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Volume 7 -- Issue 174 -- Disillusion

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It is a time of great change. Professor Charles Xavier and his X-men have dedicated their lives to fighting for peace and understanding in a world that hates and fears them. That fight has brought them many challenges. Some have been won. Others have been lost. The greatest loses, however, have always ended up being those they inflict upon themselves.

Professor Xavier tried to make his X-men better at confronting those challenges by creating the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. It led to a schism within his team, which resulted in the creation of the rogue operation known as X-Force. In their effort to better protect humans and mutants, they ended up making it more dangerous for both.

It’s what prompted Magneto and the High Evolutionary to create Asteroid M, a new world carved out of an asteroid. In the end this world turned out to be another global crisis, which led to the death of Magneto and Isaac.

Now Asteroid M is anchored in the Pacific Ocean. Nearly the entire mutant population resides on this world along with one million humans that the High Evolutionary turned into mutants. This new world promises to complicate the old. However, through these complications the X-men were united once more. This time Professor Xavier intends to cherish that unity.

White House – Oval Office

Whenever a crisis ended, every passing moment took on greater meaning. Not everyone could appreciate that meaning. For most of the world, the crisis was over once they found out what happened on Asteroid M. They didn’t have to endure the prospect of complete annihilation. They had enough problems already. Whereas those problems evoked fear and uncertainty, the crisis with Asteroid M promised greater change.

As President Kelly gazed out the window behind his desk, he pondered all their recent failings. Under the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, they were supposed to be equipped for such attacks. Yet in some ways they only made it worse. The more they saw the effects of what they had done, the more apparent it was that the very authorities that sought to protect society bore much of the blame.

World governments, the Pentagon, and the media were scrambling to put their own spin on this crisis. President Kelly didn’t need to twist the facts. He already knew the implications so when General Grimshaw entered his office, he was hardly surprised.

“You’re late, General,” said President Kelly.

“I didn’t schedule a meeting, Mr. President,” said the General.

“You didn’t have to. You always confront me with bitter truths after a crisis. I’ve come to expect it.”

“Well you can take comfort in the knowledge that you won’t have that problem anymore,” he said, “The only truth I have for you today is my resignation.”

President Kelly held his head low. It was not unexpected. After Captain Freeman returned to the Pentagon, he told them about how their secret plan to kill Magneto had backfired. What stung even more was the knowledge that had they succeeded, they would have ended up killing millions. It was one mission for which President Kelly was grateful to have failed.

The General saw it differently, though. He expressed little doubt as he placed a memo detailing his resignation on the President’s desk.

“Just so you know, my resignation also includes an order to honorably discharge Captain Jack Freeman,” added General Grimshaw.

“You sure he deserves it? For the attitude he’s shown and all the toes he’s stepped on?” questioned President Kelly.

“He did everything an honorable soldier is supposed to do. He carried out his mission.”

“And he never saw fit to adapt that mission, as he’s so skilled at doing?”

“With all due respect, Mr. President. That’s our job. That means we’re the ones that failed,” said the General.

“Is that why you’re resigning? Because you can’t accept failure?”

General Grimshaw’s gaze narrowed. Behind his stoic demeanor, he hid a great many frustrations. He had thrust himself into the front line of the human/mutant conflict. He saw it as the next great conflict. He also thought he knew how to deal with it. In that, he was wrong.

“Whoever you get to replace me will probably never be as blunt or as honest as me, so I’ll leave you with one last insight,” said the General, “We all failed. The whole system failed. And it wasn’t because the mission was flawed. It’s because we were flawed. The mutants were only half the problem. We were the other side of the same coin without even realizing it.”

“It took a near mass extinction event for you to realize this?” quipped President Kelly.

“It goes deeper than that,” he argued, “Look at what we’ve done and how we justified it. As far as I’m concerned, we were no better than the High Evolutionary. We thought that with the X-men by our side, we could work with mutants. We failed to realize that we were never working with them in the first place. We were just trying to control something that we had no hopes of controlling. In doing so, we ended up creating even more problems. Magneto may have built Asteroid M, but we made it necessary.”

“So you’re saying it’s all our fault without offering any solutions?” he said dryly.

“That’s why I’m resigning. The sad truth is there aren’t any clear solutions. However, there are better ways. And none of them involve being part of a government that is constantly at the mercy of politics.”

“You don’t have to give me the civil libertarian argument, General. I heard enough of it from Charles Xavier when he dissolved the Mutant Monitoring Initiative.”

“As well he should’ve,” said General Grimshaw, “We were only getting in their way.”

“That’s still going to make a lot of powerful people very upset with them,” lamented President Kelly.

“They have enough problems as it stands. There is a new continent floating in the Pacific Ocean. In a world with countries decimated by White Cell and the Legacy Virus, we need security more than they need control. Face it, Mr. President. Neither you nor any other country on this planet is equipped to provide it. In this instance, we could learn a thing or two from the X-men. There’s security in heroes and true heroes emerge from the ground up. They’re not imposed by bureaucracy.”

“I think we need more than heroes at a time like this, General.”

“What we need is Charles Xavier’s knack for vision, organization, and principle. What we don’t need is people like us trying to control something we can never control.”

The President frowned at General Grimshaw’s reflection in the window. His low tolerance for nonsense was one of his greatest strengths, but it also made him utterly detestable at times. He couldn’t argue the merits of his words, nor could he say anything that would change his mind. General Grimshaw had made his decision. He also made it clear that the President of the United States needed to make a decision as well.

Having offered his final insight, General Grimshaw saluted his Commander-in-Chief one last time.

“I’d rather not leave on too sour a note, sir. For what it’s worth, it’s been a privilege, sir,” he said in a respectful tone.

“That’s easy for you to say, General. Your valorous record is still intact,” said President Kelly, “Mine is still a work-in-progress.”

“You’re still the President of the United States. You have both the power and the means to find a better way. Asteroid M and the Mutant Monitoring Initiative taught me the true value of humility. I hope you heed those same lessons.”

There was a certain subtlety in the General’s tone. It sounded like a warning, as if he suspected that President Kelly was inclined to make a poor decision. The Commander-in-Chief offered no reassurance. He just kept staring out his window, making no effort to prevent one of his best generals from walking out the door. Grimshaw showed little regret as the Secret Service escorted him out.

General Grimshaw and the Mutant Monitoring Initiative were gone. Once again, the government he promised to lead was vulnerable. He had to do something, but for once President Robert Kelly was reluctant to be decisive.

His every effort to confront the human/mutant conflict only created more problems. In order to deal with it more effectively, he needed more than just manpower. He needed to think differently. With an exasperated sigh, he turned away from the window and picked up his phone. With it, he made the first of what promised to be many fateful decisions.

“Get me Henry Peter Gyrich,” he said into the receiver, “I want him in my office along with every remaining officer from the MSA. We have big plans to make. I have a feeling the next crisis is already in the works.”

Asteroid M – Sirius Lake

“Is this the world we were promised? Is this all we should expect for the sacrifices we’ve made?” barked an angry voice that reverberated to a large crowd of former humans.

“NO!” yelled the large crowd as they stood by the shores of the lake.

“We were betrayed! Lied to! Used! Humans and mutants alike have rejected us! But we stand in their world a million strong! Imbued with power that is now ours to control! We are beyond human! We are beyond mutant! We are the true future! We are the Neo!”

“YEAH! WE ARE THE NEO! WE ARE THE NEO!” the crowds chanted in a show of unity.

It was a scene that had been days in the making. As details emerged from the conflict with the X-men, a great outrage spread through the one million former humans that had left their lives behind for the promise of a new world. That world turned out to be just another prison. They were nothing more than tools. While their ranks included people from various countries and backgrounds, they all shared the same revulsion once they were freed from the High Evolutionary’s control.

The voice of their outrage was Vargas. He spent the last several days gathering as many former humans as he could around Lake Sirius. There was still plenty of tension between them and the mutants. It took little convincing to gather over fifteen thousand of them at the lake. There were still thousands more hiding throughout Asteroid M, confused and angry about the lies they had been fed. With their new identity, it wouldn’t take long for them to fully unite.

While Vargas absorbed the chants and cheers of these angry masses, the scene was observed from afar by Pietro Maximoff. Through a pair of binoculars, he watched Vargas establish himself as a new leader. It promised to leave Asteroid M a battleground as well as a target by human forces.

“You conniving son-of-a-bitch,” mused the speedster, “You just refuse to be the same weakling you were when we found you. Now you’re overcompensating and doing way too good a job of it.”

Asteroid M – City X

In the days before the Genosha uprising, the biggest problem most mutants faced was having nowhere to go when the world rejected them. Men like Charles Xavier and Magneto dedicated their lives to give those mutants hope.

Magneto tried to carve out a haven on the shores of Genosha. It failed. Then, the High Evolutionary tried to create one from scratch. It failed too. In each case the mutant race was left more vulnerable than before. Now that Magneto was gone, the onus was on Wanda Maximoff to carve a new haven from the ruins of Asteroid M.

“So how’s that helmet and cape treating you?” asked Frenzy in a coarse tone, “It sure doesn’t mesh with your style.”

“Beat it, Frenzy,” said Alex, who was standing next to Wanda with Lorna, “Don’t you have some rubble to bury yourself in?”

“Excuse me for voicing concerns about my new home,” she quipped dryly, “I think I have a right to be a little crass when Magneto’s chosen successor looks like a deer in headlights.”

“We’re not in space anymore. No one is forcing you to stay,” Alex pointed out.

“I’m a wanted fugitive from White Cell who also got caught up in shady dealings with Black Tom. It’s either here or prison and I don’t do prison.”

“And whose fault is that?” quipped Alex.

“It’s no one’s fault,” said Wanda flatly, “Frenzy was caught up in this like the rest of us. She has as much right to stay here as any other mutant.”

“I still don’t see why that makes her qualified to join the Brotherhood,” said Alex.

“We’re low on manpower and she’s got the strength of fifty. Besides, I think I need the harsh criticism. I can’t afford to be arrogant at a time like this.”

Frenzy sneered at Alex, who was held back from further remarks thanks to Lorna. She had a legitimate reason to be critical. She had been working with Blob, Unus, Pyro, and Kid Omega for the past few days now. They were part of a large-scale cleaning effort for City X and the rest of Asteroid M. From the crippled citadel, Wanda could see the extent of the devastation. Many buildings had been damaged. Some collapsed. Every mutant took part in the effort, but it wasn’t without complications.

During the High Evolutionary’s attack, the million former humans did more than drive mutants into hiding. They created an atmosphere of mistrust. Hundreds had been injured during the attack. There were even reports of multiple deaths. That kind of hostility would make it difficult to rebuild. They had already failed on Genosha and Asteroid M was much bigger. They couldn’t afford to fail again, especially Magneto’s sacrifice.

Wanda had been contemplating plans for Asteroid M all morning. The X-men helped them reestablish order, but they could not stick around. They had their own rebuilding to do. Someone needed to explain to the rest of the world what had happened here. For once the X-men had the easier task. At least they were united again. The same could not be said for Asteroid M.

“Got some big news, sis. Looks like it’s worse than we thought,” said Pietro in his usual rushed tone as he came running in at high speeds.

