After Midnight

by Amanda Sichter

Finally managed a few moments of time to finish a story!

Continuity: my explanation of what happened in those missing six months after The Twelve.

Warning: this is a grim little piece, one of the darkest I've done in a while. I don't recommend it to depressives nor to anyone who's feeling cheerful and wants to stay that way. But I did manage to fit in an explanation for nearly everything that has changed in the six months! See this - this is me being proud <*g*>. Of course, this is somewhat of an Elseworld - the MU would be a much less cheerful place if it had really happened this way.

Disclaimer: Marvel's. With a twist. Of lemon, probably.

When he didn't come back, she took to smothering babies.

We didn't know, of course. That's the problem when tekes go wrong - they can do their damage at a distance. Not like those of us that need to get up close and personal.

Beast was the first to work out something was going on - going wrong. Turns out our bouncing blue genius makes a habit of reading obituaries. We all have our hobbies, I suppose, but his was stranger than most. He does it for a reason, though. Seems like, even in his down-time, Hank can't stop being a virologist. He looks for clusters, patterns of death, seeing if there's any bombs ticking. Legacy caught him by surprise and he wasn't going to get caught like that again.

He took it to Storm, and she called us in on it. Me, Gambit, Kurt, Cable, Psylocke. We didn't have a leader any more - not since Professor X left us, not since Scott. Every decision was like that now, made by committee. And Hank told us about his little hobby and showed us the details he'd picked out of the obituary columns of the Journal News and I, for one, wasn't afraid to ask him what the hell he was trying to tell us.

Babies are dying, he told us. If it was cot death it was an epidemic of it, far more deaths than would be expected in the period of time. It had been reported as cot death but Hank was wondering if it was something else was responsible, some virus the authorities were too frightened to admit to, some new disease. That was what he told us, but we all saw the truth in his haggard glances. He was terrified that Legacy had mutated, terrified that he had failed, terrified that the disease he had fought so long had run away on him again.

Gambit's the best sneak-thief in the world. Don't worry I might be offending him - he'd consider that statement a compliment. It took him two days to get the records out and none of the authorities ever knew they'd been taken.

He took them to Hank and when we met again that afternoon, Beast looked more haggard than ever I'd seen him. I guessed Legacy but Gambit's face was drawn with pain and I knew why after Hank had explained.

The children had been murdered, he said. All of them. Smothered in their beds at night. In closed rooms, locked rooms, monitored rooms. Undisturbed, unseen, someone had been entering the rooms of babies, rooms at home, rooms in hospitals, and smothering them to death. The cops were baffled - and terrified - and suppressing the evidence, because there was no way a normal human could be committing the crimes.

We all knew what Hank was saying.

It was a mutant. It had to be a mutant.

The plan was easy. We couldn't protect babies in their homes - just *couldn't* - but there was a more than even chance that the next murder would take place in a hospital nursery. Gambit staked out the biggest hospital, Psylocke and Nightcrawler flipped between the rest, while Hank, Storm and I lurked as storm-troopers, ready to go wherever we were needed. We put Cable into our cock-a-mamie version of Cerebro and told him to try and track down any new mutants in the area - try and find whoever was doing this.

Psylocke found her. Psylocke got taken down by her. Psylocke woke up in her own little hospital bed after Kurt had rescued her and told Hank what she had seen.

He only told the two of us, me and Gambit. I didn't understand why at the time but I think I do now. Out of all the people left in the Mansion we were the two who loved Jean the least. We were the two who could function when Psylocke told us that it had been Jean she had seen holding the baby's body, Jean who had swatted Betsy's mind into black oblivion and left her unconscious on the floor, Jean who was a murderer.

History sure does like repeating itself.

We went looking for her down at the boathouse where we'd left her alone with her grief. Alone for too long, it seemed. It was obvious she hadn't been there for days, maybe longer. We didn't know where she was, we couldn't find her.

We had to tell Cable.

I did it, in the end. I sat him down and told him what his mother had been doing and I watched something die behind his eyes - something that had survived his father's death but couldn't live through his mother's madness. He took it calmly - far more calmly than I had thought was possible. But then, I haven't spent my whole life with a clone who plumbs the depths of insanity on a regular basis, haven't lived with war and death and darkness since the day I was born. It's given him a strength I'm glad I've never had to have.

