by queenB

The action in this story takes place sometime between "Onslaught" and "Operation Zero Tolerance." It does take place after Uncanny X-Men 338, as Warren has regained his feathered wings. I started writing and plotting this before the Crimson Dawn Limited Series, so most of the overlaps are just coincidences, though in the later chapters some overlaps are revisions of the Limited Series. Let's just say this is how I imagined the whole debacle straightening itself out. Also because the story was written over a long period of time, the beginning chapters' style differ a bit from the rest.

I'd like to thank Night Angel and Kristina Sennvik for all their early help with this story as well as Lyss and DuAnn for beta-reading parts 15-28. Thanks also to Tangerine for being there almost every step of the way and being so encouraging. You guys are the best!

Dialogue between asterisks (*...*) indicates telepathic speech, while italicized dialogue indicates non-telepathic thought.

The song lyrics in chapter sixteen come from Tori Amos's "Girl" on the album "Little Earthquakes." It seemed appropriate, I think.

I'd absolutely love to hear what you think about the story, so please e-mail me and let me know.

Part One

Elizabeth Braddock doesn't know what time it is or what place it is or exactly who she is. In fact she hasn't known that last bit for a while now. It's a long story, but let's just say she's fairly confused. Wouldn't you be if the body you lived in weren't the one you born with?

But she's dealt with that complexity for a while, even gotten used to it, even at times, enjoyed it. She's a super hero and a mutant to boot. Stuff like that comes with the territory. Psylocke knew that going in, knew being the key-word. Like I said, right now she doesn't know much of anything. Ever since she was exposed to the Crimson Dawn elixir months ago, moments of clarity have been few and far between and unfortunately, now is not one of those choice times.

She does know that she's outside at the moment, though not quite sure about the significance of being inside. Dichotomies are really difficult for her right now. Inside, outside. Black, white. Good, evil. You see, it's night and it's harder for her than during the day: another duality she has trouble with. The influence of the Crimson Dawn has shown her that polarities and opposites are not all that different, everything is only a smear or blur of different possibilities.

Let's just say her Yin has a little too much Yang in it. And though she may not know it, she's on a Soho rooftop in the middle of a rainstorm, in just her skivvies, and someone is very worried about her.

* * *

Warren Worthington III is awake; he often is this time of night, usually because of Betsy's screaming. It's almost like having a baby in the house, though much more frightening and far from childish. But no one's screaming tonight, at least not yet. Warren inches his hand toward the side of the bed she should be sleeping in. But of course, she's not there.

He sits up groggily and notices the bed-side analogue clock, the green glowing numbers indicate the time: 3:16 a.m. As Warren reaches for his bathrobe, he wishes he could have a sense of humor this early in the morning. No doubt these now nightly searches for the reality-displaced Psylocke might become more bearable.

Before he turns on the bedroom light, he uses his sharp eye-sight to make sure Elizabeth's not lurking in the darkened corners. Sometimes he's even found her inside the shadows themselves and had to coax her back into the dim light of this world. Right now that's not the case, so it's safe to click on a lamp. He can't begin to fathom what would happen if she were caught in shadow with the lights turned on. Would she be flash-fried like those undercloaks he and Wolverine battled during their search for the Ebon Vein? He definitely isn't eager to find out.

He struggles with the robe, forcing his giant, feathered wings through the large slits cut into its back. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he makes his way through the rest of the apartment.

Though not a telepath like Psylocke, he has spent a lot of time inside her head and they have formed a slight telepathic link, a residual effect from their psychic sharing. Often in moments of panic, Betsy uses her telepathic power to drag him inside her mind and consequently, her nightmares. He often wonders if she were even capable of this before her most recent transformation. Regardless of Psylocke's dubious new manifestations, what he often finds within her subconscious is far from pleasant.


She doesn't answer him.

'This can't be good.'

* * *

Elizabeth's thoughts are a tangled jumble, though Warren would like to think of them as a maze: that if he and Betsy could somehow, together follow the twists and turns, they would end up in the center of the puzzle. There they would find Betsy whole and finally free. However, all they've managed to find are dead ends and right now Betsy's stuck in one of them, frightfully alone, and the shadows on the roof top are closing in.

She wants something to stop, but she's not quite sure what. The wet drops falling from the sky? Can she stop those? She thinks she knows someone who can, but where is she? Is she even real? Maybe she can stop the gnawing at the back of her skull? Make the buzzing go away...

Maybe it's the cacophony inside her head that she wants to cease, the millions of whispering voices, deafening because of their numbers. The humming builds to a crescendo, and then Psylocke actually hears the air around her rustle. She knows he's coming. Maybe she can get him to stop. Maybe then it won't be so loud. She hides herself in the encroaching darkness and waits for her prey.

* * *

Warren lands lightly on the roof top, hoping this is where Betsy went. He crouches close to the rain-slicked tar of the roof, using his feathered wings to keep most of the pounding rain away from his face.

Yeah, Warren's a mutant, also. Ten to one you already knew that. Had it pretty rough, too. See, he's got blue skin and used to be under the influence of a three-thousand year old sadist, who invented the word power-monger. Still don't know why it turned him blue. Maybe it's Apocalypse's favorite color? Archangel's wings used to be metal, too. But they're feathers now and were once before, back when he wasn't blue. Needless to say, that's why him and Betsy hit it off so well. They're two peas in a genetically twisted and previously brain-washed pod.

There's no trace of Psylocke until he remembers... 'The shadows'... and then he sees her. Her red, crescent-shaped tattoo gleams brightly out of the shadows, and her lips curl back revealing a toothy, almost oozing grin. She leaps for him, summoning psychic knives from both fists. She's quick and final.

He reminds himself, 'Yes, Warren, this is the woman you love...'


And as he screams himself unconscious, his mind melting away layer by painful layer, love might be the only thought that keeps him alive. That is if Betsy remembers what that is, and we all know how confused she's been lately...

Part Two

When Betsy Braddock wakes the next morning, she is feeling slightly herself. Not quite the self of ten years ago, but this self is a definite improvement over last night's. Still, she can't quite figure out why she's on the roof of Warren's penthouse, using his wings like a living down-comforter. And most importantly, she doesn't understand why he is staring vacantly into space, with his mouth hanging open most unattractively. Normally, she thinks Warren is fairly attractive, even including the blue skin; but right now he isn't, and he doesn't look like he's feeling very well either.

He's breathing, which is a good start. She rolls him onto his back, gently spreading his wings to either side and checking his body for broken bones. She finds none and for that matter, there's barely a mark on him except around his temples, which are badly bruised.

"Warren, can you hear me?"


*Warren. I'm here now.*


He is in there. And we're wondering, of course where else would he be? Betsy, Warren and their sometimes compatriots, the X-Men, know more about this kind of thing than we might. Let's just say from time to time, they've seen people who weren't there. Betsy's pretty familiar with this whole fractured mind schtick, it's related to how she got in the body she's in right now; but like I said, it's a long story. Nevertheless, Warren's mind is still intact, just the outer layers of consciousness are a little fricasseed -- well actually, a lot fricasseed. They're more like a fine puree.

*Something's happened and you're in a terrible state. I'm going to try to piece you back together, but you'll have to help me.*


*Shh... It will be okay. Trust me.*

Psylocke doesn't take the time to comprehend what he might be saying. Instead she worries herself with another, more intricate matter. And as an ethereal pink butterfly floats in the air above her face, indicating a surge in her telepathic power, she forms a link with Warren and the healing begins.

* * *

Archangel's sleeping almost comfortably now on the bed he left only a few hours ago. Psylocke just carried him down from the roof. Warren's pretty light for the big guy he is. He's got hollow bones, you see. I could make some silly bird pun here, but I won't, you've probably got your own anyway. So, she's put him to bed after mending his fractured thoughts as much as possible. He's got to do the rest, and is having some pretty wicked dreams in the mean time. Right now he's dreaming about Betsy. And not that kind either, this isn't that type of story.

He's accessed his most immediate thoughts of her, of what they've shared recently, or of what they've lost. He's a pretty melancholy guy, though he seems to be snapping out of it. Guess love'll do that to you, or inconsistent character development. But this is his unconscious mind and he's allowed to be masochistic, though I bet Freud would have a field day with this guy's dreams. See, it all stems from his inability to accept, and his consequential suppression of his masculine tendencies to... well, nevermind, sometimes a personal demon is just a personal demon, and this one just happens to be named Sabretooth...

It's the escape from Xavier's again, and Betsy's body lies broken on the holding cell's tile floor, twisted awkwardly in her own pool of blood. This time he's there instead of Tabitha, cradling her in his arms, whispering: "Betts please don't die, please..."

In this version he lashed out at Sabretooth, not Boomer, something he'd wanted to do for as long as the mongrel had been at the mansion. And Betsy was saving him, not her. But just like Tabitha he froze, unable to do anything, not because his power was exhausted but because of fear. So Warren watched, glassy-eyed as the person he claimed to care most about in the world was brutally disemboweled, Sabretooth hurling epithets at him all the while.

And right now in his nightmare, he's murmuring soft prayers intended to ward off death, while his dream's version of Psylocke looks up at him and speaks.

"Warren, why are you crying?"

"I don't want to lose you."

"Is it time for me to go?"

"I can't let you. It's not supposed to happen like this. We are supposed to be happy."

"But, I want to..."


He releases her blood stained shoulders from his grip and begins to put her back together, her anatomy becoming a giant jigsaw. No matter how he arranges them, Warren can't seem to make all the pieces fit properly. In frustration, he forces the last piece. A seemingly whole Psylocke lies in front of him. But she isn't moving.


He grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her. Her head falls forward unanimated.

"Please, dear lord. Betsy, say something..."

Her head quickly snaps up, face bathed in shadows. Over her left eye is the mark of the Crimson Dawn.

"...You failed me..."

"But you're alive."

"Am I?"

Her eyes cloud as the shadows swarm, consuming her body. Betsy turns to ashes as he holds her close and realizes it's all his fault.

* * *

It's mid-afternoon when Warren wakes up from his dream, feet bound by the bed sheets he's wrestled in his sleep. He sits up half-screaming, half-muttering, swinging his fists at nothing, still half-conscious, still struggling with his dream-reality. Warren's never enjoyed feeling helpless, so he thrashes at the empty air around him in an attempt to shake off the sensations of inadequacy and self-loathing. Actually, he feels like this a lot of the time, but never at this intensity. This is an all time high on the Archangel "Angst-o-meter".

His vision is still blurred and distorted from his injuries and his fitful sleep; so Warren doesn't see Betsy, unflinching, directly in front of him until she reaches out and grabs his wrists.

"It's okay."

The Psylocke-shaped blur of purple in front of him is enough to set him at ease, even after the horrible episode on the roof last night. He's trusting that way. It's gotten him into trouble before and probably will again.

"How are you feeling, luv?"


Betsy smirks as Warren slumps back onto the pillows. This is a definite improvement. At least he's talking. For hours she sat by his bed monitoring his subconscious, trying to make sure he was healing properly. Warren painfully, yet, flawlessly pulled his psyche back together. Xavier taught him well.

He groans uncomfortably, pulling a pillow under his head while she brushes stray locks of hair from his face, offering him aspirin from the nightstand. "You will probably have an awful headache for a while."

"How long was I out?"

"Well, I don't know exactly when you were attacked. But you've been unconscious most of the day."

He sits up, wiping the sleep from his eyes and taking the offered glass of water. "Betsy, you mean, you don't know?" His vision is clearing now, and he can undoubtedly see the bewilderment on her face.

"Know what, Warren?"

"My God, you don't remember a thing."

"What's going on?" Betsy stiffens as she quietly asks: "Who attacked you?"

"You did."

In a way she knew it the minute she saw the bruises, it looked like her own handiwork. And that explains why it was relatively simple to piece Warren's mind back together, why she didn't even think about phoning Salem Center for help. She herself had inflicted the damage and was very familiar with the destruction it would cause.

Funny enough, Psylocke is under the impression that her condition is getting better and this throws a monkey-wrench into that assumption. What she thought would soon become fact is now merely a hope that someday she might have her old life back, or at least one of them. And as she sits on the bed with Warren, her eyes unblinking, staring past everything and anything, that hope is dwindling rapidly.

Warren reaches out to her, touching the hand she has clamped over her mouth, pulling her out of her daze. "We have to talk about this. Now."

She shifts her gaze as far away from his as she can manage, listlessly dropping her hands into her lap.

"Dammit, Betsy! You almost killed me and you don't even remember it."

"Calm down. You might hurt yourself... your injuries."

He draws his hand away from Betsy, and traces a crease in the bed sheets with his finger tips, muttering faintly, "This isn't about me."

Part Three

The conversation began predictably enough, with Warren's detailed explanation of the night before: how Betsy attacked him coldly and mechanically without any spark of recognition. She reacted calmly at first, listening in her now usual detached manner. Although as Warren went on, sharing his feelings on the matter, as well as his gloomy dreams during his period of unconsciousness, things got a wee bit more emotional for her. Which is actually amazing, considering the Crimson Dawn not only seems to augment her powers, but siphon off much of her emotions as well.

The solitary tear trickling down her cheek could be thought of as an emotional outburst, considering the elixir's effect on her. For you scholars out there, she's exuding what William Butler Yeats would call a "cold passion." Through her stoic veneer, the fervor of her buried sentiment becomes all the more obvious, even in its subtlety.

Because of the amount of time he's spent with her and the invested interest he has in her, Warren notices the change immediately, and wipes her cheek dry. "What are we going to do about this? Hank's not been able to find any medical solutions, and Jean doesn't know of any way to bypass your new thought patterns, without altering your personality even further."

"There's always a psychic lobotomy. I'm sure the White Queen would be glad to..."

He places a finger on her lips, silencing her. "This isn't funny."

Almost forcibly, Psylocke brushes away Warren's protest. "It wasn't meant as a joke." She continues, barely noticing his horrified expression. "I am a menace, a danger. Perhaps it is best. If I were to attack you of all people, there's no..."

"This isn't even an option. I can't believe you're still talking about this."

"But it's true. I can't be trusted. I'm no different than Sabretooth."

"Or me or Rogue or... almost any of the X-Men. We're all risks at one time or another, that doesn't mean, it's never meant that extreme measures are justified..." Warren twines his fingers through hers and squeezes her hand gently. "Betts, you're not evil."

"I know. I hope, at least. It's just that, well, it's so hard to face being a hazard and being unaware of your own threatening inclinations."

"Trust me, I know. My old metal wings..."

Psylocke snaps her hand away from his, interrupting his impending soliloquy. "It's always about your wings, isn't it?"

Sliding shyly away from where they are sitting together on his recovery bed, Warren breathes deeply and slowly, calming himself, resisting the urge to snap at her. He tries his best to smooth a possibly volatile situation: "I was just trying to help."

"I know you were attempting to let me see that you supposedly understood. But I'm tired of your constant 'my wings this' and 'my wings that.' I don't want you to see my situation as linked your bloody obsession with those damn wings."

Archangel awkwardly and uneasily gets to his feet and leans on a nearby chair for support. "You're not being fair. And I am not obsessed... well, maybe I am, or was. Look, the important thing is that I want to help you through this."

"And why is that, Warren?"

"I can't believe you're asking me this."


"Because I love you, of course."

"'Because I love you.' That is a noble reason, a worthy and virtuous pursuit. If that is the truth."

So much for things not turning ugly.

"I don't understand..." Warren collapses into the chair and shakes his head in confusion: "Why are you saying these things to me?"

Betsy walks to where Warren is seated and kneels in front of him, attempting to make eye contact: "Because I want you to see how I see. Sometimes I feel like a possession, something you want to keep safe, something you want to protect just so I can better serve your needs, to help fill the huge void you think you have. When I do not see this emptiness at all. I see a sometimes egocentric man, who never knows his own selfishness, who I can't blame for his naivete. Sometimes I think this way, Warren. I believe I am a tool to you, an appendage without a soul, like your blamed wings. Sometimes I..."

She drops her head, retreating from her quiet tirade, understanding that Warren may not comprehend the exact difference between how someone feels only at times, and what someone believes as truth the rest of it. So she whispers loud enough for him to hear, before he can even begin his protest, "I do love you, though."

Warren finally returns Betsy's gaze and speaks to her gently, "You're right, at least, partially. But you must know that you are a part of me. The part that keeps me going, the part that lets me understand the rest."

"I know that."

"I'm trying, Betts, I really am."

"I know, luv, I know. I just need you to be rational."

Warren lightly touches the purple hair cascading over onto his knee and laughs, "Rational? I'm the model of rationality."

Fortunately grasping his intended humor, Betsy manages a small smirk as she slowly rises to her feet: "Mr. Worthington, I do believe you are being sarcastic."

He stands unsteadily, reaching for her arm, still slightly off-balance from his injuries: "Me? Nah."

Out of the room's large-pained window they can see the sun setting over New York City. Night's coming quickly, and we know that means Psylocke's going to turn into a pumpkin soon, or rather, she won't be nearly this amiable.

"Betts, what do you want to do about the, um, situation?"

"Right now? Nothing."

"But it's getting late. That's when..."

"I know. We'll worry about it tomorrow. Right now I need my full concentration on controlling whatever's taking place in my mind."

"But what if it happens again?"

"I'll just sleep downstairs and you can lock your door."

"But the shadows?"

Betsy releases a heavy sigh. "Then sleep with the lights on."

Almost defensively, he replies: "I'm sorry if I'm trying your patience, hon', but what if you disappear and I can't find you?"

"I stayed here last night." She tries to place her words as delicately as possible: "No matter what your insecurities may tell you, Warren, I'm not going anywhere without you... whether I'm aware of it or not."

Warren winces over the words Betsy chooses, but is comforted enough by her conviction, and merely asks as she turns to leave, "Where are you going? It's still early yet."

"To make you some dinner, you haven't eaten all day."

"Like you said, you need your concentration. I can do it."

"Peanut-butter and jelly is hardly the height of nutrition. And I can manage, I don't think your system's quite ready for a seven course meal or anything so taxing. Soup and salad are fine."

"We should have hired a butler."

As Betsy descends the stairs toward the kitchen and living area, she jokes as best as she can: "You never can find good help these days."

* * *

Warren Kenneth Worthington III has exquisite taste. He's always bought the best of everything, or at least what any shrewd-minded sales associate convinces him is the best. Much of the time they're right on, too; money can get you lots of things and this spectacular, fully-stocked kitchen is proof of that.

Right now, Psylocke's drinking espresso made from the elaborate espresso/cappuccino machine that Warren's never used himself, anticipating the long night ahead and trying to stay alert as long possible. Resting her demitasse cup on the Italian tiled counter, she opens the stainless-steel refrigerator and begins her hunt for salad ingredients.

'Lettuce, cucumber, tomato, olives would be nice... Caviar? ...Warren...' She opens the jar deftly, and sniffs its contents. 'And the good stuff, too.' Betsy's seen her share of high society as well as it's favored hors d'oeuvres. She knows good Russian fish eggs when she, um, smells them.

After depositing the produce on the counter-top, she scours the utensil drawers for a caviar spoon, and of course, Warren has one, plated in sterling silver and 24 karat gold. Like I said, the man's a sucker for the "finest". As Betsy poises the spoon over her fishy quarry, she hears the water from the bathroom's shower cut on over-head, and is sorry that she's going to miss Warren's daily spectacle. It's only been a few weeks since he's gotten his feathered wings back and he's yet to remember how to shower with them like he used to. They aren't as water-friendly as his bio-metallic wings, which folded neatly onto his back. Let's just say they can be quite unruly in cramped, wet quarters.

Turning her attention back to the jar in front of her, Psylocke gently dips the spoon into the black treasure-trove of caviar. She lifts it, heaping, to her mouth. But before she can swallow the delicacy, she runs to the sink, gagging and coughing. 'Damn, I forgot how much I hated this garbage! Of all the over-rated, over-priced... No wonder Warren buys it.'

Then from the ceiling she hears a loud banging and thumping. Worried for Warren's safety because of his weakened state, she releases her psi-self to investigate and is greeted by a drenched and grumbling Archangel, who is merely caught up in his normal hygienic hijinks, with one of his wings tangled in the shower curtain. For a while, she watches him, unnoticed, while he wrestles with the curtain, nearly pulling the rod out of it's fixtures, and flooding the bathroom floor with water.


He jumps, startled, almost slipping on the wet tile. She's always loved using her telepathy to sneak up on him. If her emotions weren't being muted by the Crimson Dawn, no doubt she'd be laughing uproariously right now.

Acknowledging the translucent pink butterfly floating in the air in front of him, he asks, anxiously: "Betsy, what's going on!? Are you okay?"

*Everything's fine. But, might I suggest a bath instead?*

Warren rolls his eyes and laughs lightly, continuing his skirmish with the curtain, answering in a sing-song manner, "I'll clean up the mess, I promise."

Betsy withdraws back into her physical self, returning to the task at hand: dinner. Next on the agenda is soup. Normally, she would make a nice tomato bisque or even corn chowder herself: she's very proud of her culinary expertise. But right now, she hasn't the time or patience, so canned soup it is.

She walks to the pantry, hoping the selection is palatable. But as she turns on the light switch, she senses something is not quite right.

Someone or something is very close.

Cautiously, Psylocke scans the tiny room, paying close attention to the shadowy corners, wondering how anyone could have gotten this far without her knowledge. Everything seems in order until she notices the cookie jar. She never remembered it having a hat, especially one so over-sized and familiar. She reaches out stealthily for the straw hat looming over the body of the porcelain-bear cookie-jar, and quickly lifts it high into the air. Problem is, it's attached to a head and the head is attached to a body whose feet are dangling precariously over the cookie-jar from whence they were so forcibly removed.


She drops the wizened little man onto the floor of the pantry, and he spits out the chocolate chip cookie he's munching on, grinning mirthfully at Psylocke, exposing the few teeth he has left: "Who were you expecting, child, the cookie monster?"

Part Four

Warren pads softly down the stairs of his Soho loft, towel cinched around his waist, still damp from his rather boisterous and nearly disastrous shower. Well, disastrous may be an over-statement but the shower-curtain was rather worried, as much as an inanimate object could possibly be. Luckily enough, both our blue-hued hero and his vinyl bathroom accessory survived the matter unscathed. The floor is another matter, however, and Warren is on his way to the kitchen broom-closet seeking a mop to soak up the near-deluge which has claimed his bathroom.

He tiptoes toward the kitchen, trying to take Betsy by surprise, hoping to repay her for sneaking up on him earlier. Apparently, he has momentarily forgotten that his prey is a telepath and is rarely startled by such antics. But let's not remind him, he's awfully cute when he's trying to be devious.

Rounding the corner into the kitchen, Archangel springs a good six feet in one burst, flapping his wings a little for momentum. His plan was to land square on his feet and shout a nice little "Gotcha!" or "Aha!" or something equally fitting for an ambush. Instead, he yells something much less eloquent and far more crude as he lands on a part of his anatomy other than his feet.

As Warren rises from the tile floor rubbing his now-tender backside, his two giant wings drip water incriminatingly onto the floor to either side of him. Face burning with embarrassment, he mutters, "Stupid, Warren, stupid." He expects to find Psylocke somewhere in the vicinity and begins to flounder for an explanation, hoping to mask his humiliation. Then he realizes his not-so-graceful choreography was appreciated by an audience of zero and that Betsy is nowhere to be found.

* * *

Gomurr the Ancient levitates in the air, legs tucked under in a lotus position. Psylocke brought him to the building's roof immediately after he made his presence known to her. Supposedly, Betsy sought this place so she could clear her head.

'Gah! I don't see how she can think, much less concentrate with all this noise. New York is so loud, and do these automobiles ever cease their honking? Why must everyone be in such a rush all the time? It never gets them there any quicker.'

He is in no hurry. You don't get the epithet Gomurr the Ancient without some measure of patience. However, it is the young woman he has come to see who does not have the time to spare, so he decides to break the too-long silence, hoping that Elizabeth is finished with her meditations.

Lowering himself gently in front of Psylocke, he flashes his widest, most charming smile. "So, child, how have we been?"

Betsy sits uncomfortably on the asphalt, her brow tight with concentration. Ignoring the triteness of Gomurr's greeting, she doesn't even glance in his direction as she answers, "I haven't been myself."

"Well, that is to be expected, considering..."

Rising swiftly to her feet, Psylocke grabs the diminutive man by the neck of his robe. He looks on in alarm as shadows slither across the roof's pavement, encircling her like a dark hurricane, and she becomes the eye, the epicenter. She notices none of this as her psychic knife flares into existence, expanding in a pinkish glow from her fist.

Through clenched teeth, Psylocke seethes, "Considering what, little man? I want a straight answer this once. I am tired of your riddles."

Gomurr looks down, past his dangling feet to see the shadows coalescing, growing more and more dense. Turning back to face Betsy he speaks hoarsely, the fabric of his garment cutting into his larynx: "Elizabeth ... you must control yourself." He points toward the asphalt, "You must stop... this."

Glancing in the direction indicated, Betsy catches a glimpse of the writhing tempest whirling on the pavement below. Startled, she drops the old man from her hold, and he plummets deep into the shadows.

* * *

Warren sits at the kitchen table over an empty bowl of vegetable soup. His third bowl to be precise. Almost being killed by your girlfriend and then spending half a day talking about how that experience made you "feel" will make a body hungry. He had hoped to eat dinner with Betsy before it grew too late and she became, for lack of a better term, unapproachable. He had even tidied up the bathroom all on his own in an attempt to impress her, as if much he did now a days could. True, they had talked this whole 'Betsy is acting weird' issue out with some sort of temporary resolution, but that doesn't mean he has to feel any better about it. Let's face it, the guy's pretty depressed right now and the fact that Betsy's missing from their apartment isn't helping matters much.

He imagines her in some dark corner confronting something most likely cryptically mystical, something that he couldn't begin to understand. It used to be easier to snap her out of what she refers to as her 'spells.' A reassuring thought projected through their psychic rapport, or a comforting embrace would often be enough. But now? Now, he's never felt so useless. He thinks about going out to look for her. But after last night, you can imagine why he's hesitant.

After rinsing the dishes, Warren tightens the draw-string of his bathrobe around his waist and heads upstairs to the bedroom, thinking to himself, 'She's probably somewhere meditating. I'm sure she's fine. She can take care of herself... I hope.'

* * *

Warren's imagination was somewhat accurate. Betsy is most assuredly facing something mystical and quite beyond his comprehension. She is, however, far from 'fine.' After Gomurr disappeared into the shadowy maelstrom on the roof-top, Psylocke begins to panic. Mirroring her mental state, the darkness stirs even more, licking at her feet like the tide of a rough sea, threatening to draw her into the void as well. By Gomurr's implication and her own position as the shadows' locus, she assumes that this is her own creation. If only she could concentrate, perhaps she could make it subside.

'Come on, Betsy... Calm down, center yourself. That's it, focus, focus...'

But as she looks down onto the roof's surface once more, she is mesmerized by the shadows themselves. She can feel the cold seeping into her skin as she reaches a hand down into the abyss, caressing the pure nothingness of the darkness.

Oblivion is what waits on the other side.

Many times she has teleported between patches of darkness, but never darkness like this. From this, there is no return into light. Somehow, she knows this. Perhaps it is because it is part of herself, part of her destiny... if there is such a thing? Reflexively, she prepares herself for the descent.

* * *

'It's freezing in here. Feels like a tomb.' Warren maneuvers himself down the dark hallway, searching the wall with his palms for the thermostat. As his fingertips graze the edge of the climate-control unit, he knows something is not right.

The dim light coming from the bedroom illuminates the wall just enough that he can see something moving, inching across the wall's surface. And a cockroach it isn't. Warren's so paranoid of an insect infestation that he's got pest control in here twice a month. No, the slithering perpetrator is nothing less than a shadow.

Warily Archangel reaches out to touch it, and his fingertips disappear inside it's blackness. Slowly he pulls back his hand, shuddering from the encounter and rightfully frightened by the emptiness that seemed to engulf him for the few short moments he was in contact with it.

He staggers into the safety of the lighted bedroom and sits on the edge of the bed, trying to figure out what the hell is going on... when he's not in his bedroom anymore, or at least his mind isn't. As Warren's astral-self is jerked out of his body forcibly it slumps onto the bed, vacant of all higher brain functions. For a brief moment he levitates above his physical form, hoping this has nothing to do with the living shadow he discovered in the hall. Then he feels a gentle tug from behind, and he knows it's Psylocke. He follows the familiar path into her subconscious thoughts.

Both of them are together in a black room, or perhaps a box, with no distinguishing features. He attempts to re-orient himself in the near-darkness of Psylocke's mind. This isn't the first time this has happened, but it has always been different before. When Betsy usually pulls him into her subconscious, Warren's faced with a childhood memory or a tragic moment in her life that serves as a metaphor or a guide for him to follow. Never before has it been this stark, this daunting.

He finds Betsy curled up in a fetal position in the center of the room, rocking anxiously and muttering incomprehensible phrases to herself. Warren reaches out to her gently, trying to comfort her, hoping that she brought him here simply for reassurance, as he can think of nothing else to do. After a few awkward seconds Betsy glances about her surroundings, barely noticing Warren's astral-self. She stands to her feet suddenly, looking past him into the darkness and attempting to shrug off the arm he has offered for support.

Instinctfully, Warren tightens his grip around her as she attempts to flee. He doesn't know why exactly, but it is very important that he doesn't let her go. But she's too strong for him, much more experienced in this psychic environment. She slips free of his grasp and takes off running at full speed toward the wall of the room. He runs after her, expecting her to crash against the barrier. Instead, the wall disappears and Warren is left far behind, unable to bridge the lead she's gained. And then she's gone. Absolutely and utterly gone. His psychic rapport with Betsy is completely dead, and he is pulled back into his physical self.

* * *

The sounds of the outside world, the honking horns of the traffic below muffle and then disappear as Elizabeth Braddock slips into shadow. It seems a thousand icy fingers are wrapping themselves around her limbs, and then there are the whispers. They're getting louder. She is almost close enough to hear. She wants to know desperately what they are saying. Perhaps some great secret... And then, she feels a tugging from above, a strong grip on her shoulders and a voice. A familiar and now angry voice.

"Enough of this foolishness!!" Gomurr bellows as he pulls her back into the New York night. "You must be more careful, child."

Psylocke looks around the rooftop, the perfectly normal, vortex-free rooftop. "Gomurr? What's going on?"

"You nearly got both our souls erased from this life, that's what! If it weren't for my, ahem, expertise that would have been most unpleasant."

"But part of me..."

"Really wanted to go?" Betsy nods in silent affirmation and Gomurr answers, "Yes, well, that is why we must talk."

Part Five

Tonight has been very odd, even for Warren Worthington III. He's discovered an infestation of living shadows within his apartment, had an out of body experience, and temporarily lost his psychic rapport with his lover. Happily the shadows are gone, his mind is back in his body where it belongs, and Psylocke has partially re-established their psychic link. However, you can still imagine why he's a bit anxious.

Ever since Betsy originally established the bridge between their minds, Warren has never experienced its severance. The episode was jarring to say the least. He has begun to rely on the heightened awareness resulting from the empathic link. It has made him feel more vital, more completely conscious than he has ever been. The sky seems bluer and the grass, greener. Every inch of his body knows it is alive when he is bonded to her. He understands exactly why the world is so beautiful to Betsy, even during the period when she was blind.

When the rapport fell apart so suddenly and dramatically, he felt as if a layer of dust had settled over him. Nothing was as clear as it had been just seconds before. All of his perceptions became hazy, like he was viewing the world through smoked glass.

It is safe to say that he now understands why Scott would always whine and fret whenever he was psychically cut off from Jean. Luckily there wasn't anyone here to whine to, so he spent the few awkward moments brooding, an activity in which he has gained professional status.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was in actuality only a matter of minutes, the rapport has returned weakly like a subtle perfume, still lingering lightly even when it's wearer has left the room. Though comforted by the soft familiarity that is slowly re-integrating with his thoughts and growing stronger by the minute, Warren is left wondering what has just happened and hopes that Betsy is safe. Remembering how brusque she was with him in regards to her condition and the fact that last time he investigated it almost got him killed, Warren is hesitant to search for her. Still, he is worried.

He mutters to himself, "Warren, stop being juvenile. She needs you." He tries his best to rationalize getting involved in Psylocke's hypothetical dilemma, thinking, 'Why else would she have pulled me into her thoughts like that? She needed my help then, and might now...'

Releasing a heavy sigh, he walks to the closet and begins to change into his Angel costume. If he is going to investigate, he isn't going to do it in a bath robe and boxer shorts. After he's mostly suited up and wrestled one wing into the uniform, he begins to doubt himself. After all he's been through over the years, insecurity is still one of the issues hanging on his personal magazine rack.

'What if she needs her privacy? Out of all the things she's lost in her life, her space is the one thing she should be able to keep sacred. Lord knows, she valued her time alone even before Sabretooth. If she needs me, she'll let me know... Unless she already did with that mental stunt she pulled?'

Still half-clothed, his uniform's empty sleeve hanging by his side, he groans in frustration and walks to the room's large- paned window, folding his arms over his chest in exasperation. He can barely see the city outside; instead the harsh lights of the room turn the glass into a mirror. He catches his reflection and looks, really looks at himself. He sees an idiot, someone so afraid of loss that he is paralyzed. He wants to do something good for once, make all the demons go away, protect someone with all he is worth, but in this case... He wonders if he has the right and if he has, does he even know how?

He's amazed at how petty his inner argument seems, how easy it should be to just to fly out over the city and look for Betsy. 'After all, she's probably just on the roof... But I don't want to start imposing my own insecurities on top of everything she has to deal with... I wonder if she's even thinking of me at all?'

Tired of over-analyzing himself and the situation, he decides he should talk to someone about the day's events and his feelings on the matter. He abruptly leaves the window, picks up the bedroom phone and presses the first number listed on his memory dial.

* * *

On the roof, only a few feet over Warren's head, Betsy and Gomurr are having a major discussion. After the unnatural shadows subsided from the pavement, we can imagine that Betsy was left with a myriad of questions. And finally she's getting some answers.

"So, the reason my emotions have been dulled recently is because of my contact with the Crimson Dawn?"

"Yes, child."

Psylocke pulls the fabric of her kimono tighter and picks at a tassel hanging from the garment. Tired of living oblivious to her own condition, but hesitant to learn the full truth, she asks softly, "Why?"

Gomurr is used to speaking in half-truths and riddles about such delicate, mystical matters. It is normally the custom of such beings as he to speak as obtusely as possible. No doubt, they all get together on the weekends over a bottle of whatever these all-knowing types would indulge in and laugh about how they have befuddled the humans once again... I can see the Oracle of Delphi now, drunk as all get out, bragging about the stink Oedipus's search for his father's murderer raised.

But Gomurr has taken special interest in this one. She seems a very original case to him and he approaches her situation with a magical understanding, an eerie connection, that falls closer to his heart than he would openly admit. Twisted by magic into several incarnations, she hardly knows who she is anymore... this one has suffered enough. This one deserves the blatant truth. He owes her that much.

"It is corroding away your personality on purpose, child. The reason you've made it this long without going completely insane is not only are you stubborn, but your genes are more than human. Your father's mystical blood runs in you."

"But this body?"

"The time witch, Spiral, did more than switch your minds with the one you call Kwannon. She mixed your essences together as well as your bodies. That is why you still retain your Otherworld abilities in this body. You are a physical amalgamation of two."

"How do you know all this?"

"I've done my research."

The small wizard walks to where Psylocke is sitting on the pavement, and pats her on the shoulder. "Do not worry about this, child. Even though your mind is clouded by the Dawn, it is still your own. All that remains of Kwannon is the few things you've refused to let go of. Her combat training is perhaps all. Maybe a stray memory or two besides. Nothing of consequence. She saw to that with her death."

"Well, that's one less thing to worry about." Psylocke shifts her weight, tucking her legs into a lotus position. Over the course of Gomurr's explanations she has stopped fiddling with her clothing. Now she speaks more confidently, "Gomurr, I want to know exactly what the Dawn is doing to me."

Gomurr settles down on the roof-top in front of her, removing his hat and placing his staff gingerly across his lap. "Make yourself comfortable, child, this could take a while."

* * *

"Hello? Xavier Institute."

"Hi Ororo. It's Warren. How's the fort holding up?"

"Fine, fine, Warren. We are still busy with reconstruction. Those of us who are in residence are living in the basement and sub-basement, save Scott and Jean. It seems the boat house was left unscathed."

"Ha! Of course it was." Warren fidgets with the antenna on his cordless phone, moving it up and down methodically. The metal pieces scrape against one another, squeaking like rusty tin.

"Other than that, it is the same soap opera you are used to."


"...Except now we have a new player..."


"...You have met Joseph, have you not?"


"...Yes, you have..."


"...I do remember now..."





Startled, he almost drops the phone. "Sorry, Ororo. I'm a bit distracted. Listen, is Hank there?"

"I believe he is, wait just a moment." He half expects to hear the weather goddess belt out Henry's name in order to retrieve him. Instead, he hears a comm panel crackle to life. It seems they have indeed been hard at work in their reconstruction efforts and the reserved Ororo will not have to resort to shouting.

Right now, he's glad Storm answered the phone instead of Rogue, who's always done things the old fashioned way. He doubts his ears could handle Rogue's 'hollerin'' with the mood he's in.

"I am sorry, he is not answering in the medical lab. Let me try another avenue."

Warren paces back and forth in front of his dresser, still not fully dressed, as Ororo attempts to locate Hank through the mansion's security system.

"Hello, Warren? Yes, he is in the medical lab. The computer reports that he is asleep. Presumably in front of his Legacy Virus research. Shall I wake him?"

"Uh, no. That's probably the only sleep he's had in days. Don't worry about it. Is Bobby still away?"

"Yes, but his father is improving."

"That's good to hear. I should call and see how everything is."

After an excruciating pause and several squeaks from Warren's end of the line, Ororo finally speaks, "Warren is something troubling you?"

"Um, no, well... not really."

"I know we are not the closest of friends, but I do care and might be of some aid?"

"I don't know, Storm. I don't think... nevermind."

"I do not want to push you... but, it sounds as if you called here wanting to talk. I may not have a solution to your problem, but I do offer you my time. I have been told I am a good listener."

After trudging over the same area of carpet for the last few minutes, Warren finally sits on the bed, shaking one of his booted feet in time to some unknown beat. "It's Betsy."

"Has something happened?"

"Uh, yes. I... I guess it has."

"Go on."

He relaxes a little, letting his wings droop against the sheets of the unmade bed as he begins his story. "You know how Betsy's been distant lately and there's been a lot of weird things going on with her powers and such?"


"Well, I think things might be getting... um, but they might not... I just don't know."

Hoping not to prod her teammate too much, but growing tired of his hesitation, Ororo offers, "Maybe it is best if you just tell me what is going on, Warren. It might be easier for you that way?"

"Okay, I'll just come out with it..." He takes a deep breath. "She attacked me last night and nearly killed me and tonight I encountered some kind of living shadow in our apartment and she pulled me into her head. Then our psychic rapport went dead and now it's back and she's not anywhere in the apartment and hasn't been for while."

"It sounds as if you have had an eventful twenty-four hours."

"That's putting it mildly!"

"I am not implying that it is unimportant. Warren, why are you on the phone with me instead of looking for her?"

He hesitantly mumbles: "Because I think she wants to be alone."

"Pardon me?"

"I think she wants to be alone."

"True, Elizabeth is a very private person. But she is going through a very difficult period in her life. And you and her have a special bond... Has she told you she wants to be alone?"

"Earlier, yes."

"Before you encountered all these strange happenings?"


"Warren, I think I should come over there. It sounds as if she is in trouble."

"No! Um, that's okay. I've handled things like this with her before. It's just that, well, things are getting more difficult to understand. It's like nothing has a logic to it anymore. I don't think any one of you... I'm probably the only one that has the slightest idea of how to help her. I am... I need to go and find her... Thanks for your help, Ororo."

Ororo confusedly mutters into the now dead connection, "Warren?" and slowly hangs up the receiver.

* * *

Back on the roof, Gomurr and Psylocke are actually having a conversation that makes some sense, at least to them. "And the shadows from just a while ago? They were my creation?"

Gomurr now levitates a few inches above the asphalt, in order to be at Betsy's eye level. "They were a little more than that, child. You are magnet for their darkling energy. When you are distracted, as you were then, you become more attractive to them. Right now I am helping your telepathic powers keep them away, so we can have this little chat. Nice of me, no?"

Gomurr grins broadly, proud of his manipulations and accomplishments, but Psylocke is not amused. "Gomurr, what are those things? They're different than the shadows I normally deal with."

"The difference is, child, when you do your shadow hopping... which you are very proficient at, by the way. And with no guidance! I am truly impressed."

"Thank you... you were saying?"

"Yes, yes. Ahem. The difference is, is that when you use the shadows for teleportation you are merely changing the nature of the space the shadow occupies. The shadow is just a small vicinity for you to manipulate. You use the darkness as a tool, a way for your body to travel from one place to another. No more, no less. After you are done with it, after you have used the magic you now possess because of the Crimson Dawn, it is the same as it was before, a dark reflection of a real object."

"So, I change normal shadows into a type of vortex when I teleport? But when I have traveled through it, it returns to being an ordinary patch of darkness?"


"And these other shadows?"

"Child, these beasties are alive. They are more than space being blocked from light. They contain a very large amount of the magic you use in only small quantities when you dance between shadows. They are darkness incarnate."

"These things are evil?"

"Ah, ah, ah." He wags a bony finger. "Though you have the body and training of one from the East, you still think in such blind Western patterns. How could you possibly think you were ever this Kwannon ninja..."

"Gomurr, please?"

"Yes, well. They are not quite evil. They are darkness. That is what they are. Are you familiar with some eastern philosophy? Taoism? Yin and Yang? The balance of light and dark in all things?"


"Mostly rubbish... But correct in many respects. Well, these shadows are unbalanced. Too much dark. Not a good thing, but that doesn't mean evil. Just not right. Hmm... make sense?"

Psylocke nods her head slowly, "Yes, I think I understand. But where do those shadows lead? What were those voices I heard?"

"They lead to the realm of the undercloaks, the darkness of the Crimson Dawn. The voices, the calling? It was them, child."

"Why did they want me so badly? Why did I want them?"

Pulling his staff upright and levitating in a standing position, Gomurr becomes much more serious as he answers: "It is Tar's doing. He is trying to call even your debt to his realm. But he is, what do you say? Cheating, stacking the deck? He is trying to take you without the ceremonial challenge. He is dominating your own inner darkness and sending his shadows and undercloaks to do his under-handed business, trying to make you vulnerable enough to ruin yourself. And that is why I have intervened."

He lowers himself to the ground and dons his hat, his face broadening once again in an almost toothless smile. "You could call me now 'Gomurr the Arbiter'."

"You have told me of this debt before, but a challenge?"

"Yes. The person who has been touched by the Dawn must return to face its Proctor, who is Tar, in order to pay the debt in full. As you can imagine, few have ever willingly submitted their soul to the proctor. Every one always tries to get out of it somehow. It's been such a pain over the ages, that once Tar was promoted to Proctor, he decided to have a test or challenge set up so people would stop all their sniveling. He doesn't like that sort of thing very much. And he's very impatient, that's why he tried to take you unawares. Much less bother that way. But we can't have him breaking tradition, it is most unfair and that is why..."

"Yes. Yes. You stepped in. Why do you care?"

"Well, Tar and I have this way of getting under each other's skin. It is a rather fun sport. We 'ancient' types have to do something to keep from being bored to tears."

In frustration, Psylocke gets up from her reverent position in front of the old master. She storms to the roof's edge, propping her elbows on the building's waist-high edifice and glares angrily out toward the World Trade Center. As she hears Gomurr approaching behind her, his silk robes swishing in the wind, she fumes: "I will not be a toy!"

"Child, child! You did not let me finish. True, the fact that I became interested in this case to begin with is due to the rivalry Tar and I share. But I have taken it farther than that. I am here to intercede on your behalf because this has gone too far. None of this is your doing. You didn't even ask for this! It seemed unfair. So, I am doing all I can."

"If I accept this challenge, will the debt no longer apply?"

"I am afraid that either way, you lose something. But this way you are free to choose your own fate."

Betsy still refuses to face the old man, and after a moment he settles on the ledge in front of her. "Our privacy is about to be interrupted by the Angelic one you call Warren. I am almost done here, for now. You should know that between now and the test, I will keep Tar's manipulations away from you. Your mind will be more your own and no more shadows will threaten you and your lover."

"That seems fair."

Betsy feels the familiar tingle in the back of her mind as Warren nears them, and the psychic rapport becomes stronger again. While he is still far enough away not to hear, she asks Gomurr: "When is this challenge?"

"On the new moon."

She looks up at the narrow crescent moon suspended in the sky: "But that's..."

"Two nights from now, child. Do not attempt to run from this, you can't."

"I know. I wouldn't dream of it."

Warren nears them and flashes a cautious smile in Betsy's direction. She smiles back and motions for him to join them, then speaks to Gomurr just loud enough for him to hear.

"And Gomurr? I am not a child."

"Ah, but you are to me."

Warren approaches the pair, placing his hand gently on Psylocke's shoulder, hoping his action doesn't seem too possessive. *Is everything okay?*

*For now.*

His lips brush lightly against her ear and he whispers, "I was worried", before nodding respectfully to Gomurr: "Arigato, Sensei."

"Hah! You crack me up! I'm not even Japanese... silly Americans." Then, bidding Betsy a "Good joss, child", Gomurr de-materializes into the night, disappearing in a haze of mist.

Psylocke's thin kimono offers little protection against the chill that is now hanging in the night air, and she begins to shiver. Reaching his arms around her from behind, Warren pulls her close to protect her from the cold. "What was that all about?"

She leans her back against his stomach and welcomes the warm embrace, reveling in the temporary freedom Gomurr has given her from the Dawn's effects. "I'll tell you about it later. Right now, let's get some rest."

Leaning his head down to rest on hers, he buries his face in her purple hair and is greeted by the subtle scent of jasmine. He draws her tighter to him, grateful that she is safe and slightly embarrassed at his earlier trepidation and cowardice. "I'm so sorry I wasn't here with you."

"Some things you can't help with, luv."

"But still..." He lets his thought trail unspoken, he knows she understands.

The couple stand there a few moments, enjoying the view and the simple closeness of one another. Lacing her fingers through Warren's gloved hand, Betsy sighs heavily. Warren squeezes her hand in return and then relaxes his embrace. Reluctantly, he drops his hands to his sides and breaks the relative silence of the New York night, "You go on in. I'm not feeling very tired... Maybe I'll give these new wings some more practice. It's a beautiful night. I'd hate to waste it."

She turns towards him and observes the sad expression on his face. How long has he looked like this? How long has it been since she's actually noticed his feelings, his frustration? She is overwhelmed with how patient he's been with her through this whole ordeal, acknowledges how much of a strain this must be for him. Tentatively, she runs a finger down the line of his jaw to his chin, captivated by the sudden tightness of the muscles, as if he were clenching his teeth together. She looks up, hoping to make eye contact but his eyes are shut tightly, his blond lashes, stark against his blue skin. She thinks, 'It's as if he's in pain.'

More adventurously, she touches her fingertips to Warren's lips and marvels at how warm they are, how alluring. As she moves her face closer and presses her lips to his, kissing him more passionately than she ever thought she could again, she feels the wet sting of tears on her cheeks but is not sure if they are hers or his. '...God, I had forgotten this...' and through their rapport she sends,*Why don't you stay here for now? Just for a while?*

*Of course.*

She pulls her face away from his and places her head on his chest, listening intently to the rise and fall of his breath as he gently caresses her wind-tangled hair, "Does this mean you're back, Betsy?"

"Just for a while, luv. Just a while."

Part Six

As Warren Worthington III drinks coffee out on his balcony, he can't help but notice how beautiful New York is by morning. The sun glinting off the skyscrapers creates a magical dance of light across the city, the honking horns on the streets below provide the orchestral rhythm for their waltz. Warren's never seen the city so wondrous, so full of life. The poor sap's in love and love will even make New York City, of all places, gleam like a shiny new nickel.

As the muscles in his face uncontrollably force his mouth to wear a rather goofy grin, he decides he is in the mood to cook. Something he has never willingly done since what the original X-Men will always call "The Casserole Incident". Suffice it to say, not everything is better with cheese.

Luckily Warren decides on a light breakfast of fruit and toast, and Betsy escapes from a possibly perilous situation. After somehow finding a tray in the unknown territory of the kitchen cabinet, he readies the meal for delivery, even placing a fresh white rose across the napkin. As he pauses to admire his handiwork, the door buzzer sounds harshly.

