Spoilers & Desirable Foreknowledge: Scott Derickson & co’s Doctor Strange.
Warnings: Impending death of old age.
Characters & Relationships: Mordo x The Ancient One & some sorcerer OCs
Summary: It didn’t take an impending death in the sorcerer community to make him realize it, but it did painfully drive the point home: he loved her, and he didn’t even know her name. // 1926 words
Author’s Note: Enjoy!
I'll Be Home
Bavaria greeted them with a flurry of snow and thronging crowds, a choir singing Stille Nacht somewhere, and the smells of hot food steaming in the cold night. The Ancient One smiled, and Mordo nodded, at the surprised bratwurst saleswoman whose elaborately carved wooden stand they’d appeared behind, the sparks of their fading portal blending into the ubiquitous twinkle of Christmas lights. Trusting Mordo to follow without having to look back to confirm his presence, the Ancient One picked a course through the masses and set out for it. Their dark cloaks blended easily into the milling sea of hats and winter coats, and within moments, it was like they’d been a part of the crowd all along.
They passed pretzels and cheeses and nuts and wine, sweets and baubles and jewelry and scarves, children’s toys and crystal crockery. They passed the giant, brightly lit Christmas tree at the center of the market, and the Ancient One slowed down and drew back her hood just to look up and admire it. Mordo, two steps behind, took the opportunity to admire how she looked in the halo of all that glitter and light; simple, and starkly elegant, and beautiful.
"It’s nice," she said. "when you live as long as I do, to know that the end of every tradition you once held dear is merely the beginning of a new one."
Mordo looked up at the tree himself. "You predate Christmas? Or just Christmas trees?"
"Christmas trees predate Christmas," the Ancient One said. "Christianity merely assimilated that tradition into its own."
"Hm. You predate Christianity in Europe, then?"
"You’re fishing again, Master Mordo," the Ancient One said with a smile, tucked her hands in her sleeves, and continued on her way.
"Only because I’m so eager to learn, Ancient One," Mordo replied in kind, following faithfully in her wake.
Beyond the market, the crowds thinned and the snow piled higher in the cobblestone streets. Pale-plastered houses, contoured by thick, dark wooden beams and lit only by Christmas lights strung outside and the inner glow of windows, disappeared under a pristinely shimmering blanket of snow.
It was peaceful. A perfectly picturesque embodiment of the season.
The Ancient One, when Mordo drew up side-by-side with her, seemed perfectly content to take the calm at face value. He tried to follow her example. They might not be the only ones interested in this little town, competitors lurking like sharks in the water – waiting for the old sorceress to die and her hold over her collection of artifacts to break – but the woman was not dead yet. Odds were that this would be an uneventful milk run.
If by ‘milk’ you meant ‘mystical artifacts capable of wiping a small country off the map’.
"We’re here," the Ancient One said eventually, and knocked on the next door they reached.
Mordo shook snow from his hood and cloak. The Ancient One wiped away the frigid drops that remained of what had fallen on her bald head with her sleeve. He had been watching them slide into her collar since they left the marketplace, wishing she would put her cloak back up. Did she still shiver, he wondered? Or had her centuries of training rendered her impervious to such earthly inconveniences?
He wondered about her more than he knew he should.
The door was opened by a young man with arms full of tattoos and a tired smile.
"You must be here for Grandmother," he said, and extended his hand. "Uwe Abendroth."
"Ceridwen," the Ancient One said, shaking the proffered hand. "And this is Karl Mordo. You have our deepest sympathies, Uwe."
Ceridwen, Mordo thought ruefully. That would be a beautiful name to call her.
They all would be. He had heard her called Addfwyn, and Glynna, Sineal and Brangwy and Keenath and Eurneid, Nelda and Mabyn. Any of them could be her true name, or none of them. No-one knew.
Sometimes, when apprentices or even masters asked, she would give them a name to call her by – but only ever for their convenience. Her roots were buried beneath the sands of time, and there they would remain until the day she died, as she insisted she, too, someday would. The Ancient One had left her name and homeland and birthright behind, erased herself, and that frightened Mordo almost as much as he admired her for it. He pitied those who could not help themselves and received a mere fiction for their troubles, because he understood the urge all too well. To this day he still clung to his own name, despite everything it had done to him, despite everything he had done to it, despite feeling in his heart of hearts that the House of Mordo would be better off forgotten.
Mordo had never asked the Ancient One about her name. He did not think he could bear receiving the same answer all those before him had.
The grandson led them inside, up the stairs, to where the dying sorceress lay on her sickbed. She had her own Christmas tree, too weak to enjoy the one downstairs any longer. The room smelled strongly of pine needles. Her long, loosely braided hair, once undoubtedly thick and luscious, was dry and white, and her bones looked brittle beneath paper-thin skin. But her eyes were bright and dark still, and lit up with a stubborn remnant of life the moment the Ancient One stepped inside.
"Oh, Ceridwen, meine Liebe," she cried happily.
"Elise," the Ancient One greeted, smiling like it hurt, and sank down on the edge of the bed to grasp her hand and kiss her cheeks. "Oh, Elise, Elise..."
