Illusion

Burning Death

Sweat glistens on my face and drips down my back. My blue and yellow uniform sticks to my skin. Sentinels fly everywhere attempting to destroy my friends. Lasers narrowly miss our bodies. Punches are thrown. People who can't fly are tossed into the air and left to catch themselves any way they can. I try to focus on the sparkling energy covering their most powerful weapons, but my concentration slips. There are too many that need my help more than the offense. Thankfully Storm, the Goddess of Weather, blasts the lasers with lightning. Normally this would be a piece of cake, but we are trying to incorporate everything we've taught our students while making what we're doing obvious. That way they can't say they didn't learn anything.

When the last Sentinel's head falls to the floor Cyclops calls out, "End simulation. Good work, people."

Colors melt away revealing the spotless room we tend to call the Danger Room. We walk to the staircase leading to the Danger Room controls where our students watch our training with Charles Xavier. Rather, supposed to watch.

"What did you learn today?" Banshee asks the pupils as we enter the room. He closes the door, blocking the only exit route. No one can be so desperate to get out of it they'll make a run for it. We make sure of that.

No one speaks for a moment. Then Kitty Pryde offers, "Take out the most powerful weapon first, teamwork benefits everybody, and utilize your teammate's strengths."

"Almost the exact way I phrased it in class," I congratulate her. "Do you all agree?" Some nod. Others give no sign of hearing my question. It seems like they've never been in my class at all. That's the problem with working with kids. Specifically, teenagers.

"All right, class dismissed," Xavier announces. He motions for me to stay behind. "I think I've found a way to encourage them to pay attention," he tells me.

"Really?" I sound dubious. "We've already tried everything we could think of short of threatening to strand them in D.C. They seem to learn best when there's a threat, but there's no way we're going to release Magneto."

Xavier laughs. "I was thinking something along the lines of…bonuses."

"Is this what you mean? Most of them are studying to join the X-Men, so they might see this as an added perk. How about…a special trip every few months to keep them focused?"

"Exactly. Thank you for your suggestion. I'll talk this over with Jean and Scott later. Do you mind telling Danielle?"

"Of course not, Professor." I follow him out of the room. We separate when I go into a side room, the teacher's lounge, for a cup of coffee. I open the door and unsurprisingly discover my fellow X-Man, teacher, and close friend Danielle Ribbons. "Don't you usually meditate in your room, Dani? Opps, I mean Contact," I say playfully.

Dani lowers herself gently to the floor. Her crossed legs unfold as the unearthly glow around her fades. "Nikki Storm, you know we only call each other by our codenames on the field. Do I call you Illusion during a greeting?" she scolds me for what feels like the 100 time on that particular topic.

"Sorry." More loudly, I say, "Anyway, Xavier thought of a way to help the kids. If they pay attention in class and actually learn something, we take them out on a field trip. Arcline, Dazzler, and Jubilee can give us discounts to their concerts. Whatever teens think is cool nowadays. You like it?"

"That sounds like it might work. Count me in. If you must know, I was meditating in here because your Danger Room sessions always take at least an hour, so I had time." Her cell phone rings, ending our conversation. She rushes over to her purse resting on a table. "Hi, Danny," she answers the call. Her husband lives with their young daughter Jordan in a nearby apartment. Even though Dani can teleport home in a second, she chooses to live here during the week.

"The two Dannys talking to each other yet again," I tease. I find it hilarious that both her nickname and her husband's name are the same. What a coincidence. I halt my teasing when her smile disappears.

"Oh no. I'll be right over. Tell her Mommy's coming. Goodbye." The lid shuts with a snap. "Nikki, can you tell the professor I'm going home? Jordan's having contractions again."

"No worries. You better hurry home, Jordan needs you." A look of relief crosses her face before she vanishes in a small puff of sparkly smoke. It dissolves quickly. I make my coffee and throw some clothes over my skintight leotard. When I drain the last drops I leave to find Professor Xavier, currently speaking with Phoenix and Cyclops in his study. I wait for them to finish before opening my mouth. "Professor, Contact went home. Her daughter was having issues again."

