by Alicia McKenzie
DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to Marvel, and are used without permission for entertainment purposes only. Set sometime several weeks after the Twelve Saga and the business with the High Evolutionary.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I swiped a certain old Egyptian blessing and a rather noteworthy phrase from Babylon 5. They just fit, too perfectly, and JMS should thus be pleased at how completely he's penetrated my subconscious. Many thanks to Mel, for looking this over for me. The verses included within are bits of lyrics from 'Send Me An Angel' by the Scorpions.
The wise man said, just walk this way To the dawn of the light The wind will blow into your face As the years pass you by
The desert is all around him and inside him; his return here is only a formality. He has carried the desert with him since that day, born the burden of it into greener lands that thrive under a gentler sun. He holds the desert in his heart, and has become the sand, where nothing can grow. He knows this, accepts this. What is, is.
What is. Nothing else exists for him now, or so they say. Live in the now, they say; in what is. What was is only a shadow, and what will be is yet to be formed.
He knows this, too, but this he will NOT accept. He is the sum of his history, and he can not forget.
Dunes stretch to the horizon on all sides, and he moves across the desert with a sure and easy stride. The uniform he wore that day sits in his hotel room, back in Cairo. He has chosen to dress as a Bedouin instead, a jubbe of dark wool over a jalabiyya that blazes white against the sands, with an equally white kufiyya to shield his head from the fierce desert sun.
The clothes are not too different from the desert garb of his own time, his lost future-past. He wears them with confidence. The old man who had sold them to him had recognized this, he thinks. Perhaps even more; there had been understanding in his dark eyes, and a certain pity, poorly hidden.
*God be between you and harm,* he had said, *in all the empty places you must walk.*
The blessing, even now, burns like acid in an open wound. Empty places, he thinks with savage irony. His life is an empty place, and has been since that day. Is it courage that he draws on now to continue walking it, or simply a stubborn refusal to accept the inevitable?
*God be between you and harm.* He laughs in a rasping voice. Nothing he has seen in this life, most especially in these last few weeks, makes him believe in any sort of high benevolent power. Certainly, there are powers in the universe beyond comprehension. They have touched his life, and left behind nothing but pain.
Powers above and powers below. Perhaps they are not inimical so much as different. Purpose is a power all its own - something he knows all too well - and a power that is often careless of the damage it does on the road to its goal. He has been careless, in the grip of his Purpose. Careless, and worse.
He wishes he could grieve for that, but other sorrows preoccupy him now.
Reaching the crest of a dune, he stops for a moment, thinking distantly of angels. Matters of faith have always been of particular interest to him, perhaps because he has so little of his own. Especially now. What he once thought of as religion - his Askani beliefs - have been exposed as nothing but cold, misguided philosophy, fate and chance conspiring to rip away the veil of idealism and reveal the hard callous truth beneath.
But angels. He finds the idea intriguing. That there could be powers, standing between humanity and the great unknowable force behind the universe, is a comforting thought. Powers that choose to intervene in the workings of fate--
He wonders, with a flicker of self-loathing, if that means he had once thought of himself as an angel.
The wise man said, just find your place In the eye of the storm Seek the roses along the way Just beware of the thorns
She watches from a great distance as her son moves across the sands. Unlike him, she makes no concession to the heat and the sun. She wears the green and gold she wore that day with pride and a certain bitter defiance. The desert took her love, but she does not admit defeat. So she matches its ferocity, its pitilessness, and dares it to respond.
But the sight of her son, making his way across the pitiless desert, hurts her in a way she cannot disguise, or ignore. She cannot take her eyes off him, despite how much she loathes being here. Left to her own devices, she would never have set foot in this place again. The pain is still new and overwhelming, and the thought of seeing, once again, so soon, the place where her husband was lost is nearly unbearable.
She wonders how close she can allow him to get to the site of their mutual loss before she steps in to stop him. Her mouth twists in a bitter line. Oh, she can and will stop him, just as she stopped him that day. She is not afraid to make that choice.
That choice is what still stands between them, the reason why he is here alone, why she had to learn of his return to the desert secondhand, rather than from his lips. It lies between them like an open wound. Still, she does not regret her choice to restrain him from killing the beast that had inhabited Scott's body.
The choice had been a simple one. If she had seen her husband's blood on her son's psimitar that day, something would have been shattered forever, broken beyond repair. Both in him, and between them. Forever.
