Summary: A killer stalks mutantkind.
Fandom: X-men AU (comics verse)
Spoilers and/or Warnings: Contains some violent and sexual content.
Title, Author and URL of original story: A Confession by alara_r
Return to Part 1/2
Scott was still asleep when I woke up. He was lying on his stomach, arms and legs thrown wide and the covers low over his hips. For a few minutes, I enjoyed waking up slowly and studying smooth expanse of skin he'd left uncovered. A handful of scars broke up the perfection, but it only made him more intriguing. Most of them had been acquired in the days before he'd joined the law. I'd teased the story out of him one night and the hours that followed had been most enjoyable. When Scott dropped the thin veneer of control he held, he was a much more interesting lover.
Stretching, I slipped out from the bed and walked across the room naked to fetch my robe. I slipped my arms into it and went in search of coffee. Passing the television, I used my TK to turn it on and flip to the news. The clock revealed that it was after 10 and I wanted to see what kind of reaction Warren's announcement was having. He had scheduled his press conference for 9:30.
The smell of coffee brewing roused Scott, who came into the kitchen groggily, a pair of sweat pants he'd left the last time clinging to his hips now. I nudged the strings playfully with my TK and he jumped, before shooting me a reproachful look. "You got out of bed."
"Some of us have to work today, lazybones."
He didn't answer, pouring two mugs of coffee as I watched the news. Sure enough, Warren's announcement was front and center. The commentator looked flustered as she read from the teleprompter. "Billionaire playboy Warren Worthington shocked the world today by revealing that he was a mutant. The NASDAQ and Dow Jones have both plummeted as previously valuable stock in Worthington companies dropped in value over 50%."
Scott passed me a mug and took a sip of his. "I hope he still thinks it's worth it."
"Don't you admire him just a bit?" I asked, blowing across the top of the steaming liquid. It had milk and sugar in it, just the way I liked it.
"Sure." Scott shrugged. "He's got balls of steel."
I smirked. "Actually, he's got wings."
"Really?" Scott sounded impressed for a minute. "How the hell does he keep them hidden?"
"A harness under his clothes." I saw Scott give me a curious glance at my unexpected knowledge, but I ignored him as Warren appeared on the television. After a second, it was apparent that they were simply replaying his original announcement and I nudged the volume higher.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to admit that I have lied to you in the past. I have spoken with my family and friends, but I cannot move forward with my life without being equally honest with everyone. I refuse to hide in the shadows any longer, and so it is with a humble apology that I announce to you that I am, in fact, a mutant."
"The guy should be a politician." Scott muttered, turning as his cell phone rang. He vanished into the bedroom to answer it and I watched the television in silence as the press room erupted in shouts and questions. It was obvious that some of the press was pushing their way out of the room as I watched and I felt a surge of sympathy for Warren, as well as a deep stirring of admiration. I wasn't sure if I would do what he was doing.
My mutation wasn't obvious, but it had cost me everything that had once mattered. Linked mentally to my childhood best friend as she died, I spent the years following her death lost inside my own mind, unable to push invading thoughts away. Finally, my desperate parents committed me and I remained a resident of the New England Psychiatric Hospital until I'd finally learned to control it. When I'd finally been released, my own family was so afraid of me that I'd moved out as soon as I could. Opening my own detective agency had seemed like a logical step, considering my abilities, and here I was.
Scott emerged from the bedroom fully dressed. "I have to go. Work beckons."
"I thought you were off." I turned as he slipped his arms around me.
"Got called in." He kissed my nose. "Be careful today and call me if you need backup."
"Mmm." I made a non-committal noise and he shook his head.
"Call me," he repeatedly stubbornly. Then he was gone.
I turned back to watch more of the news, stories of anti-mutant protests springing up around the nation explaining why Scott had gone into work, and sighed. I hadn't been hired for advice, but I couldn't help but wonder if Warren had really known what he was getting himself into. From where I stood, a serial killer seemed like the least of his problems.
Finally, I forced myself to go and get dressed. I had a thousand things to do before I tracked down the Iceman later in the day. The thought of spending time with that particular mutant was about as fun as getting a root canal, but Scott was right. If anyone would know more about a mutant serial killer than the police, it was the criminal underground.
