Land Of The Living

by Alicia McKenzie



DISCLAIMER: The characters in this story, save for yet another wandering Askani, belong to Marvel, and are used without permission for entertainment purposes only. This is set between the panels of X-Force #75. . .I've always wanted to know what Cable did, that night. . .

Standing like an impassive statue at the edge of the canyon, the tall, silver-haired figure watched the Colossal Man festival take shape beneath him. He had walked for almost an hour from where he'd stashed his borrowed Wakandan plane, the sun beating brutally down on him every step of the way, but he hardly felt it, even now.

He had too much on his mind. Such as how he was going to find X-Force in the chaos below and keep his sanity intact in the process. Nathan Summers closed his eyes for a moment, wincing. Already, the place was making him feel uneasy, grating painfully on oversensitized perceptions. There were just too many people down there, almost all of them throwing their inhibitions to the wind.

And yet, there was something almost irresistably primal about the crowd, a thundering psychic rhythm, discordant and jarring, yet bizarrely penetrating. He felt drawn to it, almost despite himself. A strange feeling. . .reckless yet reluctant, alluring yet oddly chilling.

It would be so easy to give in to it. . .no. With one quick, angry shake of his head, Cable made his way carefully down the rugged path leading to the canyon floor. He was here for a reason, flonq it all. Find X-Force, make sure they're all right, and then get back to New York. Irene probably thought he was dead. Oath, he should have been dead. . .he still had absolutely no idea how he'd managed to survive the unprotected fall back to earth from Apocalypse's exploding ship.

TK shield, probably, a more pragmatic part of his mind pointed out, not for the first time. Cable's mouth curled in a humorless smile. Chance, in any case. Pure instinct. By all rights, he shouldn't be standing here, alive. . .and maybe that was the problem. Dance too closely with death, and you can't really come back. Not all the way. He felt cold, distant, even in the blazing heat of the Texas noon. Numb, like a machine going through the motions, not really feeling anything.

Maybe that was he found the crowd he was about to walk into so disturbing. There was nothing BUT unbridled emotion, here. All the careful rules of society, all the boundaries and barriers. . .these people had left them all behind. It repelled him, but called to him as well, and as his steps drew him closer towards the fringes of the crowd, he found himself struggling with the dichotomy, trying to resolve the conflict within himself before something happened to take the choice away from him.

No one noticed him, as he strode further into the heart of the festival, winding his way between vehicles and tents. There were people everywhere. As large as the crowd had looked from above, it was worse at ground level. More massive, twice as oppressive. . .Cable flinched as a scantily clad pair of giggling young women brushed by him, too close. The scraps of iridescent fabric they were wearing made Psylocke's combat uniform look like the height of modesty. They had both already indulged in some sort of mood-altering substance. Even with that momentary physical contact, he could feel it. A. . .giddiness, brushing up against his own thoughts. Lingering. . .warmth.

He realized he had stopped in his track and was standing there with his eyes tightly closed. Opening them swiftly, he looked around warily. A few of those passing by gave him peculiar looks, but most ignored him, too wrapped up in themselves, in their companions, in the seething atmosphere of anticipation and reckless abandon and unashamed lust for life. Cable took a few unsteady steps forward, not sure what to do, how to handle this. Reinforcing his shields might work, but how was he supposed to find X-Force? He couldn't just wander around and hope he ran into them. . .especially since he wanted to remain unseen.

Still. . .to open his mind, in the midst of all this? He couldn't. Not and stay focused. And focus was what was important, wasn't it? Staying focused. . .getting the job done. . .

A delighted shriek jarred him from his reverie, and he watched, half-dazed, as a man wearing flight goggles and nothing else chased a woman dressed like a Victorian fairy behind one of the nearby tents, the woman teasing him and urging him on every step of the way. The laughter went on for a few minutes, and then trailed off into soft, appreciative gasps and the odd muffled moan of pleasure. Cable closed his eyes again, dizzied by the unmistakable sensations emanating from the couple. For a moment, he was one with them, flesh against sweaty flesh in broad daylight, not caring who might see, utterly lost in each other.

