They're Marvel's. Well, the tombstone's not...but I don't think they'll want it. ;-) No money. Don't sue.
Yes! I wrote something! Okay, so it's not any of the projects I've promised y'all...and it's not a K&L...and it's not all that great...but it's something, dang it, and you're gonna read it! (And send feedback. <nudge nudge> C'mon. <hypnotic voice> Feeeeed baaaack. Say it with me. "I will send feeeed baaaack." Got it? Good. :)
The tombstone jutted up through the night; a fat thumb of some huge, grainy hand that poked through soil to let the heavy dark air kiss its flesh. The moon was hidden and the stone only glinted faintly, with a tired luminescence that held all the grief and anger and helpless frustration that had been heaped on it since its birth mere days ago.
Countless visitors had come to cry. To brood. To speak. Countless hands had brushed at its surface with a gesture that would eventually smooth the course planes to something gentler on the tactile senses. Voices had caressed it. Eyes had weighed heavily on it. Newborn, yes, but it held the memories of so many in its simple declaration...and the silent tribute to one man was scrolled across its face.
Another came. He came in the middle of the night to avoid being seen, and he wore the traditional dark clothes of mourning. He could have flown. He could have arrived cloaked in grandiose attire and carrying a power of personality that would have dressed him more finely than any fabrics ever would.
But on this night he came as only a man, and so instead he walked on two feet as many men do, and he came dressed as so many others had been.
He stopped before the stone. It was used to this. A moment of silence as words were sought...an instant to gather voice past a throat tight with pain. Perhaps to honor a memory, as well. It waited patiently. Would this one give tears to the soil it guarded? Pour anger into a tone choked through that constricted throat? Vow quietly to make it all worthwhile?
Two words. More would come. Visitors learned quickly what a good listener the stone was.
The man shifted slightly on his feet. There was something unconsciously aggressive in his bearing...almost as though he expected a challenge. His hands tried to fidget. He firmly clasped them behind his back and continued regarding the marker.
"It shouldn't have happened this way."
Many had said that. Most had said that. They'd said that a man like him should have passed away peacefully of old age. They'd told the stone that he should have died in bed as a great-grandfather. They'd cried that he should have gone quickly after a lifetime of success.
They'd said that he should have died after achieving what he sought.
This one seemed to feel differently. "You were a fighter. A warrior, in your own way. You should have died with an idealistic quote spewing from your mouth and a fist in the eye of the Reaper." There it was...the anger. Just a trace of it revealed in that clipped tone -- just enough to hint at all that lay beneath.
But there was more than rage, there. There was something else struggling to be seen.
"Of all the things in this world that could have killed you...myself among them...you should never have succumbed to cancer. Not you."
Then who? Who should succumb to cancer? Who was worthy of such an agonizing death?
The man started pacing; back and forth, back and forth. It wasn't nervous energy...it was frustration. It was helplessness. It was impotence against the steadily enroaching specter of death that eventually claimed all.
And it was an outlet for confused, raging emotions that didn't want to let themselves become grief.
"I always believed...hoped...that we would settle things. One day. That you would finally come to understand my views. Though I suppose that was a foolish dream, wasn't it?" He snorted derisively, the anger returning more strongly. "'Foolish dream.' Who better to speak with of such than you?" Feet stopped sharply, pushing soil aside in slight furrows with the suddenness. "I say this at your grave? Is this all I can speak of to you...even now?" He shook his head. When he looked back to the stone his eyes were dark and shadowed. "There were other times. Times when we spoke of philosophy without it being an argument. And we spoke of friendship...and loyalty..." He turned slowly. "And we talked about the times when those things were not enough."
A bird trilled from the nearby forest. The man gave a little start of surprise, then subsided with a wary glance at his surroundings. A hand brushed through hair in a weary, unsettled gesture. "I will never get used to this. I already have far too many graves behind me...and it seems that more will be made before I find my own. But you..." There. Just a glimpse of struggling grief. Just a hint. "It's as if the doors are closing, one by one. Connections to who I was...before. Sometimes it's all too easy to get lost in the now and forget what made me what I am." He stopped again, as if mentally backstepping to correct himself. "To forget the good parts, that is. Like our...friendship. But I seem to remember the dark times more vividly every time I close my eyes."
