"So This is Christmas…"
by Kell Carpenter
(NOTE: This story takes place after the events of Squadron Supreme
#12 and Squadron Supreme Annual #1)
Stan Stewart was not in the mood for holiday celebrations. He had been down ever since he and the rest of the Squadron had learned they were trapped on the Avengers' world, never able to return to their own Earth*. It had been almost too much for Stan to bear, being permanently separated from his wife and daughter.
*(See Squadron Supreme #12 – Kell Kringle)
Now Stan was in the middle of a shopping mall filled with last-minute shoppers. He knew that it wouldn't do to lose his cool and run at super-sonic speed through the crowd of holiday shoppers. He tugged on Joe Ledger's arm. "When are we leaving, Joe?" Stan whispered. "I'm getting antsy…"
Joe spoke out of the side of his mouth. "Look buddy, I'm with you. I'd like nothing more than to beat it out of this place and head back home to open a cold one and get ready for some football. However, Lyja thought it'd be a good idea to keep Arcanna occupied as much as possible." Sorrow was evident on Joe's face. "You know how hard this permanent exile from her family has hit her…"
Stan knew his friend was right. The two of them had faced many threats (and many good times) together. He also knew that they should all be there for Arcanna. She had taken this latest turn of events badly. Stan had spoken with her on several occasions, telling her that it wasn't healthy to get her hopes up too high*. He wished she had taken his advice, but what did that help now?
*(It happened most recently in Squadron Supreme #6 – Wrote it Myself Kell)
Joe nudged Stan. "Ixnay on the alktay, pal – here come the ladies…"
Stan looked up. It was strange seeing Lyja without her Skrull features. She had used her shape-shifting abilities to give herself the appearance of a human woman. She and Arcanna were making their way toward the two men through a sea of people. Stan was relieved to note that Arcanna wore a smile on her face for a change. She even looked like she was having fun.
"It's about time, ladies! Stan and I were about to bail on you…" Joe grinned a sly smile.
Lyja put her hands on her hips. "Joe Ledger! You wouldn't dare leave us…"
Joe gave her an exaggerated wink. "Nah! You'd probably change into a dragon and hunt us both down." He grinned as the others broke into laughter. "C'mon ladies, let's grab a bite to eat. It's waaay past my regular lunchtime…"
The two ladies agreed and they began to head out toward the mall parking lot. Joe took Lyja's packages in one arm and slipped the other around Lyja's waist. Stan chuckled to himself and thought "That Joe – he doesn't waste any time with the ladies, does he?"
Arcanna Jones nudged him. "Stan! Don't just stand there; take these packages from me – my arms are killing me!"
Stan's face turned red. "Sorry, Arcanna. I was just wool-gathering…" He took the packages from her and they fell in behind Joe and Lyja.
Hyperion and Zarda were sharing some quiet time together for a change. It was amazing how peaceful their lives had been since the wedding*. They had spent the day packing for their belated honeymoon, and were simply enjoying the time together.
* (See Squadron Supreme Annual #1 – Matrimonial Kell)
Hyperion had built a fire in their fireplace and they were sitting on the floor. "Zarda, are you sure this trip is a good idea? I mean, so soon after we…"
She put her finger to his lips. "Hush, Hy. I don't really care about the rest of the team right now. We're going on our honeymoon. I never really got to have one with Howard*, and I'm not about to miss out on one with you. Understand?"
* (Zarda's first husband – Genealogical Kell)
Hyperion smiled. "Okay, okay! I just wanted to double-check, that's all. I really can't wait to spend time with you alone. It's just that since I got into this hero business, I've never really taken any personal time. It's kind of new to me…"
Zarda took Hyperion's hands in hers. "Well, I'll just have to make sure you like this 'personal life' won't I?" she asked, a sparkle in her eyes.
Hyperion grinned. He took Zarda in his arms and kissed her passionately. When they broke their embrace he looked into her eyes. "You know that I love you…?"
She smiled warmly. "Of course. And I love you…"
James Dore and Linda Lewis moved through the streets of downtown Seattle. They walked arm-in-arm, their packages loaded onto a rolling cart that James pulled behind them. Linda seemed to be lost in her thoughts.
"Penny for your thoughts, Linda?" James asked.
She smiled. "Oh, you can have them for free. I was just thinking that it's nice to be moving forward with life. For so long, none of us really knew when we could…I guess 'relax' is the best word. You know, we were waiting and hoping we'd get back to our world? And all along the way we couldn't really move on. Now we can get on with living our lives, and it's nice."
James shook his head. "I just can't imagine being stranded on another world. It's a wonder you all didn't go nuts." He paused, looking into the distance. "I'm also glad you didn't make it back. Is that wrong?"
They stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. "Of course not! I'm glad, too. Because if I hadn't been 'stuck' here, I'd never have met you…and that would have been a tragedy."
They embraced and kissed, their packages and shopping mission momentarily forgotten.
Gray Poldark moved through the crowded streets as if he had his own built-in radar. It was all Kingsley Rice could do to keep up with him and not manage to drop the packages he'd picked up. Besides, he was in London! Kingsley had never been, and he wanted to take it all in.
Up ahead, Gray had stopped, his free hand on his hip. "Come on, King; we've not time for you to play bloody tourist!"