It took me the better part of the day to track him down. The Iceman never stayed in one place too long. When I finally located him, it was dark. I hadn't spoken to Warren again since I'd left him in the lab, but Scott had called me, voice harried as he told me about a brawl in a heavily mutant area of town that had broken out in the afternoon.
I dressed more conservatively than I had the night before, ready in case I need to fight or run, but hoping that neither would be necessary. I pushed my way into a bar on the edge of the riverfront, pausing long enough to exchange a series of threats with one of the goons who didn't understand enough about personal space before I managed to make my way to the bar.
I ordered another tea, not wanting my wits addled as I looked around. I opened my mind enough to wade through the top level of filth from the minds of the patrons, annoyed that the bouncer still thought that he could take me, before I zeroed in on the Iceman. We'd crossed paths a handful of times over the years.
I worked a lot of cases dealing with mutants, and he was one of the more powerful mutants in the area. His thoughts were as cold as his nickname and I skirted his mind carefully. Rumors abounded about him, but the truth, as close as I could figure it, made him younger than I was. According to the grist mill, he'd been mobbed as a teenager when his powers had first shown themselves.
Supposedly, it was about a girl, but by the time it was over, there were three dead bodies and a dozen ruined lives. The Iceman hadn't served a day in jail, vanishing into the ambiguity of mob mentality, but I had never met a mutant who hated humans more than he did.
I went and stood next to his table, waiting for him to acknowledge me before I sat down. "Iceman." I nodded. I didn't know his real name. I don't think anyone did. He never thought of himself as anything other than his mutation.
"Phoenix." He nodded back at me, calling me by my detective agency's name. I'm not sure why he did it, but neither did I care. I watched his face carefully. It hadn't been that long ago that he and I had fallen on different sides of an argument and I hadn't gotten warm again for days. If I could, I preferred to avoid a repeat experience.
I cut straight to the point. "What have you heard about a serial killer targeting mutants?"
"The X?" Iceman sounded surprised, eyes glittering in the dim room. "He's a boogeyman."
I shook my head. "I'm not familiar with the X. Who is he?"
Iceman raised his hand for another beer and sat in silence as we waited for it to be delivered. After he'd stirred the foam with his finger, the glass suddenly coated with a thick frost, he took a drink and sighed.
"Dunno." He shrugged. "But what I've heard is that he shows up, someone dies, and he's gone. Of course, he's not real."
"How do you know?" I demanded.
"No human can kill mutants like that."
"What if it isn't a human?" The question seemed to startle him again and he tapped his fingers on the table in irritation. Frost veins spread out across the wood and melted slowly as he thought.
"You think it's a mutie?"
"I think it's a possibility." I nodded, ignoring the slang word with a mental grimace of disgust.
"Why are you so interested?" The Iceman leaned forward, catching my eyes with his and I felt the temperature in the room drop. When I breathed out, my breath puffed in front of me.
"If you prick me, do I not bleed?" I asked rhetorically and was relieved to see him smile slightly. It didn't get any warmer though, and I took a deep breath. "I have reason to believe that he might come here."
"Worthington." Iceman spit out. "Asshole makes us all a target and expects commendations."
"He's doing what he thinks is the right thing to do."
Iceman leaned forward, eyes suddenly dangerous. "You know why we don't have a mutant problem around here, Phoenix? Because I don't let there be a mutant problem. We stay underground, away from the bastards who'd string us up as sure as look at us. And that rich fuck thinks he can just flaunt that and bring down the attention of all the world on us?"
Suddenly, I wondered if this X guy was Warren's biggest threat. "I'm sure he's not trying to do that."
As suddenly as he'd grown angry, Iceman leaned back and laughed. I saw a few people in the immediate area jump and then look relieved, but I didn't share it. My stomach tightened and I swallowed and forced a smile. "You're right." Iceman agreed. "He probably doesn't have a clue what he's doing. But he's not as dumb as he looks, then. Not if he's worried about the X."
"What do you know about this guy?"
Iceman shrugged. "Nothing. He's a fucking mystery. Rumors say that he can kill without even touching someone. There's supposedly a trail of bodies across the entire fucking world that he's responsible for."
I nodded. The rumors seemed to support Hank's theory and it certainly supported the list of dead mutants sitting inside the folder on my kitchen table. The more I learned, the more I hoped that Warren was wrong and that the X, as I now thought of him, wouldn't come anywhere near him. I wasn't sure there would be a thing I could do.