He sighs. "Very well. I'll send out a message saying class in canceled." Xavier closes his eyes and raises a hand to his temple. "There, her students know. I keep telling her to bring Jordan in, but she refuses to let her anywhere near this place. Jordan may not be a mutant, but she is the daughter of one of our senior members. She would be left alone under my commands. Maybe Danielle will listen to me now," he mumbles to himself.

"Professor, I'm sure Dani has her reasons. We have to respect them. If she wants to leave Jordan at home, it's her choice. We can't change it," I tell him. With that I leave the room to prepare for my next class. When I open the door I discover my students have already filled every available seat and the floor. This is my largest class by far, the one with new mutants that have recently joined the school. They still have little to no control over their powers. This one usually proves to be pretty interesting. It's funny to see them try, but I can't admit that. It doesn't help some of them aren't much younger than me. In fact, in some of my advanced classes, I'm teaching people older than me, maybe even twice my age. Really, really weird. "Good afternoon, class. Sorry I'm late. Professor Ribbons had to leave unexpectedly…" I trail off. The telepath in the room, Rachel Grey, makes a short slideshow flash through my cranium. It shows most of them have no idea what I'm talking about. True newbies.

"Excuse me, Professor Storm, but who is Professor Ribbons?" an eight-year-old girl with jet-black pigtails named Jasmine asks.

"Please, Jasmine, when Xavier isn't here address me as Miss Storm," I instruct her, everybody else included. "As for your question, Professor Danielle Ribbons has been here a few years and has a husband and daughter. Neither are mutants. Her daughter Jordan, being the child of a powerful mystic, has recently been having medical issues. She's having some now; that's why Professor Ribbons left. Eventually you will join her class. Right now you may be in one of the lowest classes, but over time you will gain control. Professor Ribbons teaches correct power usage and advanced calculus. You will have her for one of those subjects."

Rachel answers everybody's mental questions. "My sister told me about her. She said you have to be scary talented to pass."

"That may or may not be true. It all depends on your abilities and brainpower. Otherwise, you have a head start. Today we'll explore the basic fundamentals of control." I begin teaching control methods that work for all powers. Then I narrow it down to common groups: telepath, strength and speed, flight, elements, and shape shifting. Most are taught through experience. Those that aren't are downloaded from Xavier's head. Of course there is no "Teaching Mutants for Dummies." When I finish I tell them, "Your homework is to use some of these methods over the weekend. Next class we'll learn some for more unique abilities!" They hurriedly exit the room before I finish speaking. Thank the heavens there is only one class left before the weekend, though they are more advanced. Effectively much harder to teach.

"Good afternoon, Miss Storm," an infectious voice greets me.

"Hi, Cupid," I call over my shoulder. Cupid is a senior member, almost ready to graduate. Jessica loves Greek mythology so she made her name the God of Love's. Her powers all involve love, making it a suitable name. "Are you prepared for Monday's Danger Room session?" I ask her.

Cupid smiles mischievously, like she is hiding something. Her pink eyes sparkle. "You bet. I've been practicing some new moves with Energy Drainer and Persuasioner. They might surprise you."

"Just wait and see," I say as the rest of my students enter. I ask them the same question.

Choruses of "Heck yeah!" and "Of course!" ring around the room.

"All right, today you have it easy, it will just be a review. If you do well Monday you'll have a better chance of being selected for non-school related missions. Take out your homework." I walk around the room checking their strategy papers. As I finish, I say, "Time for a test. If you finish early you can practice some of the strategies you found for homework." I sit down at my desk grading quizzes for Dani. While doing so I use my powers to fold the leftover metal chairs. When all the chairs are folded I hear a faint, familiar voice.