She could not have borne that, to lose both of them. So she made the choice, and paid the price, willingly if not gladly. A high, high price. There is a part of him that hates her, and will hate her forever, with a hate that burns like the desert sun. His dream, what he sees as his very reason for being, was denied completion by her choice to restrain him. The memory of his eyes, the rage and shock there, haunts her dreams still.
But there is so much more to his life than Apocalypse's death. He will have to learn that now, she reminds herself grimly, her fiery hair blowing in the desert wind; it and her eyes, steadily following her son's tall figure, the only sign she is more than a statue, standing alone in the desert.
There is much for him to learn, and she is the only teacher left to teach him.
But inwardly, she shivers, remembering him that day, the way he had shaken off grief and pain from his injuries and charged back into the fight. How he had stood above the monster, glowing like the sunlight, words of utter contempt spilling from his lips. An avenging angel, striking out at the darkest power of their world, to defend people yet unborn.
And she had stopped him.
She wonders suddenly if she has truly saved him, or merely--broken his wings. The desert wind howls, lashing at her, and she remembers, almost inconsequentially, that the angel Michael, first among the soldiers of Heaven, never smiled after Hell was created.
She has not seen a smile on his face since that day, not even for a moment. His face has been the face of the desert, bleak and dead. What does he see when he looks at the world now? she wonders painfully. Victory or defeat? Heaven or hell? Or is he like her, too blinded by pain to tell, one way or the other?
Here I am will you send me an angel? Here I am in the land of the morning star
He has no water. He supposes he could pretend to himself that he had merely forgotten, but that would be a lie. He knows the desert, its rules, its unforgiving nature. You do not make a journey across the desert with no water.
But this is not a journey, he thinks, staring out across the bleak, dead expanse. A journey needs a beginning, and an end. The beginning, for him, is lost in a future that survives now only as a shadow, and the end--
Closing his eyes, he returns to his earlier thought. His own arrogance, to believe that he could intervene in the workings of fate without a price being exacted, is a suitable subject for the contemplation of the penitent he now is. He focuses on that fleeting, sardonic image of himself as a savior, as a power--as an angel, and laughs bitterly, hoarsely, using the sheer lunacy of the image to flay his soul until it is raw and bleeding.
An angel. Which angel did he fancy himself? he wonders, swaying on his feet, the hot air burning his lungs with every breath he takes. Michael, the warrior? No, too simple. Gabriel, perhaps. He remembers reading these legends, this mythology, years ago when his appetite for knowledge of this time, its peoples and beliefs, was voracious.
Gabriel had selected which souls would be born onto Earth, and shaped them into the people they would become. He laughs again, tears pouring from his eyes, water he cannot afford to lose, and the endless rippling sand blurs in his vision. Arbiter of the future? Yes, that fits--fits his colossal arrogance, his cursed sense of self-importance.
Or perhaps Camael, leader of the angels of destruction, the archangel who holds in check the Leviathan, the monster from the deep. He had thought himself powerful enough to hold Apoclaypse in check, after all, so perhaps Camael is a better fit. Camael, the angel of justice, who only acts on behalf of the honest--
He falls to his knees, the laughter gone, tears coming even more freely. Honesty. He has never had honesty, not even in the silence of his own mind. His whole existence is built on lies, on deception and secrets, dark deeds done under the cover of night. His soul is as twisted as a soul can be, its truths - such as they are - as complex as the desert is simple.
The dreams had been simpler, sweeter--cleaner, years before. What he had wanted then was only to heal; to see joy replace pain, life replace death. There had been an angel of healing, hadn't there?
Instead, he has become the angel of death, no more, no less. Death for his father, because of his failure. Death for the world of his future, because of the--'victory' at Akkaba that had in no way been his. Not him, the Askani'son, the Chosen One who had been the first to fall.
So much pain and death in his time--but what would replace it? Had he ever had the right to decide, for billions of people, that their world was wrong, that he would destroy it simply because he believed there was a better way?
He grips handfuls of sand, letting the grains run through his fingers to mingle again with the desert. His hands clench into shaking fists, the muscles cramping almost immediately.
Transition. He stands in a moment of transition, and he does not know which way to turn. It is as simple as that.