My cell phone rang and I glanced at it quickly. Scott. "Excuse me," I stood up and stepped away for a minute. "Hey."
"Jean." The worry in Scott's voice made my blood freeze. "There's been a death."
"Warren?" I whispered.
"No. But it's a stroke."
I swallowed. "Are you sure it's not a real stroke?"
"Pretty sure." Scott sighed, sounding suddenly tired. "We've been looking for this sick freak for a long time, goes by the name of Victor Creed. He's responsible for a lot of dead bodies lining the morgue."
Scott gave me the address and I hastily scribbled it on a napkin. Then I disconnected and called Warren. "Is Hank still in town?"
Warren sounded even more beaten down than Scott had. "Yes. Is something wrong?"
"A body." I let Warren fill in the blanks and when he spoke again, I could hear a very real fear in his voice.
"By the time we get there?" I asked. "He'll be in the city morgue. I don't know what contacts you still have, but if you can, we need Hank to examine him. Hopefully, it's just a stroke."
"Ms. Gray, after the day I've had, hope is not something in high supply at the moment."
"No, I don't imagine it would be. Let me know if you're able to work something out."
I hung up and turned back to see the Iceman staring at me. It made my skin crawl, but I went over and sat down. He had done me a favor and now I'd do him one. "Get out of town, if you can. Just for a while."
Something like pity crossed the Iceman's face, warming it for just a second. "Poor bastard. I hope his high ideals were worth it." Then he stood up and snapped his fingers. Instantly, a dozen people followed him from the bar leaving it almost empty.
Not caring who saw me, I used my TK to slide over the Iceman's abandoned drink. In the absence of the real thing, I would settle for liquid courage.
Morgues creep me the hell out. They're too much like mental hospitals, the bodies like patients too doped up on antipsychotics to do anything other than lie there and drool on themselves. But, it's the empty echoing feeling that really bothers me. I can almost feel their minds, and the ghosts of the departed do not think happy thoughts.
Scott stood just inside the front door, his face a mask of fury, when I arrived. He glared at me. If I'd known you were going to have me removed from the case, I wouldn't have called you.
Your new boss. Scott's mental growl grated through my mind and I flicked at him, making him even angrier. But when he spoke to me again it was aloud. "There's a hotshot ME downstairs doing the exam. Kicked out the blue."
I glanced around and saw that, sure enough, all the cops were pacing like caged animals. He has reasons for needing his privacy. Let me see if I can't get you down there.
"Don't do me any favors." Scott snapped as I passed him. "I won't be doing you anymore."
Rolling my eyes, I ignored him, knowing that he wasn't really angry at me. He was just angry. With the whole world suddenly talking about mutants hiding in plain sight, he had to be on edge. I followed the line of grumpy thoughts down to the basement examination room and knocked on the door. At the same time, I reached out for Hank's mind. It's Jean. I'm coming in.
As you wish. Hank's calm mental voice did nothing to prepare me for the gruesome sight of him elbow deep in a body cavity. Creed was huge, even bigger than Hank, and I knew now why Scott hadn't sounded particularly upset about the murder. If that's what it was.
Warren stood in the corner, back turned to the autopsy table and I quickly stepped over to stand next to him. His pallor was gray, but I didn't think it had much to do with the spectacle behind us.
"How are you doing?"
"You're a telepath, Ms. Gray." Warren's voice was quiet, but I still stiffened at the casual pronouncement. "Can't you tell how I'm doing without asking?"
"I was being polite." I shot back, enough heat in my voice that it pierced his apathy and he turned to offer me an apologetic smile.
"I'm sorry. It's been a trying sort of day."
I resisted the urge to point out that he'd brought it on himself and instead patted his arm with as much sympathy as I could muster. A squelching noise behind us made my stomach turn and Warren's gray cast began to look decidedly greener. The smell didn't help. "Perhaps we should step into the hallway?" I asked and he nodded.
I led the way, quickly sending Hank the thought to give me a mental shout when he was done. "I guess your announcement didn't cost you all your pull."
"No." Warren sighed, and rubbed his eyes as he gratefully breathed in the musty smell of stale cleaning chemicals in the hallway. "But it came close. I believe that I may have cashed in the last of the favors owed me to earn the right to be here first."