Cringing at the sharp noise, he rushes to the intercom, hoping it didn't wake Psylocke, spoiling his surprise of breakfast in bed. He presses the intercom button and is instantly greeted with: "Candygram!"

"Come on up, Hank."

"Drat, my plot is foiled yet again."

Warren sighs, 'So much for a romantic breakfast in bed.'

Moments later, Henry McCoy bounds through the door, "Hope you are decent, my friend. I've brought company."

From the stench of cigar smoke wafting in from the hallway, Warren assumes the worst. "Tell him to put that out before he comes in, okay?"

"He was plannin' on it. I know what goes 'round here and what doesn't, bub."

"Good-morning, Logan."

"Morning to ya too, Wings."

Warren refrains from rolling his eyes, deciding he is not going to let Logan's presence completely spoil his morning, though it has seriously put a damper on it. "Can I offer you two some coffee?"

"Sure thing. Black's fine."


"None for me, thank you."

"So, what brings you two to the city?"

"Well," says Hank, "we could entertain a plethora of justifications, but I trust that you might see through most of them."

Wolverine coughs and mutters under his breath, "Don't give him that much credit."

Though inwardly seething, Warren lets the comment slide, but hopes Logan will come up with one more so he'll have an excuse to snap at him. "I take it Ororo asked you out here to check up on us."

"And you would be precisely right. Besides, it's been a while since I checked on my two favorite patients."

"The wings are just fine, and Betsy seems to be better. So everything's just great. Sorry you had to come so far. Maybe you should have called us instead. Did you think of that?"

"Ah, yes we did, my fellow blue-hued companion. But we know you and your churlish ways and decided we best explore the situation for ourselves, lest we become deluded into thinking things are better than they truly are."

"'Ro said ya were kinda frantic on the phone. Just count yerself lucky she waited 'til morning to tell us about it."

"Yeah, really lucky."

"So," asks Wolverine, while sipping coffee from a dainty cup, chosen purposefully by Warren as a ridiculous contrast with his 'manly' facade, "What went down last night?"

"Not much. Betsy had an episode, Gomurr dropped by and helped her with it and now everything's back to normal."

"Hmm. Gomurr?"

Warren shakes his head in affirmation.

"Where's Betsy?"

"Still in bed."

Logan nods toward the breakfast tray. "This for her?"

"Yes, it is."

He lifts the tray and quickly walks to the bedroom, before Warren can even utter a protest. Defeatedly, he turns to Hank, finally allowing his anger to surface audibly.

"Sometimes I really hate that man."

"Rest assured that the tempestuous feelings you hold toward him are far from unrequited."

Warren can't help but raise an eyebrow at Hank's comment, but quickly dismisses his befuddlement as his anger reclaims his full attention.

"I swear, he can't keep out of it, can he? I've gotten used to the fact that him and Betsy are close. Hell, I've even tried to be friendly with him for her sake. But the little bugger just gets to me. The way he comes in here acting all possessive, like I'm not good enough to take care of her."

He pauses for a breath, puts his hands in his pockets, takes them out again and glances aimlessly around the room, then continues, "If I acted like that toward Betsy, I'd be history! I don't see why she tolerates it from him. But, no. I've got to put up with him, let him push his way in, let him be her confidante. Dammit, I'm the one who should be in there with her! I'm the one who's supposed to be there for her!"

"Are you finished?"

Still fuming, Warren answers, "I guess so."

"I take it everything is not fine, then."

"It seems so, but she was waiting until she woke up to tell me the full story." He slumps over onto the counter-top in front of him, resting his head in his hands.

"Hank, last night was wonderful. She was Betsy again. It was so nice just to hold her and talk to her. Ha! Talk to her. We talked about nothing and everything, the kinds of things that people in love should talk about, you know? Not mysterious elixirs from other realities or super villains or any of that bizarre crap we've had to face lately. Just us. Talking."

"So how did this all come about?"

"It's the answer to that question that scares me."

"You dread even more paranormal activities or extra-dimensional demonic entities?"

"When are there not any?"

"I see your point."

* * *

"Mornin', Betts. Time to get up."

Logan rests the breakfast tray on a small table and sits on the edge of the bed, shaking Betsy's shoulder gently. She responds by rolling to the bed's far side and burying her head underneath a pillow.

"Come on, darlin'. It's not like ya to sleep all day. Ya normally wake up before the sun does. Betsy?"

She burrows farther under the covers and mumbles something inaudible.

"Get up. We need to talk."

Rolling back to the other side of the bed, she peeks her head out from under the blanket and mutters, "Warren... Coffee. Now." Then adds a "Please?" hoping feigned politeness will ensure the success of her request.

"I'm not Warren. But yer coffee's right here."

Suddenly awake, she sits up in the bed, hoping her choice in nighttime attire wasn't too revealing. As if anything could show more skin than what, for her, passes as a battle uniform. After deciding she doesn't need a sheet for modesty's sake, she rubs the sleep out of her eyes and takes the offered cup of coffee.

"Thank heaven you're not Warren. The sight of you made me think he fell out of the ugly tree this morning and hit every limb on the way down."

"Nice to see ya got yer sense of humor back, darlin'."

"Isn't it, though?"

"Too bad it's gotta be at my expense."

"Logan, what are you doing here?"

"Just paying a visit. Hear ya had some company last night."

"Hmm. Sure did."

"Ya mind telling me about it?"

Getting out of bed and slipping into her kimono, she leisurely sips her coffee and eyes the plate of fruit hungrily. "I don't know why I should."

"Now what's that supposed to mean?"

Psylocke takes a strawberry from her tray, notices the white rose laying across the napkin and lifts it to her nose, inhaling its delicate scent. Definitely not Logan's doing. Sitting gingerly in a nearby chair she lets her fingers drift over the flower's soft petals and grins to herself, saying to him dismissively, "Whatever you want it to, Logan."

"Don't be like that. I know how dealin' with Gomurr can be a tricky thing."

"Well, things change. Gomurr and I have an understanding now. No more riddles."

"Uh-huh, sure. I've known that wizard goin' on a long time now and ya can't trust him."

"Well, I do."

"You're setting yer self up, darlin'. I'm tellin' ya."

"So you're convinced I shouldn't turn my back on him. Is that what you're trying to tell me?"

"Yep. Nail on the head."

Rising out of her seat, Betsy stands in front of Logan, who is still seated on the bed. "If he's so unworthy of anyone's trust, do you mind telling me one thing?"

"Fire away."

She leans over him, attempting to invade his personal space, doing her best to make him as uncomfortable as possible. Then asks, letting the words seep through her teeth angrily, yet mechanically, "Then why the Hell did you trust him with my life?!"

Trying his best to retain his composure, Logan responds, "Because he was yer only hope."

Backing away from him, she begins to pace the room, taking a long pause before she answers, "What gave you the right to make such a decision? How could you decide what was best for me? How could you... I can understand Warren, he does desperate things sometimes. And he didn't know what he was getting into. But you? You did!"

"I couldn't let ya die, darlin'. Sabretooth never shoulda been there in the first place. Ya shoulda never been in the middle of it. I shoulda taken him down permanently when I had the chance."

Finally raising her voice for the first time during their conversation, Betsy bellows, "Don't even blame this on your twisted sense of honor! You shouldn't have done this to me just because you felt guilty! What about me? Did you ever stop to think what I might want?!"

Logan sits dumbfounded.

"Well. Did you!?!"

After a long silence, he finally manages, "No. Guess I didn't."

"Then what the bloody Hell were you thinking!?"

"Guess I was feelin' guilty, like ya said. That and I was gonna miss ya and that it wasn't yer time to go, 'specially how ya were gettin' yer life back together. Just wanted the best for ya, darlin'. And at the time, that meant livin'. Guess I never stopped to think, to really think, 'bout what we'd been through. What ya'd been through. How ya would never want to live with some kinda burden, or gift, as I guess was how I was seein' it at the time."

Tears run in torrents down Betsy's face as she bites her lip, trying to keep her now overwhelming emotions in check, a sensation she hasn't coped with in quite some time. As Logan reaches out to give her a hug and offer his support, she lets it all go, unable to hold it back anymore. After a few minutes and even more tissues, the tears have finally stopped and Logan feels he can finally speak again.

"Something tells me this still ain't over."

Betsy sniffles as she answers, "And you'd be right. This is far from over."

"Jesus, what have I gotten ya into, darlin'?"

"I don't know. I really don't know."

"But ya think ya can trust Gomurr?"

"He told me things last night that I never thought I'd hear from him. Logan, he told me the truth. I think he feels sorry for me, in his own way."

"And maybe he does."

"So I should trust him?"

"Might be yer only choice."


"Look here." Logan gives her hand a quick, reassuring squeeze and says, "Why don't ya tell me the whole story and we'll go over it together, okay?"

"But I haven't even talked to Warren about it yet."

"Tell him later, after we've talked it out. That way ya won't worry him so much. Give ya a chance to think it out more. That boy's crazy about ya, darlin'. Just think how he's gonna react to all this? Ya can't go spillin' it all out half-baked, he'll flip. Me, I understand this crap better than he does. Hell, I might even have a solution."

"Okay, but I don't think there's a quick fix for this."

"Never know 'til ya try. And Betts?"


"For what it's worth... I'm sorry."

Part Seven

"They've been up there a while."

Hank empties the last of the coffee into Warren's mug and rinses the pot in the kitchen sink. This is his friend's second cup of coffee in the last thirty minutes, and from the looks of the kitchen, it wasn't the first pot brewed this morning. Warren has never been a big coffee drinker above the solitary cup of pick-me-up first thing in the morning, but Hank notices that he is not overly irritable and his hands are fairly steady. He figures his high metabolism must be staving off the caffeine's over-stimulative effects. Either that or Warren is plumb exhausted and the coffee is what is keeping him alert.

Noticing the lack of sparkle in his friend's normally vivid blue eyes, he considers speaking to him on the matter of his health. Then he remembers why he and Logan made the trip, how worried Warren must be about Betsy and puts himself in his friend's situation. He places the coffee-pot gently on the drying rack as he decides that if Warren's health seems to deteriorate any more, then he will intercede, but not sooner. As the X-Men's primary physician, Hank often treads the line between personal doctor and friend. He decides what Warren needs most is a friend, and instead of delivering a lecture on the evils of caffeine, he offers, "That they have. At least Betsy has desisted from her vociferous verbal assault."

Warren sighs, wishing momentarily that Hank's vocabulary came with an off-switch. "I hope everything's okay."

"From the fragment we overheard, I would ascertain that Betsy and Logan's conversation is far from cordial. Should we intervene?" He pushes the warm mug toward Warren, trying his best to stifle a frown as the winged man reaches for the coffee.

He sips from his cup, sending Hank a look mixed with fear and a small twinge of amusement, then says, "No way. Not on your life... Hank, you've never seen Betsy really angry have you?"

Pulling a chair out from under the kitchen table, Hank sits across from his friend. "Though we have shared our quota of sticky situations while working together over the years, I can never say I've seen her truly infuriated. Peeved, yes. But she always seems to retain a modicum of composure."

"Well needless to say, it's not pretty."

"I can imagine."

"I've never heard Betsy snap at Logan like that." Warren grins to himself, "Let the half-pint sweat it out."

Hank tests the cup of Lemon Zinger tea he made for himself earlier and finds that it has finally cooled to perfect drinking temperature. After drinking a third of the cup's contents, he carefully ventures, trying his best to keep Warren from internalizing his troubles too long, "I hope this outburst does not portend bad tidings, my friend. Most likely they are discussing last evenings events."

Adding more cream to his coffee, Warren speaks quietly, "Let's not talk about that, okay? I'll worry myself to death with the 'what-ifs.' You know me."

Taking his hint, Hank backs down from his attempt to get Warren talking. After years of friendship, he's learned not to push him too hard. With his often heated temper and constant protection of his more private thoughts, heart-to-heart conversations with Warren can very easily turn into a dangerous mine-field. Hank also acknowledges that perhaps he is not the person these emotions should be discussed with and hopes that Warren will be more open with Betsy. So he apologizes quietly, saying, "Sorry to encourage you."

"No problem," Warren whispers, staring blankly into his cup, oblivious to the concern etched in Hank's face as he tries his best to ignore the terrible gnawing in the pit of his stomach and the bitter taste in his mouth. He pushes away his cup in disgust, though he's unable to tell whether the coffee is causing these symptoms or his concern for Betsy.

The two friends sit awkwardly across from one another, suddenly at a loss for words. Warren begins to drum his fingertips on the kitchen table and Hank starts to whistle an aimless tune. The sound of a door opening and then closing interrupts their individual choices of entertainment and the two watch the ceiling, their eyes following a path of quiet but audible footfalls.

Noticing his companion is just as mesmerized by the goings on overhead, Warren ventures, "That must be Wolverine. Betsy doesn't make a sound when she walks."

"Ninjas are known to be quiet."

"But you'd think with all of his training and ability, he would walk just as quiet. You know, stealthy?"

"That you would. Perhaps his skills take concentration... or he is trying to get our attention..."

"Or trying to annoy me."

Hank laughs lightly as the foot steps begin again and then ventures, "Interesting... I wager it's fairly difficult to be 'stealthy' in a bright yellow uniform. I wonder how he accomplishes it?"

Warren leans towards him and whispers, while trying to keep a straight face, "Easy. He just climbs up a tree and pretends he's a banana."

Hank snorts under his breath and tries to keep from laughing, but fails miserably. "Cruel. You are too cruel and decidedly not funny."

"Then why are you laughing?"

"It must be your diabolical influence. A fiendish Angel, an oxymoron if I ever witnessed one." The Beast's laughter dwindles, and he becomes suddenly serious as he whispers, "I do warn you never to insult our hairy but diminutive companion in his presence, and out of his direct presence might be a hazard as well. With his heightened senses he can hear more than you may intend."

Warren's smile fades as he answers, "Oh, trust me Hank. I'm not stupid."

"Besides, I thought you two were on more friendly terms as of late. I see from your reaction to one another this morning that I was misled."

"We tolerate each other, Hank. Nothing more." Warren nervously plays with a napkin ring on the table, rolling it back and forth across the marble surface as he continues, "He's good for Betts and he's told her the same about me. There's just too much bad blood between us to be friends about the whole thing. But I respect him, and I think finally he respects me. We just rub each other the wrong way. He's worried sick about her, but he rarely comes by to check on her. I take that as a compliment. Means he has some faith in me."

"But this morning?" Hank flattens his palm on the napkin ring, stopping its journey across the table, and Warren looks up at him, lost without something mundane to concentrate on.

"Warren, what is it?"

He drops his head and slowly traces a vein in the marble surface beneath him as he says, "Let's just say I don't feel like he should be here. Not now anyway. We haven't had time to even talk about what happened yet..."

* * *

"I'm not going."

Logan closes the door behind him and drops a duffel bag on the bed. "You're all packed. Got your uniform, a katana an' a coupla shuriken in here. I don't wanna hear any excuses. Get dressed."

Betsy crosses her arms defensively over her chest and says, "I'm not going to Salem Center."

He sits on the bed next to the bag and sighs, letting his head fall into his hands. "I thought ya said that workin' out yer powers with me an' Jean would be a good idea."

She begins to tap a bare foot on the hardwood floor, as she answers, "Yes it might be. But I didn't say I would do it."

"Listen. Wanting to face this on yer own is one thing. I can understand why ya don't want the whole team to be comin' to yer rescue. But, Betts, ya haven't even done much trainin' since yer injuries. Plus, ya don't even know the extent of yer new teleportin' powers. We've got the Danger Room up an' workin' again... Ya need to find out what you can do before this challenge deal ya just told me about."

Following an unseen path from the dresser to the nightstand, she starts to pace the room slowly and names a few reasons why she shouldn't go to the mansion: "Warren has a few holo-facilities here, plus my dojo we've set up... And this challenge may be more mental than anything..."

"Which is why I suggested letting Jeannie help out."

Psylocke groans in annoyance before she answers, "I just don't want to make a big production about this and that's what it would be if I go to the school. It'd be just some more meat for that vicious gossip-mill out there. This is my business. Mine and, I guess, Warren's. And yours since I've told you about it. This is complicated enough. I'm not going."

"After the phone call Wings..." Betsy frowns at him and Logan corrects himself, "Warren... made last night, they're already worried about the two of ya. Trust me, ya phone'll be ringing all day if ya don't come. And I'll keep everyone outta yer hair. I'll even keep Cyke from buggin' ya about ya and Worthington not being full-time X-Men anymore."

"I don't know..." Betsy stops pacing and sits in a chair, twisting a lock of purple hair around her index finger. "I just don't like feeling needy."

Logan growls to himself, probably wondering if being stubborn is a prerequisite for becoming an X-Man. Willfulness seems to be a common trait among all of his teammates. "Betts. What is this really about? Ya know this is for the best."

"Alright. If it'll shut you up." She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes and prepares to rattle off a list that has weighed heavily in her mind for a while. "I'm sick of how they always insist that they take care of your own, but when I needed them the most, when Kwannon came here, almost everyone turned on me." Logan starts to object, but Betsy interrupts him, "Even you."

He releases a heavy sigh and lets her continue. "Or when Warren was teetering on the edge of insanity, obviously suffering from severe, chronic depression... nobody did a damn thing. Nobody reached out to him. Luckily we helped each other, found each other. I'm sick to death of their hypocrisy."

"But, Betts."

Betsy's eyes flash in anger as she seethes, "I'm not done yet! This is my life now and my fight and I'm sick of you people meddling with it. I gave up counting on the team a while ago. I care about many of you individually and feel that I could count on any of you in that capacity... but put you all together and you're the most unfeeling bunch of people I've ever known. You've got your priorities skewed. If you're not useful, you're ignored. And when you could be useful it doesn't matter anymore because you've already been forgotten about. It happened to me, it happened to Warren. Hell, I think the only X-Men business I took care of for a while there, before Sabretooth gutted me, of course, was either spar with him or make sure cerebro was still functioning normally. Even after the whole Kwannon issue was resolved, even after I proved myself time and again, I was still treated like a janitor."

"I think I see where this is going."

"I'm sorry, Logan. It's just how I feel."

"It's alright, darlin'. Go on."

"I don't know. It's just back when the team was smaller... before I became this..."

"Before the Hand?"

Betsy sighs and closes her eyes, doing her best to block out the memories before she continues. "Yes, before Xavier returned, before we moved back into the mansion and re-formed the team. I felt needed then, you know? I was the only telepath. I was necessary, an integral part. And after then? At least Xavier had the wisdom to arrange the Blue and Gold teams so that I was still essential somehow. But..."

"This is about Jean isn't it?"

She stares at the floor, not wanting to make eye contact with her friend. Jean has always been a sore spot with Betsy. Although they have slowly grown to become friends, she's always felt a fierce competition with the fiery red-head. A competition she could never win. Not only is Jean more powerful than Betsy, but she is the heart and soul of the X-Men. Everyone loves Jean and Betsy's never quite felt like she was truly accepted. She loves being an X-Man and always has. Loves the action, loves the excitement, but mostly loves being a hero and serving a real purpose in life, helping to make the world a better place.

For a while, she thought her teammates were beginning to understand that quality in her, but then things fell apart. Then she fell apart. After she was turned into a ninja assassin, no one seemed to understand her, and being displaced as the team's sole telepath distanced her even more. When she first joined the X-Men she felt like an outsider, but an outsider who was needed. Now, she just feels like an extra in a movie of someone else's life.

In many ways, Psylocke projected all the bitterness she felt about her change in the team's roster onto Jean. Jean had it all. She was powerful, popular among her teammates, and had a man... or two, or three... heck, possibly a dozen who were crazy about her. And Betsy was very jealous. In many ways, her flirtation with Scott wasn't about him at all. It was about Jean, about taking what she "had," just like she'd done to Betsy.

Then Warren happened.

He was so hurt, so in need of someone to listen, to care about him as a human, as a man. He wasn't the "High Flying Angel" anymore and wasn't Apocalypse's harbinger of death. He was some where in between and he didn't know where, couldn't find where and it was slowly driving him insane. The kicker was, even with all his brooding, all his cries for help, nobody really noticed, really cared. They all thought it was temporary, that he'd be back to his "old self" in no time. But the truth was, they were frightened of him. Sure, they'd still be friendly with him and try their best to understand... though none of them really did. None of them except for Betsy. And out of that understanding grew love.

Warren and her grew steadily closer until they were an official couple. Things were wonderful, but as they were growing closer doubts would creep into her mind. Though he was helping her to feel needed again, her old insecurities still lurked around the edges of her life. And in many ways it still went back to Jean. Even though Warren told Betsy he loved her, she wondered if he were comparing her to Jean and was only with her because Jean was unattainable. To this day, these thoughts creep in and out of her mind, and she can't help but dwell on them as Logan asks her about Jean.

She wants to answer him but she can't. She doesn't know how to say it without... "You're scared you'll sound spiteful an' jealous if ya say it, don't ya?"

Shifting her gaze abruptly from the floor to him, her eyes widen slightly in amazement.

"It's natural to be feelin' like that, darlin'. Ya two were set up in a sort of competition to begin with. A telekinetic with that kind of power? Ya can't compete. Don't let it make ya feel like you're not good enough to be on the team, though. Ya got abilities she don't have, too. Jean'd be the first to admit that. Ya will always be an asset."

She relaxes a bit and sits next to Logan on the bed. "It just seems like I've always been under her shadow. It just makes it harder when I've grown to understand why everyone cares so much about her."

Logan smiles, welcoming the shift in the conversation's tone. "Ha! Ya got that right. Red's always been such a heartbreaker."

"See, you're still not over her." Betsy elbows him playfully in the ribs. "I think she's had most of this team's men wrapped around her little finger at one time or another..."

"And that's the job ya always wanted, huh? Alright, I could name a few times that..."

"Okay, so I've been a little flirtatious."

Nodding knowingly, Logan ventures, "Ya could say that."

"Don't even bring up that time I... or the other time... or, um, well. I see your point." Betsy giggles to herself for a moment and Logan waits for her laughing to subside.

She sits quietly for a while before she asks him, "Logan, what does everyone think of me and Warren?"

"What do ya mean?"

"Do they think that we settled for each other because I couldn't have Scott and he couldn't have Jean?"

Logan says, "Naw. Though if ya were going for Jean left-overs, ya could've had better taste..." and then clears his throat.

"Ha. Ha. Very funny." She swats him with a nearby pillow and walks toward the large dressing room.

"So, are ya gonna go?"

"I guess. If you promise you'll keep it as low-key as possible. No team meetings, no de-briefings. None of that. I'm just coming to work out, okay?"

"I promise."

Betsy closes the door of the dressing room/closet and asks Logan, her voice muffled slightly by the door between them, "Was Warren dressed when you came in?"

"Sure was."

"Tell him I'll be down in a minute."

* * *

"So amazingly enough, even though most of his memory is missing, Joseph's scientific knowledge is astounding. Scott has kept his access to our data resources very minimal, but I hope that our fearless leader will allow me to capitalize on his perspicacious computer science skills and enlist him in my research..."

The edges of Warren's mouth curl into a smile, which goes unnoticed by his blue-furred friend as he continues, "... I surmise that my latest findings may lead to something truly productive and I can use all the expertise I can muster..."

Warren begins to giggle and puts a hand over his mouth, as Hank still rambles, "...Perhaps he might observe something intriguing in the data I have gathered that I might have missed..."

Finally, Warren can't contain his laughter any longer, and a hearty laugh escapes from his lips, catching Hank's attention. "Unless your concept of humor has somehow changed, I really don't think I've said anything that amusing, my friend."

"No, Hank. You didn't. I'm sorry to interrupt. You were saying?"

"Nothing really of consequence, it's just that an extra set of eyes may help in my research."

"Uh-huh. I can see how that might..." Warren snorts in amusement under his breath "... be an advantage."

Hank looks at him in befuddlement and says. "Out with it. What is so amusing."

Warren giggles an answer. "I don't know."

"Mm-hmm. Yeah, right."

"No really, I don't. It must be... Betsy. Funny. It's stopped."

Puzzled, Hank asks, "What's stopped?"

"She must have been laughing about something."

Planting his elbows on the table, Beast leans closer to Warren and exclaims, "Nifty! You didn't familiarize me with the intriguing factoid that you and Betsy had developed a psychic-thingie."

"Rapport? Yes, that we do have."

"So when are you two selecting a china pattern?"

"A what!?"

Hank smiles to himself. "Well, things must be pretty serious if Betsy's established such a bond."

Looking his friend squarely in the eyes, Warren attempts to keep his friend's queries in check and says almost dismissively, "Hank, we've been through a lot since we've been together."

Hank lifts an eyebrow and drums his fingers nonchalantly on the table, then muses, "I see. You know it took years for Jean and Scott to develop theirs?"

"I guess it did. But Betts has had a strong link with others before... Brian, Logan... Hank, what are you trying to say?"

"Nothing. Nothing at all. Just that it's one thing to be sharing a bed, and it's another to be sharing your minds."

Warren blushes as much as a man with blue skin can, and he stammers, "Hank... I... I really don't think, that is I don't know if... We haven't talked about the possibility of..."

Just then Logan walks into the kitchen, saving Warren from his clumsy ramblings. "Aw, leave him alone, Beast. Of course he's serious about Betts. Wings here probably has a traffic stoppin' rock already picked out." He places a hand firmly on his shoulder and takes advantage of Warren's seated position, leering down at him intimidatingly. "Ain't that so, Worthington?"

Warren clearly perceives his not so subtle message. In his own way, Logan's made sure Warren knows that if he hurts Betsy there will be Hell to pay. So, he answers as best he can, while still attempting to retain control over the situation, "If we decide to take that step, Logan... Yes, I'll be ready."

Letting go his hold on Warren's shoulder, Logan says, "Fair enough" and takes a seat at the kitchen table.

Hank tries his best to cover a possibly awkward silence, and asks the obvious. "So how is our favorite purple-haired telepath?"

"Not my place to say, really. Hows about 'she's doing fine'?"

"I believe that's sufficient."

"She said she'd be coming down soon, so ya can wipe that worried expression of your face, Worthington. She's gonna tell ya all about it."

For a moment, Warren forgets about his pride and asks, "So did you talk about...?"


"And should I be worried?"


Fidgeting again with the napkin ring, Warren mutters under his breath, "Great. Just great."

"And Hank, not a word when we all get back to the mansion. I know how ya just love to gossip, and I promised Betsy everything'd be quiet. That way she won't have to deal with a big hub-bub when she comes to work out."

Hank says, "I promise. Not a word" then with his hand, pretends to zip his lips closed.

Looking up from the table, Warren squints uneasily at Wolverine and says quietly, "She's going to Salem Center?"

Logan leans back in his chair and crosses his hands behind his head, enjoying making the younger man squirm. "Yep. Gonna use the Danger Room."


"Not my place to say."

Warren fumes quietly in his chair as Betsy silently enters the room, carrying her duffel bag. She drops it next to the table and drapes her arms gently around Warren's neck from behind, rubbing her cheek against the soft down of his wings and kissing him playfully on the cheek.

Shrugging off Betsy's embrace, Warren spins in his chair to face her, seething, "So am I invited to tag along, dear?"

She walks calmly to the sink and frowns at the empty coffee pot before she answers him. "Of course, luv. And there's no need for sarcasm."

Joining her at the sink, he angrily sends to her, hoping to avoid a scene in front of their guests, *I was just wondering why you're leaving me in the dark, here.*

Betsy returns, *Oh, you know how you're so sexy when you're jealous, but it really isn't like that.*

He loudly says, "Like Hell!" and then continues his words telepathically, *Like Hell it isn't. I thought we were going to face this together?*

*And we are. We'll talk about this later, but right now...*

Warren rolls his eyes. *Yeah, yeah. Whatever.*

*Don't you 'whatever' me. I'm not pushing you out, I swear. I love you Warren. I need your support, more than anyone's. Don't be silly about this.*

*It's just...*

*I know, I should have talked to you about this first. I'm sorry. But you know how Logan can be. And I know that's no excuse. I just wanted to work things out in my head before I talked with you about it. I didn't want to scare you...*

Grabbing her hand in his, he sends, *I'm already scared enough, Betts.*

Betsy pulls him close and gives him a gentle hug while she telepathically soothes him enough to keep him at ease until they can finish their conversation. Stepping away from him, she smiles and turns her attention to their friends, who have been staring at random objects in the room while the couple had their psionic argument.

"Logan, Hank. You two go ahead. We'll find out own way there." She looks up at Warren and continues, "We have a lot to discuss."

Logan gets up from his seat and says, "We'll see ourselves out, darlin'. But ya don't be too long."

"No, I'll walk you to the door." Betsy then says to Warren, "I'll be right back, luv."

As she leads the two men to the door, Betsy telepathically sends to Logan, *I wanted to tell him about going to Westchester. You know it wasn't your place.*

Logan says aloud, "I know, but..."

Cutting of his explanation, Psylocke says curtly, "I'll see you later." She then smiles as she turns to face Hank, and offers her hand. "And as always it is good to see you, Henry."

Hank takes her offered hand and gives it a quick kiss, delighted that Betsy has resumed the mock-chivalry at which she was always so skilled. "Oh, the pleasure is all mine, milady."

Betsy says "Oh, you're such a cad!" and slaps him lightly on the arm. As he turns on his image-inducer for their journey, Hank smiles to himself and his face shimmers and distorts, changing from blue fur to Caucasian flesh tones.

Frowning at his change in appearance, she says, "Oh I do so hate that blasted inducer you and Warren use. Personally, I think you are so much cuter with the fur."

Hank beams, "Really?"


Logan groans to himself and says, "Enough of the flirting, ya two. We're outta here. Beast?"

"Right behind you, oh diminutive one of sharp claws and abundant hair follicles."

Growling quietly at Hank's epithet, Logan closes the door behind them. Betsy giggles to herself as she walks back to the kitchen to join Warren.

"What's so funny?"

Wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her cheek against his chest, she answers him with "Oh, just Hank being Hank."

Warren returns her embrace, squeezing her lightly as he says, "Yes, he does tend to do that."

Betsy turns her head to look up at him, asking "Do what?"

"Be Hank, of course."

"Well, I guess no one else can do the job any better."

He smiles and lowers his head a bit, giving her a slow, soft kiss on the lips before he says, "Good morning."

"Good morning?"

"Yes, I didn't get to say that to you yet."

Betsy kisses him in return, her fingers playing lightly with the feathers on his back and then tells him, "Well good morning to you too, then."

Knowing the mood can't last for long, Warren says, "So where were we?"

She takes a step back from him and smiles mischievously. "I think you were about to tell me that you absolutely adore me and that you love me more than anything in the world."

"Well, I could say that... But you know what I mean."

Turning her back on him dramatically, swinging her long hair with a flourish, she says, "Yes, I believe I do... but that still doesn't mean you can't say it."

He can't believe that she's being coy at a time like this, but is so delighted with her playfulness that he decides to go along with it. This is a side of her that had been gone from his life for too long and he can't help but be overjoyed with it. He decides the best tactic is to out do her.

Grabbing her wrist, he spins her around to face him. Thrilled by the surprised expression on her face he pulls her close, embracing her tightly in his arms and kissing her passionately. He releases her and grins wickedly to himself before he tells her, "Miss Braddock, I adore you and I love you more than anything in the world."

Betsy smiles, trying her best to retain her composure and says, "Now that's more like it, Mr. Worthington."

"I aim to please."

She tousles his hair spiritedly and shoves him out of the room. "Now, get your things. We'll talk about this on the way to Salem Center."

With a smile, he answers, "Yes, ma'am." Then climbs the stairs to get a few necessities.

With a heavy sigh, Betsy closes her eyes tightly and leans her back against the kitchen counter, thinking to herself, 'For his sake, I do wish it can stay like this. Dear lord, I really hope it can.'

Part Eight

As Betsy tells him about her visit with Gomurr the Ancient and the ceremony she will have to undergo in a day and a half, Warren wishes for the thirtieth time in as many minutes that he had decided to fly to Westchester with her instead of driving his Mercedes. Leaning forward, he tugs in annoyance at the shoulder straps of his harness, trying to loosen the tight bindings and give his cramped wings a little more room.

Oblivious that he has drifted toward the median of the road, he grimaces and attempts to scratch an itch that has suddenly manifested itself between his shoulder blades. Grabbing the steering wheel and swerving the car back on course, Betsy shouts, "Warren, watch the road!"

Gripping the steering wheel tightly, he turns his attention back to his driving and apologizes to Betsy, "I'm sorry... it's just that this harness is so distracting and uncomfortable. I've barely worn it since I got my wings back." He sighs audibly before he continues, "If we were flying to Salem Center, I wouldn't have this problem."

Betsy turns to glare at him as she says, "I told you why I wanted to take the car. You get so distracted when you fly. And we both agreed that if we took a car it'd be easier for us to talk along the way. Now I'm starting to think it would have been better if we had flown. At least you would be in a better mood..."

Warren returns her glare and says sharply, "I am not in a bad mood!"

"Whatever you say."

The two sit for a moment without speaking. Suddenly irritated by the music playing over the car's stereo, Betsy turns the dial to off, interrupting Pavarotti mid-crescendo. "I did offer to drive, you know? It would have been easy for you to sit over here in the passenger seat with the chair reclined. You wouldn't have to wear that bloody harness. And another thing, I don't even know why you've got that image-inducer on. The windows are tinted for Christ's sake!"

They both stare out at the road ahead of them angrily before Warren finally ventures, "Maybe I just wanted to be a little normal for once. Just be out for a drive on a nice afternoon. Is that so much to ask?" He turns to look at Betsy and demands, "Well is it!?"

Betsy says softly, "We're not normal, Warren."

"Well maybe I just wanted to pretend for a while. Maybe I wanted to forget about mystical elixirs from other dimensions, ceremonial challenges from the nether-world and all the baggage that comes along with being us."

Raising her eye-brows in astonishment, Betsy retorts, "But that's what you wanted to talk about. That's what we need to finish talking about. Now."

Warren grasps the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles begin to turn white as he says, "I don't see what there is to talk about. You've got this thing in less than forty-eight hours that you know very little about, but are convinced might alter you again... change you into a servant of the Crimson Dawn."

"Gomurr didn't say that. But after discussing it, Logan and I think that Tar wants me to join his legion of Undercloaks."

Warren rolls down the window to let some fresh air into the car as he says, "But that's not necessarily what's going to happen? So why plan for it?"

Turning in her seat to face him, she says, "And what do you think Tar's going to do... give me a slap on the wrist and send me on my way?! Warren this is serious!"

Drawing a deep, calming breath before he speaks, Warren ventures, "But you'll fight every step of the way, won't you? You're not just going to let him change you into one of those shadow creatures or something, right?"

Betsy reaches out and touches his arm, trying her best to reassure him as she says, "Maybe a few days ago I would have just given myself over to him. But that's why Gomurr intervened. He wanted me to be myself as I prepared for this and eventually faced it. You know me, Warren. I wouldn't let them turn me into some horrid, faceless zombie." She withdraws her hand and sinks into the leather seat as she says, "I'd rather die first."

Warren stiffens and stares blankly at the road as Betsy searches his face for some sort of reaction. The anger which was pouring through their psychic rapport only moments before has shifted, and Betsy feels a wave of grief wash over her from his end of the link, though outwardly Warren shows no reaction to her words.

As the emotion grows in intensity, Betsy receives some distinct memories and thoughts as they spill uncontrollably through their rapport. First she sees images of Candy Southern, dying not once, but twice. Next there is a memory of herself, lying on the floor after being eviscerated by Sabretooth. Then another image of herself: not as she is now, but as Warren imagines her in several years. He's there with her and two more people. She realizes the others are children, their children... one of them has wings and he is teaching her to fly... with her purple hair she looks just like... Unable to cope with the images, Betsy partially blocks the rapport and thinks to herself, 'My God, I had no idea.'

Rubbing her temples to soothe the headache caused by the psychic back-lash of his grief, she says calmly to him, "Warren you've got to talk about this. You've got to let it out. It's giving me a migraine and if you don't work yourself through this, it'll be terrible for the both of us."

Warren clenches his jaw tightly and stares straight ahead. Patiently, Betsy waits for him to open up to her as they speed down the highway. Several minutes pass and he still has not spoken. Tentatively, she reopens their psychic link and finds that Warren is transmitting no thoughts or emotions through the rapport. She pushes just a little at his mind but discerns that he has erected all of the psychic shielding Xavier ever taught him. Psylocke could force his end of the link open yet she decides against it, realizing that would not only compromise his trust in her, but might even cause him injury.

She reaches out to touch his hand and he flinches as if he is startled. Retreating to her side of the car, she says, "Warren don't shut me out. Not now."

Ignoring her, he once again tugs on his harness, cursing under his breath. Suddenly he pulls over to the shoulder of the road and slams on the breaks. The tires squeal in protest and Betsy is thrown forward by the sudden stop.

She stares at Warren in disbelief as he rips off his shirt and unbuckles his harness. As he opens the car door he is oblivious to the oncoming traffic. Betsy stares in horror at the large truck that honks loudly and swerves to miss him as he steps out of the car. For a moment, she wishes she had the power to seize his mind and make him get back in. With his shields fully in place she knows she could never do it. Even without them, she could only plant a suggestion in his mind. So instead, as he spreads his large white wings, she yells at him, "Get back in the car, Warren! You're scaring me!"

Unbuckling her seat-belt, she scrambles across to the open door and takes hold of his hand, tugging fiercely at it. Warren turns to look at her as she pleads, "Please don't go... don't act as if you don't care."

He shuts his eyes and says, "That's the problem. I care too much."

Freeing his hand from her grip, he flaps his wings and flies into the mid-afternoon sky. Betsy watches him until she can't see him anymore and finally shuts the door, tears welling in the corners of her eyes as she clutches Warren's discarded shirt in her hands. She sits a moment, crying into the cotton fabric and hating it for smelling like him, before she shifts the car's gears into drive and resumes her journey to the Xavier Institute.

* * *

Jean Grey-Summers sits uneasily in the living room of the remodeled boat-house, listening to Logan explain their teammate's difficulties. While her friend does not go into detail about Psylocke's situation, he does explain what Jean's role should be in this afternoon's Danger Room session as he paces the floor in front of her.

"I don't know the exact mechanics of it, darlin', but I just want ya to make sure that she's fine. That she ain't being influenced by any outside forces. And when she uses her new powers we need to know what effects they have on her. Don't want her goin' all delusional. I think ya should stay linked with her during the whole exercise if ya can."

"How long a session were you planning?"

He stops pacing and stands in the middle of the room, looking at Jean. "An hour if things go well."

Making eye-contact with him, she says, "I can do that. The only thing is she has to be willing to maintain the link. She does know what you're planning doesn't she?"

Nodding slowly, he says, "She knows that I wanted ya in on this. Obviously she's prepared for something like that."

"I'm sure she is... why else would you want me in there with you?" Logan resumes his pacing and she sighs deeply before continuing, "So, we'll both be in the observation booth and run a standard simulation, tailoring it to Psylocke's skills?"

She watches him plod along the same path he's been walking for the past twenty minutes as he answers, "Yep. I want to see her to use her teleportin' powers and find if there's anything else unusual about her since the last time she used the Danger Room. Think we can find records of her last run?"

"I'm sure we can. Scott should..."

Wolverine stops pacing again and turns to face her, "Nope. I don't want to get Scott involved in this. No offense, Jeannie, but Psylocke wanted this to be as unofficial as possible. Ya know Scott, ya ask him to help ya find one thing and he turns it all into something bigger than it is."

"I understand. Scott is taking his new role here pretty seriously. Still, I don't want to be all mysterious about this. He likes to be informed about things."

Continuing his pacing, Logan says, "Sent Hank to talk to him 'bout it. I knew he'd be more patient with him."

Jean tries to relax and takes a sip of her iced tea then places it back on the coffee table, but Logan's anxiety is so palpable that she's having trouble blocking it out. "But it's standard policy that Scott be present for an evaluation of one of the X-Men. I think it's especially important he be present if she's going to be rejoining us soon, considering how her powers have changed so much."

"Normally, I'd agree with ya on this one. But..." Logan stops in the middle of his path across the floor and looks out the window as he says, "Aw, Hell. Mind if we finish this outside? I need a smoke in a bad way. Hank wouldn't let me smoke in the car, and Wings don't allow it at his place."

She follows him to the door and says, "By all means, you've been driving me insane with your pacing. Plus it's a beautiful day. I could use some sunshine." Watching him as he retrieves a cigar from his pocket and fumbles with his trench lighter, she adds, "Something tells me this nervousness isn't about needing a smoke."

Logan smiles at her as he holds the cigar between his teeth and lights it. He puts the lighter back in his pocket and says, "Nope. Just helps take the edge off."

She watches him puff happily on his cigar for a few moments before his mood returns. She then asks, "What were you saying in there? What was going to come after the 'but'?"

"Oh, that." Logan looks around a minute before he continues, "She ain't coming back to the X-Men, Jean."

Looking out over Spuyten Dyvil Cove, she offers, "But last I talked to Warren, he hoped they'd be back to the team within half a year."

"So did she." He exhales a cloud of smoke, letting it billow around the two of them before he remembers his manners and fans it away with his hand. "I'm only telling ya this, 'cause I can't tell anyone else, 'specially her."

"I understand. Mum's the word."

"I knew I could count on ya, Red." He takes a moment and another puff from his cigar before he continues, "I'm not sure if she's gonna make it through this one. I messed up, Jean. I got her into something I don't think she can get out of."

Jean turns and looks down at him, studying him intently and is convinced that he truly believes what he's saying. She then smiles at him as she says, "Well, I know you say you're the best at what you do, but last I checked that wasn't predicting the future. Don't give up yet."

"Ya know what they say... hope for the best but expect the worst."

"Oh, don't give me any of that glass half-empty crap. It'll work out. She's an X-Man after all."

Logan snorts as he says, "Yeah, right."

"That's enough of that." Grabbing the cigar out of Logan's mouth, she laughs hysterically at the shocked expression on his face. She considers taking a puff, thinking that might break his sour mood, but Logan starts laughing with her and she extinguishes it on the gravel driveway outside the boat house.

"Don't tell me ya gonna start buggin' me about smoking, too. Ya know I won't ever get cancer from 'em."

Jean flashes him a wry grin and says, "Come on, I just sensed Betsy close by. Let's go to the mansion, we have enough time to walk." They begin the walk to the main part of the estate as she stops for a moment and asks Logan, "Was Warren coming with her?"

He raises an eye-brow and says, "Yeah. Why?"

"Because he's not with her."

Growling quietly, he seethes, "Great, just great."

* * *

Remy LeBeau sits in his usual position on top of the mansion's roof. It's the place he normally does most of his deep thinking or to be truthful, brooding. Today is different, however. Today, he's just getting some fresh air. After three days of rain the sky is clear and beautiful, and for the first time in weeks he's found himself thinking about Rogue only four out of every five minutes. The fact that her and Joseph are out of the mansion today, and on separate errands from one another helps the matter greatly. He thinks to himself, 'Mebbe dey stay separate and quit annoyin' me fo' once.'

His thoughts are interrupted by a silver, E-class Mercedes pulling into the gates and approaching the main house. He recognizes the car as Warren's and watches Logan walk to greet the driver. Out of the corner of his eye he catches a glimpse of red hair, and then turns to see Jean standing far off from the car. 'Now dat's funny. Why Jean not wit' him?'

His mental question is answered as he sees Betsy step from the car alone and take Logan's hand. He watches them talk, avoiding the temptation to read their lips. Though curious, he decides not to step over the line. He's sure that Jean is aware of his presence and the only reason she hasn't graced him with a telepathic message is that she trusts him enough not to eavesdrop. Logan probably knows he's near as well because of his heightened senses, and for that matter Betsy might too because of her abilities. So Gambit keeps to himself, content that they have allowed him to silently watch the soap-opera unfold beneath him. After a few minutes, Wolverine motions for Jean to join them and Remy watches as her and Betsy exchange greetings. While he was secretly hoping for a cat-fight between the two, he's sure this outcome is much better in the long run. He then turns his attention away from the trio for a moment and looks up at the sky. Off in the distance he sees a rather large bird. Squinting his eyes, he looks closer and finds that it is a rather man-shaped bird at that.

'Uh-huh. Dis be gettin' interestin' after all,' he thinks as he watches Warren dive and swoop far away. To Gambit it appears that he is coming toward the mansion, but is taking his time about it.

Below him he hears the car's trunk slam shut and watches as the three walk toward the house. Jean lingers a few paces behind them and just as she is about to disappear from Gambit's view, she looks up at him very knowingly. Too knowingly for his tastes. He looks out again at Warren's silhouette and understands that Jean has just asked him check up on the errant X-Man once he arrives. He shakes his head and says to himself, "Oui. Real interestin'."

Part Nine

Psylocke neatly folds the clothes she arrived at the Xavier Institute in and puts them in a locker. Her old locker. Written in Scott's precise handwriting, her code-name is still taped to the outside. She smiles as she casually searches the locker's contents, finding an old picture of Brian and Meggan. She considers putting it in her bag to take home later, but instead tacks it back up on the door.

As she fixes the picture to the inside of her locker, another photo breaks free from it's adhesive backing and flutters to the floor, landing face-down by her feet. She sits on the bench behind her and picks up the photograph. It's of her and Warren, taken nearly a year ago. She resists the urge to crumple it in her hand and instead glares at Warren's image. Her anger softens as she examines his image more carefully, noticing the huge smile plastered across his face and the dreamy look in his eyes. The man in the photo is definitely a man in love, even Betsy's frustration with him can't deny that fact. So she places the picture back in its original place, fighting back tears and asking audibly, "Why do you have to go and be such a prat, Warren? Why now... when I need you the most?"

Shaking her head slowly, she sits back down and pulls her knees into her chest, hugging them tightly. In a way, she understands Warren's flight. She knows he's just as scared as or probably more than she is. But that knowledge doesn't make the fact that he's gone any easier to deal with. She knows they should be facing this together instead of apart. Wiping her eyes dry, she makes a decision. When she's done with her Danger Room session, she's going to find Warren and make him see what an idiot he's been. Though she's hoping he'll figure that out on his own and save her the trouble.

Sifting through her bag, she removes her carefully packed katana and places it, still sheathed, on the bench in front of her. Pulling her uniform's pink sash out of her duffel, she curses under her breath as it catches on something inside the bag. When she investigates, she finds that Logan has packed more than just one uniform for her. He's seemed to gather bits and pieces from some of her other costumes.

She removes the Lady Mandarin head piece which snagged her sash and slips the fabric off of one of the helm's points, frowning at the small tear in the fabric. Warily, she places it on her head and walks to one of the full length mirrors to view herself. She squints her eyes menacingly and bears her teeth for effect before throwing the head-piece on the floor with a loud clang.

She thinks, 'This isn't me anymore,' as she walks back to her locker, leaving the helm dented and alone on the tile floor. Sifting through her bag again, she finds parts of her old armor: one of the suits she took from Revanche's room after her death.

'This is bordering on cruel, Logan.' She tosses away a chest plate from that armor, jumping slightly at the sound of it hitting another locker with a sharp crash. At the bottom of the bag, she finds the uniform she wore when she first joined the X- Men. Disdainfully, she pulls at the pink neck of the garment, intending to rip it to shreds. But something stops her, call it sentimentality or nostalgia, and she tearfully hangs it in her locker, undamaged.

Retrieving the head-piece, the chest plate, and the rest of the older garb Logan put into her bag, she places them in her locker with similar reverence before she closes the door. As she ties her sash around her waist, she thinks, 'This isn't really me, either.'

Standing again in front of the mirror, she looks hard at herself, examining the ribbons snaking their way around her arms and legs and the face that seems to change every time she begins to get used to it. She asks herself as she stares deep into the reflection of her purple eyes, standing out awkwardly from her almond-shaped lids and the glaring red tattoo covering the left side of her face, "Who are you, Betsy?"

Sighing deeply, she turns away from the mirror and pulls her hair up into a pony-tail, fastening it with an elastic band. As she exits the locker room and clicks off the light switch, she mutters to herself, answering her own question, "No better time than the present to find out."

* * *

Sitting uneasily on a hill overlooking Breakstone Lake, Warren Worthington is busy berating himself. Jaw clenched tightly, he's taking out his wrath on most of the blades of grass within his reach. Tearing fistful after fistful from the ground around him, he mutters to himself, "I'm such an idiot," over and over. He's so deeply involved with his own self-loathing that he doesn't notice as someone approaches from behind.

Still shivering slightly from the cold air he encountered higher in the atmosphere, the afternoon sun has yet to warm his chilled skin. Yet, the fact that he left his shirt behind with Psylocke is one of the lesser things he's beating himself up over. Dropping his head into his hands in frustration, he moans to himself, "Why do I have to be such a jerk?"