Kingsley snapped out of his wonder. "Coming, coming!" When he caught up, he was out of breath. "Sorry. I've just never been to London, and I…"
Gray wore an incredulous expression on his face. "What? You've been across the bloody universe, into the future twice, you can breathe underwater but you're excited 'coz you've 'never been to London'? That's daft, mate!"
Kingsley shrugged. "What can I say? I guess I'm just a tourist at heart…" He detected movement out of the corner of his eye. "Say, let's go watch the kids talk to Santa. I've always loved that…"
Shaking his head as the two men began to make their way towards a crowd of children, Gray sighed and said, "Oh all right. But if we're going to do it, we'll do it proper. Here in London, it's 'Father Christmas'…"
Albert Gaines sat on a large rock that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. When he had lived in Oakland full-time, he had always loved to sit and watch the ocean…or was that his friend Bobby?
His life had been so much more difficult since he returned from the other dimension with the Squadron. On the one hand, he was grateful to not have the mental noise of another person's voice; on the other hand, it was maddening to not know whether his thoughts were his own or someone else's.
The breeze picked up and Al knew immediately that Makkari was back. "That didn't take as long as I thought it would, Mak."
Makkari grinned. "I'm hurt, Al! Don't you realize that nothing takes very long for me?"
Despite himself, Al smiled. "Sorry, sorry. I'd just expected to have a bit longer to look at the ocean…"
"No worries, Al the Pal! I got through quickly enough so that you'd be able to spend a while longer. I'll head on over to the ship and wait for you there. Take your time and enjoy the view!" With that, Makkari sped away.
Al turned back to the ocean view. "Life's pretty good after all…"
Tom Thumb had worked all through the night. He didn't tire like before, when he was merely human, so he could work longer stretches and get more done. Along with his ability to work long hours, he counted his newfound size-altering abilities to be a godsend in his work. Now he could work on any piece of equipment, no matter how small. He was definitely in his element.
The soft tones of Aida's voice interrupted his thoughts. "tom, i'm reminding you again about obtaining gifts…you do realize that it's almost time for everyone to return…?"
Tom looked up in the direction of the large liquid-crystal display in the center of the lab. That was where Tom always "saw" Aida, in the glimmering golden light of the viewscreen. "Don't worry darlin'. I asked Makkari ta pick up a few items while he an' Albert were out in California." He cleared his throat. "Y'know, the reason I didn't go out ta shop was that I was workin' on a little gift here…for you."
Aida's voice registered surprise. "for me, tom? why, i - i don't know what you could do for me…"
Tom smiled. "I wasn't too sure m'self, darlin'. Then I realized that I could give ya more of a face than just some shimmerin' golden lights. I've been workin' so hard at givin' ya yer own face…" He looked expectantly at the screen.
Aida was silent for a few moments, then she spoke. "oh, tom, what kind of a face did you give me? is it a pretty one?"
"That's just it, darlin' – you can choose for yerself! I fixed it so you could have any face – or any combination of faces – ya want!" Tom beamed with pride.
"tom, i don't know how to thank you…i never expected a gift, and i don't have one for you…" her voice sounded sorrowful.
"Aida, darlin', you already gave me th' best gift: ya made me live again. Doin' this for ya is the least I can do…" Tom smiled sheepishly.
Suddenly the screen began to swirl. Tom saw one face, then another. He recognized his own face, then the second appeared more clearly. It was the face of a beautiful redhead. Her mouth began to move and Aida's voice came out. "tom, i can't do this for real, but this is how i'd like to say 'thank-you' to you…" On the screen, Aida's "face" leaned toward the image of Tom's, and she planted a long kiss on his lips.
Tom blushed fiercely. "Aida! Yer makin' me blush…" And then they both began to laugh.
The Squadron members had gathered together on a plateau near Olympia. It was outside the range of the Eternal City's weather regulator, so snow fell quietly as they stood together.
Before them on the plateau was a monument. It commemorated their friends and families from Earth-S. They observed a brief silence, then Hyperion shot two thin beams of heat from his eyes, lighting a flame in the small well at the top of the monument.
Arcanna passed her hands through the air and said, "Let this monument stand, let this flame burn bright; through all the seasons, both day and night; let it be not only flame, let it play not just a part; let it burn brightly as the love within each heart." The monument itself glowed faintly as she spoke, then it returned to normal.
They each went up to it and touched it, feeling the warmth it gave off and remembering friends and loved ones. They were each, in turn, surprised briefly at the feeling that the people they remembered were actually standing beside them.
Arcanna smiled as she wiped her eyes. Stan stepped up beside her and touched her elbow. "Are you all right, Arcanna?" He was truly concerned.
She looked into his eyes and touched his cheek. "Yes, Stan. I'm better than I've been in a long time. I think I'm ready to begin celebrating life again." To the rest of the Squadron she said, "Everyone! Let's go back and exchange gifts…"
They all agreed that it was time for a celebration.
Since Joe was wearing a Santa Claus hat, he was elected to "play Santa" and distribute the gifts. Lyja assisted, changing her appearance to look like an elf. As the gifts were opened, they all recounted their favorite memories of Christmases past. Laughter bounced from all four walls and they were all relieved to hear themselves in good spirits.
Hyperion and Zarda were parked under one of the many sprigs of mistletoe placed around their quarters, as were James and Linda. To the surprise of all there, Joe was the bashful one when Lyja pulled him under one of the sprigs to give him a lingering kiss. Most surprising was the smile they each wore, after their recent ordeal.
