One Cup 

by Brenda Jean Carlson



To everybody who wrote me with a hug or encouragement the first time this came out. To Andi for feeding my Theo complex, to Jen for her betaing not once but twice despite a thousand reasons in her own life she could have found better things to do. To Vicki and the rest of the surviving Stephensons for getting well day by day and most of all for Matt: I hope you're having a ball up there in heaven.

As always, all standard disclaimers apply. Neither Dom nor Theo are mine, they're Marvel's. I have every intention of giving them back and only wanted to borrow them long enough to appreciate their truly unique friendship.

Now on with it...

Iím always a little amazed at how desolate this place can look.

Maybe itís because of the snow: which has, according to the locals, broken statewide records this year. The whole way here thereís been nothing but sheer white powder, scattered with bits of green and brown. The trees are so heavy with the ice and frozen precipitation that some of them are all but ready to snap under the weight.

I havenít been here in three years, and the sheer starkness makes it seem all the more, I donít know, otherworldy?

Itís Christmas Eve today. December twenty-fourth. As I speak, all of the X-Force kids are with the Guthrie Clan in Kentucky gorging themselves on turkey and fruitcake. By now Iím sure theyíve drug a tree into the house, and probably taken half of the snow from the backyard in with it.

No doubt Terryís gonna try to get them all to sing Silent Night while they decorate, even if she is so overly sentimental that her brogue makes the tune indistinguishable.

They really needed this holiday. A chance to rest. The last year's been hard, even if they've toughened up to the point where they didn't complain about it much.

They've really grown up when we weren't paying attention. It's kind of frightening to think about.

And as for me? Well Iím trying to beat a Colorado blizzard. As if three and a half meters of snow wasnít enough already, theyíre expecting another blowout by midnight. The guy I chartered to fly me in here this morning tried to talk me out of coming at all, and you donít want to know what I had to do to secure myself this jeep. Iíve had at least five separate invitations to Christmas Dinner in the last two weeks. Sam even tried to pull out the big guns. He had his mother call me.

Lucinda Guthrieís quite a general. Iíd like to see Nate or even Xavier try to turn her down.

The last bend in this serviceway is up ahead - just past the old railroad crossing. It doesnít look like this gravel road has been re-plowed in months; thank goodness for snow tires, or Iíd be digging out the snow shovels and kitty litter. Griz always had to pay some local family to come in and clear this place out. He used to give fifty bucks to the kid who lives about ten miles from here to bring in his front loader.

The man was a terrible softy - he always overpaid him. Said the punk probably didn't have many other extra sources of spending money, and it saved him the hassle of having to do it himself. Truth of the matter was, though, Griz was just a pushover with kids.

Thereís the driveway on the left. Itís amazing you can still see it. Of course nobodyís been on the property in ages - who knows how badly the place has overgrown after all these years of neglect. Iím sure if the county had been able to get the deed on the land, they'd have tried to resell it. Itís mine, though, and I just havenít had the stomach to come back.

Yeah. Yeah he actually willed the place to me. Couldn't you just choke on the irony?

Lord, look at the house: some of the main support beams are still standing. They seem impossibly frail to have stood up all this time, and yet there they are. Theo probably would have found a sick kind of pleasure in knowing he built this place well enough to outlast a five alarm fire.

I can almost smell the stench of pine from that night, and feel the burning cold of the fire.

Itís been over three years since Iíve been here, how can this place have been so utterly caught up in time?

There's an old shed at the back of the lot. Itís the only sign of human existence still untouched. The engineís still so warm after I shut it off that you can see the heat rising off the hood in enormous billows of steam. The snow crunches under my feet as I open the door. The thin crust of frost gives way under my weight and I sink knee deep into the fluffy whiteness.

Brr. Definitely time for mittens. I better hurry if I want to be back on the road by before dark.

"Whatís with you, Little Miss Grinchy?" His voice echoes beside me as I mount the path back to the stream. He was mocking me that day, of course. Theo tended to do that a lot.

I remember the way the scent of almonds rose to my nostrils as he set the mug down, and the almost goofy smile that he sent my way as he draped himself against the couch. "Oh come on Dom." He waved to my drink, "Itís just cocoa...not homicide."