"Her room is right down this hallway," my sister tells her anxious son Franklin. A few seconds later Franklin races into the room with Susan trailing close behind holding baby Valeria. "I see you've found it," she smiles, though it looks forced.

"Hey, Franko!" I bend down to pick him up. "Guys, this is my sister Susan and her children Franklin and Valeria." Immediately everybody looks up from his or her test, eager for a distraction.

Valeria waves while Franklin says hello. "Aunt Nikki, you're funny. That's what Uncle Johnny used to call me," Franklin comments. He stares into my eyes, expecting me to laugh or make some other sign of recognition.

Instead my grin fades as my gaze strays to Sue's face. Her blond hair is unkempt and her blue eyes appear saddened. "What does he mean, 'used to call me?'" Johnny is not the type of person to suddenly change his ways. That's for sure.

Sue motions for me to go out to the hallway. I follow her, closing the brown wooden door behind me. "Nikki," she begins, "Johnny has…moved on to a better place. He was fighting Mystique. Before the cops showed up and arrested her Mystique got in a lucky shot. The paramedics did everything they could. In the end, it killed him."

Tears leak out of my eyes at the news, creating dark blotches on my leafy green top and jeans. "Why?" I choke out before crumpling to the floor. I imagine my sobs seeping under the door, frightening my students, but I can't control them. Johnny is more than my brother, he is my closest friend. He's the one that got me started as Illusion. The one that made my life the way it is now. "Why?" I choke out again. She helps me stand up and supports my body as I weep into her shoulder.

Jean Grey strolls down the hallway. She notices me standing there, crying, and asks, "What's wrong?"

"Our brother," Sue answers for me, unable to finish the sentence, her voice thick with tears of her own. I'm surprised she can speak at all.

"Here, let me take over your class. Just think of what I should do," she offers, her voice full of sympathy.

I nod, not trusting myself to talk. Jean goes into the classroom, explains why she is there, and uses her psychic powers to read my mind. They're taking a test, I explain. Tell them when they finish they can practice using the strategies they found for homework. I hear her say so and allow Sue to lead me to the main room. Until the bell rings signaling 3:00, I continue to have a private meltdown. As soon as the bell stops ringing, children pour down the grand staircase dressed in full baseball gear. No matter what we always have a baseball game every Friday afternoon. Storm keeps the weather under control. In a world full of fighting, it's a nice way to unwind. I glance up, searching for Xavier, aiming to talk with him. I spot him wheeling himself out of the small classroom where he teaches a few select students at a time.

"Nikki, you look like you watched your best friend perish. What happened?" Xavier asks, wheeling himself along.

"You're not far off, Professor. It's just… my brother died. I'll be gone next week for his funeral. Just wanted to let you know," I explain, sniffling. Just thinking about Johnny's death brings a fresh wave of tears. They pour out in bucketfuls, thickening the black stream of mascara running down my face.

"At this rate, seniors have to graduate early," he comments. "All right, you may leave. Someone will fill your position as well as Danielle's."

"Thank you, Professor!" I dash up the stairs towards my bedroom. My pupils will be disappointed when they learn the Danger Room session is postponed, but they'll get over it. I yank out the contents of my closet, searching for my baseball uniform. Quickly I toss my regular clothes and costume on my bed while pulling on my baseball shirt. While doing so I rub my eyes to stop any stray tears and wash the makeup from my face. I take a shortcut to the ball field by jumping out the window. Having powers means I can do it without injury. The quick free-fall dries the last of my tears. Right before I hit the ground I create a trampoline. "Did I miss anything?"

"We were deciding who should sit out. With Contact gone there's an uneven number," Cyclops explains.

Sue stands up from her seat on a bench. "I'll play," she offers, forever a good sport.

"Great, you can play on Scott's team," I order her. "Let the game begin!" We get situated. Nightcrawler steps up to bat as I inform Psylocke about the Danger Room cancellation. "Don't worry; we'll do it later in the week when I return." Her response is shoving me towards the heap of bats and helmets. I take it she is excited about the session. I swing a few times before taking the correct stance. Maybe I can act like nothing's wrong, I think as Jean warms up. I struggle to look like everything is normal.