Stan was standing away from the crowd watching when Arcanna joined him. He smiled at her as they stood together apart from their friends. Stan reached over and slipped his hand into Arcanna's.
Without taking her eyes off the events surrounding them, Arcanna said, "You know, this reminds me of 'A Christmas Carol'…"
Stan nodded. "I know what you mean…"
They looked at each other and in unison said "God bless us, every one!"
“Gloria in excelsis”
by Alex Maggi
|Count Carezzi - An Italian nobleman and an old friend of Stephen Strange who is well-versed in white magic.||Rama Kaliph - An Arab and another old friend of Stephen Strange and an ally in the white school of magic.|
|Turham Banim - Another sorcerer of the white school of magic, of Jewish descent. He and Stephen Strange go a little while back.||Topaz - An empath that has helped Stephen more than once in the past. She's currently recovering from injuries at Count Carezzi's Villa.|
The night is cold but cloudless over the beautiful Renaissance villa outside Florence. Stars shine undisturbed by the missing light of the new moon. Midnight is approaching and all is silent. Save for the troubled sleep of the young blonde woman in the big four posters bed. Topaz tosses around in her dreams. Or maybe more than dreams … when you're one of the most powerful empaths on planet.
As midnight is struck by the perfectly chiseled cloak in the main hall, sending his twelve chiming sounds through the mansion, Topaz awakens with a terrified cry, shivering and sweating.
Soon the door to the next bedchamber is opened and Count Armando Carezzi, wrapped in an exquisite night robe, hurries to his guest's side asking, worried:
“Topaz, my dear! Calm down! What's happened?” he mentally checks the magical defenses of his home, to see if a supernatural menace is present with harming thoughts, but he receives only reassuring responses.
“I'm sorry, Armando,” Topaz sobs, abandoning herself in his arms and finding comfort in his embrace “It was so vivid … so strong … and HE was so evil …”
“What are you talking about?” he questions, adding to himself (Damn! I wanted this Christmas to be perfect for her … for us, too!)
“It was a trans-temporal image, but somehow connected to the present …” she explains, while finally stopping trembling, helped by the empathic strength of the man holding her, a man she feels more than friendship for. “It's something related to this coming Christmas …”
“Can you recall some details? Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, so if something is going to happen we have to hasten” he instinctively sends another probe around to be sure nothing is wrong.
“If we … you … don't do something there won't be any Christmas this year and the following ones!” her words, while seeming the product of madness, have the ring of truth in them … sending chills up Armando's spine. She goes on: “It's Hellstorm! He's going back in time to kill the newborn Jesus … and I know that only the Mages Three can't prevent that from happening!”
“The Mages Three???” Armando is really shocked.
“Yes, Armando! You, Rama and Turham! You are, were, and always will be the Mages Three! You must go back in time and fulfill your destinies … and stop Hellstorm!” she explains, with an incredible calm.
“You can't be serious, my dear …” he tries to protest.
“Ask Gaea! She sent that dream! You know I have a special rapport with her.” * Topaz answers.
(* as seen in the aforementioned Dr. Strange # 97, Alex)
“Oh, God! Turham and Rama are going to hate this! They're not even Christians!” Armando murmurs.
“This is simply preposterous!” The Jewish mage is shaking his head, disappointed. “We can't jump 2,000 years in the past, to battle a Demon Lord on such little evidence of danger! Not to mention the fact that I don't believe the event really happened in the first place … or that it is really connected with men's salvation!”
“That's where you're wrong, as usual, my friend!” Rama Kaliph replies, mocking him “We Muslims know that the birth of Jesus, the prophet born from the Virgin Mary, is true. Of course he's not the Son of God, just the last one to precede our True Prophet, Allah be praised …”
“Please, my friends! Let's not start again a theological debate!” Count Carezzi tries to calm them down. “As I told you, we should do this only on the evidence that Gaea is involved and that Topaz has been right on such occurrences before.” *
(* again look out for Dr. Strange # 98-99, Alex)
“Are you sure that your heart is not misleading you, my friend?” Rama asks.
“Yes, we know that you and Topaz have grown close to each other during your recovery” Turham points out with his usual seriousness, hiding a smile under his perfectly trimmed moustaches and beard.
“Are you going to come and help or not?” Armando is getting upset and the other two mages notice it.
“Oh well, I think we should, after all!” Rama says “At least this could be a funny time venture!”
“And I'll come as well … someone has to keep an eye on the two of you.” Turham adds “Or else you're bound to do something that will displease the Jews of that time and get yourselves in trouble … if not killed!”
“Then, let's get started!” Count Carezzi sizes the moment and starts the chanting to open the time portal.
Turham and Rama join him. Such a journey to the past is perfectly in the scope of abilities of anyone of them, being all Master-level magic-wielders. But working in conjunction makes it easier and safer … as well as more precise.
Colors swirls and they disappear from modern Jerusalem …
“Hey! Why are we outside the city?” Rama protests.
“We couldn't pop up in there from nowhere” Armando explains.
“And we have to be proper dressed” Turham waves his hands and casts an illusion over their clothes “And use the proper language, from now on”.
“Right!” Armando adds “Greek was the common language in the Eastern Roman Empire. If we are to be thought foreign sages it's better we speak that one … maybe even with a strange accent!”