"If you're looking to earn some back," I suggested quietly, "you could invite the lead detective to share in the conclusions." Warren gave me a surprised look and I met his eyes firmly. "I'll vouch for him, if you'd like."
Understanding flickered in his gaze and he nodded. "Of course. I'll trust your judgment."
Relieved, I sent Scott a mental invitation and then leaned against the wall to watch and see what happened. Patience wasn't my strong suit, but I'd have been happy to spend the next three days in the hallway if I didn't have to ever again see what blue fur looked like when matted with blood and guts. Scott arrived quickly enough that I knew he'd been hoping I'd get him through the golden gates and he introduced himself to Warren. The two men shook hands, and Warren relaxed a little more. I shook my head; Scott projected calm confidence when it suited him – a trait that had come in handy on many occasions, I'm sure.
"Jean?" He spoke aloud, and I glanced up in surprise. "Did you have any luck today?"
I glanced around to make sure no one could overhear us, then I told them what I learned from the Iceman. I left out the bit where he had not so subtly threatened Warren, though I'd glanced at Scott hard enough that I knew he'd picked up the silent message. When I finished, Warren looked gray again.
"You should leave town for awhile." Scott suggested. "Wait until this blows over."
"No." Warren cleared his throat and repeated himself more firmly. "No. If I run away now, I'll undo any of the good I did this morning. I have as much right as anyone else to exist and I'm not going to pretend that I don't. I'm not going to run away and hide. I've done nothing wrong."
I could tell that Scott was both irritated and a bit impressed at the unexpected courage. I had known it wasn't a publicity stunt, but some people had to see for themselves. Personally, I thought that Scott was right, but I had agreed to take on the job and I'd stand by Warren as long as he wanted to keep fighting.
We stood in silence, the clock on the wall ticking loudly as the second turned into minutes. Nearly an hour passed before Hank's quiet thoughts invaded mine. Ms. Gray, I've completed the examination. You can come back inside.
I stood up straight from where I'd been leaning on the wall. "Let's go."
To their credit, neither man objected and we went back inside. Scott was clearly startled by Hank's appearance, but he hid it well and the doctor managed to hide his annoyance at the unexpected meeting well enough that it was a non-event.
"Well?" I asked, when no one else said anything.
Hank met my eyes and my stomach sank before he said a word. "It wasn't a stroke. There are no signs of blood clots or hemorrhages. The medulla oblongata – the part of the brain that controls autonomous functions like breathing and cardiac function – has been burned out. It's identical to the others."
We stood in silence for a long time, digesting the news. The X, whomever he was, was here. We could only assume that he'd come searching for Warren, but by all appearances he was happy to take out any mutant he met along the way. Creed had been found dead in a diner – face first in a congealing meatloaf special.
Scott cleared his throat and looked at Warren. "Now what?"
"Now," Warren answered steadily, "I give another press conference."
"Why would you do that?" Hank demanded, appalled.
"How else can he act like bait?" I asked and all three men turned to look at me. I looked back at Warren and raised both eyebrows. "Right?"
He swallowed, but lifted his head. "Exactly. If I can draw him into a public place – one with cameras – then maybe you can identify him from the films."
"That's ridiculous." Scott spat out. "First, you're presuming he'll show up. Second, you're presuming that we can somehow stop him from killing you."
"No." Warren held up a hand and let out a slow deep breath. "No, I don't think anyone can stop him from killing me. But, if we're lucky, you may be able to stop him from killing someone else."
"Don't be a martyr." Scott growled, and Hank nodded his head in agreement. I stayed quiet and Warren met my eyes, silently asking for my understanding.
I understood, all right. "Better to die at the hands of the X than of a random mutant hating assassin?" I asked softly.
Warren smiled. "It is if you stop him."
"That's a big if." I whispered.
"Have faith, Ms. Gray. It's all we've got left."
As soon as Scott realized that he wasn't going to change Warren's mind, he'd taken over the planning. Instead of Worthington Industries, Warren's next press conference was going to take place in an auditorium at City Hall. It was bigger, and that would be the official excuse, but in actuality, Scott was able to place cameras on all the entrances and exits. No one would be entering or leaving without having a picture taken.