Before pitching, Jean calls out to the outfielders, "Back up! She can hit hard!"

The rules Jean devised don't allow power usage, so a person can't run faster than normal around the diamond or guide the ball. After two strikes the third pitch flies perfectly across the plate. I swing, scoring a grand slam. During my jog around the diamond I put on a watery smile for Sue, wave to Franklin and Valeria sitting at the sidelines, and join my teammates. Rogue strikes out and Cupid hits an out, so we switch.

After an hour or so Scott's team admits defeat. We shake hands before going inside. Faking a normal happy-go-lucky attitude is exhausting, not to mention being all sweaty. So I decide to spend the rest of the afternoon in the pool/spa. Sue will stay overnight in my room, with Franklin on the couch and her and Val sharing my oversized king bed with me. Our first chance to talk occurs in the spa while Pyslocke, who I know I can trust, watches the kids. As soon as I close and lock the door behind us my façade disappears. Tears threaten to cascade down my cheeks yet again. My lip quavers as I try to stop them. Some fall anyway and wet my towel, the steam making the rest evaporate. Sue notices and attempts to take both our minds off our departed brother. Better for the both of us.

"So, how's your training?" she asks.

A faint smile replaces my frown. Even the teachers train on a daily basis. The majority of the teachers and staff members are full-time X-Men, so we practice almost as much as the students. Staying in tip-top shape is most important, next to improving our powers. "Pretty good," I answer. "Xavier has been working with those he deems most powerful and is helping them reach their full potential. He already taught me how to make atoms inside of things explode. According to him I have one of the most powerful minds on the planet. My powers have also sparked some discussion, considering they're so unique."

"Doesn't Dazzler have powers similar to yours?"

"Sort of. Before she left Xavier studied her extensively. I must be special; he hasn't shown this much interest in Iceman or Contact, some other people showing great promise."

"Interesting."

From then until we exit the spa we don't speak. The silence somehow feels comforting. When we go into the bathroom to change into swimsuits I end the silence. "Did Franklin exhibit any powers yet?" Usually the child of two super-powered parents will obtain powers sometime in their life. If the genetics are lined up, of course.

"No, but Reed thinks he'll have very strong abilities eventually," Sue's voice carries over the stall door. She doesn't mention the problems he caused when she was pregnant with him. Since her, Reed, Ben, and Johnny received their powers from a cosmic storm, Sue's body couldn't handle the changes that come with the making of a child. Ben, Reed, and Johnny had an adventure in the Negative Zone to save her. They almost died. I did not even find out that last part until several days later with Magneto threatening world domination and all. That man thinks it important to challenge Earth's superheroes daily. Valeria caused much less trouble. We unlock the doors and make our way to the pool. After a while Toad walks in, announcing dinner. We quickly change and gather any stragglers. Delicious scents waft down the hallway, probably coming from Gambit's French cuisine.

Most people however edge away from the dining hall when they discover the meal. Gambit's cooking has limited appeal with non-French people, which is pretty much everybody. Something he uses isn't appealing. Nobody speaks most of the time, asking for condiments the only exception. If everybody feels the same as me, the reason why they're not speaking is the minute they do they'll throw up. The second the last bite of food disappears from the last person's plate, everybody jumps up from his or her seats. I can tell the refrigerator will be empty by morning.

Everybody goes their own ways. I lead the Richards' to one of the living rooms. With the kids distracted by the TV Sue and I can finally have a decent conversation. We catch each other up to speed, telling stories about past adventures and my single status. Sue finds it hilarious that such a pretty young woman does not have a boyfriend. True, my long brown and blond hair and aquamarine eyes attract tons of stares, but I haven't found anybody worthy enough. I believe in the saying looks aren't everything. Call me what you may, but shallow will never work.

