Back when Mordo lived on Kamar-Taj, he never cared much for his appearance. What good was giving into one's own vanity when there were forces to fight against? Of course, that didn't stop him from shaving his face, and keeping his hair kempt. He may not have cared too much about his appearance, but Masters of the Mystic Arts had to have some standards.
But that's not who he was anymore.
Mordo had left Kamar-Taj behind. That place and all who dwelled there were nothing more than betrayers of their own words. Who could follow a path that lead to deceit? No, instead Mordo had turned away from Kamar-Taj, and The Ancient One's teachings, but even so he still felt the slight pull of the mystic arts. He had seen so much, and learned so much, that the tendrils of magic would never leave him. Mordo wandered from place to place, searching for something deep within himself that he feared he had lost a long time ago. He searched for it in the mountains of Kilimanjaro. He traveled across oceans, and through forests, only to find himself lost in the city of Harlem, New York.
He did not want to return to the glazed eyes of other people, or the crowded streets of the big city. Harlem smelled like cold vice, and forgotten secrets. The city pulsed with a tense urgency that could never be appeased. Something was happening here, but Mordo couldn't understand what it was. There was just too many people crowding the streets, too many youngsters with their basketball games, too many men peering through closed shades. Too many secrets to be unearthed.
"Enough of this, Mordo!" Mordo shook his head free of this thoughts. Ever since he learned of the Ancient One's lies, his mind never stopped screaming. He just needed someplace to think. To just be. It couldn't be that difficult.
"Hello there my brotha," came an unfamiliar voice.
Mordo's eyes darted from the sidewalk, and his hand instinctively reached for his staff strapped to his back. In retrospect, it probably wasn't the best idea to walk around Harlem in his old attire. Green robes, and mystic boots weren't exactly welcoming attire. Though, if the Harlmeites did find him strange, they did a good job of hiding it.
"Uhm…" Mordo stammered, "Good afternoon."
"Afternoon?" the man asked, "The sun's barely up yet!" he said with a smile.
Right, Mordo had forgotten. Traveling via sling ring can sometimes mess with a person's sense of time. One moment you're half way across the world and it's noon, the next you're in Harlem and the dawn hasn't even reached the horizon yet.
"My apologies," Mordo said.
The man standing before him was old. Wrinkles cascaded through his dark face, a broad nose hunched proudly about his lips, and his teeth seemed to shimmy when he talked. A small hat perched above his gray, cloudy crown. His brown eyes seemed to melt into the dying twilight, but there was something deeper beneath that kind countenance.
"'Apologies'?" the man repeated, "I take it you ain't from 'round here. Are ya stranger?"
Mordo shook his head, "No. I'm just...visiting."
"Well." The man brushed past Mordo and leaned his body against the door frame of a building. "Let me be the first to welcome you to Harlem." He jabbed his thumb to the sky, "See that sign up there?"
Mordo looked to the side of the building, a big glass window with the words "Pop's Barbershop" glistened in street lights.
"That's my place, I'm Pop. 't's nice to meet ya' stranger."
Mordo smiled warmly, "My name's Mordo. It is an honor to make your acquaintance."
Pop cocked his eyebrow, "Bit of advice stranger, if you're gonna be walkin' these streets, ya' might want to ease up on the formalities. They won't get you far here. And…" Pop looked Mordo up and down, his eyes taking in the torn robe sleeves, and the scuffed boots, and most importantly...Mordo's hair. "You might want to do something about that look a' yours."
Mordo peered into the window of Pop's shop, and stole a glimpse of his reflection. Mordo's hair had grown, corkscrewing out of his head and into the air. And his face had produced a beard so thick, you could probably get lost in it.
"Well," Mordo said with a curt grin, "I suppose I do need something of a shave?"
"And a new wardrobe. You look like you hopped out of a Harry Potter movie."
Mordo winced at the sound of that film. He hated it beyond belief. It was one thing to make light of the mystic arts with such frivolity, but there was just something about Harry Potter that rubbed him the wrong way.
Pop smiled, "I'll tell you what. I'm kind of running a special today, and since you're new in Harlem, I'll give ya' a fresh cut for free."
Mordo's eyes softened, if only for a second, and then he regained his stature. "Sir," he said, " I couldn't ask you of that. After all, I won't be staying too long a-"
"Now don't start with that. I can't have you walkin' around my town looking like you walked outta 12 Years A Slave." Pop placed a key into the doorframe, and pushed gently. "Come on in. Find a seat, and we'll get started."
Mordo had never been in a barbershop before. There really wasn't a need for one.
Most people did not care for their appearance on Kamar-Taj, but when the situation required it, Mordo would just shave his head and move on. But this place, the barbershop, was immaculate. Red chairs lined up against a wall of mirrors. The sink in front of Mordo shined were as white as the clouds above Nepal, and the floors seemed to glisten with a dulled hubris that even Stephen Strange would find humbling.
"This is a lovely shop," Mordo said.
"Thank ya' kindly." Pop wrapped a black cover around Mordo's chest, and in response, Mordo flinched.
"Sorry," Mordo said, "I'm simply not used to-"
"You don't have to explain," Pop said, "I've had customers jumpier than you. 'Least you ain't punchin' me like the last guy." Pop grabbed his clippers, swirled a comb in blue liquid, and began to work. "So, where are you from Merlin?"
Mordo shrugged, "Just around. I don't really have a place of origin. I-I lived in Nepal for a little while." Why was Mordo telling this perfect stranger all of this?
"Nepal?" Pop asked, "Huh, not too many brothas up there."
"No," Mordo agreed, "I suppose not."