So he put aside his grief and went to work on Cerebro and told us he couldn't find her. We nearly believed him. We would have believed him if we hadn't all realised that Cable couldn't face her. He couldn't take down Jean, not so soon after losing Scott and all of us knew it.

The meeting between the four of us was sombre. We don't have anyone who can take her down, said Hank. We all nodded. She was Phoenix. We had no hope.

We can find her, said Psylocke. She'll go back. She'll try again. Betsy had picked that much up from the psychic blast that had flattened her.

Cable won't stop her, said Gambit, saying the words none of the rest of us dared. There was something dark and bruised in his gaze now, there since we had ended whatever it was we had, and he still wouldn't meet my eyes.

Beast sighed, rubbed his hand over his face. I know, he whispered. We'll just have to see what we can come up with.

The meeting broke up eventually and we headed out but before I left I saw Gambit put his hand on Betsy's arm, pull her towards him, start to talk to her in a low voice.

They called us together again a few hours later. Betsy had what Hank called a fell look in her eyes - dark and grim and utterly determined, yet aglow with a desperate need.

I can do it, she said and no matter how long we argued neither she nor Gambit would tell us the plan. I can do it, was all Psylocke said.

We believed them, in the end and Betsy prepared herself that night, in full colours, katana slung at her side, ready to dance between shadows to try and find the Phoenix. The rest of us tagged along, Cable using his telepathy to link us together and deposit us in Betsy's mind with a delicacy that took my breath away. We took Kurt with us, needed him in case he had to teleport Betsy out, but we didn't tell the rest.

So we followed Psylocke through the night, linked into her mind, slipping into the shadows in a way that made me smile with delight even in the middle of despair. It was so - *joyful* - this dancing in the dark and I could see now why Betsy loved the powers the Crimson Dawn had given her.

Until we found Jean.

She was in a hospital nursery, undecided, looking between the children, when Betsy stepped out of the shadows behind her, said her name softly.

Jean turned, and we all looked through Betsy's eyes, saw that face of desperate loveliness, looked into eyes that would haunt us forever. Grief lived in those eyes, a grief beyond imagining, beyond repairing.

What are you doing, Jean, Psylocke asked.

You know what I'm doing, she replied, and we could all feel her gathering her power, ready to blast Betsy's mind into nothingness again.

Why, Betsy asked.

Anger and pain abated, rippled into surprise, puzzlement. You have to understand, said Jean. Surely you understand. I have to save them.

Save them from what, said Betsy, and we all felt her shift herself, move her weight until she centred, ready.

Life, said Jean. They have to be saved. From all the things that hurt and tear and cut. It isn't fair that they're alive, Betsy. There's only pain, only grief, only hate. Jean sobbed then, one great heaving of her chest, caught, shut down. Look what they did to my children, Betsy, she said. Time-lost, time-worn, sent into war and hatred and death because they were alive. Look what they did to my husband. Look what they've done to me.

I have to stop you, said Betsy and her katana swept round and out, a blow that should have taken Jean's head off - a blow stopped by Jean with a mere thought.

You shan't stop me, growled Jean and reached out with her tk and her tp and started trying to take Betsy apart.

Betsy reached out then, reached out with one soft tendril of her telepathy.

And the Shadow King exploded through her mind.

Released, set free by that momentary use, he burned with hunger, grew huger each moment, ripped Betsy's mind into pieces as he pulled every ounce of power into his own mind.

And realised he was trapped.

I don't know how Cable concealed his connection to Betsy, but the Shadow King never noticed us. All he could focus on were the walls that Jean had built around Betsy's mind, on the fact that he was trapped inside a body that was rapidly being squeezed to death.

He's no fool, the Shadow King. He understands self-preservation.

He shredded Jean's shields, using strength none of knew he had. He dragged Betsy's mind with him, dragged us with her, as he leapt outwards, broke through the shining façade of Jean's mind, plunged headlong into chaos.

She had built the façade, consciously or not, slipped it over her mind to show us that she was normal, sane, grieving but healthy. Beneath it was madness.

Colours whirled, clashed, precipices and stalagmites formed and broke and vanished, sound and light and darkness burned within her.

I've never been in a telepathic battle before, never want to be in one again. The Shadow King ravaged, tore into the whirlwind of Jean's mind, battered himself against her. She fought hard, oh God, she fought hard, but she was only fighting for control. The Shadow King was fighting for his life.