Valeria yawns a few hours later, signaling bedtime. We change into pajamas and climb into bed. Sue tells Franklin and Val a story. When her story ends I silently cry myself to sleep. A short while later I awake to screams. A huge battle is happening before my eyes. Are those heroes? I wonder. People who under any other circumstances would not be fighting each other are punching their faces in. I attempt to separate the two nearest heroes, but the ghostly version of me does no good. The Sentry and Spider-Man still fight. Not only Spider-Man and Sentry, but Translate and Baton. Lightmaster and the Pink Rose. The Human Torch and Ms. Marvel. Wait. Is that really Johnny? How can he be alive? Why would he be fighting the same woman he took out for drinks last week? There is no possible way that this is happening. This must be a dream.

"Might as well give up, Steve," Iron Man interrupts my pondering. He pins Captain America against a crumbling building right next to me.

"No!" a voice cries out. A blob of sparkling blue energy hits Iron Man's shoulder. The person who sent the energy reveals herself, melting out of the shadows of a flower shop. She has black and sky blue hair and nervous green eyes. She appears to be no older than 13. Her black costume is torn in numerous places. The sky blue insignia on her chest is splattered with red, probably from a chest wound. A huge chuck of skin is missing from her stomach. Just gone, leaving nothing but some muscle and an energy Band-Aid to keep her stomach in place. A bright glow blinds me, making me squint, trying to see past the glare. I'm only able to because I do that to protect my identity from certain beings. Surprisingly she reminds me of myself. She has the same eyes that show a deep sadness as I do and similar facial features.

"So, you're the traitor," Iron Man sneers. "Eventually you will pay."

The girl retorts, explaining just how Tony is the one at fault. A hand plate glows, firing up to finish the job. Before he can, Cap tackles Iron Man, saving the girl. No sooner than they fly off does Magneto show up. How bad can someone's luck be? Suffering through devastating injuries only to be confronted by the Master of Magnetism. Erik's mouth moves, his words lost in the sounds of battle, then flings the girl through the air. My instincts are screaming for me to help, to put Lensherr out of business. The rational part realizes my powers will do nothing to stop him. To make matters worse, a woman encrusted with jewels spots her and fires gems. That coupled with a random shadow compact knocks her into the building. I take a tentative step forward to see what happens. All is still for a moment. Then some of the rubble begins to move. She emerges, but the little weight she rests against the column is enough for it to collapse on her.

Cap ends up near the flower shop again. He eyes the building and somehow realizes the girl is trapped. He only has time to move a few pieces before someone comes flying his way, but as he thrusts his shield up, he mutters, "Tony, you've been warned. No one hurts my girl without paying for it."

The scene fades to blackness, then to brightly colored spots dancing on my eyelids. They jolt open a few seconds later. When they do, I involuntary start screaming my head off, waking the others.

"Nikki, what's wrong?" Sue says sleepily over my screams.

"Nothing, just a nightmare," I pant. Sue does not need to know the truth. The truth is when the building fell on Rebel, I felt her pain. Now that I think about it, I've already felt excruciating pain at random times for no reason. Xavier told me the source is my powers, but he seems to be hiding something. I did not think anything of it at the time, but now I know he's keeping something from me. This can't be a coincidence. This girl has the same basic powers as me, and she was living in some sort of Civil War for gosh knows how long. There is something suspicious going on here, and I need to figure out what.

Sue makes me lay in bed for a while longer. By now she must think I've gone completely insane. Finally she lets me get up for breakfast. Angel pays his condolences while I prep pancakes. We eat slowly, each person lost in their thoughts. When we finish Sue and I wash the dishes before I run upstairs to pack my bag.

"Where you goin', girlie?" Wolverine asks as he descends the staircase.

I set down my duffel bag on the carpeted floor. "I'm going home for my brother's funeral, Logan."

