DIVIDED WE STAND
Cyclops looked at the child in his arms as war raged around him. Explosions rocked the already desolate facility as his fellow X-Men led the charge against the combined forces of the Marauders and the creature known as Predator-X. Battle cries rang out over the sound of fists on flesh, metal on metal, and energy blasts. Several of his soldiers had been wounded in this chase for the child believed to be the mutant messiah, Caliban had been killed, and a young girl had been thrown into the time-stream, potentially never to return. His home had been destroyed yet again, and just when it seemed nothing more could go wrong, treachery had struck from within; Bishop, the mutant from the future, sent to prevent an act of great betrayal, had turned on the team and made moves to kill the infant, believing her responsible for the deaths of a million people in the future.
“Sit-rep, Scott?” sounded the telepathic voice of Emma Frost in his mind. “We’re winning. Their big guns are down and what’s left is mostly mopping up. How about you? Have we found the baby?”
“I’ve got him,” he replied.
“Her,” corrected Cable, the time-lost son of Cyclops, his voice heavy with weariness. After all, Cable had been the man who had done most of the work in keeping the child safe and had taken some serious injuries during the battles. “You’ve got her.”
“Yes, her,” said Scott, as the child stretched out a podgy hand, grabbing the locket around his neck, one he’d once given his ex-wife, Jean. The locket opened, showing the picture of Scott and Jean in happier times. He looked at the child, whisps of red hair on top of her head, and clear green eyes, and then looked to his son, Nathan. Unbidden, memories flooded back, memories of losing Nathan to the clan Askani, of having his consciousness projected forwards through time to raise his son alongside Jean, of Jean’s death…
“Scott?” called out Emma again, interrupting his thoughts. “Your heart rate is spiking and you didn’t finish your sentence. Should I worry?”
Scott had to stifle a smile. He could tell by the tone of Emma’s psychic voice, and the fact that she was even asking the question meant that she had begun to worry about him anyway. Truth be told, she’d been worried about him from the beginning of this whole mess, so why should the end be any different?”
“No, everything’s fine, I’m just–” he paused, searching for a way to phrase his next words. “–Assessing the situation.”
“You can’t control the future, Scott,” said Charles Xavier, the man who had been Scott’s most respected mentor and leader for most of his adult life, until he had found out that the Professor had been hiding some dark secrets from the entire team. “You can only allow it to be born.”
“Them, not it,” replied Scott. “There are two possible futures.”
“Yes, there are,” conceded Xavier. “At least two. And that child is the key that opens both of them.”
Scott looked at the child, dimly aware that the fighting had ended, and his X-Men were gathering around him. He needed to make a decision about how best to protect the child. After all, if this was the war that was going to be waged when she first arrived, how difficult would it make keeping hold of her and protecting her until she reached adulthood? The tactician within Scott knew the decision he had to make, but having carried out the act once before, with his own son, no less… how hard would it be to send this girl to the future, to be protected by Cable? It felt almost like a circle, coming to a close.
He raised the child to his lips and gently kissed her on the forehead. “I hope I’m right, kid,” he thought to himself.
“Nathan,” he said, addressing his son. “Take her.”
“Wh– what?” stammered Cable, whom, only moments before had faced down not only Cyclops but Xavier for his right to defend and protect the child.
“Take her out of here,” ordered Scott, trying to force any kind of emotion out of his voice. No matter how much this felt like deja vu, he couldn’t let his emotions cloud his judgement. “Let her be herself. Choose for herself. And not be a key or a strategic resource, or a playing piece in someone else’s game. Give her the freedom I was never able to give you.”
“Summers…” growled Wolverine, almost in warning.
“Scott–” began Beast.
“Leave it,” snapped Cyclops. “This is over. Nathan, do you need any help getting back to the mainland?”
“No, I’ve got the temporal circuitry I took from Forge. Scott, I–”
“Save it for a better time,” replied Cyclops, handing the child over to Cable. “This isn’t good–”
A splash of hot liquid splattered across Cyclops’ cheek, at the same time as he heard a high-pitched noise. Cable’s eyes widened as droplets of blood began to run down his brow, trickling down towards the bridge of his nose as his body sagged.
“Nathan!” cried out Scott, managing to grab the baby before Cable fell onto his back, his eyes rolling back into his head as his body began to spasm.
“Stand aside,” wheezed Bishop, wielding a gun in his left hand, smoke billowing from the barrel. His right arm was reduced to nothing more than a bloody stump, having been torn off in the fight with the Predator-X. “This child can’t be allowed to live.”