"You appear troubled, my friend." The pleasant voice snapped him out of his rapport with the couple. Flushing, he flipped his collar up almost instinctively, hiding his face as if what he'd been doing was written on his forehead for everyone to see.

The owner of the voice was a very pregnant woman with long, straight dark hair and a blue stone of some sort on her brow, hanging from a chain that wound its way through her hair. She was sitting beneath a makeshift canvas sun shelter, the back of the shelter painted with a symbolized eye. A crude, hand-done sign read 'Fortunes Told'.

"Come, sit," she said invitingly. "I'll read your fortune. My name's Clarissa."

"Nathan," he responded flatly, not sure why he was bothering, why he was wasting time carrying on a conversation with a woman he didn't know. But she was. . .fascinating. She had to be almost at full term, and he could sense the baby, sense its thoughts almost as intensely as he could Clarissa's. They seemed. . .synchronized, somehow. Serene, glowing. . .he forced himself to disengage, to answer her question. "As for your offer, no, thank you. I didn't come here to have my fortune told." He'd come here to find X-Force, he told himself harshly. Time he stopped indulging himself, and went about it.

"Aren't you even the least bit curious about the future, Nathan?"

He almost laughed in her face. Yet the question was curiously depressing, too. Even if he managed to live beyond the next couple of years, did he really HAVE a future? Even if he 'won'? What sort of victory could it really be, in the end? "I've seen the future, Clarissa," he said, his voice coming out brittle, tense. "That's why I'm here. It's time I checked up on tomorrow's best hope."

It sounded so. . .hackneyed, he thought as he turned away, ignoring her uncomprehending look. Hackneyed. Trite. Self-deluding?

Anger flared deep inside him. Stop wallowing, you stupid son of a flonq. . . His stride became brisk, more assured, and as he walked, he thinned out his shields. Gradually, thinking to ease the shock. . .but it didn't work. He staggered, senses reeling, finally falling to his knees between two tents where he huddled, shivering, trying to filter through the overwhelming telepathic input to find those five familiar minds, somewhere in this great teeming mass of humanity.

So many different. . .layers of sensation. A slow, dreamy smile grew on his face. The muddy orange of angst was entirely absent from the atmosphere here. A little hesitation, here and there, people who weren't sure about throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the celebrations. Very little darkness, anywhere. A couple of points that troubled him. . .he might have lingered, examined them more closely, but the current swept him away, and he was helpless to stop it.

This feels. . . Wild color blossomed in his mind, fire racing along every nerve, and he shivered, half-ecstatically, half in pain. The astral plane in the immediate area had seemingly turned itself upside-down and inside out. Frenzied, turbulent, it DANCED. . .

"You all right, man?" Someone was bending over him, a young man dressed like a pirate, with a shaved head and numerous body parts pierced.

Cable looked up, feeling that strange smile grow as he studied the kid, admiring how his 'aura' shimmered around him. Blue and green, all different shades. "Never better," he murmured, somehow managing to hold himself back from plunging into the kid's mind just to see what was there, what depths might lurk beneath those friendly but vacant eyes.

The kid grinned. "You sure look like you're feeling no pain, pal. Have a blast!"

Cable watched him walk away, watching the shimmering tapestry of colors that overlaid his vision alter, irridescent shivers shooting through it in the kid's wake. As far as he could see, every move anyone made caused the same reaction. It was wonderfully chaotic. Like an abstract painting, but alive. . .alive and breathing, with a pulse of its own. Part of his mind shrieked at him to put some shields up before he burned himself out, but he ignored it. Oh, he knew, in a distant, absent sort of way that what he was doing was dangerous, but he was too wrapped up in the incredible intense pleasure/pain of the experience to care.

Why did I never try this before? A laugh bubbled up from somewhere deep inside, and he didn't bother trying to repress it. There was a question with an obvious answer. Too repressed, too focused. . .he'd forgotten what it was like to just let go. If he'd ever known, in the first place. And it only added spice to the whole thing, to know how far beyond the pale of 'acceptable behavior' this was, by any set of telepathic ethics. Even the more. . .flexible ones.

