[None of this is mine]
Did you think four billion dead would ever go unnoticed?
Jean woke with a start, sitting straight up in bed.
At her side, Scott looked up, his eyes hidden by the ruby quartz goggles he wore while sleeping.
"What's wrong, honey?"
She leaned against him as he put his warm arms around her, drawing strength from him just as he did from her.
"I don't know," she admitted. "I thought I sensed... something. But it's gone now."
Scott frowned in consideration. It was rare among the X-Men for any of them to sense something and then have it just go away.
"We should see if Cerebro detected anything," he decided and threw back the covers. Jean sighed. She knew what Scott was like when he made up his mind. Still, it would be a reassurance to see if Cerebro had detected anything as well. With Professor Xavier arrested by the government and Betsy not herself since the episode with the Crimson Dawn, she was the only telepath she could really rely on.
Quietly, the married couple got dressed and headed out of the converted boathouse they'd made their home. It was past three in the morning and the mansion grounds were dark. They were peaceful as well, with the repetitive sound of crickets and the occasional owl. Dew beaded the grass they walked through, leaving a shimmering silver trail behind them.
Jean reached out to take Scott's hand. "It's beautiful out here," she murmured.
Her husband smiled. "Almost makes you forget about how far the X-Men still have to go for the dream."
Always, Scott was thinking of the Professor's dream. Jean understood that, and loved him for it, but at times like this, she just wanted him to put it all away for a while and see the positive instead of the negative.
"I just think it's beautiful," she repeated, laying her head on his shoulder. He chuckled and put an arm around her.
"Not as beautiful as you, Jean."
Jean smiled as she sensed the truth of his thoughts in his words. Then they turned to surprise.
Jean lifted her head. Fifty feet away from them, a woman was standing, looking out over the ocean. She had short red hair and was dressed in an unfamiliar uniform. Her eyes were old and sad, one covered by a triangular tattoo.
Jean put a hand to her mouth. "It's me!" she gasped.
Sleepily, Rogue rolled over, wondering what had woken her. The window was open, the lacy curtains fluttering softly in the breeze, but she'd kicked her covers off and her legs were getting cold.
Groaning, she sat up to grab her sheets and gasped. She kept a wooden chair at the foot of her bed to dump clothes on, and right now a man was straddling it, his arms crossed along the back, his chin resting on them as he gazed at her with a smile on his face. He was mostly in shadow, but she could see he was dressed in scuffed blue and brown leather, with a tattered cape hanging from his shoulders.
"Remy?" Rogue gasped, not sure it was him at all. He didn't say anything and she glared at him angrily. "How dare ya come inta mah room in th' middle o' th' night, ya pervert!" Fumbling in the dark for the tablelamp, she flicked it one and turned back to continue her yelling.
Except for the clothes covering it, the chair was empty.
Just after dawn, the X-Men sat around the table in the War Room, many yawning from being woken so early.
"Why are we all in here?" Bobby asked. "Just because you two saw a woman?"
Scott shook his head. "It wasn't just a woman, Bobby. Except for the hair and the tattoo, she looked just like Jean."
"Tattoo?" Bobby sniggered.
"But she disappeared when we tried to approach her," Jean finished.
Rogue glared at Remy where he sat across from her. "Maybe she used ya way in," she sneered quietly.
He looked at her blankly. "Hehn?"
"Ya were in mah room last night, admit it."
"No, I wasn'."
"Don't lie ta me. Ah saw ya."
Their little conversation hadn't gone unnoticed. "You saw Remy?" Scott asked.
"It wasn' me!" Remy protested. "I don' go in a lady's window uninvited." He smiled at Rogue. "I'm not Joseph."
She turned red. "Ya got that right."
"Cut it out, you two. It's entirely possible that the same thing which happened to Jean and myself happened to you. For now, let's not argue about it." He looked around the circular table, his hands clasped behind his back. "I had Logan check out the spot where the woman was, and he claims he didn't smell anything."
"Nothin' to smell."
"Jean also used Cerebro and she found a disturbance on the astral plane."
"What kind of disturbance?" Bishop asked warily. He looked annoyed that anyone had gotten onto the grounds and past his security.
Jean ran a hand through her hair. "It was some kind of a... ripple. It was so light I barely managed to detect it."
"What does it mean?"
"I don't know. I've never sensed anything like it before."
Bishop's eyes narrowed. "Is this an aftereffect of what Onslaught did?"
Scott frowned. "That's what we have to find out."
Uninvited to the meeting of the X-Men, Joseph wandered into the kitchen to make breakfast. It bothered him a little that the X-Men, with the exception of Rogue, hadn't wanted him at the meeting. He lived at the mansion, but he didn't really feel as though he belonged. Or rather, he didn't feel as though the X-Men wanted him to. He'd considered leaving, but where would he go? The X-Men had told him he was a wanted criminal everywhere on the planet. Besides, he wasn't sure how to ask Rogue to join him.
As he was magnetically working the frying pan and spatula on the stove, he noticed Rogue was actually sitting in the kitchen with him. He blinked in surprise, not having heard her come in, then turned to ask her how the meeting went, as well as whether she wanted her eggs fried or scrambled. Then he saw her more clearly and his jaw dropped.