“I assume it’s bad news because it always is when you come running in like this,” said Wanda dryly.

“It has the potential to be pretty fucking bad,” said the speedster, “All these pissed off former humans now have a new name. They’re calling themselves the Neo and they don’t seem interested in cooperating with mutants.”

“The Neo? What kind of a name is that?” scoffed Frenzy.

“It’s the name their new leader gave them. Remember that asshole, Vargas?”

“Vargas? That guy was once a few levels below your typical junki?! Why the hell would anyone follow him?” questioned Alex.

“It’s not terribly surprising. He was the first of his kind. He embodies what those 999,999 other humans once struggled with,” said Wanda distantly, “The High Evolutionary linked every one of them on a biological level. I wouldn’t be surprised if that link runs much deeper now that he’s gone.”

She turned her attention towards the plaza just below the citadel. The area was set up as a makeshift medical area where Mellencamp, Mercury, Senyaka, and Scanner worked with their healer, Elixir, to treat wounded mutants. There was already a strong sense of animosity. One part of the plaza was reserved for mutants that had been in the crossfire during the High Evolutionary’s attack. The other was reserved for the Neo, who had few injured and no reported deaths. Neither group felt comfortable around one another. The Neo already seemed to be leaving City X in droves. It was a clear sign of things to come.

“Before the X-men left, Professor Xavier warned me that growing into an ability was very different from simply gaining it,” Wanda went on, “Most mutants like us had to work at mastering our abilities. It helps us use them and appreciate them. But these Neo had everything done for them. The High Evolutionary just gave them their power without contemplating what it could do to them.”

“Makes me feel even sicker that we didn’t find much of his body,” grumbled Pietro, “I would have loved just throwing it out into the ocean and feeding it to the sharks.”

“In some ways they were the biggest victims,” added Wanda, “They were desperate people who were taken advantage of. They don’t know the value of their own power yet. I don’t see any of them helping us rebuild City X.”

“I heard they may even build a city of their own,” said Pietro, “There are a million of them and only a few thousand of us, give or take. Asteroid M is a big place and they’re already drawing battle lines.”

“Then I guess we’ll have to split time between fighting them and the humans that don’t like the idea of a new mutant continent,” said Alex.

“Continent? I thought we were a country,” said Frenzy.

“Genosha was just an island. Asteroid M isn’t just bigger. It has its own ecosystem. And unlike Genosha, we won’t have the luxury of Warlock technology to help us run it.”

“Yet another reason why we should have let the X-men stay just so we could beat them up a bit,” said the speedster.

“They also saved our lives in case you’ve forgotten,” Wanda pointed out, “Perhaps it’s a good thing that stopping the High Evolutionary also shut down the Warlock technology. We were growing too dependent on it. If mutants are to survive, we must rely on what makes us strong. We must show the Neo and the rest of the world that mutants can stand united. Father would have wanted it that way.”

The mention of Magneto evoked a solemn tone in her voice. Pietro and Lorna shared her sorrow. The loss of their father was still sinking in. Even though Wanda wore his helmet and cape, his presence loomed large.

“I like to think that Father trusts us to carry on his legacy…minus the wars and mass extinctions, of course,” said Lorna.

“It’s not like he left us with nothing to build on,” said Alex, “We have a whole continent at our disposal along most of the world’s mutant population.”

“That alone wouldn’t impress, Father. Maintaining it and making it stable for future generations would go much further,” said Wanda.

“And you think we can do that with the Neo and the humans breathing down our neck?” said Frenzy.

“We’re going to move forward under the assumption that it’s possible,” said Wanda, “More importantly, we’re not going to shut ourselves off. We still have allies that we can lean on for support.”

“Are you talking about the X-men?” scoffed Pietro.

“Or more specifically a certain X-man with blue fur, a tail, and an exotic German accent that you seem to find so alluring?” said Lorna with a slight tease.

“I really hope you’re being sarcastic, Lorna,” groaned Pietro.

“Sarcastic or not, I learned a lot while I was with X-Force. I learned the most from Kurt and not in the way you’re probably thinking,” said Wanda, her voice shifting again as more emotions overwhelmed her.

“Still makes me sick to the very pit of my stomach,” grumbled Pietro.

“Above all, he taught me that having faith in a vision and taking action are two sides of the same coin. You can’t rely on one alone. You also can’t compromise one for the sake of the other. That was Magneto’s greatest mistake. Charles Xavier made that same mistake with the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. Now, we have a chance to learn from it and if this world is going to succeed, we damn well better.”

She had a strength in her tone that superseded the emotional strain. It was the kind of strength that commanded respect and leadership. Wanda had been away from the Brotherhood for a while. The influence that Kurt and the X-men had on her was apparent. As a result, she would have to earn the trust of every mutant and Neo on Asteroid M. Perhaps. It seemed daunting, but that was good for her. It would make her work that much harder to honor her father’s sacrifice.

“So what’s the next step, Wanda? Or should I call you Madam Maximoff now?” asked Frenzy dryly

“The next step is too far ahead to contemplate,” she said, “We need to focus on the present right now. That involves cleaning up City X, assembling resources, and establishing relationships with allies.”

“I hope those relationships don’t involve inviting Nightcrawler to join,” muttered Pietro.

“You can rest easy, Pietro. Kurt has some loose ends to resolve with the X-men. But he knows our door is open to him.”

“Speak for yourself,” he groaned, which earned a scold from Lorna.

“I know it’s not going to be popular. I may make myself a target as well. But we can’t let old rivalries get in our way anymore. We need to be loved, respected, and feared,” Wanda went on, “Xavier and his X-men are strong enough to keep the world in one piece. We need to show that we’re strong enough to make our new world a part of it.”

“Speaking of which, are we going to keep calling this new world Asteroid M?” asked Alex, “We’re not in space anymore. I think if we’re going to be viable, we need a name that’s not quite as loaded.”

Wanda continued to scrutinize the cityscape of this new world. Down below, the Brotherhood just pulled the body the rubble. It was a mutant who had died during the High Evolutionary’s attack. It appeared to be the body of a young mutant woman. The grim sight horrified many of the mutants that were getting medical treatment. It also further intensified their mistrust of the Neo, who looked indifferent to this death.

This was the atmosphere in which she would have to lead. It seemed so daunting. Asteroid M had a very morbid ambiance. She tried to imagine Kurt being by her side, lending the support he had given her throughout this whole crisis. She would need it and so much more to succeed in the way their people deserved.

“I’ve thought of that too, Alex,” said Wanda, “This isn’t the High Evolutionary’s world anymore. It isn’t Magneto’s either. It’s our world. That’s why from this day forward I’m calling this new mutant continent Avalon.”

“Avalon? Sounds like a Renaissance fair,” scoffed Frenzy.

“It’s actually a land from mythology. One father told me about while I was a child,” she explained, “It was a mythical land that housed King Auther’s sword, Excalibur. It was said to be a land that produced everything that was necessary for it’s inhabitants to survive.”

“Well technically that was true before all our Warlock technology was shut down,” Pietro pointed out, “We’ve still got hardware, but I doubt we can produce everything we need.”

“That’s not the point, Pietro. Avalon was special because it was a land that was only limited by the people that utilized it. We need to go beyond those limits for our people. Not just for the dangers we know we’ll face, but for the dangers that have yet to emerge.”

New York City – District X

Emma Frost had never been afraid to take big risks. It was part of what made her a successful hedge fund manager and a powerful force in the Inner Circle. She took a significant risk in joining X-Force. She compromised her reputation as an educator for aspiring young mutants.

In the end, that risk was necessary. She saw her Academy of Tomorrow become a dumping ground for mutants who had been forced into her school under the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. Now that the initiative was no more, the academy could have a fresh start.

Standing within the now vacant streets of District X, Emma saw a decimated mutant community. It was just one of many communities that had been abandoned during Asteroid M. It seemed like an appropriate place for a new beginning. It was also fitting since this had been where so many young mutants had worked together to create the machine that helped neutralize the High Evolutionary. While she watched those same young mutants disassemble the machine, she conversed with the leaders of her school and District X on the future of this community.

“I must give you your dues, Miss Frost. You taught your students well,” commented Jamie Madrox.

“Giving her dues without having to wear a G-string? I’m sure that’s a first,” said Dr. Nemesis coyly.

“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood, Nemesis. Otherwise I’d send you to the scrap heap along with this gaudy machine,” said Emma, “Although parts of it may make a good monument for the new Academy of Tomorrow.”

“So we’re really going through with it. We’re really rebuilding the school,” said Shiro.

“And here in District X, no doubt,” said Jamie.

“Is that a problem? Did you have something else in mind for these abandoned streets?” asked Dr. Nemesis.

“You know we can tweak our little deal to include kicking your ass,” said Bishop with folded arms, “If Sage weren’t babysitting her boyfriend, she would find a way squeeze in some fine print.”

“And I may end up supporting it,” said Jamie, “What’s wrong with the fancy digs you had in Boston?”

“Nothing was wrong with the area. It just seems tainted now,” said Emma in a somewhat bitter tone, “The Mutant Monitoring Initiative turned my school into a prison without the bars. That’s not what I envisioned and now that so many mutant communities are vacant, the Academy of Tomorrow needs a fresh start. And part of that start involves forging new partnerships.”

Emma sounded more optimistic than anyone else. District X was a ghost town within a large city of anxious humans, but it still had plenty to offer. It was the perfect location for a new school. Bishop, Jamie, Shiro, and Dr. Nemesis had mixed feelings about it. The end of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative meant big changes, but if the mood amongst X-Factor and the Lights were any indication there was plenty of reason for hope.

The young mutants were already assisting the private contractors that Emma Frost hired to move their operations from Boston to New York City. Thanks to her deep pockets and connections, she got the ball rolling quickly. X-Factor showed plenty of enthusiasm for a fresh start in New York City. Julian, Roberto, Sam, Tabitha, Noriko, Danielle, Santo, Laura, and Amara were already planning on how they would adjust to their new lives. They did plenty of heavy lifting with the contractors as they moved class equipment and dorm room necessities into a few buildings near the M-Building.

“Please be careful with those!” urged Amara as she watched two contractors carry a couple of statues into the building, “Those are authentic Aphrodite figurines and I’d rather not see them damaged.”

“Lighten up, Princess. I’m sure the Big Apple will have plenty of fancy gear for you to enjoy,” teased Tabitha.

“Speaking of which, I can’t wait to take you on our first date here, Laura,” said Julian, who was helping Laura unload some of her gear, “There’s this pizza place near Cony Island I think you’ll love!”

“I’ll take your word for it. I haven’t had much chance to enjoy this city whenever I’ve dropped by,” she said.

“Perhaps you can double date with me and Bobby,” said Amara, once she was sure her statues were in one piece.

“Assuming he stays,” said Tabitha, “I thought he and Kitty went back to Xavier’s.”

“Only to tie up some loose ends,” said Amara, “They’ll be back. I certainly know Bobby will return. He and I have tickets to go to Yankees Stadium this weekend.”

“I don’t care what perks this city has. I am not rooting for the New York freakin’ Yankees,” said Santo strongly.

“That doesn’t mean you have to be so careless with my stuff,” said Danielle, who tried to protect some of her stuff.