“It’s a head shot, Scott,” said Beast, leaning over Cable. “It was a through-and-through, he doesn’t have much–”
“X-Force,” barked Scott, rage rising in his chest, his blood practically boiling inside him “Kill Bishop.”
“You murderin’ psycho,” snarled Wolverine, diving at Bishop, his claws extended, closely followed by X-23.
“He moves to kill the messiah!” wheezed Exodus. “Any Marauders capable of battle, you have your target! Bring me the head of Bishop!”
“Scott, you can’t just order them to kill!” bellowed Hank.
“Scott, what are you–”
“Mr Summers? What do you want us to–”
“Scott, please, there’s not much time–”
“Hold her,” said Scott to Xavier, passing him the child. He turned to the scene of the battle to find Bishop firing his gun wildly, his eyes burning with a crazed intensity, all the while screaming at the mutants attacking him.
“Murderer,” snarled Scott, lifting his visor and firing an optic blast at Bishop, catching him in the mid-section. Scott knew Bishop would absorb the energy, but the impact was enough to stun him, at least for X-Force to get close enough to finish the job with claws and knives.
“Emma,” said Charles, removing a device from Cable’s wrist. “Emma, you need to–”
“We’ve lost him, Charles,” she said quietly. Her eyes were wide, as if shell-shocked, staring straight ahead at her lover. “We’ve lost Scott.”
“Emma, please listen to me–”
“Take the girl and run,” she said, turning to face him as she snapped out of her stupor. She started pushing him towards the back of the room, where there was a narrow exit leading to the relative safety of outside. “The Marauders are getting back up and I daresay will need kicking back down after Bishop is dealt with. Stay hidden and we’ll find you when this is done, Charles!”
With that, Emma turned on her heel and shifted into her diamond form, kicking Unuscione under the jaw as she began to rise to her feet again.
“We need to get out of here,” breathed Xavier to the child in his arms. “Cable told me how this worked, just–”
“EVERYBODY, OUT!” screamed Siryn over the din of battle, a split second before Arclight punched down on the floor of the ruined lab. The entire building shook, rubble falling from the ceiling as support pillars began to crack and groan under the strain of holding up the walls.
“Pixie!” called out Cyclops. “We need an evacuation!”
“Marauders! We leave!” bellowed Exodus, as his team shimmered with a yellow light, before disappearing.
“Not… yet!” cried out Logan, as he punched forwards, aiming directly towards Bishop’s chest, his claws extending at the last moment before impact. Three adamantium blades glided through Bishop’s flesh as though it was nothing, causing three wounds directly to his heart. Bishop coughed, blood coming through his windpipe with a gargling noise. His eyes began to glow with an intense white light.
“Pixie, now!” repeated Cyclops.
“S—S–S–” stammered the girl.
A pulse of energy burst forth from Bishop’s dying body, the shockwave enough to knock even the strongest of the mutants from their feet. The support pillars that had been cracking began to snap, as the ceiling began to fall faster and heavier than before.
“PIXIE!” yelled Cyclops.
“Sihal Novarum Chinoth!” squealed Pixie, a pink glow surrounding the X-Men as they were teleported outside the facility. No sooner had they touched ground than the entire laboratory collapsed with a low rumble, even the floors sinking further into the complex, as the above-ground levels merged destructively with those that had been underground.
“Where are our people?” asked Cyclops desperately. “Where’s the Professor and the girl?”
“I don’t see them,” whispered Pixie. “But my spell, it got everyone, right?”
“He may not have been close enough,” said Emma grimly. “I told him to escape out the back way whilst we were engaging Bishop and the Marauders again, and to take the child to safety.”
Emma raised one grimy white glove to her temple and closed her eyes as she carried out a telepathic search.
“Scott…” she said quietly as she opened her eyes, tears threatening. “I can’t sense either of them…”
“Nor I,” replied Exodus, floating down towards the X-Men. “Consider our quarrel over, X-Men. The child will be mourned, as will Xavier. The dark times of mutant kind are destined to continue, it would seem. You have my condolences for the loss of your leader, Summers. I know all too well the hardship that can bring.”
With that, Exodus vanished into thin air, taking his leave of the X-Men.
“The Marauders have withdrawn,” confirmed Emma, her voice trembling as she tried to contain her grief. “All X-Men aside from Rogue, Gambit and Charles are accounted for, and–”
“X-Men?” breathed Scott, tears rolling down his cheeks from underneath his visor. “There are no X-Men any more. The dream is dead. And so are we.”
