by DuAnn Cowart

All recognizable characters belong to Marvel Comics. I am reaping no pecuniary benefits of any sort from this work. Unauthorized reproduction of this work for financial benefit is strictly prohibited. All standard disclaimers apply.

This isn't terribly serious, but I will rate it PG for language. It's set sometime in the nebulous years of X-Force a few years ago before the team went out on their own and some time after Iceman's possession by Emma Frost.

As with all my stories, feedback is welcome and adored. It can be sent to [email protected]

Last Friday night I was walking through the lobby of the mansion, idly amusing myself by making fun of the wallpaper. I don't know who hung it, but *damn*, is it ugly. I'm no Christopher Lowell, but even I wouldn't hang that in my dog's house.

If I had a dog.

If I had a house.

I shrugged as I left the room. So they have ugly wallpaper. It doesn't really matter anyway- the odds were the damn place would be reduced to rubble for some reason or another within the next year or so and they'd have to rebuild and redecorate anyway.

I paused in front of the elevator, but decided to keep going and take the stairs. Good exercise, you know, and I had plenty of time to kill before my time slot for the Danger Room opened. I climbed the stairs, considering my plans. I had purposely waited until the end of the day so I could work out in peace, with no interruptions.

It gave me something to do, anyway. The kids were done with 'work' for the day, and were going out to a movie. Nate was off doing Nate stuff- he left a scribbled note and an emergency number, which is honestly more than I usually get. To be fair, it's more than I usually give.

I climbed the last stair and left the stairwell, turning down the long corridor that led to the Danger Room.

Somebody was already waiting outside. It was Iceman, Bobby Drake. I didn't know him that well, but living in the same house pretty much made him not a stranger. He's as likable as a golden labrador puppy, and about as well trained. He saw me approach and his face assumed a look that living with a houseful of prank-inclined kids has long since trained me to recognize.

I greeted him with my usual lady-like decorum. "Drake, if you snowball me, I swear by all you hold precious that you'll live to regret it-"

"Would I do that, Domino?" He grinned, sandy blond hair hanging over his eyes. Strangely enough, he was wearing his uniform, not normal street clothes. This struck me as odd- Drake's not one of these purblind idiots that wears spandex all the time. Cotton is his friend, and I *know* he wasn't about to work out. I'd seen the schedule, and his name was nowhere on it. Mine was last, I'd made sure of that.

"Does a one-legged duck swim in a circle?" I retorted, then punched in the code to the empty Command Center and walked inside. I glanced down at the Danger Room to see if it were maybe empty yet- no such luck. Betsy was down there whackin' away at some holographic ninjas, moving them down like a summer lawn.

Slice. Cut. Swoop. Dip. Braddock's good, I'll give her that. But all those ninjas? Please. What a show off.

I left the door to the Center open, and after pausing just a minute Drake followed right behind me. Keeping a close watch on him, I sat down flipping my braid back and perched on one of the naughahyde chairs littering the room. I studied the room, preparing for defensive manuevers. Damn. Xavier's taste in decor leaves a lot to be desired- but that was beside the point. The Shi'ar technology was top rate, and besides, who was I to comment? My last home was called *MurderWorld*.

Anyway, I was careful to position myself right by the door. Drake had that look in his eye. . . like he was planning something. Something Not Good.

No mutant alive could possible possess such a serindipidous power. Gifting the eternal prankster with an array of tools to carry out his nefarious deeds had to be evidence that Whoever was in charge out there had a damn good sense of humor.

Bobby leaned against the wall and just smiled that lopsided grin. "C'mon, Domino, I'm not up to anything. Why does everyone always think that?"

"No reason," I muttered under my breath, still eyeing him with caution. "So, Icicle, why are you roaming the halls at," I glanced down at my watch, "Seven o'clock on a Friday night? No teenage girls to stalk tonight?"

"Nah, they dropped those charges," he flashed me another charmer smile, then the expression on his good-natured face shifted into something a bit more serious. "Everyone's going out this evening, so I thought I'd see if the room was open. Maybe get in a little solo practice in the Danger Room. You know, stretch myself? Maybe see if I can manage more than an ice slide or a snowball or two."