"'Cause dat be de way you are, plain an' simple."

Startled, Warren snaps his head up and meets the eerie gaze of Remy LeBeau. Trying to look as dignified as possible in front of his former teammate, he brushes blades of grass off his khaki pants, sits up straight, wipes his eyes and tries to hide the fact that he's pretty much falling apart. "What are you doing here, Gambit?"

Putting his hands in his pockets and looking down mirthfully at Archangel, Remy says, "Looks like I be talkin' t' you. 'Gainst my better judgement, 'course."

Crossing his arms defensively over his chest, Warren squints uneasily up at the Cajun from his seated position and seethes, "Then why don't you just leave me alone?"

"Two reasons. No, wait. Dere be t'ree. First, it be obvious you need t' talk. Second, dere's a redhead up at de house who kill me if I don't. And t'ird, well I got nothin' better t' be doin'."

After counting off his reasons for being where neither party involved wants him to be, Gambit casts Warren a mischievous smile. A smile which no doubt would make hearts any side of the Mason-Dixon line melt, but just serves to annoy Archangel even further. Warren rolls his eyes as he says, "If you haven't noticed, LeBeau, I'm not wearing a skirt. That charm of yours isn't going to go very far with me."

Remy sighs and sits down on the grass next to him as he says, "It be a hard t'ing t' turn on an' off, non? Jus' tryin' to lighten' de mood."

Dropping his head again into his hands, Warren speaks quietly, "Maybe I want to be in a bad mood."

They both sit for a while without talking, the birds chirping noisily in the trees and the water lapping gently on the lake shore in front of them. It becomes obvious to Warren that ignoring Gambit isn't going to make him go away, so he ventures, "Jean sent you to check up on me?"

Remy looks straight ahead toward the lake as he answers simply, "Oui."

"Why didn't she come to talk to me?"

He keeps looking toward the water as he says, "I t'ink she be busy wit' Betsy."

Warren noticeably stiffens at the mention of Betsy's name and asks timidly, "You saw her when she got here?"


Turning to look at Gambit, Warren's eyes brim with remorse and self-hatred. The cajun still stares straight ahead, avoiding eye- contact with him, respecting the last bastion of Warren's privacy. Understanding the gesture for what it is, Warren initiates the beginning of the conversation he knows is inevitable, "Did she look upset?"

"Non. She look herself. Cool as a cucumber, like she been since her accident."

Warren sighs heavily then says, "Betsy's over that. She's back to her old self. Which means..."

Gambit finally turns to look at Warren, accusation etched all over his face as he says, "Which means she be real angry."

Rubbing his forehead in attempt to relieve some of his tension, Warren says, "Yes, I guess it does."

"An' my guess be she be angry wit' you?"

His eyes meet Gambit's uncanny red on black gaze and then retreat back to the ground in front of him as he answers, "And you'd guess right."

"What did you do t' her, mon ami?"

Unable to bear Remy's admonishing tone any longer, Archangel glares angrily at him and snaps in response, "First off, since when have we been friends? And second, who are you to be judging me? You're the one who's repeatedly lied and kept things from Rogue. Who knows what else you're hiding from her. You're such a hypocrite! I can't believe you're sitting here criticizing me of all people!"

Remy laughs softly to himself and grins icily as he retorts, "I ain't accused you of nothin'. Jus' calm down, homme. T'ought we'd try an' figure dis one out together... so's you and Betts get back each other's good graces."

Squinting uneasily at Remy, Warren asks, "Why do you want to help me?"

"I already tol' you dose t'ree reasons. And dat red-headed reason number two is pretty threat'n, non?" Warren smiles weakly at Gambit as he continues, "So, what you do? Got another cherie on de side?"

Warren glares angrily at him and Remy says with a smile, "Okay dat not be it. Mebbe you jus' tell me so we don't be playing twenty questions all day?"

Groaning in annoyance, Warren says, "Alright I'll talk, but it's against my better judgement."

Stretching his legs out in front of him, Gambit makes himself more comfortable as he says, "Some of de best t'ings in life be against a person's 'better judgement,' non?" Warren nods in agreement as Remy continues, "So go on ahead and keep in min' reason number t'ree... I got nothin' better t' do. As strange as it be for de both of us, I'm here for you."

Catching the sincere look in Gambit's eyes, Warren returns it and says, "Thanks, Gambit. Thanks."

* * *

As Betsy stands alone in the cold, metal box affectionately referred to by the X-Men as the Danger Room, she hears the comm system crackle to life and Logan's gruff but concerned voice ask, "Ya ready to go, Betts?"

Looking up to the glass of the Control Room's view-port, Betsy says awkwardly, her voice bouncing off the empty walls, "As I'll ever be."

Jean's telepathic voice scurries across her surface thoughts, *We'll need to make mind-to-mind contact, Betsy.*

*As I told Logan, I'm ready.*

*No, you're not. You're not prepared to let me get any closer than I am now.*

*You mean?*

*Yes, drop the shields and let me in. I know it's hard, Betsy. But I'm here. You've got to trust me. I won't let anyone hurt you. Once I'm in, your defenses will be even stronger.*

Trust and Jean. Two words Betsy has never placed together before. Sure the two have trained together several times on the astral plane, but this is different. This time she'd be letting Jean into her inner-most thoughts, her inner-most self. Her demons would sit naked in front of another person. In all her life she's only let one other person into her mind that deeply. She's only let Warren in in fits of madness where she needed his stability to make it through the horrible nightmares that threatened to destroy her sanity. After this afternoon's scene, she isn't sure if she can trust again so quickly.

Seated next to Logan in the control booth, Jean senses Betsy's anxiety over Warren and she sends, *It's okay, Betsy. He's here now and feeling like a complete ass.*

Smirking to herself, Betsy returns, *Good.*

*He's out by the lake now, talking to Gambit.*

The comment strikes her as odd, but she lets it slide as she telepathically informs Jean, *But I can barely feel him. I didn't even know he was here.*

As she slips deeper into Betsy mind, Jean takes the opportunity to do a little inventory. *Your rapport is still functioning. It's just blocked... on your end.*

*My end?*

Jean nudges the rapport with an astral probe, gently enough not to cause any change, but urgently enough to learn more about it's status. *Yes. It seems you've cut him off. There's a slight trickle of emotions coming through, though. Enough to keep him aware of you, but that's all. You must have done it subconsciously.*

*That's odd. I thought it was his doing.*

*We can deal with this later. Meanwhile, you've seemed to let me get pretty comfortable in here. It's amazing what you can do when you're not even thinking about it.*

*Chalk it up to self-training, Jean. I don't always operate as per Xavier's cookie-cutter rules of psychic protocol.*

Chuckling at Psylocke's sarcasm, Jean retorts, *That predictable are we?*

Logan's voice interrupts their mental conversation as he says, "Alright, enough of the chit-chat. Damn telepaths always carrying on conversations behind everyone's back. I can't take ya girls anywhere."

Both Jean and Betsy grin to themselves, sharing an expression that is extraordinary in it's similarity. Logan shakes his head and looks over at Jean, her face set in an unearthly glow by the lit control panel in front of her, and tries to figure out whose smile she is smiling. He shudders as he realizes the woman next to him, for the moment, isn't completely herself and neither is the woman on the floor of the Danger Room. In fact, they're a bit of each other.

Noticing the shocked expression on her friend's face, Jean says to Logan, her words edged with a slight British accent, "Don't worry, Logan. We're just getting used to each other. Everything should be falling into place just about... now."

Jean pats Logan gently on the arm and motions for him to start the Danger Room exercise as Betsy readies her katana and crouches in a defensive position. Suddenly, the walls of the room shimmer and contort and Betsy finds herself surrounded by a throng of ninjas, their eyes completely devoid of life, their swords drawn and ready for action.

Part Ten

Wolverine watches as Psylocke maneuvers her way deftly through the holographic ninjas running on the Danger Room's simulation. He increases the difficulty level on her exercise for the fourth time since its beginning. This time the number and skill of her opponents increase and even more obstacles are added, giving both parties an advantage. As he watches the scene play out beneath him, he finds it difficult to fathom that she's been away from battle for so long.

One by one, the synthesized ninjas disappear in a twinkling of light as Psylocke slices through them, in effect "killing" them from the computer's holographic program. She uses the large metal obstacles as tools, often skirting their shadows until she becomes a part of them. Logan notices this and as soon as she moves out into the open, he rolls his chair over to another control panel.

As he taps one of the buttons, Jean asks, "What are you doing, Logan?"

"Turning the lights up and anglin' 'em so that there ain't no shadows. She's been using them to her advantage. I don't want her 'portin' 'til she's under more controlled conditions."

She smirks at him in amusement as she says, "It doesn't get much more controlled than the Danger Room."

Ignoring Jean's levity, Logan answers her firmly, "Danger Room's always had problem's with teleporters. Not much that can hold one o' them. And we don't know the range of her powers. Girl could end up materializing in Timbuktu for all we know."

"You worry too much."

"Got reason to worry, Jeannie." Logan monitors the energy usage panel before he says, "She looks fine from up here. Just as good as she ever was. How's she holdin' up on your watch?"

"Fine, fine. She's going through the motions just fine. Pretty normal for what she's going through. No outside influences what-so-ever. Looks like this Gomurr fellow you told me about has kept his promise. She is a little fatigued and she thinks she's rusty, though. But not bad at all for being out of the loop for as long as she has."

Logan turns to face Jean and checks the small console on the arm of his chair once more before he asks, "But how is she doin'?"

"Logan, I don't think I have the right..."

"Screw yer ethics, Jean. I need to know."

Jean sighs deeply and closes her eyes for a moment before she says, "Okay... but this just between the two of us. I'm only going to talk to you about it because I know how you feel about this and her. I'm going to break the link, though. I don't think she needs me anymore."

Logan nods his head as he looks at the time. Forty-five minutes have elapsed and he thinks it's about time they moved on. He sets an end sequence on the emulator routine so that once Betsy clears all the holograms, the program will self-terminate. He watches Jean as she discontinues the temporary link with Psylocke. Tension spreads across her face as she backs out slowly from Betsy's mind. She's using her full concentration to remove herself with no residual effect, a feat which is all the more difficult when performed on a another telepath.

When it looks like she is finished, Logan asks her again, "How's she doing?"

Jean slumps into her chair, releasing all the stress the mind-link caused as she says wearily, "She's tired, Logan. Very tired. Tired of always having to prove herself, having to save herself from some oppressor or another."

Worry penetrating every line of his face, Logan says quietly, "She's not planning on giving in, is she?"

"Oh, Lord no. This is Psylocke we're talking about. She'd never do something like that. It's just happened so many times in her life already. Being a telepath seems to make her a target for things like this. She's more sensitive because of her power. More dangerous, too. But she's not going to give in, she's too afraid of what's going to happen to her for that to be an option... plus she has so much to lose this time around."


"Yes. If she's going to get through this, it's because she wants to do it for him. For them, for their future."

* * *

"So you sayin' dat it's not needin' her you be afraid of, but de fact dat she might need you?"

Warren skips a stone across the water of Breakstone Lake as he answers, "Exactly."

"Non." Remy LeBeau sits a few feet away from the lake's shore and takes a drag off his cigarette. He chuckles to himself as Warren fans the smoke away from his face as he approaches. Then out of deference for his teammate, he extinguishes it on the well manicured lawn before he continues, "Non. You be wrong. Dat ain't why you flew the coup on her out on de highway. You was afraid because you needed her too much. Not de other way 'round. A bird like you pretend he never need nobody. If you needed someone, dat make you look weak. And you don't want ta look weak in front o' anybody. 'Specially somebody you love as much as her. You been lying ta yourself, mon ami."

Sitting down on the grass next to Remy, Warren says, "Thank you Dr. Jung, but I still don't get it."

Gambit shakes his head before he says, "It be easy. You afraid of losing her, so you shut yourself off from her so you don't get hurt. De problem is dat you past the point of bein' able to dat. You care too much, got too much stock in her."

He fidgets with another cigarette in his pack, twirling it unlit between his fingers. Resisting the urge to light it, he tucks it behind an ear as he continues, "Dat why you act all crazy back dere. Dat why you make dat scene. Your flair for de dramatic is pretty int'restin', though. Instead of just shutting people out an' bein' done wit' it, you want dem to know you doin' it in a big blaze of glory. Sound 'bout right, non?"

Warren stretches his legs out in front of him and says, "I've never been one for subtlety."

"An' dat's probably one o' de reasons why she wit' you. Use dat to your advantage. Cook her a big dinner to make it up to her, fill de apartment wit' flowers. Wine her, dine her. Dat be de way back into her heart."

As he watches the sun glint across the lake, Warren sighs heavily and says, "I don't think that's the right move this time. I think a simple 'I'm sorry, I love you,' is the perfect solution. Drama is probably the last thing she needs right now. Considering..."

As Warren's words trail unspoken, Gambit turns to look at his teammate, wanting to know what he's left unsaid. Torn over whether he's curious because of concern for Warren or his own pathological inquisitiveness, he still decides to ask the obvious, "Considering what?"

Warren closes his eyes as he says quietly, "Considering that no matter what we do and say in the next day... I still might lose her forever. That I might lose the one shining ray of light in my life, that I might lose the one person that ever had any faith in me, that... that..."

As Warren chokes on his words and covers his face with his hands, Remy knows that he's hip-deep in unfamiliar territory. He sits awkwardly by Archangel's side, not knowing how he should handle the situation unfolding before him. Gambit's not sure how his teammate would take a reassuring pat on the shoulder and doesn't think that it's even in him to give. If there's one thing he's learned about Warren Worthington while he's been an X-Man it's that he doesn't often exhibit himself as he is at this moment. So he lets Warren keep his distance and volunteers, "It's okay, homme. You don't need t' go on. I'll leave you alone."

Warren nods his head and Gambit stands to leave. Just as Remy is about to walk away, Warren grabs his wrist and says, looking up at him with fear filling his bright, blue eyes, "No. Don't go. I want... I need to talk about this. So I can be... there for her. So I can be as strong as she needs me to be."

Remy stands a while with Warren's grip still clinging to his wrist and the two exchange the most meaningful look they've ever shared. For the first time in his life Remy actually feels sympathy for the man in front of him, the man he has always been so jealous of for having everything and not knowing, for being a part of something special and good. At this moment, he realizes that his perception has always been a facade, that he was only seeing in Warren what he projected, that the man holding desperately onto his arm isn't all that different from himself, that he is just as much as a loner and a misfit as he is. Warren's troubles just come in a different package.

With this realization in mind, Remy sits again on the ground as Warren asks, "So you'll stay and listen?"

Nodding his head slowly, he says, "Oui."

* * *

As the last of Psylocke's holographic opponents shimmer out of existence, she laughs up at the view-port, "I thought you could do better than that, old man!"

Wolverine's voice echoes in the now empty room, "Oh I could do a lot better than that, darlin'. It's just these simulated ninja's aren't as sturdy as they used to be."

Betsy smirks to herself as she sheaths her katana and slings it over her shoulder. "So how'd I do?"

She hears Jeans voice now over the comm system say enthusiastically, "You did great, Betsy. We'll have a full debriefing after we test your teleportation powers."

"I noticed you two were trying to keep me out of the shadows."

As a few of the room's lamps click off noisily around her, Logan says, "Just tryin' to do what we thought was best."

Betsy looks around her and notices that the lights have been dimmed in such a pattern such as to leave several pools of shadow on the room's floor. As she walks out of one of the unlit areas and into the light, she can feel the shadows' power, their willingness to be used. It's much different than the feeling she had on the rooftop last night with Gomurr. She knows she has control over these patches of darkness, that they are not capable of controlling her. Still, she is afraid of somehow getting lost in the world of darkness that is still very new to her.

"So what's the plan, Logan?"

"We're going to get ya to make yer way from shadow to shadow and see what happens. See if ya can control where ya end up."

"Sounds pretty basic to me."

Jean's voice penetrates the now near dark of the Danger Room as she says, "That's the hope, Betsy. After a few minutes if everything's going well and your power hasn't short circuited anything... which we're thinking it won't due to the nature of your teleportation... we'll aim for longer ranges."

Psylocke takes a deep breath, not sure how comfortable she'll be with longer distance teleportation. She looks at the shadows nervously, suddenly panicked by her inexperience with them. Darting her gaze quickly to the control booth above her, she asks urgently, "Will you be here, Jean?"

"Only if you want me to be."

She shakes her head and then taps her forehead with her index finger as she says, "No. Here."

As Jean makes a superficial bond with Psylocke, Betsy feels an amiable warmth spread across her thoughts. *Yes, Betsy. I'll be here if you want.*

Betsy's psionic voice is shaky as she returns, *Please. I'm...* She pauses a moment before she continues, realizing how impossible it is to hide emotions from someone when linked telepathically, *I'm afraid of being alone... in the dark.*

*I understand. I really do. I'll just keep this superficial bond. I don't think you need me where I was before. You're doing great, Betsy. Just remember... you're not alone. Never alone.*

*Thanks, Jean.*

Logan's voice booms over the intercom, "Okay, ya ready to start, Betts?"

Betsy swallows hard, fighting down the lump in her throat and attempting to center herself for the task at hand before she says, "Ready."

"Then let's go."

Betsy walks to the nearest shadow and lets the darkness seep into herself. Now ankle-deep, it feels as if she is wading in a cold, but calm body of water, not at all like the tempestuous sea she almost drowned in less that twenty-four hours earlier. As she begins to welcome the sensation, she sinks deeper into the floor and her entire body is encased in darkness. All that is visible to her two friends above is the red tattoo covering part of her face.

Then she is gone.

Caught between shadows, Betsy has a moment of panic but feels the soothing effect of Jean's bond and quickly gets her bearings. She focuses her concentration and visualizes a shadow in the corner of the Danger Room near the door. Almost instantaneously, she emerges from the darkened corner, shadows dripping off her skin like water.

Exhilarated with her accomplishment, Betsy steps into a lighted patch of the room and squints as she covers her eyes from its harsh brightness. Addressing Logan and Jean again, she says, "I think I'm getting used to this."

"Well let's try it again to make sure, darlin'. Don't want ya messin' with fire just yet."

Betsy successfully teleports within the walls of the Danger Room for a good half hour, emerging from the shadows more confident and self-possessed with each try. As she begins to trust herself more within the darkness, each jump becomes more fluid and precise. For the first time since she's wielded her shadow-hopping power, it becomes a tool, an effective instrument. Though initially afraid of it's cold power, she has come to understand the possibility of it. Yet, while she embraces it's darkness... she must remember to step into the light.

Materializing out of a pool of darkness, Betsy steps into it's physical antithesis. Shadows still licking at her feet like the ebbing of a tide, she closes her eyes and tilts her face up at the warm lamp above her head. She draws a deep, cleansing breath and asks the empty walls, "So, what's next?"

* * *

"I t'ink dat's what we all be wonderin'." As Gambit fiddles again with his still unlit cigarette, Warren nods his permission, understanding his urge and in a way thanking him for his attentiveness.

Remy draws in a deep breath of yellow smoke and after he releases it, he smiles and says, "I t'ink we all wonder when we ever gonna belong."

Dragging a hand through his wind-blown hair, Warren remarks, "Yeah. But I think I've found where I do. With who."

Gambit nods in agreement as Warren continues, "It's always been hard for me around here. Even when it was just the five of us and the Professor. I always felt like an outsider. Jean had Scott and Scott had Jean. Bobby, Hank and I were tight and while we were all friends... I still wasn't the best-friend. Maybe because I played up the millionaire-playboy persona so much. I'm sure they thought that I didn't need their support, that I was fine on my own. And I tried to think I was. And then it all started falling apart."

Sitting quietly while Warren chooses his next words, Gambit promises himself that someday he'll tell Warren the truth about what he knows is coming next in conversation. Someday, when he knows that the truth won't hurt as terribly for either of them.

Hugging his knees tightly against his bare chest, Warren says, "After Apocalypse... wait. I won't go there. I promised Betsy I wouldn't live in the past. You know what happened. Who doesn't? But the one thing that still gives me nightmares about the whole thing was how lonely it was. How cold it was. I think losing Candy made it even harder. Not that I even had her anymore. After then, I just shut everyone out. Never let anyone get close."

Warren pauses to watch a duck waddle across the lake shore, quacking loudly to herself as if she were amused with some great joke, before he continues, "The trouble was, I needed help more than ever. I knew that I wasn't evil anymore. Even though I knew I was a threat or a loose cannon, I knew that. I just didn't feel like I belonged with the X-Men. I think I was just around because of habit. Because I didn't have any other place to go. Who would want someone who looked and acted like me? And because of the way I felt, I hurt a lot of people. People who could have helped me, who tried to help me."

Smiling to himself, he turns to look at Gambit as he says, "And then I started spending time with Betsy. I think helping her through her problems helped me. What we went through was so similar in many ways. And I began to think if someone as special and as beautiful as her could go through what she did and come out radiant, so could I."

Engrossed in their rather one-sided conversation, Warren and Remy don't notice as a shadow beneath a small grove of pear trees changes shape behind them. So they don't observe Psylocke as she silently emerges from the darkness, bathed in shadow and listening intently to the words spoken by her lover. She smiles to herself, still half-immersed in the dark, small specks of sunlight glinting off her purple hair, mingling flirtatiously with the shade covering her from the shoulders down.

As Betsy happily eavesdrops five meters away, Warren continues, "Betsy made me feel the one thing I hadn't felt in forever. She made me feel important, attractive, wanted. Loved. I felt like... I feel like a man again. A whole person. Finally, Gambit, I know where I belong. I belong with her."

"Den you be a lucky, lucky man," Gambit says as he finishes his cigarette. As he turns his head away from Warren to exhale the last puff of tobacco, he makes eye-contact with Betsy. Caught unawares, Betsy prays that Remy won't reveal her intrusion. Hoping he will play along, she winks at him and he returns the gesture.

Understanding that her secret is safe, Betsy slips once more into the shadows, knowing that she can't stay undetected by Warren for long due to his enhanced avian-like senses. As she disappears, he turns around, barely missing her departure. He squints his eyes, focusing his sharp eye-sight, and sees nothing but a few Bartlett Pear trees, their leaves dancing lightly in the breeze.

"That's odd... I could have swore something was there."

Gambit grins to himself as he says, "Not'in' dere, mon ami. It jus' de wind."

Part Eleven

"Nothing's as immediate as it was... We might have died then, after all, and gone on as Ghosts. Haunting this place, waiting to materialize, -- perhaps just at the moment of the Transit, the moment the Planet herself becomes Solid..."

Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon

As Ororo Monroe steps regally into the Danger Room's control booth, the doors swish shut behind her. After talking with Logan earlier in the morning, she thought it would be best if she stayed away from Betsy's afternoon training session. But as the hours wore on and she kept reflecting on Warren's phone call from the night before, she found that she could not resist the temptation to check on her teammate's, her friend's, progress. She plans to visit for only a moment, just long enough to assuage her worries or to affirm them. She knows Betsy wouldn't want her intruding on her personal crisis and realizes that the fact that she is even at the Xavier Institute is an encroachment on her privacy. So she vows to the Goddess that she will stay only a moment and visit Betsy only if she requests her presence.

She stands quietly behind Logan as he says, "I was wonderin' when ya'd show up."

Letting her hands rest on the back of his chair, she smiles as she says, "I tried very hard to stay away, old friend. But I find I cannot help but worry about her."

Jean sits silently, nodding a hello and monitoring a blinking panel in front of her as Logan adds, "We're all worried 'bout her, 'Ro."

Stepping forward a bit, Ororo looks out at the dappled floor of the Danger Room and asks, "So how is Elizabeth doing?"

Sighing somewhat wearily, Jean is obviously drained from dividing her attention between so many tasks during Betsy's exercise and comments to Ororo distractedly, "She's doing well. It seems she is completely free of the Crimson Dawn's mind-altering influences and is only a little out of shape. I'd say she's doing spectacularly considering what she's been through over the last few months."

Patting her friend reassuringly on the shoulder, Ororo asks, "And how are you doing, Jean?"

Smiling weakly, Jean says, "Oh, I'm hanging in there. It's just compartmentalizing my mind like this is so tiring. It's sort of like having three conversations at once."

Ororo nods, understanding how difficult keeping telepathic tabs on Betsy while physically monitoring the control readouts in front of her and participating in any dialogue taking place within the booth would be. Jean's years of familiarity with her own thought patterns make the feat possible, but her brand of mental multi-tasking is very exhausting. So she leaves Jean to her duties and searches for Betsy on the floor of the Danger Room as she asks Logan, "Where is Betsy?"

"I think she was shooting for the boat house."

"Teleporting I assume?"

"Yep. We've got her poppin' up places all over the Estate. I'm surprised she hasn't paid ya a visit, yet."

Making eye contact with Logan and resisting the urge to examine Betsy's progress on the playback panel, Ororo muses, "Now that I think upon the subject... I had the distinct feeling that there was a presence with me in the attic as I was tending to my plants."

Logan nods as he continues, "With her telepathy it's easier for her to find people instead of places. Nearly scared the stuffin' out of us when she showed up in the control booth. But right now we're trying to get her to focus on landmarks to separate her telepathy from her teleportation... though they work real well together. She can 'port to a person's position like second nature. Jean's in constant contact with her. We're gonna test the range of her jumps next."

Looking over her shoulder at the door, Ororo suggests, "Perhaps I should leave now?"

Logan touches her arm and says, "Nah. Ya can stay. You're not gettin' in the way at all, plus I don't think Betsy'd mind considering how worried ya are 'bout her."

Taking a seat in the corner of the room, Ororo says, "Thank you Logan. I promise to keep quiet."

Ororo observes the real-time view panel at her station in amazement as Betsy emerges from the shadows on the Danger Room floor. As she has only had the privilege of witnessing Betsy's newest and strangest talent once before, she is awe-struck as she watches darkness spill off Betsy's form like thick, black oil. As Psylocke's image steps into the light and she resumes her more familiar appearance, Ororo can't help but contemplate how much her friend has changed over the years. While she knows that Psylocke has become more powerful with each incarnation, power being a trait she always longed for, she also knows each form has taken it's toll and exacted a price from her soul. She prays this latest manifestation does not reflect any darkness which may have penetrated her deepest self, that it is as easy for her mind to step into the light as her body.

Putting such deliberations on hold for the time being, Ororo hears Jean say over the comm system, "You ready to go father, Betsy?"

"I think I am." Psylocke's response sounds odd to Ororo over the intercom, as if she were very far away. Though she knows Betsy is only a few feet away, the echoes of the Danger Room make it seem much farther.

Logan then speaks into the microphone, "How about we shoot for yer place in Soho first? Stay just long enough to get yer bearings and come right back, okay?"

After performing a mock-salute and saying playfully, "Roger! Will do," Betsy disappears into a pool of shadow. Eyes fixed on the monitor, Ororo holds her breath as her friend departs. Yet before her lungs even have the opportunity to demand more oxygen, she sees Betsy re-emerge from the same shadow.

Addressing Jean apprehensively, Psylocke says aloud, foregoing telepathic communication, "I ran into some trouble. The apartment was so empty... it didn't call out to me at all. I felt like I was getting lost. I couldn't make the jump the entire way."

Logan says into the microphone, "Coming right back was the right thing to do, darlin'. No need to take unnecessary risks."

Jean massages her temples with her fingers in an attempt to focus her concentration as she says, "Why don't you try to hone in on something familiar, comfortable? A favorite chair, a place with a happy memory. Something you can visualize before you even begin to teleport."

Betsy nods in agreement before she vanishes into the darkness. Again Ororo tenses at the disappearance of her teammate. She bites nervously on her bottom lip as the seconds tick by and stares unblinkingly at the place on the floor Psylocke should emerge from at any time. As the seconds turn into an agonizing minute, she anxiously looks around the room. Though Wolverine hasn't said a word, the tension radiating from him is almost palpable. However, the worry etched on his face isn't nearly as frightening as the horror radiating from Jean's.

A halo of psionic energy forms around her head as she grits her teeth and furrows her brow in frustrated concentration. Though struggling and stubborn to the last, Jean finally collapses in her chair, the pink glow of her telepathic power dissipating as she cries out to Logan, "She's gone! I've lost her!"

Scrambling to Jean's side, Logan says urgently, "What do you mean you've lost her? Jean, where'd she go?!"

Closing her eyes and shaking her head slowly, she says, "I... I don't know. She's not in Soho and nowhere on the grounds. She's nowhere on the damned Eastern Seaboard as far as I can tell!"

Her eyes open wide in shock, Ororo stands uneasily and says to no one in particular, "By the Goddess... we have lost her. Lost her to the darkness."

* * *

His heart thumping loudly in his ears, Warren races down the narrow halls leading to the Danger Room. Panicked by the telepathic call he received only moments before from Jean, his hands shake nervously as he taps in his entrance code to the de-briefing room's door. As the door opens, he sees Wolverine anxiously pacing the room and Ororo and Jean sitting uneasily on the room's long sofa, all in obvious states of worry and consternation.

Before he gives any of them a chance to speak, he exclaims, "Where's Betsy?! Jean! Where is she?! What have you done with her?"

Jean closes her eyes and shakes her head, still obviously tired from the afternoon exercise and now fueled by a large amount of self-blame. As Warren stands near the room's door, impatiently waiting for an answer from Jean, Logan decides to step in and puts a hand on his chest, ready to physically restrain the winged X-Man if need-be. Logan then says, "Now, hold on a minute! We don't need ya blamin' people for somethin' ya don't know anything about, yet. Just calm down."

Incensed by Wolverine's action and tone, Warren flinches under his grip as he seethes, "Calm down?! Calm down! I'm supposed to be calm after I get a telepathic message from Jean telling me that Betsy has disappeared and no one knows where she is? And then I come in here and see the looks on all of your faces?! It's obviously bad. Maybe worse than bad! And I'm supposed to be calm?!"

Jean looks over at Logan and says, "He's right Logan... let him vent. We're all friends here. Let him go."

Tentatively, Logan backs away from Warren, though his teeth are bared in a slight snarl. Warren glares at him disdainfully as he says, "So what the hell is going on!?"

After being greeted again with silence by Jean, Warren looks uneasily at Storm, pleading, "Storm? Please?"

Lines of worry etched deeply across her forehead, Ororo says quietly to him, "I do not know. She is gone. Lost."

Angrily, Warren balls his hands into fists and keeps them clenched tightly at his sides. He turns to look at Logan who is glaring straight ahead at the room's wall-sized monitor which is replaying the last moments of Betsy's time in the Danger Room. Finally, Jean rises out of her seat and approaches Warren. His anger and accusation subsiding due to the lamentable look on her face, he reaches out and touches her shoulder, saying quietly, "What is it Jean? Tell me, please."

Jean looks down at the floor as she says, "We were testing her teleporting abilities... I was in telepathic contact with her the whole time. After many successful short-range jumps, we wanted to try longer ranges. She had some trouble the first time... but she had been doing so well all day."

Taking a deep breath, Jean makes eye contact with Warren for the first time since he's entered the room and almost turns away from him as she sees the tears welling in his blue eyes. He's now gripped both of her shoulders with his hands and is hanging on every word she speaks, so she continues, "So we... I got her to try it again. And then I lost telepathic contact with her... I scanned as far as I could for her... Warren, she's just gone."

Warren stammers, "Wh-what about Cerebro?"

Behind him, Logan volunteers, "Out of commission since Onslaught. Been reduced to a piece of slag."

As Warren collapses to his knees on the floor, his eyes dart wildly around the room as he says quietly, "I should have been there... I should have been there for her."

He then tries to think of the next step, the next option, but his logic becomes impaired by the fears surfacing in his mind. All he can think of is Betsy being lost and alone, possibly not even self-aware anymore, floating in some cold, lifeless gate between realities. Defeatedly, he drops his head and covers his face with his hands as he fights the urge to scream, cry or mutilate anyone in the vicinity. Just as his anxiety is about to completely take over his rational mind, he feels Jean's arms around him. She attempts to soothe him, saying softly, "I'm so sorry, Warren. I'm so sorry."

As Logan starts to focus his own self-composure, he turns to look at Warren and Jean, kneeling together on the floor. He begins to get more of a handle on the situation and then looks over at Ororo who returns his gaze and nods her head, obviously ready to take a part in any plan for Betsy's recovery. Suddenly feeling sympathy for the man he always viewed with a large amount of disdain, he places a hand on Warren's shoulder as he says, "Don't ya worry, Wings. We'll do everything we can to get her back."

Warren sniffles quietly as Jean pulls away from him and stands to her feet. Looking up at Wolverine, he suddenly forgets all the animosity he felt toward him only seconds earlier and says, "Thank you, Logan. Thanks."

Helping Warren get to his feet, Logan says with a empathetic smile, "Then let's get to it, then."

Minutes later, the four X-Men are joined by Scott and Hank in the War Room. As Scott, invited to this impromptu meeting because of his outside perspective and his level-headedness, scrolls earnestly through the read-outs from Betsy's Danger Room session, he asks the group assembled in front of him, "So what are the options so far? I want to hear any scenario, any hypothesis for what might have caused this or where she might be."

As Warren stares bleary-eyed off into space and Jean shakes her head in frustration, Scott volunteers, "We need to pull it together, people. I know it's hard, but just treat it like another mission, another problem to solve. Psylocke needs us professional. She needs us to be X-Men. Wolverine?"

Logan approaches the room's long table and places both of his hands on the cold, smooth surface. Tilting his head down for a moment while he gathers his thoughts, he says, "She could be in the dimension of the Crimson Dawn. I don't trust Gomurr. Trust this Tar guy even less. He could have broken his promise to leave her alone until her challenge tomorrow night. That's my first guess at where she is."

Scott puts a reassuring hand on his wife's shoulder as he asks, "Jean?"

Jean props an elbow on the table and supports her head with her hand as she says cautiously, "Logan's theory could be an option. My telepathy might not be able to penetrate that reality. But I didn't feel any outside influences tugging at Betsy. She simply just vanished."

Casting a quick glance at Warren, who is shifting uneasily in his chair, Scott tries his best to scrutinize Jean's perspective closer, figuring that her contact with Betsy is their best lead. So he asks, "What did you get from her before she disappeared?"

Looking at Warren, she responds, "My link with her was very superficial at the time. She had done so well before and I thought that she didn't need me as her crutch... I..."

Squeezing her shoulder gently, Scott says tenderly, "We need you in the here and now, Jean."

Nodding slowly, Jean says as she gathers her thoughts, "You're right, Scott. You're right." Sitting up straight in her chair, she takes a deep breath as her demeanor changes, shifting into the veteran perspective her teammates know and rely on. "Before I lost contact with Psylocke, I told her to concentrate on something familiar, something comfortable in our target area which was her and Archangel's apartment in Soho. She had difficulties on her first attempt, so I thought this suggestion was the best direction."

Folding his arms over his chest, Scott says, "Good. That's a great place to start. Familiar? She might have just re-materialized someplace she's familiar with. The broken psi-link might just be a side-effect of longer distance jumps." Looking around the room at his teammates, he asks, "Options?"

Jean volunteers, "Warren is our best lead. He and Betsy have developed a psychic rapport. By their nature, rapports are much more sturdy than a mind link. They are fairly permanent. It could lead us right to her... though there may be complications." She glances at Warren as she says, "When I was in contact with Betsy, I noticed that the link was partially blocked."

Warren shakes his head in affirmation, trying his best to distance himself emotionally from his response as he says, "We had a fight. I might have pushed her away."

Reaching over to him and gently patting his hand before she speaks, Jean says, "Actually it was blocked on her end of the link." Brow furrowed in confusion, Warren listens to Jean as she continues, "I did notice that it wasn't severed, though. Also, Warren would be able to tell us if it has been."

Nodding as he begins to understand where Jean is taking the conversation, Warren offers, "No... it hasn't been terminated. There isn't much coming through... no emotions or thoughts what- so-ever. But there is a presence. It's very odd. The link was severed yesterday and it was agonizing. This is different. I'm definitely alone in my head... but I don't feel cut-off like I did yesterday." Finally finding a bit of hope to cling to, Warren says more optimistically, "It feels like she could re-initiate full contact at any time."

Frowning slightly, aware that her words may dash her friend's hopes, Jean offers to the discussion, "But with the current state of your link, a complete severance might have gone unnoticed."

Fighting Jean's constructively-critical stance, Warren blurts out, "But I feel her, Jean! She's not dead!"

Squinting his eyes and glaring at Warren, Logan says, "Nobody's saying she is."

Warren slams a fist on the table's surface as he says, "No, but that's what you're all thinking! You're thinking she's dead or disembodied or... or brain-washed in some nether-dimension!"

Ororo sits silently in the corner of the room, keeping her fears to herself as Hank scratches his furry chin and says, "Warren has a point. As X-Men, we are so accustomed to the unusual being commonplace that we are not properly attuned to more pragmatic happenstance."

Tapping an agitated foot on the floor, Logan growls, "In English, Beast."

"Perhaps she's just somewhere," Hank clears his throat before he finishes his sentence, "... hanging out. Jean did say she was to aim for the familiar. Perhaps a favorite haunt?"

* * *

If Betsy Braddock were a scientist, she might think that she's stuck in a worm-hole. If she were a philosopher, she might think that she's experiencing the complete melding of space, time, matter and thought. But she's a super-hero, so it's most likely she's thinking that she took a wrong turn in inter-dimensional limbo. The truth of the matter is that she's nowhere and she needs to get somewhere before her body and her self completely discorporate and end up everywhere.

So garnering the last bit of her concentration, she remembers Jean's last words of advice and focuses on something familiar, something beloved. Almost instaneously, she lands with a thud on a dew-drenched lawn. As she examines her surroundings, she notices that the sky above her is sprinkled with bright stars. She thinks to herself, 'Now that's odd... I didn't know so much time could pass.'

As she rises to her feet, she hits her head on an object hanging from a bough of a tree. Rubbing her tender forehead, she looks at the object and notices that it is nothing less than a wooden swing. Slowly, Betsy begins to recognize her surroundings and she says audibly, "It can't be."

In the distance, she hears a familiar Verdi opera and the soft tinkle of silver on china. As she walks toward the sounds, she sees light spilling out on a terrace she knows very, very well. When she approaches the patio through the manicured garden, she observes a form she knows even better, conducting an imaginary orchestra and sipping his evening coffee.

Quietly, she emerges from a shadowy path and steps into the artificial light illuminating part of the garden which is annexed to the large house. Smiling broadly, she then says, "Long time no see."

Dropping his cup and saucer in a loud crash, Brian Braddock quickly stands to his feet, mouth agape and eyes open wide in shock, before he collects himself enough to articulate, "Betsy?! Is that really you?"

Wrapping her arms around her brother in a warm, heart-felt embrace, Betsy squeezes him tightly as she says, "In the flesh."

As he returns the gesture enthusiastically, giving her a tremendous bear-hug and lifting her off her feet for a moment as she giggles in delight, Brian says, "Oh, how I've missed you!"

"Me too, Brian. Me too."

Part Twelve 

"Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow"

T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

The sun is setting over China Town and the X-Man known as Wolverine is not in a good mood. When the X-Men split up into smaller groups to search for the missing Psylocke, he volunteered to check out Little Asia. He thinks this is the most likely place Betsy Braddock would be after becoming lost while teleporting between shadows, that she has been once again pursued by the evil machinations of the Crimson Dawn, that anyone involved in the society of the Ebon Vein cannot be trusted. Now or ever.

While it pains him to return here, to make himself think about what almost happened to Betsy months ago, about what has happened to her since, in the back of his mind he is secretly elated. For this is the kind of environment Logan thrives in, the type of place that he's familiar with... Plus, he's looking forward to kicking some major butt. Let's just say that the day has left him more than a tad frustrated and he can't wait to cause a little ruckus, especially if it means roughing up the people, or rather the amorphous mystical entities, that have been playing with his friend's life since he made the mistake of getting her involved with them.

He's spent an hour searching the local tea houses, herb shops and restaurants for a wizened mystic who calls himself Gomurr the Ancient. As he ducks into an open-air market, hoping to find a trace or clue to lead him to the sorcerer, he growls quietly under his breath as he thinks to himself, 'He's gonna be called Gomurr the Extinct when I get ahold of him.

This part of New York City has always seemed like another, more exotic place to Logan. If he closes his eyes, listens to the sounds, and smells the scents of this community, he can almost imagine he is on another continent completely... almost. It's still too new to his seasoned senses to seem real. Yet he has to admit, it's a rather fine facsimile. There's just enough of the old in this New York neighborhood to make it interesting. This is a place where things beyond the imagination can and do happen.

Venturing into the middle of the market, Logan passes silently through assorted vendors and surveys his surroundings for anything extraordinary or too ordinary, understanding the best camouflage is often the most obvious. Just as Logan catches a familiar, musty scent he hopes will lead him to Gomurr, an elderly man pushing a heavy cart filled to brimming with oriental rugs accidently bumps into him. Even though the defenseless man smiles and nods his head in apology, Wolverine is tempted to unleash his bone claws and release all his pent up rage on the innocent man. Instead, he growls angrily and walks away, saving his energy for the battle he tacitly hopes will come as the merchant once again shoulders his heavy burden.

He searches the crowd again for signs of Gomurr and thinks back over Psylocke's situation and the events of the day. For the hundredth time, he mentally kicks himself for letting her fall into the clutches of the Crimson Dawn to begin with. He knew that getting her involved with it and the society it harbors would be nothing but trouble. But still, he knew that he had to do it. He couldn't let Betsy die. She'd been through too much already.

When Psylocke seemed a mystery, an enigma even, to his teammates, Wolverine was able to see clearly what everyone else puzzled themselves over. When he first met the British telepath, he thought her soft, vulnerable and way out of her league. And then she fought Sabretooth one-on-one in an attempt to save the injured survivors of the Morlock Massacre. Sabretooth: the man who always seems to tear his way into Logan's life, the man he still needs to make suffer for what he did to Betsy this time around.

But he was surprised that she held her own as long as she did during their first encounter. When she thought she was sacrificing herself for the good of the group, she really ended up proving what a warrior she was. And though she didn't have to sacrifice herself that day, Wolverine knew that she was willing to. From that moment on, he knew that inside her beat the heart of a hero, and even though she appeared defenseless on the outside, inside her lurked the strength of a tigress.

Logan thinks to himself how ironic it is now that she's hard as nails on the outside, tempered like steel by magic and sorcery; but her mind, her very soul, is more fragile than it's ever been. She still carries the quality he's always admired most in her, the delicate contrast between will and heart. Without even trying to, she's achieved the warrior spirit he's always strived for.

Yes, out of all his teammates, he thinks he understands Psylocke the best. And he thinks she understands him as well. It's probably the sole reason she was able to withstand a mind-link with him years ago when he found her in the clutches of the Hand, perhaps the only reason she was able to withstand his madness. In many ways, he misses the time they spent in Asia, just him, her and Jubilee. During those weeks, not only was he forming a strong bond with Jubilation Lee, who ended up changing his life in innumerable ways, but he was able to truly connect with Psylocke, to forge a deep bond of friendship. Sometimes he misses the psychic rapport they shared during that time. Though their bond became more insubstantial after their experience with the Hand, he still silently enjoyed the fact that someone understood it all, knew just for a while what it was like to be him, to just for a fraction of time share a soul. And even that didn't break her. If anything, it only made her stronger.

And while he's never pursued anything beyond friendship with Betsy, he's jealous of Warren... that she's gone forever from his mind, that her strength is a part of someone else. Every time he looks at her, he hopes that Warren knows exactly how lucky he is.

As his thoughts skim over his and Psylocke's odd history, he catches the scent he found before he encountered the elderly merchant. He begins to follow its trail. Each step he takes toward it makes him more confident that it will lead to Gomurr. It smells of magic and herbs and something very, very old. Something too old for New York, for America, for the "New" world. He quickens his pace, while not trying to appear too obvious, and rounds a corner, slightly craning his neck, expecting to gain a view of his prey.

Instead he is greeted with... "Fish! Fresh fish!"

A merchant holds a large fish by the tail in front of Logan's face and he almost walks into the slimy creature. "Fresh off the boat," he grins at Logan.

Wolverine slaps the silver-scaled fish out of his way as he attempts to track the now diminishing scent he was locked onto only seconds before. As the fish slips out of the vendor's grip and onto the counter beneath him, the Asian man grabs Logan by the shoulder and says, "Ah. You don't like? Maybe something better?"

With hands as fast as any Los Vegas card shark, the man pulls two long eels from beneath the counter and, clutching one in each fist, pushes them aggressively toward the X-Man. "You like these? They are delicacy."

He irritably swats the snake-like fish away and growls, "No thanks, bub."

The man smiles again as he returns the fish to their place under the counter, and Logan squints suspiciously at him while he apologizes. Next to the vendor, another man sinks his knife deep into the belly of a large sea bass, and as the red organs tumble out on the counter-top, a pungent aroma fills the air. As Logan loses the scent he hoped would lead him to Gomurr, the man cleaning the fish grins a crooked smile and Wolverine realizes he's just been set up.

Gomurr knows he's here.

The man with the cart, the seafood vendor: they were both designed to throw him off. Though angry with himself that in his distraction he fell for such a ruse, he can't help but gain a little more respect for the sorcerer. And while he knows he will inevitably find Gomurr, he hopes that his teammates are having better luck getting to the bottom of Psylocke's disappearance than he is.

* * *

High in the dusk-streaked sky over Central Park, Warren Worthington, the X-Man known as Angel on a good day, Archangel on a bad one, isn't faring any better than his teammate. While he isn't wading through the crowds of an open-air market, or fighting a fishy battle of wits against an ancient sorcerer, the conflict he finds himself in is no less real... for his enemy on this brisk New York evening is himself and the overflow of emotions he is fighting to keep at bay. He knows that he must stay focused and concentrate all his energies on the task at hand. But all he wants to do is fly keening into the stratosphere and give in to the crippling bout of pessimism which is currently pressing upon his thoughts like a lead weight.

For a fraction of a second he is able to forget that Psylocke is missing, lost who knows where, possibly forever gone from his life, and pretend that this is just another search-and-rescue mission. He circles lower over the park, using his sharp eye- sight to examine more of the lengthening shadows than the average person could. From his vantage point, he sees several joggers, people walking their dogs, teens carousing around portable stereos, hot dog vendors closing up shop for the evening, but no purple-haired ninjas.

As he changes his course, aiming to survey another area of the park, his communicator squawks loudly in his ear. Squinting painfully, he adjusts the frequency and lowers the volume as Storm's melodious voice emerges from the once squealing ear-piece. "Rogue, report."

Warren listens eagerly and intently as Rogue's thick, yet graceful accent broadcasts over the X-Men's comm channel. "Sorry Storm. It's quiet as a church mouse on this end. It's like searchin' for a needle in a haystack. Ah don't think we're evah going to find her."

Reeling from her words, Warren glares blankly in front of him, his pale-blue eyes glazing over like ice. As his jaw tightens and his heart beats loudly against his chest, Storm says over the comm, "Rogue. This is not a two-way channel."

"Ah know. You're coordinating the aerial search. Me, you, Joseph, an'... dear lord. Archangel. I'm so sorry. Ah just know we'll find her. We've got to. She's one of us. She... I'm sorry, Angel."

Warren closes his eyes briefly and swallows before he says, without addressing the comm or anyone in particular, "Don't mention it. Forget it."

Once again circling the park and attempting to focus his thoughts, he barely notices as Rogue apologizes again and Storm politely reassures him that they are doing the best they can, that she is sure that they will find Psylocke soon. He thinks back to the briefing in the War Room, to the suggestion Jean had given to Betsy before she disappeared, that she wanted her to concentrate on something familiar. So he changes course once again, heading for the part of the park the two of them often visit for picnics or early-morning jogs.

Then he sees it: a faint, but unmistakable glint of purple peeking out from the green foliage. His heart threatening to leap out of his chest, he radios to Storm that he has a lead and swoops out of the sky, crashing through a shallow canopy of leaves and landing on a paved walkway.

As he searches his surroundings frantically, calling out Betsy's name, he hears a soft whimpering close by. Expecting the worst, he rounds a cluster of trees preparing himself for any horror that might wait ahead. Instead of finding the love of his life in any sort of disarray or injury, he finds a young child who is obviously lost and frustrated, tugging roughly on a twine of string attached to a very stuck, very purple kite.

Warren sighs heavily in both relief and perturbation, as the boy looks up at him in surprise and awe. Smiling as graciously as possible considering his state of mind, Warren swiftly removes the kite from the tree and returns it to the boy, who then says, his face filled with wonder, "I thought you heroes were all dead... I saw on T.V."

"No, not all of us."

