesse's promised later.

There was guilt at his feelings, because Jesse knew his silly emotions weren't warranted. He didn't even know why he wanted to finish his argument with Adam. It was so utterly unimportant in comparison to everything else.

That was a heavy weight in itself - the everything else. He still carried traces of memory Emma had accidentally given him. Such anguish like no one should ever know.

Jesse removed the lid from the pills once more and dumped out a small handful. He glanced at the label that informed him not to exceed 12 pills in 24 hours. He took the full dozen, tossing them into his mouth and attempting to force them back without water. He succeeded in swallowing several of them dry, determined not to use his sink since it was currently coated in blood, but he eventually gave up and splattered himself slightly with red water in order to wash down the remaining pills.

Tired and a bit dizzy, Jesse stumbled his way to his bed and barely managed to collapse across it before passing out, the last thought on his mind being that one of his best friends was likely going to die.

-----

A gentle pounding on his door roused Jesse, and he groaned before shoving himself up.

Shalimar waited for him to open the door, and then she studied him when he did so. He was wearing just his jeans. "Are you okay?" she asked.

"I'm fine," he answered automatically, not surprised when she accepted his answer.

"Are you going to invite me in?" She gave him an expectant look.

"Now's not the best time. I was sleeping." Jesse then sighed, knowing he couldn't actually turn her away. "Yeah, just hang on a minute."

He closed the door, leaving her in the hall, and quickly rushed to splash some water around his sink in an attempt to clean away the blood. He shoved his shirt, jacket, and wash cloth into the wastebasket. Then he left his bathroom and pulled on a fresh shirt before letting Shalimar in.

She stood silently in his room for a few minutes before Jesse realized her stare was glued to his bed. He cursed his stupidity at not taking care of that before letting her in. He was fairly certain he'd passed out while lying on his stomach, yet his sheets were still streaked with his blood.

Shalimar was right - he did have a tendency to roll over when he slept in any position other than on his back. He sighed and ran a hand through his tousled hair. "Did you need something, Shal?"

"I didn't feel much like sleeping." She studied Jesse for a minute. "Do you want some help with your back?"

Shrugging, he replied, "Yeah sure."

She followed him into his bathroom, and he was glad he'd done a quick clean- up job on the sink, although he noticed the container of painkillers was still in clear sight on the counter. He scooped it up, shook a couple pills into his hand, and then handed it to Shalimar who replaced the cap and returned it to the medicine cabinet. He turned on the sink and filled his hand with water to help him swallow the pills, then he washed his face.

He was somewhat surprised that Shalimar hadn't commented on the half-empty container. She'd been with him when he'd bought it only a week or so ago. He hadn't been injured at all between then and when he'd been shot, making it fairly obvious that he should by no means have already used so many of the painkillers. But he'd gotten so good at always being fine that nobody even noticed the problems that he occasionally let slip by in plain sight.

Luckily for Jesse, his back had finally stopped bleeding, so they were able to get by with just the supplies he kept in the cabinet under the sink.

Shalimar cleaned the area some before taping fresh gauze over the wound. Jesse leaned on the counter for support but never complained. "Does this hurt?" she asked anyway.

"No," he lied easily, not wanting to worry her. "I'm fine, Shal. Thanks for bandaging me up." She applied the final piece of tape, and with the task finished, Jesse slipped back into his shirt then gave her a smile. "Good as new."

"You're sure?"

Maybe she knew him too well. But he shrugged the question off. "Yeah. Why don't you try to get a couple more hours of sleep? We could both probably use it."

"Alright," she agreed in resignation, concluding that he wanted to be by himself. "Good night, Jesse."

"Good night, Shal," he echoed before closing his door and locking it as she headed back to her own room.

Jesse returned to bed and lay awake for several hours, unable to sleep. He felt like crying - about Brennan, about the conversation he wanted to finish with Adam, about being a freak, about not having a normal life and having no plans for one either, about not having any friends outside of Mutant X... about everything. He just wanted to cry for no reason and for every reason. It had been far too long since he'd gotten stuff out of his system.

And why shouldn't he cry? This whole situation deeply affected him. With the addition of Emma and Brennan to the team, Jesse felt for the first time in his life as though he had a complete family. Now, that feeling was being taken away from him.