Scott turned away from Emma and walked towards the Blackbird. Emma folded her arms across her chest and shivered.
Three months later…
New York City…
“All I’m saying is, it’s weird,” said Bobby Drake, AKA Iceman, to his life-long friend, Hank McCoy, speaking through a forced smile as he waved at the rapidly gathering crowd. “Besides, I’m not used to people recognising me as Iceman when I’m not… y’know… Iceman…”
“I fear that the attention we’re attracting might well be due to my appearance, Robert,” sighed Beast, nodding in acknowledgement towards the crowd, instructed as he was to try not to smile at fans (The Avengers’ PR guru had warned him that his smile actually made him look scarier to the general public). “But you have to admit, it makes a welcome change from people throwing rocks, lumps of metal, or incendiaries at us.”
“Yeah, but we just dropped back into New York about an hour ago from the Savage Land… I just kind of wish we could go for something to eat in peace and quiet, without getting followed by swarms of super-hero fanboys,” complained Bobby, his smile never waning as a number of fans pulled out cameras, or at least phones with cameras built in and started snapping pictures of the two newest Avengers.
“Oh, Robert,” said Beast, putting his arm around Bobby’s shoulder and waving for the cameras. “Of all the ex X-Men, I would have thought you’d have been the first in line to make like Johnny Storm and begin working your way through the local glitterati!”
“I’m just adjusting,” scolded Bobby, winking at a group of teen girls who had started screeching. “You’re telling me this doesn’t need adjusting? Adjusting needs to be done before this feels right… I mean, these people actually don’t care that we’re mutants! It’s totally going against the grain of everything we’ve ever stood for!”
“And also making you late, I might add,” added a familiar telepathic voice. “I could always convince the crowd to disperse, should you require?”
“That won’t be necessary, Emma,” replied Beast as he and Bobby said their goodbyes and headed into the up-market restaurant chosen by Emma for their meeting. “We’re on our way in now.”
Bobby and Hank walked into the building to find it a drastic change from outside. Whilst the New York summer was in full swing outside, inside the air conditioning provided a cool, gentle breeze, one that was welcome to the assembled group of mutants.
Emma had obviously booked the entire restaurant, as the room would normally be fully occupied with diners, and today was completely empty other than the small congregation assembled at a large circular table near the back of the room.
“Is this everyone?” asked Bobby, looking at the seats at the table that remained vacant. “I guess some people’s invites might have gotten lost in the mail…”
Gathered around the table were Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Dazzler, Jamie Madrox, Archangel and Cannonball. The seat to the right of Emma was vacant, as were three others– two of which were obviously intended for Hank and Bobby.
“Kurt sends his apologies, but he’s currently visiting with Brian in England, and didn’t want to cut his time short,” replied Emma. “And Scott is unavailable at the moment.”
“Ah’m not gonna lie,” said Cannonball, suddenly feeling incredibly under-dressed in comparison to everyone other than Wolverine. “It’s good to see y’all again. Feels kinda nice to have a catch-up.”
“C’mon, kid,” said Logan. “You really think that’s the only reason we’re here?”
“You have an ulterior motive, Emma?” asked Jean-Paul in feigned surprise. “Surely not?”
“There’s time for that later,” replied Emma, smiling. “For now, I’d simply like to say that while I may not be the favourite person of many of you sitting around the table–”
“You can say that again,” murmured Jamie, rolling his eyes. Emma continued, seemingly choosing to ignore his comment.
“But I truly have missed this,” she finished. “I suppose it’s like the old adage; ‘You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’.”
“I’d like to propose a toast,” said Warren, rising to his feet and raising his wine glass. “To absent friends.”
The rest of the group echoed Warren’s sentiment, clinking glasses, or in Wolverine’s case, a bottle of beer. The assembled mutants talked amongst themselves over the entrées and main meal, catching up with one another and sharing stories– Bobby and Hank of their new-found fame with the Avengers; Wolverine on his multiple excursions around the world; Alison on her new record deal and potential offer as a guest judge on ‘American Idol’; Piotr on his travels across America, setting up an easel wherever he was inspired to paint; Jamie Madrox on how he really didn’t understand why he’d been invited; Jean-Paul on his new enterprise as a one-man snowboarding brand; Warren on his new business ventures; Sam on his new life at college, and Storm on her life as Wakandan royalty.