Scott and I had a quiet, but vicious, fight about whether or not I would be staying behind. I ended it by pointing out that I would do whatever I damn well pleased and I did not need his permission. He stormed off and I shot a last thought at him. Are you going to run away and hide?
I saw him stumble and he turned to glare at me over his shoulder. "Don't be ridiculous." And then he was gone. I tried to swallow both the fear and irritation down, but didn't manage it. Instead, I went back to my apartment and tried to take a nap. Warren planned to hold his conference just after noon. That gave all the media outlets – and anyone else interested – plenty of notice of where and when to be there.
I did sleep, but not well. My dreams were plagued with nightmares. I'd fought too long and too hard to keep other people out of my mind when I was younger. The thought of dying from that now was repugnant. I dreamt about Annie, her laughter echoing through my mind as I struggled to breathe. I dreamt about Dr. Richards, the psychiatrist who had finally recognized that my insanity might actually be a mutation, who had taken me out of the city and to a quiet cabin the woods, where I'd finally heard silence again for the first time in years. She had saved my life, but in my dreams she casually stole it from me, and I woke up shaking.
I stumbled into the shower and tried to drive the chill from my bones. Shivering violently, I finally had to admit that I was terrified. I had worked hard to contain my telepathy, barricading my tentative grasp on sanity behind walls that were as thick as I could make them.
Hank's theory about a telepath strong enough to not only withstand the constant barrage of invasive and unwelcome voices, but to harness them and winnow them down until only the mutant signatures stood out, and then casually snuff out the life of them – it seemed impossible.
Numbly, I sank to the floor. Was it possible? Was it possible that I could have become that kind of monster by virtue of having a similar mutation? Could I take lives with as little regard for their owners as the X did? Or was I outclassed and the X was strong where I was weak?
If that was the case, then I should run. Warren had already accepted that he was a Dead Man Walking, but that didn't mean I should throw my life away after his. I could leave. I could leave him to face the consequences of his actions alone. And Scott… well, Scott had signed up for it when he had accepted a badge.
Bile rose in the back of my throat and I took a deep breath. No. I was not a coward and I would not run away. If this was going to be the last day I would be alive, I'd be damned if I spent it cowering on the floor of my shower either.
Forcing my legs to quit shaking, I stood up and finished washing my hair. Deliberately, I dressed myself in my best suit, taking care to make sure that my stockings had no runs and my shoes were polished. I wore a minimal amount of jewelry, settling finally on a necklace that Scott had given me for my birthday the year before.
I didn't bother with a weapon; I never did. They couldn't do anything my TK wasn't capable of, and besides, what good would it do me anyway? I cleaned up the kitchen after I ate a quick breakfast and then locked the door behind me. I had no pets to worry about, no plants that would wither and die if I never returned. I was as ready as I would ever be.
The drive to City Hall took forever and went by too fast. It was sunny for the first time all week, the bright light making me wish I'd remembered to grab a pair of sunglasses. I found a parking spot along the street and walked as quickly as I could through the gathering crowds. People may be afraid of mutants, but that didn't seem to stop them from wanting to see the show.
Weaving my way through men and women, some angry, some afraid, all morbidly curious to see the freak, mutie bastard, poor man, spawn of Satan Warren at his press conference. Most of the crowd didn't seem to be part of the press. They were just part of a mob.
I finally reached the steps and started mentally nudging people out of my way. Each time, I listened to their thoughts for a moment, trying to figure out if it was possible to tell a mutant from a regular person. Each time, I remained as clueless as I had been.
Everyone sounded the same to me. Everyone, mutant or human, spent their time wondering what to have for dinner, worrying how to pay the rent, wishing that someone would notice them. Warren may have wings, Iceman may control temperature, Scott may be able to level a mountain, Hank may be covered in blue fur, I may be able to hear someone's thoughts – but in our hearts, we were no better and no worse than anyone else who'd ever been born.
I slipped past the door guard, who nodded at me in recognition, and made my way into the auditorium where Warren would make himself a standing target. I could see Scott, standing to the left of the stage, talking tensely with a few other officers. He clearly hadn't slept since I'd left him. A voice whispered in the back of my mind and I craned my head upwards to see Hank hiding at the back of the balcony. I nodded at him, surprised to see that he had stayed behind. I guess I wasn't the only one unable to just walk away.