“Better him than me, Dani. Ah just tried hauling some of Dr. Nemesis’s lab equipment to the roof. Ah’m pretty sure Ah’ll have detention for the rest of the year once classes get underway,” said Sam.

“Is it weird that I’m actually looking forward to it?” said Roberto as he carried a couple of mattresses with help from his solar strength, “After all these upheavals, I’m content to enjoy school in a world without Magneto.”

“I’d say it is weird,” said Noriko, rolling her eyes, “With Magneto dead, I can see plenty of potential problems. A power vacuum like that isn’t usually filled with sunshine and cherry blossoms.”

“At least we know X-Factor still has a future,” reasoned Roberto, “We may even get some added manpower if these District X guys really go along with us.”

“Well, don’t expect them to be too enthusiastic,” said Noriko, “They’re still pretty distraught over Isaac. I imagine it’ll be a while before their hearts are up to the task.”

No one in X-Factor contested Noriko’s assessment. Jubilee and her Lights hadn’t been nearly as active in this move since it began. As soon as they heard about Isaac, the harsher aspects of this new reality set in.

For the most part, X-Factor gave the Lights their space. They helped intermittently with the move, but they also had to deal with more morbid details. Jubilee, Teon, Laurie, Kenji, Idie, and Gabriel had been in touch with Father Hansen. He and the X-men were already arranging a memorial service for Isaac. The story of his sacrifice was inspiring. Yet his death was difficult to bear. As the new Academy for Tomorrow took shape, Idie found herself sitting on a stoop with the Lights.

“He would have loved this,” she said sadly, “A new school for a new generation of mutants…he would have been excited about preaching God’s word to them.”

“I’ll bet,” sighed Gabriel, “The man took preaching to a new level.”

“I never considered myself very spiritual, but Isaac found a way to make it meaningful,” said Laurie, offering her support to the younger girl.

“I just can’t get over that he’s really gone,” she cried with tears streaming down her face, “He was a tortured soul just like me. There was so much more I had to learn from him.”

“From what Father Hansen told us about his unfortunate demise, I think he taught us everything we needed to know,” said Kenji.

“I hope you’re not just trying to sound artistic because that would just make you an asshole,” said Gabriel.

“I believe it is a fair assessment,” Kenji argued, “Look around. District X has been vacated. Every mutant community in the world has now set up shop on a new continent. That won’t stop new mutants from being born. Those mutants will need a place to come where they can experience a sense of hope. Perhaps that’s what Isaac wanted for us…hope. And the best way we can honor his memory is to spread that hope.”

It certainly sounded like something Isaac would preach. Idie found herself pondering what was going through Isaac’s mind when he went made this sacrifice. Did he know it would come to this? Was he really that willing to give his life for such hope?

“I’ll still miss him,” said Idie sadly, “I want to honor his memory. I just don’t know where to begin.”

“We fight! We hope!” said Teon, who nuzzled next to Idie like a loyal guard dog.

“Trust the guy with the super-charged instincts. We’re still the Lights, remember?” said Jubilee, raising her sunglasses to show her glowing eyes, “We know how to fight and with this new school, we’ll have plenty of opportunities.”

“The idea of class and fighting doesn’t sound like much of an opportunity,” said Laurie.

“That’s because we’ll have to work at it. Isaac didn’t shy away from impossible challenges so why should we?” argued Jubilee, “It’s a crazy new world out there. Someone has to spread the good word. We can either whine about it or we can step up.”

“Step up! Step up!” barked Teon in a show of support.

Idie managed a slight smile through her sorrow. Jubilee and the others were right. They did have a responsibility now. Isaac taught her and so many others the power of faith. They would need that power as they moved forward in this bold new world.

Their spirits along with many others were wounded, but the end of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative and the construction of a new Academy of Tomorrow gave them plenty to fight for. It was inspiring to see young mutants be part of this, especially for someone like Rahne Sinclair.

She had been with the X-men during their earlier years. X-Factor and the Lights were a lot like the early incarnations of the X-men. Seeing them work during this crisis brought her back in many ways. As she watched them work, she smiled to herself. She then met up with Moira and Sean, who were talking with Emma Frost.

“So ye really managed to flip the land in Boston to set up shop here in New York yet still turn a profit,” commented Sean, “Do I even want to know how ye managed that, Emma?”

“Unless you have a PHD in business from Oxford, I doubt you would understand,” said Emma proudly.

“Ye must also have some good lawyers too,” said Moira, “Sage told me ye managed to keep X-Factor’s identities secret. Ye even managed to hide the whole blacking out the East Coast part of our operation.”

“I only provided the logistics. Charles Xavier and the Cuckoos did the rest,” she said proudly, “As we speak they’re also working with our old friends, Morph and Doug Ramsey, to get the word out to young mutants that were left behind. This Academy is available to them and X-Factor will be here to protect them.”

“Ye probed my mind again, didn’t ye?” teased Moira.

“You were obviously inquiring to the extent of this operation. I assume it’s because you want Muir Island to be part of it,” shrugged Emma.

“We would be proud to lend our support,” said Sean, “Now that new battle lines have been drawn in mutant affairs, Muir Island is gonna need some allies. This new Academy seems like a great place to start.”

“Aye,” said Moira in agreement, “Forge is already talking about making upgrades to the M-Building. I look forward to helping them.”

“So do I,” said Rahne as she abruptly entered the conversation, “That’s why I’ve decided to enroll.”

Sean and Moira turned towards their adopted daughter in shock. She sounded serious. She hadn’t been with the X-men in years. She left when her brother’s powers took a turn for the worse. Since his death, she had been at a loss. Now it looked like she was ready to make a difference again.

“Does this mean what I think it means, lass?” asked Sean.

“I said I’ve decided to enroll. I don’t know how much clearer I can be,” said Rahne.

“Ye know what he meant, Rahne. Don’t make me explain it in front of our new business partners,” said Moira in a more serious tone.

“There’s nothing to explain. I couldn’t save my brother and I’ve been beating myself up for it long enough,” she said in an equally serious tone, “I was once an X-man. I can tell many of these kids have the hearts of true X-men. Since we all agree that the world needs the X-men, this is the best place for me to be.”

“Wasn’t even gonna argue that, lass,” said Sean proudly, “I just wanted you to hear you say it so I can tell you how proud I am.”

Rahne smiled and shared a warm hug with her adopted parents. They clearly supported her decision. This seemed like the best time to make it. The world was going to be undoubtedly more complicated. Rahne was ready to be part of it and so was Muir Island.

“Well, I’d say that’s a good sign,” commented Shiro, “We’re not even done moving in and we already have a new recruit.”

“That’s not the only good sign,” commented Dr. Nemesis.

“You’re not going to find a way to belittle our new associates, are you? Because if so, let me know so I can burn your vocal chords,” said Shrio only half-jokingly.

“I won’t tempt you and just direct your attention to the alley behind. I’ll let my observations speak for themselves,” he replied.

While he wasn’t usually prone to following Dr. Nemesis’s requests, Shiro did so anyways. Standing in the alley adjacent to the M-Building was Jean Grey. He was caught a bit off guard, but her warm smile helped set him at ease. While Emma and their District X associates worked out the details with Rahne, he made his way over towards Jean.

“Jean…this is an unexpected yet pleasant surprise,” said Shiro.

“Well, since Warpath stopped by before running off with Ororo, I thought I would do the same,” she said, “I wanted to lay a few things to rest before I did some running off of my own with Scott.”

“Ah, so I take it that means you’re back together again?” he said in a mixed tone.

“If only it were that simple,” she sighed, “We definitely need to work out a few major details. We’re either taking the next step in our relationship or we’ll let it fall apart. I think you know which one I’m working towards.”

“I have my suspicions,” he told her, “Is that all you wanted to tell me.”

“If it was, that would just be cruel and you know that’s not my style,” she said with a light-hearted grin.

To further make her point, she gave Shiro a warm hug. Once again, he was pleasantly surprised. Jean felt much stronger than he remembered. It was almost as if she had that fire back in her spirit.

“I just had to thank you, Shiro,” she told him, “While I was on Asteroid M, I had to put your advice into practice during a life-or-death situation. In the process, I discovered a number of things…the least of which involves cosmic fires.”

“Yes, I heard about that,” he said with a friendly grin, “You definitely have that flare in your eyes again.”

“Among other things,” she quipped, “Another part of that advice involves taking care of the little things before moving forward. I understand you have your hands full here with the new academy. There are still a lot of loose ends to tie up with Professor Xavier back in Washington as well. However, I need to handle my own affairs first.”

“I hope it won’t be awkward if I come up during your conversations,” said Shiro, “I don’t want Cyclops to think it became too heated between us.”

“No need to worry. We have an extensive list of things to go over and that’s not even in the top ten,” she said as her tone became more serious, “This whole affair goes beyond the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. It’s going to affect us in ways we can’t imagine or control. But like you once told me, we still can make choices and I’m ready to start making the right ones, no matter how hard they may be. As a man of many passions, I just wanted you to know that.”

“Then as far as I’m concerned, you’re as strong as any cosmic flame, Jean Grey.”

Jean and Shiro shared another friendly smile. Between them and the new Academy of Tomorrow, everybody was in a position to make difficult choices. The effects of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative and Asteroid M were still settling in. While there was plenty of hope, there was still no telling what sort of aftermath they could expect.

Xavier Institute – Infirmary

“Hnn…Dark Beast,” grumbled a dazed and exhausted Hank McCoy.

“Shhh…the nightmare is over, Henry. Dark Beast is gone,” said a gentle voice.

Hank finally opened his eyes after what felt like a hangover laced with insomnia. As soon as his vision cleared, he saw the loving face of Sage. She was sitting by his bedside, her emotions turned on and her concern for him apparent in her voice. He quickly surmised that he was in the infirmary.

He was lying in a bed with various medical equipment hooked up to his body. It looked like she went all out to treat him, tapping the Institute’s reserve of Shi’ar tech in the process. However, no amount of treatment could heal the scars that the High Evolutionary had inflicted.

“Sage…if Shakespeare himself wrote a sonnet to express my relief, it still wouldn’t be enough,” he told her.

“I wouldn’t expect it to be,” she said solemnly, “This whole affair went wrong in so many ways. I took part in X-Force’s deception. I helped tear up a good portion of District X to make it work.”

“I’m glad you did,” he said, “I saw the horrors the High Evolutionary was prepared to unleash. No words or science could ever adequately describe it.”

He sounded traumatized. As he looked up at her, Sage could sense that he had been aware of what he had done. The creature he became was the embodiment of everything he hated about his feral side. Sage did her best to console her lover while tending to his treatment.

“There’s no need for descriptions, my love. That horror is gone,” said Sage strongly, “When Xavier and Jean returned, they put psychic blocks on your mind to keep you unconscious. Then I came over from District X as fast as I could. I worked with Dr. Rao at SWORD to undo what the High Evolutionary did to you.”

“Did…did you undo everything?” he asked anxiously.

“You’re back to your old self, aren’t you?” she said as she affectionately ran her hand through the fur on his face, “The special blend of MGH had different effects from the blend Jubilee and her Lights experienced. This one latched onto your X-gene and overwrote your nervous system. As I’m sure you already know, the process had some pretty unpleasant side-effects. It was not unlike your past experience with the Cambrian.”