Another bird sang. This time he didn't jump, though an almost imperceptible tension passed through his frame, then lingered even after the sound was gone. "The doors close, and there are fewer and fewer people who remember me as anything but the man I've become. There's a finality to it that...appeals to me. Closure. Ending that part of my life and moving on to the next.
"The amusing part of this is that, with you gone, I'm far more likely to succeed. I should be elated. I should be preparing to take advantage of this with every strength I have. I should be--" Another sharp stop, this time as his voice thickened with rising pain. The eyes closed for a moment. The throat worked hard on displacing the lump that blocked it.
His head turned suddenly, eyes snapping open and emotion apparently forgotten. That unconscious aggression returned to flow through muscles and alter stance just a bit. It descended on him; the cloak of casual arrogance and leashed power. And he wore it well.
Another man approached across the darkened ground, weaving between the other tombstones with the ease of one who walked here often. He moved with slow precision -- almost as if he gave the visitor time to leave before he was near enough to speak.
The visitor didn't leave.
The man stopped several long paces away and nodded once at the other. The stone knew this one. He'd been here quite often since it had first settled into this home. He was one who'd showered it with anger-mingled-pain and confessions of self-doubt.
"I knew you'd come sooner or later," he commented quietly to the visitor. "I've been checking every night."
A slow nod in return. "I only found out this morning."
"He didn't want everyone to know he was sick."
A moment of silence. Of regard. Of remembering.
"You will continue on without him?" the visitor asked the new arrival levelly. It was barely a question, but given the shape of one in token respect.
"Of course. And you?"
No surprise revealed in voice or bearing. "Then we'll be fighting again."
"If that is the way of things."
"And more people will die."
"Only if there is no other choice."
"There's always another choice."
This time the visitor nearly smiled. "It's obvious who taught you," he murmured, almost gently. "His words. Your voice."
The man shook his head faintly. "My words. His memory."
"Semantics," the visitor told him dismissively. He eyes turned back to the stone once more. "Did he suffer much?" Deceptively level tone. Only his eyes gave a glimpse of the strength of feeling beneath it.
The other waited a moment, then answered reluctantly-- "Towards the end...when he couldn't hide it anymore...we managed to get him to agree to pain medication. Before that..." He gave an abrupt, sharp shrug. "Before that he hid whatever pain he had."
"It struck quickly."
"Pancreatic cancer usually does."
A minute of heavy quietude...of waiting for words or action from either. The stone sat in the middle of this wary truce, marked somehow into the minds of both as the symbol of this short-lived peace.
The visitor turned away; away from the stone, away from the other man. "Do you have any intention of hindering my departure, Cyclops?"
"Not tonight. Not...now."
"And in the future?"
"That's up to you, I think."
The visitor's eyes turned towards the cloud-shielded moon. "Is it anymore?"
He pivoted once more to face the stone. For a few long heartbeats there was only the stone and the man and the memories ghosting from one to the other.
Then he drew back a bare half-step and closed his eyes. "Goodbye, Charles." The stone soaked up these parting words to mingle with the myriad of others it had taken, storing them away to hold throughout however many years it remained.
That was what it was there for, after all.
The other had remained silent through this, but as the visitor opened his eyes and turned away he spoke. "So you'll go right back to it? Say your goodbyes, then put on the cape and be 'Magneto -- mutant terrorist' again?"
A finger of moonlight snaked through thick clouds to set the visitor's sliver hair glowing. He didn't look to the man again, but his heavy, tired sigh reverberated through the air.
And then he left the way he'd arrived...walking on two feet. For now.
Notes from Kaylee: Continuity -- Eh, just fit it in wherever. ;-)
continued in 'Til Christmas
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