The boy smiles as he asks shyly, "Are you looking for someone, Mister?"

With a sad expression apparent on his face, Warren says, "Yes, someone very close to me."

"Well I sure hope you find them. I just know you will, being a super hero and all."

As he takes to the air again and returns to his search, he says quietly, "I do hope you're right. I truly do."

* * *

Back across town, Logan finds himself growing tired of Gomurr's mind games. The sorcerer has managed to evade him for much longer than Wolverine expected he could. His patience is growing thin, as well as his capacity for subtlety and stealth. When he once again catches a hint of Gomurr's trail, his frustration builds to a boiling point and then? Well, then it spills over. Without a thought, he casts aside discretion and tact, instead assuming the mantle he both fears and revels in, falling into a state of berserker rage.

He growls fiercely as he plows through a vending stall, thrashing merchandise out of his path with his sharp, bone claws. He hardly notices the screams he leaves in his wake, though luckily no bystanders are injured in his fury. Bearing his teeth, he thrashes through stall after stall, bulldozing his way toward his prey. The only thoughts that run through his head are how he will make Gomurr pay for what he's done to Betsy, how he will force him to regret playing one too many games.

Finally he tracks the scent to an alley, which is casually hidden from the market by a few carelessly placed vegetable crates. Smiling to himself, Wolverine whispers, "Yer trapped, ya little runt. No place left to go."

Behind the small stack of boxes, he can smell fear, resentment and disappointment intermingling with the perspiration of his prey. He thinks to himself that after he tears Gomurr a new wind- pipe, he'll have to tell him that it really was a good hunt, a very good effort... he just wasn't up for playing games today.

Wolverine nimbly leaps over the boxes, claws bared and ready for a fight. After clearing the obstacle, he softens his fall into a roll and then pins his quarry against the brick wall of the alley all in one synchronous action. No doubt if his prey wasn't so terrified, she would probably be rather impressed by the fluidity of his movement.

That's right, a "she." Trust me, Wolverine's just as surprised as you are.

The Asian girl, who Logan assumes can't be any older than twelve years old, squints at him as he tries to hide the astonishment on his face. Logan can feel her relax and become more confident under his grip as she realizes that he is not going to kill her. Her face suddenly wearing a rather wry grin as he retracts his claws and pulls his fist away from her face, she says with a Chinese accent, "We were wondering when you would finally catch us, Master Logan."

Still gripping one of her arms tightly, Logan snarls, "Where is Gomurr?"

"The Master is busy with many things."

"So he sends a little girl to throw me off?"

"Things are not always what they seem."

Logan releases his hold on her and pushes her away from him, though not hard enough to injure her. "Yeah, yeah. Cut the cryptic talk, will ya? Just tell me where Gomurr is."

"The Master is busy with many things."

As a snarl escapes his lips and he glares angrily at her, Logan seethes, "Ya said that already. Now where is he?!"

The girl smiles to herself and stands silently, even defiantly, obviously not intending to say another word. Pushed beyond the limits of his patience once more on this very long day, he growls loudly, "Where is he?!"

Out of the corner of his eye, Logan sees a bright flashing of light as Gomurr materializes at the other end of the alley. Wolverine releases his bone claws as he walks slowly toward Gomurr, dragging them against the walls of the narrow passageway. He stares coolly at Gomurr who levitates in mid-air above the asphalt, his form crackling with blue energy. The sorcerer returns his harsh gaze in kind, as he says casually, "Leave us, Jing-mei. Logan may not appreciate anyone witnessing his defeat. His pride has already been injured enough this day."

Enraged by Gomurr's words, Wolverine leaps for him growling and gnashing his teeth, so he doesn't notice as the young girl disappears into thin air only a few feet behind him. After she is gone, Gomurr's demeanor changes and he levitates out of harm's way as he says amicably, "Now, Logan, must we continue with this show? What did you come to see me about?"

Leaping again for Gomurr, he seethes, "Ya know why I'm here. And I want her back, now!"

Once again dodging Logan's blow and surrounding himself in a brilliant and forceful show of energy, Gomurr easily repels the next round of claw-packed punches as he says, "I don't know what you speak of."

"Like hell ya don't, ya old coot!"

Gomurr retorts, "Now, now. This is no time to resort to name calling!"

Just as the wizard is about to offer another witty rejoinder, Logan, fueled by his rage, breaks through his defenses and pins him to the wall, threatening to pierce his larynx with the middle claw of his right hand. Smiling slyly at Gomurr, Logan asks, "Now are ya ready to talk, bub?"

Gomurr says quickly, "Yes, yes. I'll talk. Just let me down, you over-violent, hard-headed..."

Logan growls menacingly as the sorcerer corrects himself, "... fine example of a gentleman?"

Wolverine retracts his claws and Gomurr drops to the ground with a thud. As he brushes himself off, he mutters, "It always has to be a fight with you, doesn't it? Always first with the claws and then with the mouth. Geez, you'd think someone as old as you would have some manners."

Relaxing a bit, Logan rebuts, "Ya'd think someone as old as you would have some."

Glaring up at Logan, he says, "I'm a respected elder... I can be as cranky as I want." He then shakes his head, sighs tiredly, and sits on a nearby crate before saying, "Now what was it you wanted?"

"I've come for Psylocke. I need you to tell me what Tar did with her."

Furrowing his brow, Gomurr says, "Tar has done nothing with the young telepath."

Groaning to himself, Logan says, "Bull. Tell me what ya know, Gomurr."

Gomurr honestly appears insulted at Logan's doubts and says as he glares at him, his eyes as cold as stone, "I know that she is not with Tar."

Folding his arms over his chest, Logan looks warily at the wizened little man. He stays silent for a few moments, trying his best to size up Gomurr's sincerity before he shakes his head and says, "Much as I don't want to, I believe ya."

Rolling his eyes and relaxing on his make-shift chair, the sorcerer says, "Surely Psylocke has told you that in regards to matters with her, I no longer play games."

Though Logan begins to feel more comfortable, he still doesn't want to lose the edge he's gained by defeating Gomurr in a battle he's not sure was truly won. He's fully aware that if the sorcerer had wanted to, the fight would have lasted much longer. In fact, though he can hardly admit it to himself, the little devil probably would have won if he really wanted. For all his bluster, Gomurr is not a violent man. In fact, he detests the use of force. He knows that is one of the things that may actually get Psylocke through this whole ordeal.

He leans menacingly over the small man, allowing Gomurr to retain his illusion and playing his scripted part within it, knowing full well that Gomurr is mentally laughing at his supposed arrogance all the while. So what if the old guy gets his kicks by secretly laughing at the folly of those around him? To Logan, it's a small price to pay for getting the answers he wants, so he says angrily, "Then why did yer girl lead me on the wild goose chase?"

"Feh. She needed the practice. She's not bad is she?"

Logan pulls a cigarette out of his jacket and lights it while he leans against a wall, his eyes cool and steady against Gomurr's inquiring ones. "No, she ain't bad at all."

Under normal circumstances, Logan might inquire into the history of the girl. But these are hardly normal circumstances, in fact, no meeting with Gomurr the Ancient could be called normal. So instead he cuts to the chase, as he knows Gomurr expects of him and asks curtly, letting a large puff of smoke surround the two of them, "Where is Betsy?"


Logan snarls, genuinely frustrated with the sorcerer's evasion. Obviously amused by Wolverine's flash of temper, Gomurr smiles, "Wait. I'll show you."

He touches a finger lightly on the top of a barrel next to him, creating a ripple effect across the rain water which has pooled in its shallow lid. Wolverine then sees Psylocke's image floating on the surface. He breathes a sigh of relief as he sees Betsy hugging a large, blonde man, who he realizes is her brother, Brian.

Logan's expression softens and his lips curl into the faint resemblance of a smile as Gomurr says, "See I told you she was safe."

Watching the image until it fades from the water's surface, Logan nods slowly as he asks, "Can she..."

Finishing his words for him, Gomurr says matter-of-factly, "Teleport back? Yes. She has too much waiting for her here to stay away. She will find the strength."

Keeping his eyes locked on Gomurr, Logan brings the collar of his coat close to his face and speaks into his communicator, "Beast? I got a status report."

Logan adjusts his tiny ear-piece, as Hank says boisterously over the comm channel, "Why Wolverine, we were beginning to think you'd gone AWOL. You know how it chagrins our fearless leader when you don't check in as scheduled."

"Yeah, yeah. Look, I've found Gomurr. Psylocke's safe."

"And is our erstwhile teammate there with you now?"

Logan drops his cigarette to the ground and steps on it as the butt hisses on the wet asphalt, all the while maintaining eye- contact with Gomurr. "No. She's with her brother, in England."

"England?! She teleported all the way..."

"Yeah, Beast. She did."

"Oh, my stars and garters... we never even thought of trying to locate her that far away."

Growing frustrated with Hank's penchant for chattiness during such a time, Logan says gruffly, "Yeah, well. Gomurr tells me she's on her way back soon."

At the mention of his name, the wizard smiles and does a little bow, and Wolverine rolls his eyes as he continues, looking up at the darkening sky, "Tell Angel to leave the light on... that she's coming home soon. Tell him I said he better take good care of her, too. She's had one helluva day. I'll check in with her tomorrow... first me and Gomurr have to talk. Wolverine out."

Logan takes his communicator out of his ear and stuffs it into his shirt pocket as he turns and says, "Now Gomurr, about that little talk..." to a completely empty alley.

Part Thirteen 

"separated from the wandering stars
and the habits of the lordly fixed ones,

we noted that even the erratic burnt-out comet
has its peculiar orbit"

H.D., "The Walls Do Not Fall"

"And that's it, Brian. The entire confusing tale... from my gruesome encounter with Sabretooth, to the debt I now owe some mysterious sorcerer who I have yet to meet." Betsy Braddock drops her head into her arms which rest on a table within Braddock Manor's large, yet cozy kitchen as she adds, "Why is it that our family seems plagued with mystical dilemmas from every reality imaginable?"

Her brother, Brian Braddock, also known as Captain Britain of Excalibur, carefully removes a loaf of bread from the kitchen's large brick hearth and deposits it on the table as he muses, "I don't know... the whole lot of us must be cursed."

Propping her head in her hands and peering inquisitively at her twin brother as he removes a dinner plate and silverware from various cabinetry, she asks him, "But seriously. What do you think of this?"

Placing the plate and silver in front of her, Brian says, "Honestly?"

"Yes. I want your honest opinion... as my brother, as my twin, as the only family I have left who can give me a coherent answer."

Brian leans his large frame against one of the room's heavy side boards and collects his thoughts before he ventures, "I think that the entire episode is completely ridiculous. None of it should have ever happened..."

Furrowing her brow in confusion, Betsy says exasperated, "And what was supposed to happen? Was I supposed to live my life never taking risks, never acting heroically if it meant any possible danger to myself? Is that what you're trying to tell me?"

Brian shakes his head as he says quietly, yet deliberately, "No. You didn't let me finish. Of course, you did what was necessary. And you picked the life you lead because it is your calling. Both of us know that. It's just... well, I can't help but feel that it was all so unnecessary. Sabretooth should have never had the opportunity that he did, and Logan and Warren... Oh, Betsy. I hate them for what they've put you through, but I know if placed in their position I would have done the same."

Betsy smiles slightly, breaking the tension suddenly hanging in the room and says, "No, dear brother, you probably would have shaken the heavens apart and torn open the time stream just to save me."

Returning her smile and retrieving a dish from the oven, Brian nods his head in agreement and says, "You know, you're probably right."

"No. I know I'm right."

Grinning broadly, Brian spoons a few lumps of a brown, meat-like substance onto her plate as he jests, "You always were the smarter twin."

"And don't you ever forget it... Brian, since when do you cook?"

"Since when do you care about my culinary expertise?"

"Good point."

Brian takes a chair and sits next to Betsy, as she pokes at the brown meat in front of her timidly. Just as he is about to protest, she asks him suddenly, "So what are you doing home? What about Excalibur?"

"Oh, I'm just taking a break from the team for a while. I'm not really sure if I want to spend the rest of my life being Captain Britain."

Betsy scoffs as she pushes the meat around some more, creating an interesting pattern in its gravy. "You? Not wanting to be Captain Britain for the rest of your life?"

Rolling his eyes in amusement, Brian says, "You were always the adventurous one, remember? It's funny, though. I just woke up one morning and asked myself if being Captain Britain was all there could be in life."

"And what was the answer?"

Straightening a napkin in front of him, he says, "Unfortunately, a resounding 'no'. I still don't have the rest figured out yet, that's why I came here."

"I see. And what of Meggan?"

Smiling dreamily at the mention of her name, Brian says, "Oh, whatever happens, I want to spend my life with her. In fact she's coming to visit tomorrow. I know she'd love to see you if you're still..."

Lowering her eyes sadly, Betsy says, "Brian. You know I can't stay... I have things to take care of. I'm just glad I got to see you before... before..."

Shaking his head and placing a large hand on her shoulder, he says, "Don't say it Betsy. Don't even think it. Meggan and I have planned a trip to America and you're going to be there to greet us. This is hardly good-bye."

Smiling weakly at her brother, she returns, "Okay then. I'll be there."

"Right you will."

They share an awkward silence as Brian watches Betsy push her meal once more around her plate. Instead of lecturing her on the evils of an empty stomach, Brian says, "So tell me about Warren. I can't wait to meet him."

Betsy grins as she says, "Can't wait to terrorize him is more like it."

"Yes, well..."


Brian smirks as he says, "Okay, yes. But I hardly know anything about him besides that fact that you're in love with him and that he's had a rather difficult past. What is he like? How did all of this happen? Is he a good kisser?"

Mouth agape, Betsy cries, "Brian!?"

Enjoying the blush slowly creeping up his sister's face, Brian says uncharacteristically, "I want dirt and I want it now!"

Shaking her head, she says, "You have definitely been around Kitty Pryde for too long!"

"You're evading the question."

"I can't do this, not with you."

"Why not?"

"Because you're my brother that's why!"

Sincerity now mingling with the joviality in his expression, Brian takes her hand and says, "I've just seen a glimmer of how happy he makes you. I want to see your face when you talk about him, I just want to see you happy, okay? So tell me something... something special. Betsy, I've missed so much of your life the last few years. Just spare me this."

"Okay... I guess."

Brian slices a piece of bread from the loaf and puts it on Betsy's plate as he says, "Good, just don't make it too graphic... I am your brother after all."

Betsy rolls her eyes and bats some of his blonde hair into his eyes before she begins to talk of Warren. "When I think what Warren means to me, I often think of the first night I knew that I could fall in love with him. I had sought him out many times before that day, aware that he really needed someone to talk to. Not that I expected him to open up to me about anything that was really bothering him. At the time we were only teammates, strangers living in the same house. But I thought that if I could just get him talking, about the weather, about the latest mission, about anything at all, the rest would fall into place."

As she stops her narrative for a bit to eat some of the bread Brian has almost forced upon her, Brian says, "So, I see. My sister conniving as usual. Setting the trap, waiting for her quarry to come to her..."

After sipping from a glass of water, Betsy continues, "No. That's not it at all! Well, not totally. I thought that perhaps when he really needed to talk to someone, he might find in me a kindred spirit, someone who could understand. All I really wanted from him in return was friendship."

Making himself more comfortable in the chair which seems tiny in comparison to his bulk, Brian says, "I remember that was a hard time for you... because of your change. I imagine you must have been terribly lonely."

"I was. Logan left the team shortly after, and Ororo and I had been distant since my... transformation. I was lonely and so was Warren. It only seemed natural that we should get to be friends. And that's all it was, at first."

"At first?"

"Yes. Then Shinobi Shaw happened. When Shaw tried to recruit him into his new, improved version of the Hellfire's Inner Circle, Warren responded negatively, as I expected him to. But it went farther than that. Warren got a glimpse of what he could have become, what he might have still become: a cocky rich brat with no one to love in life but his money and his mutant ability, which he had sold his soul for once before."

Wincing slightly from her blunt tone, Brian asks, "Isn't that a little harsh?"

"Yes. But completely true. I didn't know how true then, but I think I do now. But that night, when we both went to infiltrate the new Hellfire Club, he realized he was more than a powerful mutant or a powerful business man. He was hero, I could see it in his eyes. That among other things."

Brian watches in fascination as the look on his twin's face changes as she relives this moment from her past. Though it has been a while since their psychic bond has been active, he can still sense a radiance emitting from her. That energy is happiness and purpose, and he revels in its very existence. It has been too long since he's seen her this happy. He's not sure if he's ever seen her like this. He's glad that he's had the fortune to witness it.

"As we walked out of the Hellfire Club that night, I held onto his arm, still weak from Shaw's attack. Even though Warren had insulted Shinobi as he left the Club's Inner Circle complex and left the battle the obvious victor, he was still shaken. His face seemed composed, but as I held on to him for support, I could feel his hands shaking."

"Once we were outside, I knew his first instinct would be to go somewhere alone, to fly off into the night so he could brood, so he could get over his feelings doing the one thing he treasured most, flying. But he had me to think about, I was a part of what had happened that night and even though I wasn't badly injured, it would have been unthinkable to leave me alone or to send me home with Hank who was playing chauffeur for the evening. Sometimes I feel that because of circumstance, because I had unwittingly seen all his demons up close, what happened between us that night was forced... That maybe if it wasn't for Shaw, we would have never made a connection."

Brian stops Betsy's narrative briefly and says, "It's called fate, Betsy."

Smiling demurely as she takes in Brian's comment, Betsy says, "Yes, fate... perhaps..." before she continues, "He didn't say a word, Brian, he just looked at me with an expression that seemed to say 'Please? Would you please come with me?' How could I resist? That part was definitely genuine. Fate or no fate. That look was a conscious choice."

"As soon as we flew into the air, I could feel his anxiety slip away. It was the first time I had flown with him and instead of feeling fear, I was thrilled. It was wonderful to soar in the air again as I had when I was Captain Britain all those years ago. I had complete trust in him."

"I turned to look at him, I'm sure my face was positively beaming with delight, and Warren grinned, probably happy that I wasn't shrieking in terror. Perhaps it was then that he began to know how special I could be to him as well."

"Later, after we landed on the Mansion's lawn, Warren finally began to open up to me. We sat out by the cove and he talked about what had happened that night and I listened. Then I talked about my life some and he listened. We traded stories back and forth for hours and the next thing we knew the sun was rising."

"It was then that I knew I could fall in love with him... was falling in love with him. After seeing so many sides of him that night... so vulnerable, yet so strong, I was hooked. I felt really important for the first time in a long while. Really needed. I felt what I most needed to feel. Special. Finally, he was letting me into his world. And I knew then that despite all the ugliness he'd been through, it had to be a beautiful place. A place where I could be happy."

"I watched him as the sunlight crept slowly across his face. He was talking about how lost he felt, how he felt like a stranger in his own body, how he couldn't stand to see his own reflection in the mirror. And then I noticed how beautiful he was, how he wasn't a monster at all... things I had known about him for a while. But if he felt that way about himself and I knew he wasn't maybe I wasn't so freakish myself."

"I had to let him know how special he was, how human and wonderful... but words might have frightened him, might have scared him away from all we had accomplished together that night. So I did the next best thing. I kissed him. It wasn't the most spectacular kiss, or the most passionate. It was simply a kiss. It didn't need to be anything more."

"Warren sat there a moment afterward with his eyes closed, laughing quietly to himself, and then he did the most perfect thing he could have done. He didn't speak, he didn't ask 'What was that for?' or over-analyze my actions, he simply smiled and pressed his fingers to his lips, touching them where mine had been. Then I left him there alone, but with the knowledge that he didn't have to be. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. And for the first night in a long, long time, I didn't have any nightmares."

After a moment of silence, Brian says, "I've always hated that I wasn't able to be there for you more during that time. I'm so glad that you two found each other."

Tears suddenly welling in her eyes, Betsy gasps, "So am I."

Casting aside his chair in a clatter, Brian moves to Betsy's side and she grips him tightly as she sobs onto his shoulder and asks, "What am I going to do, Brian? What's going to happen?"

Fighting back his own tears, Brian wants more than anything to face this upcoming crisis with his sister, to protect her with all that he is worth, to keep her safe at all costs. But instead of pleading with her to stay in England with him and hide from her fears, he says, "You're going to find Warren. You're going to go home and face this together."

She whispers, "I thought I was home."

Facing Betsy, Brian says, "It... I will always be here for you. But your heart is across the ocean, Betsy. You've got to follow it."

Sitting back in her chair, Betsy sniffles as Brian asks her, "Do you think you're ready to teleport back?"

She looks up at him through tear-glazed eyes and says, "A few minutes ago, the journey back through the shadows seemed terrifying. But now? I think... I know I can make it. For Warren."

Brian pats her reassuringly on the shoulder as he says, "For you, too. Don't forget that."

"Yes. For me, too."

Clearing the plate of cold food off the table, Brian says, "Wait a while to collect yourself... then I'll be here to help you do what you need to do to get back."

Drying her eyes with a cloth napkin from the table, Betsy says quietly, "Thanks, Brian."

Smiling warmly, Brian says, "That's what I'm here for... Don't ever forget that, either."

"I won't, Brian. I promise."

Part Fourteen

"Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our
children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as
we put ourselves back together once again at the table."

Joy Harjo, from "Perhaps the World Ends Here"

'Where is she?.' Warren Worthington asks himself bitterly as he sits at his kitchen table. Outside, the sun has set and he sits in the darkened room, not bothering to turn on the light, letting the dim glow of the city seep into his apartment though open blinds. With his jaw set tightly, he shuffles a deck of cards in front of him and he begins yet another game of solitaire. As he briskly flips each card into position and uses his enhanced eye-sight to see the cards, Warren doesn't think how ridiculous it is for him to be sitting in the near dark, playing solitaire and wishing the room's shadows would to come to life and miraculously deliver his lover to him.

Next to him, the telephone suddenly rings and Warren jumps slightly in his seat. For a moment, he stares at the cordless receiver in confusion before he realizes that telephones do ring for a certain reason, that he should probably answer it, that it could be her.

He presses the talk button on the phone and asks into its mouth-piece, "Betsy?"

"No, Warren. It's Jean."

Disappointment apparent in his tone, Warren murmurs, "Oh."

"I take it she's not back yet?"

Warren runs a shaking hand through his hair and then props his elbow on the table as he sighs, "No, she's not."

"I'm sure she'll be back soon."

Dropping his head into his free hand, he asks defiantly, "Are you?"

"Warren... look, I just called to see if she was back yet. And she will be. Just make sure to call us so we know she's safe."


"I'll see you tomorrow."

He asks distractedly, "Tomorrow?"

"Yes. I'm going to bring your car back into town. You left it here."


Warren hears a soft groan of annoyance on Jean's end of the line before she says as gingerly possible. "Goodbye, Warren. She'll be back soon. She loves you too much to stay away."

And then the line is dead. Warren looks a moment at the phone as its dial tone knells monotonously. Then, he dials a number which he has committed to memory in the last hour. When the U.K. operator answers the line to patch him through, he thinks he recognizes her voice, that maybe she is the same one he talked to only minutes before, that maybe he just keeps talking to the same operator over and over, that maybe he's only called once and all the other attempts he thinks he remembers are only a twisted form of deja vu. Maybe this is the first call, really... that he just imagined the others, that any minute he'll be talking to Betsy and he'll really know that she's safe. Maybe, just maybe.

He lets the phone ring and ring, losing count of them after a while. When the operator comes back on the line to inform him that the party he wishes to contact is not answering, he hangs up without pleasantries. Replacing the phone on the table, he resumes his game, losing his anxiety in its mechanical quality, in its monotony, trying his best to forget about how empty he feels.

And then he's blocked. He doesn't bother to peek at his cards, doesn't even debate the ethics of cheating at a game of solitaire, or wonder who he might really be cheating in such an endeavor. He just picks them up and shuffles them again, taking solace in the gratifying sound of plastic-coated paper hitting rapidly against more plastic-coated paper. Then he deals another game.

And then another.

After a while, the shadows gathering in the corner of the kitchen begin to shimmer and contort, and Warren glares at them angrily. They coalesce in a dark pool in front the kitchen table, and slowly Psylocke emerges. From the moment her face is visible, Warren can feel her gaze on him. To him it feels like her violet eyes are cutting right through him, and he knows if he returns her gaze, they might tear right into his heart. Though he tries hard to hide any emotion and dares not look directly at her, Warren can't help but be in awe of Psylocke's dramatic entrance as dark shadows pour off her like oil, leaving her seemingly untouched and radiant as ever.

He puts down his deck of cards and stares awkwardly at his suddenly empty hands as she walks toward him and says, her voice filled with levity, "Playing cards in the dark? My, how Gambit of you."

Ignoring her comment, Warren asks quietly but harshly, "Where the Hell have you been?"

Betsy puts her hand on his shoulder and says just as quietly, though with no malice, "I've been with Brian, in England."

Shrugging off her hand, he says, "I don't know why I asked that. I know where you were... Logan found Gomurr and he told... he showed him..."

Betsy crouches next to him and wraps her arms awkwardly around his waist, pressing her head against his chest as she says, "I'm sorry Warren... I didn't plan to end up there, I didn't think..."

Warren tolerates her embrace, though he sits stoically in his chair as he says, "I tried calling you. Why didn't you phone me? I was worried."

Sighing heavily and looking up at him, though he stares straight ahead into the darkness with cold eyes, Betsy says, "I know you must have been. And I was thinking of you the whole time. It's just been such a weird day. I knew I was going to come back to you... I wanted to see you so badly. I just didn't think..."

Finally meeting Betsy's gaze, Warren interrupts her, retorting, "That's right. You didn't think."

Releasing her hold on him, she stares at him before she says, "How dare you throw accusations at me! After all that's happened today... after that scene you put me through this morning... after abandoning me on a busy highway!"

Turning away from her, he says quietly but defensively, "That's different... you knew that I was okay."

"Did I?"

Warren closes his eyes and sighs deeply, and the two sit in the dark; Betsy glaring at him, her eyes full of distress and he as motionless as a statue. Finally, her voice cuts through the silence and she says, "Warren, this is so silly. I'm sorry, you're sorry. Please?"

He looks at her sitting on the floor awkwardly beside him and his expression softens. She grasps his hand in hers and pulls it to her face, rubbing her cheek gently against it as she says, "It was just such an odd experience, suddenly being so far away..."

Betsy goes on for a while about what it felt like to be trapped in the shadows like she was, how she finally learned how to make the jump, how her and Brian talked for a long while, how she's missed him terribly. As she talks, Warren feels a slight tingling at the back of his mind, a tickling even... like the gentle beating of a butterfly's wings as it rests on a flower. And then he realizes he is no longer alone in his mind, that not only is Betsy speaking these words, but thinking them, that he is beginning to feel the thoughts behind her words, the emotions rushing through her mind... and it's excruciating.

Suddenly pushing her away from him, he cries loudly, "Stop it! I can't deal with this. Don't do this to me again!"

Taken aback by his outburst, she stares at him, her eyes wide as she asks, "Do what, Warren?!"

Shaking his head and dropping it into his hands, he says, "Don't put yourself in my thoughts like that again. I don't want to fight you... But I will."


"I can't go through that again. I won't... I can't lose you like that again. I can't go back to the way it was before."

Betsy looks up at him, her eyes pleading as she says, "But I'm a part of you now, and you're a part of me. It's not that simple."

Eyes wild with conflicting emotions, Warren raises his head and glares at her as he says, his voice cracking, "I can't do this right now. I don't know if I can again..."

Gripping tightly onto his arm, Betsy says urgently, "Warren... you're scaring me."

He closes his eyes and his face hardens again, his demeanor suddenly going cold. "Please. Go away."

"No, I'm staying."

He pulls his arm out of her grasp and turns to look at her, his eyes smoldering like a blue flame, "Leave me alone."

Betsy stands and questions him, her face reflecting her worry, "Warren?"


So she goes.

She leaves the room unlike she left it, using her feet to take her upstairs toward their bedroom instead of the shadows. As she ascends the stairs, she mutters to herself, "Fine. I was tired anyway."

And Warren is left alone with his cards.

* * *

"Yes, Ororo. I'm okay," Betsy says into the phone as she sits cross-legged on Warren's large bed.

She fidgets with a tassel on her kimono, twisting and untwisting it through her fingers as she says, "It was easier on the way back."

Her stomach growls and she tries to ignore the gnawing in her stomach as she tells Storm, "Thank you for everything you did. I'm sorry I was such a bother."

"And you know I'd do the same for you."

Closing her eyes and massaging her forehead, she says, "I miss you, too. When this is all over... I promise."

"Okay. Good night. Rest well."

Psylocke hangs up the phone and collapses on the bed, pulling a pillow close and hugging it tightly to her. She thinks to her self, 'Damn him, he should be in my arms... not this bag of feathers.'

She throws the pillow across the bed, stretches out on her back, and stares angrily at the white ceiling. She tells herself that she is not going to cry, that Warren is just being stupid and will come around any minute, that any second he's going to walk through that door and apologize. But as the minutes tick by, he doesn't come and Betsy is left staring at the ceiling alone.

As she rolls over to turn out the light, thinking it would be best just to sleep on it, to work things out in the light of day, it begins to dawn on her that that may not be an option... that her time with Warren may not be much longer.

"Damn him," she says aloud as she puts her face in her hands, pressure building behind her eyes.

"Damn him," she says again as one then two tears escape.

She leaves the light on, knowing full well that sleep will not come for quite a while this evening. As she props herself up in the bed, her stomach growls once again. She rolls her eyes as she gets up from the bed and thinks, 'Why now?'

Cursing her stomach and herself for neglecting it, Betsy walks down to the kitchen, hoping that Warren isn't there. She knows they need to talk, and desperately. She had hoped to give him some more time to cool down and is afraid her appearance will force another fight. 'Besides,' she thinks, 'He's probably out flying anyway.'

Resisting the urge to psychically locate him, not wanting to pressure psychic contact after his reaction, she eases her way into the dark kitchen. Glancing over at the table, she sees that he is indeed still there, his large wings darkly silhouetted by the window behind him, looming over his drooping form like a pair of sentries, guarding him from what ever dangers may threaten him in the night.

Her eyes now accustomed to light, Betsy is unable to see in the dark as easily as before... and she wonders if night-vision may be another aspect of actively using her powers. Right now, she doesn't want to experiment with it. She just wants to be normal, if there is such a thing, if only for an hour or so. So she clicks on a light over the stove, trusting it's dull light will not disturb Warren too much.

Now that the light is on, she is able to see the room easier. By the far wall of the kitchen, on the opposite side from Warren, Betsy sees a scattering of playing cards, obviously hurled in aggravation by Warren, who is sitting at the table, slumped over with his head buried in his arms. He's completely quiet and motionless save the occasional twitching of his wings.

Betsy stares compassionately at him, resisting the urge to go to him and soothe his pain. She knows that is the last thing he probably wants right now. The urge to comfort him seems an odd reaction as she thinks about it. She thinks that under other circumstances, she would have left him alone to brood and might have stayed away until he finally sought her out and he begged her forgiveness... repeatedly. But she knows these aren't normal circumstances, that right now she needs to be here with him.

As she thinks of these things, never turning away from him, Warren looks up at her, his eyes very red and tired. They stare at each other a moment, before Betsy stammers, "I... I was hungry. I've barely eaten all day."

Unspeaking, Warren turns his gaze away from her and stares ahead. Betsy can't tell if she's being ignored by him, or if he's just trying his best to deal with her return to the kitchen, slowly re-erecting his stoical facade.

Finding herself without the energy to psychoanalyze the situation or to pressure a response out of Warren, she turns to the refrigerator and says quietly, "Brian tried to feed me... something brown. I think it was mutton. Who actually eats mutton anymore?"

Betsy looks over her shoulder at Warren, who is still seated and looking away from her. She wishes he would laugh that wonderful, hearty laugh of his, or at least smile... his smile always could light up his face. But instead she gets no response, no amused smirk, nothing. She opens the refrigerator, its light illuminating her face with a bright light, and asks, hoping once again to break his mood, "So are you hungry, luv?"

Again, she gets no response.

She retrieves a small carton of strawberry yogurt and places it on the counter, then a carton of blueberries. Glaring at her choice in dissatisfaction, she puts them back into the refrigerator and instead picks a jar of olives, suddenly finding herself craving them.

She tries to open the new jar and finds its lid stuck fast. She bites her lower lip and puts more strength into her effort, wishing that for once something would go right in this otherwise horrible day. Just as she feels the lid's seal about to break open, the jar slips from her grip and crashes on the floor, glass shattering and olives spilling everywhere.

"Oh, God," she gasps as she surveys the mess below her on the floor. She quickly kneels down and begins to gather the broken shards in her bare hands, wincing as one of them pierces her palm.

Dumping a handful of glass into the trash, and beginning to pick up more, she crouches again over the floor with tears welling in her eyes as she awkwardly laughs, "Will nothing go right today... nothing?"

As her laugh grows in intensity, she thinks she sees Warren out of the corner of her eye. She looks over her shoulder and sees him standing at the table, his form blurred by the tears now obscuring her vision. Even though she can't see him, she knows that he is looking at her, perhaps in concern, perhaps in annoyance. It's doesn't matter... the thought of either drives her to tears, her nervous laughter turning into ragged sobs.

And then he's there, taking the glass from her hands as they shake, her body wracked by the sudden out-pouring of emotion. Then he picks her up in his arms and sits her on the far counter, keeping her bare feet from the mine-field that has become the kitchen floor. Betsy sits on the counter, tears streaming down her face, still holding her hands in front of her as he checks one foot, then the other, luckily finding no cuts and removing any bits of glass that cling to her feet. He then picks up her wounded hand and removes the glass, wiping away the small amount of blood with a clean, wet towel.

She looks at him in disbelief as he raises her palm to his face and gently kisses the wound as he closes his eyes, his lips lingering a while, warm and soft against her hand. He then looks at her, his face not very far from her own, and he whispers as he bandages her hand with some gauze Betsy guesses he must have found in a nearby drawer, "Does it hurt?"

Her tears easing a bit, Betsy places her free hand over her heart as she says quietly, "Only here."

Warren touches her face gently, wiping her tears away with his thumb, and she closes her eyes letting the sudden intimacy between them wash over her thoughts and ease her anxiety. When she opens her eyes again, she is greeted with his intense gaze, a look that to her speaks volummes, says exactly how sorry he is, how much he loves her, how scared he was when she was gone. Slowly, he lets his fingers wander to her lips, and he looks down at her mouth as he touches it, his thumb softly caressing her bottom lip. He then lets his hand drift down her jawline and he pulls her face to his, pressing his lips against hers, kissing her passionately.

After a few moments, Warren breaks the kiss and drops to his knees, resting his head in her lap as he says, "I'm so sorry, Betts. I'm such an idiot. I didn't mean to..."

Running a hand through his blonde hair, Betsy interrupts him quietly: "It's okay, luv. I know how hard this has been on you."

Lifting his head to look at her, Warren says, "No. It's not okay. And look at you. You're sitting here trying to comfort me. Me. Right now, that's supposed to be my job."

Betsy places her hand on his cheek. "Shh. We do what is needed."

Taking her hand in his own, Warren asks, "And am I needed?"

She smiles, tears still twinkling in her eyes as says, "Oh, God. Yes."

He stands and holds her hands close to his chest, gazing at her intently as he says softly, yet earnestly, "Then show me, Betts. I want you in my mind again. I want to be in yours. I've missed you so much."

"Warren, I..." Betsy leaves her words unspoken, afraid to voice the doubts pervading her thoughts and decides to show them to him instead, to feel them with him. She closes her eyes and breaks the dam that she has erected between them, and both their thoughts and feelings rush across the telepathic bridge like the waters in a river after a heavy thunder-storm. Betsy opens her eyes and watches Warren as his face contorts, reflecting the torrent of emotions washing over him, over both of them.

She closes her eyes again as flashes of Warren's memories, glimpses of his recent anxieties and long forgotten fears, settle within her mind. And then she feels his arms around her. He pulls her close and whispers softly, "Oh God, Betsy. I love you so much... Don't leave me again. It was so cold... alone. You were so cold, in the dark... I won't let you be alone again. Take me with you if you need to. I'll be there for you next time, I promise. I've been such a fool. You should have shown me before."

Betsy returns his embrace and speaks into his thoughts, *But I'm showing you now.*

Pulling away from her, he nods as he looks into her eyes and she not only sees the regret on his face, but feels it in her heart. She can feel the hundreds of waiting to be asked questions on the tip of Warren's thoughts, how much he is dreading what her approaching encounter with the proctor of the Crimson Dawn might bring, how he is afraid that he doesn't have enough time to say everything that he wants to. And then, as their thoughts mingle and twist around one another, they realize that there will never be enough words, or perhaps too many. This will have to be enough. This simple, yet glorious sharing of their minds and hearts must say it all for them.

Warren presses his forehead against hers, and she squeezes his hands gently before she releases them, enjoying the closeness of him, the soft musky smell of him, the soft fluttering of his breath on her cheek. Running her bandaged hand through his hair, she thinks for the both of them, 'We can't let this go. This might be all we ever wanted.'

Startled by the urgency and unity of the thought, Warren snaps his head up at looks at Betsy, as he says, "It's never worked like this before... Never so close. It's like we're sharing a soul."

Betsy holds his face between her hands as he continues, "I think I could get lost."

She smiles timidly, gauging the gravity of his comment, but knowing though their rapport that Warren has no intention of running away from her again, not tonight... not ever. So she kisses him, her lips reveling in the warmth of his, in the feel of them on hers. She then telepathically sends to him, *Let's stay lost... if just for one night.*

He responds to her by deepening the kiss, his tongue sliding into her mouth and mingling with her own. Though accustomed to the way her telepathy often heightens moments of passion, Betsy is startled by the tide of emotions pervading her thoughts. The intimacy is staggering for a moment before she accepts it and begins to celebrate it. She then pulls him closer, returning his kiss in kind.

Then there are no more words: just thought, action and feeling. And as Warren pulls her into his arms and carries her to the bedroom, away from the broken glass littering the floor of the kitchen and toward the soft comfort of their large bed, that is more than enough.

Part Fifteen

"Whom are you looking for, Beloved? Why do you gaze behind you? Only we two remain in the entire world."

Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ

During her time on this earth, as a telepath, as a hero, as a woman, Betsy Braddock has come to realize that reality is a subjective term. Thoughts are as liquid as water, skimming quickly between this world and the next. Perception is the one thing that holds them tightly between levels of understanding, levels of tangibility. Thoughts are as incorporeal as the soul that thinks them... yet they are the one true thing in the universe.

But Psylocke is not thinking of the nature of reality at the moment. Her only thoughts are of the face inches above her own and the words falling from those lips.

"You are my love. You are my life. There was nothing before you and there will be nothing after."

Sheets twine tightly between her legs, sweat beads on her skin. And for a moment, time ceases to exist. She is wanted. She is loved. She has never wanted anything else.

She runs her hands through his hair and arches her back, her neck, her whole self as she sighs, "Warren."


White wings hover over her, their softness and velvety reality comforting her, reminding her of everything that is him. When she was young, she always dreamt of dancing with angels, of touching the stars in heaven. Now, thanks to Warren, she thinks she knows what that feels like.

No one ever told her how dangerous the lure of perfection was. Not that she would have listened.

She reaches out to touch his face, to feel his warm skin in her palms, to imprint this moment forever on her memory. As she extends her fingers she is greeted with icy nothingness and hears as if from a great distance, "Betsy? Where are you!?"

Sitting up straight in the blackest darkness, she responds to his voice. "I'm right here, love. Warren?"

She opens her eyes, or at least she thinks she does. The view she finds is even darker than the hidden world behind her eyes, even sparser than the blackest night. There are no stars for illumination.

She calls out again, "Where are you?"

From behind her, she hears, "I'm right here, dearest."

Suddenly, she realizes that she is out of their bed and on her feet with Warren standing behind her. Though she can barely see him, she knows it is him. She can feel his familiar form as she touches him, the feathers of his wings lightly tickling her bare shoulders.

As she reaches up to touch his face, he grasps her hand tightly and pulls it away as she says shakily, "Why did you leave me like that? You said you'd never leave me alone in the dark again."

She feels his lips brush against her ear as he whispers, "And you aren't alone. Never alone. We're all here with you. We won't ever leave you alone."

The darkness abates a little and his skin is radiant with an ephemeral glow as he kisses her fiercely, savagely. Betsy closes her eyes again, enjoying the closeness of him for just a moment until it becomes too much. She tries to own the kiss, turn it toward the soft passion she has always loved with Warren. And though the ferocity of his movements is exciting, it is not him. As she tries to control the moment, his passion becomes more out of control and she feels his teeth sinking into her lower lip.

Finally, she pushes him away as she declares, "That's enough! Stop it!"

Wiping a few drops of blood from her mouth, she opens her eyes to look at her lover again as he speaks, now wearing the face of another, "Are we playin' too rough for ya, darlin'?"

Psylocke blinks as she stares into the face of Logan and tries to get a grasp on her bearings. His face contorts into the form of another, now a six-armed woman with white hair and a menacing grin. Spiral reaches out to touch her purple hair and Betsy swats away one of the woman's many hands away as the time witch purrs, "What? Are we frightening you, pretty one?"

Betsy glares at her as she seethes, "I am just dreaming. This is just a dream. I will wake up and this will all be over."

The form in front of her contorts again and she is left staring at the face of Thomas Lennox, the first man she ever loved. The man who died while she was in his mind. The man who almost took her with him to the other side.

She is left speechless as he stands in front of her, shock and pain creep into her features as he smiles and says, "Maybe this hurts too much. Is this any better?"

Suddenly he becomes her brother Brian, then her brother Jamie. She turns her head away, not wanting to face the twisted shadow play, when she hears another familiar voice. The dream-specter has changed again.

"Ms. Braddock? Betsy?"

She can't help but look as she sputters, "Doug? Is that really you?"

He stands quietly, his eyes searching the dark mass of nothing that surrounds them, and asks timidly, "How did I get here? Will you help me?"

Something inside Betsy's heart wrenches and she goes to him, taking him in her arms as she whispers soothingly, "It's okay, Doug. It's just a nightmare. Soon I'll wake up and this will all be over."

He looks up at her, his large eyes filled with tears as he asks, "And then I'll be gone?"

Holding him tightly, she buries her face in his short hair and says, "No. You will always be with me. I will never let you go."

She feels his body twist in her grasp and closes her eyes as she steels herself for the next incarnation. As she loosens her hold, she hears mischievous laughter in her ears as she gazes on the visage of Matsu'o Tsurayaba. He grasps her head tightly between his hands and says, "And I'm glad... because I have always loved this face."

His laughter pounds in her brain as she lashes out, ramming the heel of her palm into his face and screaming, "I am not your toy! I am no one's plaything!"

The face contorts again as the laughing continues, this time its timbre and pitch rising maddeningly. Betsy isn't sure how much more of this she can take. If only she would wake up and this terrible charade would end.

"You always were such a defiant little girl," giggles Slay Master as he slaps her hard across the face.

Holding a hand to her now stinging cheek and nursing a bruised eye, Betsy seethes quietly to herself as she holds her breath, hoping she can will herself out of this nightmare. As if he can read her thoughts, the green-clad man says, "Oh no. It won't be that easy. We have a tight hold on your heart."

He plunges his hand deep into her chest as he turns into the intangibly-gifted Shinobi Shaw. Staring defiantly into his eyes as his cold fingers grip her heart tightly, she grimaces, "You don't own me."

As he pulls her still beating heart out of her chest, she collapses to the ground of her amorphous dreamscape. A scream doesn't even escape her lips as she looks up into the face of Warren as Apocalypse's Angel of Death, his metal wings shimmering almost beautifully in the half-light of her nightmare as her blood drips from his hands.

"Oh, dearest. But we already do. You are nothing without us."

The words echo in her ears as she sits bolt-upright in her and Warren's bed. The early morning sun streams into their room as she gets her bearings, heart beating loudly in her ears and perspiration dotting her skin. She feels as if she is going to be sick.

She springs from the bed, trailing knotted, sweaty sheets behind her as she dashes for the bathroom. She leaves the light off as she turns the sink's faucet on full. The cold floor penetrates her bare feet as she lets the basin fill with water. She is not going to be sick, she is just shaken, she tells herself. She is just shaken. And she plunges her face into the cold water, hoping its iciness will bring her fully back to reality.

She then sits on the cold floor and presses herself against the wall, the cold tile against every inch of her naked back. Closing her eyes, she takes deep, controlled breaths hoping relaxation techniques will succeed where rationality cannot.

"You are in control," she whispers quietly like a mantra. "You are in control of your own life."

After a few seconds, she looks up to see Warren standing in the door, the bedroom's light filtering radiantly through the edges of his wings. She jumps when she sees him, the images of her dream still fresh in her mind. After the initial shock of his appearance subsides, she says almost pitifully, "I had a nightmare."

Obviously taking her words as a cue, he kneels beside her, his large wings nearly filling the wash room area of the oversized bathroom. She lets him take her hand in his own as he says softly, "I know... I could feel it through the rapport. I don't know what it was about. But I can tell it was terrible."

Betsy sighs deeply as she presses her head into his chest and says, "I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to think about anything."

He holds her tightly for a while and his wings slowly start to wrap around her protectively. Her breath catches in her throat as she feels the world get smaller around her. She knows it is just a reflex of his, something that he has started doing since he regained his new wings. She thinks under other circumstances, she might find it very comforting.

"Warren, please. Not now. This is just too much."

He pulls away from her, obviously hurt and dejected. She knows all he wants is to help, but she cannot be confined right now. So she tells him, as she watches his face in the dim light of the bathroom, "I'm sorry. I'm just still getting over this dream. It's not you at all."

Warren stands up, unclothed like Betsy, and turns on the bathroom light. They both blink from the sudden glare and he tries to look as dignified as possible, though it is obvious that he feels slightly uncomfortable and embarrassed by his vulnerable appearance, even after all the time they have been together. Little does he know his manner makes him all the more endearing to Betsy, healing over some of the fears left behind from her dream.

He turns to leave the room and says quietly, "Yes, this is about me. At least a little. There's enough of you inside me now for me to know that."

Still sitting awkwardly on the floor, Betsy reaches out to his departing form and says, "Warren, I..."

But he is gone. She hears him say from inside the bedroom, "You are my love. You are my life..."

So that much was real.

"... I will be what you need me to be."

Getting to her feet and preparing a bath, she whispers, "Thank you, Warren."

As she turns on the faucet and the hot water spills into the tub, she hears him in her mind telling her gently, *You're welcome.*

She steps into the hot bath and washes away the sweat and anxiety of her nightmare as she senses from his thoughts that when she is finished he will be waiting for her. They will have breakfast together on the warm balcony and everything will be fine. After all... he loves her. And that should be enough.

Part Sixteen

Outside the Main Hall of the Xavier's Institute, Jean Grey twists a lock of red hair impatiently around a slim finger as she paces back and forth on the sun-dappled lawn. She looks up at the cloudless, morning sky and wishes that life were as clear and smooth as its blue horizon. It is an impossible wish, she knows. Life is never easy for the X-Men. The recent events in all their lives, Onslaught, the Destruction of the Mansion, Psylocke's current crisis, have made that point abundantly clear. The X-Men are a magnet for drama. Though today as she stands fidgeting beside the mansion's large, oak doors, she hopes that not every story of the X-Men has a tragic ending.

"We don't have all day," she mutters to herself distractedly as she checks her wrist watch.

Behind her she hears Logan say as he closes the large double doors behind him, "And I wasn't plannin' on takin' all day, darlin'."

Jean jumps slightly as she says, "I'm sorry. I didn't know you were there."

Pulling a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket and putting them on, Logan says casually, "Sneakin' up on a world-class telepath? Boy, I'm good."

Grinning a bit in amusement, she responds, "I guess I had my mind elsewhere."

"I'd say."

She fidgets with a strap on her small, leather satchel as she says, "Okay, then. Let's get going."

"All right. Ya got the keys?"

Fishing Warren's abandoned keys out of the pocket of her khaki pants, she holds them in the air as they flash in the morning sun. "Right here."

"Then let's get to it."

The two walk to Warren's silver, E-Class Mercedes parked in the School's large, arcing driveway. After disengaging the alarm, Jean slides into the leather driver's seat. If she wasn't so worried about Betsy and Warren, she would actually enjoy this. She has always wanted to drive her friend's sleek luxury car. With Warren now living in the city all the time, she hasn't gotten the chance to... though she doubts he would let her under less extenuating circumstances. He has always been very protective of his toys.