“This was very different by comparison,” said Hank, his voice still shaky, “The Cambrian merely tweaked my X-gene. The High Evolutionary tweaked my entire psyche. It felt like he planted a poisonous seed within my brain. I’m not even sure it’s completely gone.”

“It is gone,” Sage assured him, “Dr. Rao and I filtered your blood to remove all remaining traces of MGH from your system. We also tweaked Shi’ar cellular regeneration technology to neutralize the changes in your nervous system.”

“Your choice of words leads me to believe that you didn’t remove it.”

“There was nothing to remove. It’s gone, Hank. You’re better now. You’ll be back on your feet by the end of the day. In the meantime I can tell you all about the big changes that are underway. We’re building a new Academy of Tomorrow in District X. Professor Xavier is ending the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. You’re going to be fine. We’re going to move forward and we’re going to be stronger.”

Sage spoke as though she was trying to convince herself almost as much as Hank. She rarely spoke with this kind of emotion. The way she gripped his hand and the way she talked about the future sounded so promising. He could tell she wanted him to help her build that future. It sounded so daunting with the nightmare he just experienced still fresh in his mind. However, her desperate gaze allowed him the strength to rise up from his bed and embrace her.

“You’re right,” he told her, “We will move forward.”

“I love you, Hank,” said Sage.

“I love you too.”

They continued their warm embrace. For a moment, it seemed the trauma had melted away. Then as he looked across the lab, he saw his reflection in a computer monitor. In his reflection he saw his current state. Physically, he looked fine. Mentally, he was frail and vulnerable. In that moment of vulnerability he saw his reflection change.

He saw the image of the Dark Beast again. This twisted creature snarled at him from within, offering an ominous message about this promising future of which Sage spoke.

‘So much rage…so much primal fury. Admit it. You liked it. You liked it more than even your intellect could ever rationalize. Go on. Wake up and try to pretend that it didn’t happen. We both know the truth. Nothing will EVER be the same.’

Savage Land

Love was only as strong as its greatest obstacle. Scott and Jean endured more than their share over the course of their relationship. They thought they had overcome enough to prove that their love could endure any hardship. They were wrong. Despite surviving mutation, death, and the Phoenix Force, they discovered that their relationship couldn’t survive on love alone. It needed something more and to find it, they found themselves back where their love first blossomed.

The Savage Land hadn’t changed much since the fateful mission that brought them together. It was still a dangerous, inhospitable Jurassic jungle. It was a place where politics, missions, and codenames didn’t matter. Everything was basic here and that’s exactly what Scott and Jean needed.

So with help from Illyana Rasputin, they teleported to the same site where the Brotherhood’s Warlock pod once resided. Unlike before, they came to the Savage Land more equipped. They brought camping gear, supplies, and a clear plan to get home. Even though there was plenty of upheaval going on with the X-men, Scott and Jean agreed that they needed to clear the air between them.

They wasted little time in enjoying the privacy the Savage Land had to offer. As soon as they set up camp and established a perimeter, they cuddled up in their tent for some long overdue lovemaking. Extended periods of forced celibacy made it quite extensive, so much so that some of the surrounding wildlife took notice.

They didn’t care, though. They needed it. After doing plenty of catching up, the two lovers drained themselves. Despite so much exhausting passion, Scott remained restless. While Jean nodded off for a bit, he sat at the edge of his sleeping bag and gazed out the tent into the wilderness.

“Hmm…still be awake, Scott?” she said with a yawn, “Did I not wear you out?”

“You wore me out plenty, Jean,” he said distantly, “I’m pretty sure we’ve set new standards for makeup sex.”

“Then why do I sense your mind going in a million different directions?”

“Well for one, it shows our link is in working order again.”

“I’m being serious, Scott,” said Jean, “The whole point of this trip is to get back to basics. It’s the only way we can know if our relationship can take the next step.”

“That’s exactly why I’m still awake. I keep contemplating that step. I want to take it, but recent events have filled me with a lot of doubts.”

Scott held his head low as he sat in a conflicted state. Despite being exhausted by so much lovemaking, Jean rose up and snaked her arms around her lover. They were both still naked, adhering to a clothing optional policy during their tripp. She allowed her warm flesh to sooth her lover’s spirit.

“You don’t need to sound so ashamed, Scott,” she told him, “I think everybody has struggled with more doubt than usual lately.”

“Except I’m not used to this kind of doubt. I could never afford the luxury of doubt. Not when I’m the leader of a team,” said Scott solemnly.

“You know some might call that arrogance. Others might call it confidence,” Jean pointed out, “You always walked a fine line and it proved you right in the end.”

“How was I right? I broke up the X-men…and broke your heart.”

“If you broke my heart, we wouldn’t be here, butt naked in this tent, Scott Summers,” she teased, “I’m also inclined to remind you that Professor Xavier dissolved the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. You told him from the beginning that he couldn’t control it. White Cell and the High Evolutionary proved that.”

“Be that as it may, there’s a reason I never said I told you,” said Scott, still holding his head low, “It’s the same reason why I’m not sure if we can take that next step.”

Jean had never heard him express this kind of doubt before. Scott had always been so focused and disciplined, almost to the point of arrogance. He always questioned methods, but he rarely questioned the mission. Whether it was the X-men or their love, he never scrutinized the details. Now, they couldn’t avoid such scrutiny.

“It started with White Cell,” he went on, “Even though we stopped Romulus, he demonstrated that we can lose control in an instant. Professor Xavier understood that. The more I think about it, the less I blame him. We need at least the illusion of control in order to function. Just look at what we can do, Jean. We are dangerous. We are a threat to ourselves and everyone around us.”

“Anyone can be dangerous to everyone,” she retorted, “Some of us just have to work harder than others to stay in control.”

“That’s what leads me back to us, Jean. I love you and you love me. I can’t imagine being with anyone other than you for the rest of my life, even if there are plenty of forces pulling us apart.”

“Are you going to bring up Shiro?” she asked warily, “Scott, I already told you the truth. What we had was no more serious than when Emma offered to sleep with you at that bath house. Only much less lurid.”

“I believe you, Jean. And therein lies the hard truth. We’re past the phase in a relationship where we try to impress one another. We were friends before we started having makeup sex in a jungle. We know how to live together. We know all the ways in which we’re annoying or boring. We’ve saved each other so often that we have nothing to prove to one another. More than anything else, being apart proved that our love will always be vulnerable no matter how strong it is. If our relationship is going to be more, I don’t want there to be any doubt.”

They were the sincere words of a man allowing himself to be vulnerable on a level few could ever be comfortable with. Scott clung to Jean just as much as she clung to him. He had the will and desire to be with her, but it went beyond love. It was about truly being together in a way that went beyond doubt. Scott had been unable to escape such doubt since the White Cell affair. While he showed he was strong enough to trick the High Evolutionary, his spirit was still wounded.

Jean still never let go of him. Despite having gone through her share of upheavals, her aura of passion still burned with the same intensity as any cosmic flame. As she sensed these difficult thoughts course through his mind, she gently cupped his chin and turned his head so that his gaze could match hers.

“Scott…I think you’re not seeing the big picture. And for once it isn’t because of your glasses,” she told him.

“Well, what are you seeing that I’m not?” Scott asked her, almost sounding desperate.

“It’s not what I’m seeing. It’s what we both understand at this point in our lives. You say being apart proved that we’re vulnerable, but it also proved something else. We can function without one another. We can be X-men. We can live our lives and do our jobs without drowning in sorrow.”

“How is that supposed to ease any doubts?” he questioned.

“Bear with me, babe. You remember how we felt after the Phoenix Force brought us back to life? How I had a cosmic power coursing through my being and you shared that experience every step of the way?”

“Of course,” Scott affirmed, “That’s not an experience anyone can forget, Jean.”

“Well, that’s exactly why we needed a harsh lesson,” she said, “When I lost that connection to the Phoenix Force, that overwhelming experience wasn’t so overwhelming anymore. We fell into the trap of every sappy love song ever written, thinking that cosmic forces had ordained our love as stronger than anything in the universe. That’s just not how it works in the real world. We can’t be together fully if we depend one each other completely.”

“Sounds like a paradox. I’ll bet even Hank couldn’t wrap his head around that.”

“Yet we both know it’s true. Now that I have my cosmic power back, I can put it into context,” she said, showing off some cosmic flares to reinforce her point, “According to the Professor, I have a fraction of what the Phoenix Force was capable of. But unlike before, there’s no presence or consciousness to go along with it. It’s like the Phoenix Force left a piece of her inside me and I just had to awaken it. This cosmic power is completely my own. That means it’s only as strong as I can make it. And I think that’s similar to where we are right now. Even though we can live our lives separately, we’re better when we’re together.”

“I think all our friends would agree with that sentiment. I agree with it too. There are just so many things we can’t control. I just don’t know how we can work around that.”

“Now you’re just being dense, Scott. We don’t need to work around doubt. We need to accept it,” said Jean as she tenderly caressed the side of her lover’s face, “We’ll never be completely certain of what the future may bring. That’s why we fight to survive.”

“So does that make me weak?”

“You’re not weak, Scott Summers. Far from it. But part of taking that next step is remembering that it’s not enough to fight for survival or even love. To truly move forward, we need the very antithesis of doubt.”

“And what might that be?” he asked intently.


It was a simple, yet elegant notion. Hope, a concept that had been lost in the bitter divide between the X-men and X-Force, was one of the few ideals for which there was no doubt. Many had forgotten it, tet its importance was never more apparent.

As Scott gazed into the eyes of his lover, the concept sank in. The crippling doubt that had rendered him so lost seemed less daunting. The hope in Jean Grey’s eyes didn’t just counter those doubts. It rendered them trivial. In that moment, their love took on new meaning. As he continued to gaze into Jean’s eyes, they came together in a deep kiss.

“Hope,” he said distantly.

“Mmm…those aren’t doubts I’m sensing,” said Jean with a soft purr.

“Far as I’m concerned, doubt just became a moot point,” said Scott in a newly impassioned tone, “We’re alone, in the jungle, in love, and full of hope. What’s the best possible way to embrace it?”

“Oh I can think of a few!”

Their minds and spirits blew wide open. Doubt gave way to hope as they curled back up into their sleeping back. The various echoes of the unforgiving Savage Land were soon awash with cries of passion. The relationship between Scott and Jean came very close to falling apart. Now, a future of hope ensured that they would be one in the same moving forward.

Yosemite National Park

“Thanks for taking me here, Ororo,” said James Proudstar with a content sigh, “You were right. I needed this.”

“We both did,” she said with a smile, “Never mind that I had to practically drag you away from District X.”

“As far as I’m concerned, you can drag me as much as you want from now on.”

It was unusual for James to be at peace. The world almost came to an end recently. The Academy of Tomorrow was being relocated and District X was in ruin just like every other mutant community in the world. Under normal circumstances he would be back with Emma Frost and Lucas Bishop, helping to carve out a new beginning within a world that Asteroid M rendered so complicated. His current circumstances weren’t normal, though. Ororo Munroe had that effect on people and on nature itself.