He closed his eyes. The colors were still there, even brighter now that he was shutting out the 'real world'. Real world? he thought in reckless amusement. What was more real than this?

He danced from mind to mind, sampling them at random. Too many to choose from. . .like a few thousand different vintages, laid out in front of him. A bit of nervous glee there as a would-be rock singer stood up in front of a crowd for the first time. Carefree joy. Wild enthusiasm. Reckless lust. Everything. It flowed around and through him, scorching him right to the core, burning away the numbness that had afflicted him since he'd crashed to earth in Wakanda.

Memory pierced the euphoria, just for a moment. X-Force. . . He let his mind drift outwards, not scanning, just letting it all pass through him. Surely he'd feel it if he touched a familiar mind. . .but the thought of X-Force started to wane, grow inconsequential as he was carried away, no longer separate from the torrent, just one more ripple in a wild river.

. . .not sure I want to do this. . .but they're all LOOKING at me. . .

. . .knew I'd have more luck if I got her to let her hair down. . .

. . .Dad would FREAK if he saw me doing this!

. . .not going to screw this up. . .shit, I'm nervous, though. . .just close your eyes and SING, stupid. . .

. . .wish I'd convinced him to come along this year. . .

. . .Bobby's going to kill me for this, but look at him! He's a natural!

Cable hesitated, his attention snared by the familiar psi-pattern. Tabitha. It was difficult to narrow his focus, almost painful to fight the current and latch on to that single sparkling point of light.

He recognized DaCosta's mind, in the vicinity, radiating a sort of embarassed yet oddly gleeful chagrin. They were both all right, he registered. Fundamentally content, beneath smaller anxieties, a surface layer of other emotions.

Something. . .strange, closer to them. A. . .blank spot, somehow cold. Familiar, too. . .but from where? Trying to identify it, he lost his 'balance' and was swept along again, helplessly.

His eyes fluttered open, and he blinked confusedly around at his surroundings, trying to see them clearly through the shimmering ribbons of color that still shrouded his vision. Was it getting darker? He couldn't really tell. Pulling himself to his feet, he winced at how stiff his body felt.

It WAS getting darker, the sun fallen almost to the horizon. Cooler, too. Absently, he wiped sweat from his forehead and continued through the festival, looking for someplace to stop for a minute, regain his composure. He'd thrown up shields instinctively when he'd sensed that odd blank spot, but the shields themselves weren't quite right. They seemed porous, letting the kaleidoscopic haze seep through, deep into his mind. His steps grew unsteady once more, but he swallowed, telling himself that he was not going to stagger around like a drunk. Not that he'd be out of place, if he did. No, he'd fit right in. . .

He laughed softly to himself. What would the kids say if they saw him like this? If Theresa or someone stepped out from behind one of these tents and ran right into him. . .that would be, what was the phrase, a 'classic moment'? Hi, kids. This really isn't what it looks like. Probably shatter their image of him irreparably. . .I really shouldn't find that so funny. . .

Cable stopped in front of a tent whose sign read 'Refreshments'. That's what I could use, he thought hazily. A drink. His throat felt like sandpaper, and his hands were trembling slightly. It occurred to him that he hadn't had anything to eat or drink since he'd left Wakanda. Too busy tracking down the kids. Not real smart, Summers, he told himself, and went into the tent. Wouldn't hurt him to take a few minutes to collect himself, anyway.

A couple of minutes later, he was sitting on a pile of cushions, sipping at something the 'bartender' had called a 'smart drink'. He wasn't prepared to make any judgements on its IQ-enhancing abilities, but his head did feel a little clearer. He still felt. . .jittery, though, uneasy even in the relative quiet of the tent. The soft buzz of the conversations around him was rubbing his nerves raw.

Someone familiar had been here, too, he thought, his eyes narrowing, darting around the tent, seeking out that faint psi-trace. It had faded almost to nothingness, but his telepathic senses were so hyper-sensitive at the moment that he picked it up despite how weak it was.