As the waiters cleared the plates from the main course, Emma cleared her throat to make an announcement.
“As Jean-Paul and Logan alluded earlier, I did have another reason for bringing us all together today,” she began.
“Here we go,” sighed Jamie, slouching down in his seat. “You’re talking about putting the band back together, right?”
“If you mean I’m proposing that the world needs the X-Men, you’d be quite right, Mr Madrox,” replied Emma. “Although I don’t think I would have put it quite so crudely.”
“Okay, in which case, I officially don’t know why I was invited,” he said, shaking his head. “I mean, c’mon! The last time I did a favour for the X-Men ended up with two of my dupes sent to the future, having to commit suicide, leaving me with a facial tattoo as regrettable as a drunken sorority girl’s tramp-stamp, and, oh yeah, LEAVING A THIRTEEN YEAR OLD GIRL STRANDED IN A DYSTOPIAN POST-APOCALYPTIC AND PSYCHOTIC FUTURE!”
“As if you’re the ONLY one to have sacrificed something to the cause,” said Northstar drolly. “Might I remind you that I was dead, resurrected and brainwashed as a ninja assassin, and then mentally hijacked by a bunch of psychotic post-human experiments?”
“Not to mention,” continued Jamie, ignoring Jean-Paul. “The last time I even saw most of you guys was when you wanted me to toe the line and hand over Quicksilver! Sorry, but even if I didn’t have X-Factor Investigations to run, I’d still be saying no.”
“I’m truly sorry that you feel that way, Jamie,” began Emma. “But if you’ll just–”
“Done,” said Jamie, pushing his chair out and rising to his feet. “Sorry, but for me it’s ‘so long, farewell, and thanks for all the fish’,” he said, turning on his heel and walking out the door.
“Ah thought he had the beef,” whispered Sam to Hank.
“It’s a reference to ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’,” replied Beast. “You’re a sci-fi buff, Sam! I thought you’d have got that one!”
“Well sure, now you tell me where I know it from,” grumbled the Southern mutant, before speaking up. “Emma, Ah appreciate the vote of confidence, but after everything Ah went through before the baby arrived… Ah dunno. Ah guess Ah was already havin’ doubts, and then to find out Cable and the Professor had been… well…” Sam trailed off for a moment, his head drooping as he avoided eye contact with the others around the table, clearing his throat before he began to speak again. “Ah can’t speak for ‘Berto, ‘Mara and the others, but Ah can’t rejoin the X-Men. Not now, at least. Ah’m at college, and Ah’m not gonna lie, it feels awful nice to do somethin’ that doesn’t involve havin’ to fight for my life before breakfast every morning.”
Emma nodded. “I understand, Samuel. This isn’t an attempt to press-gang anyone into doing anything that they don’t want to do, it’s just–”
“You know where I stand, Frost,” said Wolverine, gruffly, rising to his feet even as he projected his thoughts towards her. “X-Force still has work to do, and I know you don’t like it, but this keeps yours and Scott’s hands clean. I’m on board for the rest too. I owe Chuck that much.”
“Appreciated, Logan,” she replied telepathically, whilst maintaining the outward façade that there had been no communication between the two of them. “I’m not sure that I do, Logan.”
“You need me, you call,” he replied. “I’m not always gonna be able to drop everything and come running, though.”
“Thank you,” she said. Wolverine replied with a curt nod before he too left the restaurant, albeit in a much more calm manner than Madrox had.
“I’m kind of with Logan on this one,” replied Warren. “You need me, you can call, but at the same time, I’m doing my damnedest to rebuild a business empire from scratch… I’d never realised how much damage that bastard Lobo had done to the reputation of Worthington Industries until it was too late. I’ll dig as deep as I can to support the cause financially, and if you’re short-handed I’ll be there as fast as I possibly can. Keep me posted and I’ll be dropping by whenever it’s possible… and more importantly, wherever it is that you get settled.”
“Um, small problem,” said Bobby, raising his hand. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, and God only knows how many times being an X-Man’s been the only thing that’s kept me sane… or saved my skin… but I just… I can’t help but think that Hank and I are doing so much more good in the Avengers than we ever did as X-Men, at least in convincing people that we’re not all potential Magnetos in the making. People are starting to get it, y’know? They’re starting to see us in a totally different light…”
“I wouldn’t quite have put it in those terms, but Robert has a point,” agreed Hank. “If anything, our inclusion on the Avengers’ roster is helping to give mutant-kind a positive spin.”