#Nothing's that simple.# The voice is soft, full of grief and love. He looks up, tear-blinded, as she walks down the face of the dune before him, the fire of her hair rippling in the wind.
Part of him wants to rise and go to her, accept the comfort he knows she would give. Another portion of his soul burns with hatred, and yearns to turn his back on her forever.
Frozen, caught between the two, he simply kneels there and watches her as she comes to him, reaching out with her hands to take his.
The wise man said, just raise your hand And reach out for the spell Find the door to the promised land Just believe in yourself Hear this voice from deep inside It's the call of your heart Close your eyes and you will find The passage out of the dark
She tightens her hold on his hands, seeing the trapped, wary look on his face. "Nothing's that simple," she repeats aloud.
He stares up at her for a long moment, and then closes his eyes with a sigh. When he opens them again, they are empty, free of tears. Blank and endless as the desert sky. "Why are you here?" His voice is the scrape of stone on stone, ancient and broken.
"To find you," she says softly. "Why else?" She hesitates, and then risks it. "Why are you here, Nathan?"
He laughs. It is a fearful sound, and sends a chill through her despite the heat of the desert. "Penance. Masochism. I don't know."
She kneels down in front of him, meeting his eyes as levelly as she can. Letting her own show her pain, daring him to look away.
He does not, of course. Neither of them can refuse a challenge. That, at least, she can imagine that she bequeathed to him.
"There's nothing here," she says finally, firmly but softly. "For either of us."
"Then what? Where?" He pulls his hands out of hers and stands, turning in a restless circle to survey the desert. "I don't know where I'm going, what I'm doing--I don't know who I am, anymore!"
"Come with me," she urges, rising smoothly. "Give yourself time to find out--time to live, before you decide to trap yourself here for the rest of your life!" She sees it clearly in that moment, the desert creeping into his soul, leaving it barren and arid.
This, she will not accept.
He turns towards her, his expression flat and cold, his eyes hard and pitiless. "Part of me will never leave here."
"You think you're alone in that?"
His eyes soften. "No," he says, his voice turning hollow and haunted. He moves forward to her, taking her hands in his.
Her hands are slender, delicate, nearly lost in his enormous, powerful grip. But her hands held him, long ago, when he was a child, and she sees the memories in his mind as he lifts his eyes to meet her gaze.
"I need you," she says, trying to keep her voice steady. But it trembles, and she abruptly stops fighting it, realizing that honesty is the best--the only policy, here and now, with him. "I need you, Nate." He understands. He is the only one that can share this same keen-edged grief.
She needs him, so that she can remember that she and Scott had shared a time that only exists in memories, now--a time where they had been together, with the boy Nathan had been. A family.
It is all she has left to cling to. The memory--and him.
"I'm not sure that's enough, Jean." Painful, painful honesty, but he makes the admission with no shame, only a deep grief that she can almost taste, buried beneath the surface. "For now, yes, but once you're--"
"Then let it just be for now," she whispers, stepping forward. His arms go around her tightly, and she buries her face in his chest for a moment, trembling. "But make it a year," she continues, as soon as she is able. "Give yourself a year, just to live. Promise me."
The silence drags on between them. Then his arms tighten around her, gently.
"A year," he whispers into her hair. "I promise."
It will be enough. She has faith. There is too much fire in him to dwindle quietly into embers. That is another thing she has given him, she knows. That fire--a spirit of life he has only to discover for himself.
Life will win, in the end. She leans back and reaches up, taking, in one hand, the golden medallion he wears, the medallion marked with the same Phoenix-symbol she herself wore.
Life would win.
"There's been enough death," she whispers, meeting his eyes again, letting her gaze capture his. "There's more to life than you've ever let yourself see."
His strong, callused hand closed over hers gently. "Show me," he murmured.
The desert glows in the light of the sunlight, gold and rose and red and purple streaking the sky, shading the sand. Two figures walk along the crest of a dune, hand in hand, and the way they glow is not merely a trick of the sunset, although the brightest of its colors come close to matching their light.
The sun slips beneath the horizon, and night falls. But even under the stars, in the darkness of the desert night, they still shine.
FURTHER NOTE: For those of you who may be curious, the Shekinah is a female angel, from Jewish legend, who is sometimes seen as the feminine aspect of the Creator. Her 'spheres' are liberation and freedom.
I leave it up to you to make the connection. ;)
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