"You're not sayin' somethin'. Cough it out, Nikki," he orders me. I often forget Logan knows me better than everyone else on the team. When I first joined he thought I was cute and reminded him of someone from his past. I clung to him. He helped me pass the classes and even get me a job. Without Logan I would be trapped inside the Baxter Building while everyone else is out fighting for their lives.

"After the funeral, I'm going to hunt down Mystique. I'll avenge Johnny even if it kills me," I declare. Before I can say more Sue ushers me to her Mercedes with her kids in tow. She turns on the radio to banish the silence. The first song that comes on is "Only the Good Die Young." "How ironic," I sigh, settling into my seat.

o8o

"Kids, we're home!" Sue calls out hours later. She parks the car in the garage next to Johnny's old Corvette. No specks of dust or water stains. Exactly the way I remember it. Sue assists Franklin and Val with their seatbelts as I carry in the bags.

"Home sweet home," I mutter. The last time I visited here was Val's birth during the '09 Christmas season, so it no longer smells like peppermint and baking cookies. The same paintings and pictures hang on the walls. Each floor that is special to somebody has pictures that tell their life story. Sue wanted to convey our family history creatively, and indeed she did.

The floor with Reed's lab has pictures that date back to when he and Sue first met. They progress to the space flight, displaying their powers, their wedding, Franklin's and Val's birth's, and our first encounter with Galactus and the Silver Surfer. "Where're my brother-in-laws?" I call out, my voice echoing through the empty room. Even though I'm not related to Reed's best friend and fellow Fantastic Four member by blood, we consider Ben part of the family. What's not to love about the big fella?

"Nikki, you've returned," Reed greets me as he enters the room. "How long has it been? Four months? Five?"

"Two years, genius," I say, smiling. The presence of my brother-in-law helps lift my gloomy spirits a little. Reed still appears to be so absorbed in his work he doesn't pay much attention to time. I rush over to him and grasp his neck for a hug. "I have so much to tell you. Where's Ben?" I ask, wondering where Ben, is hiding.

"He's out on some New Avengers business," he answers. "They needed a rock-covered clobbering machine. He'll be back in a couple of days." Reed leads me to his cluttered desk.

We stay up late into the night talking, finally going to bed around two am. I crash on the couch, not feeling up to sleeping in a dusty bed. Sunday morning I wake up early, eat breakfast, and decide to take a trip down memory lane by going through the contents of my sleeping quarters. The section housing our rooms has my life story. The pictures start with my adoption, then continue to my developing powers, numerous silly poses with the family, becoming a teacher, shaking hands with various well-known superheroes, and holding my niece and nephew. Sue is proud to display my accomplishments with the public. She knows the secretary gives tours of the building when the Fantastic Four are in other dimensions. As long as citizens don't touch anything she's okay with it. Otherwise the only people that can enjoy her work are us.

Most of the furniture is covered with sheets. Yet my bed has clean blankets and the paintings and posters are sparkling. Wow, Sue must think I could come home at any minute, I think with a smirk crossing my lips. I shuffle across the floor remembering all the happy times that happened here. Everything is where I left it, not a thing out of place. Sue finds me later, calling me to lunch. I spend the rest of the afternoon playing with Valeria and Franklin. The night my sleep is riddled with nightmares of the rebel girl and several other females going by the names Reality, Lightshow, Hallucination, and Freedom Fighter. Again, all of them are so much like me it's scary. Those dreams coupled with Johnny's funeral leave me feeling queasy all morning. We leave for the funeral in early afternoon. All of our allies show up alongside our closest friends. Ben even came back early to honor Johnny's memory. However, a good portion of the X-Men and the Avengers are gone.

"Are you okay, Nikki?" Contact asks as I start to go pale an hour into the outdoor service.

"I'm fine, it's just the sun," I answer. Before Dani can turn away I sink to my knees. In the process of recovering, every thought running through my head vanishes. What the heck is going on? I wonder. Everyone else's faces morph into blank looks. And then the world burns white…