“Look, I have a lot on my plate right now,” said Alison, smoothing down an errant strand of shocking pink hair. “I mean I’ve just got a lot to deal with, Emma, and I don’t know that I can give you an answer right now, at least not until I’m sure what I can commit to…”
“Likewise,” replied Northstar. “I’m the face of a major sports company now, and it’s not something I can just put on hold at the drop of a hat. Before I can even think about considering your offer, I’d need to find someone to run the business in my absence, someone to control the Northstar brand, someone to–”
“Trusy,” said Piotr, his gaze firmly fixed on the centre of the table, his eyes seeming to blaze with an intense anger. Emma could sense waves of rage practically flowing out of the man who was usually the epitome of the term ‘gentle giant’, even before she used her telepathy to translate the Russian word he had uttered.
“Peter, perhaps you should–” she began, placing her hand gently on his forearm. He shook it off before facing her.
“Apologies, Emma,” he said, before addressing the rest of the group. “When I joined the X-Men, I was not more than a boy. I missed my family and even questioned my place on the team from time to time. It wasn’t until I realised that the rest of the team had no one else to turn to; no family but each other. I realised that the X-Men were becoming another family to me. Then I see my birth family killed, for no other reason than they gave birth to mutants. I have seen my family and friends die because they were mutants. I died to try to save us and I was tortured for years. My Katya is trapped somewhere in space.”
“Peter,” said Ororo softly, reaching her hand over the table to grasp one of Peter’s. He pulled his hands away and stood up at the table, as his skin transformed into organic steel.
“I called you cowards,” he said, looking in turn from Beast, to Iceman, to Dazzler, to Northstar. “Think of what the X-Men have given you all, and how you so casually say that you don’t know whether you want to be part of your own family anymore. I am glad my Katya is not here to see the people she so respected acting like such scared children.”
Colossus turned to face Emma, his skin changing back to flesh-and-blood as his clothes shrank back down to normal size too, courtesy of the unstable molecules they were composed of. “Emma, I’ll be waiting in the car for you. I cannot bear to see those I used to believe would fight for their people sit idly by because they have a better chance of fame working outside the X-Men. I do not wish any of you luck, I would just wish that you’d change your mind.”
“Wow,” breathed Bobby as Piotr left. “I wasn’t expecting THAT. Who knew Russkie had it in him?”
“Must be all those years of hanging around Wolverine,” suggested Dazzler.
“I suppose you all have places to be,” sniffed Emma. “Please don’t let me keep you any longer than necessary. If you change your minds, you have my number, I believe.”
One by one, the remaining mutants left, until only Emma and Ororo were left sitting at the table.
“Something wrong, Ororo?” asked Emma.
“I wondered why you didn’t push for my answer,” she replied coolly. “You seemed determined to hear from the others, and yet you’ve allowed me to get off lightly, it would seem.”
“Ororo, from one woman to another, I know exactly what your reasons are for not wishing to rejoin, and I won’t hold it against you,” said Emma. “You have your duties as Queen of Wakanda now, and your role as a diplomat and dignitary must come first, especially if I sensed what I think I sensed as soon as you walked through the door.”
Ororo looked confused for a moment before realisation dawned. “Emma, I–”
“Not to worry,” Emma replied with a warm smile. “I know it’s considered bad luck to announce a pregnancy until the end of the first trimester, so your secret stays with me.”
“I don’t know what to say,” sighed Storm. “After everything that happened, I can’t help but think that perhaps I needed this– and for all we know, this could be the only way that the mutant race can continue; if one or more of us have children of our own.”
“That was my logic, too,” replied Emma, lightly touching her stomach. “I know that I could never hope for a friendship between the two of us, Ororo, nor would I expect it; but perhaps one day there’s hope that our children could be friends.”
“You too?” asked Storm. “Emma, I couldn’t wish for better news for you and Scott! But… I have to ask…”
“How can I possibly think of rebuilding the X-Men whilst pregnant?” asked Emma, finishing Storm’s sentence. “It does seem rather reckless for me to put myself in the firing line in such a way, I admit.”
“So… why?” asked Ororo.
“Simple;” replied Emma with a smile. “If I can’t see the world the way I would like it to be in my lifetime, then I can at least make sure that my children have a better chance of growing up in a peaceful world.”
Ororo considered Emma’s words and nodded her head, slowly. She rose from her seat and smoothed down her blouse over her already slightly protruding belly.