Theo was a horrible prankster from the first day I met him. He was a real challenge to my hold on the title of Group Smart Mouth, though I'd have never admitted it. Of course most days I wasnít that worried about it, because to figure out that fact you had to get him talking - which required either time or massive amounts of alcohol.

On that particular evening ten years ago, though, I suppose I could say we had both. We were on shared sentry duty in a particularly ratty rat-trap just outside Rio de Janeiro, counting down the hours till midnight. It was December twenty-fourth, you see. Christmas soon: bottles up.

We werenít exactly celebrating our way through it.

Oh donít get me wrong, Iím not saying we hated the holidays. Itís just what in the world were we supposed to feel about the whole thing, given our circumstances? Peace on earth, oh yeah - we really wanted to be out of a job. Friggin' goodwill to men.

Besides, there was something about the whole idea that seemed ridiculous. Can you imagine us trying to pick up a weapons supply from a guy wearing a elf hat?

I'm sorry, but it was a little hard to take seriously. So call me Ebeneezer Scrooge.

But back to the mug... "What is this stuff?" At first I had assumed it was just souped-up coffee, but then I wasnít so sure. As I said earlier, at first it reminded me of almond extract, but now there was something more...something almost...caramel scented... in its odor.

Theo shrugged his shoulders. "Just something hot to drink." I should have known better then to trust that smirk, but what the heck, it was Christmas.

The stuff was warm on my tongue.

It was all I could do not to gag.

"Ugh...what in hell?!" That wasnít all I said. I'll spare your ears the rest of the details though, your imaginations can fill it in. An unwisely taken second swallow proved my taste buds hadnít just been misfiring, though: the stuff was nothing short of outright caustic. I set it down as far from me as I could, glaring at him as I reached across the end of the couch to grab a peppermint from the candy bin.

"Butt-awful stuff isnít it?" He said conversationally. Then happily chugged down his own glass and poured himself another while I sat watching.

You know, a whole lot of people think Nate was the Packís worst Contrary. It doesnít surprise me really, considering who he is. I mean mutant time traveler incognito - he didnít exactly blend with the crowd, if you know what IĎm getting at. Still, in many ways, I think Nate was actually the most predictable of us: even if we didnít have the faintest clue what his motives were most of the time, we were fairly sure he had them.

Theo though, sometimes heíd do something so out of character youíd almost wake up the next morning and wonder if it had happened at all.

"Okay I'm not killing you. Not yet anyway. Still wouldn't mind knowing the punch line...." I'd obviously just been let in on some phenomenal joke. So I'd needed him to enlighten me.

Grizís smile grew wider as he drank again, "Itís hot chocolate with almond and caramel whiskey. This was the first stuff I ever got stoned on. Age thirteen." His look grew almost melancholy. "Christmas Eve. Iíd just survived a wrestling contest with a grizzly."

He went on to tell me the whole tale. Heíd been living with his uncle in these very mountains. "An old bachelor and oversized - if deathly shy - kid. We spoke maybe one sentence every two to three days. Still he tried his best to take care of me, and I wanted to give him some kind of gift in thanks. So I figured I'd let him sleep in one morning of the year while I went out and checked the trap lines alone..."

Heíd been finishing off a particularly pitiful looking rabbit when the beast had gotten him from behind, "The fight was on and I was grossly outclassed."

Griz was never a big talker about his past; not that I blamed him. It wasnít as if any of us were any different - we weren't here looking to share our hearts. Yesterday was a painful thing for most of us...something we couldn't remember, or just wanted to forget.

Listening to him that night in the dark, though, I could hear the roar of the bear. Feel the ripping of the muscles in his neck as the claws hit his shoulder, and share his gasp of surprise at the sharp report of a gunshot.

"I'd never been so glad to see anyone in my life, Dom, but he just rolled off the carcass and gave me a hand up. I remember the smile on his face, "Boy, you look like you just earned your first set of stitches. And then a darn good stiff drink."

Simple gifts.

The mound of stones is at my feet now. I canít be absolutely sure this is the exact spot of the gravesite with all this drifting, but it doesnít really matter. I have to take my gloves off to unscrew the lid of the thermos, and they tingle as I reach take a pair metal mugs from my bag.

He gave me Christmas. Probably for the first time.

"Well Iím here. Just like I promised. Sorry it took so long this time. Bad weather." The smell of almonds hits me as I pour. "Just for the record though, youíre only getting one cup."

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