She was dressed in a different uniform than she normally wore, one which had puffy shoulders and made her look more regal. She was also wearing her hair straight, though it still had the signature white stripe in it.
It wasn't her appearance that startled him, though. It was the baby she cradled in her arms. He seemed about five months old and she crooned to him without a sound lovingly.
"Rogue, what-? Where did you get the baby?!" Distantly, he wondered if there was something she wasn't telling him.
Rogue looked up at him and smiled, and to his intense surprise, held the baby up for him to take. Stammering, he backed up a step and she looked disappointed, then disappeared.
Joseph gaped at the place where she'd been, until he smelled smoke and had to turn and rescue the eggs.
In the War Room, the X-Men were still discussing what to do, without reaching any answers, when Magneto stepped out of the shadows. Not Joseph, the amnesiatic young man who stayed with them, but Magneto, master of Magnetism and mutant terrorist, with his flowing red cape and helmet.
The reaction amongst the X-Men was immediate. Instantly, they spread out to surround him, mutant powers at the ready.
"I knew he'd revert back ta form," Logan growled and leaped at him.
"Logan!" Rogue yelled. "Don't hurt-" Magneto vanished and Wolverine crashed into the wall. "-him?"
The X-Men stared at each other. "Uh, what just happened here?" Bobby asked.
"Oh, God," Bishop whispered, sitting down. "That was Magneto."
He shook his head in frustration. "You don't understand! The hair, the clothes - I recognized him. That was the Magneto who led the X-Men in that alternate world where Apocalypse ruled!"
"Oh, my stars and garters," Hank breathed.
"How is that possible?" Scott asked. "You told us that world was destroyed. It was made so that it never existed."
Bishop's eyes were more desperate than anyone had ever seen them. "I know it was him, Scott."
Scott drew himself up calmly, determined not to let anyone realize how unnerved he was by all of this. "All right, then, people, keep your eyes open. We need to find out just what's going on."
Over the next few days, the appearances continued to increase. Bobby ran blushing out of the bathroom when, as he described it, a short haired, angry looking Storm walked in. Logan nearly tore his room apart attacking Sabretooth, who calmly ignored him. A good two thirds of the X-Men showed up at various times and places, some more than once. They didn't make any kind of sound and no appearance lasted for more than a few seconds. Nor, while they did seem aware of the regular inhabitants of the mansion, did any of them try to communicate. With one exception.
Rogue had been walking out of the gym after lifting weights, a towel around her neck, when she saw Gambit standing before her. The otherworld Gambit. He was far more scruffy and dirty than his counterpart, but his face was the same.
Impatient, Rogue stopped, waiting for him to disappear. "Well?" She demanded after a few seconds.
He smiled at her and mouthed three words before fading out, leaving Rogue feeling very shaken.
She didn't tell anybody.
"Oh, my stars and garters," Hank murmured.
"What is it?" Jean whispered, peering over his shoulder. After three days of watching the alter X-Men, as they were called, blip in and out, they'd despaired of ever being able to examine one. But today, one of them had wandered into the lab. He'd only stayed for a few moments, but had been replaced by another, then another. They were cycling through their numbers and Hank had never worked so fast.
At present, a teenage girl with pink skin and hair sat on the examining table, kicking her feet idly.
"What do you sense from her, Jean?" Hank asked, evading her earlier question.
Jean shook her head. "I've tried to contact her telepathically, but it's like grasping smoke. I know there's something there," She gestured at the girl, who vanished. "But I don't know what it is."
In the girl's place, a man appeared, and Jean gasped. It was Cyclops, the first time anyone had seen this incarnation of him. She cringed at the sight of the scar tissue travelling up one side of his face and over his eye.
Hank looked at Cyclops and shuddered. "Now that I've been able to get some readings, I believe I know what they are."
Jean watched in fascination as her husband was replaced by a hairless, grey-skinned man in a gawdy purple costume.
"Oh?" She asked.
"What do you mean, they're ghosts?" Scott demanded.
Once again, the X-Men were gathered in the War Room, this time with Joseph attending as well.
Hank leaned back. "They're dead, Scott. Solid as they seem, none of them have any real substance, and they're composed of materials believed to make up spirits, by human and Sh'iar scientists both."
"Oh, great," Bobby moaned, putting his arms over his head. "We're haunted."
Ororo looked puzzled. "But why show up now? The moment when their world ended was months ago."
Jean sighed. "We know that Onslaught was influencing the astral plane. These ghosts are very delicate, that's why they only manifest for a few seconds at a time. Onslaught probably made it impossible for them to do so."
"But why show up at all?"
Hank and Jean looked at each other. "We don't know," he admitted. "I suppose we're going to have to ask them."
Patiently, Jean sat in the Ready Room, Cerebro's helmet on her head, and concentrated. The rest of the X-Men had gone into town for the day, so their living minds wouldn't interfere with her search.
#Hello,# she called telepathically. #Can you hear me?#
There was no answer and she sighed, adjusting the machine a little. She'd been at this for ten hours, trying to find the right frequency to make contact.