He absently traced his fingers across the center of his chest, renewing the memory of what Emma had made him feel instead of letting it slip away like a bad dream. For it wasn't a dream. Jesse wished it had been, but it was all too real. Even if Adam saved his life, he knew Brennan would never be quite the same. How could he possibly be after that?

Jesse shifted uncomfortably. He decided he did indeed want it to all go away. He wished Emma had never tried to contact him. It wasn't fair. None of this was right, and he wanted to cry.

But Jesse knew one thing would always lead to another if he starting crying, and he needed to sleep more than he needed to lie awake the rest of the night silently sobbing over things that couldn't be changed.

His back still ached, and he got up in order to take two more painkillers. Then he wondered why he was taking them. He'd never turned to drugs before, certainly never abused them... but it didn't matter, they weren't helping. He didn't feel like they were doing anything at all.

Placing the container back on the shelf and closing the medicine cabinet, Jesse told himself he wasn't going to take any more. If he still felt like he needed something in the morning, he'd go talk to Adam.

-----

In the solitude of his lab, Adam sat down to carefully weigh his options. The situation only had three possible outcomes, none of them solutions.

Option one was to keep Brennan at Sanctuary and continue the attempt to find a cure for the virus, despite having no luck thus far. It was theoretically possible to accomplish the task, however unlikely. Yet even with complete success, the healing effects of the strand would be forfeit as it would continue to degrade until it broke down fully. Brennan would first be faced with the prolonged period of withdrawal, and then he would need to recover from his injuries without aid.

He would be off the Mutant X team, there was no doubt of that. It would likely take several extensive surgeries on his knee and years of intense physical therapy for him to be able to walk normally again, and even then field missions would be out of the question. His eyesight might also never return. He would only be a burden to them, though the others would never admit it, never accept that he wouldn't fully recover, and never allow Adam to replace him.

But Adam knew the need for a replacement would be strong. His team was formed to function as just that - a team. And without originally realizing it, he'd designed a team that required an Elemental. Without Brennan, the others would be unable to do their job properly. They'd grown to depend on him. The team needed that forth member.

And Adam couldn't rely on Brennan being emotionally stable either. What if he survived the virus only to commit suicide later due to the frustrations of what was done to him combined with being both blind and primarily bed- ridden for an indefinite amount of time? That would surely shatter the rest of the team.

The worst possible thing would be to save him now and then have him lost later.

Adam needed to decide what mattered more to him - his team, or the individual members?

The second option was to use the Messiah Strand. This was what Eckhart was counting on. He'd let them go to prove a point. It was the same ultimatum Adam had been faced with back on that roof. In order to stop Brennan's suffering and save his life, Adam needed to return him to Mason. And now the act would be of his own volition. He would deliver Brennan into the clutches of the GSA of his own free will. And due to his not being able to let Brennan die, Eckhart would have all he needed to inevitably win this battle... and also this war.

Returning to Mason for help also meant that Brennan would be further tortured. In addiction, with the strand fully stable and being an electric Elemental, Brennan would be the most powerful person alive and also the Achilles' heal to any resistance brought up by Mutant X. And he would be in Eckhart's possession. And Eckhart would have all the research he needed to repeat the process.

That could not be allowed at any cost. Mason was right; Adam needed to be able to make sacrifices for the greater good.

Which led to option three, the unthinkable option. Do nothing, and let Brennan die. Then instead of being a hindrance, a burden to the team, or a victim who had the misfortune of surviving, he would become a martyr. With his death, the others would rally together united against Eckhart. They would allow a new member to the team if it meant they'd be able to avenge Brennan's loss. They'd find renewed strength for that purpose.

Finally deciding to do what Mason thought him incapable of, Adam drew another blood sample and ran a last test. The Messiah Strand was almost fully broken down. Brennan was fighting the virus on his own now.

Out of sympathy for his plight, Adam slightly increased Brennan's morphine. He doubted the young man was capable of feeling pain while so deeply unconscious, but there was always the remote chance, and Brennan's body still held a slight trace of tension that belied thoughts of his sleep being peaceful.

He was slowly bleeding to death internally as 216 ripped his body apart. After a while, he wouldn't be able to breathe due to the amount of blood in his lungs. Adam silently prayed that the young man's heart would give out, as had nearly happened with the Russian Pushka, before things progressed that far.