"Wie gut du doch aussiehst, meine Kleine..." old Elise laughed.
Mordo’s German was poor – his family had not resided here for generations – but he understood that much. Little one. Like Elise truly was the elder of the two. And it made the Ancient One laugh, laugh until tears rolled down her cheeks and Elise’s both. The Ancient One kissed Elise’s palm and pressed it to her cheek, and Mordo and the grandson exchanged a silent look and retreated from the room.
"Ceridwen – she is the immortal one, yes?" Uwe asked in a whisper, closing Elise’s bedroom door to a crack.
"The Ancient One? Not quite immortal, but yes. Close enough."
"Grandmother speaks of her like a sister," Uwe said. His eyes, the same dark eyes his grandmother had, shone with unshed tears. "I was expecting... someone not as young looking."
On days like this, Mordo thought, so did the Ancient One herself.
"How does she do it?" Uwe asked, an edge of desperation to his voice. "Was she born like that? Did she learn it?"
‘Can she keep my grandmother from dying?’ went unsaid, but not unheard.
"Nobody knows," Mordo said. "I’m so sorry. I’m sure if there was a way to share her gift, she would."
Because the women’s conversation turned from unrestrained sobs to hearty laughter and back as naturally as waves rolling across a beach, their words overlapping like they were one mind speaking from two mouths. The long and close history of love between them was palpable even a room away, even across language barriers. Mordo had never experienced the Ancient One like this before.
Feeling jealous of a dying woman was an unexpected and unwelcome experience.
Uwe took him downstairs, where he served him coffee and soft glazed Lebkuchen that tasted suspiciously like paper, and they spoke little. Mordo was lost in the struggle with his hopeless yearning; Uwe, no doubt, with his grief.
The image of her in such distress, pressing that frail, bony hand to her face like a lifeline, was burned into the back of his mind. Mordo felt almost like a peeping thief for having witnessed it. But he also knew that she would never have invited him to accompany her on this errand if she did not wish him to know. She was still human, and she did not mind him knowing.
Perhaps she had brought him along precisely to make that point to him.
But that way lay dangerously hopeful thoughts, lay perhaps Ceridwen truly was her name, and perhaps one day she will mourn me so fiercely, and perhaps telling her I love her won’t be the end of me.
He loved her, and he didn’t even know her name.
Perhaps he didn’t have to. Perhaps one day, he would gather his courage and ask to call her Ceridwen, to have a name for her that meant something – and perhaps she would let him.
Perhaps it would even be enough.
Uwe went upstairs to bring Elise and the Ancient One drinks and Lebkuchen, and came back a while later to get Mordo.
"And who is this handsome young sorcerer I saw poking his head around my door?" Elise asked in a roughened and heavily accented but good-natured voice when he entered.
"Elise, meet Master Karl Mordo," the Ancient One said. If not for her red, puffy eyes, she could have passed for her normal, serene self. "He finished his training last year, and he is exceptionally gifted. I daresay he was one of my finest students since you stopped being one."
"A Mordo in Kamar-Taj?" Elise said, astonished. "My, times do change."
"Sometimes even for the better," Mordo agreed with a small smile, and inclined his head.
"Mordo, meet Master Elise Abendroth. Retired."
"Ha. Only mostly. Until now, finally."
The Ancient One squeezed Elise’s hand. "A good teacher should not have favorites, I know. But we never do rise above some flaws."
"That’s just her way of saying she still likes to make friends like normal people," Elise stage whispered. "Now, chop chop, you two. Rid me of these artifacts so I can enjoy the rest of my days in peace. Especially those boots! They get restless when you don’t use them enough, and I haven’t been able to in far too long."
Mordo raised an eyebrow at Uwe, who shrugged. "They don’t like me. I’m afraid of heights."
They sent the artifacts (bar the Vaulting Boots of Valtorr, who took an instant liking to Mordo and wouldn’t stop trying to unlace his shoes until he put them on instead) to Kamar-Taj through a portal, but the Ancient One took the front door herself.
"I need some fresh air," she said, her face turned up to the sky so snowflakes caught in her eyelashes. "Walk with me?"
"Of course," Mordo said. "Always."
They barely spoke, and they only skirted the market this time until they came to a tiny, packed terrace where they drank mulled wine... and Mordo was once again forced to watch melting snowflakes drip down the back of the Ancient One’s neck.
"Ancient One, do you celebrate Christmas?"
"It’s been a long time since I lived among people who did."
"I never have, myself. But you’ll forgive me if I make an exception this time."
And he dashed off across the market, feeling light as a feather in his new Boots and barely restraining himself from taking them out for a test run, and returned minutes later with a wrapped package.
"For you, Ancient One," Mordo said, and, when she tore away the paper: "Since you seem to have nothing else to keep your head covered in the snow."
She laughed, and cupped his face with her hand, and told him, "Thank you, my friend."
The next day, back in Kamar-Taj, the Ancient One wore a bright red Santa hat wherever she went, tranquilly heedless of anything anybody thought about it.