“Shouldn't we have camels and servants?” Rama asks, while already casting the proper illusion.
“We should also check if there are indeed Mages coming this way … and Hellstorm's presence!” Turham comments.
“I'm sure there's a lot of magical energies around here. The Earth itself seems to be alive with it.” Count Carezzi is amazed. “It's already dark … I bet we have just a few hours before midnight!”
“Allah be praised! That star!!” All three magicians notice it, shining over the Holy Land and heading toward Bethlehem.
“I've sent magical probes around: there are no other caravans approaching. I guess we have to play the part” Turham is still disturbed by the whole matter.
“So next step is Herod's Palace!” Rama says as the other two nods.
A few hours later, after leaving Jerusalem toward Bethlehem. (For what happened there check Matthew's Gospel)
“By the Lord of the Hosts!!! That man was veritably a traitorous snake!!” Turham says.
“And those priests!!! They barely knew their Scriptures! Luckily we already knew where we should go!” Rama adds, disgusted at the memory “But we couldn't risk messing with the timeline and not go there!”
“Maybe we should have!” Armando says “By warning Herod we have condemned all the poor children he will slay in the attempt to eliminate the Baby Jesus”.
“We must not set out another divergent reality, otherwise our actions here won't benefit our own one!” Rama comments.
“But you could have let me visit the Temple, at least!” Turham protests “You don't know what it'd mean to me to see the Temple before its destruction at the hands of the Romans!”
“We hadn't enough time … now stay alert everyone! Hellstorm should be near” Armando says.
“I'm constantly probing around … and we're almost there! Where is he hiding that we cannot perceive him?” Rama is worried.
“It is just a few minutes before midnight! The star has stopped and the magical energies from the Earth are incredible!” Turham notices. “I can feel Gaea watching over us.”
“Halt!! Here he comes, the Devil!” Armando throws up a Seraphimic Shield as soon as he spots the blood red light encircling Hellstorm.
“Ha!” the Lord of Hell stares at them “What is this? A joke? Do you really think the three of you are a match for me? I'll have Jesus' heart in my hands in a few minutes … and Mary's and Joseph's souls as well!”
“Boastful words, Son of Satan!” the Mages Three act as one weaving a powerful spell from the Book of the Vishanti.
The magical fight starts with Hellstorm fending off the Mages' attack while scattering them with hellfire. Demonic hands sprout from the soil to hamper their movements, but Faltinian Flames protect them as they employ magical entreaties to Raggador, Cyttorak and Ikthalon to put the Devil off balance.
They're so occupied with their duel that they don't notice the radiance from the star and the silent voice of Gaea exulting when midnight comes. What they DO notice is that suddenly all magick, white or hellish, stops working. The illusions are dispelled, the demons banished, the shields negated, the entreaties unanswered.
“What?” Hellstorm is surprised.
“I can't believe it! It's midnight! And we're all powerless!” Turham shouts.
“Look! The star!” Rama warns. “It's shining brighter!”
“And those voices! My God! They're the Heavenly Hosts singing!” Armando is overcome with emotions of happiness.
“Lets' take him out! He's younger but we are three!!” Turham leads the charge against an astonished Daimon.
“Finger in his eye …!”
“Kick in his balls …!”
“Biting his hand …!”
“Bonk his head …!”
“He's down!!!” the Mages Three exult.
“I feel magical abilities returning! We must send him to the future before he can collect his strength!” Rama warns.
Hastily they bind him with magical restraints they know he will easily overcome when fully awaken and chanting together they open a time portal sending him through it. A sigh of relief from the Earth accompanies their success. Gaea is pleased.
“Should we go after him?” Turham asks.
“NO! We must fulfill the Scriptures. We must see the Child!” Armando says.
“And bring the gifts!” Rama adds.
“Are you really insane??” Turham is furious “Those are merely legends …”
“We can't risk the …” Rama starts answering.
“… timeline” Armando concludes.
“Hrumph!!” Turham follows them, unhappy, restoring the illusion of clothes and camels and servants accompanying them.
A little later (after events chronicled in Matthew's Gospel, again)
“He was so … peaceful!” Count Carezzi has tears in his eyes, thinking of the Child Jesus.
“She was so beautiful and pure!” Rama's face is pleased at Mary's memory.
“I am NOT convinced!!!” Turham protests “I won't be sold on this! The magical black-out was Gaea's doing, I bet!”
“Or the Vishanti helping us!” Rama offers “He can't be the Son of God, of course … just a minor prophet!”
“You are kidding, aren't you? It was Him …!!” Armando protests as they walk away under the shining star.
“And now it is clear how he could do miracles: our gifts to him!” Turham adds.
“Yes, Armando, you talked us into that, but I think we exaggerated!” Rama says.
“It was only fit! We couldn't give Him less than that!” Armando is still pervaded with joy.
“What? The Gold Light of Agamotto, the Incense of Almighty Hoggoth and the Myrrh of Omnipotent Oshtur!!! We gave him the force of the Vishanti!!!!!” the other two widen their eyes.
“It was right!
“It was the Vishanti's doing!!”
“You a fool!”
“This doesn't prove anything!”