Before the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, he and Ororo were growing closer. It seemed like only a matter of time before they became something serious. Then the divide between the X-men and X-Force set in. The emotions between them had to be put on hold while they fought their respective battles.

During those battles, however, those emotions were heightened. They festered and grew, even as their respective teams opposed one another. Now that conflict had ended and several new conflicts emerged as a result. Before they confronted any of them, they needed to confront this.

Now, James found himself on a picturesque perch in Yosemite National Park. The sun was setting in the distance as he and Ororo sat on ledge overlooking the vast landscape below. Brisk winds swept across the rocky terrain. Some of it may be the result of Ororo’s heightened emotions. Those emotions were at the core of so many issues.

“James…I know this is as awkward for you as it is for me,” said Ororo.

“That’s putting it mildly. I’ve been searching for the right words since you showed up. I barely got past hello,” said James as he held his head low.

“Then let’s try the blunt approach,” she suggested in a more serious tone, “We have something, James. You and I both felt it before the Mutant Monitoring Initiative got in the way. Well it’s not in the way anymore and that something is still there.”

“I don’t think that’s blunt enough, Ororo. It isn’t just there. It’s more complex than it was before.”

“In a bad way?” Ororo asked.

“Not necessarily,” he replied, “It’s never bad when you feel so strongly for someone that mere memories of them make you feel weak in the knees. And for a guy who can use his knees to shatter concrete, that’s saying something. What makes it complex is how much the initiative changed everything and not just because it got in the way.”

James swallowed his wounded dignity and faced the beautiful African woman next to him. He took her hand in his and lightly squeezed it. Only Ororo Munroe could make his grip feel so weak.

“Since we got back from Asteroid M, I’ve been doing a thought experiment of sorts,” said the Native American, “I imagined what would’ve happened if the Mutant Monitoring Initiative wasn’t in the way. We probably would have gotten closer. We would have hooked up, gone on a few dates, and maybe even shared a few nights in bed together where we tapped a very different force of nature.”

“That’s a bold assumption, appealing as it may be,” said Ororo with a humored grin.

“It still would have been standard. We would be going through the motions, just as I’ve done with previous women. Just as you’ve done with other men, although I imagine you were more mature about it.”

“That’s not as bold an assumption, but I don’t disagree thus far.”

“It may have turned into something special. Or it may have just fizzled like so many other flings. That’s why I think it was a good thing that something came between us. Now before you slap me, let me make this unpleasant admission…I’ve never been an easy man to love. Before he died, John often warned me that I would end up alone because of my attitude. He was probably right because I didn’t understand love. I don’t think I’ve really known love because you can only appreciate it when you care about something more than you care about yourself.”

There was a bitterness in James’s tone. Ororo could tell he despised the man he once was. He had to stop for a moment to process all the self-loathing, but he was determined to finish this and with the heart of an Apache warrior he continued.

“I’m a slow learner, Ororo,” James said to her, “When Emma Frost recruited me, it took a while to care about what I was doing. Getting to know you forced me to learn faster and being in X-Force gave me the time to do that.”

“And what did you learn in that time?” she asked intently.

“Probably the same lesson you did,” he replied, “That I cared about you in a way that defied nature. I didn’t just fall in love with a beautiful woman. I’m willing to make myself vulnerable to another person. I trust you to be that person. And I guess…I needed some time and space to figure that out.”

His every word was genuine. For all the heartache that being on different teams caused, James was able to rationalize it in a meaningful way. Ororo found herself smiling as she did the same thought experiment in her own head. It made too much sense to dismiss. It led Ororo to embrace this man in a way that kicked some fresh winds.

“You’re right, James. We both needed this,” she said, “I’ve loved others before, but I’ve never made myself vulnerable. I think part of being strong in this new world is allowing ourselves to be that vulnerable.”

“Sounds like one of those forest from the trees notion that I’ve never been good at grasping,” said James, smiling within her embrace.

“Then I guess it helps that I’m connected to nature. There’s power in the winds, but it’s easy to upset. I allow nature to guide so much of my life, but when it comes to love I keep trying to follow a formula. I think I can control what I’m experiencing and as the High Evolutionary proved, such control is merely illusion.”

“So where does that leave us?” questioned James.

“I think we both already know the answer to that,” she said in a deeper tone, “If you feel love for me and I feel love for you, then there’s no point in controlling it. Our own nature is drawing us together. And I think it’s about time we listen.”

More winds swirled around them, forming a miniature cyclone that seemed to follow the powerful emotions of the moment. The emotions led them into a deeper embrace, finally culminating with a kiss. For the first time, it felt right. There was no attempt to control it. They just embraced it as passionately as they embraced each other.

James Proudstar was once a wounded spirit and Ororo Munroe was once an uncontrolled force of nature. Now as they faced a new world with an ever-growing list of conflicts, their spirits were humbled. By making themselves vulnerable to each other, they would make themselves stronger to the world.

Denver, Colorado – Worthington Industries Medical Research Center

“Hold still, luv. This is the last one,” said a conflicted Betsy Braddock as she helped administer a series of injections into Warren’s back.

“You don’t seem too bothered,” commented Warren through another wince, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you enjoy sticking me with this latest round of treatment.”

“I’m not a masochist, Warren. I’m just pissed off at you. I can’t help it if I care too damn much when you take these ridiculous risks.”

Warren winced again, but it wasn’t because of the needle Betsy stuck in his back. His health was still in a state of flux. The blast he took from Cyclops agitated the condition with his techno-organic wings. Throwing himself into the Asteroid M conflict when he was clearly not in a condition to fight only made it worse.

He was in so much discomfort that he sought out treatment the moment they left Asteroid M. He expected Betsy to stay with the X-men and help them clear things up back in Washington. She defied those expectations, leading to an emotional yet awkward moment.

Betsy hadn’t forgotten the conversation she had with Warren’s father recently. It kept her from yelling at him the moment she arrived at the medical center. She promised herself that she would be more reasonable this time. She stayed by Warren’s side as his doctors did some tests. When one of them explained that they needed to perform a series of injections to stabilize the techno-organic material in his body, she volunteered to carry it out. She even convinced the doctors to give them some privacy. It allowed them some time to clear the air between them.

“So how much are you going to make me apologize?” asked Warren as he sat atop an observation table.

“That depends. What exactly do you have to be sorry for?” she retorted as she threw away the syringe.

“I don’t know. I almost got myself killed. I pretty much cut you off during the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. I even bankrolled X-Force while they actively opposed the X-men,” he pointed out.

“Do you regret doing any of that?”

“Only the part about cutting you off,” he said, “But I understand why you may resent me for everything else. I’ll apologize because it does bother me when I upset you.”

He really emphasized his sentiment. Despite the nausea caused by the treatments, he didn’t avoid her gaze. He saw many conflicting emotions in her eyes. She was clearly angry with him, but she deeply cared about him as well. His latest stunt brought many of these emotions to a head and they were both determined to confront them.

“Warren…I don’t want you to apologize,” said Betsy said in a sincere tone, “You did what you thought was right. That’s nothing to be sorry for.”

“I still hurt you. I hurt us. I completely undermined the possibility of there being an us,” said Warren in a desperate sounding tone.

“And in doing, so you’ve exposed just how important the idea of us truly is,” she retorted, “When we first hooked up at that club, it was simple chemistry. When you nearly killed yourself with that failed legacy cure and the subsequent treatments that followed that chemistry got a lot more volatile.”

“So what does defying doctor’s orders and taking part in an attack on Asteroid M do to that chemistry?” he asked her.

“That’s not what I’ve been dwelling on. What’s kept me so moody over the past few days is everything that happened in between. Like you said, we had to shut each other out. We couldn’t explore that chemistry. It could have faded. We could’ve forgotten about it completely. But that didn’t happen. The chemistry is still there and it’s stronger now that I’ve had time to think about it.”

Betsy’s emotional tone was met with an emotional gesture. She embraced him, running her hand over his techno-organic wings in the process. As she trailed along the feathery structures, she passed over some marks in his skin that bore the slight discoloration that his father pointed out earlier. That subtle aspect to his condition helped flesh out the emotions that they had both been struggling with.

“We both come from a world of privilege,” she went on, “I’m the daughter of an accomplished cop in the body of an accomplished assassin. You’re a rich man with wings. Yet despite all our privileges, we keep getting harsh reminders of just how fragile we are. Around others, we do a damn good job of hiding it. But around each other, we’re utterly pitiful.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Warren questioned.

“For a while, I thought it was. You have to understand I’m a woman of the law. I honestly believed that laws like the Mutant Monitoring Initiative would protect us from being fragile. But you can’t legislate emotion any more than you can cure weakness. We can try, but we’ll continue to frustrate the hell out of each other.”

“So how do we spare ourselves that frustration moving forward?”

Betsy paused for a moment. She trailed her hands from his wings to his face. He still looked so handsome despite being pale and scratched up from recent battles. Through those scars, she saw beyond the handsome face behind the Worthington fortune. She saw a man for which she had very strong feelings.

“We can start by not lying to ourselves anymore. That night in the club was the ideal Elizabeth Braddock and Warren Worthington III. Since then, we’ve seen our less-than-ideal sides. And for reasons that simply defy logic, that chemistry has grown.”

“I wouldn’t mind letting it grow even more,” said Warren, “That’s why I’m so determined to apologize.”

“If that’s how you feel, then you don’t have to,” she said, “I care about you, Warren. I want to keep caring about you in ways that don’t involve shutting each other out. I’m willing to accept that you’ll take some crazy chances so that you can continue being the angel you’ve set out to be. But only if you’re willing to accept that someone loves you enough to be upset with you when you take those chances.”

“Seeing as how everyone else in my life has only been angry with me for all the wrong reasons, I think that’s a reasonable request.”

Betsy smiled warmly and Warren smiled back. The side-effect from his treatments seemed to melt away as they shared a rare moment of emotional honesty. Neither one of them was used to being vulnerable. It was the most honest emotion they had ever felt. Following that emotion, Betsy and Warren met in a deep kiss. There was nothing keeping them apart anymore. Now they were free explore this chemistry and all the emotions that came with it.

Washington DC – Xavier Institute

“Pick up the pace, people!” barked an impatient Abigail Brand, “By order of the President, every last government hard drive and complimentary pen has to be cleared out within three hours!”

“Yeesh, and you guys say I’m demanding,” commented Logan.

“I’d say you’ve officially met your match, Logan,” said Piotr.

The scene outside the Xavier Institute evoked a wide range of emotions. There was an overall sense of relief for Logan, Bobby, Kitty, and Piotr. There was more uncertainty for others like Sage, Mystique, Kurt, and Remy. That uncertainty was mixed with sorrow for Rogue and Domino, who were still reeling from the death of Isaac. Yet none were more affected than Professor Charles Xavier.

‘Demanding is too easy a term. Everyone is relieved that I ended the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. No one has thought too hard about the unintended consequences that are sure to follow. Whatever those consequences may be, I’ve no one to blame but myself.’

Within hours of returning from Asteroid M, the Professor met with some lawyers and effectively ended Mutant Monitoring Initiative. Shortly after, a massive shift in human/mutant policy followed.

