by Alicia McKenzie

DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to Marvel, and are used without permission for entertainment purposes only. This story is set shortly after the Phalanx Covenant, somewhere around Uncanny X-Men #325 and GenX's first visit back to the mansion.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Well, I did it, folks...broke my resolution to work on nothing but True Believers. Admittedly, I also wrote 50 pages of the Accursed Epic before I did break the resolution, so I suppose it wasn't a total failure. :) But in the interests of breaking writer's block that was threatening to set in with a vengeance, I've embarked on writing a number of short stories FOR people--the first such story being this one, for Dyce, whom I hope enjoys it. :) Feedback from the rest of you would be much welcomed, as well. Rated PG for a little bad language and a teeny bit of violent imagery.

The place still amazed him, Angelo Espinosa admitted to himself almost reluctantly. From ground up, it looked a lot like the Academy - both places said 'Money' with a capital M - but underground, it still reminded him of something straight out of Star Trek. He hadn't gotten much chance to check out the underground levels while he'd been staying here after the Phalanx mess. But seeing as though this was their first visit back since, and everyone else was still asleep - well, except Paige, but she was out jogging already - he'd figured he should make the most of the opportunity.

There didn't seem to be anyone else roaming around down here who might object, which was good. It was way too early in the morning to be arguing about 'security' with anyone, and that Bishop had seemed like one paranoid hombre. Not the kind you messed with if there was any way around it.

Still, the quiet could get on your nerves after a while. With every corner he turned, part of him expected someone to jump out and scare him into a heart attack or something. When he reached the Danger Room, one of the few places down here he had been before, he was almost relieved to see the 'in use' light on.

*Wonder who the early riser is?* he thought, and went up to the observation booth. The door slid aside at his approach, obviously not locked or anything. He stepped through a little cautiously, but the booth was empty and the blast shield was up. *Hope that means whoever this is isn't fanatical about their privacy,* Angelo reflected with a shrug, walking over to the glass and peering down into the Danger Room. With his luck, he'd wind up pissing off Wolverine or something--

The first thing that hit him was how dark the program being run was. The only light came from burning buildings and a barely visible moon in the murky holographic night sky. Angelo stared, wondering what the hell he was watching. The buildings that weren't burning were round hut-like things that looked--organic, somehow. Some sort of village, maybe? But there was a whole horde of soldiers in green armor running around down there. Killing people, he saw, feeling a little sick at how realistic the program was. Little kids ran out of the burning hut screaming, and got blown to pieces by energy blasts as soon as they were out in the open, while the adults tried to fight off the soldiers, without much luck, it looked like.

Angelo didn't have a clue who in the mansion could be running the program. He wasn't sure he WANTED to know. What kind of sick person played games like this? One of the houses exploded in a fireball, and he flinched back away from the glass instinctively, bile rising at the back of his throat as a shrieking, burning figure ran away from the explosion. A soldier shot the burning man--and then dropped a moment later as his head blew apart.

Angelo's head whipped around, towards the direction the shot had come from. He saw a tall silver-haired man in blue and gold calmly shoot another two soldiers and then drop to the ground, roll, and come back up shooting, a gun in each hand and both muzzles blazing.

And soldiers started to fall all over the place. Falling and staying down, too--the guy didn't miss much, from the looks of it. He seemed to be everywhere at once, moving so fast that Angelo could barely keep track of him. How did someone that big move that fast? Some of the soldiers managed to get their act together and rush him; he let them get close, and then fought them hand-to-hand.

More of the soldiers got the idea, and Angelo winced as the man went down under a swarm of them, vanishing for a long few seconds before he fought his way back to his feet, bleeding in half a dozen places. One of his eyes was glowing bright gold now, almost spitting fire. He'd lost both his guns, but he had something that looked like a cross between a sword and an axe in his hands now, and Angelo watched incredulously as he buried it in the chest of the next soldier who lunged at him.

The next few were a little more cautious, but it didn't seem to matter. He gutted one, grabbed that one's gun and blew the next three away before they could even start to duck. The fourth got one shot off before he fell, and the man staggered backwards, grabbing at his arm. Angelo caught himself holding his breath as another soldier rushed the man, shrieking something in some incomprehensible language. The man stepped smoothly out of the way, grabbing the soldier in some sort of weird wrestling-style hold on the way by and snapping his neck.

*Madre di Dios,* Angelo thought in disbelief, *what is this guy, some kind of machine?* As soon as he thought it, the man froze and looked up at the observation booth, his eyes narrowing as his lips moved soundlessly.

"Halting program," the computer suddenly said in a cheerful voice, and Angelo nearly jumped out of his skin. Below, the whole battle just--stopped.

#Espinosa, right?# a deep, harsh voice said inside his head. Angelo actually yelped before he caught himself, and the voice gave a grating laugh. #You don't need to lurk up here, kid. Come down and take a look if you want.#

Angelo hesitated for a moment, but made himself turn around and leave the observation booth. Least he could do after eavesdropping like that was talk to the man, he supposed, and he'd much rather do it face to face. He hadn't gotten used to telepaths, yet, even spending all this time around Ms. Frost at the Academy.

By the time he got down to the main doors of the Danger Room, though, he was beginning to feel uneasy for a completely different reason. He didn't really want any part of the sort of program the guy had been running. Wasn't his idea of relaxation, that was for damned sure, and as for it being training--it still looked way more violent than he would have expected, except maybe from someone like Wolverine. X-Men didn't usually go mowing through their opponents leaving piles of corpses in their wake, did they?

The main doors slid open and Angelo grimaced as the smell of smoke and death hit him in the face. "Pretty realistic," he said to the man, who was busy retrieving his original pair of guns. "We don't get these kind of special effects in the Biosphere back at the Academy," he continued, trying to sound diffident.

The man shrugged with one shoulder. His blue and gold uniform was charred and torn and bloody all over. Angelo blinked, seeing that what he'd thought was armor was really the man's left arm--and abruptly realized who he was talking to.

"Hey, you're Cable, aren't you," he said abruptly, remembering a few things Paige had told him. "I thought you and X-Force lived out in Arizona or something."

"We tend to be hard on places," Cable said, giving him a deadpan look as he slid the smaller gun back into a holster on his belt and slung the other over one shoulder. "So we move around a lot." He touched his other arm, where he'd been shot, and drew back a blood-covered silver hand with a wince.

"Doesn't surprise me," Angelo joked a little weakly. "Um--you okay?"

"Fine," Cable said tonelessly, glancing around at the frozen battle-scene. "So, Espinosa. What do you think?"

"It's really--something," Angelo muttered, for lack of anything better to say. What, did the guy want compliments? "Um--did you make up the program?"

"I wrote the program, yeah," Cable murmured, frowning at his injured arm as if he was taking it as a personal insult that it was still bleeding. He set his jaw, his eye flashing gold again, and Angelo watched the bleeding slowly stop, as if some invisible hand had just put pressure on it. "Don't know that I'd say I made it up," Cable continued, gesturing with his other hand around at the village. "This did really happen. The people who lived in this settlement used to call it Sobray. It didn't have any real strategic value, or useful resources. It just happened to get in the way of a Canaanite infantry division one day."

Angelo remembered Paige had said Cable was a time traveler, and figured the guy was talking about something in his own time. "So how come you made a program out of it?" he asked. "Looks like something I'd rather forget, if it was me."

"I'm a masochist," Cable said with a faint smile. Angelo thought the smile was more than a little creepy. "Woke up this morning and decided I needed to bleed a little."

Angelo blinked, trying to decide whether or not he was being serious. "Oh--well, to each his own, amigo," he said finally, lamely, and eyed the doors longingly. "Sorry to interrupt you, anyway--"

Those weird mismatched eyes bored into him--one still glowing gold, the other cold grey. "Save the apology--I don't believe in them. You in a hurry to get somewhere?"

Angelo bristled, despite himself. "No. Why?"

"You look like you're in a hurry." There was a strange, mocking edge to Cable's voice all of a sudden.

"Yeah, well, maybe I don't feel like standing here watching you splatter holographic bad guys all over the place," Angelo said belligerently, reacting to the tone more than the words. "You're real good at it, but it's not my favorite sort of entertainment."

"Entertainment," Cable said dryly. "Cute choice of words."

"Hey, you said it, I didn't."

"Did I? You don't listen very carefully, do you?"

Angelo shifted irritably under that cold, mildly contemptuous gaze. *Fucking telepaths and their fucking head games--* This guy was as bad as Ms. Frost, needling you to see what sort of reaction he could get. "Fit in well, don't I?" Angelo said sarcastically. "No one around here listens. They just decide they know what's best for you."

That disturbing smile came back, but the rest of Cable's expression got harder, all of a sudden. "Would you like me to ask the computer for some appropriate violin music?"

"Hey, where do you get off--"

"The eternal lament of the adolescent," Cable said, half-disgustedly, half-amusedly. "'Let me make my own decisions!' Kid, if you had the opportunity to shape your own life, you'd probably wish you didn't. Freedom's a terrifying thing."

"Speak for yourself," Angelo snapped. Where the hell DID this guy get off, lecturing him as if he were some snot-nosed sheltered brat? "Some of us would like a shot at running our own lives, even if you don't. Paige didn't say you were such a cynical son of a bitch."

"She must have been being polite. I know Paige's opinion of me," Cable said indifferently. "As for freedom of choice, Espinosa, the grass is always greener on the other side."

"Yeah, well, at least it's not trying to sell you crack," Angelo scoffed, following Cable as he started to limp towards the doors. "You got anything to say beside lousy pop philosophy and tired old proverbs, hombre?"

"Nothing you want to hear," Cable said. The doors slid aside as they approached, and he stopped for a moment, bracing himself with a hand against the doorframe and giving Angelo a peculiarly intent look. "What do you want?" he asked, eyes narrowing. "Someone to pat you on the head and tell you everything's going to be all right, or someone to agree with you that you were right about not wanting any part of this to begin with?"

"You're fucking full of it, you know that?" Angelo growled. That couldn't be the sort of vibe he was giving off to a telepath. He'd made his choices--sure, he wished sometimes he'd never had to make them in the first place, but that was life. All he wanted was to live his. "One of those holographic bad guys hit you a little too hard or something?"

Cable chuckled quietly. "Oath, probably," he said with another half-shrug, the corner of his mouth quirking upwards in a smile that seemed a lot less creepy than the last one. "Or maybe I'm just messing with your head, like you were thinking earlier."

"What, you want me to guess?" Angelo said sarcastically.

"Not really," Cable said with a grin that made Angelo think of a shark, for some reason. "Although I sort of expected you to assume it was option B."

Angelo shook his head. "I really don't get you, hombre."

"People tend to think the worst of me," Cable said, hobbling out into the hall. Angelo followed, shooting a last look back over his shoulder at the holographic village before the doors slid shut behind them. "Some because I've given them good reason to feel that way. Some because they know where I came from, the sort of world I grew up in, and they expect the worst from me."

"And some because you're just fucked up in the head," Angelo muttered.

"No doubt," Cable said, the grin broadening slightly. "My point is--"

"You had a point?"

"Hush, boy. My point is that sometimes I like it that way--I really am soft-hearted, you know. I hate shattering people's trust in me, and in my line of work, I have to do that more often than you'd think."

Angelo shook his head. "That's twisted."

"And sometimes," Cable continued blithely, as if Angelo hadn't interrupted him at all, "I stop for a moment, realize how lonely I am, and wonder where it all went wrong."

Angelo hesitated, giving the suddenly somber-faced Cable a skeptical look. "Uh--really?"

The grin came back. "No, not really. Usually I just wallow in self-loathing until I've gotten it all out of my system."

"Self-loathing?" Angelo snorted, shaking his head. "Tell me, amigo, what've you got to hate yourself about? I mean, look at you!" *Man's older than Banshee and he looks better than Arnold-fucking-Schwartzenegger--*

"Yeah," Cable said amusedly, clenching his metal hand into a fist. "Look at me. If I stop concentrating for more than a few seconds at a time, I turn into something that looks a lot like an erector set." At Angelo's uncomprehending look, he lifted his left arm, the metal one. "It's called a techno-organic virus, Espinosa. I was infected with it when I was a baby--I've been using my telekinesis to control it, keep it from killing me, ever since."

"Oh," Angelo said a little awkwardly. "Uh--bummer," he concluded quietly. Jubilee wouldn't mind him stealing one of her favorite words, he was sure.

"I'm used to it. I don't remember life without it." Cable gave him an odd sideways look, his expression sobering. "I wasn't always so nonchalant about it. I was a little younger than you when I--met someone. She was beautiful and strong and so much flonqing smarter than me than I'm surprised, looking back, that I didn't let my pride get the better of me."

"Uh-huh," Angelo said suspiciously.

"I never thought she'd look at me in that way, because of what a freak I was--"

"Right, sure," Angelo snapped, stopping and glaring up at Cable. "You want to stow the pep talk, hombre? It's not like a BLIND man couldn't see right through it--you made it all up, didn't you?" he demanded.

"No," Cable said, his mouth quirking again.

"Fine, then what was her name?"

"Aliya," he said with a chuckle. "And once we stopped trying to prove which of us was tougher, I married her." Angelo gaped up at him, and Cable half-shrugged. "Or she married me. Frankly, I don't remember whose idea it was--"

"Oh," Angelo said, and cleared his throat to buy himself a moment or two. Cable just stared down at him, still smiling faintly, as if he had all the time in the world. "I, um, didn't know you were married."

"I was," Cable said quietly, the smile turned slightly wistful. "She died. A very long time ago."

Angelo muttered a curse under his breath and turned away. "Okay, hombre, so you want to kick my ass now or something?" he said with a heavy sigh.

"No, I thought I'd just stand here and see if I could make you feel like shit for a few more minutes," Cable said dryly.

Angelo almost laughed. Almost. But it wouldn't have really been the best thing to do, considering the conversation. "How'd she--" He hesitated, and then shook his head. "Sorry, none of my business--"

"In battle," Cable said, his voice clipped. For a moment, Angelo saw something bleak and dark flicker behind those mismatched eyes, and then Cable gave him a smile that wasn't quite a smile, just a mask. "There one moment, gone the next. But you know a little bit about that, don't you, Espinosa?"

Angelo stood perfectly still. "Maybe," he said, his voice coming out just as expressionless as Cable's. "Sort of wondering how you know that I might know, though, amigo--"

"Maybe I'm reading your mind. Maybe I quizzed Emma and Banshee about you," Cable said, his gaze intent and his tone never altering. "Or maybe I just know, Angelo."

"Yeah?" Angelo said, deliberately shrugging. "Or maybe you're just full of it, like I said before."

"I don't think so. Not this time, at least." Cable's expression was wintry, but his eyes were burning. Angelo fought the impulse to take a step back. "Every step you take gives it away, you know. You're moving in a universe that you expect to wake up and bite you on the ass at any moment. I know what it's like."

"So what do you do about it?" Angelo asked with a snort, trying to brush it off. He couldn't, for some reason, couldn't do anything but listen, and wish that Cable would come out with some useful answer to the question.

Cable tilted his head, studying Angelo for a moment, and then grinned.

"I bite it back."

Angelo blinked at him, and then burst into laughter. Cable watched him, his mouth twitching. "What, don't tell me I've turned into a comedian in my old age?" the older man asked amiably.

"No--" Angelo wheezed, fighting for composure and grinning helplessly. "No--that's just fucking beautiful, amigo. I don't know why the hell I'm laughing--"

"Oh, probably lack of sleep, no breakfast," Cable said casually. "I haven't had my coffee yet, either, so why don't we head up to the kitchen before my mood swings and I decide I have to go ahead and kill you anyway?"

"Sounds good," Angelo said, trying not to snicker.

Cable slapped him on the back, hard enough to stagger him. "Then we're agreed," he said heartily.

Angelo straightened - it took a bit of an effort - and looked up at Cable questioningly. "Shouldn't you maybe get stitched up or something, first?" he asked. "You're still sort of--well, bleeding here and there, hombre."

"Once I have my coffee," Cable said firmly.

"Coffee before first aid?"

"Coffee before anything," Cable affirmed, and then grinned. "Well, almost anything."