“It does …” “Doesn't …” “At least we kicked Hellstorm's ass …” “Funny ..” “Worth the whole trip …”
And laughing and arguing they happily return to their own time, under the smiling eyes of the Angels flying over the Holy Land and singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
of The Vault
By Randy Lander
He gazed up at the autographed photo of Captain America tacked to his cell wall with sticky tape. The edges had frayed, and the colors faded, but the smile of the sentinel of liberty hadn't lost its luster. It was signed in black ink, "Antonio...Good luck!" and every time he looked at it, the man known as the Armadillo couldn't help but feel as if Captain America was there, prodding him to make his life better.
Then he thought of Dr. Huang, and what she had said to him in one of their sessions. "I’m still not sure why you were so in love with Maria that you let yourself derail your entire life," she had said. Even now, Armadillo couldn't stop his heart from beating faster when he thought of Maria. She was a beautiful woman, and she had been kind to him. She had loved a wrestler with more heart than brains, and even though she spurned him now, he couldn't bring himself to just forget her. For as long as she had a hold on his heart, and the jealous anger that sometimes erupted from it, he could not do as Captain America wished. He could not make his life better.
Armadillo cocked his head as he heard metal clad boots echoing off the solid metal floors outside the cell. It sounded like more than one or two Guardsmen walking the corridor. He stood and went to the window of his cell, looking out. It was more than one Guardsmen. In fact, there were six of them. One of them held a leather pouch strapped to his side, about the size of an art portfolio. He reached in and pulled out a handful of paper when he stopped at each cell and slid them through a slot in the door before sealing it once again.
Mail call. Nothing unusual there. Why were there six of them instead of just one?
Even stranger, as they got closer, Armadillo saw that the one in the rear was holding something about four feet long and half as wide, a bulky apparatus that could only have been some kind of cannon. It was plugged into a port on the shoulder of his armor.
The Guardsmen stopped outside Armadillo's cell. The one with the bag stood at the mail/food hatch, about four feet off the ground, and pressed the sensor to let it slide open. "Mail call, Antonio," came the female voice.
Antonio barely heard her. He was too busy watching two of the Guardsmen walk past her to stand on her right, and the other two take up positions on the left. The one with the cannon stood right behind her and aimed it at his cell.
Still not taking his eyes off the display outside his cell, Antonio picked up the small stack of paper that slid into the cell. There was a whoosh and click as the electronic slot slid closed. Antonio narrowed his eyes at the Guardsmen and then looked down.
He had nearly forgotten that it was Christmas time. Decorations in the Vault were sparse, and when they were put up, one of the villains would inevitably tear them down in a fit of spite. Presents were forbidden here ever since the Wizard had managed to have his cronies on the outside mail him a particle blaster disguised as a G.I. Joe doll. Dr. Huang had tried to hold a small holiday party for staff and inmates, but it ended in wrath and acrimony over the riots. The Christmas spirit was definitely ebbing at the Vault.
The reason he remembered now was that his mail held a handful of cards. One from his grandmother in Mexico, a beautiful postcard of a mural painted on the wall outside his family home, with a few simple words scrawled in Spanish on the back. "Antonio my grandson...Merry Christmas, even in such a desolate place." Another was a Hallmark card featuring one of the characters from The Simpsons, his favorite television show. Bart, staring at a mound of presents under a tree, and yelling "Ay Caramba!" It made him smile. He flipped over the card to see it signed, "From Joanne and Michael...we owe you at least this card for what you've done for us. Merry Christmas."
He smiled. Antonio had feelings for Dr. Huang, but he recognized the goodness in Security Chief Michael O'Brien, and saw how happy the two of them had become together. The speed at which they had fallen in love reminded him of his courtship of Maria, and that also made him smile.
Then he saw it...the reason the Guardsmen were standing outside, ready to fight. A red envelope with a return address belonging to Maria Sanchez and Chuy Palacios. His ex-wife, and her new husband-to-be.
Antonio began shaking with anger, imagining Maria with that peacock Chuy. He had been a friend of hers in Mexico, moved to the States to work for an oil company in Texas. He had never failed to flaunt his wealth and power as an executive, even when Antonio and Maria were married. He had tried to pretend he was Antonio's friend, taking him fishing in the Gulf, writing to him in prison, promising to "keep an eye" on Maria for him.
He looked up to see Dr. Joanne Huang standing outside the cell, in front of the assembled Guardsmen. The slot had slid open while he wasn't paying attention, and her voice simply floated through it. Armadillo looked up, his animal-like teeth bared. Joanne didn't flinch, didn't even react. She just spoke again, softly.
"Did you get my card?"
"Yes," Armadillo growled. "I received many cards today."
"Did you like my card?"
Armadillo wanted to scream at her, to rant about Maria and Chuy, but somehow he held his temper, answered her maddening, stupid questions about the card.
"Yes. It made me smile. But..."
"It's Christmas, Antonio. A time of joy and love for everyone. A time to make amends, too. To try and be happy, to forget old wrongs."
"Dr. Huang, you do not understand!" he roared. The Guardsman at the back tensed and aimed the cannon once more at the cell, the barrel nearly resting on Huang's shoulder.
There was a resounding clang as the Guardsmen was pushed to the floor by another man in Guardsman armor. This one didn't have a number designation on his chest, however. Instead it simply said, "Chief" in bright red letters.
"I lost my husband too, Antonio. The first Christmas without him, I...I spent the entire week crying. On Christmas Eve, my family called, they even came and rang the bell, but I sat inside, crying and thinking of him. Thinking of all I had lost."