President Kelly ordered all clearances and access to government resources be cut off from the X-men. MSA operations all over the world were put on hold and absorbed by national armies, many of which were low on manpower due to the White Cell attack. While the Xavier Institute would remain in Washington DC, it would have to undergo a serious overhaul. At the rate Agent Brand was removing hardware from the upper and lower levels, they would have to rebuild X-men operations from scratch.

It was a daunting notion, but one Charles Xavier was comfortable accepting. He stood with his X-men on the front lawn, allowing Agent Brand and her SWORD affiliates to load up unmarked trucks with various components from throughout the institute. They worked fast, appearing all too eager to leave this place. Professor Xavier saw it as a sign of greater complications to come.

“You made this decision fairly quickly, Charles,” commented Sage, “Even Hank was surprised when I told him you ended the Mutant Monitoring Initiative with such fortitude.”

“I’m sure he’s going to miss all these fancy toys that SWORD let him play with,” commented Bobby.

“He’ll get over it. Besides, that shit came with too many strings attached,” shrugged Logan, who was smoking a cigar.

“A fact I remember you and Scott warning me about from the beginning,” said the Professor distantly.

“Then I guess it’s a good thing he and Jean ran off for a little relationship counseling/make-up sex,” said Kitty, “Otherwise he would be rubbing it in your face.”

“As if Logan hasn’t picked up the slack,” said Mystique.

“All the more reason to dissolve the initiative as quickly as possible,” reasoned the Professor, “I couldn’t allow these complications to corrupt my X-men any further.”

“It’s a good thing you were smart enough to squeeze in an opt-out clause,” commented Kitty, “I imagine you made plenty of enemies by using it.”

“That’s one of many concerns I’m struggling with at the moment,” he sighed, “My initiative had the best of intentions. I truly believed that working within the system would alleviate conflict. Even the greatest psychic couldn’t foresee how politicians and bureaucrats would corrupt our mission.”

“Even if it seems pretty damn obvious,” commented Logan.

“I hope you’re not gloating, comrade. If I recall, X-Force had their share of troubles as well,” Piotr pointed out.

“Yeah, but at least we avoided politicians,” shrugged the former living weapon.

“Albeit indirectly,” Xavier added, “Both teams played a dangerous balancing act. We went behind each other’s back. We didn’t just oppose one another. We limited our capabilities when new threats required that we adapt. It was only going to get worse because an imperfect legal system can never adapt fast enough to an imperfect world.”

“If it was causing that many problems, then why do you sound so torn up about ending the initiative?” asked Sage.

“Indeed. The idea was not unsound,” said Piotr, “There may still be a place for mutants in the government.”

“The merits of the initiative don’t bother me as much as the intent of the initiative. This is where I didn’t just fail my X-men. I abandoned them,” he said in a more serious tone, “I allowed myself to be too arrogant. I thought regaining the use of my legs would make me stronger. I never could have done something so brash if I were still in a wheelchair.”

“That doesn’t mean there were better alternatives, Professor,” said Bobby.

“Even if there weren’t, I should have seen it. I shouldn’t need a wheelchair to remind me that I’m still prone to human error. Such arrogance nearly cost me my team. In the end, it cost me a good friend.”

“Make that two,” said Rogue in a morose tone, who was standing off to the side and smoking a cigarette with Remy.

“How about three?” added Domino, who was standing next to her.

Professor Xavier shifted under such self-deprecation. Piotr, Bobby, and Kitty offered to reassure him. He only partially accepted it. The sight of his institute being purged and cluttered almost seemed appropriate. It was another instance of being humbled, as if the deaths of Magneto and Isaac weren’t enough. He made sure to fully absorb the feeling. It would help ensure that his plans for the future were more successful.

“We don’t just need reform. We need to rebuild the X-men on every level,” said Professor Xavier, “We can’t just be a school anymore. We can’t just be vigilantes either. We need to be the ideal…a standard for which mutants of future generations can aspire.”

“So what will we end up being?” asked Bobby intently.

“That’s kind of why we’re here and not in District X helping with the new academy,” said Kitty, “We figured that the end of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative meant we could rejoin the X-men.”

“Why? Were the minor leagues that bad with X-Factor?” asked Logan.

“I wouldn’t say they were bad. I admit having my girlfriend in the team helped,” Bobby conceded, “But we’re X-men. That’s what we trained to be. That’s where we belong.”

“Which is exactly why Emma Frost and I agree that you should stay with the Academy of Tomorrow,” said Professor Xavier.

“What?!” exclaimed Kitty, “Do I have to print out and repeat what Bobby just said?”

“It’s not for the reason you think, Kitty. It has more to do with my own vision rather than your ability as X-men. At the moment, I don’t know how the X-men will operate in this new world. For once, there’s no clear plan. White Cell and Asteroid M completely changed the human/mutant dynamic.”

“So you’re cutting us out of the loop?” said Bobby, who shared Kitty’s sentiment.

“Speak for yourself. At least you can go back to your hot nudist girlfriend!” spat Kitty.

“That’s not fair, Katya,” said Piotr as he tried to restrain his lover.

“I understand and appreciate your sentiment, but we need to think long term,” said Professor Xavier, who maintained a reasonable tone, “Unlike the others, you’re both still young. You still need to complete your education. You must also consider the wishes of your parents. As I’m sure you know, they still worry about you.”

“My mom called and chewed your ear off for an hour, didn’t she?” muttered Kitty.

“I hate to think what my dad said,” muttered Bobby.

The Professor fell silent, which essentially confirmed their suspicions. Thankfully, Sage stepped in to offer a different perspective.

“Don’t think class is all you have to look forward to. There are other reasons why most of us feel you should stay at the Academy of Tomorrow,” said Sage.

“Did Hank convince you they’re better off without us or something?” muttered Bobby.

“Actually, he convinced me that X-Factor would benefit from having two trained X-men at the school,” said Sage, “Now that District X is working with the Academy, we’re making ourselves a much bigger target. We need to make sure that new mutants have to decide whether to move to Asteroid M or live their lives in a world of hate and fear. Having two X-men on board would certainly help.”

When put in that context, it seemed more appealing. Bobby and Kitty had already established themselves at the Academy of Tomorrow. They served as unwitting mentors to many young mutants, especially those in X-Factor. They proved with the Asteroid M affair that they could accomplish great things. It wasn’t quite like the X-men, but it was something to build on.

Professor Xavier allowed Bobby and Kitty to fume a bit more. Despite their reluctance, they didn’t contest his decision any further. It was a difficult time for the X-men and not just because they no longer had government support. The very purpose of the X-men was now in question. While the team was united once again, the path before them was mired in uncertainty.

“I’m confident that the two of you will serve X-Factor well,” the Professor told them, “I always envisioned someone else taking over the role of educating mutants. Emma’s academy is more equipped at the moment. I’m far less confident in what the future holds for the X-men.”

“Hope you’re not getting too fatalistic on us, Chuck. That’s my job and Rogue is still my backup,” said Logan.

“Piss off, Logan,” grumbled Rogue as she lit another cigarette.

“Language, Rogue,” scolded Mystique.

“I’m not trying to sound overly dire, but when my oldest friend gives his life to save a world that I helped complicate, I’m forced to reevaluate my vision,” he went one, “I still believe that the X-men can be a force for good. We don’t need government resources to be heroes. We don’t need a political agenda to foster peace between humans and mutants.”

“Although logistically speaking, it’s going to be a hell of a lot harder without a plan,” Logan pointed out.

“A plan will emerge, but for now the X-men must get back to basics. We’re facing a new host of threats. The mission of the X-men won’t change. We’ll continue to protect this vulnerable world that hates and fears us. We’ve lost some good friends because of our recent missteps. The best way we can honor their memory is to stay united as the X-men move forward.”

There were still plenty of mixed emotions throughout the team. Moving forward seemed so daunting after the divide between the X-men and X-Force. With the deaths of Isaac and Magneto still fresh in their minds, they still had plenty of motivation to build a better future.

Kitty and Bobby remained dismayed at the prospect of staying at the Academy of Tomorrow, but they understood that they had a vital role to play. Sage, Mystique, and Domino had their own roles apart from the X-men. Kurt still had his personal issues with Amanda on Nova Roma. For Logan and Piotr, the X-men still felt like a team in disarray. Now that the divisions of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative were behind them, though, there was a renewed sense of hope.

That hope was still mired in sorrow for Rogue. She hadn’t said much since they returned from Asteroid M. She didn’t even stand with the others while they watched Agent Brand load up the last truck. Her thoughts and prayers were still with Isaac. Domino struggled with the same feelings. His death struck them on a much deeper level. He was the man who helped rebuild their souls. Now he was gone.

“You gonna be okay, mon amour?” asked Remy, who had since put his cigarettes away.

“Zhis steady diet of nicotine doesn’t appear to be working for you, Rogue,” said Kurt, who was doing her best to console his sister along with Mystique.

“Ah’m not trying to make anything work. Ah’m just trying to make sense of it all,” she sighed, “The Professor keeps talking about rebuilding and reuniting. But this annoying little voice in mah head keeps saying…at what cost?”

“That must be the same annoying voice that’s telling me we could have done more,” said Domino.

“We were all there. We did everything we could possibly do short of going back in time,” Mystique pointed out.

“Still doesn’t mean it was worth it,” muttered Rogue.

“Ain’t nobody can put a cost on losing someone close to you, but take it from a guy that done lost many loved ones…the folks who pay the ultimate price be the only ones that understand,” said Remy in a caring tone.

“You really think Isaac understood?”

“Isaac vas a man of God, Rogue,” said Kurt, who offered his support as well, “He believed in giving his life for something greater. His sacrifice makes your life and everyone else’s that much more meaningful.”

Rogue felt another round of sobs approaching. She turned around and stepped away from the others, flicking away her half-finished cigarette in the process. Needing space as well, Domino walked off in another direction so she could make sense of everything on her own. Remy followed Rogue and consoled her with a warm embrace. Kurt and Mystique tried to follow as well, but Remy waved them down. She needed a shoulder to cry on and it might as well be his.

“Ah don’t doubt he was sincere, even if he was tormented at times,” she said in a strained tone, “It just feels like he made this sacrifice too soon. There was so much more Ah wanted to learn from him.”

“He wouldn’t have made that sacrifice if he didn’t think you could carry on without him,” Remy said while offering a tender gesture, “Everything he taught you is still there. Now you gotta be the one to use it.”

“Ah just don’t know if Ah’m ready,” she said with tears forming in her eyes.

“Remy has faith that you are…just like Isaac.”

Her tears of sorrow turned to sobs as she buried her face into Remy’s shoulder. Isaac’s death embodied the price they all paid for being part of this struggle. Having learned the value of faith under his guidance, Rogue had the strong soul she would need in this new world. That faith would just have to be a lot stronger as she mourned him.

While the X-men pondered the future of their team, Agent Brand and SWORD cleared out what was left of the past. The institute was soon cleared of all government resources. Agent Brand was already guiding some of the trucks out. Her departure meant that the Mutant Monitoring Initiative was officially dead. It also meant that the long-term consequences of this failed act could officially begin.

