Rating: G, verging on PG (for some mild nastiness).
Summary: Betsy & Warren's wedding gets under way.
Disclaimer: None of these characters are mine, instead belonging to Marvel Comics Ltd, and hence I'm not making any profit from this enterprise. Furthermore, all characters herein are used without permission.
Notes: *text* = telepathy again...


Once In A Lifetime: Part Two
by Philip Hunn

The church is cold, a chilly draft blowing through the nave and making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Iím not stood at the front of the building yet--instead I am hanging back, stood in one of the side rooms, with Scott, Logan and Bobby. Logan is looking spry, as usual, and not for the first time, I begrudge him his healing factor--he must have drunk the equivalent of three barrels of beer while we were out last night, and he looks fresh as a daisy. Bobby still looks a little pale, and Scott? Scott manages to make even a hangover look less like a setback and more like an opportunity, as usual. Logan is picking his teeth with the tip of a bony claw when the priest tells me that the bridal car has pulled up outside, and we all leave the security of the side room for the main body of the church.

"This is it," I say, taking a deep breath.

"Good luck, kid," Logan says, laying a thick hand on my shoulder. "You deserve it. Make her happy."

And then he is gone, melting back into the congregation as if it were a jungle composed of human bodies. I suppose thatís all the encouragement Iím going to get from the Canucklehead. The little guy and I havenít always seen eye to eye, but heís always been there for me when itís had to count. I think I can let my personal problems with his methods slide for today, at least, and take the statement in the context intended.

Scott grips my hand in his strong-as-a-grizzly-bear grasp. "I never thought Iíd see the day our resident millionaire playboy finally settled down," he begins, but I rapidly cut him off, laughing.

"Hey, Scott, I might be getting hitched," I tell him with a smile, "but Iím sure not Ďsettling downí--not by a long shot. Ask Betsy." Scott raises an eyebrow over the rim of his ruby quartz glasses.

"I donít think I want to--not when you phrase it like that," he says, grinning. Then, his tone changes slightly as he continues "Thatís three of the original X-Men married now, Warren. Whoís next, do you think? Hank? Bobby? What do you think, ice cube?" Bobby snaps out of his alcohol-induced silence suddenly.

"Not me, Cyke," he says, slowly and carefully, as if he is afraid he is going to puke at any moment. "Not yet, anyway. I havenít found the right girl yet, thatís all." He pauses to take a deep breath. "You should talk to Hank--he and Trish are pretty serious." The bridal march starts up and Bobby looks up at the high vaulted ceiling for a moment before adding "Iíll talk to you guys after the service, okay? Good luck, Wings. Hope it all goes smoothly." He claps me on the shoulder and then, like Logan before him, he is gone, and Scott and I are alone at the front of the church with the priest. I risk a glance back at Betsy as she walks down the aisle, accompanied by her brother Brian. She is blonde and English-looking, as we agreed had to be the case, but she is so beautiful I hardly notice the change. If I were a cartoon, my tongue would be rolling across the floor by now, and my eyes would be bugging out their sockets on stalks. I canít help it. I have an inherent weakness for beautiful women.

Especially this one.

She smiles demurely at me from beneath her veil. *Hey, you,* she says in my mind. *Ready to do this?*

"As Iíll ever be," I whisper. That done, we both indicate to the priest that we get started. He straightens behind his lectern and opens his plan of the service.

"Dearly beloved," he says, in his strong, melodious voice, "we are gathered here today to join together in holy matrimony these two remarkable young people, Warren Worthington and Elisabeth Braddock." After a brief introductory speech, he opens his hymn book and asks the congregation to join him in singing the first of the songs that Betsy and I have chosen for the service, ďAmazing GraceĒ. The church rings with the sound of our adopted family singing for theyíre worth behind us. If I turned my head I think Iíd be able to see Jubilee singing her sixteen-year-old heart out alongside Logan--her "old man", so to speak. Iíll have to speak to her at the reception, I think--Iíve missed the little squirt, even though she sometimes got on my nerves.

The hymn ends and the priest begins his sermon, before Betsy and I exchange our vows. He mentions the need for strength and tenacity as well as love in a marriage, and how hard work is often necessary to make it work, on both sides. He tells the guests that the will to succeed is just as important as affection, and that if lifeís trials are to be overcome, then working together is the only way we will be able to solve them effectively. He finishes by saying that done correctly, marriage is the best thing two people can enter into, no matter their age. Then, he asks Scott if he has the rings so that we can get the marriage ceremony up and running. Scott rummages around in his pockets theatrically for a second, causing both Betsy and myself to have minor heart palpitations, before he produces two simple gold bands and hands them to the priest, giving me a look that seems to say "Gotcha!" as he does so. The priest hands me the first of the two rings and tells me to follow him in saying the vows that Betsy and I have written for each other.