Pop pushed slightly on Mordo's head and ran his clippers against the base of the neck. That spot was always the trickiest to get right. "So, what brings you to Harlem?"
That was a good question, honestly Mordo wasn't sure himself. But the universe always had a way of guiding people towards where they needed to be, rather than where they wanted to be.
"Just traveling, and I found myself here." Mordo shrugged the coils of hair from his shoulder. They floated to the ground like snowflakes.
Pop's eyes shimmered, as if he were sensing something deeper in Mordo's words. A strange resentment hidden beneath all of that formality. "It that all?" Pop pushed.
Mordo felt his body tense as Pop ran the clippers from one side of his head to the other. Ragger, and unkempt hair sheared away to make room for something purer.
"Let's just say, I had a group of people I followed, but I found out they weren't all they said they were."
No, they were liars. They were monsters. They were the Icaruses who would fly too close to the heavens and take this world down in their burning pride.
"So you just up and bounced?" Pop asked.
"It was the best course of action. I couldn't just stand there and be a part of them any longer. If they keep on the path they have set for themselves, countless people will be hurt." Mordo clenched his fingers against the chair's arms, leaving bruises where none should be. Strange messed with time. Strange broke the rules. The Ancient One drew power from the Dark Dimension. The world's balance was now under the protection of people would couldn't care less. Under Strange's leadership, people will be hurt. There was no way around it. "People will die."
And Pop stopped, the clippers still biting into Mordo's scalp. The gentle buzz of the motor searing itself into Mordo's very mind. "So tell me, what exactly are you going to do about it?"
"T-there's nothing I can do. It's out of my control. Out of anyone's control."
Pop removed the clippers from Mordo's skull, and turned them off with a quick click. "You know," Pop said as he smacked his lips, "You kind of remind me of a brotha I know round here." Pop grabbed a can of shaving cream, and squirted it into his hands. The white creamed flowed into his old, black hands, and concealed the mistakes those hands had made. But shaving cream did not have the power to wipe away spilled blood. "You two are a lot alike."
Mordo leaned back into his chair as Pop rubbed shaving cream all over Mordo's cheeks. "How so?"
"Yeah," Pop said, "This one guy. Smart as hell, can pretty much tell you anything you want to know about Black history, Black literature, Black art. He's strong too. Real strong. He's the type a' man who could make a real difference in this town. But he'd rather sweep up hair, and go home and sulk."
"I'm afraid I don't follow," Mordo said.
"Well, if these people are as bad as you say, and if you're as smart as I think you are, then that means you've got a duty to stop them." Pop shook his head, "Look son, I don't know what kind a' shit you're in right now, but if people are going to be hurt by this, then it's your duty to do something. You can't just run away like you're doin' now."
"I'm not running!" Mordo said, almost loud enough to be heard back in Nepal. "I just need to think. To figure out my next ste-"
"You're running," Pop said, his face colder than the tips of the Himalayas. "And trust me, I know a thing or two about running scared. I've got plenty a' people coming through my shop doors who've been runnin' their whole lives. So yeah, I'm an expert."
Mordo was not running. Only cowards run. Mordo had faced demons this man couldn't even fathom. Creatures that would terrify even the bravest of men, and yet Mordo had faced them head on, staff in hand, and won! There was nothing for Mordo to fear, nothing for Mordo to run from. And yet, Pop's words still stung his chest like a sword's tip against fresh flesh.
"I can tell you're smart. Anyone who speaks like you has got to be smarter than the average guy, right?" Pop asked, "So maybe it's time you used those brains for what their meant to be used for."
But what the hell could he do? He couldn't just wage a war against all of Kamar-Taj. He couldn't just throw his own convictions aside in order to fight his old comrades. There would be consequences for using magic so. Magic always has a bill to pay.
"But...it won't be easy," Mordo said.
"Nothing ever is, but it's still gotta be done." It wasn't easy for Pop to speak those words. He had been to prison. He had run the streets, he had tasted blood. "Regardless of the consequences, what's right is right, and it's our job to stand up for it." Pop opened this barbershop as a way to make amends. He had torn the streets of Harlem asunder in his youth, and now he spent his twilight years desperately trying to repair that damage. He looked after the kids who came into his shop. He tried to steer them on the right path. But was it ever really enough? It was the duty of every person in the world to push forward, to make the world as safe for the next generation as possible. Anyone who didn't do that, wasn't no one Pop wanted to meet.
"Always forward," Pop whispered, "Forward always." Pop dusted his hands with alcohol, and rubbed every inch of Mordo's scalp.
It was never easy. Learning the Mystic Arts wasn't easy. Learning of the Ancient One's lies wasn't easy. Watching Strange bend and break the rules of nature wasn't easy. And Mordo knew that fixing all of that damage would not be easy but it had to be done. Regardless of consequences. He needed to move forward, even if that meant he had to take down Kamar-Taj himself.
Pop swerved the chair towards the mirror, and Mordo was greeted with a cleaned face, and a shortened hair do. His sideburns were evened, and his cheeks were shaved. He looked like his old self again, but he felt like a new man.
"What do you think?" Pop asked.
Mordo stood, "Thank you my friend, both for your service, and your words. You have helped me a great deal." Mordo would not run any more.
Pop smiled, "I'm glad. Next time you need a trim, you come see me? Alright."
Mordo nodded, "Of course." Mordo gazed out past the barbershop window, into the horizon, painted golden by the sun's light. Strange, and Wong, and all the rest of the sorcerers would only cause this world to suffer. Pop was right, if Mordo was the only one who cared for the laws of nature, then it was up to Mordo to ensure those laws were protected.
"It is time I moved forward."
And that is what Mordo would do.