“I wish you luck, Emma,” she said simply and frankly. “And I hope that there comes a time when I can rejoin the X-Men, and help you make Charles’ dream a reality.”
“Your help would always be welcome, Ororo,” smiled Emma. “Always.”
As Ororo left, Emma left the table too, sliding several hundred dollar bills into the hand of the maitre d’.
“Do keep the change, darling,” she told him with a smile, before stepping out into the street and into the white stretched limousine that was waiting outside for her. She settled into the sumptuous leather seat, and sighed contently.
“I’m the only one who said yes?” asked Piotr, unable to hide the disappointment in both his voice and his facial expression.
“Out of this batch of former X-Men? Sadly so,” she replied. “Not to worry though, there are other plans in motion, my dear.”
“I do not understand,” said Colossus, his brow furrowing.
“All will become clear in time,” she smiled, as her driver pulled away, heading out of the city.
Two weeks later, the ruins of Xavier’s School…
“Wow… so we missed the school being trashed. Again,” sighed Alex Summers.
He stood at the front gates of the destroyed estate alongside his team-mates, his on-again off-again lover, Lorna Dane, and his alternate future niece, Rachel Grey. The spectacle had an almost poignant beauty to it, enhanced by the setting sun burning the sky angry hues of red and orange.
“We should have been here,” breathed Rachel, slumping to the ground despondently. It had been after a long, fiercely fought battle that the trio had even managed to return to the right solar system, and after only a few moments of being transported down to Earth, it felt like they were back to square one– readying themselves for yet another battle.
“C’mon, we don’t know that it was all that bad,” said Lorna, swinging the front gates open with a wave of her hand and a small exertion of magnetic energy. “We don’t even know what’s happened since we’ve been away. For all we know, this could just be some kind of hologram or something, trying to throw someone off the X-Men’s trail.”
“Uh, honey,” interrupted Alex, pointing over to some wreckage. “I think that kind of looks real enough, don’t you?”
“What do you– oh,” said Polaris, taking in the scene in front of them. A deactivated Sentinel lay at the side of the mansion, half of it’s body mass having crushed one of the walls. She narrowed her eyes in concentration. “Now that you mention it, I can’t detect any electromagnetic radiation, and if it was a hologram, I should be able to… so scratch that theory…”
“There’s nothing alive in there, either,” added Rachel, a burning blue phoenix symbol glowing over her eye. She took to the air, surrounded in a nimbus of cobalt-coloured energy. “I know exactly where we need to look to see if things are as bad as we think,” she said, before jetting off around to the back of the mansion.
“Where’s she– oh,” said Havok, as realisation dawned. “The remembrance garden…”
“Hardly the most pleasant way to find out that we’ve lost more friends…” sighed Lorna. “We should go after her, I can’t help but think we might be heading towards a Phoenix-powered outburst if she finds something she doesn’t like…”
Unbidden, Lorna created a translucent sphere of emerald energy around herself and Alex, and levitated them gently over the grounds. They made the short trip in silence, choosing instead to take in the almost sickening vista of their former home in tatters once again.
“This isn’t good,” whispered Alex as he scanned the grounds, realising that the number of graves had grown substantially since they’d left for space.
“Oh god,” said Lorna, closing her eyes. “Alex, I don’t know if I want to know…”
Lorna deposited herself and Alex down next to Rachel, as she scanned the fresher graves.
“These were all students,” she breathed, her eyes taking on a glassy sheen as tears threatened. “These were all kids that we taught… and they all died within the same week…”
“There were more,” added Alex sombrely, as he read the names inscribed on the memorial statue, one that had been built for those rare cases when an X-Man’s family had accepted the body of their child after death. “Jay Guthrie… dammit. Sam and Paige’s brother…”
“So, what? They’ve just disbanded the school because of this?” cried out Rachel, her voice raw with emotion, threatening to crack. “The Professor never would have stood for this!”
“Wait,” said Polaris, holding her hand out to silence Rachel. “Someone’s coming. A motorcycle, maybe…”
“Friend or foe?” asked Alex, as rings of cosmic energy began to emanate from his hands.
“Considering I sensed the metal before Rachel sensed a mind?” replied Lorna. “It’s got to be Logan.”
“He’ll know what’d happened to the X-Men,” resolved Rachel, enveloping the three of them in a telekinetic sheath and propelling them to the front entrance of the mansion, just as Wolverine pulled his bike up in a swerve, spraying a thin sheet of gravel at their feet.
