Disclaimer: Bishop, Shard, Malcolm and Randall, the XSE, the X-Men and all related characters, events, themes and concepts are the property of Marvel Comics Entertainment Group . They are not mine. Not a dime is made off this. I am only borrowing for the story. They will be returned intact when done. Note: The information on winter solstice, origins and observances were gathered from library books, i.e.: the story that one of the characters tells, and a website on the subject. This was a story idea that was in my `hiatus' pile of things to get around to Eventually.... I'm not really certain where in Marvel continuity this would fit into, but bear with me. EMAIL: karrenia_rune@yahoo.com

"Quo Vadis? by Karen

Shard scoured the area of the cracked and pitted ground that had once been used as a parking lot. She was looking for scrap metal, especially tin. Tin was a soft metal and it could be melted down in the camp's furnaces and reused to line the gun barrels of their plasma rifles.

It usually could be found in the cracks lying in haphazard piles.

She stumbled over a jagged crack in the blacktop and scrapped her knees. Shard swore fluidly and loudly, not caring who could be lurking around to hear her, for about 10 seconds straight.

Life was, putting it mildly, hard these days. It was necessary to have contacts if not friends at both ends of the spectrum. It was sometimes difficult to tell the underworld scum from the legal citizens. "If you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem. Like I give a damn?

Or he does?" Shard muttered aloud to herself, referring to her older brother, Bishop. It wasn't often that she was assigned on a solo mission, without one of the men tagging along for `backup, or at least morale support. Her brother was over-protective and sometimes something of a cold, arrogant bastard, at times, But when it came to her, he could be a big teddy-bear when he wanted to be, or wanted to move past the outer shell that he built up around himself for the outside world to see.

"Sometimes, I think I'm the only one who really knows him. The guy's got this inner core of

hot burning anger inside him. Sometimes I thin, if he'd let it off we'd all be burned. Driven, that's what it is. Am I any less driven to succeed in this outfit. I worked long and hard to get to where I am. Which is where exactly? Answer that, Shard-girl. A high-ranking officer decorated for Courage under fire. Hah, as if that mattered all of our uniforms would be covered with medals instead of this funny-looking patch on our shoulders."

Shard forgot about the rips in her knees and the pain of scuffed and torn flesh, which was subsiding anyway, and glanced in mingled amusement and indifference at the red and yellow shield in a yellow band with the initials X.S.E etched in black letters. "Bishop believes in this crazy mission of his, what's more he believes in me. That's all that matters."

Just then a piercing whine of the curfew siren let off a its ear-splitting howl.

Shard winced and resisted the instinctive urge to clap her hands over her ears. She flexed her shoulder muscles to get out the stiffness. That done, Shard slung her bag over one shoulder and ran across the blacktop towards the buildings built so closely together that they often seemed to Shard as nothing more then drunken cronies stumbling out of a bar, dead drunk, and leaning against one another just to remain upright. Shard ignored the other furtive movements and moved into the alleys; not looking right or left, letting her instincts and familiarity with the route carry her feet towards where the others would be waiting for her arrival. In the back of her mind, Shard briefly wondered whether or not, her brother, Bishop would chew her out for missing the rendezvous point, or whether he'd completely forgotten about it, in light of his current obsession. He'd been very moody lately, and as driven a soldier, that wasn't like him at all. She wanted very badly to know what was
eating at him; and even more how to help him deal with whatever was wrong. Bishop had never been the emotive type, or very approachable on the emotional front, but she'd be damned if she were going to let that stop her.

Elsewhere

Bishop stalked the perimeter of the camp like a jungle panther, his plasma rifle slung over his shoulder, reflecting on his role as a law enforcement officer in the Xavier Security Enforcers, mentally going over the events of the day.

**flashback

Bishop gunned the motor of the powersled and heard the whine of the overtaxed engine protest at being forced into a maneuver that it was never designed for. The rebel he'd captured during his latest sweep of sector 15 was draped over the sled's passenger compartment.