The bitterness in his tone was unmistakable. I suppressed a wince. It was no secret what Emma Frost did with his body, his powers, so I guess it should have come as no surprise that he was eager to 'stretch himself'. With powers like those, I suppose there really was no limit as to what he could do if he really put his mind to it-

Drake's not telepathic, but he's a hell of a lot more observant than most people give him credit for. He read my face like the Sunday comics section. The easy conversation turned stilted and formal.

"I don't need your sympathy," he growled. His whole demeanor changed, and I swear the already cool room turned several degrees colder. "I might be a slack-ass, but it's my problem, so you don't need to worry about it." He swirled his chair around and rose stiffly to his feet, turning his back on me. "I know you're up next- I'll wait for you to finish your workout. Take your time."

I paused, not knowing what to say. I finally settled on the brilliant "Whatever, Drake." Never let it be said that I can't come up with a zinger. Anyway, I took a step back, unconsciously pulling my arms to my chest against the cold. Anyway, he was right. Whatever his problem was, it was none of my business. Drake's an X-man, and the X-Men are none of my concern. He's a big boy, and if he wanted to have his ass on his shoulders about it that was definitely his business.

I went back to fiddling with the computer, preparing my next work out program. I programmed up one of my old favorites, Merc Melee # 5. It's a good one- random guns and knives and plasma canons and flamethrowers and lots of civilians to keep safe. I paused, thought about it, then threw a few ninjas in the program for good measure.

It couldn't hurt.

When I was done, I glanced over at Drake. He was leaning against the console, palms pressed flat against part of the steel surface. His elbows were locked at a funny angle, and he was staring down at the Danger Room with an almost hungry look on his face.

I thought for a moment he was lusting after Braddock, which would have raised all kinds of interesting issues on its own, but upon a closer inspection saw that he wasn't really staring at Betsy herself. No, he was just watching the way she moved as sliced through those ninjas like warm butter.

Precise. Efficient. Joyous. Every movement economical, every step a dance. I pursed my lips. Damn. She really was good.

I turned back to Drake, and wasn't really surprised to recognize the play of dark emotions I saw on his face. He was going through a huge change in his life, and she was at the top of her game. Some reaction made sense. What *did* surprise me was when those scrubbed features went perfectly blank and disinterested when he realized just how good she really was.

Anyone else probably wouldn't have recognized what he was doing, but I do have some limited experience with burying feelings myself. When you consider the fact that my partner and sometimes lover of almost two decades still doesn't know my real name, it should come as no great surprise that openness and honestly are not my forte. Accordingly, I know when somebody's hiding something.

I studied him a bit longer, noting tiny facial motions and subtle body language, then nodded to myself. I was right. For all his talk about improving himself, underneath that All-American surface, Robert Drake was seething with self-doubt and insecurities, and they were eating him alive.

'What the hell's wrong with this kid?' I thought, then immediately chided myself. He wasn't a damn kid. He was one of the founding members of the Xavier's group- he had to be almost pushing 30 by now. He'd been at this long enough to know what he was doing- and maybe that was the problem.

'It's none of your business, Dom,' I told myself, exhaling sharply. I cut a glance at Drake, whose face was now so smooth it'd make one of Roberto's come on lines sound like a gravel road. Drake was shutting himself off from the world because he thought he would never be good enough for it.

As soon as that clicked, I felt something in me twist. I was staring at the face of a fledgling kindred spirit. I'm not even gonna try to sort through all the psycho-babble involved there, but I know it's something about humor as a coping mechanism and self-esteem issues and not being breast fed as a child and all that shit. Or in my case, spending my formative years in the combat pits of Madripoor. Either one, take your pick.

It doesn't really matter- the results are the same. You learn to pull your shields up and lock yourself away from everybody else so no one can touch you. Only problem is, you can't touch anyone else, either.

I studied Bobby Drake's face, and what I saw there could have been a mirror image of my own ten years ago. I shuddered. The tricks I've had to play on myself to keep it all together- I wouldn't wish those on my worst enemy.

Well, maybe I would on her, but not on anybody else. Someone as genuinely nice as Bobby Drake ought not to have to deal with that shit.

I was quiet a long time, battling these things out in my mind until I finally came to a conclusion. 'Ah, hell. I'm going soft in my old age,' I thought, then did something I swore I'd never do. I meddled.