Moonstar, I think. . . Tossing back the rest of his drink. . .which tasted very much like ordinary pineapple juice, come to think of it. . .he rose and left the tent, depositing the empty plastic cup in a recycling bin with exaggerated care.

He continued to wander, thinning out his shields again, in order to follow Dani's trail. This time it wasn't quite as much of a shock. No less. . .exhilarating, but he was ready for it, this time. He let himself move with it, rather than be drowned by it, let his steps echo the rhythm he'd first felt when standing at the canyon's edge. Each step sent a shock through him, as if he was grounding himself, somehow. And yet there was a curious fluidity about everything, a surreal edge that was somehow more fascinating than anything he'd experienced yet today. As if he was standing just slightly out of synch with the world around him, and all of reality was flowing through him freely, penetrating every cell of his body.

Gotta. . .work on those metaphors, Nate.* He laughed dazedly. There was a definite theme emerging, here. A little more repressed than you thought, old man? But self-analysis required concentration, and he found himself losing that again. He walked onwards, barely managing to stay on Dani's trail as minds pressed in on his own with unnatural strength from all sides.

. . .whoa, the colors. . .

. . .she's cute. Wonder if she'd want to. . .

. . .seems like he's the open-minded type. Should make this more fun. . .

Most of the crowd was into the really heavy celebrating, by now. The mood was changing, the atmosphere growing heavier, more charged. He shivered, drawing his coat more tightly around him. The heat was going with the sun, not surprising out here in the barren West Texas basin. It was the sort of night that was made for contemplation. . .or would be, if he hadn't been in the middle of a mass orgy.

Orgy. He started to laugh again, finding it all terribly funny. Just about everyone he had ever known would be shocked witless to see him now, and the thought. . .tickled him. When in Rome. . . All those years in all those different time periods, fighting and failing to fit in. Here, though, the solution was so simple, it had a certain elegance about it. All he had to do was let go.

Let go. Sink into the crowd, let it swallow him up.

But the kids. And those. . .darker points amid the wild brilliance of the night. He had to be sure, had to see for himself that X-Force was all right.

He had to remember why he was here.

He wasn't moving with the pulse of the crowd, anymore, but struggling against it, futilely. Colors shattered and reformed around him, the noise of the minds surrounding him fading into sibiliant whispers and then growing into a roar. Over and over, back and forth, like waves crashing on a shore. Cable turned, staggering as he did, flinching at the grinning faces spinning past him, blurring into each other. The sound of his own heartbeat was suddenly too loud in his ears, thudding in weak but resolute opposition to the vast rhythm that shook the ground beneath his feet.

There was something. . .else happening here. Something more. He stared up at the sky, blinking, trying to focus on the stars, to think beyond the telepathic overload clouding his senses. What was he feeling?

He was still trying to sort it out when unnatural lightning shot outwards from the ground, from a point not far away, and a glowing, blazing something flew through the air in a wide, spinning arc, until it embedded itself right in the center of the Colossal Man.

The scrap-metal construct began to glow with that same eerie light.

Then, it started to move.

The screaming started almost immediately, people fleeing the path of the Colossal Man. Cable froze, trying to block out the terror and hold his ground.

What in the name of the Bright Lady. . .?


They hadn't needed him, in the end.

They'd done perfectly well against the Colossal Man themselves. Won the battle, saved the day. . .he should be proud. If he'd had any lingering doubts about their ability to handle whatever came their way, watching them clean up after Selene had reassured him.

So why did he feel so hollow? Cable wandered aimlessly through the festival grounds, wondering why everyone was still here. Ordinary humans generally had the sense to clear out after pitched mystical battle. Survival instinct, if nothing else.

These people, though. They seemed to think it was all part of the 'experience'. And the danger, the risk, had only heightened the atmosphere, made it more intense.

A different kind of atmosphere. People trying to forget what they'd seen, to wash away the memory of death with a flood of primal revelry. . .Sensation becomes more vivid after the threat of cessation. The quote flickered through his mind like summer lightning, there and then gone again.

He hesitated beside one tent, swaying on his feet. Something was. . .

. . .no, don't want this, not happening, STOP!