This was the Grid 217 interment camp. One of the Sentinels, who were this world's true masters, stopped him at the gate, and demanded identification, and they'd even scanned down to his fingerprints. Resentful at the fact the he'd been forced to prove himself. he was on the verge of lashing out at huge automaton, but managed to restrain himself at the last minute. "Like that would do any good," he muttered to himself under his breath.

"It's probably nothing more than a glitch in either it's programming or a systems failure. They'd almost made him. " It wasn't often that he took realized the fragility of his own mortality. He'd taken his life is his own hands many times in the course of his career, his mission. Death was a fact of life, and often with less ceremony, but that was one of the closet calls he'd in recent memory.

"end flashback"

Bishop traced the raised capital M that was tattooed over his eye. It was a brand that marked him as a mutant. He had taken that brand and made it something to be proud of, not that he didn't realize that it also marked him an outcast also. That had never stopped him before, and he certainly would not allow that to stop him now. He had always believed that the X-Men were legends, and then he'd seen their grave markers, that had been a sobering moment. The heroes, but he had to move forward, not grind himself into a rut.

Meanwhile, on the other side of camp, Malcolm, Randall, and Shard crouched around the communal bonfire, which served to both the cook dinner and warms their hands. Shard, assigned the task of scrounging for firewood moodily dropped a handful of kindling into the flames, and jumped when a spark leapt up and landed on her boots. She turned around and glared at the other two men, hoping that they'd take a hint, and maybe not, being rather oblivious sorts when it came to division of labors.

"You'd better get over here, boss," Malcolm invited, "or Randall's never gonna let you live this down."

"What's so important?" Bishop asked, irritated at the interruption, wondering at the same time if there was a fine line between meditating and brooding. In the back of his mind, he idly wondered what acid comment his sister; Shard would make on that subject.

"I dunno, but it's obviously important. He says everyone has to do it. Something about it being all or nothing. Don't rightly understand it myself, but Shard's taken with it. So might as well all

be fools together," Malcolm replied.

"I'd rather not be a fool." Bishop replied.

"It's a little late for that," Randall smiled, then dove into his pocket and brought out a chipped piece of stone banded in lines of alternating red an gray stripes.

"What's that?" Shard asked, curious.

"It's a touchstone,"Randall replied, absently rubbing a thickly scarred thumb over the groove that had been worn into the stone, as if it had seen frequent and hard use. As his eyes momentarily lost focus, Shard impatiently rocked back on her heels, seconds away from shaking him. Just as she was about, his attention refocused on her and the other gathered around the bonfire, and he took his attention off the stone

"I first heard this one from the Maker (some call Forge). Here how it went. `"In the days before the stars we know assumed their current forms, the night sky was very dark and for the People on the earth then, they were constantly getting lost in the dark, and as a result did less and less traveling after night fall. Which caused unrest in the tribes, although many tribes were nomadic, this resulted in much fear and unrest. The gods saw this, but were at a loss to how to remedy the problem. So, they assembled for a meeting at a neutral site, a place that touched on the all the cardinal points, somewhere in the middle of the world."

"Is there a point to this story?" Bishop grunted, interested in spite of himself.

"That depends on how far you like to travel," Shard grinned.

"I'm getting there, I'm getting there," Randall muttered.

"Where was I? Oh yeah. Anyway, the gods met, but no one could agree on anything, from

who got to design the patterns, where they should be placed, to how many there should be.

Then one day, Black God put in an appearance." Two matching bears were with him, led on a leash, and at his hips hung a leather bag sewn with colored beads."

At first the other gods were angry, because he put an end to their squabbling, and he said he had the answers to their questions in his bag. They didn't want to believe him, but then they came around when they demanded proof."

"What kind of proof?" Bishop grunted.

"A demonstration that Black God could make good his claim," Randall grinned.

"And did he," Malcolm asked.

"Yeah. You see, because this Black God threw the crystals into the sky one by one, as each crystal was placed he stamped both his feet, and each crystal became a star, in all the patterns of the constellations that we're familiar with and some we're not. There they remain today and only the patterns that Black God placed have names." Randall continued, as he accidentally dropped his touchstone on the ground, then bent over to pick it up.