She closes the door of the car and pulls an elastic band from her satchel before tossing it in the back seat. It is a beautiful day and she decides to make the most of it, regardless how dismal she feels. She plans to take full advantage of the large, custom sunroof and wants to keep her long hair from constantly whipping in her face. As she ties her hair up, she glances over at Logan, who is making himself comfortable in the passenger seat, and asks, "So what took you so long?"

"What do ya mean? I was five minutes early."

Jean peers at the dash board clock and says absently, "My watch must be fast."

Out of the corner of her eye, she notices her friend's disgruntled expression. So what if she is a bit absent minded today, she thinks to herself. Yesterday was jarring for everyone. She knows it is plain as day that she blames herself for Betsy's disappearance. She also knows that Logan plans on discussing it with her.

Releasing a sigh, Jean searches her pocket for her pair of sunglasses and groans as she realizes she left them on the kitchen table. She hasn't the patience to walk or drive to the boat house to retrieve them and the thought of using her powers seems excessive for something so trivial, so she reaches past Logan and grabs a pair from the glove compartment. The cats-eye shaped glasses fit perfectly. No doubt, they are Betsy's. She can't imagine Warren wearing them, not in any respectable sense, anyway.

She adjusts her seat and mirrors then starts the car, its new engine purring almost melodically. Shifting the car into gear, she pulls out of the drive, letting a few fallen leaves rustle and fly in their wake. They leave Greymalkin Lane behind and head out toward the highway in silence and Jean knows it will be a long ride. There is too much on both their minds for it not to be.

After a while, she turns on the car's CD player, hoping music will help relax both her and Wolverine. The CD spirals through to an album Jean knows well, one she is surprised Warren would have. She then realizes that music is something the two have never really discussed. Suddenly she thinks how odd it is to know someone for so many years without knowing his music tastes. It makes her feel as if she doesn't really know him anymore. It makes him feel very far away.

Rolling back the sun roof and putting the car into fifth gear as she merges onto the highway, she listens to the lyrics of the song playing over the top-of-the-line audio system. She'd never really paid attention to them before and they draw her deep into a reverie, making her think more and more about Betsy and her situation, about herself and all the millions of roles she is expected to play everyday.

"From the shadow she calls
and in the shadow she finds a way
finds a way
and in the shadow she crawls
clutching a faded photograph
my image under her thumb
yes with a message for my heart
yes with a message for my heart

She's been everybody else's girl
maybe one day she'll be her own
Everybody else's girl
maybe one day she'll be her own

And then she is far away from it all: the car, the asphalt road in front of her, the man sitting right next to her. Her instincts take the wheel as she slips into herself, wondering how to make it all better, wondering how to make it work right this time. She hopes she can help her friend save herself. Friend? Yes. Through all the petty jealousies and arguing, through all the competition and comparison, she finally considers Betsy a friend. She hopes it is an epithet she returns.

As these thoughts weigh heavily on her mind, she doesn't notice the car drifting into the right lane until Logan reaches out and grabs the wheel. She snaps back into herself as suddenly as she left, shaking her head and concentrating fully on her driving.

"Wings would kill ya if ya totaled his baby."

Brushing a loose strand of hair from her face, Jean retorts, "I imagine he has more important things on his mind right now."

She can hear him settle back into the leather seat next as he says, "I'd guess so... and from the looks of it, ya got something on yer mind, too."

Jean grips the wheel tightly in her hands as she retorts, "I think we both do. I know Betsy means a lot to you."

The electronically powered chair whirs and hums as he reclines the seat slightly and stretches his legs. "Don't go changin' the subject."

Staring straight ahead, her eyes unwavering from the road, she says, "I'm not."

"No. Ya just don't want to talk about yer feelings."

A low groan builds in her throat and eventually spills out of her lips as she sighs heavily and snaps, "And since when have you been so analytical? Lord. You sound like Charles."

"There's a lot to that."

Jean squints as her brow tightens and she purses her lips. No, he wasn't going to let it drop. She might as well get it out in the open and over with. Might as well get it off her chest before she had to play the strong-willed woman Warren and Betsy would need her to be. Yes, she'd give Logan what he needs to hear.

"I failed her, Logan. I wasn't there for her. We almost lost her because I wasn't strong enough, didn't hold her tight enough."

Her eyes follow the snaking lines of the highway as she waits for him to tell her that everything's okay, that it wasn't her fault, that she didn't fail Betsy. But the words never come and the two sit in silence, the music mocking the wall between them.

Finally, she sighs deeply and snaps the stereo off before she says, "Aren't you going to reassure me? Isn't that what this is all about? Isn't this what you want?"

His face turned away from her, Logan looks out the window as he says, "Nope. That's what ya want."

Gripping the wheel tightly, Jean sputters, "So... so you're saying it is my fault? That I let her down?"

Still refusing to look at her, he says dryly, "I'm not sayin' that."

"Then what are you saying, Logan?"

He takes off his glasses and looks her square in the face as he tries to place his words as delicately as possible, "What I'm sayin' is this ain't necessarily about ya, Jeannie."

Jean growls quietly and then composes herself before she says, "But I thought you wanted me to tell you how I felt? And when I do... you tell me they're the wrong feelings. I don't know why I even bother with you."

Squinting out of the window and rubbing his forehead, he says casually, "Because I'm such a charmer."

A small laugh escapes her lips and she drums her fingers lightly against the steering wheel as green trees blur past them. "You're right, you know. This isn't about me."

Next to her, Logan nods slowly as he listens to her continue. "I mean, what's done is done. I can't change it, can I?"

"No. Ya sure can't."

Relaxing into her seat, Jean breathes a deep sigh and asks, "So what's next?"

"I don't know, Jeannie."

As the words leave his mouth, Jean can feel strange emotions lingering in his stray thoughts. She has sensed ambient emotions from her friend before this day, but this sensation is different. It's not anger, or hate, or raw fury... emotions that dig into a telepath's consciousness like a sharp burr. No, this is a quiet, muffled emotion. It is opaque and as suffocating as a murky pond, yet it is as obvious as the sunrise. As dread pounds against his thoughts, the reality of it hits her like a ton of bricks.

Her jaw drops as she can't help but channel his thoughts and emotions. "You don't think she's going to make it, do you? I mean you said that you didn't yesterday, but I didn't think you believed it. But you do. You really do."

She watches him as he shuts his eyes tightly and turns his face away from her. Shaking her head in disbelief, she puts voice to the fears swimming in her mind. "You really don't think she can win. And... oh dear God."

Jean takes a breath before she continues, carefully weighing the importance of every word. "And you won't let her become a monster. You won't let her become a slave. You'll finish her yourself before you'll let that happen."

Wolverine tears his gaze from the passing scenery and looks at Jean. She can feel his eyes on her. He seems to be pleading with her to stop saying the words, to stop giving voice to the worst case scenario, to stop making him feel worse than he already does. She shakes her head again, as if she is trying to make the conflicting views struggling in her mind fit together and settle, as if she is trying to make the world make sense again. And then she turns to Logan and asks quietly, "I'm right, aren't I?"

Dropping his head in his hands, he lets out a low growl before he says, "Dammit, Jean. Don't push this. I don't wanna talk about it."


She pulls her eyes from the road briefly and looks at him, anger and guilt obviously weighing heavily on his conscious thoughts. As she turns her attention back to the road, she says almost coldly, "Logan. It's not your fault."

She can feel his frustration lash out at her almost palpably as he fumes, "It is my fault. All of it! Can't ya see it?! Sabretooth never should've been in a position to do that to her in the first place. And I never shoulda gone to that damn wizard for help. I helped turn her life into a mockery of what she used to be. So the lord help me, Jeannie, if she don't make it out of this, I'm gonna do everything in my power to make sure that whatever happens, it doesn't take the rest of her dignity. I'm gonna make sure this Tar creep doesn't take everything that's beautiful and good about her and twist it into some dark shadow of the woman she used to be. I won't let her be a mockery anymore. Even if it kills me. No matter what."

Jean lets his words settle in her mind as she sits quietly in the driver's seat. Letting his body fall back into his chair, though he is still rigid with anger and tension, he says quietly, "And that's all I'm gonna say on it."

Gripping the wheel tightly, she tightens her jaw and takes a deep breath. The air that penetrates her lungs feels as if it is tinged with strain and irritation. She blurts out, "How dare you? You bastard!"

He refuses to look at her. Head turned, he pretends to be fixated on the wild flowers scattered down the highway's embankment. Jean knows better and scowls again, "You selfish, hypocritical bastard."

Her comment once again gets his attention and he glares at her as she continues, "Maybe this isn't about you anymore. Maybe you've done enough damage. Maybe it's Betsy's turn to decide to do with her own life. Maybe it's her time to choose her own path... any of this sound familiar, Logan? God. I can't believe you're actually thinking about killing one of your dearest friends just because she might become something you don't think she should! Try as I might, I still don't understand your twisted sense of honor."

Taking a deep breath she sinks back into the drivers seat and glances over at her friend. He stares glassy-eyed out of the window and if she didn't know better, she could have sworn he was on the verge of a break down. She knows her words have cut him to the bone, yet she still felt she had to say them.

She whispers, "I won't let you do that to her. I owe her that much. I owe you that much."

The two sit silently for a few agonizing minutes, neither of them daring to say a word as the tires of the car roll almost soundlessly over the patched road. The chaotic rhythm the axles make as they pass over repaired potholes grinds into Jean's thoughts and the sound mocks her unbearably. She reaches out her hand with the intent of turning back on the stereo, when Logan says quietly, "I'll stop her if I have to, Jeannie. If she can't control herself or she leaves the side of the angels... I'll stop her."

Placing her hand back on the steering wheel, Jean says calmly, "As we all would. We'd make sure she was rehabilitated to the best of our abilities. But that's not going to happen. She's in control now. You should know that much from what you saw of her yesterday. I have faith she'll come through this one way or another. She's too strong to be used again. She'll do anything to keep that from happening."

He sits forward and takes a deep breath before he speaks. "I'm just saying that not everything ends up in a pretty little picture like us X-Men are used to. There ain't always a happy ending, no matter how hard we wish for it to happen. You've gotta understand that about the world, Jean. I know Betsy does."

She nods as she watches him settle back in his seat and even though his thoughts are still jumbled and angry, she knows this signals the end of their conversation. She hopes and prays he took her threats seriously, that he isn't still contemplating drastic solutions to a worst-case scenario. She is just as stubborn as Logan. If he chooses to cross her on this, she will contain him by any means possible.

Pulling his hat low over his eyes, Wolverine releases a breath and then says, "For her sake, I hope yer right, though. I really do."

Mustering up the most confident and cheerful expression she can manage, Jean says as she glances at her friend, "I know I am. I just know it. I have to be."

Part Seventeen

"Every smallest step on the field of free thought and the individually formed life has always been fought for with spiritual and physical torments."

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn

Gomurr the Ancient straightens his robes, running his old, gnarled hands flat against its seams as he stands before the large, ornate doors at the entrance of the Crimson Dawn's innermost chamber. As he studies the snarling head of one of the door's elaborate gold dragons, he can't believe he is here, presenting himself as a supplicant to his long-time rival, begging for the soul of a woman he barely knows. None of this is like him, he thinks. He might even believe he is turning soft in his old age if he didn't know better. But a nagging in the back of his mind tells him this is the right thing to do. He only hopes Tar doesn't think he has gone one step too far.

He pounds a small, greying fist against the door and the hall behind him echoes as if a thunderous hammer has stuck at the very heart of the Dawn. The door creeks slowly and solemnly open, pulled by a pair of Tar's Undercloaks, slithering their dark feet through the shadows, breath as cold as the darkest night. Gomurr turns to look into one of their vacuous faces and sees nothing but a pair of cinderous eyes swimming in a dark hood and an even darker fate. He knows the being in front of him used to be a thinking, feeling human. Perhaps he even had a home, a family, people he cared for. Perhaps like others before him, he traded it all... for power, for strength, for another chance to live and breathe. It is a dark path the Undercloaks walk, trading bits and pieces of themselves until nothing is left but a dark, cold hunger and the urge to serve their master. Gomurr turns his gaze away from the lost soul and wonders if he has just glimpsed the future of the X-Man known as Psylocke. It would be such a great waste, he thinks, such light burned away for the dark of Tar's bidding, such squandering of a perfectly noble soul.

As Gomurr travels the long, dim path to Tar's throne, he can hear the neon minions tick menacingly behind him and feel his rival's cold stare on him. He keeps his eyes lowered and his posture tall as the Ebon Vein pulses under the thin floor beneath his feet. He will not be intimidated. After all, he taught Tar most of the tricks he knows. But he still plays the part of the humble subject, knowing that sometimes ceremony is the most sacred trust of all.

Once Gomurr reaches his destination, the neon creatures disperse from behind him, a few skittering up Tar's chair and one even laying across his lap like a favorite pet. Gomurr squints sharply at the ebon-skinned proctor as he strokes the living neon character. Such liberties this one pursues, such folly. Though kept a secret to the outside world, the Dawn always held a certain level of majesty and respect. Its power now grows weak and the realm itself threatens to fracture and disappear. Gomurr knows Tar can feel it, the proctor's fate is completely intertwined with the Dawn itself. He only hopes that his rival keeps his part of the sacred trust of the Dawn and does not give into desperation. Desperation has no place in the realm of shadows. He shakes away his critical thoughts as Tar's resonant voice rings loud in his ears. "Why are you here, Gomurr?"

Gomurr suppresses a sigh as he kneels and bows low. "I come for the life of the telepath, Elizabeth Braddock."

If Gomurr were looking at Tar, no doubt he would see the expression of amusement in his face. Instead, all he can hear is his deep, bellowing laugh. "Relinquish the life of Braddock? You must be joking."

"No joke. I request the girl be freed from her debt."

"There is no precedent for such an action."

"I know this. But there is something about this one. I had to speak on her behalf."

Gomurr looks up at Tar's smirking visage. "I know she is unique, Gomurr. Why do you think I wish to have her among my Undercloaks? Why do you think I have sought to claim her life before her debt was due? Silly, silly man."

Gomurr shakes his head and breaks his reverent position in front of his rival. He bounds up the stairs as neon minions sink their talons into his robes, hindering his movement and attempting to protect their lord. He growls under his breath and looks at the sea of pink neon gathering around his feet. He takes a deep breath and then says, "Tar, please. Let's talk about this like civilized sorcerers. How long do we play these stupid games? You want these creatures to harm me? You even think they could?"

Tar rolls his eyes and then snaps his fingers. The minions slink away from Gomurr and tic-tak their way out of the throne room as their master says, "So what is your request? What do you want to say?"

"The ninja-girl should be free of her debt. It only fair. She never sought the Dawn herself."

The taller mystic stands and scratches his hairless head as he says, "That is a good point... though we've been over this countless times in the past. The one who benefits, who wields the power is the one who must pay the debt. Enough of the Dawn was given to save her life. So her life she owes. And fairness is hardly a concern. It never has been in all these centuries."

Tar steps down from his throne and motions for Gomurr to walk with him. "What has gotten into you, Gomurr? First you bring these outsiders to seek the Dawn... disrespecting me with your impetuousness and brashness, never once asking my permission. And then you ask me to look past the debt? Why?"

Hovering above the ground to remain at eye-level with Tar, Gomurr says quietly, "Maybe it's because you break too many rules on your own. Maybe I see that something is not right with the Dawn and I take advantage."

As they approach the heart of the Ebon Vein and it glows bright red and orange against their features, Tar stops and stares hard at his rival. "The laws I have enacted since my reign as Proctor have been to benefit this realm. You of all people should understand this. It is hard to remain strong as an unseen force in an unseen mystical world. Especially now... now that people don't believe in magic, in truth, in fear. I will do what is required to hold this realm together. I have and will continue to do so."

Gomurr sighs as Tar's motivations begin to become clear. "And you have great hope for this Braddock girl? You think she can heal the Dawn?"

"With her leading my legion of Undercloaks... the world will once again dread the Crimson Dawn. We will be in every darkened corner waiting, we will be the cold breath of fear in the dead of night. We will no longer be mocked. People will believe in magic and we will have more souls to harvest."

Gritting his teeth, Gomurr glares at his adversary. It takes every ounce of restraint to keep himself from telling Tar what a fool he is, how the Dawn was never meant to be about conquering, never meant to rule humanity through fear. But he knows he won't listen. Any pleas will fall on deaf ears. They have had this argument too many times, always ending in a stalemate. He takes a deep breath and then says, "And if she wins her challenge? Will you break another of your sacred rules and take her anyway?"

Tar narrows his eyes and says nothing, his red robes shining orange in the glow of the Heart of the Dawn. Gomurr then lowers himself to the ground and walks away from his rival toward the large, ornate doors that he entered only minutes before. As he walks he says, "I will be here with her, Tar. I won't let you break the trust. By the Dawn, I will hold you to your contract. No matter the consequences."

Behind him, Gomurr hears the low laugh of Tar and the ticking of tiny, neon claws. "I would expect nothing less of the great Gomurr. No, nothing less."

* * *

Warren has always admired Betsy's beauty. To him, she is as radiant as the moon in a dark sky, as exotic as a butterfly in winter and as perfect as a hot-house orchid. But as he stands silently in the doorway of their bedroom and watches her dress with her back to him, something is different about her. Over the last night, she has somehow become something more. Or maybe it is just the way he perceives her now... after all the drama, after all the fear and then reconciliation, somehow she has become larger than life, more real than she has ever been before. And as he drinks in each of her graceful movements as she slips into a lavender-hued silk blouse and slowly fastens each button, his new perception of her frightens him. In the bright light of day, he now knows exactly how much he would have missed her if she had truly been lost to the shadows.

He knows she knows he is there and somehow that makes the delight he takes in watching her all the more alluring. As she slides her feet into a pair of leather mules and tosses her long purple hair over her shoulder to grin at him, she asks, "Enjoying the show?"

He fights the urge to run to her, swoop her up in his arms and never let her go, lock her away some place where Tar and his Undercloaks will never find her. Some place safe, some place warm, some place where they can be happy forever. He knows he can never cage her, though. He could never do that to her. She is a free spirit and always will be. Even if death himself knocked at her door, she would simply smile and laugh, celebrating a life well-lived. Besides, he can hardly guess at the arcane limits of Tar and his minions. For all he knows, they can find her anywhere she might hide. No, she cannot hide from her fate, whatever that might be. So he attempts to swallow his fears for the time being, though they gnaw at his stomach like a wild beast and penetrate every cell of his body like a cancer. Masking his anxieties from their psychic rapport and assuming an expression of amused mirth, he leans a shoulder against the door frame and runs a hand through his hair as he smirks, "But of course."

Fastening a delicate white-gold watch around her wrist as she walks toward him, she grins, "Then maybe I should start charging admission?"

She wraps her arms around him and rests her head on his chest, the flowery fragrance of her hair making him almost giddy. "I would give you my fortune, fair lady."

Lifting her head to smile at him, all the fear and anger she woke with apparently left far behind, she says, "Of course you would, dear. And I'm sorry about this morning. That dream was just so real and I..."

Warren places a finger on her lips. "Shh. It's okay. If you don't want to talk about it, you don't have to. Let's just appreciate the day, okay?"

She kisses his finger and holds his hand in her own. "Okay. What's for breakfast?"

"Eggs Florentine, croissant and coffee."

She smirks knowingly at Warren. "Oh! You're so sweet. You got breakfast from La Lorraine!"

La Lorraine is a French and Continental restaurant only a block away from their apartment and has quickly become one of Betsy's favorite restaurants. Over the last year she developed a rapport with the staff and Warren always stood idly by when she would converse in almost perfect French with the owner. He always seemed to give Betsy a little extra attention... a bottle of wine on the house, a taste of something new he was concocting. Although the special treatment did make him a bit jealous at times, he thought it was worth it if he could get a fine meal occasionally delivered to his door, though he was sure a hefty tip didn't hurt matters. As she darts out of his arms and down the stairs, he calls out after her, "As if I couldn't make that myself!"

"Don't be silly, Warren. I've lived with you long enough to know better!"

He walks down the wide stairs and enters the kitchen to find her already sitting out on the balcony, happily nibbling on a croissant. He pours them both a cup of coffee and walks to the bistro-style table arranged between two small, but well-cushioned chairs. Handing a cup to Betsy, he remarks, "I did make this all on my own, though."

She looks at him warily and takes a timid sip, then nods agreeably and takes another, surer swallow. He watches her reaction as she smiles and places the cup on the table. "Pierre brought this blend with him, didn't he?"

Warren rolls his eyes as he confesses, convinced that both her familiarity with his culinary blunders and their reestablished psychic-rapport has already given him away. "Yes. But I ground the beans myself. I'm not completely incompetent."

She grins. "No. Not completely."

He sits forward in his chair, his wings draping over the low back and watches her eat with relish as he picks idly at his food, tearing his croissant to nervous shreds. They eat in silence, Betsy cleaning her plate and Warren only managing half his pastry. As she tucks her napkin under her plate and stretches in the warm morning sunshine, he says, "I've never seen you eat like that before."

Smiling demurely, she sighs with satisfaction and then says, "I don't think you've ever seen me that hungry before. I guess shadow-hopping all over the globe will do that to a person."

He drops his napkin to his plate and then says distractedly, "I guess it would."

"And what about you? You barely touched yours."

Lifting his coffee mug with both hands, he says, "I guess I just wasn't hungry."

Because of his metabolism and the great amount of energy flying expends, Warren normally must eat more than an average man his size. Betsy frowns at him. "Something's bothering you."

As he looks at her from across the table, a sudden, white-hot anger fills his mind. He wants to scream, to rage at the world for almost taking her away from him, to shake her and ask her how she can be so casual despite the fact that she must battle who knows what dangers in less than twenty four hours. But he knows he needs to be whatever she wants him to be at the moment and if what she wants is a casual breakfast companion, that is what she will get. He just wishes that she would talk to him. Through their rapport, he can feel her fear and anger linger just beyond her conscious thoughts. Warren sighs deeply and tries to ignore the sadness forming deep in the pit of his stomach, pushing it far into the back of his mind, deep enough to hide it from Betsy. "No nothing's wrong. Nothing that can't wait."

She pulls her feet under her as she looks through him with an unblinking glare. From that look he knows he didn't hide his own fears well enough. As they stare at one another, their psychic rapport buzzing like white noise, the door bell chimes. He watches her stand as she moves to answer the door and says over her shoulder, "We'll talk about this later."

He collects the breakfast dishes and takes them to the kitchen sink as he hears Betsy greet their guests. He had forgotten all about Jean. She had said on the phone the night before that she'd be coming by. He just didn't think it would be so soon. He rinses off the plates with shaky hands, head still aching slightly from the battle of wits he and Betsy are subconsciously engaged in and loads them into the dishwasher as he takes another deep sigh. He loves Jean to pieces. Always has. But today? Today, he just doesn't need this. With her keen instincts and telepathic prowess, she'll know exactly what's going on and being psychoanalyzed by anyone, much less a good friend, is the last thing he needs right now.

As he closes the dishwasher door, he hears someone enter the kitchen behind him. He turns to face his guest, fully expecting the friendly, yet concerned visage of Jean. He is shocked to find someone else standing in her place.

Logan leans against the large, arcing doorway and smirks. "Don't look so surprised to see me, Wings. I ain't that ugly."

Warren suppresses the rueful remarks simmering at the back of his mind and instead asks, "What are you doing here, Wolverine?"

"Came up with Jeannie to make sure ya kids are doin' okay. Now go to the bathroom and primp or whatever ya pretty boys do, we're goin' out."


Glaring unblinkingly at Warren, Logan grins menacingly yet somehow casually. "Yeah. Jean and Betts got some things to talk over. Figured we'd make ourselves scarce for a few hours."

Scratching his head and putting away the dishtowel, Warren feels a hard knot grow in the pit of his stomach. Just him and Logan? Alone? For a few hours? He mutely speaks a quick prayer, hoping neither one of them will end up in the emergency room by the morning's end.

Part Eighteen

"There is a timbre of voice
that comes from not being heard
and knowing   you are not being
heard   noticed only
by others   not heard
for the same reason."

Audre Lorde, "Echoes"

Psylocke rests her elbows on the stone ledge of the balcony and looks out over the city. Traffic moves slowly under her gaze as people stroll casually through the art district, appreciating the slow pace of their Saturday morning. She thinks that their lives must be so simple compared to her own, so free and unfettered. She takes a deep breath as she watches a woman struggle with a small dog, then a young man a few paces behind linger by a store front. She focuses in on the man, picking up his thoughts with little effort. He likes that painting in the corner. Yes, the blues and greens remind him of the pond out behind his grandpa's farm in New Hampshire. It was always so cool and the fish were always biting. He thinks he should visit his grandpa soon. Yes, soon. It's been too long and one never knows what tomorrow might bring.

Tomorrow. Betsy's thoughts turn back to herself and she wonders what her tomorrow will be like, wonders where and who she might be. If she is to be anything at all.

"Betsy? I have your tea."

She turns away from the street to face the red-haired woman behind her as she smiles graciously and offers her a cup. "Thank you, Jean. Thanks."

Jean Grey-Summers stands next to her at the balcony and asks, "You do take lemon, don't you?"

"Yes. Yes I do."

She speaks quietly. "I thought so."

Sipping her tea, Betsy wonders when things grew so comfortable between them, when they started to understand one another. Maybe it happened yesterday while Betsy struggled with holographic ninjas on the Danger Room floor. Maybe it happened weeks before because sometimes it can be easier to try to understand than to destroy. Maybe it happened because a million different factors lead to this very moment. All she manages to conclude is that it is nice to have Jean here with her. It's comfortable and real. It's just what she needs at this moment.

She glances over at her teammate, Jean's long hair hanging in her face as she looks at the street below and she smirks to herself as she asks, "Can I ask you something, Jean?"

Tossing her hair over her shoulder, Jean says, her thoughts clear and hopeful, "Sure. What's on your mind?"

"When did you stop being such a bitch?"

Jean laughs. "About the time you stopped being such a hussy."

Wearing a facade of seriousness, Betsy says, "Oh. I was never a hussy."

Jean smirks. "And I was never a bitch."

The two laugh for a few moments before Jean continues. "But seriously. I'm glad we've gotten to this point. I'm glad you don't hate me anymore."

Betsy rests her arms again on the balcony and stretches her back. "Hate you? I never hated you."

Even though Jean wears a smile, her eyes twinkle with a twinge of remorse. "Oh yes you did. Hated me to the core. And I wasn't exactly glad to have you around, either. I didn't take too kindly to this knock-out bombshell of a telepath on the same team as myself. And when Scott started paying you attention? What was I supposed to think?"

Running a finger along a line of mortar, Betsy shakes her head at the 'bombshell' comment and asks, "I thought we were past that?"

"Oh, we are. It's just... well, I was very jealous of you for a very long time. And it wasn't all about Scott."

Betsy can't help but laugh in shock. "You? Jealous of me? You're the heartbreaker on the team. And you're even a stronger member."

"Funny. You don't know how ridiculous that sounds to me. Remember when I first met you, during that whole crisis with the Goblin... with Madelyne? I didn't have my telepathy and I barely had hold on my sanity. I didn't exactly feel strong then. I think intimidated is the word."

Tugging on the string of her tea bag, letting it bounce in her cup, Betsy says, "Intimidated? By me? And I thought Warren was insecure."

Jean swings her head slowly away from Betsy to stare down at the street again. "See? We all have our hang-ups."

"That we do."

* * *

Archangel stuffs his hands into the pockets of his khaki pants as he follows Wolverine down a crowded sidewalk. He keeps his eyes on the back of the shorter man's dark head as he shoulders past fellow pedestrians, grimacing as the people brush past him, their presence intruding on his personal space. Warren has never enjoyed cramped spaces and detests uninvited human contact only a little bit more. It's tourist season in the Big Apple and the path he and Logan have been walking for the last half an hour has led them through yet another open air festival. He swears if he sees another stand selling gaudy, silver jewelry or tourist- centric postcards he's giving up and going home. After all, he thinks, what the hell is he doing wandering the streets with this man he can barely tolerate on a good day when he could, he should, be at home with the woman he loves?

For his part, Logan has barely spoken a word since the two left the curb in front of Warren's loft. If Warren had known they would be walking this far, he would have insisted on hailing cab. He's not even sure if Logan knows where he's going or if he's trying to do nothing more than annoy him to pieces. And if that is his goal, he is certainly approaching success.

As the two squeeze past the last of the revelers and around a corner, Warren grumbles, "So where are we going?"

Logan keeps his pace and doesn't even glace back at Warren as he says, "Just like I said. Out."

Rolling his eyes, Warren states flatly, "Logan, I'd say we are definitely out."

"Wow. Yer smarter than ya look."

He curses under his breath, realizing that the last thing in the world he needs at the moment is a confrontation with Logan. Betsy and Jean would both kill him. Still, he's not about to lay down and become Logan's verbal punching bag. He's in too foul of a mood to roll over and play dead. He retorts, "And you're more bull-headed than you look."

Logan stops suddenly and turns on his heel to face him. Warren stares back into his worn face, his cold gaze meeting Logan's angry one. He watches as Wolverine clenches and unclenches his fists, stopping himself short from either grabbing Warren by the shirt or punching him in the face. Warren isn't sure which, but he knows that look. He's seen it many times during the years he's known Logan. He knows he's just pushed a button and he can't help but smile inwardly.

Finally, Logan turns away from Warren and says matter-of-factly, "Ya know right now's not the best of times to be gettin' into this. An' I know you've been though seven different kinds of hell the last few days, so I'm gonna let yer mouth slide. But ya just watch yer back, Wings. Ya just watch it. I ain't in the mood."

Crossing his arms over his chest, Warren says, "Neither am I, Logan."


Logan picks up his pace again, leading them farther away from the more trendy parts of the city. After a few more blocks, he stops in front of a dingy bar and pulls open the door. Before he follows Wolverine into the dark, smoky depths of the establishment, Warren reads the sign over the door. "Hardcase's." Fits Logan to a tee. Warren squints his eyes, letting his vision adjust to the yellow and blue glow of the mostly neon lit room. Several patrons are already sitting at the bar or playing billiards. Looking down at his watch, the gold plated hands indicate the time: 10:51 am.

Warren breathes a deep sigh and stands by Logan as he sets up a pool table for play, the smooth surfaces of the balls clicking against one another almost musically. "So this is it?"

"Yeah, Wings. This is it."

"Now what?"

"I rack 'em up while ya get us some beers."


"Yeah. It's brown, foamy, made of hops and barley. I hear it's real big over in Europe. Gonna be the latest craze in the States soon, just know it."

Warren shakes his head and grumbles at Logan's sarcasm. "I'm not that much of snob, Logan. I've a had a pint or two in my day."

Silently, Logan looks up from the table and frowns at him. Warren says, "What? I mean it's not even eleven yet. Isn't it a little early for a drink?"

"Just get me one then. Domestic. And if ya bring me back any of that light crap, I'll gut ya."

Shaking his head once more as he walks to the bar, Warren flags down the bartender and orders the drink. He watches the amber liquid foam into the glass from the tap as the bartender gives him a look over and smirks to himself in amusement. Warren sighs and turns to look at the patron seated next to him, a toothless man who needs a desperate refresher course on hygiene and seems to think Warren is the funniest thing he's seen in ages. Turning away from the man and fishing in his pocket for his wallet, Warren glares at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar as he mumbles, "Great day this is turning out to be. Great day indeed."

* * *

Betsy takes another sip of her tea as she and Jean gaze down at the street in silence for a few minutes. She still can't believe Jean's words, that she would be jealous and intimidated by her when she had felt exactly the same way. All those months of back stabbing and in-fighting could have been avoided if they had only noticed the irony. Still, she is glad that they are here, glad that she can finally count Jean as one of her few friends in the world. She smiles to herself with the contradiction of it. The woman she resented for much of her stay at the Xavier Institute has now become her confidante, her friend.

"They all make it look so easy from up here, don't they?"

Pulled from her reverie, Betsy asks, "Make what look easy?"

Turning away from the street, Jean leans her back against the balcony as she smiles at Betsy. "Oh. You know... life, living, all the baggage comes with it. I mean, there are some people down there that are dealing with some serious issues. Real life problems. But most of them are just worried about what they're going to eat for lunch, if their pants make their rear ends look big or whether to buy low or sell high."

Betsy rests her cup on the ledge. "And we're different?"

"Of course we are. You know we are. If being a telepath has taught me anything, it's that most of the people in this world walk around in a haze, never really thinking anything of great depth, never really appreciating what they have. Sometimes people need to be reminded of how special life is while they're actually living it, you know?"

Studying her friend's expression, unable to read her thoughts regarding the matter, Betsy asks hesitantly, "What are you trying to say, Jean?"

Seriousness suddenly apparent in her features, Jean looks hard at Betsy. "You can't hide it from me, you know. I can feel it in you now. I could feel it even more yesterday. You're afraid, deeply and terribly afraid of what might happen to you tonight. But still you hide your fear, won't let anybody see it. And you're pushing people away, when what you need to be doing is letting them in."


Jean nods. "Yes. You can't do it to him, Betsy. Not now."

Betsy breathes a deep sigh and leaves her cup unattended as she sits in a cushioned chair next to the table she and Warren ate breakfast at just an hour before. She idly presses a finger against a leftover crumb and rolls it in her fingers as Jean sits across from her. She looks at her, almost telling her it is none of her business, that she should be left alone with her thoughts, her misery. But then she remembers the day before, how reassuring it was for that brief time to share a mind with her. And somehow, she knows that Jean understands.

Jean reaches across the table and pats her once on the hand, looking at her with concerned, green eyes. "You can't push him away. Not if you really fear that your time together might not last another day. You can't do that to him. You can't do that to yourself. You should be together, more than you ever have before. You should celebrate what you have left. And if everything turns out for the best tonight? Wonderful. But if it doesn't, at least you had today."

Betsy closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. She wants to scream, she wants to cry, she wants to pound her fists against the fragile glass top of the table, shattering it into a thousand tiny fragments... wants something to feel as broken as she is, but mostly she wants to feel a little less powerless, a little more in control. She imagines pummeling her fist first into the glass, then into the windows and the glass french doors. And it feels good. Skin and bone and muscle shattering the cold, razor sharp panes, the blood running in rivulets down her forearms as tiny shards slice through sinew and vein. But it doesn't matter. For once she is angry, for once she is in control. She is powerful.

Then through the red haze of her fantasy, she hears Jean shrill, "Stop it!"

Betsy opens her eyes and glances back at the large windows, the morning sun glinting brightly off the intact panes. She then looks across the table to Jean, whose green eyes narrow as her jaw tightens and she whispers, her voice tinged with anger. "Betsy. You're projecting."

"Am I? Oh God, I am." Betsy takes a deep breath and lets her body relax, focusing on the steady rhythm of her heart. She breathes softness into every cell of her body, her head growing light and the anger she felt only moments before pushed farther back in her conscious thoughts.

As the beat of her heart slows, she hears Jean's musical voice ask, "Better?"

Though not completely purged of her frustration, she can feel her emotions stabilize, the serenity she has learned to harness during her training and meditation balancing the white-hot rage from only a few moments before. Betsy opens her eyes. "Much."

She watches her friend fold her hands demurely in her lap as she says softly, "Good."

"I'm sorry about that Jean, it's just..."

"Don't apologize. You've got a lot of anger. A lot of fear. Trust me, I understand. Look at what happens when you bottle it up, though. Look at how you affect the people around you. Most likely you've been driving Warren crazy without either of you knowing what's going on. Especially with your rapport."

Tears well in Betsy's eyes as she folds her arms against her chest and whispers as she remembers the strained words she shared with Warren only an hour ago, "What do I do, Jean?"

"You let him in. You show him your anger, your fear. But you must also show him your hope. There is some hope, Betsy. Hold tight to it. Don't let it go. It may end up being your salvation."

Betsy's brow furrows tightly as a solitary tear escapes and she stares through Jean with pleading eyes. The red-haired telepath pushes her chair away from the table as she stands, the metal legs scraping against the concrete with a muffled screech. As her vision blurs, Betsy feels Jean's warm embrace around her shoulders as she says quietly, "Shh. You must be strong, now. You will be even stronger if he stands beside you. Two are more solid than one. If you let him in, you can beat anything. You will win."

Betsy wipes dry a tear and grips Jean's hand as she asks, "So love will conquer all?"

"We must hope, Betsy."

A sudden smile surfaces on Betsy's tear-stained face and she turns her face up towards Jean, a mirthful twinkling in her eyes as she says, "Always the romantic, aren't you?"

Jean grins as she squeezes Betsy's hand before she releases it. "Always."

Though she marvels at the calming effect Jean has over her, Betsy accepts it and holds her warmth and serenity close in her thoughts. She sits in silence for a moment, before Jean finally speaks. "I think it would be best if someone was there with you tonight. Someone besides Warren and this Gomurr fellow."

Betsy narrows her eyes and eyes Jean suspiciously. From what she can tell, there is no ulterior motive in her mind, nothing but genuine concern and a little residual guilt. She takes a deep breath before she says, "It might be a good idea if you were there, Jean. You... you keep me focused."

Surprised by the quickness of her response, though as gracious as Betsy would expect, Jean says, "I'm glad you trust me. But... Logan?"

Betsy smirks as she shakes her head. "You and I both know he planned on finding a way there anyway. I think I'll save him the trouble of making anymore deals with Gomurr and just teleport the both of you in my wake. Besides, if you know where he is, you can keep him out of trouble."

She watches Jean nod her head and examine her watch. She knows without using her telepathy that her teammate is thinking of her husband, Scott. He must be how she was planning on getting back to Salem Center in case Betsy forbade her presence this evening. So Betsy volunteers, before the matter can even become an issue, "And Scott can come, too. As many differences as we've had in the past. I will... appreciate his level-headedness."

Furrowing her brow at Betsy, Jean asks, "Are you sure this is what you want? I don't want to make you uncomfortable."

"Jean, I am already 'uncomfortable.' But I think having people nearby that I have trusted time and again with my life would be a wise choice. It would be foolish to enter blindly into this challenge. Besides, it will help to give me strength. Just promise me you will all keep your wits about you. This is my fight."

Jean nods and winks at Betsy. "And we will be your back up... just in case."

Closing her eyes, Betsy says quietly, "Yes. Just in case."

Releasing a deep sigh, she thanks Jean and swears her to silence about her emotional state and the telepathic projection of her anger. She can't begin to fathom how worried it would make Ororo, Logan and the others. As Jean declares she won't tell another soul, Betsy can't help but think about Warren and how he is handling his morning with Logan.

* * *

Warren plants a tall, frosty mug of domestic beer on the wide, flat rim of the pool table as he watches Logan break. He pulls a straw out of his own drink and sniffs the contents.

"What ya got there, Wings? Rum and coke? I figured ya were more the Manhattan or Martini type."

After taking one timid and then one surer sip of his drink, Warren pulls up a stool and says. "I am. But this is just a diet cola."

Logan snorts as a few patrons walk past the table, glaring at the out of place Archangel and mumbling under their breath as they cue up at the next table over. "And here I was thinkin' ya were gonna cut loose on me. Be careful. That Nutrasweet'll kill ya one of these days."

Shaking his head at Wolverine's levity, Warren says, "Logan, you know I'm not like that anymore."

Logan raises an eyebrow, "What? Fun?"

Warren holds his tongue and offers a friendlier retort than the one he had in mind. It's times like this he thanks the stars Logan isn't a telepath. "No. The whole life of excess thing."

He thinks back to how he used to be, how Logan must perceive him after knowing him in only a superficial manner all these years. In the past, he had been known to buy a sports car on a whim, take the woman with the longest legs and lowest neckline home, drink until his vision blurred and snort a line to make sure the party lasted until dawn. His life was fast, but empty... hollow. But the important thing was he at least looked like he was having fun. When he met Candy Southern and grew to love her, things just escalated. She was cut out of the same cloth. While she wasn't a bad influence on him, per se, she made no effort to quell his urges. Perhaps that was the reason they no longer trusted one another... until the bitter end. When his life changed at the hand of Apocalypse, things only got worse when he withdrew inside himself, when he no longer had the confidence he once had. He almost retreated from the world completely. Almost. He vowed never to regain the "playboy" lifestyle again, no matter how his life might improve.

As Logan chalks his cue, he says, "That's real good. I hope ya decide to stick to it. Now get yerself a cue and let's play some eight-ball. An' I'll be nice and not take any of yer money. No bets."

"You're too kind."

"Don't say I never did nothin' for ya."

Warren walks to the far end of the table and retrieves a cue- stick from the stand. As he pulls a cue from its position, one of the patrons from the next table over stands next to him as he balances a cue in his hand, Warren assumes feeling the weight of the stick. As he turns to leave, he hears the man mumble something under his breath.

Turning his head to face the man, he asks, "What was that?"

The man leers at him, his face mottled with thick black stubble, his teeth gray with years of abuse. He stares hard at Warren with bloodshot eyes and says gruffly, "I said, we don't much care for you richie-rich types around here."

Warren walks away from the man, rolling his eyes as he departs, his expression unseen by the local. "Okay. I'll take that under advisement."

When he returns to the table, Logan asks him, arms folded over his chest, "Ya okay over there?"

"Yeah. Fine. Just some yokel telling me I'm out of place here." Warren grins, "Like I didn't know that already."

"Well, what do ya expect coming in here with those pretty-boy looks and wearin' Izod or Tommy Hilfamaflodgie or whatever you've got on."

Looking down at his khaki pants and white button-down shirt as he rolls up his sleeves, Warren says defensively, "Hey. If I had known you were going to take me here, I would have worn something different. And for the record, it's Nautica."

Logan grins. "Oh, well excuse me then. Yer turn, Wings."

Warren sinks his first shot and misses his second. He doesn't think it's half bad for someone who hasn't played in years.

"Not too bad. But now it's time to watch a master at work."

Warren grins as Logan sinks his first two shots. Before he takes a third, he drinks from his beer, emptying half the mug in one swallow. As he poises himself to land the three ball in the top left corner, he says, "Ya know, yer good for her. As much as I hate to admit it."

As the ball ricochets off the right rail and rolls into the pocket, Warren asks, "What?"

"Ya heard me. I won't say it again, but ya make her real happy. I know the two of ya have been through all kinds of bull since you've been together... but that happiness still shines through it somehow. Current situation aside and before the whole mess with Sabretooth, I've never seen her happier and I've known the girl a long time."

It takes every ounce of grace Warren possesses not to drop his glass or let his mouth hang open in shock. "Thanks, Logan. That means a lot."

Logan purses his lips and nods as he sets up his fourth shot. "Ya just remember that tonight when things look their darkest. That girl's special. Real special. Ya just count yerself lucky she graced yer life. I know yer the one with the wings, but she's the real angel."

"I know, Logan. I do."

Wolverine sinks two more balls and grins in satisfaction to himself as he swallows the rest of his beer and Warren can't help but smile. He never thought he'd hear this from his teammate. He knows he must have thought it very important or it wouldn't have been said. Oddly, he finds that fact both comforting and frightening. He lets the subject rest and offers to get Logan another beer instead. He takes Warren up on the offer and Archangel returns to the bar for another round.

Midway between their table and the bar, Warren is stopped by the man who had been giving him problems earlier. He stands in front of Warren, his arms crossed over his chest. As Warren moves to sidestep around the man, he blocks his path, poking a finger into his chest.

"I don't think you heard me right. I said we don't like your kind in here."

For a moment, Warren panics, thinking that maybe his image inducer has malfunctioned without his notice and the color of his skin has given away his mutant status. But remembering the earlier threat and glancing down at his Caucasian-toned hands, he realizes his inducer is working properly and the fact that he is a mutant is not an issue. So he asks, "And what type is that?"

"I spend all week punchin' a clock for suits like you. The last thing I want to do is drink the same beer with them on the weekend. You're all the same. Buncha money-grubbing, cold-hearted snakes you are. You'll burn someday for it."

Warren shakes his head, unable to control the snide remarks surfacing in his brain. "And I'm sure you'll be there right beside me, considering the courtesy you show your fellow man."

"What was that, richie?"

"You heard me."

The man tightens his fingers into a fist and leans closer to Warren, shoving him by the shoulder with his free hand. "I don't think I did."

Pursing his lips and staring hard into the worn face of the man, Warren says coldly, "Then let me say it clearly and slowly so your little mind can properly understand it. Rot. In. Hell."

He grins as he prepares himself for the man's punch, easily dodging the drunken left jab and preparing a right hook of his own. But before he can make contact with the man's jaw, Logan steps between the two and asks bitterly, "What the Hell are ya doin', Jimmy?"

"I'm about to kick this Wall Street pansy's butt is what."

The man grumbles as he lunges toward Warren again and one of his friends walks closer, still observing from a distance, but ready to involve himself if necessary. Wolverine stops the man easily and says as he eyes the man's friend, "Ya know this ain't about him. Take yer anger out on somebody else. This here 'pansy' is with me."

Glaring at Warren, the man seethes, "Then you need to be getting a better class of friend."

Warren looks to Logan and shrugs his shoulders. Logan shakes his head and says to the drunk, "Suit yerself. I'll trade him in for someone as charmin' as ya, then. Come on, Warren. We're leavin'."

Just as Warren is about to turn his back and head for the door, the man slips past Logan and makes a leap for him. Before Warren can react, Logan grabs his attacker by the back of his shirt and drags him to the floor, then sends him sliding backwards into a pair of bar stools with a clatter. When the man stands back up and makes for Warren again, Logan easily blocks his path and levels him to his knees with a single punch to the stomach. Before his friend can react, Logan says to him, "It ain't worth it. I recommend ya stand where ya are if ya know what's best for ya."

The man then picks his friend up from the floor and mutters something that approaches an apology. Warren and Logan leave without another word.

They walk in silence for a few blocks, their feet pounding slowly but steadily on the pavement. As they wait for a light to change so they can cross the street, Logan finally speaks. "Jimmy gets like that when he's drunk."

Warren looks down at his teammate, feeling a little less contempt than he did only an hour before. "Thanks."

Pulling a cigarette out of his shirt pocket, Logan grins as he holds it between his teeth and lights it almost gracefully with a match. As he draws a puff of yellow smoke, he says, "Don't mention it. Couldn't have that handsome mug of yours getting bruised."

Warren shakes his head and returns Logan's half-smile. "I could have handled it myself."

"I know. Just doing my part for a teammate."

"I owe you one."

"Naw. This one's on the house."

After the light changes, Logan steps out onto the street and Warren follows closely on his heels. They're heading back to SoHo where Betsy and Jean will be waiting for them. Warren breathes a pollution-filled, New York sigh as he glances up at the noon sky. So little time, he thinks. It is already seeping from his grasp. Night will be upon the city sooner than he can fathom. He never thought he could be so afraid of the dark.

Part Nineteen

"Somewhere behind me
a small fire goes on flaring in the rain, in the desolate ashes.
No matter, now, whom it was built for,
it keeps its flames,
it warms
everyone who might wander into its radiance,
a tree, a lost animal, the stones,

because in the dying world it was set burning."

Galway Kinnell, "Lastness" from The Book of Nightmares

As Logan approaches the street block where Warren and Betsy reside in SoHo, he can hear Archangel's muffled steps following closely behind his heels. While by all appearances, the winged X-Man seems urgent to return to his home and his beloved, Logan can sense hesitation and dread in his stride, fear and anger in his scent. These emotions mix subtly with the general anxiety he wears so obviously. 'Poor kid,' Logan thinks.

Though he'd never admit it to a soul, Logan was proud of Warren back at the bar. Not too hot-tempered, but still man enough to stand up for himself. The high-flying Angel has come a long way, he thinks. Five years ago, Warren Worthington III would have flat out refused to accompany Logan anywhere, much less shoot pool with him in a dingy bar. How he's handled himself through the last few months with Betsy has been admirable. Logan has always thought that when the going got tough between the two of them, Archangel would fly the coop so to speak. But he's been strong. He's helped Betsy face her demons. In short, he's been through hell and still stood his ground. Wolverine thinks the kid almost deserves Betsy... almost.

As he stuffs his hands in his pockets and lifts his head to glance up at the bright, blue sky, he's not sure anyone would ever quite measure up. Logan's always been rather protective of Betsy. He's never quite been the surrogate father-figure he was to Kitty and Jubilee, and never quite the brother-in-arms as he was with Carol Danvers. Logan's never been able to put a finger on it, but there's something about her that fascinates him. Maybe it's that by nature she's a study in contradiction, maybe it's that he sees a little of himself in her, maybe it's that he admires her strength and fortitude or maybe it's just that he understands her. The fact of the matter is through all the incarnations she's endured since she joined the team, he's admired her during every one of them. This recent one is no different. He may have let her down in the past, but he swears to himself that this time he will be there for her. He will help her be true to herself, no matter the cost. He knows she would expect nothing less from him and he'd hate to disappoint.