He tenderly laid his hand on Brennan's fevered forehead. His temperature was spiking dangerously high. Adam lifted his hand and watched his team member's labored breathing. He shouldn't be forced to die like this.

The vital signs displayed on the monitors were still fairly strong considering. Adam shook his head with bittersweet affection. Why did Brennan always have to be so damn stubborn? He was hanging on fiercely to a losing battle.

Adam subconsciously moved his hand back to the controls for Brennan's morphine, but he stopped himself from increasing it further. Any higher an amount and Adam would be in danger of overdosing him.

Fetching his chair, Adam sat at Brennan's bedside. A feeling of intense guilt began to overwhelm him at his inaction. Brennan was struggling, suffering, and he did nothing. It could take many hours yet for him to die.

The thought crossed Adam's mind that it would be better for Brennan if he did overdose him. It was a terrible thought, but wasn't it more unethical of him to merely sit and watch as the young man slowly died?

The thought was absurd. He had been prepared to discover that Brennan was dead when they attempted to rescue Emma; he had never considered that he would end up faced with needing to kill the eldest member of his team himself.

He couldn't do it.

Yet it was the only logical, only ethical... only merciful... thing to do.

He silently thanked God that it wasn't one of the others lying there. Emma, Jesse, and Shalimar hadn't even reached their 30th birthdays yet. They were still just children in his eyes. Adam knew he'd surely lose his mind if it were one of them. It was far more preferable to lose the oldest member of his team than the youngest.

He told himself that, in this type of situation, euthanasia was acceptable. Yet his hand still shook as he turned Brennan's morphine up to where the drug would enter his system at a lethal level.

Something inside him screamed that the action was the wrong one. He could have at least tried flooding Brennan's system with stimulants first - it might have been possible to wake him. Consciousness would have been accompanied by extreme pain, but it would have given the others a chance to be with Brennan before the end. They could have said goodbye.

And yet, if he saw their grief-stricken faces, he knew he wouldn't have been able to go through with it. He would have delivered Brennan to Mason in order to save his life at any cost, and it would have been their downfall.

No, it was better as it was. Brennan's death would be fairly swift, and it would happen while the others were all sleeping. This was the right choice.

He wasn't allowing Brennan to die slowly and painfully. Taking his life this way was showing kindness. It was compassion.

It was murder.

Adam flicked off all the monitoring equipment. Then he quickly reached to release the restraints from Brennan's wrists, as if doing so made his decision less offensive. Brennan wouldn't be allowed to die with his hands bound.

As he finished removing the straps, Adam noticed the faint tan line around Brennan's finger. He closed his eyes tightly. Why did it suddenly feel like he'd just killed his own son?

He held Brennan's hand firmly in his, the other moving to softly stroke Brennan's hair. He considered removing the oxygen mask but decided to leave it in case it might help ease these final moments for him. Morphine intoxication would stop his breathing regardless, but Adam wanted this to happen gently.

"It's okay," Adam said quietly, his fingers tracing the edge of the mask. It might actually be easier, happen faster, if he were to remove it. Yet, despite what he was doing, taking off the mask seemed cruel. "Just rest now, Brennan. Everything will be fine. You're home."

He considered going to get a cool cloth to place on Brennan's forehead to relieve some of the heat from the fever, but he decided instead not to leave the young man's side.

It was only a moment later that Brennan quit breathing.

-----

Emma felt her mattress dip as he lay down beside her. "Go back to sleep, Em," he said softly. "You're supposed to be resting, not searching for me."

She ignored him as he tenderly brushed her hair back from her face and carefully tucked it behind her ear. She refused to roll over and look at him. "I am asleep, Bren. This isn't real; you're just a dream."

He lightly kissed her shoulder, and his breath tickled even through her shirt as he laughed. "Well, I suppose that's alright so long as it's your dream." She could hear the grin in his voice, but instead of making her happy, it upset her.

"Don't tease me right now. It isn't funny." She hated to be angry with him, yet she couldn't help it.

"I'm sorry," he apologized, rubbing her arm to comfort her.

"What are you sorry for?" she snapped. "I'm the one who's sleeping while you're--"

She cut herself off, starting to get up from the bed, but he quickly grabbed her wrist. "Don't," he pleaded. He didn't want her to be hurt. "Don't wake up yet, Em."