"On Christmas Day, my sorrow was gone. All that was left was the anger. I was mad, Antonio. I went through the house, smashing things, yelling at him up in Heaven. 'How dare he betray my trust? How dare he lie to me? How dare he die on me!' I smashed everything I could find, especially things that belonged to him. His bowling ball went flying through a window. His ties were fed into my paper shredder. Pictures were shattered and torn, I did everything I could to destroy anything he had given me, anything he had left me."
"When my anger finally stopped, I looked around at what I had done. A glimmer of light caught my eye, and I walked over to it. It was a shattered remnant of a crystal bird, one he had given to me the year before. I remembered then, how my eyes had lit up when I saw it. It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen, and I couldn't believe he'd bought it. Donovan was never that sensitive...usually he bought me cooking utensils, or if he was feeling really romantic, a book on psychiatry. But this...it was from his heart, I knew that. And he had given it to me, and he had said, 'Joanne, I know I'm not always the best husband. But I hope, whenever you're mad at me, whenever I've screwed up, you can look at this, and remember that I at least did something right. That I loved you enough to get something right.'"
Joanne stopped, a few tears trickling down her face. Antonio realized that his anger was fading, and he was mesmerized by her story. She wiped the tears away and continued. "I picked up that piece of broken crystal and I found out that I hadn't spent all of my sorrow after all. I cried for what seemed like hours. Donovan was gone, and I missed him...and all he had ever asked of me was that I remember the good times, remember that he had loved me and done something right at least. And in a moment of anger, I'd destroyed that. I'd destroyed that memory, and broken that promise."
There was silence. Chief O'Brien moved over and laid an armored glove on Joanne's shoulder, and she smiled at him through the tears. "Don't let your anger destroy your memories of what was good, Antonio. It's Christmas. Remember the good that came from loving Maria, at least for today."
She smiled gently at Antonio and started to walk away with O'Brien. The Guardsmen still stood surrounding Armadillo's cell, waiting for his reaction.
He didn't say anything. He put one of his claws on the top of the envelope and with a quick slash, tore it open. The Guardsmen twitched slightly as the ripping sound carried out into the corridor.
With trembling hands, Antonio pulled a single sheet of lined notebook paper out of the envelope. A picture, about 2 inches high, fell out onto the floor. Antonio reached down and picked it up. It was a picture of Maria and Chuy, standing with their arms around each other and smiling. He felt his anger rising again.
Then he opened the letter:
I know you may not wish to hear from me ever again, and I'm certain you do not wish to see the photo enclosed here. But please...you must know that we are happy. I hope you can at least take comfort in that.
At this time of year, one thinks about one's actions...did I do right, am I a benefit to other people? Am I doing what God would want, am I too selfish? Do I deserve what I have?
I may not deserve what I have, Antonio. But I will do my best to be worthy of the happiness I have gained. But even in that happiness, there is sadness. For I miss you, I miss hearing from you, I miss thinking of you as anything but someone who hates me. Someone who would kill me if they had the chance.
Perhaps I am being selfish. At this time of year, with you in prison, it seems unfair of me to ask something of you. But it is Christmas, so I ask it anyway. Forgive me. Forgive us, for any pain we have caused you. It was not our wish, we never meant to hurt you, and although the feelings you have are strong, I ask you to overcome them. So that when you are released, things can be something like they used to be. And we can all be friends again.
I do not know what else to say, other than that we are in love and I truly believe this is the best thing. I can only beg of you, one last time, to please forgive us and accept us back into your heart.
P.S. Maria does not know I have written this. I think she fears it will only make you angry, perhaps even dangerous. I know you better, Antonio. I know the man you could be, and I look forward to seeing that man when you get out of prison.
Antonio looked around his cell. Some wrestling magazines, a copy of TV guide with programs highlighted so he knew when to leave his cell, and some basic toiletries. Nothing terribly useful. Then he smiled and reached up to the wall, pulling down the faded photo of Captain America. Taking a black pen, he wrote on the back. He scribbled the return address for Chuy and Maria, and then wrote:
Chuy. The last time I saw Maria happy was before her illness. Now, I have seen that again. I thank you for that.
Before I got your letter, I thought that only one man on this Earth believed in me, the man on the other side of this postcard. You have shown me differently. I thank you for that.
But most of all, you have reminded me that once, I had a woman I loved and a man who believed in me, and perhaps, one day, I will have that again. I hope to stand beside you on that day.
I forgive you. Merry Christmas.
MV1 AND KILL THE COW
"The Last Moon Knight Story"
By Barry Reese
Marc Spector stood outside the St. Mary's Homeless Shelter and pulled his overcoat tighter against him. The wind was whipping tonight, small snowflakes falling in lazy patterns to the concrete and steel of Manhatten. It was the kind of night Marlene would have loved.
"Hello, Steven..." Marc turned to see Crawley moving towards him. In the years since Crawley had won the lottery, the strangeness of seeing Crawley dressed so well had worn off. The former homeless man was in an expensive suit -- a fine one, but not too showy. He moved towards Marc and smiled, displaying a row of shiny white teeth -- all false.
"It's Marc these days, Crawley. But I'm glad to see you." They embraced somewhat awkwardly, a thin wall having developed between them after years apart.
Crawley pulled away and smiled. "Glad you could make it tonight...Marc,
Steven, whatever you choose to call yourself. It's
been too long -- why don't you ever visit me or Gena?"