Once they reach the upscale apartment building, Logan hangs back as Warren nods to the doorman and presses a crisp bill into his hand. Archangel claps him familiarly on the shoulder as the man holds the door open and smiles. "Beautiful day it is, Mr. Edmunds."

"Yes, it sure is Mr. Worthington. Lovely day for a walk."

Warren smiles one more time as he moves his hand away from the older gentleman. "That it is."

As he files into the marble-decked lobby behind his teammate, he recognizes the genuine quality of the doorman's smile. He is truly pleased to see Warren. There's a twinkle in his eye that can't be bought by money. As they step into a lift, Warren turns the key to bring the elevator to the penthouse and leans against the elevator wall. "George is a good fellow. He had to put his wife into a nursing home earlier this year. Alzheimer's. Very sad. She's such a beautiful lady."

Wolverine watches Warren shake his head and breathe a deep sigh and is surprised once again today by his teammate. He really has grown up, he thinks. It's the little things that make him realize this. No doubt Warren is helping to finance her stay. The look on the man's face was not only one of fondness, but gratitude. The fact that Warren has not taken the credit speaks volumes to Logan. In his experience, it is a rare thing for a man of wealth not to boast about his philanthropy. He is especially surprised that Warren of all people would keep from tooting his own horn.

"He goes to see her everyday, you know? Talks to her the whole time like nothing's wrong, like she remembers all the details of their life together. He told me last week that she doesn't know who he is anymore, doesn't recognize him. I think that was the deepest cut of all, but he still visits her every day. I don't know how he gets through it."

Tearing his gaze away from the advancing lights charting the elevator's rise and turning to look at Warren, Logan says, "Ya do what ya gotta do to get through. All ya can hope is at the end, it's all worth it."

As the door opens with a soft electronic chime, Warren nods, "Yes. I guess that's all we can do."

As they enter the penthouse lobby, Logan sees Jean standing outside the apartment door with her arms crossed over her chest and a smug expression on her face. "Well, it took you long enough. I trust you didn't hurt one another or maim any pedestrians while you were gone?"

Logan smirks as Warren kisses Jean casually on the cheek and says, "No, ma'am. We were good little boys. I think we deserve cookies. Don't you Logan?"

Wolverine deadpans, "Oh yeah. And milk. We were extra good."

As Warren walks out of the foyer and toward the door, Jean giggles a few times and swats at him. Rolling her eyes and glaring at Logan, she calls over her shoulder, "Betsy's out on the balcony."

Warren stops mid-stride and turns back to face them. "Thanks, Jean... for everything. And Logan? Thanks."

"Good luck, kid."

Logan watches all the levity drain from his teammates face as he looks down to the parquet floor and then back. "Thanks. That means a lot."

And with that, Warren disappears into the loft and shuts the door behind him, leaving Logan and Jean alone. They stand there for a few moments before she presses the elevator call to take them back down to the street.

For a brief moment, Logan debates insisting they stay a little longer so that he can spend a little time with Betsy but thinks better of it. Instead, he stays silent as they wait for the elevator. Finally Jean volunteers, "Scott said he would meet us out front. You didn't see him on your way up did you?"

"Sure didn't."

The elevator chimes and the two step in and Logan presses the button for the lobby. "So how was it? Really?"

"It was fine. Wings ain't all that bad."

Jean nudges him in the ribs and grins, "See. I told you. He's not the snob you make him out to be."

He shakes his head and returns her grin. "Now I wouldn't go that far."

Rolling her green eyes, Jean says, "Okay. He's loosened up over the years? Is that better?"

"Yeah. That'll work."

Her face wearing a more serious expression, she asks, "So how's he doing?"

Leaning into the oak paneling of the elevator, Logan states matter-of-factly, "Better than I expected. He's putting up a brave front."

"Sounds like his style."

Logan nods. "Yep."

As they walk into the lobby, Jean pauses for a moment and the two loiter in the center of the fine, patterned flooring. "I spoke with Betsy about us keeping tabs on her tonight."

Hooking his thumbs in his belt loops, Logan stares at the floor and asks quietly, "And what did she say?"

"Well, while it makes her a little uncomfortable, she's also glad we'll be nearby. She's fine with it... on one condition."

Wolverine finishes her thought. "We don't interfere."

He can feel her eyes on him as she continues. "You got it. We're just there in case she needs backup or this Tar fellow decides to play dirty."

Keeping his eyes toward the floor, he remains silent as he notes the grain of the marble, how the flow of the veins from stone to stone make them appear almost seamless. Almost. After a few seconds, Jean asks, "Logan? You will honor her wishes, won't you?"

Finally meeting Jean's gaze, he says flatly, "I'll do what I gotta do."

Groaning under her breath at Logan's comment, Jean cuts her impending tirade short as she spots her husband standing outside the building on the sidewalk. Logan eyes her as she folds her arms over her chest, takes a deep sigh and then drops them again. "Look, there's Scott. We'll talk about this again later."

Logan follows her out to the street, making sure to tip his hat to George on the way out and stands aside as Jean greets her husband with a quick kiss. Scott nods his head to Logan and then asks his wife, "So how was everything?"

"Better than we expected, but not as good as I had hoped."

"That bad?"

Snaking her arm through his, she says to Scott, "We're X-Men, hon. It's never a walk in the park."

Cyclops shakes his head and grins at Logan as he asks jokingly, "Then why did we sign up for this in the first place?"

Jean chimes in, "Oh you know. The fame, the fortune..."

Sharing an amused glance, Scott and Logan say in unison, "The women."

Attempting to mask her amusement with a frown, Jean asks, "So where are you parked?"

Scott points north. "About two blocks that way."

"All right then, let's get to it. I'm famished."

As they round the corner and head for the Summers' car, Logan pauses on the sidewalk briefly as he looks up toward the relatively low SoHo roofline. On a balcony above, he can see a wisp of purple hair caught in the light breeze, waving like a violet flame. He releases a deep breath and then whispers, "And good luck to ya, too, darlin'."

"What was that Logan?"

Logan smiles and catches back up with Scott and Jean as he says, "Just something that caught my eye. Now let's get going. Ya know how bitchy Jean gets when she's hungry."

"I do not get bitchy!"

"Yes, sweetie. You do."

"Do not!"

Shaking his head, Wolverine follows the two as they engage in the sort of play fighting only married people engage in, the mock- chastisement that only comes from years of love and affection. For all that's gone on in their lives, they have finally found happiness with one another. Not a day goes by that he doesn't think about how lucky they are to have found and kept each other in the topsy-turvy lives they lead. And for a moment, he wonders if Betsy and Warren have a rapport like this, if they find as much comfort in the mere presence of one another as these two do. For both their sakes he hopes they do, for there is nothing more beautiful in the whole world than feeling like you belong and are cherished.

* * *

Betsy leans against the rail of the balcony and watches the traffic move below. She doesn't notice as a man stops briefly to gaze up at her and his heart sits like a leaden weight in his chest. Instead, yellow cabs pass in a blurry haze of motion and through the open glass doors a Delibes opera swells in crescendo. Two female voices intertwine in a pure, harmonious truth. She lets the melodic, almost siren-like voices fill every cell of her body with light, every thought with beauty. When she cued up the compact disk, she hoped the opera would help her free her soul from the worry hanging over her every breath and for a brief moment as the music fills her, she actually begins to feel alive again.

She shuts her eyes against the gentle breeze of the early afternoon and lets the music envelop her like a desperate embrace. Hugging her arms tightly against herself, she thinks that if there is such a place as heaven, surely this would be a part of its soundtrack.

As she lets her head fall towards her shoulder, she feels a pair of arms fitting over her own. She presses her back into his chest and smiles as he kisses her cheek. *Warren.*

He whispers, "Betsy."

*Shh. Just listen.*

Warren holds her tightly as the short duet ends, the voices echoing into a fade, as if the two women were floating past them on a lazy river and they were just lucky enough to be sitting on the bank as they passed. Betsy is reluctant to open her eyes, holding the last sweet notes in her mind tightly, refusing to let them disappear into the noisy New York traffic.

Behind her, she can feel Warren's breath on her scalp as he brushes a few strands of hair away from her face and whispers into her ear, "That was beautiful."

As Betsy opens her eyes, she is jarred by a sudden flash of images... Gomurr the Ancient hanging his head sadly, talking about ceremony and tradition. Logan snarling at Sabretooth through a set of iron bars. Her brother and Meggan speaking wedding vows to one another, a feeling of loss and remorse clouding an otherwise blissful occasion. Warren, haggard and bitter, arguing drunkenly in a bar with Bobby Drake. And lastly, she thinks she hears the sound of wings.

The visions leave as quickly as they came and Betsy is left with a feeling of emptiness. She knows they are glimpses into the future, but what might they mean? She hears Warren stir behind her, his large wings dragging on the balcony's granite flooring.

"Are you okay, dear?"

While she can't decipher the meaning of the images already fading from her memory, they suddenly fill her with a great deal of sadness. She imagines all the terrible things that could happen to her after night-fall, all the things she still wants to accomplish in her life. Tension builds in her thoughts until she chants to herself like mantra, 'I will not let them win. I will not let them own me.'

She takes a deep breath and turns in Warren's arms to face him. Obvious worry is apparent in his features. 'He has always been so concerned for me,' she thinks. 'So attentive, like his love can protect me.' As she looks into his blue eyes and he touches her cheek with his fingertips, she suddenly thinks about how the future might effect Warren, how his life might be if she doesn't come through her second encounter with the Crimson Dawn unscathed. What if she is lost to him somehow? Is that what the vision was trying to show her? Was that shell of a man who Warren would become if she were no longer a part of his life?

As she grips his hand tightly, tears swell in her eyes and she finally surrenders to the desperation building inside. She embraces him tightly and cries onto his shoulder as Warren says quietly, "Shh. I'm here Betsy. I'm right here."

The fabric of his shirt is soft against her skin and his arms feel as if they are the one thing that might keep her safe from the unknown obstacles awaiting her. The whole city seems to spin around them, as if for one brief moment, they reside at the exact center of the universe as the stars of countless galaxies whirl in one mad, giant blur of light and color. As she falls deeper into her sadness, the comfort he provides only makes her pain all the more palpable and she sobs with the weight of it. She can't help but think of how short life is, how she and Warren still have so much to look forward to, so much yet to see, do and say.

After a few minutes, Betsy finally looks up from his shoulder. His face tells her everything she needs to know, psychic rapports and telepathic nuances aside. No doubt, he already knows all the fears racing through her thoughts. Her emotional release must have washed over their rapport, bridging the gap between their two minds.

His words only affirm her hypothesis. "I know, Betsy. I know."

She sniffles and slips her hands under his wings, "It's the little things really. Like, well. Like that duet."

He twists a lock of her hair in his fingers as he asks, "What about it?"

"Like the fact that we've never been to see that opera together. That and a million other things."

Warren smirks. "But you've always told me it's a terrible opera."

Shaking her head, she continues, "And it is except for that one piece... it's just well, we haven't seen it together. You understand?"


After a few moments of silence, Warren ventures, "What do you want to do about it?"

She wraps her arms tightly around him and he returns her embrace. For the first time, Betsy notices how perfectly they fit together. How holding him like this is as comfortable and natural as breathing. At last it sinks in how completely intertwined she has become with him, how utterly real and true he is. "I just want to be with you. I want you to hold me like this for as long as you can... I want you to take me flying."

Warren smiles, his eyes still heavy with their shared dread, and says, "Then fly you shall. You know I'd give you the world if I could."

Betsy returns his smile weakly as he leans down to kiss her forehead. "I know you would. I think that's one of the things I love most about you."

Part Twenty

"Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
-- What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North's as near as West.
More delicate than the historian's are the map-maker's colors."

Elizabeth Bishop, "The Map"

Jean Grey-Summers walks a Greenwich Village sidewalk, her sneakered feet carefully avoiding the cracks and seams etched in the concrete as she says quietly to herself, a large smile creeping across her face, "Step on a crack. Break your mother's back."

Though she's grown past the childhood superstition, this is a game she plays with herself when she thinks to notice where she's going, when she actually has the peace of mind to watch her own footfalls... an occurrence that is becoming rarer and rarer. Perhaps her conversation with Betsy stirred up her own feelings of spontaneity and "carpe diem," or perhaps all the stress has finally made her snap. She's not sure which, but she almost giggles as she thinks how much easier this game was to play when she was a child with smaller feet.

As she plods along, no doubt garnering a few stares from passersbys as she conquers a complicated web pattern in the cement sidewalk, she thinks how fixed people think they are. How they hold so tightly to their beliefs and morals that when something comes along to shake their understanding to the core, either they completely deny the occurrence or it destroys them entirely. Being a telepath, she has never had that luxury. The world is much more naked to her, more brilliant and alive. She must be as moldable as it is or she will become lost upon it's tides and surges, it's passions and failings.

Sometimes she thinks Logan is one of those rigid people, his code of honor holding him fast to his perceived duty. But she knows him better, knows the beast that resides not so deeply in his heart. He is a man of passion and it is his code of honor that often keeps him sane. Without his "honor" and "duty" he would be no better than a predator like Sabretooth. He knows that about himself and Jean can't help but admire his fortitude. She only wishes he'd find a better way to combine the urges of his heart and the logic of his mind. She wishes he would be more flexible with a few more shades of gray and not so many blacks and whites. Still, in all the time she's known him, he always seems to surprise her.

As she reaches her destination, Jean pulls open the heavy door of the cafe as she surveys the restaurant floor for Logan. She finds him sitting with his back to her in a large, vinyl-seated booth. As she approaches him, she notices he is staring distractedly into space, a hand clutching a mug of black coffee. She grins as she pauses next to the table.

"This seat taken?"

He doesn't bother to look up at her and stares straight ahead with unblinking eyes. "Nope. Saved it special for ya, Red."

Jean slides into the booth and picks up a menu as she flashes a smile at him. "What looks good?"

She looks across the table at Wolverine as he traces a warped crack on the table's vinyl top with his finger and sits rigidly in his seat. Jean has only seen him like this a few times since she's known him. His defenses are drawn up so tight, she's surprised he's even engaging her in any form of conversation. To make matters worse, she's got him at a disadvantage. She has a bone to pick with him and he knows it.

He looks up from the table and avoids eye contact with her as he asks, "Where's Scott?"

Jean watches him intently as she gets more situated in her seat. After a few moments of silence, he finally looks directly at her. Now that she has his attention, she rewards his response with an answer. "He's parking the car. He'll be here in a few minutes."

Glancing at a clock hanging over the cash register, Logan says gruffly, "Looks like we're going to make an afternoon of it, then."

Picking up her menu again, she agrees casually, "Sure looks like it."

The menu doesn't offer a wide selection. Typical diner fare. She decides against the tuna melt and then the chicken salad. You never can tell how exuberant they're going to get with the mayonnaise. She takes her time, knowing she has at least twenty minutes before Scott arrives. Over the years, he's gotten better at taking a hint, especially now that they share a permanent psychic rapport. So she waits for Logan to speak next, knowing that he is expecting either a tirade or a lecture from her. She wants the upper hand in this conversation and the best way to gain it is let him set himself up.

Logan lifts his cup of coffee back to his lips and takes a sip before he says, "So you're not heading back to Westchester?"

Dropping a finger to the menu, she looks up to answer his question. "No. It's too long of a drive. It seems silly to keep going back and forth all day."

"So why is Scott here? I thought he'd be giving ya a ride back."

Looking back at the menu, she decides on the chef salad. She then folds it closed and places it on the table in front of her. "So did I. But he's here now. He's coming with us tonight."

"What? Why? Why didn't ya just invite the whole team so we could go in guns blaring?!"

Just as he is about to continue scolding Jean, their waitress walks up to the table. "You ready to order?"

Jean smiles and says, "No. Not yet. We're waiting for one more. But I'd love it if you got me a diet soda while we waited."

Without another word, the waitress scribbles on her order pad and slips away to get Jean's beverage. Jean rests her arms on the table top and says, "Logan, please. This is Scott we're talking about. Besides, I think we could use a cooler head tonight."

Logan sets his cup back down and it clinks audibly against the saucer. "Are ya sayin' I'm not?"

Folding her arms over her chest and staring intently at him, she says calmly, "That's exactly what I'm saying."

He looks away from her again, steadying his gaze on a family of three at the next table over. Jean directs a glance at the couple with a small child seated in a booster seat. The toddler kicks his feet happily as his mother retrieves a dropped spoon from the floor. Looking back at Logan, she realizes that he doesn't even notice them as he says quietly, "Jeannie, ya know I'll do what needs to be done."

She props her elbows on the table and lets her head fall between her hands. "It's your perception of what needs to be done that bothers me."

Turning back to look at her, he says with a suddenly tired and worn expression on his face, "Ya know I'm not going to let her fall into the clutches of some evil sorcerer-type. I'll do everything I can to make sure that girl stays true to herself."

She drops her hands and says matter-of-factly, being more blunt that she's managed to be with him on the subject, finally collecting her thoughts from their morning argument, "All conjecture aside. That's not your call to make. You're being awfully self-centered about this."

He growls under his breath, weighing his words with an obvious amount of self-control as he says quietly, "No. It's called bein' a friend."

"No. It's not! It's..." Jean stops abruptly as the waitress sets down a diet cola in front of her. She's always hated how wait- staff have a certain way of sneaking up when you least expect it, how they always seem to manage to ask how everything is when your mouth is full of food and you can hardly tell them the service is crap and the food tastes like almond-encrusted cardboard. This once, however, she is thankful for the interruption as she checks her anger and smiles up at the waitress before she retreats from the table with a nod.

Jean raises a hand to her forehead for a few seconds before continuing in a much calmer tone of voice. "Listen, I spent a lot of time with Betsy today. I know where she's coming from."

Folding his hands in front of him, Logan says bluntly, "I hate to tell ya this, Jeannie. But one morning over tea and crumpets does not make ya understand a person. I've known Betts for a long time. We've laughed together. Hell, even cried together. I think it's safe to say I know her better than ya."

Releasing a deep sigh, Jean understands that Logan really believes where he is coming from, that he really wants to help Betsy. The problem is he's failed to find out what she wants in this situation and it's her job to let him see that clearly. So she forges ahead, giving him a little space as she says, "That may be true. But I think I understand what she wants, at least in this situation. Logan, I was inside her mind. I saw all of her fears and desires up close. The sorts of things she isn't going to tell anyone because she doesn't know how to put them into words or she doesn't even know that those feelings are there. Hear me out on this, please?"

Jean feels Logan's eyes on her for a few tense moments before he finally shrugs his shoulders and says quietly as he relaxes into his seat, "All right. Go on."

She takes a deep breath before she begins, making sure to place each word tactfully yet forcefully. "This is her own fight. She's convinced that she's going to make the right decisions when she needs to. She knows we'll be there to support her if need be. And the trust she's extended to us today is a big step for her. Her first instinct is to go it completely alone, to face her fate on her own. But she understands that she can't do that. Her fate is as intertwined into other's lives and dreams as it is to her own. So she's letting us in this far and no further. To step over that line would be a breach of trust. We can't do that to her."

Looking through her with a glare that could slice through tempered steel, he says quietly and unflinchingly. "So you're saying I'm supposed to just stand there twiddling my thumbs while they turn her into some shadow-wearin' monster?"

Jean holds her ground. "If that's what she wants, yes."

Still not breaking his gaze, he responds. "I can't do that. I owe her too much to let that happen."

She groans under her breath and grits her teeth. She had hoped to win over Logan with a rational argument without having to resort to any ugliness. Instead she decides it's time to bring out her big gun and force him to see the truth of the matter, as ugly as it is. "But don't you see? It's your fault she's in this mess to begin with. You got her into it. The least you can do is let her get out of it in the manner she chooses."

He accepts her comment with a stoic face, obviously having weighed this matter many times in his head. She watches him look down at the table once as he collects his thoughts. Finally, he looks back up at her and addresses her in a simplistic tone, almost as if he were talking to a child. "Jeannie, that's exactly why I need to stand up for her. It's my duty. I got her into this and I'm not going to let them tear her to bits over something that is all my fault."

She shakes off his patronizing tone as best she can. "Look at you."

Narrowing his eyes, he asks, "What?"

Folding her arms once again over her chest, she continues as she narrows her eyes as well, meeting his sharp gaze, "Here you are with your 'my fault' and 'my duty.' What about her? What about what she wants? If you were really a friend, you'd respect that."

"I respect that girl more than you'll ever know. I respect her so much I'm not sure if I can let her go... even if she asks me to. She doesn't deserve it. For once she deserves some peace in this life."

She shakes her head and places a palm on the table as she leans in closer to Logan. "Listen. When Betsy decided to become an X-Man, she knew the risks involved. She wasn't coerced. She wasn't forced. She chose to become an X-Man of her own free will. She saw the ugliest part of the job first, do you remember? She witnessed the death of all those Morlocks through your eyes. She knows what's at stake every time she suits up and goes out there. If she wanted peace, she would have gone back to England long ago and lived a quiet life. She wants to do some good in this world and if that means giving up a part of herself, she'll do it. Because she's a hero, Logan. You should know that about her by now."

Across the table, it finally appears that Jean's words are hitting their mark. Logan sits quietly, the anger fading from his face. Jean decides to drive her point home even farther and finally put an end to their argument as she pointedly says, "Stop drowning in your guilt. It won't make anything any better."

Jean watches him withdraw inside himself, indicating that he has finally taken her words to heart. She picks up her soda as she watches Scott enter through the cafe door and says casually, "And that's all I've got to say."

She takes a sip of her drink as Scott slides into the seat next to her. After giving her a quick but sincere kiss on the cheek, he looks from Logan back to Jean as he asks somewhat awkwardly, "So what have you two been up to?"

Putting down her soda and handing him a menu with a big smile, Jean says, "Oh nothing. Just a little chit-chat while we waited for you, sweetie."

She watches Scott look once again at Logan who is obviously not in the best of moods. "I see."

Squeezing his arm playfully, Jean says, "Don't worry. We're still on speaking terms... I think."

She looks over to Logan as he surveys both of them. After a few moments, a half-grin forms on his lips as tries his best to put Scott at ease. "Don't worry, Cyke. For once this woman of yours actually makes a bit of sense."

A chuckle escapes Scott's lips as he opens the menu and says, "And to think I missed it, it's such a rare occurrence."

Mouth agape, Jean cries, "Scott! You're supposed to be on my side."

Sharing a laugh with Logan and ignoring Jean's mock plea, Scott then wraps an arm around Jean as he asks, "So what's good? I'm starving."

Jean lets her head fall to her husband's shoulder, glad that he is here with them, glad that he will remain with them for the rest of the evening. He has a way of setting things right, of making the world feel a little more fair and real. As she glances over the menu to Logan's almost pleasant visage, she thinks that for once luck might be on their side, for once this chapter in the X-Men's lives might have a happy ending.

Part Twenty-one

"So this is Heaven, he thought, and he had to smile at himself. It was hardly respectful to analyze heaven in the very moment that one flies up to enter it."

Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

'Heaven. This must be just like Heaven,' thinks Warren Worthington to himself as he soars above the clouds over New York City, holding the woman he loves close to his chest. Over their heads, the sky is as blue and sparkling as if the underside of an azure jewel. A gentle wind pushes the greasy smog of the city out over the sea and for once the air over Manhattan feels clean and pure. He breathes a deep, contented sigh and wishes time would stop in its tracks as Betsy's hands loop lovingly and securely around his neck and she buries her face in his coat. He looks down at her with a smile as he veers a sharp right and then enters into a tailspin. Laughing as she looks out from his jacket and whoops in elation, he thinks she almost looks like a child, the wonder and joy on her face is so apparent and innocent. It is nice to be close to her like this, nice to make her so happy.

As he pulls out of the descent and they hover over the clouds, Betsy tilts her face up to his and smiles as she asks with a gleam in her eye, "Do it again?"

Warren kisses her on the forehead, his lips lingering for a brief moment to feel the warmth of her skin. Then, squeezing her tightly to him and grinning wickedly, he says, "Okay. But you asked for it."

They skim the clouds for a few seconds, close enough for Betsy to dip a hand in the icy vapor. As he plans his next aerial maneuver and judges the wind speed, he hears through their rapport how she had hoped that the clouds would feel like spun sugar and taste like marshmallows. He smiles to himself as he beats his wings in an upward motion, happy that they can still laugh at the little but fantastical things, about how clouds feel to the touch or how beautiful the sun's rays are as they glint off the clouds from this altitude.

Finally approaching the pinnacle of his ascent, Warren beats his wings one last time and then holds them still at his sides as Betsy clings to him tightly and they both drop like a large stone. Just as they are about to plummet though the clouds, he extends his wings and glides higher in the sky only to drop again into a series of loops and corkscrew turns.

Warren draws a deep, almost icy breath before he breaks through the thin cloud cover and brings himself and Betsy once more into the bustling metropolis of New York City. He beats his wings slowly to cut his wind sheer and slow them down gradually. Taking advantage of the remainder of his speed, he treats Betsy to a few more loops before hovering over the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He then touches down on the large side-fenced roof and Betsy explodes from his arms, shrieking in delight and spinning with open arms in dizzy circles.

Breathless, she turns to him with wide eyes as she declares, "That was fantastic! It was the most amazing... oh, just... Wow!"

He stands back, grinning to himself as he watches her gesticulate wildly, babbling about how gorgeous the clouds were, how crisp the air was, how beautiful the sky was in its stark blueness. He finally speaks after she runs out of breath. "It's been too long since I took you flying."

Smiling at him over her shoulder, she says, "Yes. It has."

As he walks to her and drapes his arms around her as she surveys the city far below, he tells her, "You know, you're one of the few people I've been flying with who isn't completely mortified by the experience. And most of those brave souls had powers that would save them from a high drop if need be. But not you... and you still manage to enjoy it almost as much as I do."

Betsy grabs his hand and pulls it close to her face. "Maybe it's because I've been able to fly before, when I was Captain Britain all those years ago. Maybe it's because I've missed soaring among the clouds so." She kisses his hand, then squeezes it and says, "Or maybe it's because I trust you more than I've ever trusted anyone."

Even though her face is turned away from his own, he can feel her smile through their rapport, her joy as warm and radiant as the sun as she says, "I feel completely safe in your arms. It's like I'm finally... home."

He feels her words catch in her throat as her happiness mixes with sorrow. A torrent of images and emotions swirl through his thoughts like flood waters and all he can think to do is hold her close. Turning her in his arms, he kisses her blindly, enveloped in a mad haze of longing and desperation. His breath mingles with hers, warm and real, and he knows that if this were his last breath in the world, he would gladly give to her, happily pass to the next life with her name on his lips.

After a while, she moves her face away from his and lets her head fall to his chest. He closes his eyes and draws a deep sigh, letting his emotions fall back into place as he steadies his breathing. He looks to the sky for a brief moment, its simple blue backdrop dotted with thin clouds, and he wonders why life can't be as simple as the sky... pure, wide and open. But then he remembers how nature is a cruel mistress, how hurricanes and storms often fill the same sky. The earth's atmosphere is a reflection of the children it nourishes. Life is not always a clear spring afternoon. But for once, just this once, he wishes it did not rain so much in his.

He turns his attention back to Betsy, trailing a hand across her face... that beautiful face, the one he knows he can never forget, and she stirs in his arms as she says quietly, "Warren, I'm scared."

"I know. I am too," he whispers and then swallows hard before he continues. "But I'll be there with you. We'll get through this. Together."

Betsy looks up at him, her eyes suddenly distant as he feels the connection between them thin into a tiny rivulet. Backing away from his embrace, she holds her arms tightly around herself as she says, "I had a vision."

Arms hanging by his sides, Warren stares at the rooftop as a lump forms in his throat. Each step she takes away from him steals a little bit of his soul. As he looks at her, even though she is not five yards away, it feels like miles. "I know. I felt part of it... it was very disjointed. I couldn't make anything out."

She turns away from him to face the city as she says, "It was a flash of what's left of my pre-cognition. It's been years since I felt anything like that. I'm sure it became completely jumbled through the rapport."

He nods. "Probably."

He watches her drop her hands to her side, then clench and unclench her fists. A long while passes before she finally speaks. "You were there, Warren. You were so miserable and angry. I... I don't want you to be like that. I love you too much to let you become like that."

Furrowing his brow, he walks toward her in a few long strides as he asks, unable to read her emotions, "What are you trying to say?"

As he stands in front of her, he sees her take a deep breath as she collects her thoughts. "I'm saying that I don't want you to be there with me tonight."

He can't believe her words, that she would shut him out at a time like this. Can't she see how much he needs to be near her, how his whole universe depends on the outcome of this evening? For a moment, he feels as if he is choking, as if all the words and thoughts over the last few days have collected in his throat and are suffocating him slowly. As he looks at her, shock and sadness apparent on his face, he stammers, "Wh... Why?"

Her eyes are sad and suddenly very, very old. "Because I can't let you become that man, Warren. No matter what happens, I can't do that to you."

"No." He can scarcely believe the word as it leaves his mouth.


He grabs her hands in his own and says once again, "No. I will be there with you. Nothing could keep me away and you know it. So just stop being so stubborn. I'm me, after all. I am more stubborn and you know it."


"No. You're acting like this because of me, aren't you?"

They look at each other for a few seconds, will pitted against will before Betsy finally says, "Yes."

He sighs and holds her close, letting go all the tension that has built up inside in the span of only a few seconds. "Betsy, I love you. I'll do what you want me to do. But don't do this alone because you're scared it will hurt me. It would hurt me more not to be there for you when you need me the most."

Wrapping her arms around the small of his back, Betsy concedes, "You're right. I... I shouldn't shut you out. That will only make things worse."

Pressing his forehead against hers, he asks quietly, "So do you want me there? For you?"

As the words escape her lips, he feels their rapport becoming stronger and her feelings become more and more visible to him. "Yes. If you'll make me one promise."

He sees himself though her mind's eye: angry, dejected and raging at the world. The image frightens her deeply and he realizes how important this conversation is to her. He has to reassure her that no matter what happens, if she is lost to the shadows and from him forever, that he will survive. "Of course. Anything."

"Promise that no matter what happens, you'll move on. You won't let this destroy you."

Squeezing her hands in his own, he smiles as he says solemnly, "I promise. No matter what."

She looks at him and mouths the words, "Thank you," before she kisses him, her lips tender and soft against his. They hold each other close as they watch the sun set over New York City and they share the unspoken thought, 'Let this not be the last.'

On that rooftop, the highest tower in a city filled with buildings that reach toward the heavens, they do not speak another word. And as the last orange tendril of sunlight disappears over the horizon, Warren takes flight with his love in his arms. It is time to go home, time to spend a few more quiet moments alone before their teammates arrive and they finally face their fate. Together.

* * *

Night descends upon New York City and in a realm invisible and unknown to the average mortal, the proctor of the Crimson Dawn's Ebon Vein smiles. It is always dark here, the landscape perpetually bathed in shadows and a dim, unfulfilled half-light. The sky, if it can be called that, is the color of a sickly wound against the gnarled rocks and out-croppings that populate the dimension. Atop it all rests the temple, or fortress of the proctor, a colorless monument to the legions of souls who have passed into this realm. And even though the Crimson Dawn is as bleak as it is joyless, Tar cannot help but be amused at the current turn of events.

A low laugh escapes his chest as he gives into his mirth and his neon minions gather at his feet. Behind him he can feel his undercloaks, waiting in the shadows, ever ready to emerge on his command, ever willing to fulfill his every whim. Their cold, blind devotion sings out to him like a somber dirge, their remaining life-force sustaining both him and the Crimson Dawn itself. Soon he will have the power he needs make his presence known by the outside world, finally, the Dawn will hone its great potential. The world will know magic once more. The world will know fear.

He grins as he surveys his throne room, the very heart of the temple's structure. The pulse of the vein beats a sickly glow from the cracks in the floor. The Vein flows through every room of the fortress, as if it were the circulatory system of a living, breathing being. In the center lies the throne room and the coronary-shaped vessel of the Ebon Vein, the material incarnation of the Dawn's power.

Ascending the stairs to his throne, he releases a contented sigh as his minions skitter close to him. Stroking the tempered, glass spine of one of his pets as it sits on his lap, Tar says almost mirthfully, "Can you believe it? Gomurr himself came here to entreat me for her life. Yes it is a good day, my dear."

He frowns as he shares a one-sided conversation with the voiceless creature. "No. He never did respect me... that little twit. I don't know what he is talking about. Abuse of power? Out stepping my bounds?"

Tar growls under his breath as he places the magical beast on the floor and lets it scurry into a crack in between the stone tiles. "He cannot even fathom what it is like down here! The days of tedium and utter boredom! If he were here, he would know and he would not question my methods. These souls are mine for the taking. Mine! That is how I will achieve balance in this world, not by sitting here and waiting for things to fall apart. Such behavior is for fools."

Many millennia ago, the realm of the Crimson Dawn was built as a physical realization of the meta-physical core to all human beings. The magical beings which have inhabited it since know only that it was constructed as a sacred realm to provide balance and stability to the passions raging within the world. The hidden dimension is a dark mirror of the world most humans inhabit and the whole of human emotions and urges are tempered and contained within its shadowy boundaries. Fire burns cold as ice, winds leave the land hot and dry. It is a prison of contradiction and even the proctor must serve a life sentence, appointed by the proctor before him. And so it has been for longer than Tar can remember. The Dawn just is. The Dawn will always, must always be. This is the one true thing he knows in this life. He's just never thought to ask why.

An undercloak slithers from his place in the shadowy corners of the room and mutely kneels before his master. Tar groans and rolls his eyes. "And you! I cannot even have a decent conversation with the one of you! You haven't even thoughts of your own!"

He stands as he surveys his subject, collecting his thoughts and calming his dark gray features. "Yes, loyal one. It is close to time. Go and observe the Braddock woman. You will be my eyes."

Watching the undercloak bow his head to the floor and then slip into the dark shadow-realm that separates the Dawn from the rest of the world, Tar takes a deep, tired breath and collects his thoughts. He has never owned the soul of a super-human before. Over the last few months, he has convinced himself that Psylocke can change the stagnant state of the Dawn, that adding her power to his legions will somehow change the nature of the Dawn itself. He walks to the heart of the Ebon Vein and reaches out to touch the pulsing magic contained within. He becomes one with the Dawn and for a brief moment wonders if he is doing the right thing... if change can really be more important than ceremony and ritual, if the Dawn is really dying as Gomurr fears. As the image of Betsy Braddock surfaces on the scrying pool beneath the heart, Tar hopes this woman can heal the wounds of his dying realm and he licks his ancient, cracked lips in anticipation, looking forward to adding her power to his own.

Part Twenty-two

"We're here again with the beloved.
This air, a shout. These meadowsounds,
An astonishing myth."

"Meadowsounds" by Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks

Ororo Monroe flies high in the quickly darkening sky. As the last tendrils of light left by the departing sun dwindle on the horizon, she bends a rush of warm air to her will and it envelops her in a gusty embrace, its winds providing solace and reassurance where none existed before, showing Storm the beauty of nature and the harsh reality of existence. She takes a deep, pure breath and thinks how the sky has always been a comfort to her, so free and open with barely a constraint to burden her soul. The only worries she carries into the sky are the ones she takes with her. Tonight her worries have a name and even a face. Elizabeth Braddock, Psylocke.

As she adjusts the air temperature around her and starts a gentle descent back to the ground, Ororo shakes her head. How much her teammate, her friend has changed physically and mentally. As many faces as Storm has seen of Psylocke over the years, the one she saw yesterday has frightened her the most. Jean did her best to reassure her that behind the red tattoo and the shadow- manipulating powers is still the same Betsy. She is still the iron rose they all know and rely on, still noble of soul and intent. And while she trusts Jean's opinion, she can't help but worry and hope the goddess is with her tonight in her time of need, that she stays true to herself and to her heart, conquering the demons within and without.

Dew is beginning to form on the lawn of the Xavier Institute and crickets chirp a monotonous, yet soothing mantra as Ororo walks barefoot toward the inviting lights of the mansion. Only a small portion was left habitable in Onslaught's wake, but no matter what the condition, this grand old house will always be home to her. As her feet fall lightly on the path near the back veranda, Ororo hears, "A little time in the sky cure what ails ya?"

Ororo squints from the glare of one of the mansion's many floodlights as she retrieves her sandals from the patio. "A sunset from any elevation is a beauty to behold, Rogue."

Rogue steps out of the shadows and nods as she appraises her teammate with cool, green eyes. Slipping on her sandals and catching her concerned visage, Ororo releases a quiet sigh and says, "A little, yes."

Standing next to Rogue, Storm folds her arms over her chest and looks out over the wide, dark lawn. If it were still light she would be able to catch a glimpse of Breakstone Lake and the boathouse. Instead, all that is visible is the grass illuminated by the artificial lights and a thick encroaching darkness. Ororo looks up at the horizon as Rogue says as if she had read her thoughts, "Sure is dark out tonight."

Ororo nods. "Yes, the moon is hidden from our view. It is a new moon. The beginning of its cycle... or the end, depending on how one looks at it."

Beside her, Rogue smiles. "Well, I tend to be one of those glass half-full types myself."

"The moon has no care for pessimism or optimism, Rogue."

"Nah. But we do." After a long pause, Storm feels a gloved hand on her shoulder as Rogue says quietly and reassuringly, "She's gonna be alright, Storm."

Ororo opens her mouth to speak, but no words come. Turning her head to look at her friend, she notices how much she has aged since she came to know her, how old they must have all become inside since they became X-Men. "She's Betsy," says Rogue. "No matter what life throws at her, she always lands on her feet. She's an X-Man, 'Ro."

Looking back up at the dark sky, lit only by the small pinpoints of stars, Ororo takes a deep breath and says quietly, "That she is. That we all are. That in some way, we shall forever remain."

* * *

Betsy breathes a deep sigh as she wraps her arms around the torso of her lover and rests her head on his chest. He smells like a man, she thinks... juniper, perspiration and musk. She wouldn't trade this moment for all of eternity as her head rises and falls with each breath he takes and their rapport tingles with warmth and contentment. At this moment, the world seems bathed in a soft glow and her shared thoughts with the man she loves are as light as a butterfly. A smile escapes her lips as his hand gently brushes the side of her face and trails through her hair.

"What are you thinking, love?" he asks.

She giggles and cranes her neck to meet his wondering glance. "What a silly question, Warren. You know exactly what I'm thinking."

He smirks lazily as he whispers, "That I do."

Running a finger casually across his outstretched wing, Betsy grins as he smiles in appreciation of her attentions and she whispers in return, "Then why did you ask?"

Warren closes his eyes as he pulls her tightly against him and he breathes, "Because I like asking."

Relaxing in his embrace, Betsy sighs, "Oh." After a few moments of silence, she asks quietly, "Why are we whispering?"

Warren's lips curl into a contented smile as he says, "I don't know. Maybe we're trying to keep from spoiling the moment."

A hearty laugh forms in Betsy's throat as she turns in his embrace and grasps his hands in her own. "Nothing you could say or do could ruin this moment."

As a chuckling wave of amusement and half-hatched scenarios spill across the bridge between their minds, Warren raises an eyebrow. "Oh, I'm sure I could think of a few."

Betsy glares at him, though an expression of glee is apparent on her face. "Don't even think it."

"I wouldn't dare."

"Of course you wouldn't."

Warren flashes her a boyish grin and her heart pounds in her chest. She never imagined that through all the torments they've endured and all the recent crises he could still make her feel as giddy as a schoolgirl. He's always had such a hold over her, a way of making her feel like the most beautiful woman in the world. He is her winter rose, her solace, her everything. Her light- headedness spreads through their psychic link, glowing rosy pink and purple. If bliss were a color, it would be this precise shade. And for a moment, she loses herself in her love and her desire and all she cares to know is the touch of the man who shares her soul.

Then, she feels Warren stir underneath her and she is jarred back into the world by the chiming of the doorbell. It's too soon she thinks, it can't be time already. Just one more moment, just one more breath. She looks down at Warren and then presses her lips against his, trying her best to capture an eternity with her kiss, package their love into one solitary, unyielding memory. As her lips linger and the door chimes again, she knows that she must tear herself away and face her fate once and for all. If only time were not such a harsh master.

"That's them."

Betsy reluctantly stands and rearranges her disheveled garments. "I know."

Warren looks up at her with eyes as blue as a mountain spring and as pleading as a hungry kitten. "I love you so much it hurts inside."

She freezes for a moment and turns to look at him, the longing and passion she feels through their rapport shockingly apparent on his face. "Don't say that."

He closes his eyes and drops his head, allowing a shock of blond hair to fall across his face. "But it's true."

Reaching out to squeeze his hand, she opens her mouth to speak but instead says nothing. She knows he will be strong in the coming trial. He knows that no matter what, he will be what she needs him to be, even if it breaks his heart. And for that she loves him more than she can ever say.

The bell rings once more and she says, "I had better get that before Logan breaks down the door."

As she turns to go, Warren grips her by the wrist and pulls her once more to him, kissing her passionately, almost fiercely. Just as she begins to feel she could drown in the moment, he ends the kiss almost as suddenly as he initiated it and lets go of her hand. Nodding to her, he motions for her leave the room and as she reluctantly departs, she can feel his eyes on her, his heart screaming at him to never let her go, to never beat again without remembering her touch. But he does let her go and as she turns her back on him as she descends the stairs to the main living area, she can feel his pulse pound in her ears through their rapport. She shakes the feeling, pulls herself together and swings open the front door of their apartment.

"Took ya long enough."

Betsy smirks, genuine amusement completely absent from her features. "It's good to see you as well, Logan."

As Logan brushes past her and into the living area, Betsy catches sight of Jean and Scott in the hallway. Scott's expression is as unreadable as ever, though Psylocke suspects that he feels rather uncomfortable at the moment. She then looks to Jean who rests a hand lightly on Betsy's shoulder and asks, "How are you holding up?"

Squeezing her friend's hand and managing to produce a tiny smile, Betsy says, "Much better."

Jean and Scott join Logan in the den and the three stand awkwardly, not sure if they should sit down and make themselves comfortable or get right to business. Finally, Scott breaks the silence. "Where's Warren?"

Betsy probes Warren's thoughts and finds him struggling with his wings and a suit of unstable molecules, uneasily assuming his battle-ready persona and trying to convince himself this is just another mission. She answers simply, "He's upstairs suiting up."

After another long silence, Betsy looks at her three teammates who are looking at her expectantly. Then she remembers this is her show, her time in the limelight. Not Scott's or Logan's or even Jean's. Tonight, for once, she is calling the shots. "There's a guest room down the hall and a washroom if you want to change and freshen up."

Jean thanks Betsy and disappears into the guest room as Logan sits on the large leather sofa as he removes his worn cowboy boots and Scott stands silently by the mantle. Betsy watches him as he examines the pictures and trinkets over the fireplace: a set of antique candlesticks, a wood-framed clock and several picture frames. He picks up a small picture of Betsy's family from her youth and asks somewhat timidly, "Is this your family?"

Betsy walks to stand by him and looks over his shoulder. "Yes. It is. There's mother, father, Jamie and Brian and myself."

He sets it back down on the shelf, though he continues to examine it. "You look very happy."

"We were. For a time."

Scott smirks. "Funny, Brian doesn't look so intimidating at this age."

Betsy smiles. "No. I guess he doesn't. Then again, I've never been intimidated by him."

"I guess you wouldn't have been." After a long pause, Scott continues, "He sounds like a fine man. Kitty and Kurt speak so highly of him."

Breathing a deep sigh and remembering the time spent with her brother the night before, she says, "He is a wonderful person. I'm pleased to be related to him."

He finally dares to look in Betsy's direction and she looks straight into the unreadable visage of his red-lensed visor. She's always wondered what his eyes looked like, whether they were as stern and focused as his practiced persona. As she turns her attentions away from the puzzle that is Scott Summers, she continues, "He is after all the only family I have left alive and sane."

Smiling a sincere but awkward smile, he says, "Except for the X- Men."

"Yes. Except for them."

Behind her he hears Logan stir on the couch and a door shut upstairs and she says quickly but earnestly, hoping to crack a little of the stoic Cyclops's shell before their mission, "Count yourself lucky, Cyclops. You've had a second chance to know your family. Don't waste what's right in front of you."

Before he has a chance to respond, she departs the room in order to change into more battle-ready clothing and she hears Scott ask Logan as she takes to the stairs, "What was that?"

"Just Betsy tryin' to be helpful. She's not much on tact, but always seems to carry a whole heap of truth."

As she reaches the top of the stairs, she can't help but smile to herself and take Logan's words as a compliment.

* * *

Upstairs, Warren stares at his reflection in the mirror, practicing a placid smile and attempting to calm the fire raging in the pit of his stomach. He didn't think it would be this hard. After all the years of battle nerves and Danger Room sessions, he never though preparing for one mission could make him so frightened. But that's exactly what he is this evening. He is utterly terrified.

He has no idea what to expect, the power or nature of their foe, and what's worse is the fact that he is attending as a mere observer. Betsy explained his role to him well. He must only watch and be their for moral support, unless she seeks his aid, unless the proctor decides to break the rules... rules neither of them are quite sure of. Damn this Gomurr and his half-truths, damn Tar and his blasted society of dark secrets, he thinks. Damn himself for ever getting her involved in this to begin with!

He shakes off his anger and glares piercingly at himself in the mirror. Though by all outward appearances he seems a serene and even divine Angel, he feels as pure and heavenly as the polluted sky above New York City. As his frustration threatens to consume him, he resists the urge to smash the glass and break the lies he sees in front of him. For all his bluster and facade, he knows he is nothing more than a spoiled child afraid of losing his favorite plaything. But Betsy is no toy, he reminds himself. She is more than he thinks he can ever say. She is his salvation and he's not sure if he can go on alone if he loses her. Alone, he sighs. Something he had always been until he met her. What would he be without her?

Behind him, he hears the door creak open and then he sees her standing behind him in the mirror. Her face is as placid and serene as he would expect, her thoughts poised and composed. But her eyes? He eyes give her fear away. She is just as afraid as he.

As she places a hand on each of his shoulders and gazes at both their faces in the glass, framed by the white plumage of his wings, she says, "You know what you would be, Warren. You would be you. You will always be you."

"But who am I, Betts?"

"You are Warren Worthington, the most beautiful man I know." Betsy places a hand on his chest, right over his heart. "Inside. And out."

He smiles and thanks her as he puts his hand over hers and watches her intently in the mirror. She rests her head on his shoulder and smiles. "Don't blame yourself for my fate, Warren. I understand why you did what you did. I wouldn't have been able to let you go either. But know this now. The fate I make tonight is my own. It is mine and mine alone to endure. I love you too much to ruin you."

Closing his eyes, he nods his head in response as she continues. "I want you to promise me something."

"Anything for you, Betts. Anything."

He feels her breath warm on his neck and her grip tight on his hand, "Promise me that no matter what happens, you won't do anything foolish."

Intertwining his fingers through hers, he breathes slowly, trying his best to swallow his fear and be brave for her. He can't bring himself to answer her, his own voice drowning in his throat. He feels her anxiety breaking through her calm veneer, and she says quickly, "Promise me, Warren. Promise!"

He opens his eyes and looks deep into the reflection of her face in the mirror. There isn't anything he wouldn't do for her. "I promise."


He watches her walk away from him and begin pulling garments out from drawers, preparing herself once again for what is waiting. Turning away from the mirror, he watches her for a few moments in silence, admiring her fortitude and graceful beauty. She is definitely one of a kind, he thinks. He is the luckiest man on earth.

His thoughts broadcast across their rapport and Betsy looks up at him with a smile as she jokes, "And don't you ever forget it, Mr. Worthington."

Returning her smile, he says, "You know I never will."

As Betsy goes back to rummaging, he asks, "Are they downstairs?"

"Sure are."

He walks to her and gives her a kiss on the cheek as he says quietly, "See you down there."

As he departs the room, he feels her presence warm and beautiful in his thoughts as she fills his mind with a sense of serenity and optimism, pressing radiance and light into every portion of his consciousness. After her welcome telepathic embrace, he feels as if he could face anything that the Crimson Dawn might throw at them, as if he could take on a legion of Undercloaks himself and win. He breathes a deep sigh and descends the stairs, wondering how he would ever manage this evening without her strength.

Part Twenty-three

"Words, they climb all over you
'Til they uncover you
From where you hide"

Peter Gabriel, "Love to Be Loved"

Outside the large living room of Warren and Betsy's SoHo apartment, Betsy tightens her hands into tense fists and takes a deep breath. She knows she has to do this, start this process in motion. She must finish what was started all those months ago. She must get past this obstacle one way or another. She sighs as she stands in the darkened hallway, the shadows licking longingly at her feet, calling out to her like little, lost pets... wanting so much to be with her, to become a part of her soul. She shuts out their whisperings as she becomes eerily aware of the ticking of time. The locus of the new moon is almost upon her and for the first time since Gomurr's protection began, she feels drawn to the Dawn's darkling energy. It becomes painfully clear to her that she hasn't much time until they try to claim her as their own.