The crowd pressed in tighter, packing more people inside the room as the clock ticked down the minutes until Warren's appearance. Five minutes. Four. A sudden surge to my right made me turn and I had to hide a jolt of panic when I saw Iceman standing at the back of the room. I wasn't close enough to know for sure, but from the amount of personal space he had, I was guessing that he was deliberately dropping the temperature near him to push the crowd away. With the exception of the dangerous look on his face, he could have been anyone else in the room.
I see him, Jean. Nothing we can do unless he causes a problem.
Well, that made me feel better.
The overhead lights dimmed, but didn't go out and the stage lights suddenly lit up. A man that I half-recognized as a PR guy for Worthington Industries came onto the stage and made a few comments, instructing the press on how to ask questions, not that he or anyone else held out any hope that this wasn’t going to be an absolute circus.
Then the Man with the Plan stepped on the stage and the bedlam of the room fell into utter and rapt silence. Warren hadn't hidden his wings for this conference, and even as I felt an overwhelming desire to be anywhere but there, I still couldn't help but admire their beauty.
"Good afternoon, folks. Thanks for coming out." Warren didn't sound the least bit fazed. "After the roller coaster ride that followed yesterday's announcement, I figured I couldn't do any worse by talking to you again today."
There was a tittering of laughter. Some of the men and women in the room didn't look amused, though. They looked sickened at the sight of those beautiful wings, the tips sweeping across the floor. Reluctantly, I dipped in and out of their thoughts, searching for the one called the X.
Freak. I can't believe it. Demon. Monster. Mutie.
Repulsed, I forced myself to keep looking while Warren fielded a few questions. Then a cultured voice rang out from the middle of the room. "Mr. Worthington, what makes you think that you can control the public's reaction to your abomination? What hubris you must possess."
Warren squinted into the crowd, trying to see the speaker. I let my thoughts trip over the masses, searching for those particular thoughts. Ah, ah, ah. That's not very polite at all, is it, my dear?
I sucked in a breath to scream a warning, but the room froze and I felt my fear die in my throat. No one moved. No one so much as breathed. I whipped my head around and saw Warren stagger backwards in shock. Scott hurtled himself to the stage, gun drawn.
"Who are you? Come out so we can see you?"
"I'm standing right in front of you, dear boy." The X sounded amused. "And I must thank you, for gathering so many powerful mutants in one place for me today. It certainly makes my job easier, when I don't have to hunt you down individually."
"It's an illusion." Hank's voice rang strong from the balcony, and I turned to see him leaning over it, his face fierce. "He's deliberately keeping us from seeing him."
"Fucking coward." Iceman shoved his way through the crowd, knocking over the human statues carelessly. I threw out my TK to keep several of them from getting hurt.
"Sticks and stones, Iceman." The X laughed and I caught a glimmer from the corner of my eye. Forcing myself to take a deep breath, I ran my thoughts over my mental walls. I'd built those to keep people out – someone else had built one to keep me in, to keep me from seeing what was real. I could hear Iceman making crude threats and then I saw Scott fall to his knees. He dropped his gun and grabbed his head, screaming in pain.
There. That was the wall. Brutally, I slammed through it, not caring that I cracked several of my own safeguards. And then I could see him. The X didn't look as terrifying as I would have guessed. He was on the far side of middle aged. He was medium height, white, and completely bald. And he looked more miserable than anyone I had ever seen in my life.
"There!" I screamed, pointing and I saw him turn to regard me in surprise. I had barely enough time to rip through the walls in the minds of my four unexpected allies when suddenly he was in my mind.
Jean Gray. What a powerful mind you almost had. I could feel him sliding his thoughts along mine, judging me, exploring. Heedless, I let him do as he wanted in my own mind, trusting that my shields would buy me some time, and I shoved my thoughts between him and Scott. Scott stopped screaming and the room suddenly fell silent.
"What gives you the right to play executioner?" Iceman was almost to him, and even as I watched his body froze over, stronger than it would have been if he were in his human state.
"It's the same right you took, boy, when you murdered those three men."
"They were trying to kill me!"
"Of course they were!" The X sounded pitying. "They were protecting their families. And shouldn't they? You killed them with barely a thought, freezing their hearts in their chests as they beat."