She made the mistake of turning her face to look at him, and then she couldn't look away. "I should be with you," she told him, feeling herself tremble and knowing she was about to start crying.

Pulling her gently back down, he wrapped his arm around her and held her. "You are with me." He shifted their positions so that she was resting more securely against him. "But this once, let me be the one to comfort you, okay?"

His warmth felt good pressed to her back, and she snuggled a bit closer. Then she did cry. "I really do love you, you know."

He nodded before placing his head back down on her pillows. "Yeah, I know." He shifted and brushed away her tears before sliding his arm around her waist once again. "I think you're the first person to ever say that and not leave afterward." Perhaps she was the first to actually mean it at all.

"I could never leave you..." She buried her face in the material of her pillowcase. "I can't lose you, Brennan," she added quietly.

"The choice has been taken out of my hands." But he supposed it was better this way. It wasn't a decision he wanted. If he had no say, it was easier to find peace. Without choice, there was no need to fight any longer. However, he wondered if he should tell her he would have chosen her, that he didn't want to leave her, didn't want to die. Would it be better that she know the truth, that he wasn't abandoning her willing, or did she love him so much she would rather believe that he still longed to let this world go, that he wanted this?

He said neither. This moment was all they had, and he preferred it spent in quiet solace rather than bitter weeping. He absently trailed his fingers back and forth along the bare skin between her waistband and the edge of her crumpled shirt. "The day we met, Emma, you saved my life - you saved me. I have never once regretted any of the decisions I made because of having met you. I don't regret any of it."

The final reassurances of a man about to die. Emma tensed at his words. How could he say that to her now and actually believe it? She was the reason this was happening - because he'd walked the path she'd chosen. She slipped her hand down into his and intertwined their fingers. "How much time do we have until..."

"Not long," he replied carefully. He didn't want her to start crying again. He only wanted to hold her.

They laid together in silence for a minute.

"Does it hurt?" Emma eventually asked.

She felt the rise and fall of his chest as he sighed almost contentedly. "No."

That was good. She was glad he wasn't in any pain. She wrapped both her hands around his, subconsciously playing with his fingers. "I love you," she repeated.

He propped himself up on his free elbow and smiled at her. Whatever had happened between them the day they met, he was grateful. "I love you too, Emma." It was said too late, but at least he'd finally confessed it.

Even with it ending this way, Brennan wasn't sorry he'd chosen to join Mutant X. He thought he surely should have been resentful or angry, but there was only acceptance. He hadn't had such a very bad life. He felt his tears slowly wet his face as he silently cried along with Emma.

Despite the past week, he decided it had been worth it. His mother had once told him he could judge the value of his life by whom his friends were. He held Emma more tightly in his arms. He finally liked who he was. He was happy.

Eventually, after what seemed all too short a moment, he slipped his hand from hers, then he placed a final kiss in her hair. "You're the most beautiful girl in the world, Em," he said softly. "You're gonna be okay... Just go back to sleep now."

She obediently closed her eyes, and then her mattress shifted once more and his touch was gone.

-----

Emma instantly snapped awake, tangled in her sheets. When she rolled over, she found her bed was empty, and she was alone in her room. "Bren, no..." she whimpered, quickly clutching for him and finding only thin air in her grasp.

The dream had dissipated back into reality, and she was alone inside her mind, hearing none of his thoughts. Sitting up, she hugged her pillow to her chest and started sobbing.

-----

Adam took a deep, shuddering breath as he shifted the position of his fingers on Brennan's neck once more and there was still no trace of a pulse. He'd done the unthinkable. He'd chosen to take the life of one of his own.

This was more than merely the choice, however. He'd gone through with the decision, acted upon it. The action itself was far worse than the decision to do it had been. The result more painful yet.

Brennan was dead.

Adam slowly pulled the sheet up to completely cover the body, then his fingers automatically unclenched the white material. He didn't allow himself to dwell on the thought that he'd just draped the cloth over a member of his family. Brennan Mulwray was nothing more than a casualty of war.

Adam would grieve his loss certainly, but he wouldn't allow himself to weep because of this. He forced himself not to cry for the life he'd taken.

-----

"Jesse, wake up," the voice repeated insistently. "Jesse."

"I'm up, I'm up," he mumbled groggily in reply, if for no other reason that to get Shalimar to stop shaking his shoulder. He squinted up at her, and it took a second for his eyes to adjust. She looked... flustered? "What's wrong?"