Betsy runs her hands down her blue body armor, takes a deep breath and walks into the light of the living room. She pauses a moment to look deep into the eyes of each of her guests before she approaches the group as a whole. Jean sits on the couch, her mind full of light and anticipation as Scott stands behind her, on edge and ready for anything. Logan is pacing the room nervously, anxiously, eyeing her like a caged animal. And Warren? At the moment she can't bring herself to look at him, not without falling to pieces.

Taking one more calming breath, she walks toward the seating area, the focal point of the room. She stands a few awkward seconds as they all look at her expectantly, their attention completely on her. She resists the urge to wring her hands like a schoolgirl speaking in front of class for the first time and instead holds them neatly at her sides, calling on all the grace and poise she learned at finishing school. She closes her eyes as Warren stands by her side, attempting to offer support by proximity.

"First, let me just thank you three for coming... and for caring. I want to let you know that I trust you completely and sincerely and am glad to have people of your character and training behind me tonight. It means more than you can know."

Jean smiles brightly at Betsy, her green eyes glinting in the room's soft light. "We're just glad to be of help, Betsy."

Nodding her head and returning Jean's gesture with a slight smile, Betsy says, "Thank you."

Across the room, Logan clears his throat, obviously ready to get to business. "So what's the plan, Betts?"

As she feels his eyes burn into her, drinking in every movement she makes, she says quietly, her voice cracked and small, "The plan. Yes, the plan."

Taking a deep breath and swallowing hard, her words suddenly tiny and lost in her own throat, she looks over to Warren, his face as full of encouragement as he can manage at the moment. What is she doing? Why is there a lump forming in her throat, why is she struggling to breathe much less speak? She looks around the room once more into the faces of her teammates, her friends. They are here for her. For her. She should feel loved and empowered, not timid and weak. Taking a deep breath, she allows their reflections and impressions of her to fill her: Jean's kindred sympathy, Logan's admiration, Warren's unconditional love and Scott's respect. Though she is surprised by that last impression, she holds it and the others close to her heart as she sees herself as the people around her see her. She feels strong, resolute, and hopeful. She smiles at she looks to Logan and then once again to Warren. Finally, her words and thoughts come spilling from her mouth as uninhibited and free as the wind.

"Well, as you can no doubt tell, this is not your typical mission. There are no maps of our enemy's infrastructure, no inside leads besides the cryptic mutterings of a less than trustworthy sorcerer. In fact we have no idea if there even is an enemy waiting for us..." Betsy pauses as she corrects herself. "For me. I might not face anything more than that I take with me."

Betsy looks from face to face, assessing the thoughts of her teammates as Scott speaks up, "I'm sorry. I guess I'm a little lost here. What exactly is it you need from us?"

She smiles and nods. That's the Scott she's fought beside before... always cutting to the chase, always just the facts. She is glad Jean insisted on his presence. "Let me be blunt. Honestly, I don't know what to expect. But what I need from you all is your trust and your experience." She studies Logan as she continues, "Your instincts. My fate might hinge on a split-second judgment on your part, but I need you to trust me enough to give me the distance I need to accomplish my goals."

Logan crosses his arms over his chest as he asks gruffly, "And how're we supposed to know what those goals are?"

"I was just getting to that, Logan. First, when the time comes, when Tar sends for me, I want you all in another part of the house. I don't think the proctor will take kindly to a group of super-powered party-crashers. Warren will stay with me. His presence will most likely be expected, but just enough of a distraction to allow you to remain undetected. I will teleport you secretly with us."

Jean sits forward in her chair and asks quickly, "Do you think you're up to that, Betsy? Your powers are still so new to you."

She looks determinedly at Jean as she says confidently, "You were there with me the other day. You know I have the power. I just lack the focus."

Reaching out to squeeze Warren's hand, she steps away from her position at the front of the room and stands near Jean. "And that's where you come in."

Jean nods slowly, Psylocke's plan quickly becoming obvious to her. "Jean will be in constant telepathic contact with me..."

Phoenix finishes her thought before she can even utter it, "And I will make sure you remain focused when you teleport."

Betsy smiles at Jean. "As well as making sure Tar and his minions are not exerting any sort of influence over me."

Scott casts a ruby-shielded glance toward Logan. "And she can report to the rest of the team."

Pulling his Wolverine mask over his face, Logan says, "Yeah. Yeah. Got it. Now when do we leave?"

Warren places a hand on Betsy's shoulder. "We leave when they get here."

Folding his arms over his chest, obviously frustrated with the mysterious aura surrounding their mission and the Crimson Dawn, Scott asks, "And when is that?"

Betsy closes her eyes as she feels the shadows' song grow inside her. It's so beautiful, she thinks. So dark and pure. Nothing has ever felt so real in her life, nothing except... she feels Warren's hand on her shoulder, warm and pulsing with life. Her breath catches in her throat as the call of the Dawn pounds in her ears and her veins and she concentrates on the steady hand on her shoulder and the man it belongs to.

'Two are more solid than one,' Jean's words from earlier in the day ring clearly in her mind. 'You will be even stronger if he stands beside you.'

Letting her mind race along the thin tendrils of their rapport, Betsy probes Warren's psyche and clings to the familiar patterns of his thoughts and his affection for her. The brightness of the link between them chases away the shadows that clutter her mind and Betsy clings to her lover's soul as if it were a life preserver. Her eyes flutter open without her remembering she ever closed them and she wonders if she will have the strength to chase away the shadows when she is in their realm, pitted against their master.

Warren stands silent beside her, clinging just as tenaciously to their rapport, when Jean asks urgently, "Betsy?"

Shaking her head and bringing herself back into the moment, Betsy whispers, "Soon. They're coming soon."

Standing next to his wife, Scott says, "Then we should get into position."

Betsy looks to Warren who nods his head, his jaw tight and his muscles tense. Such a brave front, she thinks. Too bad she knows better, knows the fears gnawing at the back of his mind. She lightly squeezes his hand in reassurance and says quietly, "Let me show you to the guest room."

Reluctantly releasing his light grip on her, Warren stays behind as Betsy walks their three guests to another section of the loft in silence. As they walk along the darkened hall, the shadow-hung walls themselves seem to whisper her name and the ambient emotions of her teammates wash over her. The feelings she senses from Logan are especially turbulent, his regret barely hidden by an almost overwhelming amount of dread. 'I will not cry,' she thinks to herself. 'I must not.'

As they assemble in the room and prepare themselves for the coming challenge, securing the last few pieces of their uniforms and attending to last minute details, Betsy hangs her head and looks down at the finely carpeted floor. She knows she must leave them here, but somehow she can't find the strength to lift her feet and walk away. Finally, Jean breaks the silence. "You take care of yourself okay, Betsy?"

Psylocke nods and looks into Jean's face as she speaks, her countenance filled with concern and hope. "You will beat this thing. You're strong, you know that."

Smiling weakly, Betsy is glad to have someone close by who understands the multitude of emotions racing through her mind, who she can open up to without hurting... or scaring. "Yes, I am. I do know." Acting on impulse, she reaches out and hugs Jean tightly as she whispers, "Thank you, Jean. I won't forget this."

Jean returns her smile as she breaks their embrace, "I'll hold you to that."

Betsy releases a sigh as she thinks how lucky she is to have found a friend in Jean finally. She can't believe they never noticed how much they had in common, how much they could learn from one another. She pushes her regrets and her spent pettiness far into the back of her mind, knowing that she won't need either anymore, knowing that all wounds between them are mended. As she smiles at Jean, she sees Scott standing awkwardly, looking at the two of them in puzzlement. Betsy turns to look at him and almost laughs out loud at his social ineptitude.

After a few moments, he extends his hand with an uncomfortable grin on this face as he says, "We wish you well, Psylocke."

The fact that he's never been extremely gifted with conversation and social grace is perhaps one of the things that has always fascinated her about him, made him a little less intimidating and a little easier to manipulate when it struck her fancy to do so. Before she got to know Scott and Jean, she always thought of him as the rock of their relationship, the so-called 'strong' one. Now she knows how wrong she was, how for all his stoicism and bravery, he is just an insecure and often frightened man, doing his best to make the world a better place, making sure it is safe for the people he loves. She shakes his hand with a smile as she begins, "Cyclops..."

"Scott. Please call me Scott."

Betsy grins. "Scott. I'm sorry if there's any ill will left between us." She looks to Phoenix as she continues, "I hope it's all water under the bridge."

Looking back to Cyclops, she hears him say, "Ancient history." As he lets go of her hand, he nods, "Be careful tonight, Betsy."

"I will. I have a lot to come back to."

Betsy smiles as he drapes an arm around his wife and they whisper quietly to one to one another, moving to another part of the room, obviously giving her and Logan some distance. She wonders if they know how lucky they are, how delicate a path they stride together every day. How much easier life is when you are alone, she thinks, with no one to worry about but yourself... no one to hurt, no one else to wound. But life alone is empty and she knows it. Before she found love, the stars never shone as brightly and the dawn was never so promising. She wouldn't trade her love with Warren for all the riches in the world.

Out of the corner of her eye, Logan stirs uncomfortably. She turns her head to look at him as he stares at the floor, his mask hiding much of his face from her view. He should know better, he's never been able to hide from her, now or ever. She reaches out to take a gloved hand in her own and he flinches from the contact, a muscle twitching in his cheek as he clenches his jaw tightly as if he would never let any words escape his lips again. She stares fearlessly into his eyes as she says into his thoughts, *Words, they always seem to get in the way. They are fragile, false things.*

Finally he returns her gaze, his hand gripping hers tenaciously. The expression on his face cuts her to the bone, his eyes giving away every ounce of his remorse and longing. She had not wanted him to feel like this but she knows she can never take the weight from his shoulders. It is his sense of honor and loyalty that keeps him going, makes him human, saves his soul. She would not take that from him for the world. So instead she smiles weakly as she says, "Be well, my friend."

As his brown eyes cut into her, even though he is no telepath, she feels as if he can see straight into her soul as he says quietly, "I love ya, darlin'."

Betsy squeezes his hand once and then lets it go reluctantly. "I know, Logan. I know."

He looks at her a little longer before he averts his eyes and says quietly, "Now go. Let's get this over with."

Casting one more glance around the room, Betsy sighs quietly. She nods once as she turns her back on her three friends and leaves the room, resisting the urge to look back and catch one more glimpse before she rejoins Warren.

As she closes the door behind her and steps into the hall, she can hear the lilting of an old man's voice coming from the living room. Rounding the corner as she retrieves her sheathed katana from the a side-table and attaches it to her belt, she sees Warren with his arms crossed over his chest nodding impatiently as their guest prattles quickly away, obviously amused by his own story.

"So the doctor says... Oh goodness, this kills me! The doctor says, 'The man in the next bed wants to buy your slippers!' Get it? You get it?!"

Betsy enters the room and frowns at Gomurr the Ancient as she hears Warren say unenthusiastically, "Yes. I get it."

She watches the aged sorcerer chuckle to himself for a few moments, before she finally says, "I was wondering when you would show, Gomurr."

Smiling up at Psylocke, he levitates off the floor, exposing the few teeth he has remaining in his mouth and wiping away the remaining tears on his cheeks from his raucous laughter. "Right on time, Child. Gomurr is right on time. So, how are we holding up?"

Looking over to Warren as she answers, Betsy says, "Just fine, Gomurr... considering."

His expression quickly becoming sober, Gomurr says, "Yes. Trying such things are."

A few feet away, Warren sighs as he asks impatiently, "Not to overstep my bounds, but what can we expect tonight?"

Raising an eyebrow and floating closer to Warren, the magician says, "Oh. So it's we now, is it boy? We?"

Betsy sighs tiredly. "Yes, Gomurr. He is coming with me."

Letting himself down easily to the ground, Gomurr's expression turns contemplative as he pauses briefly before he speaks. "Yes. Him I expected. Him Tar will have no objection to. He is the one who is responsible for your debt to the Dawn in the first place."

Through their rapport, Betsy feels Warren wince at the sorcerer's accusation. But he lets the matter rest without an objection, accepting his role in the evening's events. Betsy fills his mind with reassuring thoughts as she listens to Gomurr continue. "But it's the other three he may have a problem with."

Reinforcing the telepathic mask Jean has erected around herself, Cylcops and Wolverine, Psylocke asks, "Whatever do you mean?"

Gomurr tisks as he wags a long, gnarled finger at her. "You should know better. Gomurr sees much and knows more. Silly child. And don't ask me to help you hide them from Tar. You must know he's been watching you. You must be able to feel it."

Betsy reaches out with her thoughts and calls quietly to the shadows, feeling for the cold being that stirs within them. She was being watched; she has been all evening. So that's what the calling from the shadows was, that's why their power was so strong. This entire time one of Tar's undercloaks lurked in her own home watching her silently, waiting to take her to its master.

Anger builds in her throat as she seethes, "They are coming with me."

Shaking his head, Gomurr says, "Fine. Fine. But Tar will make their arrival difficult. He will attempt to make you lose them in the shadows. Your focus must be clear to keep them from being lost in the darkness. Do they trust you enough to do this thing? Do you trust yourself?"

Opening up a link with Jean, Betsy pulls her fellow telepath's thoughts into her own, giving her access to her own mind and the conversation with Gomurr. She closes her eyes for a moment as Phoenix gets comfortable, her psychic energies filling her with light and strength. After a long silence, Betsy answers Gomurr, "Yes. We are ready."

Gomurr levitates once more in the air as he looks hard into Betsy's eyes. "I will speak to Tar about allowing them if they arrive safely. But he won't be pleased. They must be prepared to defend themselves."

She looks to Warren as he nods slowly and answers for them all, "We will be."

Casting a glance at Archangel, Gomurr squints his eyes and says, "Yes. You X-Men. Always ready for a fight." He sighs as he continues, "Children, all of you... even the old man, Logan. Children in the eyes of the Dawn."

Betsy stands next to Warren as she says confidently, "We are prepared for anything, Gomurr. Even what we cannot see."

She feels the air around her crackle with a strange, dark energy and her skin crawls in both dread and anticipation as Gomurr says solemnly, "I hope so, child, because here they come."

Her heart nearly leaps into her throat as one light bulb after another explode in a bright flash of sparks and two hooded figures rise from the shadows that pool on the floor. *This is it,* she hears Jean's voice ring in her mind as her world turns cold and completely devoid of light.

She senses Warren near her, panicked and afraid as a cold hands reach for them without preamble or ceremony. Fighting down her own terror, she concentrates on her rapport with Jean and Warren, instilling light and warmth into the dark recesses of her mind. She feels Jean turn off the lights of the adjacent room telekinetically and the bright spirits of her friends join her in the dark as she is pulled into the shadow realm of the Crimson Dawn. She holds onto them tightly, absorbing their fear and trepidation, then releasing it into the dark world beneath her. They float weightlessly behind her, their corporeal selves dimming as they are swallowed whole by the hungry shadows.

In her mind, she hears Warren call out to her. *I love you, Betsy.*

She steels herself as she sends one last determined thought through her rapport. *I won't let them win, Warren. I can't. For both our sakes, I will triumph.*

And then she becomes an empty vessel, channeling the darkling energy through her and her friends, keeping them safe and whole in the pitch-black world of the shadows, using every ounce of her concentration to hold them together.

Part Twenty-four

"She came toward me in the flowing air,
A shape of change, encircled by its fire.
I watched her there, between me and the moon;
The bushes and the stones danced on and on;
I touched her shadow when the light delayed;
I turned my face away, and yet she stayed.
A bird sang from the center of a tree;
She loved the wind because the wind loved me."

Theodore Roethke, "The Dream"

Warren Worthington shivers and reaches a hand out to Psylocke through the murky darkness as he holds his breath. All he feels is cold, confusion and the nihilistic embrace of nothingness. If it weren't for the psychic link between them, he wouldn't even know she was there. Blackness swirls around him, tearing at his soul with icy, dead claws, and he tries his best to remain calm as his pulse pounds loudly in his ears. Amid the empty tempest, Betsy's thoughts scream into his mind, the only sound in the dark except the low hissing of the undercloaks. She is just as afraid as he is, clinging tenaciously to her weakening bond with both him and Jean. He feels her slowly slipping into madness as the song of the Dawn penetrates her senses.

He shouts desperately through their rapport, *Betsy?! Stay with me. Focus!*

Her thoughts are quiet and murky as she thinks, *Warren? I've got you, I... Jean!! I'm losing... I'm losing them!!*

Suddenly, he feels a force pull hard on him, yanking him forward like a ripcord and he knows that Betsy has lost Jean and the others. But as the world turns red around him and he slips out of consciousness, plummeting to who knows where like a leaden weight, he has no time to mourn, no time to even breathe a prayer for the safety of their souls or his.

* * *

'So this is how it ends,' thinks Scott Summers as he fights off another wave of nausea. Shadows penetrate his throat, choking the life out of him, leeching the light from his ever-shielded eyes.

"Jean," he whispers as his skin freezes in the icy darkness. So much left undone, so much still to say. So much to live for.

* * *

'Hold on, Betsy. Hold on, darlin'.'

Wolverine falls into the abyss as a chill runs down the length of his spine. It wasn't supposed to end like this. He was supposed to be there for her. They weren't supposed to fail before the battle even began. The ice-cold grip of reality sits heavy on his chest as he loses his bearings in the dark, spinning out of control, drowning in a flood of nothing. As he fights to stay conscious a name forms on his lips, though he dare not speak it.


* * *

*NO!!* shrieks Jean Grey-Summers through what's left of her and Betsy's mind-link. 'She is not doing this,' thinks Jean. 'She is not giving up!' As she plummets quickly, trying her best to ignore the quiet horrors of the shadow realm, Jean reaches out one more time to Psylocke. If she's learned anything during her time with the X-Men it's that there is no such thing as a lost cause.

In her mind's eye, she sees a far off purple glow, the signature of Psylocke's power. She focuses all her strength on the butterfly-shaped light as she pulls Scott and Logan behind her in a telekinetic web. She won't let them die in here; they've come too far together to be beaten by a bunch of shadows. As her mother always told her, there is nothing to fear in the dark. So Jean reaches out once more, her mind clutching at the very essence of Betsy's power.

As she feels herself jerked away from the void and toward a bright, blinding light, Jean can't help but smile as she collapses in a heap on the dry, dusty earth. Next to her, she hears a low chuckle escape her husband's lips and as she sits up slowly, she can't help but join in. Soon both of them are laughing loudly, their relief quickly chasing away thoughts of just how close they came to oblivion.

They slowly and uneasily stand, brushing themselves off and surveying the rocky, deserted landscape. Their laughter ceases as they look at Logan who is obviously not amused, his face all- business and the whole of his demeanor focused on tracking Betsy. Finally Scott speaks. "Everyone okay?"

Jean nods her head. "A little shaken and a lot worn. But alive nonetheless."

She looks over to Logan who stands mutely, surveying the landscape, his heightened senses attuning themselves to his environment. Beside her, Cyclops puts a hand on her shoulder as he asks, "Any clue where Psylocke and Angel are?"

Watching Logan as he takes off running, Jean points to a dark fortress in the distance, bathed in an ominous half-light. "My guess would be there."

* * *

Through a dizzying haze of cold sweat, Warren feels his booted feet scraping against a hard, stone floor. As he tentatively stirs, he notices an icy grip around his chest and arms as he is dragged along a long corridor, his face only a few feet above the granite flooring. Slowly opening his eyes, he groggily calls out, "Betsy, where are you?"

Still unsure of his surroundings, he tilts his heavy head up, hoping to find a glimpse of Betsy. Instead he peers straight into the absent visage of one of Tar's undercloaks, its face a dark hollow of shadows, its eyes glowing red like the blazing pits of Hell itself. He closes his eyes and represses a shiver as he hears Betsy speak to him from close by, "I'm right here, Warren. I'm safe."

He clenches his jaw tightly and twists in the undercloaks' frozen grasp, trying to stand on his own, trying to free himself from the monster's clutches. Their claws sink further into his arms with every move he makes and in his weakened state, he is not sure he can break free. Then from behind him, he hears Betsy speak, her voice deep and alien, "Leave him be. Let him go."

As soon as she speaks the words, they relinquish their hold on him and he drops shakily to his knees. Taking a deep breath, he begins to stand on his own power as he feels Betsy's hands on him, helping him get to his feet. Her touch is not as warm has he remembers and when he looks into her face, he understands why. Her skin is a bluish hue, not much different than his own though much more ashen, and the mark of the Dawn glows brightly over her eye as if it were alive, pulsing with energy. As his eyes open wide in shock at her change in appearance, she averts her gaze from him and supports some of his weight as they continue down the corridor.

"It appears I have some power here."

"Yes. Yes it does."

They continue on in silence for a few moments, a trio of undercloaks skirting their every movement. Warren then dares whisper, "And how does this make you feel?"

Betsy continues the conversation through their rapport as she says into his thoughts as her left hand hovers over the katana hanging from her belt, *Frightened. And a little empowered. I seem to be turning into one of them. But I am fighting, don't worry. I am still myself.*

Warren nods as his steps become a bit more confident and sure. Betsy then relays all that she knows of their situation, showing him that their friends are alive if not slightly misplaced and that Gomurr is no place to be seen. Soon they come to a large set of ornate doors and one of the undercloaks bangs a large gong, letting a hammer fly three times against the gold metal. It rings pure and solemn, sending a chill through his heart, making the moment seem undeniably real. This is no dream, no nightmare.

The doors swing open, creaking noisily on their giant hinges. They stand for a moment in the doorway, waiting for what, they don't know. Finally the cold hands of the undercloaks push them forward and as they stumble into the room, Warren realizes he's been here before. The lava-like substance visible through the cracks in the stone floor, the large, heart-shaped vessel in the center... this is the heart of the Ebon Vein of the Crimson Dawn and his skin crawls with the reality of it. He had never wanted to see this place again, never wanted Betsy to come face to face with it. But now they are here, preparing to fight for Betsy's soul and there's not a thing he can do about it.

As they are escorted past the vessel, Warren hears a deep, baritone voice boom in his ears. "Well, well, well. The pilgrim has returned."

Tearing his gaze from the deep glow of the Vein, Warren looks up into the dark face of Tar, Proctor of the Crimson Dawn. Anger grows quickly and fiercely in the pit of his stomach as Betsy begs him not to lash out at him, not to provoke him. So he holds his tongue, remembering the promise he made to her before they departed for this realm.

The large, physically imposing wizard leans over the two of them as he says to Warren, "So you've come to bid your final farewell, have you?" His expression is one of mock pity as he continues, "How disgustingly romantic."

The proctor then turns his attention to Betsy as he places a large, granite-like hand on her face. Warren watches her wince under his touch as he runs a thumb over the blazing mark that covers her cheek and eye. It's almost more than he can take as the proctor speaks, amusement apparent in his features, "And welcome home, little girl. We have such grand plans for you."

He walks away in a flourish and sits upon his rough-hewn throne as he leers down at them, obviously savoring every moment of their encounter. "But I forget my manners, Psylocke. We have not been formally introduced. I am Tar, Proctor and Lord of the Crimson Dawn."

Leaving Warren to stand on his own power, Betsy steps forward as she asks sternly, "Where is Gomurr?"

An amused grin creeps across the proctor's face as a dozen neon creatures skitter down the walls to his feet, orbiting him like a litter of hungry beasts waiting to be fed. "Let us just say that Gomurr is... indisposed at the moment."

A deep laugh comes from his chest as he continues, his undercloaks hissing from the shadows, "I do hate uninvited guests. As you well know, Psylocke."

Holding her anger in check, Betsy says as she narrows her eyes, "You did not maroon my friends. They will come. They are here."

The proctor merely shrugs. "Mere flies in the proverbial ointment. Besides, they will never arrive in time."

Warren steps forward, daring for the first time to speak to the proctor, "In time for what?"

Pressing his palms together and staring hard into Warren with green, unblinking eyes, "For the challenge, of course. The ceremony in which you finally get to say good-bye to your dear, precious lover here, watch her finally become mine: heart, body and soul."

Unable to contain his anger anymore, Warren lunges toward the throne and a pair of undercloaks emerge like liquid oil by Tar's feet. Before Warren can reach the proctor and his guards, Betsy steps in front of him and holds him by his shoulders with a strength he has never witnessed from her before. He sees his wild expression briefly through her eyes and the rapport they share as she whispers, "Not now, Warren. Save your strength."

Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, Warren relents as Betsy turns once again toward Tar. "And what of this challenge? What am I to do?"

"Why fight my undercloaks, of course. Didn't Gomurr tell you?"

Betsy nods. "A little, yes. And what if I win? What then?"

Tar shakes his head as laughter once again erupts from him. "Win? Win?! Child, no mortal has ever won the challenge."

Warren feels Betsy's heart sink and it is all he can do not to rush to her side. Instead, he shares his mind with her, how much confidence he has in her, how grand a warrior she is. As he feels her self-assurance build once more, he asks solemnly. "How many undercloaks must she fight?"

Tar looks at him curiously, obviously amazed that his words have not dimmed his hope. Warren is pleased with this one, tiny victory over the machinations of the Crimson Dawn. For the first time since he has entered this realm, he feels as if the outcome of this night might not be as dismal as he has feared. He speaks again, his voice sure and certain. "How many, Proctor?"

A smile of satisfaction surfaces on the proctor's lips as he savors his answer, speaking slowly and ominously, "As many as it takes, boy. As many as it takes."

* * *

Outside of the fortress, Cyclops shakes his head as he calls out to his wife, "Nothing over here! Not a window, not a door. Nothing!"

He watches Jean encase herself in a telekinetic bubble and float to his side as Logan races toward them, his nerves obviously frayed and his temper extremely thin. Behind his visor, he squints his eyes as he looks from his teammate to his wife. "What did you find?"

Logan grunts. "Nothin'. Not a blamed thing. This place is sealed up tight."

Wolverine pauses to look up at the blood-red sky as he growls quietly. "Like a damned tomb."

Through their rapport, Scott feels Jean worry about Logan's frustration as she says cautiously, "My guess is that they don't need doors. They do travel through shadows after all."

Scott nods. "And anyone else would be unwelcome."

As the words leave his lips, Wolverine lunges for the wall as he shouts, "Unwelcome! I'll show ya unwelcome!"

Unsheathing his bone claws, his temper flares and he digs futilely into the thick, stone wall of the temple. Scott thinks that if he still had his adamantium skeleton, the wall would be well on its way to rubble. He draws a deep breath as he looks over at Jean and shrugs his shoulders. They had wanted to make a subtle entrance, to find Psylocke and Archangel's location without affronting the proctor of the Crimson Dawn. They had all agreed quiet diplomacy and stealth would be the best way to help Betsy. Sadly, Logan has given them no choice. If they don't find a way in quickly, his berserker rage will surely give them away.

As his claws rake dully against the wall, barely scratching the stone finish, Scott nods to Jean and she erects a telekinetic force field around her and Logan. He then steps a few paces away from them and stares intently at a section of wall, sizing up the force of impact required to topple it. Squinting, he opens his visor and then his eyes, only releasing a fraction of his power. He then lets his force beam build in intensity, easily tumbling the ancient stones of the temple, creating a large gash in the otherwise smooth, uniform outer wall. With Jean's telekinesis helping to muffle the impact and debris, Scott prays he has gained them an undetected entry.

Walking over to the hole in the wall, he examines his handiwork, noting the thickness of the stone and the darkness lying on the other side of the now exposed fissure. The air inside the temple is musty and stale, as if nothing has lived within its sheltering walls for a very long time. He can't help but agree with Logan's earlier assessment. This place is as dank and lifeless as a tomb.

He motions for Phoenix and Wolverine to join him and the three step into the dim passageway, lit only by a few scattered torches and an eerie glow coming from the center of the structure. He shares a wary look with Jean as their eyes accustom themselves to the darkness and Logan gets his bearings. He hears his teammate draw in a deep lungful of the fetid air and then mutter, "This way," as he takes off at a quick pace down the corridor.

Before either Jean or he can warn Wolverine, the shadows on the floor and walls come to life and a half dozen undercloaks spring into formation, readying themselves in an attack posture. Scott races for his teammate, preparing to release his optic blasts when he hears a voice shrill, "Leave them be, demons!"

Another voice then rings in his head, the familiar lilting of his wife, her thoughts spilling quickly over their rapport, too quickly for him to completely comprehend. Scott freezes in his tracks and looks over his shoulder at Jean. Her face contorts as dark shadows slither up her body and over her face. Acting only on instinct, he runs to her, his heart pounding loudly in his ears. Before he can reach her, her eyes glow red and she speaks with a strange muffled tongue, her words hissing from behind her teeth as she holds him motionless with her telekinetic powers. "You... have no... power here, old man. These... intruders are... ours!"

Scott struggles in her grip and looks to the tiny man floating above the floor. He assumes from his appearance that he can be none other than Gomurr the Ancient. Blue bolts of energy surge across his diminutive frame and a white orb of light protects him from the shadows as he bellows, "I'll show you power! You good for nothing, spineless puppets!"

In a bright flash, Gomurr illuminates the room as he expels a magical light from his body. Scott watches as the shadows attacking Wolverine disappear in a hissing, steaming flare of dark energy. He then hears Jean's voice fill the hallway as she exorcises the spirits forcefully from her body, her words triumphant and true. "I belong to no one!!"

He smiles in relief and pride and rushes to her side, making sure she has no injuries. Nodding gratefully to the wizard as he lowers himself to the ground, Scott lends an arm to Jean for support and says, "Thank you."

Gomurr beams brightly, exposing a few crooked teeth as he says over his shoulder, "Now this is what you call respect, Logan. You could learn many things from this one."

Brushing off the old man's comments as well as dust from his torn uniform, Logan says gruffly, "Yeah. Yeah. If I had known getting rid of these guys was that easy, I would have brought a flashlight."

Gomurr levitates once more in the air, shaking his staff at Wolverine as he says, "Not just light! Magic. These beasties are tougher than that and you know it... they even slowed me down long enough for Tar to get the ninja-girl alone."

Narrowing his eyes at Gomurr, Logan says, "Even you, Gomurr?"

Gathering up his robes and attempting to look as dignified as possible, the wizard scoffs, "Pah. No respect. No respect at all."

Turning back to Jean and Scott with a grin, he then says, "Now let's get going. We have a... how do you say? Party to bash?"

Jean nods as she smiles up at the wizard, standing on her own power and regaining her bearings after her brief possession. "Yes. That's about the gist of it."

Gomurr then floats ahead of them, leading them deeper into the heart of the fortress as he says quietly, "And Tar and I will have words. Humph. Yes. Ugly, four-letter words."

As the group trudges forward into the dimly lit hallway, Scott looks suspiciously at the walls, steeling himself for another attack and preparing himself for whatever awaits them once they find Warren and Betsy. Magic, he scoffs silently to himself. Why does it always have to be magic?

Part Twenty-five

"When the sun goes down, it writes
a secret name in its own blood for remembrance,
the excess of light
an ardor slow to cool:
and man has time to seek shelter."

Denise Levertov, "Man Alone"

Psylocke narrows her eyes as she looks up to Tar, the temptation of the Crimson Dawn penetrating all of her senses, making her blood run cold. As the whole of her being resists the power the Dawn offers her, a lump forms in her throat and Tar's words echo in her ears. 'As many as it takes.'

As many as it takes?

She reaches out with her astral-self, furtively searching out the dim souls of the undercloaks lurking in the shadows. As her mind darts between the hazy, half-thoughts of the shadow creatures, she feels decay spreading through each one of their souls like a cancer. All their individuality has been erased but not forgotten. They are like blinded persons who have lost their vision in a tragic accident but always remember the last horrific sight witnessed before the darkness. If Betsy were not otherwise distracted, she might actually feel pity for them... their fear, their anguish, their loss. Instead she only thinks, 'But there are hundreds of them!'

As she turns her attention away from the shadows, she studies the proctor's stone-like features and wonders if he has a heart beating inside, if he is mortal, if he can be persuaded by her telepathy. She reaches out toward his mind, her powers flaring strongly and swiftly, attempting to make contact with his subconscious thoughts. As she touches his outermost thoughts, her head pounds as if she has just run headlong into a brick wall. Psionic feedback building in the tentative mind-link, she breaks contact with a quiet whimper as she falls to her knees, her head feeling as if it could burst. Next to her, she senses Warren rushing to her side as Tar chuckles, "Silly, silly girl. Your powers have no effect on me. I have no heart to twist, no soul but what you see around me."

He stands and spreads his large arms, "I am the Crimson Dawn, Psylocke. She is a benevolent mistress and took what was left of my soul long ago."

Before she can say a word of retort as she gets to her feet, the massive doors of the inner chamber burst open. As she turns her head to view the commotion, she hears Gomurr the Ancient shout, "Tar!! You gray-skinned, knobby-kneed baboon! You will pay for what you've done!"

Tar stands slowly from his throne, pursing his lips and rolling his eyes once before he says dryly, "And what have I done, Gomurr? Defended my realm from intruders? Yes. I am so incredibly evil."

Gomurr storms toward the throne not unlike a child throwing a temper tantrum, his short, hurried strides tossing his green robe into disarray as his face flushes red. As Betsy observes their argument coolly, she feels the presence of her friends behind her as a group of Tar's undercloaks keep them removed from her direct presence, serving as a living fence, preventing them from getting close to their master or her and Warren. She can feel their eyes on her, shocked as Warren was of the change in her features. With a brief telepathic message sent to Jean and an even briefer nod to Wolverine, she reassures them that she is okay, that her appearance is just a side effect of being so close to the heart of the Crimson Dawn.

She sighs impatiently as she turns her attentions once again to Tar and Gomurr as they bicker, completely immersed in their verbal tug of war. Neither wants to appear weak to the other and both are scrapping over bits of power in a hidden world of mystery. It is an argument Betsy doesn't care to understand, an argument that is quickly wearing on her already thin nerves. One thing she is sure of is that it is hardly fitting. She sighs tiredly as she shouts, her voice thick and dark in this realm, "Gomurr! Please. Aren't there more appropriate things to attend to at the moment?"

Cutting off his deteriorating debate with Tar, he looks over his shoulder at Betsy while he seethes, "Appropriate? Appropriate? This tyrant dropped me in the middle of the shadows and left a dozen of his undercloaks to tear me apart. Doesn't that strike you as a little inappropriate? Hmm?" He then grins slightly, his humor returning with his pride, "Not that they were a match for me."

Turning his gaze back to Tar, he says coldly, "And I was to be a guest, Tar. Hospitality my foot. Know this now. I will not be slighted so easily. You will play fair from now on."

As Gomurr steps down from the elevated throne and walks toward Betsy, Tar sits back down as he says, "I always play fair, Gomurr. Yes, whatever 'fair' is in the god-forsaken realm." He then points a large, dark finger at Phoenix, Cyclops and Wolverine. "Besides, you are the one who brought these... these miscreants into my realm."

As Wolverine growls from behind a wall of undercloaks, Gomurr narrows his eyes at Tar. "Then I will send them away if it offends you so."

A large smile spreads across the proctor's face. "No. Let them remain. I have always taken a certain pleasure in observing the misery of others."

Next to her, Betsy hears Warren snap, lurching forward once again at the proctor as he says, "You sick, twisted bastard!"

Gomurr easily restrains him in a magical force field, suspending him from the floor as he struggles and Tar seethes at him with unfeeling eyes as his neon pets gather by his feet. "So we've resorted to name calling? Feh. The last resort of the weak. Gomurr, do not make me feed this one to my minions."

As Gomurr releases Warren, Betsy kneels at his side, frantically holding his hands in her own as she whispers to him, "Please, Warren. This is my fight."

Anger fading from his features, Warren reaches out to touch her face, his hand very warm on her clammy skin. She whispers one more time as she hangs her head, the memories of her precognitive vision heavy on her mind, "Please."

He nods once and gets to his feet, steeling himself for the encounter that waits her. She takes a deep breath and stands as she glares at the proctor, swallowing her anger and saving it for her fight. "Let's get this over with, Tar. No more games. Let's finish this."

A smile of satisfaction appears on his face as he snaps his fingers, summoning his undercloaks from the shadows. "Yes. Let's. All this pretense is wearing heavily on my nerves."

As a circle of undercloaks forms around her, Warren looks to her frantically, his eyes wild with fear and dread. She reaches over and squeezes his hand as she whispers, "I love you. Be strong. For me... for both of us."

He closes his eyes and nods quietly as Gomurr floats nearby. "I cannot interfere in the combat, child. But I will tell you this... do not fall to the temptation to join them, do not underestimate their power. Individually, they are weak but together they are strong. Remember that. And do not let Tar's threats scare you. I have faith in you. I wish you strength, focus and good joss."

Betsy nods as she stares hard into Warren's eyes, "Thank you, Gomurr. I will not forget your kindness."

She watches as Gomurr leads Warren to the edge of the room, beyond the encroaching circle of shadows. As her heart pounds in her ears and her breath grows short, she tries to swallow her fears and concentrate all her thoughts on strategy and execution. She's not sure if she could defeat this many human attackers, much less darkling undercloaks. She looks over her shoulder to Jean and the others. Wolverine's eyes are wild with fury as if he can barely contain himself in his own skin. She knows this must be eating him alive, watching her prepare for a battle he thinks he placed her in, but she can't think of that now. "No regrets," she says to herself. "No regrets."

She then feels Jean's thoughts inside her own, giving her confidence and strength. *Trust in yourself, Betsy. Trust your feelings, your instincts. They are your most powerful weapon.*

Taking a deep breath, she looks into the face of a solitary undercloak as it approaches her, attacking with barely a thought or hesitation. From it, she only reads a blind devotion to its master. She deflects its blows easily and propels it from her with a volley of kicks and punches. Letting a fist glow brightly with the power of her psychic knife, she drives her katana through its skull and the shadow-specter hisses on the floor as it disappears into nothingness.

From behind her, she hears Tar's voice boom as he laughs heartily, "One down, more than one hundred to go."

This one was easy. Gomurr was right. Alone, they are weaker than an average human soldier. But she knows this one was just testing her strength, allowing the whole of them to study her techniques and gain a sense of her power. It is going to get more difficult, much more difficult.

As she takes a few more calming breaths, steadying her thoughts and focusing her strength, she positions herself defensively as two more undercloaks approach her. Dodging their cold claws, Betsy uses all of her training to fight them both with a series of leg sweeps and well-timed punches. She strikes at the arm of one of the undercloaks with her katana, slicing off its thin, clawed appendage just above the elbow, but the creature ignores the wound and stares through her with red, devilish eyes as it lunges for her again. Before she can prepare for its attack, a trio of undercloaks ambush her from behind, knocking the sword out of her hand. As it flies across the stone surface of the floor, too far away for her to retrieve it again, she curses silently to herself. Psychic knives extending from both hands, she does her best to forget the lost weapon and concentrate on the battle at hand. As she shuts down their attack, another solitary attacker assaults her from the front, taking her off guard and slicing at her with jagged claws. As it makes contact with her bare arm, its talons wound and then cauterize her flesh with an icy fire and she cries out in surprise and pain.

Sensing a break in the circle of undercloaks, she turns her head to see the blue and white blur of Warren's uniform as he rushes toward her position in reaction to her cry, the flapping of his wings keeping him a few inches above the battle. She panics as a cadre of undercloaks surge toward him and screams as a pair of them grab hold of his ankle and pull him to the floor, "No! Leave him alone!"

As she reaches out to him with her thoughts, a dark ripple-effect forms on the floor and then pulses in an explosion of dark energy below his feet, propelling him away from the circle of hungry undercloaks. For a brief moment, she looks at him in bewilderment as he gets to his feet. Her eyes widen as she realizes it was her actions that pushed him to safety. She looks down at her hands as psionic energy extends from her fingertips, glowing a deep red as her skin becomes shrouded in darkness. Behind her an undercloak launches an attack and she uses her newfound power on it, shoving it to the ground with a muffled thud. 'Such power,' she thinks as she gloats over her foe. Perhaps she can defeat them after all.

As she sends another attacker to the floor with a stream of forcefully directed shadows, she notices how cold she suddenly feels, how the shade of her skin is growing darker and darker. She feels Jean's thoughts in her mind, urging her to pursue caution in the use of her newly discovered power and then looks up to Tar as he sits above the melee, grinning in amusement. It is then she understands that he wants her to use this power, that the more she uses it, the more she becomes his. This is the temptation that Gomurr warned of. Fighting the undercloaks was only one of the battles she must wage.

She narrows her eyes as another wave of attackers fall upon her and she resists the urge to call on the shadows to aid her. She dispatches them after a few minutes, though fatigue starts to gnaw at her, lessening the force of her blows. Her battle is quickly turning into one against herself and her own endurance. If she is to defeat the multitude of attackers still to come, she has to find a weapon besides bare fists and psionic knives. As the last of the group falls to her psychic knife, she represses a smile as she realizes that if they are injured by her psionic blade, then they have minds she can twist as well. It is an eventuality she hadn't thought of, a new tool on her side. Hopefully it is something Tar had overlooked himself.

When the next group descends upon her, she is ready for them and opens up the shadow realm below them, sinking with them into the floor. She eludes them deftly, teleporting quickly between shadows on the throne room floor, hoping to tempt more of the undercloaks into chasing her. With each jump she makes, the Dawn sings louder in her ears, its voice promising pure and cleansing nothingness... an end to the pain, an end to the fighting. For a moment, she thinks how wonderful it would be to stop fighting for once, to finally calm the anger and turbulence inside her soul. But as she feels the last group of undercloaks plunge into the shadows with her, she smiles, knowing the fighter is nothing without the fight and that true happiness only exists in a world where there is pain to compare it to.

* * *

Every muscle in his body tenses as Logan peers over the shoulder of a darkly shrouded undercloak. From his vantage point, he can clearly see the floor of the throne room and the battle ensuing within. The environment is alive with the scents of the fight: brimstone, sweat, blood and the acrid yet dank scent of the undercloaks. As he lunges forward in reaction to a blow dealt to Betsy, Jean grabs his arm as she shakes her head at him. He turns to her with a narrow gaze as he once again holds his temper in check and stays behind the line of undercloaks. They all know they could easily fight their way past the mute sentries, but stay removed from the fighting to respect the way of the Dawn as well as Betsy's wishes. If they were to interfere now, who knows what might happen, what it might cost Psylocke. Still, his instincts keep him on edge and barely restrained. Only his guilt and sense of duty prevent him from springing to action.

As he looks up to Tar seated high above the floor, Wolverine growls to himself. He should have torn that gray-skinned bag of wind to bits the first time he met him. Then Betsy wouldn't be in this situation, fighting against a throng of cold, faceless enemies. He swallows hard to keep himself from drowning in 'might haves' and 'should haves'. He knows he is to blame for Betsy's trials, first at the claws of Sabretooth and then at the hands of the Dawn. It's not fair and he knows it, but at the moment he convinces himself that no amount of bellyaching will make it any better. All he can do is watch and wait and stand up for Betsy when she needs him.

He watches her teleport quickly between shadows, obviously learning a great deal from her training session only the day before. At least their time spent yesterday was of some benefit. At least she hasn't entered the battle unprepared. He only hopes the darkening tint of her skin and the new shadow-projecting powers she's utilized are under her control, that they aren't placing her under a magical thrall. As he listens intently to the sounds of the battle, the low hisses of the wounded undercloaks and the fierce battle cries of Psylocke in motion, he casts a quick glance in Warren's direction. His skin has grown pale and ashen as he watches his lover, barely restraining himself from joining the fray once again. Logan can smell fear radiating strongly from him as an unusually quiet Gomurr stands at his side, his regular genial expression faded into one of contemplative concern. If anyone knows how they feel, it is Wolverine. Too many times has he watched helplessly as friends, lovers, fell in battle. Too many times...

He feels Jean's hand once again on his arm as the shadows on the floor coalesce into one giant pool of darkness. It rotates like a funnel, churns like an angry sea, as the entire throng of remaining undercloaks are sucked into its murky depths. Logan briefly looks to Jean, her green eyes reflecting her dismay and confusion as the line of sentries disappear into the darkness before them. Blackness then licks at their feet as they step closer to the room's wall, pressing themselves flat to avoid the ever-encroaching darkness. He turns his head as he prepares to be engulfed once again by the shadow realm of the Crimson Dawn. Next to him, Cyclops wears an expression of both disgust and controlled panic as he grasps his wife's hand and a shadow crawls up his leg. Closing his eyes, Wolverine hopes once he is inside the shadow realm, he can find Betsy, maybe even help her to defeat the throng of dark spirits pursuing her. Maybe then his death won't be in vain. Maybe he can at least take a few of them out as he suffocates in the nauseating blackness. Unsheathing his bone claws, he feels the tight, frozen grip of the shadows around his chest and takes one last breath when... they are gone. The darkness, the shadows, the undercloaks, even Betsy are all gone.

His claws still extended from his hands, Wolverine draws in a deep breath, hunting for Betsy's scent. Besides a lingering hint of jasmine from Warren's garments, not a single trace of her remains in the throne room. Stepping away from the wall, his eyes wide and surveying every inch of the completely intact stone floor, he hears Tar's voice boom loudly from his throne. "Get back here you witch! What do you think you are doing? What do you hope to accomplish?!"

As Tar's neon minions tick quickly around the feet of the proctor and he punts one angrily against the wall, growling as it pops and shatters, Gomurr chuckles brightly, "Looks like this soul has slipped from your clutches, Tar... one way or another."

Yes. One way or another. As the reality of it hits Logan like a ton of bricks, he can't help but shudder.

* * *

Inside the black pit of shadows, Betsy narrows her eyes as she slows the beating of her heart. Gomurr's words weigh heavy in her thoughts as she feels the undercloaks swirl around her in confusion, disbelieving her strategy and her sheer stubbornness. The old sorcerer's words come to her lips as she speaks them breathlessly into the nothingness. "Individually, they are weak..."

Reaching out with her telepathy, she lets her astral form loose in the shadows, touching the thoughts of the undercloaks. If she can somehow release them from Tar's hold, make them reclaim their lives again, maybe she can keep them from attacking her, make them switch sides. As she plants the suggestion in one mind and then another, her head pounds, monotonous voices sounding back to her in a cacophony of disjointed, but still unified wails. From their cries, she knows her efforts have failed, that they cannot betray their master even if they wished to, even if they had wishes of their own left to cast.

As she plummets deeper into the self-constructed chasm, she feels their cold grip on her, begging her to join them in their quiet oblivion. She fights off their advances as she drowns in the darkness. Panicking as her skin freezes in the blackness, she opens her mouth to scream as her voice is silenced by the hands of a hundred different terrors. Just as she is about to give up and let the undercloaks tear the last shreds of hope out of her heart, she feels a light glimmering in her mind. A brilliant thread leads the way out of the darkness, shimmering thin but true, pure and bright.

'Warren,' she thinks as she clings tightly to their rapport, to the shining reminder of all that is good about her life, about living. Besides, she had promised Warren victory and she has never been one to break promises. She doesn't intend to start now.

If only she didn't feel so alone.

'Alone. That's it!' thinks Betsy as she garners the last of her strength . 'Individuality makes them weak.'

Reaching out once again with her mind, she targets the entire web of the undercloak's thoughts. In her astral form she can see them all, their droning thoughts, their long-trampled dreams. And it is beautiful, as intricately woven as a spider's web. It would be easy for her to become a fly, so easy just to get trapped. But this is where she is strongest, here she is the spider and the weak undercloaks are the flies. Dressed in astral armor, she reaches out to the web, hacking a large strand free with a psionic katana. As the threads break and tear, she hears them screaming in her thoughts, lost and utterly afraid. The experience won't kill them, but leave them completely devoid of purpose. Once amputated from the whole, the hand serves no purpose on its own.

She shields herself from the ambivalent terror her actions have released into the web and continues to tear her way through their connections, severing as many as she possibly can before she exhausts herself. After a few moments, most of the links between the undercloaks are destroyed and as Betsy surveys the damage and the scared screams of the disjointed spirits, she can't help but feel sorry for them. So much already given willingly away and she had to take the last remaining identity given to them: the invisible but comforting identity of unity, safety in numbers, belonging. If she weren't so exhausted and distraught, she might actually shed tears for them, but instead she concentrates the rest of her energies on returning to the surface world and escaping the darkness that still threatens to consume her.