Canada – Abandoned White Cell Base

‘It’s officially over. My career as a Green Beret is done. Somehow I thought I would be more broken up. I served my country for all these years. It made me a better man. I guess it’s hard to be emotional when that same country gives you orders that could lead to the end of the fucking world. That’s not the battle I care to fight anymore. Country or no country, I’m still a soldier. I still have plenty of missions left in me.’

Former Captain Jack Freeman was one of many for which the Mutant Monitoring Initiative had affected. That initiative combined his duties as a soldier with his status as a mutant. For years, he avoided mixing the two. He had been determined to be a soldier first and a mutant second. Now it was impossible to separate the two. For future missions, he actually had to embrace it.

That led him to Canada. While White Cell had been officially dissolved, many of their facilities remained intact. It still felt strange for Captain Freeman as he walked through the gated perimeter. Even though the base was officially abandoned, it was still very active.

The MSA and various military forces had long since cleared out every White Cell base. However, the manpower it once employed was still in place. It just needed new leadership and direction. That was where General Grimshaw came in. He was the first one the former Green Beret encountered upon entering the base.

“You’re late,” said the General as he met up with him just outside the gate.

“I got held up. You’d be surprised how much paperwork there is for a mutant soldier being discharged,” said Jack.

“I just ended a decorated military career on a very bitter note. Trust me, Captain. I’m not surprised by much.”

“I don’t doubt that, sir. But we’ll need to get used to the idea that I’m not a captain anymore and you’re not a general.”

“Those ranks were earned, not given. We can resign from the United States military, but not from our duty,” said the General strongly, “It would be too easy for me to retire early and spend the rest of my golden years working on my golf game. I’m too much a general as much as you’re too much a soldier. Given how our last mission ended, we need to take a different approach.”

General Grimshaw gestured for the former Green Beret to follow him. He led him deeper into the base where the seeds of their next mission had already been sewn. Jack couldn’t help but be impressed by what he saw.

The General already had dozens of former White Cell units hard at work. Sporting new uniforms with new logos, they were rebuilding or renovating every structure on the base. A steady stream of jeeps and supply trucks rolled in carrying everything from building materials to advanced weapons. While it was far from complete, the base already had a very different ambience. Everything was more professional and official. It had to be for what General Grimshaw had planned.

“We learned some harsh lessons with the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, Captain. Not only was our arrogance exposed. It nearly destroyed the whole world,” said the General as they navigated past squads of construction workers and operatives.

“No need to remind me, sir. I’ve lost enough sleep over it to make a case study for insomnia,” said Captain Freeman.

“I hope you’re not too hard on yourself because it wasn’t your fault. The system failed us. It failed the people we tried to protect and the people who tried everything in their power to make it work. The goal of the initiative was sound. Creating an official body with the authority to police mutants makes sense. It just needs a better system to make it work.”

“I’m not going to debate the merits of any system, sir. I know I’d lose that debate. I’m just anxious for a little redemption.”

“You’re in good company, Captain,” said General Grimshaw, “Like the initiative, White Cell was also a flawed system. Say what you will about private military companies, but they still employ good people. They’ve been in disarray since their boss tried to screw the world over with his little clone army. Nearly every government was content to just let them die off. Since it’s never a good idea to leave thousands of trained killers unemployed, I stepped in. I kept White Cell’s infrastructure intact. I originally planned on integrating it with the MSA. Now, it’s going to take the place of the MSA.”

The two decorated soldiers stopped just in front of the base’s most ambitious construction project. It emerged from the very ruins in which Romulus launched his attack. It had been destroyed by the X-men during their rescue operation. Now it was already being rebuilt. A maze of scaffolding, concrete, and steel was already taking shape. It promised to be the new heart of a new mission.

“Do you know what the biggest flaw in government is, Captain?” asked the General as he looked over the structure.

“Is that rhetorical question? Because even I can’t adapt to certain concepts,” said the former Green Beret.

“No adaptation is necessary. It’s a simple question of logistics. You see, under the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, the incentives weren’t in place. We worked within the whims of policy, politics, and personal grudges. There were too many conflicting voices and not enough vision. We couldn’t adapt to what we were facing. Our inflexible ineptitude made bad situations worse and worse situations catastrophic.”

“So how is this little endeavor of yours going to be different?” asked Jack, “I know you wouldn’t ask me to be part of it if it wasn’t ambitious.”

“It’s more than ambitious. It’s a new approach to securing this world from human/mutant conflict. Think of it as a business. White Cell decimated global defenses and the end of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative left every government exposed. That’s where we come in. With White Cell’s resources, we can provide the world with the security it needs. We can take the decisions surrounding mutant policy out of the hands of corrupt political systems.”

“For a fee, I assume.”

“That’s the business aspect of it. That’s also where the incentives line up,” reasoned the General, “We need to have something at stake in keeping the peace between humans and mutants. Because at the end of the day, money will usually trump fear and bigotry.”

“Sounds like it may put us at odds with the X-men,” Jack commented.

“Only to the point where our mission intersects with their,” he replied, “The X-men are in just as much disarray. Officially, they’re back to being a weird blend of a vigilante group, a private militia, and a non-profit advocacy group. Our new operation will have no such ambiguity. If there’s a mutant threat, we get paid to contain it. White Cell already has the resources in place. I’ve already lined up a number of countries willing to pay us to police their mutants while they pull themselves together.”

“Sounds like something Gordon Gekko would be proud of,” said Jack dryly, “Maybe this is just the native San Franciscan in me, but isn’t business just as prone to corruption as government?”

“There’s always a chance for corruption. Given how mutant security groups like the Purifiers have turned out, that requires another incentive. One that will ensure we maintain a certain level of trust between humans and mutants.”

“And what does that incentive entail?”

“Turn around and see for yourself,” said the General.

Captain Freeman looked over his shoulder where he was met with a sight that would surely set the tone for this new mission. One of the larger convoy trucks had just arrived without him noticing. From the back of the truck, a team of familiar faces emerged.

They included James and Heather Hudson, Jean-Paul and Jean-Marie Beaubier, Christopher Nord, Mary Walker, Walter Langkowski, Eugene Judd, and Xi’an McCoy. They were also known as Vindicator, Guardian, Northstar, Aurora, Agent Zero, Typhoid Mary, Sasquatch, Puck, and Karma. They were White Cell’s former alpha unit and now they were wearing new uniforms. As they approached Captain Freeman and General Grimshaw, they saluted. They were clearly ready for their new mission to begin.

“Is this the guy?” asked James Hudson, “This kid was actually a Green Beret?”

“Don’t be too harsh on him, James. He’s tougher than he looks,” said Heather.

“He better be,” said Sasquatch, “If we’re going to be under new management, it might as well be an upgrade.”

“At least he’s cute,” said Jean-Paul with a grin.

“I feel so welcome,” said the former Green Beret dryly.

Jack turned back towards General Grimshaw. His feelings towards this mission were still mixed, but he was officially convinced that the logistics were in place.

“So mentoring one mutant wasn’t enough? Now you want to take a page from Xavier’s playbook and lead a whole team?” he said.

“Failure aside, the Mutant Monitoring Initiative showed that humans and mutants could accomplish some amazing things when they work together. When it comes to securing this world from mutant threats, cooperation is our best weapon.”

“It’s essentially a new and improved White Cell. Hopefully with less lobotomies,” commented Puck, which earned him a look from Nord and Walker.

“No…not White Cell. Alpha Flight,” said General Grimshaw as he turned around to address his new team of soldiers, “We’re a couple of failed armies with the opportunity to carve out a second chance for ourselves. Let’s not waste it.”

His determined words resonated with both the mutants of Alpha Flight and the former White Cell operatives. This new identity offered so much promise. As the new base took shape, they would carry out this mission on their terms. The X-men and the government proved they weren’t capable of getting the job done. The burden was on their shoulders now and Jack Freeman was ready to bear it.

“In that case, count me in, General,” said the former Green Beret, “It would be a privilege to be your captain again here with Alpha Flight. But before I put on my new uniform, I have a funeral to attend.”

Church of Humanity – The Next Day

There were few constants in a world constantly under beleaguered with change. Death was one of those precious few that bound everyone with equal impact. Father Ryan Hansen often preached that in his sermons. With the death of Isaac, his preaching took form and substance.

“Thank you all for coming together in the midst of these trying times,” he said to a large congregation of mourners, “We’re gathered here today to say goodbye to a good man who had an amazing spirit. Death is never easy to confront. Losing a loved one can try even the strongest of spirits. However, I ask that you not see this service as mourning a loss. This man didn’t sacrifice his life so that it could be mourned. He sacrificed his life so that others may cherish their own.”

Father Hansen’s heartfelt musings reached a record crowd in the Church of Humanity. His pews had never been this full before. Every seat was occupied. Dozens more stood in the back. There was even a sizable crowd camped outside, listening to the sermon through a special video channel. Humans and mutants who had come together in this church joined for one brief moment of peace so they could say goodbye to Isaac.

That large crowd included many familiar faces in the front pews. The X-men were the most prominent. Scott, Jean, Warren, Bobby, Hank, Ororo, Logan, Rogue, Remy, Kurt Kitty, Betsy, Piotr, and Mystique joined Professor Xavier in the front row. Julian, Laura, Roberto, Sam, Noriko, Tabitha, Danielle, Santo, Rahne, Amara, and the Stepford Cuckoos from the Academy of Tomorrow sat in the pew adjacent to theirs. Emma Frost accompanied them alongside Shiro, James, and Dr. Nemesis. Moira, Sean, and Forge also stuck around for the sermon before heading back to Muir Island. The mutants of District X sat in the pews behind the X-men. Bishop, Sage, and Jamie shared a row with Jubilee, Laurie, Teon, Kenji, Idie, and Gabriel. Domino went out of her way be part of this service. Having known Isaac personally, she sat next to Rogue so they could support each other through this difficult event.

The only one who avoided being in the front was Captain Jack Freeman. While he had also played a part in Isaac’s final mission, it didn’t seem appropriate to sit with the people he undermined. Instead, he hid himself in the crowded pews alongside many other mourners.

Some were members that were not among those who followed Vargas to Asteroid M. Others were just curious onlookers who were struck by the story once it leaked out. The story of a single human that rejected the power offered by the High Evolutionary resonated with many. He took on an entire world of hostile mutants and was willing to sacrifice his life to save others. It obscured the notion that someone needed powers to be a hero. Isaac managed to accomplish taht feat through faith alone.

“Those of us who knew Isaac personally knew him as a complicated man,” said Father Hansen as he continued his service, “He came from a world of tragedy and violence. He was a man of great passion who was often misguided by those passions. Yet he dedicated himself to serving the Lord. He trusted me to teach him at a time when he was lost. He took those teachings to heart and I couldn’t be more proud of how he used them.”

Father Hansen had to pause for a moment. He found himself getting more emotional than he expected. He could see those same emotions amongst his flock, especially Rogue and Idie. Upon regaining his composure, he continued to honor his fallen spiritual brother.

“Isaac truly believed that some are blessed with a special power. Isaac wasn’t a mutant, but he reached out to them in a profound way. To him, they weren’t threats. They were only as dangerous as the souls that wielded them. It’s a belief that goes beyond mutation. It doesn’t matter if such power involves telepathy, money, or sheer physical talent. There’s still a soul at the heart of it all. He saw the gifts that others wielded as true messages from God.”