"It took me a full five minutes to wake you, Jess."

"Really?" She still looked a bit panicked, and he pushed himself into a sitting position. "Sorry. I guess I was out like a light."

After giving himself a moment to fully wake, he glanced at Shalimar once more, wondering why she was in his room in the first place. Then he heard it. "Emma's crying," he realized.

"So you hear it too?" Shalimar asked nervously.

"Yeah, of course I..." Jesse trailed off mid sentence. The sobs weren't coming from Emma's room. It was the air and the walls around him that were wailing, and they were crying without voice. It merely *felt* like Sanctuary itself was weeping. He grabbed Shalimar's hand. "Come on."

They sprinted together down the hall and stopped in front of Emma's bedroom door. Jesse hesitantly slipped it open, and the moment he did so, everything stopped. The atmosphere felt normal again and not... sentient.

Emma was sitting in the middle of her bed, clutching her pillow to her chest. She looked like a lost little girl. "There's you two and there's me and there's Adam, and there's nothing else," she said without glancing up.

Jesse swallowed several times to clear his throat but found no words. Shalimar walked past him into the room and climbed onto the bed beside Emma without saying anything. After a second, Jesse decided he didn't care if it was improper and did the same.

Shalimar pulled Emma close and slowly rocked them back and forth while Jesse rubbed Emma's back. Then they all waited for something, like small children huddled together to wait out a passing storm.

Emma finally lifted her head and wiped her eyes. "Adam's ready to tell us now."

-----

When he'd gathered his thoughts and regained his composure, Adam decided it was time to deliver the news to his team. He was surprised to find them all waiting for him outside the lab.

He carefully took in their scared and confused faces. He set his own expression to be solemn.

Shalimar's hand flew up to cover her mouth as she translated his body language. "Oh no..."

After that, a shake of his head was all Adam needed to convey what had happened. Jesse suddenly looked stricken, disbelieving that Adam could have failed. Emma's face was blank.

Adam quickly found himself staring at the wall behind them, not capable of meeting their distraught gazes and Emma's haunting eyes. "I'm sorry."

That was all that needed to be said, and it was difficult for Adam to find his voice for even that. The details were unimportant. In the end, Brennan was dead. That was all his team needed to know. How he died would never be spoken of.

Emma slowly stepped forward and Adam blocked her path. "I need to see him," she said shakily.

He looked back at the lab where Brennan's body remained, draped with the stark white sheet. "I think it's for the best that you not do that right now, Emma," Adam replied. But he stood aside and let her pass, then wondered whether or not she'd just manipulated him.

He still had to perform the autopsy, look up if Brennan had any next of kin who would need to be notified, and make arrangements for what was to be done with the body. Yet he supposed all that could wait a few hours. The most important thing was for him to get some sleep and something to eat. Then he might stand a chance at regaining the focus he needed to guard his thoughts from Emma.

The young Psionic could never learn the truth. He quickly shifted that thought away. He must not dwell on the necessity of sheltering his mind either, for that intention could also be picked up.

"I'm sorry," he said again to Shalimar and Jesse, dismissing himself and heading promptly to his room, leaving the two devastated original members of Mutant X in his wake.

-----

Emma stared at the sheet for a long while, then she looked over her shoulder at Shalimar and Jesse who'd entered the lab behind her.

"Both of you, please, get out," she softly requested. "I only want my own emotions right now. This pain needs to be mine. So just... go away... please. Leave us alone."

She choked on a sob. "Leave *me* alone."

They disappeared from the room, and Emma returned her attention to the sheet. Making the decision that she had to know, she pushed the material completely aside, uncovering not just his face. She needed to see his entire body... needed to know if there were any marks left from what Eckhart had done.

She cried to see that his body wasn't perfect, wasn't fully healed this time. *Won't you come back to me?* she requested. But the link between her and Brennan was gone, and she received no return answer.

This really was the last time. He'd never be hurt again now.

She sat on the edge of the table where Brennan's body lay, then she slowly pulled her feet up also and eased herself into a resting position next to him, propped on her elbow with her face in her palm so she could still look at him.

Then she sunk down onto her back, tears rolling down her temples into her hair. She felt as though she were drowning in shallow water. All she had to do was push herself up a single inch and she'd be able to breathe.