"I, Warren Kenneth Worthington, do take thee, Elisabeth Braddock, to be my lawfully wedded wife, through sadness and joy, through sickness and health, through strife and peace, until all the days of this life are done." I slide the simple ring onto her elegant finger, and she smiles briefly, before the priest asks her to do the same as I have. She repeats the same vows, and puts her ring on my finger.

"I now pronounce you man and wife," the priest says, with a smile. "You can kiss the bride now, you know." He smiles and ushers the two of us together. I lift Betsyís silken veil and kiss her as if for the first time. All the background noise of the church melts away, as if the universe in its totality is the kiss that Betsy and I are sharing.

So itís not on the same scale as Donald and Ivana Trump. Who cares?

Not me.

The reception is a small affair, at the local hotel where Betsy and I will spend the night before flying back to the USA for the first part of our honeymoon. Unlike Jean and Scott, we donít have half the mutant population of the United States present--simply close friends and family. Hank and Bobby squabble over the finger food like teenagers, hoarding sausage rolls and vol au vents as if they are coated in gold leaf. The Professor sits at a table with Jean and Scott, sipping champagne and chatting quietly with his first students. Brian Braddock sips Coke alongside Meggan as they watch the several dancing couples on the dancefloor. I think theyíre still working up the courage to do it themselves, but I suspect that theyíll be out there before too long--Meggan loves to dance, even if Brian isnít quite so keen on it himself. Finally, closer to Betsy and me than the rest of the guests, Logan endures the machine-gun chatter of Jubilee as her MTV-warped attentions flit here and there amongst the crowd, shovelling more food onto her plate as and when it is necessary to get her to be quiet. He walks over to where Betsy and I are sitting, leaving Jubilee to her own devices, and takes Betsyís fingers in his own hairy hand, kissing her on the cheek, carefully making sure that his rough-as-sandpaper cheek doesnít chafe her soft skin.

"Congratulations, Betsy," he says, as kindly as his gruff voice will allow. "Ainít nobody deserves this more than you." He jerks a thumb at me. "Coulda picked a better husband than this guy, though." He grins, exposing sharp, ever-so-slightly enlarged canines that glitter slightly in the bright lights of the reception hall.

"Behave, Logan," Betsy says in a playful tone. "Donít be rude." Logan raises a shaggy eyebrow.

"Rude?" he says, as if she has wounded him mortally by the mere use of the word. "Darliní, that was positively polite cominí from me. You want rude, I can do much worse."

"I can imagine," I say. Logan laughs.

"I bet you couldnít, pretty boy," he says. "Iíve heard things that would make your spoilt little tootsies curl up in yer thousand-dollar shoes."

"Is that so?" I ask him in a mock-confrontational way. He casually extends the claws on his right hand and retracts them in the same breath.

"Yeah, pretty boy, itís so," he says flatly, then claps me on the shoulder, flashing his wicked grin again. "But then, thatís part of my charm. You got your own kinda charm too, though, boy. Donít waste it on me when your woman needs it more than I do." With that, he winks at Betsy and walks away again. I risk a look at Betsy, and see that she is sat trying desperately to stifle a laugh.

"Before you ask, Warren, if you ever call me Ďyour womaní, even in jest, Iíll throttle you." She holds out her hands, her expression turning to one of excitement as "Unchained Melody" begins on the sound system. "Come on, Warren, dance with me. I love dancing with you." She pulls me out onto the dancefloor and draws herself in closer to me, laying her head on my shoulder, her arms around my waist. The dancefloor clears as the rest of the guests withdraw to watch us in hushed wonder. Betsyís telepathic voice sounds in my mind, like a symphony sounding in an ocean of white noise.

*Thank you, Warren* she says.

"For dancing with you?" I whisper, a little taken aback. "Itís no trouble, really--"

*Not for that,* she says, shaking her head almost imperceptibly. *For letting me touch your mind. For giving me your soul. For being you. For everything.* She tightens her grip on me for a second. *Warren, I have a confession to make.*

That makes me tense a little, involuntarily. "This isnít going to be one of those ĎIím really a maní stories you always see on Jerry Springer, is it?" I say jokily, trying to put aside my misgivings.

Betsy laughs uneasily. "No, Warren," she says aloud. "This is slightly more... substantial than that." She pauses. "I have to tell you something, and I donít want you to be alarmed, all right?"