"Yeah." Iceman reached him. "It was them or me, you fucking bastard. And I chose me."
"Which is why I chose you as well." And then the Iceman went down, barely two feet from his target. He screamed once and I felt his mind stutter. I shoved my thoughts between the X and – Bobby, his name was Bobby – as well and the X looked at me with annoyance.
"Do you think you can protect them all?" Warren and Hank screamed and at the same time, the X shoved his mind into mine. I knew I was screaming, but I couldn't hear anything. The walls in my mind shattered like he had dropped a nuclear bomb. The years and years it had taken me to build them were ripped away from me, leaving me raw and vulnerable.
A red flash of light rent the room and the pressure in my head ceased. Scott was back on his feet, his hand lifting his glasses enough that he'd gotten a shot off at the X. The X was on the floor, dazed, but hardly down for the count. I felt a thud to my left and then Hank was lifting me to my feet. "Are you all right, Jean?"
I looked at him blankly, his thoughts washing over my mind like a warm balm. And then I felt it – the slight hiccup, the tiniest of differences. And I knew, I knew how the X killed.
I turned, but the X was gone. Warren had pushed his way to Iceman – Bobby – and had picked him up. Unable to walk through the immobile crowd, he jumped into the air, his wings expanding and then he flew back to the stage. For a moment, it almost looked like he were lifting Bobby from a mob and then my focus rocked. Warren dipped in the air, crying out, and without conscious thought, I wrapped my mind around his, and around Bobby's, Scott's and Hank's.
You cannot beat me, girl.
"Maybe not." I answered aloud, unwilling to let the crazy man spend anymore time in my thoughts than I could help it. "But we can."
On the stage, Warren set Bobby down, and I could see the Iceman stirring, waking up again. I could feel the X pressing on my mind, searching for weaknesses. He wasn't in a hurry, though, arrogant prick that he was. He thought I was an easy target.
Rage started to boil in the back of my mind, hot and burning. It bubbled slowly, like magma coming to a boil, and I gave into its strength. It could carry me where my own abilities could not.
Finally. The whisper in my mind confused me. It wasn't the X, nor was it any of the other four. It sounded like no one so much as it sounded like me.
"Try and pierce the illusion again, Jean." Hank suggested softly. He was looking around carefully, eyes squinting as he searched for any anomaly.
"Yes." I answered, my voice thick in my throat. Finally.
When the X struck again, I wasn't ready for it. He hit at the five of us at once and my mind rang like he had stuck the bells of Notre Dame inside it. The others cried out, and Hank staggered. Furious, I poured some of the rage into my powers and flung it back at him.
The power ripped through me, stronger than it had ever been, and the X screamed, the illusion dropping to show him standing in front of Scott, his hand fastened around Scott's dropped revolver. Reflexively, he fired off a shot.
At less than five feet, there was no way that I could do anything, but I felt the fire coat me and I reached out for the bullet with my TK. I caught it, it was less than three inches from Scott's forehead, and I caught it. With a thought, I incinerated it.
Stronger than you look, aren't you? For the first time, the X sounded angry and when he struck at me again, he struck only at me. But this time I was ready for him. I opened my mind to him, pulled him inside and then I felt the volcano erupt. I lifted off the ground, my TK carrying me into the air – something that had never happened before.
I laughed, I was invincible, and I slammed myself into his mind. His history unfolded before me like a map, and I saw him kneeling besides someone he called friend, watched as he murdered that man with a heavy heart. His friend – Magnus – lay on the dirt, and looked up. There was no surprise in his eyes. "Why?"
"I'm sorry, Magnus." The X whispered, and I was stunned to feel that there was real regret in his heart. "You're right-- we can't peacefully co-exist with them. It was naive of me to hope we could. Because they're weak, and venal, and will try to scapegoat others for personal gain, and they're full of hate and they destroy what's different... and we are no different from them. But we have far more power to see the evil within us come to fruition.
"I see us consuming the world in a Holocaust that makes the one you suffered through look tame by comparison. I hear your plans to murder innocents to save people with superpowers, and I wonder, if my good friend Magnus could fall this far from the corruption of power, what of men who were bad men in the first place? How can humanity possibly protect itself from people like you, and me?