#Hello,# she called again.
Jean blinked. Finally, she had gotten something. She adjusted Cerebro one notch higher.
#Can you hear me?#
A little more.
Excited, she adjusted one last band upwards.
Jean had kept her eyes closed as she concentrated. Now she opened them to see Magneto standing before her. Even though she knew he was only a ghost, he had an aura of power around him that seemed to fill the room.
Still, she knew she had only seconds before he vanished again.
#Why are you here?# Jean asked. #What do you want?#
To her surprise, instead of answering, he reached out to touch her, and she was washed away in images.
She saw New York in ruins, Magneto standing under the frail protection of a magnetic shield with Rogue and a baby in his arms.
His heart filled with grief and regret, he watched bombs fall across the city and the continent. X-Men ran, trying to find safety, but there was nowhere to run, and Magnus forced himself to watch as they died in agony.
His shield failing, he looked up and wondered if all the deaths, all their deaths, would be worth it, and whether anyone would remember them when they were gone.
Jean reared back, gasping. Magneto had vanished and she sagged in her chair, shaking.
"Oh, Scott, it was horrible." Jean clung to her husband. "The way they died was so terrible, and now they can't let go."
"What do you mean?"
Gathered again in the War Room, the mutants all looked at her expectantly. Jean shivered, forcing the memories of their counterparts deaths down.
"They had to destroy all of reality for one single chance at a better world. Our world. But they don't know if it worked, and they can't rest until they do."
Bobby blinked in confusion. "But, they keep blipping in and out all the time. Can't they tell?"
She shook her head. "They're barely here even then, and they're looking through a great fog. Through death itself. They're trapped there."
Scott frowned. "So what do they want from us?"
Her eyes filled with tears. "Remember when we were in the desert, and we were sure the world was going to end? Remember what Professor Xavier said? What he did? They want the same gift. They want closure."
They all came to the funeral. All the X-Men, X-Force, X-Factor, Excalibur, Generation X, and every human and mutant who'd ever cared enough to be their friend. All gathered in their colours and their power in the tiny graveyard where the X-Men had always buried their dead. There was a new grave there, empty, but with a plaque on it which read:
For those who sacrificed
so that we may live at all.
As the first X-Man, Scott rose to give the benediction, standing under a tall humming machine, designed by Forge to give the spirits more strength to remain for a while, so that they'd know they were being honoured.
"You all know the story," Scott began. "Of how our world was replaced by a horrible hell ruled by Apocolypse when Legion went back in time and assassinated Professor Xavier." They all looked at him expectantly. "We have been told this, but we must take the truth of it on faith, since, with the exception of Bishop, none of us remember it.
"But we, all of us who are here today, have faith, that this world did exist, and that it was stopped by those who refused to give up, to give in. And it is to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice that we are here today."
He paused to take a breath as the crowds murmured. Magneto was standing suddenly in the center of the graveyard, looking up at Scott regally. He nodded, and other X-Men began to appear behind him, forming ranks before others; normal humans and mutants who stretched out, fading into infinity. Scott had a sudden feeling that the entire population of that dead world was here today, listening to him speak. He swallowed and looked back down at his notes.
"Uh, we aren't the only ones to act on faith, for it was faith that led the X-Men of that world to trust the word of Bishop," he glanced at the big man, who, to his shock, had a tear streaming down his cheek as he looked on the assembled dead. "They believed him then, and we believe him now. Thank you, Bishop."
Everyone turned to look at Bishop, murmuring their thanks. So did the ghosts, silently smiling. Bishop closed his eyes, but otherwise didn't react. Scott wondered where he got his strength.
"Now, thanks to all these X-Men's efforts, that world is no more. The world we have now has its problems, but in no way is it as bad, and we thank our guests here today for making the sacrifice they did. It will not be forgotten, and neither will they. They can go to their well-earned rest, and know that their world is safe, and we X-Men who exist now will protect it. You have my word on that."
Around the cemetary, the living voiced their assents, all calling out their agreement until the tombstones echoed with their shouts. Then silence fell.
Magneto walked forward, stepping though the grass without moving a blade or leaving a shadow. He walked right up to Scott and held out his hand. Without hesitation, Scott took it, his hand passing through.
Magneto vanished, his followers disappearing with him. Somewhere in the crowd, Scott heard someone fight down sobs.
"Thank you again," he murmured.
Jean walked up to his side. "That was beautiful, Scott."
He looked at her. "Are they at peace?"
She smiled, looking more relaxed than she had in days. "I believe so. Knowing this world was safe was the most important thing in the world to them. I can't imagine anything that could hold them here now that that worry is gone."
Scott put his arm around her, slowly walking with the crowds that were already making their way back to the mansion. "I'm glad to hear it."
The X-Men filed out of the cemetary sporadically, some of them leaving immediately, others waiting for a while to make their own peace with the dead. Rogue was one of the last to leave. Unnerved by the sight of her counterpart holding her son, she stayed at the grave, thinking, then slowly walked away as the sun began to go down.
In the bushes, there for only seconds at a time, a young man in blue leather and a red tattered cape watched her go with haunted eyes.