"Well, to be honest, saying that isnít the right way to go about not alarming me," I say. "Come on, Betsy, tell me what you have to say. Iím on tenterhooks here." She looks down at the floor uncomfortably for a second and then takes a deep breath.

"You can see Iím not my usual self. We both agreed this was how it had to be today," she says. "Well, what if I told you that this isnít done with an image-inducer? That this is what I look like, right now, at this minute?"

Iím speechless. All I can say is "How?" Betsy grimaces, twisting her beautiful British features into an ugly scowl.

"Merlin," she says, almost using the word as a curse. "This is his Ďwedding presentí to me. I get to look this way until you and I consummate this marriage. After that I have to go back to living in Kwannonís body." Her scowl deepens. "Not much of a gift, really, is it?"

"No," I say, with rising anger. "Why did he do it? Did he tell you?"

"No, he didnít tell me, and with him, who knows his reasons?" Betsy sneers contemptuously. "Maybe he was bored with watching Brian getting crushed under his responsibilities, and decided I was a better plaything after all? Perhaps he thought I was in need of a new look? It wouldnít be the first time somebody decided I wasnít good enough as I am, after all, would it?"

"I know what you mean," I say. I donít know exactly, of course, but speaking as someone who has been played around with by at least one omnipotent mutant maniac too many, I think I have a pretty good idea. "Look, Betts, weíll talk about this more when the partyís over. Letís just enjoy the moment for now, okay?" She nods.

"Agreed. Iíd rather do it then, too." She hears the song ending and straightens, smoothing some rumples out of her dress before she kisses me on the cheek and says "Meantime, Iím going to try and have some fun." She walks over to Scott and requests a dance with him. Scott stands up uneasily and as I retreat to a safe distance, I can see the look of plainly obvious terror that crosses his face as Betsy looks over at the DJ controlling the music in order to ask him to put something more appropriate on the speakers. Accordingly, some Ricky Martin blares to life and Scottís colour drains visibly as Betsy drags him around the dancefloor to the musicís hectic beat. He looks terrified, poor guy. That alone is enough to help me put away my negative feelings and smile once more. Plenty of time for serious introspection later, I think.

Walking over to Jean, I bow elegantly at the waist and say "May I have this dance, madam?" Jean regards me with a wry smile.

"Isnít it only the bride who canít be refused a dance, Warren?"

"You would know," I say. "Youíve been one, after all."

"Very droll, Warren," Jean says. "Just this once, Iíll give you the benefit of the doubt, all right?" She gets up out of her seat and puts her glass of champagne down on the table she had been sat at. As she takes my hand, she frowns. "Is there something the matter, Warren?" That brings me up short and I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

"No, Jean," I lie, knowing it wonít do any good.

"Donít do this, Warren," Jean sighs. "Please tell me the truth. Whatís the matter?"

"I... canít say, Jean," I say with more than a little difficulty. "Itís private, between Betsy and me, and Iíd prefer for it to stay that way." Jean shrugs.

"Itís your call, Warren, but remember Iím here for you, all right?" She kisses me on the cheek. "Now how about that dance, hmm?"

"What--" Before I can say any more, Jean is spinning me around and drumming her heels on the ground like an experienced flamenco dancer.

*Itís a shame we havenít a rose to share,* she says mischievously. *I always wanted to try the tango with you, my friend.* She grins. *If this doesnít cheer you up, mister, youíre beyond help.*

"Be gentle, Jean?" I say meekly, as she moves in closer to me and touches my cheek with her own.

"And what fun would that be?" she says, with a wicked little laugh. "Brace yourself."

And before I can do much else, "later" is here, and Betsy and I are sitting in our hotel room, divesting ourselves of the paraphernalia of the day. Betsy has removed herself from the wedding dress that caused us so many problems when I carried her over the threshold, and I have taken off the stifling black suit that I have been wearing for the better part of the day, feeling the starched collar release my neck, as if from the grip of a vice, as I unclip it from the shirt itself and set it on the bedside table. I see Betsy come out of the bathroom with a exhausted look on her face, all the expensive make-up carefully wiped away. She sits down beside me and slips her hand into mine."We need to talk," she says simply.

"That we do," I reply. "You know we donít have to..." My voice dies, so I have to try again in a second or two. "What I mean is, you can stay as you are for as long as you like." Betsy snorts.