She lay motionless.

It suddenly seemed as though there was nothing good left in the world. There was only darkness, and evil, and sin. Eckhart had murdered Brennan, done terrible things, and for what? For science? Where was the humanity in that?

Eckhart was a monster. And yet he considered mutants to be freaks. What right did he have?

Life itself was corrupt and selfish, driven by personal gain. Emma no longer wanted to be in this world. She had no reason to be. Other than a need for revenge, her existence seemed empty now. And the feeling of loss swept all other thoughts away.

Her future was supposed be with Brennan. That was the life she wanted. It was all she wanted. There was nothing else.

She gently reached over and caressed Brennan's cheek, shifting onto her side once more, and she noticed his skin was already almost cool to her touch. She leaned over him, studying his features, memorizing him. One of her own tears fell on his face, and she carefully brushed it away. Her heart was breaking.

She would never understand this... why fate had allowed it to happen. If there was a bigger picture, she couldn't see it. Brennan's death was meaningless.

Perhaps they really were the freaks. For the first time in her life, she truly cursed what she was. Destiny didn't play these cruel games with normal people.

Emma softly pressed her lips to Brennan's in a brief kiss, their first true kiss, tinged by the salt of her tears and the faint trace of his blood. She leaned her face against his, wanting to make some playful comment about how she was on top yet again. Then he'd laugh and they would smile at the joke. He needed only to wake.

More of her tears rolled from her cheeks to his, and she longed to feel his breath on her skin. Part of her wanted to remain lying down beside his body forever and die with him. Nobody had ever seen her like he had - seen into her and loved her unconditionally. And nobody ever would again. In her entire life, she'd never felt so alone.

Pressing herself closer beside him, she curled into the lingering warmth, needing for there to be heat beneath his skin. But there was no heartbeat, and soon he'd be cold. She clenched her fist in the sheet, pulling it over her shoulder and then resting her arm across his chest, properly covering them both as if with a normal blanket.

She would lie with him and sleep, and pray not to wake from her slumber until he did, or pray never to wake at all.

"I still love you," she vowed in a whisper, not caring if it was merely a result of their accidental link or the trauma of being held captive together. It was real, and it didn't matter why. "Always, Bren." Then she silently sobbed until exhaustion clamed her.

-----

Shalimar leaned against the wall outside the lab. She stared through watery eyes at her home. It would be different here without Brennan.

"I can't believe he's really gone," Jesse said quietly, echoing her unspoken thoughts. He couldn't understand how Adam had failed them. How the hell had they lost Brennan? "We weren't supposed to ever lose anybody, Shal. We're the good guys; we're supposed to win."

She stubbornly rubbed her face, refusing to cry. "We will, Jess," she swore. "Eckhart is going pay dearly for this. I promise you that. He'll pay."

She slammed her fist against the wall behind her. They'd have justice, and Mason Eckhart would pay the price for Brennan's life in blood. She'd tear apart Genomex with her bare hands if she had to.

Jesse saw the rage in her eyes, and he turned away, not reassured by it. He took several steps and stood in the lab doorway where he could look in and see Emma. Her sorrow was even less comforting.

None the less, Jesse watched her. He only had a partial view of her face, but she looked like a mourning angel with silver tears streaking her skin.

Emma was truly beautiful when she was sad, he noted before slowly looking away and leaving her alone with the body of their friend. Jesse never wanted to see her cry ever again.

~~~~~~~

THE END

~~~~~~~

Special thanks (off the top of me head at four in the morning, so I'm sure I've unintentionally left somebody out) to:

My beta-readers, supporters, inspiration, and friends I made along this journey - Lanfear, ElEcTrICgUrL, Ice Queen, Vixen, Cyndi, Audrey, Ace, Toni

My most relentless reviewers - Bob, Alliegirl, Meg

And everybody else who left me feedback - I would list you all, but I'd likely give the ff.net mods a heart attack at how much non-story space that would take up. :) But you all meant the world to me.

During the course of my time in the MX fandom, I have been through two deaths (my beloved puppy who's been with me more than half my life passed away over the holidays, and she mattered as much as any person to me), and also two pregnancies (not my own, but two people very close to me). I've loved, lost, grown up, gotten my BA degree, and written the longest story to date in this fandom. This is a period in my life I will never forget.