“Well ain’t you all a sight for sore eyes,” he grunted with a wry smile, as Rachel practically dived on the small Canadian man, wrapping him in a bear hug.
“I didn’t hear any intruder alarms,” said Havok. “How did you know we were here?”
“Your fancy Shi’ar ship might be fast as hell,” replied Logan. “But subtle, it ain’t. You got picked up on long range scanners about three hours ago, the Avengers thought it might be you guys, since it was getting some kind of electromagnetic jolt to push it faster, and so they pinged it over to Emma, who sent me.”
“Logan, what the hell happened here?” asked Lorna.
Logan grimaced for a moment, as if considering telling them everything that had happened over the past year they’d been stranded in space.
“Not the time or the place,” he said, finally. “Let me get you back to the new school, and I’ll explain it all there, okay?”
“So Scott rebuilt elsewhere?” asked Havok. “Makes sense, I guess…”
“Not Scott,” said Logan simply. “Emma.”
“Wait, what?” asked Rachel, confused. “What’s happened to Da– I mean, Scott?”
“Like I said,” answered Logan gruffly. “Not the time or the place. C’mon, we’re going.”
With that, Logan revved his motorcycle, turning it one hundred and eighty degrees, and riding it down the driveway and out the front gates. Alex, Lorna and Rachel looked at one another in confusion.
“Seriously, what the hell have we missed?” asked Alex, as Lorna created another magnetic bubble and carried them after Logan.
“It must have been pretty bad for Charles to have abandoned the school…” breathed Lorna, glancing over at Rachel. A faint blue Phoenix emblem was starting to glow over her eye. “Rachel? What’s wrong?”
“I thought I sensed something,” the young telepath replied, placing her palm flat against the bubble as she stared back at the mansion. “But it’s gone now…”
“Jet lag’ll do that to you,” said Alex, trying his hardest to cheer the young girl up. “It’s been a rough few months, kiddo. Just be glad that we’re back in familiar territory.”
“That’s the thing, Alex,” said Rachel, wrapping her arms around herself as she suppressed a shiver. “I’m not so sure that we are…”
Two months earlier… Emma Frost’s summer home, The Hamptons…
Emma practically sprinted down the garden path of the picture-perfect home she owned in the exclusive resort of the Hamptons, her heart almost bursting with happiness. In her excitement she managed to fumble the keys to the front door, dropping them on the decking that overlooked the sea. Stooping to pick them up, her enthusiasm was dampened somewhat by the sudden swell of nausea that hit her hard, bile threatening to rise in her throat. She paused for a moment, unsure as to whether she was about to ruin the moment due to a spot of impromptu morning sickness, but after a couple of seconds, the sensation passed.
Turning the key in the lock, she opened the door to her home and called out for the love of her life.
“Scott? Darling?” she called, shouting up the stairs as she kicked off her unusually sensible flat shoes. She could never remember feeling this giddy, and here she was, Emma Frost, so excited about being pregnant.
She wouldn’t admit it, but most of the excitement that she felt wasn’t for herself, but rather for Scott. Since the loss of the first mutant child to be born since M-Day, and the death of his son AND his life-long mentor, Scott had sank into an almost catatonic state of depression, only surfacing at first to drink neat whiskey and to stare wistfully out to sea. After a couple of weeks, he had started to come round, but Emma knew that he was just going through the motions. The night he had finally broken down and shown emotion to her had been the first time since before the disbanding of the X-Men that the couple had found themselves intimate, and it had been after that when they had begun to discuss the whys and wherefores of the seemingly anomalous new mutant birth. Scott had suggested that it was entirely possible that the baby had been the product of two latent mutants, who hadn’t had their X-Gene removed by the Scarlet Witch’s reality warp, and Emma had been the one who had posed the question– what if two mutants who had retained their powers were to have a child? Would that child stand a chance of becoming a mutant?
“Scott? Where are you? I have some good news that I’m just dying to share!” she called out in a playful sing-song voice.
She waited a few moments, frowning lightly as she reached out with her telepathic powers. Unable to sense Scott in the house, she extended her reach to include the shoreline, and then extending it again to include the whole of the Hamptons. Still nothing.