"We are as human as they are, and no more deserving than they are. If we are the ones that live, we'll tear each other and the planet apart with our powers. If they're the ones that live, maybe they won't destroy each other completely, right away. Maybe they'll have time to evolve mentally and emotionally, as well as in terms of power, so that they can live in harmony with each other. But they'll never get that time if we take control first. We're no more advanced than they are but every one of us has an atom bomb in his personal possession-- how long before we wipe out everything there is?
"I do this as much for your sake as humanity's, Magnus. I know, if your powers hadn't driven you mad, you wouldn't want to be responsible for a second Holocaust. I know this is the only way to save your soul, to end your life before you can do the horrible things you intend.
And the X killed him.
The memory staggered me and I fell from the air to the ground. The X must have been waiting for his chance, because when he roared into my brain again, I knew that I was going to die. He was too strong and my powers faltered in his wrath.
I loved him, Jean. I killed him, even though I loved him. I will feel no such loss at your death.
Death was no stranger to me; indeed, we were old friends and I felt the familiar texture of it start to cloud my mind. I took a deep breath, meaning to breathe out slowly and let go, but instead I screamed. And screamed, and screamed and screamed.
I screamed for all of the mutants the X had murdered; I screamed for Scott, and Warren, Hank, Bobby… I screamed for Annie again. But mostly, I screamed for me. And then there was a second burst of red light. It was followed by a cascading wall of ice, separating me from the debris that rained down on us all as Scott blew the roof off of City Hall.
The X's powers broke, and screams ripped through the auditorium as people fled, shoving and pushing each other in their desperation to get free. Warren and Hank leapt into the thick of things, helping as best they could.
I felt another pair of arms lift me and I looked up into the cold and frozen face of the Iceman. "Thanks, Bobby." I whispered. He glanced down at me, eyes unreadable behind windows of ice.
"You're welcome, Jean."
Yes, much stronger than you looked. The X sounded weaker, wounded. He was also running away. You're the reason I cannot fail at my task, my dear. How could the world stand before you, once you turn against them?
I hadn't realized until that moment that I was still linked to Scott and the others. Scott was the one who answered. The world doesn’t need to fear us, X. We will stand between it and mutants like you.
And then I fainted.
When I came to, I was in the hospital. Warren was asleep in the chair by the door, and Scott was stretched out on the too-small window bed. I stirred and Scott was immediately awake, moving to take my hand.
"Hey." He whispered.
"Hey." I whispered back. "What happened?"
"The X got away. City Hall was destroyed in what is being called a freak gas explosion." Scott managed a smile that was at once both wry and guilty. "They can't figure out how else to explain both the hole in the roof and the random formation of ice, which luckily kept most of the people in the room from being crushed."
My head ached, but I nodded as I slowly processed the information. "Hank and Bobby?"
"They're out doing damage control" Scott swallowed painfully. "There has been a backlash against mutants. Unsurprisingly, I guess."
Weakly, I reached up to touch his cheek. "You saved my life."
"And you saved mine. All of ours."
I coughed, and Warren woke up. He looked alarmed for a moment, until he registered where he was, then he came over with a cup filled with water and held the straw out to me. Gratefully, I drank from it.
"What now?" I asked and the two men looked at each other.
"Now," Scott answered finally. "We do what we have to do. We hunt down the X – because he'll certainly be hunting us."
"And on the way," Warren smiled, his voice rising over the beeping of the machine that was hooked to my head, "we do what else we can to help. If you're interested."
Was I interested? "You mean like a club?"
"I mean like a mission." Scott answered. "We can help. We all can. Humans and mutants alike, until we prove the X wrong. I believe that humans and mutants can live together. I have to believe that."
I reached out and squeezed his hand. A second later, Warren placed his hand on both of ours. "A mission that I can believe in."
"And us." Bobby spoke from the door and he and Hank came into the room. They both looked exhausted and ragged. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder."
"With us at your back, you won't have to." Scott answered and Bobby's hand snaked out to join ours.
"To a better future." Hank proposed, his furry hand capping the pledge we were making. "For all of us who will stand against the X and his ilk."
"To the X-men." It was fitting, somehow, that we acknowledge the man who had brought us together, even as we pledged to destroy him.
"To the X-men." Scott repeated. And in the back of my mind, the same tiny voice that had startled me during the battle repeated, Finally.