His words continued to evoke emotion throughout the church. Rogue and Idie each let out hard sobs. Mystique, Kurt, and Remy attempted to console Rogue while Jubilee and the rest of the Lights did the same for Idie. They were living proof that Isaac had reached people on a very spiritual level. Even though he was dead, that spirit would live on.

“In his last act, Isaac utilized the greatest blessing God had given him…his faith. It was through that faith that he had the courage to make his sacrifice,” Father Hansen went on, “So as we say our final goodbyes, let us do more than just pray for him. Let us celebrate the blessings that he preserved with his act of heroism. We all need to remind ourselves now and then just how vulnerable we are. For even in a world that seems chaotic, we persevere. In the end Isaac proved that we don’t need strength, invulnerability, or firepower to be a true hero. We need only faith and the courage to follow our hearts.”

Having sent his heavenly message, Father Hansen gestured for everyone in the pews to stand up. As they rose, the solemn preacher placed a bible and a rosemary bead cross atop Isaac’s decorated coffin. He performed a final gesture to bless his friend’s fallen spirit before leading the final prayers.

The ceremony struck many on a profound level. It had a very special impact for Charles Xavier and the X-men. The idea that one man could do something so amazing through the power of his faith offered hope in a time of great uncertainty. Isaac’s sacrifice called into question many of the notions that humans had about mutants and vice versa. It was a message that promised to resonate as the world adapted to new challenges.

Nova Roma – Later

Kurt Wagner had endured an emotional tug-of-war during his time with X-Force. Originally, he joined the team because he needed to be a hero again. Lying around and lamenting over Amanda wasn’t doing him any good. If nothing else, he needed something with which to distract himself. He ended up getting much more than that.

He certainly didn’t plan on making a connection with Wanda Maximoff. He opposed her numerous times before the Genosha exodus. Then when she was left stranded in Nova Roma, they found themselves drawn to one another. He could tell she developed feelings for him. He couldn’t avoid the feelings he developed for her as well. He fought them every step of the way. His heart told him he still loved Amanda, but his brain told him that his love wasn’t strong enough to overcome her mystical coma.

It left him in a difficult state, one which he needed time to resolve. After Isaac’s funeral had concluded, he returned to Nova Roma where he intended to check up on Amanda. Mystique went with him. Now that she had a firm grasp on the truth behind her past, she seemed ready to focus on the present.

“So how long do you plan on staying here this time?” asked Mystique as they made their way through the Curia.

“I haven’t decided yet,” said Kurt distantly.

“Does that mean you’ll go back to dwelling endlessly about your girlfriend’s condition?” she asked more seriously, “Because as your mother, I’m compelled to point out how unhealthy that would be.”

“You don’t need to remind me. Rogue said zhe same thing,” he sighed.

“All the more reason to take up her offer to rejoin her,” said the shape-shifter, “It’s not like you can’t visit Amanda whenever you want. Your powers literally make it a heartbeat away.”

“Are you actually encouraging me to join zhe X-men?” asked Kurt with a raised eyebrow, “Zhat almost sounds just as unhealthy for you.”

“Trust me. I take no pleasure in saying that. But my priorities have changed since White Cell. I’ve learned enough about my past to equip myself for the present. In case you’ve forgotten, I made a promise to your father. It’s about time I get back to keeping it.”

“I don’t see vhat zhat has to do vith me joining zhe X-men.”

“It’s a matter of support, son. Destiny’s latest visions have had one consistent component. The threat your father worked so hard to contain is fast approaching. Neither of us is in a position to face it alone. That’s why we need to be around people we can trust.”

“In other words, you vant Wolverine to keep an eye on me,” Kurt surmised, “You do realize zhis is a man you once shot in zhe eye, don’t you?”

“Like I said, my priorities have changed,” she admitted, “I’d rather not talk about my relationship with Wolverine at the moment. All you need to know is we’re trying to make the past and the present work. You and Rogue are now part of both. Besides, she needs you right now. After Isaac died, she’s been deeply distraught.”

“I know zhat, Mother. And I plan on being zhere for her,” he assured, “But right now, Amanda needs me.”

Mystique shook her head in frustration as she and Kurt neared the mystical research chamber. They passed by some Praetorian Guards along the way. This was a very secure area because it was where Margali Sefton and Shaman did all their mystical research. This bothered Mystique because it filled her son with false hope. He clearly loved this girl, but the circumstances surrounding her condition made that love painful.

“I’m sorry, son. I really am,” she said, sounding more sincere, “I know I’ve been somewhat insensitive to your recent plight with Amanda.”

“Zhis is actually zhe first time you seemed to really care,” he said as they stopped just outside the chamber door.

“That’s because I don’t like how she’s affecting you. Shaman and Margali have given no indication that Amanda will ever come out of that coma. I’m starting to think you were healthier growing attached with Wanda Maximoff.”

“Can ve please not bring zhat up?” he groaned.

“Why not? I know Wanda. She’s probably the only woman who maintains her composure in this horrendously fucked up world. I can’t see her ending up in a coma.”

“You sound like you’re trying to set me up vith her,” he said, rolling his eyes.

“I’m compelled to remind you that Wanda offered you a chance to join her in City X. She seemed to value your input. Since she’s taken on Magneto’s mantle once more, it would be a good position for whenever your father’s old demons reemerge.”

“Zhe only position zhat matters to me now is at Amanda’s side,” he said strongly as he opened the chamber door, “I admit, zhere were some emotions involved vith Vanda, but Amanda is still my lover. I’m going to stand by her until ve find a way to…”

Kurt immediately froze as soon as he stepped into the chamber. He gasped in horror as he and Mystique were met with a ghastly sight.

The entire chamber had been ransacked. Stacks of books had been torn apart or burned. Mystical artifacts had been damaged or completely destroyed. In the midst of the destruction, Shaman and Margali laid lifelessly near Amanda’s chamber. Shaman was still moving. Margali was not. What may have been the most horrifying sight of all was the chamber itself. It was empty. Amanda Sefton was gone.

“MARGALI! AMANDA!” Kurt exclaimed.

“Holy shit!” gasped Mystique, “Destiny, how could you not see this one coming?”

Kurt ran out ahead of his mother and knelt by the now vacant chamber where Margali was lying. He tried desperately to wake her, but it was already too late. She wasn’t moving or breathing. There were no wound on her body, but it was painfully clear that there had been a struggle of sorts and she lost that struggle.

While Kurt was quickly overcome with dread, Mystique checked on Shaman. He was barely conscious and unlike Margali, he had a nasty-looking wound in his abdomen. His eyes bore all the signs of someone who had seen a horrific sight.

“Don’t you dare pass out!” said Mystique strongly, “What happened here? This chamber was supposed to be safe!”

“It…was too strong,” he said weakly, “We tried…to stop it. Wasn’t…enough.”

“Can you be more specific than it? And what the hell happened to Amanda?!”

“It…took her,” said Shaman through strained words, “Margali…fought to her last breath. Still wasn’t enough. Now…they have her. The power…is theirs.”

Mystique tried to get more answers out of this man. They could be connected to her mission for Azazel. Unfortunately, Shaman was too wounded. He passed out before he could define who or what was behind this. After holding Margali’s lifeless body in his arms, he turned towards the empty chamber. There was no trace left of Amanda. Her body was gone. Her spirit was gone. He hadn’t been by her side to protect her. Whatever secrets she had within her were lost.

“Amanda…forgive me. I’ve failed you,” he cried in a wave of sorrow, “I swear I vill find you! Do you hear me? I vill find who did zhis and make zhem pay!”

Unknown Location

Life and death shared unique relationship. The intrinsic value of one was directly derived from the other. Life was more precious because of death and death had an impact because of life. Part of what made this relationship special was that so few understood this relationship. Even those that did could never hope to master it.

For some, the forces of life and death were nothing more than mechanical states. They could be tweaked, tuned, and even controlled. Nathanial Essex was among the few who had mastered these forces. While the Legacy Virus may have led to his death, his mastery over life ensured that such a state was only a temporary setback.

“He’s waking up. Hurry! Make sure he’s stable this time.”

“He? Don’t you think that’s a poor use of words?”

“Quit being coy! Just do it!”

Those jumbled voices emerged from a deathly abyss. From that realm in which no one was supposed to return, the consciousness of Mr. Sinister emerged. It was drawn to those voices as it settled into a new body. That body had been gestating in a special artificial womb. As the two familiar voices argued, the womb ruptured and the body emerged along with Sinister’s consciousness.

“No! It’s too soon!” exclaimed Gabriel Summers as he rushed to towards the womb.

“Wait…I don’t think that’s our decision to make,” said Madelyn as she held him back.

Gabriel and Madelyn watched anxiously as the figure remained in a fetal position for a few moments. The special womb from which it emerged was the size of a refrigerator and far more complex. That body wasn’t supposed to be ready. Yet it appeared alive and well.

As the figure rose up, Sinister opened his eyes to reveal his distinct reddish glow. He let out a euphoric groan as he stretched out his new body. He was dazed in a way not unlike an infant that had just been born. Everything felt strange and different, but the rush of being alive again was invigorating.

“Ahhhh! That was a nice, refreshing nap,” he proclaimed, “My dearest godchildren…I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”

“Um…I’d rather you not lavish us with praise just yet, Uncle,” said Gabriel, “We weren’t able to deliver as we hoped.”

“What do you mean?”

“I would suggest you look in a mirror, but looking down works just as well,” said Madelyn.

As his mind and body became more coherent, he realized what they were referring to. That strange and different sensation he felt when he emerged from the wound wasn’t just a side-effect of being reborn.

“I’m…a woman,” he said in daze.

“You trained us to be fighters. Not geneticists,” said Madelyn.

“These backups you had in place kicked in right after the Legacy Virus incident,” Gabriel explained, “It was a real hassle finding this place, but once we did it took a while to get everything up and running. Making a new body was tricky, even with the instructions you left. It was so tricky we sort of damaged the Y-chromosome. The only way to make your body viable was to make you a woman.”

It was a jarring sensation, dying a man and waking up a woman. Looking down at his new form, Sinister confirmed that this new body had all the trappings of a shapely feminine figure. He trailed his hands down his face and over his now ample breasts. Then continued down his skin, noting the same distinct white texture he had before. As the reality settled in, he started laughing. He laughed so hard that it started to worry Gabriel and Madelyn.

Now is it time to start worrying?” questioned Gabriel.

“I honestly don’t know anymore,” said Madelyn distantly.

“Ha! Oh this is certainly going to make things interesting,” he said, “I look forward to seeing Selene’s reaction when she sees me like this.”

“Selene? She’s alive too?” gasped Madelyn.

“Uncle, are you sure you’re…” began Gabriel.

“I’ve never been better, my godchild! And please…call me Miss Sinister now,” said Sinister with a grin, “As for my beloved Selene, we shared a brief encounter during my nap. Apparently, death isn’t enough to keep her busy. She’s already set our next plan into motion. Dare I say, it’s nothing short of apocalyptic!”

End of Volume 7

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