Wrong. Something was wrong. He shivered, the dull, seething colors from within the tent assaulting him, panic and fear scraping across his mind like sandpaper. He reached out instinctively, not thinking about what he was doing, his mind snatching at that terror. . .

And sharing it. Sharing the sensation of being pinned to the ground, of rough hands tearing fabric. . .

#No!# He pulled free of the girl's mind and struck directly at her attacker, a wild, unrestrained attack that would have splintered the man's mind like glass if he hadn't pulled the bulk of the attack, right at the last minute.

As it was, it stunned the man, and Cable flinched back as the door of the tent was yanked aside and the girl emerged, sobbing. "It's all right," he said roughly, reaching out to support her as she swayed, eyes darting frantically around in search of someplace safe. "He won't. . ."

She looked at him, eyes wide, the pupils swallowing the iris, and screamed.

The tiny amount of focus he'd struggled to hold on to once he'd found it in the midst of the crisis shattered irrevocably. Her fear hit him like a physical blow, buckling his shields and sending him staggering backwards, blinded and deafened by the sudden rainbow torrent that poured through his mind.

He didn't see her run in the other direction. Stumbling away, he struggled to hold on to the physical world of ground and sky, but his equilibrium was gone, he couldn't tell which way was up, and there was too much, he couldn't keep it out, and it burned. . .

Darker. The colors were darker. Wilder. Darkly glowing needles, stabbing into his mind. . .

He hit something hard, the impact enough to drive the breath out of him. Dimly, distantly, he realized he'd fallen to the ground, but he couldn't get up. He couldn't get his body to obey him, and the harder he tried, the more strength he exhausted, losing his grip on those last paper-thin remnants of his shields as they dissolved under the assault. . .burning, falling into ashes, the flood not water but fire, scorching, unstoppable. . .

And he heard the pulse again, the collective heartbeat, pounding in the ground beneath him, echoing through his body and thundering into the sky. With feverish abandon, he tore loose of his body and rode the silent drumbeat outwards, like a drowning man struggling towards the air. The stars, he thought, or as close as he could come to conscious thought when his mind was tangled up in foreign thoughts, smeared across the astral plane like fresh paint blurred by a careless hand. The stars would be. . .quiet, they always had been before. . .

Cable shuddered convulsively, drawn back to his body by a hand on his shoulder and a sudden cascade of cool, serene thoughts, spilling into his mind and holding the storm at bay with no apparent effort at all.

"Come with me," a soft alto voice said gently, helping him up off the ground. He opened his eyes and then shut them again tightly, something very close to a whimper escaping him. It was still there, the blinding vision of the astral plane overlaying the physical world. "It's all right," the voice said soothingly, and he leaned, shuddering, on the slight figure that supported him with ease. The cool presence in his mind grew more intense, silvery like moonlit water soothing invisible burns. "My tent is just down here. . .you just need to rest, that's all. No. . .keep your eyes closed. Don't worry. . .I'm not going to let you fall. Watch your step, here. . ."

It seemed to take forever, the woman's soft voice murmuring encouragement to him. The world spun around him with each step, wave after wave of dizziness sweeping over him, and there was a taste like ashes at the back of his throat, the ashes that were all that was left of his shields. And the pain. . .Bright Lady, he felt like someone had taken a flamethrower to the inside of his skull.

Finally, he heard the whisper of a tent door being pulled aside. Then he was being told to lie down, eased down onto blankets.

"You're heavy," the voice said with gentle amusement. He tried to sit up, but firm hands pushed down on his shoulders. "No, don't do that. I can sense perfectly well what your head feels like at the moment, and believe me, moving around's only going to make it worse. . ."

Another telepath. The realization finally penetrated his pain-wracked daze, and he started to panic. . .

"Oh, don't do that." The voice chuckled, and he flinched, more in surprise than anything else as something cool and damp was laid across his forehead. "If I'd want to. . .oh, I don't know, mindwipe you or something, I could have done it out there. There wouldn't be much point in dragging you in here now, would there?"