"And the ones that don't have names," Shard prompted.

"That was when Coyote arrived, he hadn't been invited to the meeting, because one he was a trouble maker, and trickster, and he knew that none of the gods or the mortals on Earth wanted him around or much to do with him. But he sniffed about and heard rumor that the gods were meeting to decide how the stars were to be arranged and was angry that they had left him out of their decisions."

"There's one thing I don't understand, why did they leave Coyote out of their meeting.

Was it deliberate or just on oversight? Did his invitation get lost in the mail?" Shard asked.

"No, I don't think it was deliberate. Coyote was such unpredictable character in these stories, at least the ones I learned, that no really gave much thought to him one way or the other," Randall replied.

"What did Coyote do?" Shard asked.

"Well, he immediately caught on to what Black God was up to, and instead of attempting to sabotage matters, he thought he'd get in good, and take advantage of it. Seeing that Black God had only a few crystals left in his bag, he snatched it away. Coyote decided that the star it end up becoming would become his star."

"What did Black God have to say about that?" Shard asked.

"Well, he the Old Boy was upset, make no mistake about that," Randall grinned. He scolded Coyote and was mad at him for disrupting his carefully planned arrangement. He was really made because he left so much chaos and disorder in his wake." Coyote just laughed, tossing the Old boy his pouch back, now empty, and Coyote says, ,'"Now, the sky is beautiful."" Randall finished.

"Why are you telling us this story? Malcolm asked.

"Because, this is eventful day," Randall grinned.

"The Earth leans slightly on its axis like a spinning top frozen in off-kilter position.

Astronomers have pinpointed the precise angle of tilt. It's 23 degrees and 27 minutes off the perpendicular to the plane of orbit. This planetary pose is what causes all of the various seasons and climates. Today is winter solstice," Shard added, not wanting to be outdone.

"So?" Bishop shrugged.

"So, Randall continued, "The winter solstice is the shortest sunlit day of the year. The day when the sun is the farthest away from us and the light is the most remote. The celebration was most popular in areas of the earthy where the winter is very dark and very long, and the yearning for the sun was so passionate."

"So, what you're saying, it's reaffirming the turning of the seasons and the return of light to the world," Shard asked, interested in spite of herself.

"What possible reason would I want to go through with this? Bishop grunted.

"Well, what she said," Randall replied, gesturing with his free hand at Shard. "Secondly to honor our faith in the silence, darkness and mystery of life, from which new creation emerges. To honor the places of dark, silent, the earth, the human hearts and mined.

3 To reclaim hope in the face of troubles, knowing that the seeds of change are always present, to honor our own staying power, collectively and individually, for having the energy to see something through until the end, despite the darkness in our lives."

"Well, how do you go about this," Bishop asked. "Don't look at me that way, if you this is important, then we might as well go about it properly."

"Okay, well there's thing we do, and then we have to form a circle around the fire, and not let it go out until the sun rises on the following day," Randall said.

"I am NOT singing," Bishop replied, folding his arms defensively across his massive chest.

"Oh, YES, you are," Shard declared, standing up directly in front of him, standing as tall as she could, even if it meant that her head came to about the level of his folded arms. "You are going to do this properly, even if I had knock you down and sit on you."

"I suppose this means I can't persuade you otherwise?" Bishop tried.

"Not a chance, bro," Shard smiled.

"Enough. I'll do it," Bishop, glaring over her head at the other two men, with a look in his dark eyes, warning that if they ever let this get out among the other units of the XSE that they'd never let him live this down. "Now what," he asked, turning to Randall.

"I guess we form a circle, and we sing."

"Okay, here goes nothing," Shard grinned.

""I tune the hearthsong of my soul, loving words upon my lips./Light-giving songs upon my heart. The music of comfort resounds in the souls of all beings. Preserving them in peace.

As the sun and moon renew themselves this night.

I give thanks to the Wise Powers of the Universe that have protected me, this day, this year. "May their blessing attend me wherever I o, and a special blessing to those who have touched my life, who are now in need""

****

END