"Oh donít be ridiculous, Warren," she snaps--a little more tersely than she intended, I think. "This is our wedding night. I could be wrong, but I suspect itís at least vaguely customary for married couples to have sexual intercourse at least once at this point, wouldnít you?" She sighs. "This is exactly what Merlin wanted, you know. He wants to see me tear out my hair, throw on sackcloth and ashes and wail about how unfair the universe is. Well, Iím finished with that, Warren. Iím tired of having my life dictated by others. And Iím so very tired of being the universeís punching bag. Just... kiss me, Warren. Kiss me so that we can forget this ever happened and get on with our lives. Please." She smiles slightly. "Before I change my mind and elope with the bellboy."

That brings a smile to my face. "Iím glad I look better than he does," I say. "Iíd never live it down otherwise." Betsy shifts closer to me and puts her arms around me.

"Shush," she says, before her lips touch mine. *No more words.*

Our kiss intensifies, and I can feel the hot fire in my veins flaring. Betsy pulls me down on top of her, her hands fumbling for the buttons on the front of my shirt. I instinctively reach for the back of her dress and tug at the zipper, freeing her from its restrictive embrace. I can feel her breasts pressed against me as the soft bed sighs beneath our combined weight--

--but the feeling is momentary. There is a flash of light bright enough to affect my eyes even through my closed eyelids, and the bed is gone. In an instant, I know that we are not where we were a second ago. I look up, and I see nothing but white light all around me. From the look on Betsyís face--a look of horror mixed with understanding--I can tell that she knows where she is.

She sees me looking at her, and she says "This is where Merlin took me before, Warren--when he transformed me."

"Bravo, Braddock-child," sounds the voice of what I can only assume is Merlin come back to admire his handiwork. Turning my head to see where he is, my assumptions are proved correct. "Very astute."

"Put us back where we were, old man," I say softly, but with as much threat behind my words as I dare muster. "Havenít you done enough?" The old wizard doesnít even bother to look in my direction. Instead, he speaks directly to Betsy.

"Iím impressed, Braddock-child," he says, in a way that implies the opposite is the case. In fact, he sounds downright disappointed. "I thought you might take what I had given you and abandon this... inconsequential... mortal. You are capable of having so much more, you know. Otherworld demands it." Betsy scowls.

"Go to hell, Merlin," she says, in a tone more harsh than I have ever heard her use before. "This man is the man I love. He is not inconsequential. Not to me. If you think I wouldnít throw away one of your Ďgiftsí to be with him in a single second, then you understand me a lot less than you think you do. Iím not going to forsake him--not for you, and not for anything you can give me." She spits at his feet. "Perhaps you might understand that better, wizard. You do deal in vulgar filth more than me, I think." The old manís eyes glow red as he bares his teeth in an angry grimace.

"You dare--" he says, incredulously. "Might I remind you, Braddock-child, of the predicament that you currently find yourself in? This is my domain. You are prisoners here until I decide you are free. You are less than nothing to me. I could snuff you out like a firefly, should I wish it."

"Really?" Betsy narrows her eyes. "Somehow I doubt it. Iím a ĎBraddock-childí, arenít I? You told me yourself that you wanted my bloodline to continue, and not just through Brian. I donít think youíre really going to kill me."

Merlin smiles coldly. "Perhaps not, child. But I have no such qualms about killing your pathetic lover." His glowing eyes turn towards me for a moment, and he smiles again, freezing my blood in my veins. He points a bony claw at me, and my entire body erupts in fire. Every nerve ending seems to be firing crazily conflicting signals all at once. The pain is incredible. I feel as if I am simultaneously dying and being born. My wings spasm involuntarily, their pristine white expanses jerking like an epileptic in the midst of a seizure. I bite my lip to keep from screaming, my teeth slicing neatly through the flesh. More pain floods my body, along with the harsh, metallic taste of my own blood, as it trickles down my chin in a thick, sluggish rivulet.

"Let him go, Merlin!" I hear Betsy scream, through the rush of white noise in my ears.

"Why should I?" Merlin asks calmly.

"Because..." I say, at last, my lips finally finding their voice again, "sheís not your toy any more, old man." Every word is agony to speak, but I force them out slowly and deliberately. "Donít try and collect on what you donít own anymore." I feel the wizardís grip on me loosen for a moment as he actually pauses to consider my words, and I stagger, my hands clenching and unclenching of their own accord. Betsy hurries to my side, to help me stand. She slips an arm under my shoulders to prop me up, her slender frame taking a good deal of my own bodyweight.

"You have no say in this, mortal," Merlin says bluntly. "Let me make that very clear."

"Really?" I say, wiping the blood from my mouth with the back of my hand, my lungs still heaving. "I think I do. Sheís my wife now. I think that gives me a very big stake in this, wouldnít you say?" Merlin twists his lip stubbornly.