"Drake?" I asked, meddling. I hate meddlers.

"Hmmmmf?" He looked up, perfectly calm and serene except for tight lines around his eyes. It takes years to get the look around the eyes right. Believe me, I know. I buy wrinkle cream in bulk.

I took a deep breath and plunged in, beginning in a neutral voice. "Take some advice from an old pro. Whatever's eating you- deal with it before it gets too much to handle."

He turned, utterly surprised that the enigmatic Domino would dare to speak of anything so personal as that. Then, predictably, the surprise passed and anger hit. He carefully hid it behind layers of disinterest. "You don't know me, Domino. You don't know any of us. Don't presume that you do, and don't tell me what to do."

I shrugged, nonplussed at this reponse. What did I expect, after all, him to be happy about my interference? I sure as hell wouldn't have been. "You're right. I don't know you," I answered bluntly. "That's why I can tell you this. I'm sure your friends know something's wrong, but they don't know what to say and don't want to hurt you, so they say nothing. As a relative stranger I can see that *something's* wrong with you and from personal experience I can tell you that ignoring it or covering it up with jokes won't make it go away."

He stiffened. "Thanks ever so much for that heart felt advice, Dr. Laura," he muttered sarcastically. "I'll be sure to keep that in mind." I'm sure the only reason he didn't throw some pot and kettle remark at me at that point was simply because he didn't think of it at the time.

"Do," I responded hoarsely, and I think something in my voice must have gotten through his barriers long enough to make an impression on him. "Trust me on this one, Bobby. You don't want to go through life like this."

He looked down at me, and for a moment the mask slipped. He didn't say anything, just looked at me with those wide, searching blue eyes. I could read the reams of meaning there. After a long moment, he nodded, then looked away.

I didn't say anything else- my point was made, and besides, what right did I have to lecture anybody on anything except ass kicking and maybe a little fashion sense? The very idea of me trying to give anyone advice on anything like this was laughable in and of itself. Nate would be rolling right about then, I knew.

So I did the next best thing. I got up to leave before I could piss Drake off again and undo any good I'd done that day. I quietly reached over to the Danger Room schedule and marked my name off of the list. "You go ahead," I told him, gathering up my things. "I'm going back to my room- I've got other things to do tonight, anyway."

He looked up in surprise, and I could see that he was working through some pretty serious issues. "You sure?" He asked after a moment, and I looked at him closely.

The mask was gone and Bobby Drake again looked through its invisible walls, a small but genuine smile on his lips. "If you're scared, say you're scared, Domino. Don't punk out on me just because we shared a moment." He brought his index fingers together, eyebrows waggling suggestively.

I couldn't help but laugh. "You call that a moment, Drake? You *do* have some things to learn."

He riposted quickly, moving towards the door. "I call that all the moment I'm gonna risk with you, lady. Cable would kick my *ass*." He grinned broadly, revealing perfect white teeth. Of course.

"He's not the only one," I chuckled, and he laughed back. I glanced down at the Danger Room, and saw that Betsy's sequence was over. She had deactivated the holographs and was towelling off. I turned to Bobby, catching him before he left. "I've got a fairly decent no-powers work out program here, if you'd care to join me."

He paused. "Sure," he answered slowly, obviously working through some issues in his own mind. "But what about instead of no powers I just concentrate on some of the newer stuff I've been working on? Maybe get you to cover me while I try some of my ideas out?"

"Sounds good to me," I answered, and we went down the Danger Room together.

It was a good workout. We managed to beat the simulation in almost record time. Nate and I usually do just a *little* better, but I saw no need to tell Bobby that. It wouldn't have done any good, and anyway, he did exceptionally well. There's this thing he's learned to do with vapor that I *still* don't understand, but I suppose it doesn't matter, anyway. It was a good workout.

Now, I won't say one ass-chewing (such as it was) was the magic cure for all Bobby's woes. I won't say he doesn't have a hard road ahead of him, but I think he knows now that it's worth trying. Maybe I can even try to remember that myself every once in a while.

Oh, one other thing- I'm proud to say that I personally got all the ninjas.

Even the sneaky ones Braddock left behind.




Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you. Not as the world gives, give I unto you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. -John 14:27