As she slowly pulls herself from the shadows, the red-lit chamber above seems blinding. Less than a half-hour before she thought it one of the most dreary places she had ever seen, but now it seems as radiant as the light of heaven itself. As she clears the shadows and collapses to her knees, she feels hands she knows can only be Warren's around her, comforting her, holding her close. He braces her silently as she senses Logan and the others nearby, waiting patiently for her to speak, to breathe. As she looks into their faces, she sees exactly how close she came to oblivion, how much they wanted to believe she would win.

Finally Gomurr speaks as he grasps her hand, barely reacting to the coldness of her touch. "How are you, child?"

Betsy smiles and her voice is dimmed by the touch of the Dawn as she says, "I am alive, Gomurr."

Next to her, Warren speaks to the sorcerer, "What happens now? Now that she's won?"

He hangs his head reverently as he says quietly, "Now she must choose."

Looking over to Warren in relief, she sees herself through his eyes. Her skin is as black as ebony and her eyes glow a dim yellow against the blood-red mark of the Crimson Dawn. Her breath catches as she recoils at her own visage and she realizes that if she had been in the shadows only a few minutes more or again used the power of the Dawn, she would have become an undercloak herself. She would have given herself over to Tar without even knowing it.

She grinds her teeth as she seethes to the proctor, "I defeated your undercloaks, Tar. Now give me my prize. Give me my freedom!"

Tar clicks his tongue as he looks down at Psylocke with a sneer. "Defeated?! Prize?! You still understand so little of this realm, child. Reach out with your pitiful little powers and feel how my undercloaks are already licking their wounds, repairing the damage done to the circle that eternally binds them."

Searching the shadows with her telepathy, Betsy feels the web beginning to heal, the undercloaks once again reconstructing the boundaries of their unified consciousness. A small pool of shadows emerges near the foot of the proctor's throne and she stares in revulsion as a skeletal hand reaches for its master, darkness hanging from it like torn flesh. Tar steps from his seat and kneels before the wounded undercloak, whispering soothing words of future revenge and retribution.

As it disappears again into the floor, Tar closes his eyes and takes a deep breath and if Psylocke didn't know better, she would swear that a look of pity crossed his features. Pointing a long finger at her, he seethes, "You cannot so easily break the bonds of this realm, Psylocke. The circle of kinship and servitude is the whole of their existence... an existence only I and the Ebon Vein control. You can only cripple... delay the inevitable. They will hunt you until the end of time. They will pursue you relentlessly until you give yourself to me."

Eyes filled with anger and frustration, she turns to Gomurr as she asks desperately, "Gomurr?! Is this true?"

He nods his head slowly as he says, "Yes. If you do not accept the choice given you. If you do not accept your prize."

Tar laughs as he bellows, "She does not have the stomach to accept her prize, Gomurr! She will never adhere to the conditions."

Next to her, Gomurr's voice raises in intensity as he says, "Tell her the prize. Give her the ultimatum!"

Tar stares at him, unspeaking, unblinking, obviously planning on pursuing Betsy until she is his. Energy surges through Gomurr's limbs as he rises off the floor and bellows, "Tar! You may not respect me, you may think I have no business in the politics of your realm. But there are powers in this world that will destroy you over this, that have always wanted to destroy you. They will hear of this if you do not give her the choice. It is her right! It is her own fate now... not yours!"

Drumming his fingers on the arm of his throne, Tar narrows his green, glowing eyes as he pits his will against Gomurr's. An eternity seems to pass in a matter of seconds before Tar finally throws up his hands and says grudgingly, "Very well then, you insolent worm! I will give her the choice. She shall have her prize."

Betsy sighs, releasing the breath she never knew she was holding as the proctor turns his cold gaze toward her. "Very well, Braddock. Your prize... if you can call it such a thing. By defeating my undercloaks, even if it was only temporarily, your soul once again becomes your own and you regain freedom from the Dawn, if you wish it."

Logan steps forward, his posture relaying every ounce of his mistrust and suspicion. "So yer saying that she can just waltz right on outta here? No more debt?"

Tar strokes his chin and grins at Wolverine and then Psylocke as he concurs, "The ancient laws state that if one completes the challenge without condemning themselves to the ranks of the undercloaks or dying by their hands, they have the choice to be freed from their debt to the order of the Crimson Dawn and live out the remainder of their days free from any gifts they received from the Ebon Vein. Otherwise she can join my undercloaks or spend the rest of her days running from them, only to be taken by them once she passes from this mortal coil."

Furrowing his brow, Warren looks from Betsy to Tar and then back again as he says uneasily, "You mean she walks away, but all the powers she gained from the Dawn are taken from her?"

Tar smiles. "The boy isn't as stupid as he looks! You are correct, pilgrim. Your lover here reverts to the state she was in before you ever exposed her to the Ebon Vein."

Behind her, she hears Jean stir as she whispers, her voice filled with dread, "That can't mean..."

Betsy hangs her head and finishes Jean's thoughts before she can even speak them, "It means my body becomes as it was before Logan and Warren saved me... broken and eviscerated at the hands of Sabretooth. If I accept this gift, my life is as good as over."

Part Twenty-six

"I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind."

Anne Sexton, "Her Kind"

"If I accept this gift, my life is as good as over."

As the words leave his lover's lips, Warren Worthington feels something die inside him. His knees wobble, his head throbs and the whole of his being seems to wither into a tight knot of disbelief and anger. What sort of choice is this: life as a faceless, heartless undercloak or no life at all? He remembers the wounds Sabretooth left Betsy with, her internal organs shredded to pieces and barely functional. Not even the advanced Shi'ar equipment of the X-Men's high-tech facilities could save her then. He knows they can't now.

It is all so unfair, so very unfair. Why her? Why now?

His breath catches in his throat as he finally garners enough courage to look into Betsy's face... so utterly changed by her exposure to the Crimson Dawn, yet still so full of life. Her eyes, while glazed with tears, are strong and resolute. Those eyes, how he will miss those eyes. How he will miss everything about her.

She reaches out with her cold fingers and squeezes his hand, her icy grip the most precious thing in the world. As she lets him go and steps forward to address the proctor, he knows she has made the only decision she can, the only decision left to her. But as the words form on her lips, he feels that he is drowning in them.

* * *

Betsy feels the minds of her friends, her love, her new family pressing on her, clamoring with their own desperate hunger, their own pain. While she never expected this outcome, she is not surprised. She knew the Crimson Dawn would lay a twisted, convoluted path ahead of her. She just never expected the choices to be so difficult. As she looks over to Warren, her resolve almost fails her as the images of her vision play once again across her thoughts. No matter what her choice, she knows that it will not be easy on him, that it might even destroy him. So she makes the only choice that will buy her enough time to save him, to save them both... the only one that can free her soul forever.

Taking a deep breath, she finds her voice and says proudly, almost victoriously, "I accept my prize, Tar. Release me from my debt and take these cursed powers from my body."

* * *

Phoenix's eyes are wide in shock and anger as she hears Psylocke ask the proctor of the Crimson Dawn to release his hold on her. Frozen to the spot, she can barely contain her emotions as Tar stands and narrows his eyes at his victim, his pawn, his... toy. Yes, his unwilling toy. This is the only way, she realizes. The only way to finally be free. If only it weren't so...

"... unfair!" seethes the proctor. "I cannot release you. I will not! You were supposed to be mine! You were supposed to bring honor once again to my realm!"

As Tar paces, Gomurr approaches the throne as he says quietly, "There is a way to gain back your honor, Tar. Release your hold on her. Do what is right and spare her soul, if not her life."

Growling under his breath, the proctor looks down to the diminutive sorcerer, their eyes locked in a battle Jean knows will live beyond this day. After a few tense seconds, Tar finally relents, sitting back in his seat with an uneasy sigh. "Very well. I will not break my pact. But I must take the gifts the Ebon Vein granted her, otherwise, she will still wear the brand."

As Gomurr backs away, he bows his head and says, "This is only fair, yes. We understand."

Narrowing his eyes once again, he looks to Psylocke and Jean feels a chill run through her spine as Betsy unwittingly broadcasts her terror. "You do realize how serious your wounds were, child. You do know this will be the end of you? Are you sure you want to continue?"

She feels a momentary twinge of remorse pass through Betsy's mind, signifying a brief change of heart. But her thoughts once more become stoic and resolute and she says assertively, "Yes. I am sure."

Jean looks at the two lovers standing in front of her, empathy radiating through every cell of her body. She knows how hard this must be for them. If only there were another way. As if he could hear Jean's thoughts, Warren steps forward, much to Betsy's horror and bows his head before the proctor, "Can't you take my soul for hers? After all, it's my fault she's here right now."

Before the proctor can answer, Logan also steps forward as he places a hand on Warren's arm. "No, Wings. It's my fault. All my fault. Tar, take me instead."

The two men share a moment of genuine understanding and respect and Jean can see Warren is visibly moved by Wolverine's gesture. They all know either would go in Betsy's stead, if only such a thing were possible, if only their actions were more then empty gestures. Jean can't help but feel sympathy for Betsy as her eyes dart wildly between the two men that are so dear to her, hoping that the proctor dismisses their words as mere bravado... though she knows, they all know, she would never allow them to go in her place.

Tar smiles, his eyes absent of joy. "If only it were so easy, pilgrims. Psylocke wears the mark, therefore she must pay the price. Guilt and fault have no place in the realm of the Crimson Dawn. Besides, what would I do with a pretend angel and a hairy runt?"

Dismissing the insult to her lover and her friend, Betsy seethes, the muscles of her face taut and her expression adamant. "You know I would never let you... either of you come to harm if I could prevent it."

As Archangel returns reluctantly to Betsy's side and she desperately takes his hand in her own, Wolverine stays riveted to the spot as Tar nods solemnly and finally concedes, "You are brave, child. You have my admiration. Prepare yourself. This will not be pleasant."

Betsy looks around the large chamber, her eyes filled with a barely disguised fear as Tar raises a hand and the darkness fades from her skin. Attempting to swallow his anger and save it for another time, another place, Warren grips her hand tightly as his face turns rigid. Jean looks once to her husband, her rock, her everything as she tries her best not to mentally place herself in Betsy's situation and instead be the compassionate teammate she needs her to be. Scott squeezes her shoulder once and nods as he whispers the words, "Go to her. Help her."

She quickly scrambles to her friend's side, reaching out to her with her telepathy, trying her best to soothe her fears and take away some of her pain. As the red tattoo fades from her face and her skin hisses in reaction, Betsy cannot help but cry out as her hand flies to her face. Jean looks to Warren as they lower Psylocke to the floor and his expression is filled with nothing but concern as he whispers soothing words of love to her.

A few feet away, she notices something in Logan snap as he watches his friend writhe in pain on the floor. His eyes wild with a blood-curdling fury, he growls savagely as his composure leaves him completely and he lunges for the proctor. As Scott reaches for him and fails to restrain him, he leaps toward the throne, claws bared and heart seeking retribution. Before he can reach Tar, Gomurr encases him in a magical force field, lifting him high off the floor as he slams hard into its invisible barrier. As he claws at the impenetrable wall of the force field, he fumes, "When I get outta here, I'm gonna tear you apart, Gomurr!"

Gomurr grimaces at the helpless Wolverine. "Then I will keep you in there forever."

Tar nods. "Thank you for your assistance."

Gomurr looks to Betsy and then back to Tar, visibly torn between his compassion for her and his duty to the arcane realms he pledges his allegiance to. "Just finish it, Tar. Get it over with."

Pursing his thin, stony lips, he turns his attention once again to Psylocke who kneels on the floor between Jean and Warren, gaining a little more strength and composure as she recovers from the leeching of her Crimson Dawn powers. He tilts his head and addresses her as a doctor would a dying patient, speaking quietly, "I am sorry, child. This could have been sublime."

With a wave of his hand, a dark read gash appears on her stomach as Betsy covers her face and whimpers into her trembling hands. Jean clutches at her arm and reaches deeper into her mind, attempting to turn off her pain receptors, but Psylocke pushes back with a force Phoenix did not expect, as if she is attempting to feel as much of life as she can before it slips from her grasp, be her last sensation pain or pleasure. It does not matter as long as it is real, as long as it is her own.

Wiping away a sweaty lock of purple hair, Jean is satisfied with merely numbing some of Betsy's pain and making her as comfortable as she will permit as she looks again into the face of her long- time teammate, her friend, Archangel. Try as she might, she cannot look away. It is as if she has just seen him for the first time. In all the years she has known him she has never seen him like this. His expression is one of abject horror and disillusionment and for the first time in her life, she knows what it looks like to see a man's heart break.

Another tear forms across Betsy's breast plate and cracks her ribs, spilling rich, hot blood down her torso and turning her purple uniform a dark brown and she shrieks as she flings her hands away from her face and to her wounds, exposing her anguished expression and blistered left cheek. As Jean reaches out once again to calm Betsy's increasingly erratic brainwaves, she feels Warren's resolve fade, not unlike the dimming light in Betsy's eyes. Looking to him once again, she sees his face twist and contort in pain and anger. As he rises to his feet, she calls out telepathically to him and Scott. But it is too late and he rushes toward the proctor, actually managing to place a few blows against his granite-hewn face and throw him slightly off balance by flailing his heavy feathered appendages at him.

Tar pushes him easily away with one large hand as he growls, "Foolish pilgrim! What are you doing? Hoping to delay the inevitable? Do not make me restrain you!"

Before Scott can reach him, Warren launches a second attack, hovering a few feet in the air and attempting to level the sorcerer with an aerial round-house kick. Tar shakes his head and grabs Archangel's ankle with hands that move faster than liquid metal as he flings him against the wall with a sickening thud.

Snapping his fingers, Tar unleashes two dozen of his neon minions and they scamper and tick their way over to Warren as he shakes off his injuries and ignores a badly dislocated shoulder, readying himself for another attack. Before he gets another chance at the proctor, the living neon characters swarm over him, tearing at his uniform and skin, puncturing sinew and vein, pinning him quickly and painfully to the wall. As they dig their sharp, glassy feet into the thick stone Warren screams, his throat raw and ragged, "Betsy!!!"

Next to her, Psylocke lifts her head and mutters through a red haze of pain, "Warren."

As a solitary character scrambles over his face and digs its claws into Archangel's scalp, sending rivulets of dark blood down the blue skin of his face and neck, Jean looks frantically from the proctor to her husband and back again. Scott hesitates, obviously wondering if he should attack the proctor but instead rushes to Warren's side, doing his best to keep the minions from causing any more damage, picking them out of Warren's flesh and throwing them to the floor. As they begin to ascend Cyclops's leg and dig into his flesh, he does his best to block out the pain and save his friend as Jean looks back down to Betsy. How easy it would be for her to release her hold on Psylocke and erect a telekinetic shield to keep the minions' sharp claws from Scott and Warren. But she can't do that to Betsy, she won't. Instead, she lifts her head and looks into the vacant, glowing eyes of the proctor and begs quietly, "Please. Let them go."

It feels as if those blank, gleaming eyes are looking right through her, noticing all the darkness and terrors of her soul as he smirks, his lips curling into the faint recollection of a smile. "Please," she whispers again, hoping underneath all his bluster that the Lord of the Crimson Dawn has at least a small modicum of pity.

Then with a simple snap of his fingers, the creatures skitter away from the wall and return to their position at his throne. Jean can't help but breathe a sigh as Warren collapses into Scott's arms and they sit in a heap on the floor. Cyclops has only suffered a few bruises and scratches, but Archangel has numerous lacerations over the length of his body and while he is barely conscious, Jean perceives from a quick, superficial mind-scan that he is in no real danger and safe for the time being. All she can hear as she turns her attention fully to Psylocke is Warren's whimper, "Betsy..."

At that moment, Psylocke grips Jean's hand with as much force as she can manage as she looks into her eyes, the bright violet of her irises dimmed by a wall of tears. "Watch out for him, Jean. Don't let this destroy him."

Squeezing her hand in return, Jean whispers, "I swear it."

Before she can regain her breath, Psylocke's eyes open wide as she writhes in Jean's arms, reacting to yet another reopened injury. As if from a great distance, she thinks she hears Logan shout out in agony as he futilely strikes again at the walls of his magical prison. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she feels Betsy fight to stay conscious as another and then another wound forms on her torso. Finally, it is too much for even Betsy to stand and she slips into unconsciousness. Jean focuses all of her power on keeping her organs as intact as possible, hoping to keep her alive and whole until they can seek medical attention for their fallen comrade. Face flushed and fully focused on her task, she barely notices as the lacerations cease to form on Betsy's body and Scott whispers in her ear, "Jean it's over."

She dare not look up at him as he asks, his voice obviously shaken and distressed, "Is she... alive?"

Sparing a nod, Jean says quietly as she fights her own anguish, saving her anger and sadness until Betsy is delivered to the healing powers of a Shi'ar bio-bed, "Yes. For now."

Scott stands as he says solemnly, leaving her alone to gather their broken teammate in her arms and encase her in a bright, telekinetic bubble. "She needs medical attention... she needs her family. Gomurr, please take us home."

Assuming that Warren and Logan are incapacitated from their own battles, Jean shuts her eyes, allowing herself to see the flickering of Betsy's astral self. Even in her weakened and unconscious state, the fragile, yet sturdy butterfly beats its wings. "Beautiful," she whispers absently. "So very beautiful. Just like her... so very like her."

She dare not turn her mind's eye from the pink and purple flickering of Betsy's true self as the shadows swallow her and deposit all of them in the foyer of the Xavier's School of Higher Learning and bring them home. Yes, finally... home.

Part Twenty-seven

"I pace upon the battlements and stare
On the foundations of a house, or where
Tree, like a sooty finger, starts from the earth;
And send imagination forth
Under the day's declining beam, and call
Images and memories
From ruin or from ancient trees,
For I would ask a question of them all."

W.B. Yeats, "The Tower"

Hank McCoy races down the hallway toward the infirmary as he half- heartedly struggles with his bathrobe, still wiping the sleep from his eyes and stifling a yawn. While he had spent most of the night worrying about the outcome of tonight's events and the well-being of his teammates, he finally put aside his Legacy Virus research and forced himself to sleep, thinking it was the best way to forget his worries, the best way to keep himself remotely sane. As he quickly rounds a corner, gaining speed and traction by using his large arms to help propel him forward, he nears the large metal doors of the Xavier's School recently-reconstructed medical facilities and begins to regret that decision. He hopes his nap hasn't lost him any valuable time, hasn't wasted precious seconds that could be used to save a teammate's life. He then shakes his head and mentally prepares himself for anything and everything as the door swishes open and he steps into a nightmare.

The first thing he notices is an enraged Wolverine, snarling and shouting Psylocke's name in the corner as Rogue does her best to restrain him. From a casual glance, he can tell that his injuries are already quickly healing and that all he needs is an I.V. of fluids and a long rest. Pulling off his robe and grabbing a clean medical coat from the wall, he shouts over the din of crashing medical trays and glass, "I don't care what you have to do, just sedate him. Now!"

Rogue nods and reaches for a drawer of extra-strength tranquilizers reserved for patients with healing factors. As he turns away from Rogue and Logan, glad that the whole of the mansion's residents are familiar with the layout of the infirmary and rudimentary field-medicine, his gaze falls to Warren who is lying unconscious, much of his body covered with an array of bruises and deep cuts. Before he can say a word or make a movement to aid his fallen teammate, he feels Scott's hand on his shoulder. "I know it looks bad, but he can wait. I think you need to see Betsy first."

Unprepared for the sight set before him, Hank's jaw drops as he turns his head to glimpse Betsy for the first time. Jean stands close by, eyes closed and expression strained, encasing her fellow telepath in a tight, telekinetic cocoon. As he steps closer and surveys the damage done to Betsy's body he can't help but be overcome with a sense of deja vu. As he fumbles in his pocket for his glasses, he manages to say quietly, "It's just like... it's precisely like..."

Scott nods, a twinge of anger seeping through his stoical facade. "Like when Sabretooth attacked her. They're the same injuries, the same exact wounds. I'll explain later. But I think it's safe to say we should get her into a stasis chamber. Now."

Shaking his head in disbelief, Hank prepares a modified bio-bed as he says to himself, "Stars and garters, as if it wasn't ghastly enough the first time."

As Cyclops helps move Psylocke onto the bed and Hank lowers the Shi'ar equipment over Betsy's mangled body, Jean releases her telekinetic hold with a groan as she staggers momentarily, obviously worn from the evening's encounter. The equipment activated and Jean's presence finally gone from her body and mind, Betsy stirs and whimpers under the low canopy of the medical machines.

Hank stares at her in shock, noting the missing tattoo from her left eye and the ever-paling shade of her skin. He mutters, "I can't believe she's actually conscious."

Jean braces herself against her husband and places a shaky hand on her friend's damp forehead. "She's a fighter, Hank. You should know that."

Hank nods as he begins to fix sensors to Betsy's skin, preparing her for surgery. "It does appear that she hasn't lost as much blood as the last time I saw these wounds. I thank you, Jean, for your valiant efforts."

Assuming a congenial bedside manner, Beast then says to Psylocke as he smiles at her hopefully, "Don't worry, Betsy. We're going to prep you for surgery and when you come out, you'll be right as rain, kicking butt and taking names as usual."

Betsy returns Hank's smile weakly as a solitary tear runs down her cheek. "Liar."

He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes as he returns to his work, motioning for Cyclops to prepare a sedative for their teammate. As much as he hates to admit it, she's right and he knows it. They all know it. The only thing they can do is delay the inevitable. No earthly power could save Betsy then and it still cannot now. Betsy looks up at Phoenix as she asks with a small, weak voice, "Warren. Where's Warren?"

Delivering a warm smile, Jean says, "Resting. He'll be okay. Don't worry."

As Scott returns with a syringe and an I.V. drip, Betsy turns her attention back to Hank as she furrows her brow, doing her best to ignore the pain and speak to him clearly. "Hank. Promise..."

"Promise what, Betsy?"

Drawing in a shallow breath of air, she attempts to speak again, "No more magic. No more cheating death. I... I can't take anymore."

Hank looks to Jean and then over at Warren's prone form, words failing him. Somehow managing to free a hand from the apparatus covering her from the chest down, Betsy grasps his arm with a strength that takes him by surprise considering her weakened state. "Promise me, Hank!"

Swallowing hard, his throat suddenly parched and dry, Beast nods his head solemnly. "I promise, Betsy. I promise."

At his words, Betsy relaxes against the frame of the bed and smiles, finally allowing herself to drift into unconsciousness. As he continues to stare into the bruised face of his teammate, Jean says quietly, trying her best to alleviate Hank's worry. "She's been through so much, Hank. Had her body tampered with so many times... Mojo, Spiral, the Hand, the Crimson Dawn. If she says it's time for her to go... it's time. None of us will hold it against you. We all know her wishes. And while we know you'll do your best to save her, we know also she hasn't much time."

Turning his gaze toward Jean, he sighs and stares unblinkingly into her green eyes. "Even Warren?"

Jean nods. "Yes. Even Warren."

Time... the most precious commodity in the universe. It dawns on Hank that he isn't fighting to save his patient's life, but to buy her more time. He's already been defeated before he has even begun to fight and the reality of it hits Hank squarely in the chest. An optimist by nature, Beast can't help but be aghast by the truth of it, the painful horrible truth all he can do is make her as comfortable as possible and pray that time is a kind master.

* * *

The sun peeks a timid finger of tawny morning light over the horizon as Scott Summers walks quietly into the infirmary. He had promised Hank he would get some sleep after his own wounds were sutured and he had showered and eaten. It was a promise they both know he cannot keep, not tonight, not after all he has seen, not when he has teammates that need him.

As the metal doors swish shut behind him, he surveys the occupants of the room. Logan is still unconscious from the double dose of tranquilizers Rogue had to use just to keep him from destroying the med lab and Warren is resting well, his wounds proving to be mostly superficial with only a few torn muscles and a dislocated shoulder. If his teammate weren't already going through his own personal hell, Cyclops would call him lucky. But as he turns his gaze towards Psylocke and the advanced monitors that surround her bed, he knows luck was the one thing that was not on their side this evening.

Next to Betsy's bed, Cyclops smiles weakly as he sees the form of his wife bent uncomfortably in a chair, obviously ignoring the advice of Hank as well. Scott would expect nothing less of the woman he loves. Her compassion has always been her most alluring and often frustrating virtue. Wrapping a blanket around her shoulders as he pushes a lock of unruly red hair away from her face, he knows that if he moved her in the night without her knowledge, there would be hell to pay. So he leaves her where she is and decides to attend his own vigil, his own watch.

Pulling a cold, metal chair next to Warren's bed, Scott sits uneasily as he folds his arms over his chest, trying his best not to think of what he would be going through if it were Jean in that stasis field instead of Betsy. How he couldn't bear to face losing her again. He takes a deep breath as he pushes the thoughts out of his head. If anyone understands what Warren will be going through once he regains consciousness, it will be Scott Summers. And even though the two of them have been through their share of strife over the years, he is bound and determined Archangel is not going to wake up without a friendly face to calm him. If anything, he is going to make sure that his teammate will not feel the unbearable sting of being alone.

Fortunately, Scott does not have to wait long for Warren to regain consciousness. As he lies on his side, one of Warren's massive wings twitches as his face contorts. It is as if he is struggling with something deep within, as if he is fighting within a dream, perhaps recalling the evening's events in his mind. As Scott reaches forward and grasps the bed railing in his hands, he knows Warren will dream of this night for a long time. It will haunt him for months, maybe even years to come.

Through a tight-lipped grimace, Scott then hears Warren whimper pitifully, "Betts."

Then, before he can react, Warren sits bolt-upright in bed, fists swinging as he calls out loudly, "Betsy!"

Managing to save a medical tray before it crashes to the floor, Scott sets it on a side table as he watches Warren look around the room with wide eyes. Finally his gaze settles on Scott as he asks, his words filled with panic, "Betsy?! Where is she?"

Scott can feel Jean stir through their rapport and then return to sleep while the rest of the room remains unphased by Warren's outburst and completely silent save for the occasional blip from the machinery by Betsy's bed. He says quietly, trying his best to calm Warren, "Resting. She just got out of surgery."

A small amount of relief apparent on his features, Warren puts a hand to his head, fingers resting lightly on a bandage as he whispers, "Then she's alive."

Sitting back in his chair, comfortable enough in the fact that Warren isn't going to create a scene, Scott says, "Yes. She is."

Studying the bandages over his arms and uneasily fingering the I.V. needle in his hand, he says quietly, "How does it look?"

Stirring in his chair, Scott is at a loss for words. Should he sugar coat the matter and lie to his friend? He isn't sure if he has the heart.

As he wrestles with the question, he feels Warren's cold stare on him as he says in an earnest, yet controlled tone, "Don't lie to me, Scott. Not now. I need to know."

His decision made, Scott averts his hidden eyes from his teammate as he says, "It doesn't look good."

"How bad?"

Turning his gaze back to the bed, he sees his own blank face and lifeless ruby-glasses reflected in Warren's eyes as searches his face for any sign of hope. Warren shakes his head as he swings his bare feet toward the floor. "That bad, huh?"

Scott nods as he remains motionless in his chair and watches Warren struggle to remain composed. "You knew it would be."

Drawing a deep breath, Warren stares over at Betsy's bed, the reality of the situation obviously coming back to him with full force. "I knew it would be... but I hoped it wouldn't."

Blinking away the tears that threaten to fall from his eyes, Warren says quietly, "The head and the heart always seem to disagree."

"Yes. They do."

Warren sighs as he looks around the infirmary again. "I was hoping Gomurr would be here. Maybe he could do something, maybe take Betsy to see the Hand... something ridiculous like that."

Scott can't help but watch as he sees Warren doing his best to access Betsy's situation. It's rather like being an unwitting observer of a seven-car pile up or a train-wreck. Even though he knows the outcome will be ghastly, he still can't avert his eyes as much as he wants to look away. "But I suppose the time for magic is over, right? I know she wouldn't have it. I know she'd never forgive me if I tried for her."

Scott winces as Warren tugs at the I.V. in his hand, pulling it out of his blue skin in one quick motion. In other circumstances, he might even try to stop him, chastise him like an irresponsible child. But at the moment he hasn't the heart. He has been in this man's shoes one too many times. Reaching out to help Warren gain his balance, his chair scrapes against the tile floor of the infirmary as he says, "Listen. It might not mean much now. But I'm here for you. If anyone understands what you're going through, it's me."

Standing on his own power, Warren stares hard at him, his eyes cutting through him like a hot knife as he seethes, "I'm sorry, Scott. But I don't think Betsy's a Phoenix. She doesn't have Jean's luck. This is it for her, for us."

Pursing his lips, Scott looks to the floor, refusing to let Warren see how his words have shaken him to the core. If Warren needs a punching bag, fine, he'll be his punching bag. Now was not the time for fighting, he was a bigger man than that. As he keeps his emotions locked up tightly, he feels Warren's hand on his shoulder as he speaks, "I'm sorry... I didn't mean that. It's just..."

Scott looks again to Warren. "Don't worry about it."

Warren nods, his mind obviously already turning to something bigger than biting comments. Scott watches him stand vulnerably, in nothing but an open-backed hospital gown, unsure of his next step, his next breath. While he knows there is nothing he can do or say to assuage Warren's mental anguish as he walks shakily toward Betsy's bed, he knows he can at least make him more comfortable.

As they walk to the bed together, Scott offers him his arm for support, but Warren refuses with a shake of his head. He expected no less, but knows the offer was appreciated in Warren's own way. As Archangel begins to cope with the horrible grief hanging over him, he might even remember the gesture and the words spoken on this night. He might even realize that whether he likes it or not, he has a friend who understands.

Once they reach the bed, Scott furrows his brow as he catches a glimpse of Warren's expression as his eyes fall on Betsy, the sensors and wires running over much of her body, the bandages and bruises so visibly obvious and numerous. He looks like a man who has just lost his heart, his soul, and Scott can't help but recoil from the sight. Reaching out to his wife, he says quietly as she stirs from sleep. "Come on to bed, Jean. Betsy has a visitor."

Wiping the sleep from her eyes, Jean looks up at Scott and then Warren. He feels a twinge of pity and sorrow through the rapport they share when she notices the expression on Warren's face. His wife then touches his arm gently as she sends, *They need to be alone.*

Scott nods as he helps her to her feet. Silently, Warren pulls Jean's chair closer to the bed and sits, resting his forehead on the metal of the stasis chamber. Before they depart, Scott says quietly, "I'll bring you some clothes and something to eat, okay?"

Sniffing once, Warren speaks, his voice barely above a whisper, "Okay."

Jean squeezes his hand tightly and they walk slowly toward the infirmary's exit. As they enter the hallway, finally leaving the two lovers alone, a chill runs down Scott's spine as he hears the low tone of Warren's ragged sobs and mournful keening, for he knows it will only get worse before it gets better.

* * *

In the dim light of the infirmary, the man known as Logan wakes quietly. As he sits in his bed, his head still hazy from the remaining tranquilizers in his system, he tries his best to focus his eyes and observe his surroundings. Next to him is an empty bed, the sheets tossed aside with a few white feathers scattered across the mattress. Through the windows of the med-lab office he sees the blue form of Hank McCoy slumped over a computer as he snores quietly. Ignoring his torn uniform and stiff muscles, he slips noiselessly off his bed and walks toward the softly beeping pile of machinery in the corner.

As he steps around the exhausted Warren Worthington, his wings twitching behind his sleeping form as his arms splay awkwardly across the low arc of the stasis device, his eyes are locked on the bruised face of Psylocke and he can't help but whisper, "Betts..."

He stands by the head of the bed and brings a lock of her long, purple hair to his face as he breathes in the scent of it. "...I'm sorry I failed ya, darlin'."

Droping his head, he presses his lips against her forehead and then stares unblinkingly into her face. "I'm so sorry."

As he turns to go, he looks quickly at Warren and then back to Betsy and says quietly, "I promise to look after him for ya... in my own way. It's the least I can do."

Without another word, Wolverine walks quietly out of the infirmary, his heart beating loudly in his ears. As the doors shut behind him, he feels something twist in his gut, something snap deep inside and he races through the halls, toward the surface levels of the mansion. In the claustrophobic elevator, he feels as if he is going to claw right out of his own skin and as the lift doors open to the ornate interior of the mansion's great hall, he runs for freedom, for the only solace left to him.

Tearing a path of destruction toward the forest lying on the far side of the mansion's property, he feels his vision go red and his anger eats him up inside. So it goes for the man who tries day in and day out to keep his own bloodlust quiet. So he goes, ripping all the foliage within his reach to shreds as a mournful howl escapes his lips. So it goes... until he exhausts himself and collapses on the forest floor, whispering the name of his fallen friend.

Part Twenty-eight

"Don't be afraid to cry at what you see
The actor's gone, there's only you and me
And if we break before the dawn,
they'll use up what we used to be."

Peter Gabriel, "Here Comes the Flood"

Fighting her way out of a drug induced slumber, Psylocke timidly opens one eye and then the other as the florescent lights of the infirmary glare an unnatural, blue light. The world around her is hazy and disjointed as her memories come rushing quickly on her, reminding her where she is and why she feels as if her entire body is one giant bruise. The back of her throat is like a thousand pins and needles have somehow lodged themselves in her trachea and her head feels as if it could burst wide open at any moment. She dare not think about the rest of her body as she ignores the numbness from her neck down, her many injuries and pains too great for her body to register. She remembers them well and thanks the stars for Shi'ar adrenal compounds and painkillers.

As she stirs as much as the stasis chamber will permit, she feels a warm hand on her cheek, a hand that can only be... she tries to whisper his name, but gags on the word, a breathing apparatus limiting her speech. As her vision clears, she sees Warren's concerned face only a few feet away. She thinks it is the most beautiful sight she's ever seen. Without even saying a word, he knows her wishes and removes the tube from her mouth and throat and she looks up at him with a numb, broken smile. Tears spring to her eyes as he kisses her dry, cracked lips and she whispers, "I... thought you were... a dream."

His face shows nothing but radiant composure and joy, but his eyes give him away as he says, "No love. Not a dream. I'm right here, where I'll always be."

Lifting her head slightly, he holds a cup of cool water to her mouth and she drinks from the paper cup, the liquid soothing her parched throat only a little. She had forgotten how difficult the act of swallowing could be, how simple yet painful. It only serves to remind her how little time she has left. As Warren eases her head back down on the pillow, she jokes, "I... must look a fright."

He shakes his head as his eyes glaze with unshed tears and he kisses her gently on forehead. "You are the most beautiful woman I have ever known, Betts."

As she attempts to smile, her body reacts to one of her injuries and she can't help but wince as she coughs herself into spasms. She would ask for more medicine to numb the pain, but she knows she needs to be awake and alert. She can feel the world growing dim around her and she has so much to say, so much to share before she can leave it. As her head falls back to the pillow, she feels Warren dab her mouth and nose with a tissue and as she opens her eyes again, she can see the worry on his face as he tries to hide the scarlet-stained cloth from her. 'Eyes wide open,' she thinks. 'We've got to face this together.'

She turns her head to look at him as she struggles to speak. "Warren. I'm... I'm dying."

He nods slowly as he brushes a lock of hair away from her face. "I know."

After another coughing fit, she manages the raspy words, "I won't last... another day."

Furrowing his brow and looking down at her with pained but unblinking eyes, he says quietly, "I know that, too. Shh. No more words. Save your strength. Speak to me telepathically."

She closes her eyes as she reaches out to him through their telepathic rapport, cautious of doing so considering her state and the damage it could cause if she died while in his mind. She thinks that when the time comes, she will be able to close the link and spare Warren the pain of feeling her death. In the meantime, she knows it is worth the risk for both of them. She cannot leave without being close to him like this one more time.

*I love you, Warren.*

*I love you, Betsy.*

As their minds coil together, Betsy does her best to shield Warren from her physical pain, though he seems to gravitate toward it, thinking in some way that it is his alone to bear. She stops short of pushing him away as she says tenderly, yet forcefully, *No. Let me save you from this at least.*

They both open their eyes and Warren nods as he pulls his chair closer to her and drapes his arms over the bed, resting his head awkwardly on the pillow next to hers. He leaves her pain alone as he whispers, "You still smell like jasmine."

At those simple words, Betsy's eyes grow damp as Warren kisses her sorrow away as best he can, adding his salty tears to her own. *It can't end like this,* she speaks desperately through their rapport. *No. Not like this. Not trapped in this bed. Not with these machines. I can't even touch your face. I can't even see the sky... can't even feel the sun on my skin.*

Before she can send another thought, she hears the hydraulic hiss of the stasis chamber as Warren releases it and pulls sensors and wires free from her skin. Even though he is bruised and wounded, as his wings hover over her, turning the harsh light of the infirmary into a shimmering translucence, she knows he is her very own Angel of Mercy. Free of the stasis field, her wounds cry out to her painfully. But she fights back the pain as best she can, knowing that she can endure anything in order to be free this one last time.

She struggles to sit on her own power as she looks past the bandages that cover her body to Warren's face. He smiles at her, tears finally spilling out of his eyes as he removes the medical equipment from her body and cradles her in his arms. Returning his smile, she wraps her weak arms around his neck as they leave the infirmary together. And as she buries her face in his chest and listens to the strong beat of his heart, she knows she has never been happier in her entire life.

* * *

As Archangel makes his way toward the back door of the mansion, Betsy secure in his wounded arms, he notices nothing but her... the smell of her, the weight of her, the precious thoughts that twine tightly around his own. So he doesn't notice as Hank McCoy moves to intercept him and his love, speaking words of protest and "weakened conditions." He doesn't notice as Remy LeBeau places a hand on the worried doctor's shoulder, whispering about privacy and "last goodbyes" as the blue-furred doctor finally concedes silently, knowing in his heart that often the best medicine is compassion and love. Warren doesn't even notice as a small group gather at the back door, some clasping hands, some breathing prayers, and watch him carry his precious bundle across the warm lawn.

He sets her down on a small rise overlooking Spuyten Dyvil Cove as the sun hangs low in the clear, blue sky. Birds chirp in the trees and the grass blows from a gentle breeze as he gathers her in his arms and whispers, "I took you to your favorite spot."

Betsy nods gently as she looks out over the water, the first fingers of the impending sunset casting an orange glint across the shimmering lake. *The best view on campus.*

Reaching a hand up to wipe a tear from Warren's cheek, she thinks into his mind, *I've been so lucky in this life.*

As he leans his head down to kiss her lips, he ignores the sharp tang of her blood on his tongue and breathes her in, wishing this moment would freeze itself in time, wishing the sun would never set over the trees. But time has always been his enemy. "I love you so much."

*I know, dearest. I know.*

He pulls her to his chest as his wings wrap securely around them both, protecting them from the quickly approaching inevitability of goodbye. As he closes his eyes, he feels a swell of thoughts and memories pour through their rapport and he allows himself to become lost in them, living a lifetime of secrets and unspoken desires in a matter of minutes. For the first time since he has known her, he has actually seen Betsy in her entirety. She is more beautiful than he could have ever imagined, more real and true than the earth they sit on.

He is not sure how he will go on without her.

Attempting to keep the wings of her butterfly beating in his heart, a cold shiver forms on his skin as he feels her pulling away from him, attempting to sever her end of the rapport and retreat into her own mind. His eyes snap open as he says quietly, "No."

His wings spring away from her body and he holds her tightly to his chest as he mutters, "You can't leave me, Betts. You can't."

Looking at him with fading, violet eyes, Betsy whispers, "But I'm free. I'm finally free."

He shakes his head and buries his face in her hair as he clutches desperately at the retreating tendrils of her astral form. "Promise... you'll go on without me."

Betsy coughs weakly and Warren pretends not to notice the quickly fading color of her skin. "Warren. I love you. Let me go. Please... let go. For me."

Warren whimpers as he finally gives into the full force of his grief, "No, Betts. No!"

And then as the sun sets over Breakstone Lake, the last breath leaves Elizabeth Braddock's body and she is gone, her body growing cold as Warren looks up at the pitiless sky through tear-blurred eyes, crying out her name as his world falls to helpless bits on the ground.

* * *

"We're so sorry for your loss, Warren."

"She will be missed. She was a great woman, a wonderful person."

"She was the bravest person I've ever met."

Words and faces stream by Warren Worthington as he stands unspeaking in the drawing room of Braddock Manor. He stares into the slowly crackling fire in the large fire place, each low flame flickering bright and unheeded in his unblinking eyes. It was a beautiful ceremony, he understands from Kurt Wagner. He said that Betsy would have liked it. It was truthful and simply elegant, just like her. Warren wishes he could agree, but he can barely remember it. Every minute of the last three days has transpired in a motley blur of numb sadness and panic, cold anger and denial.

The simple ceremony passed in a complete and utter blur. He thinks he recalls Meggan singing, her pure and lilting soprano singing the words of "Amazing Grace." And he remembers Brian speaking and maybe even Jean. He would have liked to have said something, but he couldn't find the words. There were too many and too few. He couldn't have done Betsy justice. So he stands in the Braddocks' large and very English drawing room as the last of the guests say their good-byes, back as close to the wall as his large wings will allow.

"We'll be staying at an inn in the village. The Lion's Gate." The voice is Jean's. He feels her hand on his arm as she speaks, her words filled with worry, "Call us there if you need anything. Anything at all."

He turns his head to look at her, her hair as red as the flame of the dying fire on the far side of the room, and nods to acknowledge her offer. Next to her, Scott extends a hand as he says simply, "You're in our thoughts."

He shakes the offered hand absently as he hides once again in his own lonely reality, not willing to face the sympathy of the outside world or the pain he's pushed into the far crevices of his mind. As Jean and Scott reluctantly leave his side, he turns his gaze to the far wall. He feels a pair of hard eyes on him as he tries his best to look beyond anything and everything in the room. It does him no good as the gaze bores into him and he shakes his head, adjusting his focus and staring straight into the face of Logan. He knew he was here. All day the two of them have avoided each other and everyone else, their only companion their cold- faced grief. As Logan nods simply to Warren before he departs for the evening, he finally understands that Wolverine loved her just as much as he did. In his own way, she was just as important to him and for some reason Warren finds a tiny bit of solace in the realization.

Finally alone, Warren breathes slowly, pulling the musty air of the rarely used room into his lungs as he steadies himself, placing his hands on the back of a leather, wing-backed chair. So this was where Betsy grew up. It seems so unlike her for some reason, so large and drafty and cold. He closes his eyes as he imagines her running through the halls, playing tag with her brother, blond pigtails bobbing against her shoulders as she finally catches him and declares him "it." He can see the frustration in Brian's young face, smell the scent their father's pipe as they race for the study, feel the texture of the heavy rug under her feet as she spins and dodges her brother's outstretched hand. It is as if he is there himself, as if it were... real?

His eyes snap open as ghostly, child-like laughter rings in his ears. In the periphery of his vision, he thinks he sees her running quickly away... as if she wants him to give chase, to start the game all over again. He spins quickly on his heel and comes face to face with Meggan, her green eyes wide with surprise as she cries out and then giggles in spite of herself. As he looks over her shoulder with wild eyes, he notices the room is completely empty save the two of them.

Her face etched with empathetic concern, Meggan asks quietly, "What is it, Warren?"

He shakes his head as he rubs his forehead. "Nothing... it's nothing. I'm just tired. It's been a long day."

Meggan nods as she floats a few inches off the floor and wraps her arms protectively around herself. "Yes, it has been."

They stay there in silence for a few moments, both staring awkwardly at the floor before she finally continues, "Brian sent me to find you. He's got a pot of tea on if you would like some."

"That would be nice. Thank you, Meggan."

Meggan smiles and turns to lead him to the kitchen at the back of the house. The two walk through the main hall of Braddock Manor and past a large collection of family portraits, both ancestors and more recent images. Their unblinking eyes seem to bore a hole into Warren's soul as he walks by them and he averts his eyes quickly, daring not to find Betsy's likeness in any of their features.

As he finally steps into the warm, homey light of the kitchen, Warren finds himself at ease for the first time since he set foot on the grounds. The kitchen is bright and inviting, cheery and real. And as he sees Brian seated at the table, his dress shirt rolled up to his elbows and tie loose with a warm fire roaring behind him, he understands why Betsy always thought of this place as her real home.

Getting quickly to his feet, Brian pulls a chair out for Warren and Meggan pours him a cup of tea. Warren sits, letting his wings droop over the low back of the chair as he rests his elbows on his table. He nods and thanks them both as he takes a sip of the tea. As he swallows, the rich scent fills his palate and warms his stomach and he is truly thankful for their hospitality.

Brian takes a sip of his own tea and sets it down gently on the table as he says, "I took the liberty of preparing a room for you here. It's ready for you as soon as you'd like."

Warren wraps his hands around the delicate cup. "Thank you. I hadn't even thought to make arrangements. That's too kind of you."

He lifts his eyes as Meggan hovers close to Brian, studying them both with reserved compassion. "It was Meggan's idea. She's been such a help through all of this."

Warren crooks his mouth in a faint smile as he looks thoughtfully at her. "Yes. Thank you. For everything."

Meggan beams as she nods her head low toward Warren and squeezes Brian's hand as she says, "Now I'll leave you two alone. Let me know if you need anything?"

Brian watches her retreating form, love abundantly apparent in his eyes, and Warren cannot help but recoil at the expression. He fights down his momentary twinge of jealousy for the love the two share as well as the pain and emptiness he's battled with for the last three days. Across the table, he hears Brian breath a sigh as he speaks in a deep baritone voice, "I want you to know that you're welcome to stay as long as you want and return whenever you wish. I have long thought of you as family, even though we hadn't met before yesterday. You will always be welcome in my home."

Warren purses his lips and clears his throat. "Thank you. That means a lot, Brian. Betsy spoke of you so often, I feel as if I already know everything about you."

Smiling a warm grin, Brian says mirthfully, "I know the feeling."

Lifting his cup again to his lips, Warren takes another sip. As he sets it down in the saucer, he says awkwardly, "I'm... I'm just glad she made it back here one more time... before..."

Brian speaks, relieving him of his uncomfortable burden, "I am, too. It was good to see her. Good to talk to her."

Warren nods as he feels Brian's eyes on him, studying him with a concerned expression. "She loved you so much, Warren. You made her happier than I have ever known her. For the first time in her life... she seemed complete."

Tears form in Warren's eyes as he bites his lip and folds his shaking hands in his lap. Though he's heard people speak of Betsy all day, these words are the first that have really touched him, the first to have cut to his heart. Perhaps it is because of the special bond she shared with her brother, or maybe it is because there is so much of her in his accent and expressions. Regardless, he feels as if the world is spinning around him as he says unsteadily, "I'm just glad I was fortunate enough to know her."

"As am I."

They sit in silence for a long while as Warren works hard to regain his composure long enough to bid Brian good night and find his room. He finishes his tea with barely steady hands and then he says, "I think I'll be off to bed now. It's all been such a circus."

Brian collects his cup and saucer as he says quietly, "You could probably use some time alone. Your room is up the main stairs and at the end of the hall."

Standing as he pushes his chair away from the table, Warren looks around the room feeling as if he has forgotten something, but pays it no heed as he extends his hand to Brian. "Thank you so much for putting me up. It means a lot."

Brian grips his hand in a tight handshake, his eyes warm and real... like family, Warren thinks. "It means a great deal to me, too. Rest well, Warren. Sweet dreams."

Taking a deep breath as he exits the room and ascends the dimly lit staircase, he knows he has a fitful night of sleep to look forward to, most likely plagued with nightmares and murky half- dreams of Betsy. As images of their life together pass through his thoughts, he pauses in the hallway as his knees nearly buckle beneath him and he braces himself against the oak-paneled wall for support. Shaking his head and wandering aimlessly down the hallway, he swears he can smell her perfume and hear the gentle murmuring of her voice in the back of his mind. He shakes off the sensation and attempts to clear his thoughts as he realizes he has stumbled into the wrong room.

As his eyes adjust to the dark room, lit only by the light from the hallway and the tiny sliver of a moon that has risen over the English countryside, he sees a shelf adorned with riding trophies, a curio filled with small porcelain figurines, and a silver-plated vanity set. Without thinking, he picks up a small horsehair brush and lets his fingers linger over the engraved initials on the back. Her initials. This is her room, her things, and her past. As he sets the brush back in its place, he turns his head, half expecting to see her behind him, laughing that lilting laugh of hers or chastising him for being so melancholy.

But she's not there. No, it is just him standing in a room full of memories... alone.

He swallows hard as he walks quickly out of the room, rushing for the safety of his own room. As he turns the crystal doorknob of the guestroom and shuts the door behind him, he realizes that sleep will not come easy, not tonight or the next and he's not sure if his dreams will ever be sweet again.

"The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, -- 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, -- to sleep; --
To sleep! Perchance to dream: -- ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause..."

William Shakespeare
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Act III, Scene I


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