"Earth laws," he says dismissively, "mean nothing to Otherworlders, and to destiny."

"Well, they mean a lot to me," Betsy says sharply, as she shifts her feet slightly in order to give herself better purchase. "As youíre so eager to point out, my heritage isnít from Earth, but I do live there, Merlin, and quite frankly, I donít care about how you feel about this marriage. Youíve played with the Braddocks for too long, old man, and I will not put up with you interfering in my life any more. Leave me alone. Leave Brian alone. Or I swear youíll live to regret it." To my surprise, Merlin smiles.

"Bravo, Braddock-child," he says again, although this time in an almost paternal tone. "Youíll need that kind of strength in the future." Betsy is stopped in her tracks by those few words, as if she has been slapped across the face. I feel the same way, and my confusion prompts me to speak.

"What do you mean?" I say as forcefully as I can, through a throat that still sings a discordant song of hot, needling pain. "What are you talking about?" Merlin glances my way for the first time, and advances on me, his robes flowing behind him even though there is no wind here to speak of. He stands a few inches taller than me, so Iíd have to look up to him even if I werenít presently almost totally doubled over with residual pain.

"Elisabeth Braddock is more integral to the multiverse than you will ever know, mortal," he says icily. "Like her brother Brian, Otherworld magic flows in her veins. It is her destiny to defend this realm, whether as Captain Britain or not. That is why she must remain strong, and vital--Brian Braddock is not sufficient on his own to hold back this coming storm. This whole exercise--her current metamorphosis, this little visitation--was to determine whether your mortal taint had affected her inner strength in any significant fashion. If she had presented anything less than an utter readiness, you would now be dead, and Elisabeth Braddock would now be back in Otherworld, being reconditioned for the travails ahead."

"I donít... I donít understand," I say--not without reason, I think. When youíre told your new bride is a cornerstone of the universe, it kind of throws you a little. "Are you saying this whole thing was just another test? How is Betsy so important? What do you need her for?" Merlin shakes his head and grips me by the face with a taloned hand, locking his searing gaze with my own.

"Enough questions, mortal," he snaps. "Donít push your luck. Might I remind you that you breathe only because of my discretion and because I wish to keep you that way--nothing more. Had I chosen to kill you, your soul would be decorating the halls of whichever gods you worship. Bear that in mind before you raise your voice to me again." I feel my blood go cold in my veins as his gaze bores into my mind like a drill. "Rest assured, your questions will be answered when the time approaches. For now, I suggest you enjoy what time you have together--it may be cut short all too quickly." He waves his hand, and again addresses Betsy over me. "Go. Be well, child of Braddock. Be ready." I open my mouth to protest at this lack of information, but before I can get a single word out of my mouth, I find myself back in our hotel room, Betsy sat beside me, looking just as confused as I am.

"Warren?" she says, her blue eyes looking at me blearily. "We are back in our hotel room, arenít we?" I nod slowly. After that kind of experience, Iím a little afraid to trust my own sense, but it seems theyíre right on the money at this point.

"Yeah," I say. "I think so." I can feel her worry and fear over our link, and that prompts me to ask "You going to be okay, Betts?" She nods.

"Eventually," she says shakily. "Right now, Iíd appreciate a hug, Warren. I really would." She holds her arms out for me, and I gladly accept her embrace.

"Me too, Betts," I say. "Me too."

The morning brings bright sunlight streaming through the slight partition in the curtains. It hits my eyelids and wakes me with a start. Still half-asleep, I lean over to kiss Betsy good morning, and what I see stops me in my tracks. There, still in a deep sleep, is a blonde Betsy Braddock, her English rose features cast in stark relief by the half-light of the bedroom. I wait until she has woken and then I tell her what I can see. She checks for herself, and then comes back to sit beside me in bed.

"I donít know how this could be," Betsy says. "Merlin told me that the spell would wear off after we made love. He lied." She scowls. "Somehow Iím not surprised."

"He said this whole exercise was part of a test," I suggest quietly. "Maybe he changed you to see how youíd react to all this. He did say that heíd hoped youíd leave me and keep your face as it was--as it is--instead of sacrifice it for our marriage. It sounds like this was a bluff on his part--I think your transformation is permanent, like mine." Betsy sighs.

"I hope so," she says bitterly. "With me, though, who knows?" I put a finger to her lips.

"No, Betsy," I say. "Take this as it is. Weíll deal with later when it arrives."

"Amen to that, Warren," she says. "Amen to that."

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