He broke apart the colours that whirled in her head, smashed the stalagmites into pieces, roared until he drowned out the dreadful keening that filled her head. She battered against him, against us, but he swatted her aside, reached out, ripped harder, pulled handfuls of the stuff of Jean's psyche to him and destroyed it. Her blows became more feeble, softer, until at last he reached her telekinesis and pulled it into pieces.

Jean dropped like a stone, knocked unconscious by the shattering of her mind, and her grip on Betsy's body released. The Shadow King reached back, tried to take Psylocke again, but Cable stopped him, blocked him.

The Shadow King was never a fool. He knew he was overmatched, beaten. He fled, vanishing away from Cable's reach, disappearing into the darkness. I felt Betsy reach out, one feeble touch of her consciousness grasping outwards, gripping something, and then she slipped into the darkness.

Cable brought us home, Kurt teleported to the hospital and brought Jean and Betsy back. Shell-shocked, we waited until they woke to see what damage the Shadow King had done.

But the damage had already been done.

Jean has no memory of what happened. The Shadow King's assault tore all the madness from her mind, re-ordered her into sanity, took away any remembrance of what she had done.

Nor have we reminded her.

Her telekinesis is gone, broken out of her mind by the Shadow King. Betsy has it now, her feeble, aching grasp, her attempt to take back the part of her psyche and her powers that the Shadow King had taken, taking only Jean's tk from him. Her telepathy is utterly gone, as are the powers the Crimson Dawn gave her.

I worry about Betsy. She has always danced willingly with danger but now she travels ever closer to the edge. I don't know if she's trying to forget - or trying to get herself killed.

Wolverine's gone to Genosha. He *is* trying to get himself killed. Kurt and Kitty have gone with him, trying to stop it happening.

Hank locks himself in the lab from day's dawn to night's end. It's been a long time since any of us have seen him.

Gambit's gone. He had a long talk with Betsy after she regained consciousness, just the two of them in the medlab.

I watched out my window the next morning as he stalked towards his Harley, a small back-pack containing all the worldly possessions he's ever seemed to need. Storm was already waiting for him. They argued for a long time, but in the end she reached her arms around him and he hugged her back and they got on the bike together and rode the hell away from the X-Men.

I thought he might come to me for comfort. I guess we really are over.

I know what he's running from. The guilt. It always comes down to the guilt. I would have told him that you can't run from it, that guilt lives inside of you, gnaws away at you, and there's nothing I've ever found that can let you get away from it.

Unless you have no memory of what you've done.

Cable took Jean away, as soon as she was fit. He's locked the memory of what she did far down in his mind, where she can't access it, and has taken her far away from us, far away from what she had done.

We protect her, save her from herself. As we have always done, as we always do.

We call ourselves the X-Men, we say we take the moral high ground. Do we? Or are we just a club for protecting murderers? Phoenix, then - now. Professor X. Marrow. Storm. Gambit. In courts of law we'd all be found guilty of something, all do time for the things we've done. But the X-Men close ranks, protect, shelter.

But only those we choose to help.

Colossus shares my bed now. It isn't love, not for either of us, but it gets us both through the night and right now that's the only thing that matters.

I looked into his eyes last night as he cried my name, in that most intimate of moments, and I saw the shutters there, the closed spaces he shelters behind, and I realised that I didn't know him at all. Piotr Rasputin, never called to account for attempting to murder Pete Wisdom, the lover of the woman named Rogue, a wanted terrorist and associate of murderers and villains. And we say we take the moral high ground?

I remember how we took Magneto - murderer and creator of murderers - into our care and companionship, because he was a friend of the Professor's. I remember how his Acolytes came to us, begging for our help, and we gave them to the authorities, because we didn't like them.

Is that all we have become? A clique of villains and desperates who only call ourselves heroes? A group of people who will veil over the murderess of children and leave their parents to weep in the night because they will never know who killed their babies?

The Shadow King is out there still, lurking in the darkness, biding his time, hidden in some host that accepted his dark soul. We need to track him, need to fight him. That is what the X-Men do, and I shall lead them into the battle against the darkness.

I just wish I could stop wondering what side we're on.

The End

Amanda [email protected] "We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning."