Notes: This is a little vignette that is all Ali McKenzie's fault. Blame her. It follows along recent X-Men, Cable, and X-Force issues, so if you haven't been reading, y'might be a little lost at a few references. It is, however, in Joshua canon, but is *very* much a prequal. This officially makes it a series, doesn't it? Oy.

This isn't a very happy little piece, so if you're looking for fluff, run screaming. ;) Happy New Year to all (and Ali, you owe me my soul back.)

Stress Fracture
by A.j.

He's killing himself.

Even from this height, it's obvious. The way he hit that one? Too much power, no focus, his left side's open. Everything they tell you *not* to do in the first days of training. They're rookie mistakes that not even exhaustion can excuse. I've watched him fight, on and off, for almost twenty years. I've seen him weak, pissed, and everything between. I've never seen him like this.

Only five of *them* left now. The one in the rear seems to be hanging back. It's waiting for him to tire himself out. That should happen pretty soon the way Nate's pushing it. I didn't think Danger Room holograms were programmed to be smart.

Then again, I haven't been doing very much thinking lately. Not about the right stuff.

I wonder where he got the template. It's not like anyone was taking pictures and Nate isn't the best at reconstructive programming. But that has to be it. I really can't imagine him asking anyone to do this. They'd be a lot more freaked out than they are.

Scott Summers looks really weird with blue lips and an 'A' belt-buckle.

I should put the safety protocols back on. A precaution or something. Fighting like this... It's obvious he's not in any condition to be within a mile of the Danger Room, let alone working one of the higher levels. Nate started with thirty. He's down to four now.

Those hologram skins are really disturbing.

But that's what Nate's aiming for, isn't he? This isn't a sim about comfort. I'm watching a ritual of self-flagellation.

He's been hiding the depth of what's going on pretty well. I mean, I had *no* idea about this. If any of the others did, they'd probably have him drugged to the gills and under 24/7 watch. Then again, that's half right. They are watching him pretty closely.

Probably why he locked the door.

I wish this weren't happening.

But wishes aren't horses, are they, Dom? And this beggar just crawled back here on her knees.

He's taken down another one. Only three left. The one in the rear is still out of sight. I don't think he sees him.

I think I know why I can't bring myself to hit that button yet. This isn't my fight. It's not something that I can do, or have the right to chose. As sick as it sounds, it's what he wants right now.

I guess, in the end, it really is a question of what *he* wants. That's partially the problem. I don't think Nate's ever really thought about *what* he wants. He's always had to do what was necessary or expected.

What's necessary to him has never been addressed. Worse yet, the stuff he's unconsciously wanted: family, stability... All of that has been thoroughly sacrificed on the alter of the Required. But now that's gone And what a price...

Rid yourself of duty by ridding yourself of family.

It's not surprising that he's obsessing on this. What is surprising is that no one else has figured it out. Hell, I shouldn't talk. I didn't have it figured out until I hacked the lock.

This is his way of asking for help. If he hadn't wanted me to, I never would have made it past the first encryption set. Even this freaked out, he's miles above me in cryptography. Hell, even Tabby could have hacked this one if she'd tried hard.


Maybe this was just meant for me.

I don't know what he's going through. I know what's going on, but not what he's really feeling. Even if the link was up and running at full speed, I still couldn't.

He still hasn't relinked us yet. I thought it was just because we were readjusting to being in each other's shperes again. Me trying to be thoughtful and understanding. Don't push, he'll come to me... When did stupidity become such a large percentage of my life's outlook?

Xavier used to have this saying. "We're all different but the same." He got it half right. We're all different, but we have similarities. Everyone and his mother is trying to get Nate out of this 'funk'. I heard even Logan had a try. Now *that* had to have been interesting.

They're all wrong though. Every single one of them. I probably am too, come to think of it. I don't know what he needs. Maybe death *is* the answer. Who am I --or the Xmen for that matter-- to say what is right or good for him? We don't know. We can't.

But I do know what's good for me, and watching him kill himself isn't it. It's selfish and probably completely cruel --not wanting him to die, that is. But, then again, I'm not exactly what you'd call altruistic.

He's my partner. He always has been. It was just there for me to realize. I love him. That was only a question really early on. After that, it was about trust. We trusted each other with our lives, habits, and bodies. Our hearts? We didn't even trust ourselves with those.

When it comes down to it, we were --I *am*-- just really scared. Terrified. Petrified. Pants-wetting fearful. Any and all.

Life's a bigger risk than war. War is dependable. You'll die. There's no question it will happen. It's just the when that's a tad mystifying. The people trying to kill you aren't always bad, they're just doing their job. That can't be said about life.

I'm still not entirely sure why I went looking for him. With everything going on in my life, it would have been so much easier just to leave things as they were. For the first time in months I was back with the kids, strange as it was. It always feels odd when I'm with them and he's not. Maybe it was spending time with them. Maybe it was the bakery around the corner. They make fresh bread and brew the strongest coffee imaginable every morning. Nate loves both of those.

Nostalgia is a pretty powerful motivator. Lord knows that's why I went back after Vanessa. Once you've had someone as a friend and a lover and possibly more, you can't completely walk away from that. Forgetting just isn't an option. There's that little bit of them that's left, just waiting for a song or a smell or the feeling of a snowflake brushing your nose to come roaring back to life.

Slowly but surely, coffee and bread brought him back to life in me.

Sitting in that little cafe, watching the sun come up, I started to remember the small things. The jokes. The food fights. The feeling of his hand on my back. The way his eyelashes brushed his cheek when he closed his eyes. The color of those eyes when he laughed. At night, the way he feathered kisses down my jaw. The feel of his fingertips on my cheek. Everything started to come back.

And it didn't hurt anymore.

When Junior remade me, he fixed the shoulder that had been starting to give me trouble. And the knees. Pretty much all of my joints. And he got rid of the crows feet I'd just noticed. He rebuilt me completely, making me the mutant cliché --a forty-year-old in a twenty-five-year old's body. That little creature of mass destruction erased my scars. He got rid of a few of the ones in my head too. Even if the little bastard was a ticking time-bomb, he deserves my thanks.

After coming to this realization, I started asking myself questions. Why *did* I leave? Fear? Was walking away the best thing to do? No. Did I still not want to be there? No. Do I miss him? God, yes.

It was all so simple.

I've had second chances before. This feels different. I know this is the last and I still have no idea what to do.

Nate's taken down another. Severed its head with a blow that would probably break cement. It's cranium bounces once and disappears, eyes still wide in shock. It actually thought it was winning. Two left.

The bread and the coffee. Maybe that *is* what made me come back. All I know was that last week I was getting no sleep and spending more time with a gay cafe-owning couple than a straight woman should, and then I was in New York.

He was still in the same safe-house. It's a shock that I caught him when I did. According to Irene, he's here at the mansion more than there. Or being kidnapped. He was home though. Or what passes for his home these days. Sitting at the main worktable in the back. He didn't sense me coming. Now that I think about it, that should have been a pretty giant clue that something was really, really, wrong.

I wasn't paying attention then. I was more in it for shock value. Nerves and not a little fear had me back in full Domino-mode. Teflon-babe, balls of brass, tough-as-nails, I breezed in, pushed his jaw back up with my index finger, and threw a lamp at the Rat.

All in all, I felt better than I had in months. Decades maybe.

But that was last week, and I wasn't paying attention. I'm paying attention now. Full and total. Y'got me, babe, now what do you want me to do?

We've always had these lines between us. Generally I drew them, he followed them. Emotional, physical. Whatever. They were still lines. We've crossed a few from time to time. When I met him, I never intended to be his lover. When I did, I gave myself another line. I wouldn't fall in love with him. And then I crossed that line. Then I told myself I wouldn't walk away. But I did that too.

I felt something this morning when I came down to breakfast. Something was wrong, but Nate's "Don't Ask" walls were up higher than the Empire State building.

Curiosity did always kill the cat. I couldn't help it. Something seemed... different today. His neck felt tighter when I brushed it. His eyes seemed more strained. A million little things that just kept building in my mind. Then, halfway through an exercise routine out by the pool, something in my brain shifted and I knew it was time to cross another line.

So I picked the lock.

And here I am, sitting on my hands with no idea how to fix things or how it all got so bad.

Nate's still fighting. Roundhouse kick. Block. Punch. Block. I don't know how he can even move. There are a few cuts on his face, but the thing that really worries me is the way his leg is bent. It has to be at least sprained. Doesn't matter to the holoScott though. It just keeps coming. Jab. Block. Sucker-punch. Hit. Trip. Block. But Nate isn't giving up yet. Not yet. Jaw-smash. Hit. Chin-grab. Head-grab. Snap.

One left.

Crunch time.

This one's different. He- IT's hung back. Waited. Nate's exhausted. He's sweating so hard his clothes are soaked and shaking so bad it's a wonder he's still standing.

I don't like this. Nate's just watching him now. He's got his hands wrapped so tightly around that damn stick, I can see the white knuckles even from here. And the thing... It's just *smiling*.


I don't want to make this decision! It shouldn't have to be me. GOD DAMMIT! What the hell am I supposed to do!? Force him to live another five minutes when even the breathing hurts? Pull him off that edge again? What do I have to offer him? More missions? More death and unused money? What else? A life in the suburbs? Kids? There's a terrifying thought.

But what am *I* gonna do when that blade hits his neck? How am I going to be able to breathe? Why is it my choice?

But the why's not important right now, is it? No. The choice is.

God. Nate's on his knees now. He's not even trying. He's just there, arms by his sides. Broken. Waiting. The Thing's smile is even bigger now. Those blue lips are stretched so wide across white teeth, I'm not sure if I'm watching a snarl or a laugh. It's raising Its blade now. Such a clear swing he has. Nate's not even holding his psimitar in a defense position. It's hanging loosely in his left hand. Shit, the damn thing's pointed practically straight at me.

A spotlight wouldn't have been more appropriate. This is it.

Hit the button. Walk out the door.

That simple. That complex.

Stay or leave.

Last chance, girlie. My choice.

But then... was there ever one?

The plastic is cool under my fingers. Just a tap, and the skin, the setting, and that horrid blade are gone. There's nothing left down there. Just air and something that's going to take a helluva lot of fighting to win back.

Am I up to that challenge?

I made my choice. It's about damn time I stopped crossing those lines.

It's the right thing. I know this. Instinctively, and completely.

The last thing I see before I turn to run, flat-out, down the stairs is him. He's kneeling on the floor. His head is bent, but high enough that the room lights can still touch his face. He's crying.

And, as I make my way down those stairs, I am too.