"Too many memories. Besides, I'm usually busy overseas..."
Marc nodded, beginning to move towards the shelter. A large banner was strung across the front entrance, reading GALA EVENT -- BUFFET FOR EVERYONE. A long line of people were moving into the building, most wearing rags or ratty coats obviously scavenged from someone else's trash. "Still France. I like it there...and Frenchie always said I never spent enough time there."
"How is Jean-Paul?"
"Don't know." Marc set his jaw. Maybe it had been a bad idea to come back here...so many memories.
"Is he still not speaking to you? After what happened, you would think that the two of you would have been closer than ever."
The unlikely duo brushed past the line at the door and Marc noted that most of the people there spoke warmly to Crawley. Why shouldn't they -- he's spent hundreds of thousands fixing up shelters all over New York. His philanthropist activities hadn't gone unnoticed, either -- he was getting to be so popular that there was talk of him running for office...
The inside of the shelter was warm and well-lit, with a long serving line. A few reporters and city councilman were around, as well, chatting amongst themselves. They weren't associating with the street people, Marc noted.
Crawley led Marc over to a table and waved at a city councilman. "I think you should move back, Marc. You've been running ever since Marlene died. It's time to face the past. I'm not saying you should ever crawl back into that Moon Knight suit again but --"
"I'm never wearing it again, Crawley -- not even if I still had a spare. They burned down with the mansion anyway. Good riddance. Khonshu's revival of me only led to more pain and heartache. Sometimes I think it would have been better if he hadn't resurrected me at all."
Crawley frowned. He'd expected this -- Marc had relied on Marlene more than he'd ever let on. He looked up to see a Santa Claus enter, a large bag of presents on his shoulder. The homeless people in the shelter smiled at him and Crawley chuckled.
Marc Spector ran a hand through his thinning, graying hair. This had been a mistake, he just knew it...
The evening went well. The city councilmen had praised Crawley's efforts and Crawley himself had given a very impressive speech to the assembled crowd. Marc was proud of him. He'd risen above it all.
Marc stepped outside during Crawley's speech. It was snowing harder now and Marc had a painful memory of throwing snowballs at Marlene...He pushed the thought from his mind. He'd gotten good over the years of not thinking about her -- of not remembering the smell of her skin, the taste of her lips. Until he'd come back, that is. Here she was around every corner, it seemed.
He looked up at the full moon and saw the familiar white orb staring back at him. He was cold and there was a strange catch in his chest. His left arm was aching. A wave of dizziness washed over him and he wasn't even aware of tumbling forward, of landing face down in the snow. He wasn't aware of dying. His last conscious thought was of lying on his back in the snow, freezing his ass off, while making love to Marlene. She had been so ferociously hot that night, warming him to the bone...
He awoke with a start. He sat up quickly in the snow, glancing behind him. The shelter was still well-lit and a flashing red light cast eerie shadows on the snow. He glanced around and found an ambulance parked nearby.
He frowned -- he must have passed out and missed something. One of the homeless people, most likely. He started to move towards Crawley, but halted. He was in costume...he was dressed as Moon Knight.
He glanced up at the moon and saw Khonshu's impassive face watching him. It seemed arrogant and distant. "You bastard...I told you to stay out of my life..."
A sound from above caused him to look up. There was a woman there, in an armored version of his own costume. He knew immediately who it was. "Chloe?" His voice was quiet and distant.
She crouched. "Yes, it's me. Catch me if you can, Marc." She threw her truncheon line and swung right over his head.
Marc glanced at the throng of people outside the shelter. No one had seen her. He frowned at that but moved after her. It had been years since he'd seen action, but the old reflexes were still there. He nimbly scaled the wall, and noticed her standing on a nearby rooftop. "Chloe -- how?! You're dead...I saw you die..."
Chloe simply stood there. "You killed me, Marc."
Silence hung in the air. "I know...I'm sorry. I'm sorry for so much..."
"You should let go of it. I don't blame you. You did what you thought was right...you had to go after Randall."
Marc felt tears, hot and stinging, in his eyes. He clenched his fist and stared downward. "I shouldn't have left you and Marlene inside...I should have made sure you got out of the mansion...I could have caught Randall later..."
Soft, warm hands embraced him from behind. He stiffened immediately. "Steven...I love you. You didn't kill us. It was an accident..."
He turned slowly and saw Marlene smiling at him. She was young, as young as the day he'd met her. "This isn't real..."
She smiled. "It's real. Your fight's long over, Steven. There won't be any more resurrections."
Marlene smiled wistfully. "It wasn't meant to be. Let it go."
"Let it go."
"But, I failed..."
"You never failed me. Never. You were always my knight, Steven -- handsome and strong. We can be together again, but you have to let go of this. It's holding you here, on this plane."
Marc looked away. The sight of her was too strong, too painful. He stared up into the falling snow and the glowing white light of the moon. "I'm dead again...aren't I?"
"I don't deserve to be with you..."
Marlene sighed. "Damnit, Steven...You were never weak. Never. You had the strength to come back from the dead to be with me...I know you have the strength to accept your death to do the same..."
Marc looked back at her and fell into her arms. He cried -- like he had never been able to do at the funeral. How long they stood like that, he would never know...because his process of forgiving had begun and time had stretched out into eternity for them.