The silvery presence in his mind explored tentatively. Not probing him, not trying to see into his memories, only checking his shields. He felt chagrin, an edge of what seemed like real worry.

#You're something of a mess, my friend.# The voice was in his mind this time. #What did you think you were doing out there, anyway? Unless you were trying to burn yourself out. . .# The voice trailed off, peculiarly hesitant.

Trying to burn himself out. Passive suicide had never been his preferred mode of self-destructive behaviour. No. . .the times he'd wanted to die, he'd always found himself a battle or some such thing, a purpose important enough to spend his life for. Only it had never worked, had it, and that was a shame, it really was. . .

All because he'd felt too much, before. Passion was destruction. . .if you felt, you couldn't focus. If you loved, you lost your way. . .he'd seen that finally, made his choice to leave family and friends behind, to sacrifice humanity for focus. . .

But he'd forgotten that today. He'd let go and nearly drowned. He'd let curiosity, his own selfish need to feel connected to people again weaken him, make him vulnerable. . .

#Oh. . .I see.# The voice was so sad, suddenly. He took as deep a breath as he could and opened his eyes.

He could see her, this time. She stood out from the turbulent color dancing all around her, surrounded by a soft silver glow that lit a small, heart-shaped face surrounded by short blond hair and dominated by eyes like pools of dark water.

Eyes shimmering with tears. . .for him? She reached out, removing the cloth and dampening it again. "Sometimes I hate being a telepath," she whispered, her dark eyes still so sad as she gently wiped sweat from his forehead. "I hate being able to know the things we can know. I mean, look at you. You're. . ." She shook her head, her lips pursing. "How can you do it?" she asked painfully, after a long moment. "There's so much to feel, so much. . .even in a place like this, there's so much life if you let yourself feel it. To shut yourself off like this, I just can't imagine. . ."

He concentrated for a moment. Gathered all his strength, formed it into a single thought.

#Some things are worth the cost.#

She wouldn't meet his eyes, now. "That's a sad way to live," she whispered.

The sound that escaped him then might have been a laugh, under different. . .better circumstances.

"Tell me about it," he rasped, and squeezed his eyes shut. Pride and denial. . .

But the tears fell anyway.

After a long moment, he felt her stretch out beside him, taking his hand. She held the storm back for him while he rebuilt his shields, and stayed there even when he had a rudimentary defense back in place, emanating a gentle reassurance and a steady compassion that stunned him. Humbled him.

How could she show this much kindness to a total stranger? he thought exhaustedly. And what did that say about the kind of shape he was in, that he was accepting it so trustingly? But he couldn't sense any duplicity in her, and their minds were linked so closely, he should have, if it was there. . .

#You're the suspicious type, aren't you?# the silver light whispered. #Would it help to know I'm a teacher?# A light laugh drifted out of the light. #Small children, too. . .does that make me any more trustworthy?#

He saw children in her mind, felt a gentle love directed at those images. Some of the tension drained out of him, and he felt satisfaction emanating from her.

#That's better. I went through this, the first time I came here, too. . .it's amazing how easy it is in a place like this to make one misstep and end up with your shields blown out.#

He swallowed. #A teacher. . .# he sent, little more than a whisper. It was all he could manage. A deep, restless ache centered itself in his chest at the thought of his 'students'. They'd outgrown him. . .he'd seen it tonight. They didn't need him anymore. . .

"Shhh." She was pulling a blanket up over him. "You need to rest. . .the overload will fade a lot faster if you're sleeping." She laid a hand lightly against his chest. "Trust me," she said, a little more insistently. "Just go to sleep. . ."

He sighed deeply. He was tired of fighting, tired even of thinking. . .

And he slept.


"Yes, that's it. . .fold it right across there."

Nathan obeyed, and smiled faintly at his rescuer. "You sure you don't want me to do that?" he asked as he watched her shove the tent into an impossibly tiny bag.

"No," she said cheerfully. "I can handle it." She smiled at him teasingly. "You sure you didn't want any more breakfast? You didn't eat much. . ."

He felt his smile turn dry as he turned to lift her small cooler into the back of her truck. "Bad enough you had to play my guardian angel last night. I don't need to be eating your food, too. . ."

