It began simply, as so many things do before devolving into a total clusterfuck.
The crackling sound was the first alert, a noise crawling over the eardrums so low it was near subconscious. The sound of flames, but no accompanying smell of smoke. I rolled out of bed and turned to the window, where the night beyond was on fire. With a shout of alarm, I sprang toward the sill. The mansion - no, the grounds weren't on fire, but from the garden beyond the outermost layer of stone terraces, two great fiery pillars split the sky.
Even after two attacks on the mansion itself, Charles hadn't gotten around to installing a better security, so there was a chance this was another. It would take too long to run through the mansion, so that didn't even occur to me. I shoved up the sash with both hands and sprang onto the roof, bare feet gripping corrugated tile, and rolled for the edge.
When I leaped over the last stone railing near the source of the fire, I knew I was in trouble. The recently-installed slabs of marble, grave markers for Jean and Scott, spun in the air around the third, largest pillar of stone. The only thing more alarming than the sight of three floating headstones was the scent that caught my nostrils.
I swallowed through a hard knot in my throat. "You're dead." I soft-footed it over bare wet blades of grass, approaching the figure outlined in a billow of fire.
The headstones crashed to the ground. The woman who stood before them had long hair, distinguishable as blood red even lit with the fire that hovered over her tall, leggy frame, rising up from her without touching her, tongues of flame licking upward to form the brilliance of fiery wings. They folded, collapsed into a single hot blue point, and disappeared. "I'm the Phoenix, Logan. Do you really think I could ever stay dead?"
She laughed, low and throaty, and my skin prickled. Just below the skin, the claws itched. The thinnest flap separated them from sliding out into the space beyond my knuckles but I held it in. I didn't know why she was here. I had to know.
Smelled like her. Looked like her, sounded like her. But it couldn't be. I kept my distance, until the first muffled sobs reached me. Then I walked toward her, hands forming loose fists without me thinking on it. I'd seen her sorrow turn to rage before, oh yeah, right before getting thrown hard into the med-bay wall. A little animal caution was called for.
"I did what I could to fix it," she sobbed, and as I drew even with her, red hair curtained her face. She was looking down at the headstones. "I'm so sorry."
"It's okay, Jean." I held out a soothing hand, but I shouldn't have even said that much. There were some promises that couldn't - shouldn't be made. For fear of breaking them, however well-meant. 'It's okay' was a contract and I didn't like the lie.
"No, it's..." She shook her head and that long, red hair seethed with the movement. "I did what I could to make up for Charles. But this..." Everything else stopped and the world narrowed down to me and Jean.
"I can't fix this." Jean turned to me, her face streaked with red tears. The trails throbbed in tune with the rise and fall of her chest, but it wasn't blood that trickled down her face; it was incandescent. Jean cried a river of fire, and it glittered with dark opalescence, reflecting stars, the spin of constellations, a cosmic imbalance the mind shied away from. "Will you help me?"
"Of course," I replied instantly, unthinking.
Jean leaned in and brushed her lips against my cheek. "Then do this, for me. Because I can't anymore." She pressed something hard and compact into my hand and her warmth, her fragrance filled my senses. She was everywhere. "I tried to be close to him and that only made things worse. Find him. Help me fix it."
Then she dissolved into smoke and left me standing beside only her headstone. The other two grave markers had vanished.