The white light of Khonshu extended from the moon and embraced them. As the sounds of Christmas carols resonated through the air, the Fist of Khonshu returned home.
THREE DAYS LATER, STARLIN FUNERAL HOME
Crawley knelt beside his friend. He placed a small cross on Marc's chest -- he knew Marc wasn't a Christian, but it seemed like he had to do something. He noticed a small smile on Marc's lips and felt a tear drop from his cheek onto Marc's chest. "I have a present for you, Marc...I meant to give it to you before..." He took out a small photo and placed it in Marc's hand. It showed Marc and Marlene on their wedding day. It was hard to believe, looking at them in the photo, that everything had gone so horribly wrong so soon after that..."I wanted you to remember, Marc. Remember how much you loved her and how much she loved you. I loved you too...You were the best friend I ever had. Maybe you're with her someplace where you won't have to fight anyone ever again. I hope so..."
Angelica of All God's Children
"ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS PAST, 2186"
by Mark Bousquet
"Tell me a story, daddy. Pleeeeeeease."
"Of course, child. Is it not the eve of Christmas?" Volstagg smiled at his adopted, Earthen daughter. "Shall I tell you the grand tale of the Red Nosed Reindeer Called Rudolph? Or the epic struggle of Frosty the Snowman? Or perhaps," he leaned in close, whispering, "you'd like to hear a special tale?" The young red-head nodded, her eyes wide. "Very well, my sweeet Angel, I shall tell you the legend of Santa Claus' first visit to Asgard."
"Yippee!" Angelica bounced on the bed.
"Once upon a time, not so long ago, but after the Eternal War had started, times became tough in the Golden Realm. No, not so bad that people were worried about where their next meal came from or if there'd be clothes for their backs, but bad enough that life was not one of luxury. Asgardians didn't complain about their condition. No, child, we're Asgardians. We do the best we can, working as hard as we can, and know that that will be enough to make it to the next day. Thanos, be damned - excuse your father's language.
"Well, there came a night when things were particularly bad. A pall had settled over the Golden Realm. No one can say why the doldrums hit us that night as hard as they did, but there is no doubting that it did. Every Asgardian that night, whether they were at home or spread throughout the Nine Realms, felt it.
"Yes, child, even the honored dead of Valhalla and the dishonored dead of Niffleheim felt the drowning sorrow.
"Children were impossible to put to bed that night, husbands and wives wanted anything but the touch of their lover, warriors did not want to fight, inns barely bothered to open. There was unease and malaise.
"Everything felt wrong somehow.
"Finally, we all drifted off into a restless sleep, waking before the dawn. We dragged our bodies out of our beds and headed into our daily activities when a most wondrous sight appeared before our eyes. Boxes covered with shiny paper, hiding presents, adorned our living rooms!
"Joy swept like a wave through Asgard as families came together to bask in the glow of presents and gifts and unexpected treasures. Children tore into boxes and found toys of wood! Their joy was a sight to behold! Never has the Realm had all the children find such great joy at one time! Not a single unhappy child walked Asgard that morning.
"But it wasn't just the children who found such unbridled joy.
"Oh no, the parents of those children had that same joy visit upon them! The presents were nice, of course, but to see the faces of their children … the purest joy in the world, it was.
"Then, as the morning wore on, as all the presents had been opened and toyed with, the question arose. Where had the gifts come from? Who had placed these gifts inside our homes? Worry began to take hold. Perhaps the gifts were sent by Thanos to lull us to softness? Perhaps they were sent by Loki, in another of his mad schemes?
"As the questions arose and became deeper, the uneasiness began to settle back in. Children wondered why their parents took their gifts from them, wondered why the joy that had played across their faces were now turned to faces of worry.
"And the Asgardians descended upon Odin, their King, and besieged him with questions and worries and concerns and troubles and theories and musings and ponderings and-
"Odin said nothing for a long time, until the windiest of the windy speakers had grown hoarse and began to walk. We followed him straight to the Rainbow Bridge, where Heimdall, the Guardian of the Bridge waited for us, a strange look upon his face.
"Odin asked Heimdall, he who could see into the furthest corner of the Nine Worlds, what he saw the past night. Heimdall sighed and shook his head and told us that he had seen an old man dressed in red with white trimmings, black boots and belt and a large white beard come walking across the Rainbow Bridge, a large bag on his back.
"Heimdall tried to halt the old man, but he would have no success. He asked the man to state his business and he was answered with the words, 'I'm Santa Claus, of course. I'm here to spread Christmas cheer." Heimdall then watched Santa walk into every house in the city, leaving gifts for all of us as a light, fluffy snow began to fall. But, Heimdall cautioned, swearing he hadn't been drinking, the old man's bag never got lighter and time seemed to stop, as if it were waiting for him to finish.
"So Santa Claus came to Asgard one night and we have never been the same since. Now, every year on the anniversary of that First Night, we go to bed hoping that Santa will come again and grace us with his presence and gifts of joy and happiness."
Volstagg looked down at Angelica, who smiled one last time before drifting off to sleep the sleep of innocence. He kissed her on the forehead and walked down the hall to climb into bed with his wife and attempt to sleep the same.
And by the Rainbow Bridge, Heimdall waited for Santa Claus to come again, and bid his friends good night with the blessing Santa had taught him, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night."
-- MBQ 8.December.1998