"All part of the service," she chuckled, and tossed her tent into the truck. "Are you certain you don't want a ride anywhere?"

He smiled faintly, hearing the faint stiltedness in her speech when she wasn't paying close attention to her words. "I've got transportation of my own," he said as she turned back towards him. "But thanks for the offer. . .and everything else," he continued, his voice growing softer.

"It was my pleasure. . ."

"Thank my sister, too, when you see her," he said, and waited for the reaction.

She froze, and then turned, slowly, raising an eyebrow. "Ah," was all she said for a long moment. She looked rather amused, as she studied his face. "When did you figure it out?"

"Not until this morning," he said dryly. "I wasn't in good enough shape last night to wonder at the sudden appearance of a guardian angel." He wasn't feeling quite himself yet this morning, to be perfectly honest. The headache hadn't gone away and his shields were painfully thin, but the atmosphere was calmer today, with people packing up to leave. "Were you following me, or was this really just coincidence?"

She folded her arms across her chest, smiling at him. "There are a few of us around, from time to time." she said, her mouth quirking at the corner. "We. . .look after things, and occasionally step in when intervention is warranted."

"Why haven't I seen any of you before?" He couldn't, for some reason, be particularly annoyed about this. Once it all sunk in. . .well, that would be another matter. But he was clear-headed enough to realize that what she had done for him, last night.

She'd quite possibly saved his life. And when he finally had slept, last night, he hadn't dreamed. Another gift, perhaps even more precious than the first. . .

"Because, little brother," she said with a chuckle. "You can get into quite enough trouble on your own." She stared up at him for a moment longer, and then leaned up and gave him a sisterly kiss on the cheek. "I need to be getting back. Classes to teach. . ."

"So you really are a teacher," he said with a faint smile. Here or back in their own time, he wondered idly.

"Of course I am. Would I lie?" She reached out and took his hand, squeezing it gently. "And you don't stop being a teacher just because your students have grown up, either. A teacher isn't what one does, Dayspring. It's what one is. The place one has in the hearts of those whose lives you've touched." He winced, started to say something, and she shook her head. "And you're not ready to hear that yet," she said ruefully. "Just. . .keep it in mind, then?"

"I will," he said. "G'journey."

She smiled, warmly. "G'journey, Nathan," she responded simply. "Take care of yourself."

"Wait," he called as she climbed into her truck. "Your name, I didn't. . ."

She leaned out the window and grinned at him. "Askani," she said with a laugh. "What else?"

He watched her drive away, and then shook his head quizzically. The surreal edge to the world hadn't quite gone away, yet. Maybe he should get used to it. . .go with the flow. . .

"Hey, it's the man from the future!" a familiar voice shouted cheerfully from a jeep that pulled up beside him. Nathan smiled faintly, recognizing Clarissa, the pregnant fortune-teller from yesterday. "Some festival, huh, Nathan?" She seemed happy, serene. Unaffected by the events of last night.

He could still sense her baby's mind, as well. Still in tune with hers. . .glowing brighter than the dawn.

There's so much life, if you let yourself feel it. . . Askani's words echoed in his mind.

"It was. . .interesting, yes," he agreed, struggling to keep a straight face.

"Thing got kinda hairy there for a while," Clarissa said, her eyes widening slightly. "Good thing we had some guardian angels watching over us."

Cable couldn't help the smile. Not this time. "Yes," he said dryly. "Those 'guardian angels' acquited themselves admirably."

All of them had. And he was more than grateful.

"See you next year!" Clarissa waved as she and her companion drove off.

Next year. Cable wove through the remaining crowds, shaking his head. Next year. . .where would he be, next year? Failed 'messiah' or triumphant Chosen One. . .dead or alive. . .

He stopped, raising his head, and watched from a distance as his students drove into the sunrise. None of them so much as looked back, and he found himself smiling again, despite last night, despite everything.

He watched, poised between past and future. Feeling balanced, for the first time in weeks.

"G'journey, X-Force," he finally said, and then turned away, walking into the desert.


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