Her heart felt like it had stopped. Her blood felt like it was freezing in her veins. Had one of the X-Men’s enemies found out where they were? Were they being hunted down? Was this a trap? After all, there were no signs of a struggle…
Emma raced upstairs, knowing that, whilst the portable Cerebra unit she kept in the house was nowhere near as powerful as the one that had been at Xavier’s, she should still be able to sense Scott with it, if he was anywhere in a three hundred mile radius. Entering the bedroom she and Scott shared, she opened up the built-in wardrobes, and reached for a small plastic box, opening the lid and retrieving the metal head-set within. She moved to pull it over her head when she saw the envelope on the bed with her name written on the front. It was written in Scott’s neat, precise handwriting.
Hands shaking, she opened the envelope. She managed to read as far as ‘I’m sorry…’ before she began to weep. There was no easy way of looking at it, and no point in sugar-coating the fact– Scott had left.
Emma flopped down on the bed, tears rolling down her cheeks, staining her skin with eye make-up as it started to run.
She was alone.
She was pregnant and alone.
What hope did she have of protecting her child alone?
Then again, sounded a thought, somewhere from deep in the back of her mind. What chance do your students have? Aren’t they all alone now, too?
Emma stared at the miniature Cerebra unit for what seemed like an eternity. She sat up slowly, taking several deep breaths before she wiped her tears away with the back of her hand.
You’re not the only one without a family, said her subconscious again. You’re not the only one without direction or support. Are you really going to sit back and abandon your students AGAIN?
Emma sniffed, before setting her jaw and placing the Cerebra unit on her head. She relaxed her thoughts and opened her mind. Whilst not as powerful as the larger Cerebra unit, it was still a heady experience, unaccustomed as she was to using the device after so long. She felt her power surge through her, amplified several times, as she cast her mind outwards, searching for her students.
She grimaced. The job was going to be more time-consuming than she had imagined– she had totally forgotten that whilst the portable Cerebra’s range wasn’t hampered by its size, it only had the power to isolate one mind at a time. Finding her former students was going to be hard work. She decided to start with those she’d had most contact with; the students whose psi-profiles she would more readily recognise. She zeroed in on one in particular.
“Pixie?” she called out. Immediately, she sensed the young girl’s excitement, as well as her initial shock at the telepathic intrusion. “Would you like to return to a school for mutants, my dear?”
“I’d be there in a heartbeat!” replied Pixie.
“Excellent news. I shall keep you updated when I have more concrete plans.”
“Okay Miss Frost! See you soon!”
Emma began to smile, a slow smirk creeping across her lips.
“Well, Emma,” she said aloud. “One down…”
“The world’s never been a fair place,” he said slowly, his every word calculated and annunciated to make the maximum impact. “You all know this. You’ve all seen what happens when humans think that we’re vulnerable. And for all our power, for all our might, we’ve let it go on. This has been happening for far too long, and I’ve had enough. Times have changed, and that means we have to change with them. We’re down, but we’re not out.”
“And how, pray tell, would you think to alter this status quo?” asked Exodus, his arms folded over his chest, his Acolytes gathered at his side, all poised to strike at a moments notice.
“Simple,” replied Cyclops. “We show them that we won’t be pushed around any more.”
Silence fell in the Acolyte’s compound. Exodus inhaled slowly.
“Very well, Summers,” he said with a smile. “We’re all ears.”
The desolate mesa extended almost as far as the eye could see. Scorched earth and barren rock interspersed with broken weapons, scrap metal that used to be tanks and jets, and every so often, sun-bleached bones. Charles Xavier sat on the pinnacle of a rocky outcrop, swaddling the baby in his arms as the sun rose over the horizon, dappling the landscape with a sparse light.
“One minute before the dawn,” he sighed, looking down at the innocent baby he was cradling. “Thank you, Cable.”
“Emma, are you sure about this?” asked Logan. “It’s not that I’m doubting you, it’s just… I need to know that this is the way you think we need to go.”
“Da,” agreed Colossus. “Some people are beyond retribution.”
“And some people said the exact same thing about me,” she replied. “In fact, I dare say some people still do. But we’re stretched too thin. Even with those who rejoined the X-Men, we need to establish a strong strike team, one that is capable of handling almost any threat.”
“You’re asking me to be a part of this?” asked Logan. “You know I’ve tried to kill most of the people you’re looking for, right?”
“I only need your help in finding them, Logan,” she replied. “The rest will be up to Peter and I.”
“It’s not gonna be easy,” he said, scratching his chin, the stubble making a rasping sound. “You saw how long it took people to trust the Thunderbolts.”
“But they won’t BE the Thunderbolts, Wolverine,” explained Emma. “They’ll have no option other than to be astonishing…”
Not the end… The beginning.