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One Tin Soldier (Special 4)

by Minisinoo

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I like puzzles.

I can remember, as a young child, putting together puzzles with my father. It's one of those oddly clear memories amid a confused jumble of pieces like those from a puzzle box upended. We'd sit on one side of the dining room floor, because it was smooth hardwood, and lay out the pieces, trying to keep them out of the table's shadow. My father only helped me, showed me strategies for assembling them; he didn't do the puzzles for me. "Start with the corners, Scott. Always find your corner pieces, and then the outer edges. Put them together first. You need to know the shape of it. How big it's going to be."

Words to live by.

At first, I took to puzzles in various foster homes like I took to reading, because I could go off for a while and forget what a shithole the rest of my life was. But other kids in the homes would take a vicious joy in wrecking my work, so after the third or fourth time I found 500 pieces scattered across a floor, I quit trying. And I couldn't afford puzzles, living on the street. Once, I'd found one for a dollar in a library bin and bought it. It was a generic woodland scene, but it had boasted 1500 pieces and I'd thought Mariana and I could do it together, like my father and I had used to do. Turned out Mariana hates puzzles because they frustrate her, and the damn thing was spoiled by seven missing pieces. So I trashed it and didn't bother to try my luck again.

It was about three weeks after I'd come to the mansion that I found the "puzzle closet," as I came to think of it. It was full of puzzles of all kinds, and all difficult. Nothing there less than 1000 pieces and most were 3000 to 5000, or mindbenders of some sort, including 3Ds. I was . . . well, I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say I was ecstatic, but I was pretty excited. I'd asked the professor if I could put some of them together, and he'd grinned, saying, "Of course you may," then, "Would you like to see the one on which I'm currently working?"

I discovered all those puzzles were his. He explained to me -- without obvious bitterness or anger -- that after he'd lost the use of his legs, he'd turned to puzzles and board games for leisure. I'd asked him if he'd ever tried videogames, too, but he'd just smiled and said, "Sometimes old dogs don't want to learn new tricks."

So now, as often as not when Hank wasn't there, the professor and I would spend the evening in his den at his puzzle table, with tea and biscuits. It's more fun to do it with someone else, even if puzzles don't seem like much of a two-person game. Occasionally we played Scrabble, but I'm not as good at that. He taught me how to play Risk instead, and backgammon, and even chess -- though I'd turned that down initially as too high-brow. Chess required Bobby Fischer kinds of smarts, and I sure as hell wasn't Bobby Fischer. He let it go at first, but kept coming back to it, and about two weeks before the rescue of Warren Worthington, I caved and let him teach me -- found out that chess isn't so hard after all. You just have to think ahead.

But it wasn't until three nights following the rescue of Warren that I found out it all had been an elaborate kind of test. Not of the cruel kind, the toying kind, the kind that judged -- the kind he'd never yet given me. But a test, nonetheless, designed to find out what I could do. I think I'd surprised him.

I didn't see Warren but once after the rescue -- the next morning at breakfast. Curious, I'd hauled my ass out of bed early for a change, and found he, Hank and the professor down in the kitchen, having crumpets and tea about seven-thirty. Warren had his great wings draped over the back of his chair. They were amazingly white and beautiful, even with bandages on them. And they were huge, too. The professor had said yesterday that he'd been 'outed' as a mutant, but I couldn't figure how the fuck he'd managed to hide anything like that in the first place. "Hi," I said to them all, and they turned as one to face me.

After they got over the shock of seeing me awake at that hour, and of seeing my hair short, Hank pulled out the chair beside his and magnanimously pushed the whole plate of remaining crumpets in front of it. "And now," he said in a nature-show narrator's voice, "may I present the mansion's own Nocturnal Scott! This rare creature usually rises only in late morning or early afternoon, and it's never safe to approach until it's had its regular dose of caffeine -- which constitutes at least three cups of coffee."

The professor smiled and Worthington actually laughed. I just rolled my eyes, got my coffee and sat down in front of the tray of four crumpets. "Where's the honey, smart ass?" I asked Hank. He handed it over and I poured it on all the pastries.

Worthington watched me. I couldn't interpret his expression. Amusement -- probably at how much honey I used -- but also a calculating interest. I don't think he knew what to make of me. I must have looked odd with my newly-shorn hair still sticking up from bed, dressed in plain sweats instead of an elegant bathrobe like his or Hank's, and a spare cigarette stuck behind my ear. But he didn't seem haughty. Then again, he must assume that if I lived here, I came from the same kind of background he did.

And I didn't want to disabuse him of that. Yesterday I'd turned some kind of corner, and I didn't want to go back. The professor knew about my origin because he'd rescued me from it. Hank knew about it because among the first things the professor had asked him to do after I'd decided to stay was to give me a complete physical plus a battery of tests, including certain tell-tale blood tests: all varieties of hepatitis, and HIV. I'd told Hank that I didn't want to know the results of the latter. I was already taking precautions. He'd pondered that for a while, but then agreed. He'd never told me. But once, when I'd managed to cut myself badly while helping the professor re-hang a valance, Hank hadn't touched the wound at all before running down to the infirmary to glove, and then had bagged all the bloodied cloths, latex, and paper towels. I hadn't thought about that until about an hour later, then had known the answer I hadn't wanted to know. But I still didn't know for sure. It hadn't been formalized with words, ossified by syllables into the dark inevitable. I could continue to delude myself that he was just careful about routine sanitation, even while I made sure to put my band-aids, dental floss, Kleenex, Q-tips, used toothbrushes, and any other bio-hazard trash, into a Ziploc baggie before throwing it away. Hank was aware of that, too, so we continued with our "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.

In any case, the new guy didn't know anything about my colorful past, and I didn't want him to. "Thank you -- again -- for rescuing me yesterday," he said, while I inhaled crumpets. The amusement hadn't left his face. His voice was as deep as I'd remembered. It didn't seem to hang right on him, as odd and unexpected as if he'd spoken with a Tennessee twang.

"You're welcome," I replied when I'd swallowed.

"Can you always eat four crumpets in four minutes?"

"No. Sometimes I can eat them in three."

That perfect mouth tipped up into a faint grin, then he turned back to the professor. They discussed the details of how to salvage his public reputation while I finished my coffee. Since I had no reputation to protect, even if I were a mutant, I left after a bit to go feed the mansion cats and tend the horses in the barn. I'd taken over those duties not long after I'd arrived because I liked doing it. I liked animals. They accepted a person -- or not -- based on the gentleness of hands and the kindness of a voice. They didn't care about the expense of one's clothes or the length of one's hair or how one made a living.

I'd even been given a horse of my own, and the professor was teaching me to ride him -- an old black gelding who was placid enough not to jib or buck at my inexperienced seat. I think he liked me because I bribed him with carrots and turnips. In any case, I was a good enough horseman now to tack him and take him out without supervision, which I did that morning after I'd cleaned stalls. Though it was pushing mid-December, there still wasn't any snow on the ground, and I let him run across the pasture and down the trail. I needed to feel again the freedom and power I'd felt the day before. I needed to remind myself that I was a different person here. I had a horse, I had a friend in Hank and a mentor in Xavier, and I had some responsibilities around the mansion. And dammit, yesterday I'd saved a guy's life.

Pulling up on a ridge to the west of the mansion, I looked down at it, squinting in the morning brightness despite the sunglasses I wore more often now. That was my home, improbable as it seemed and charity though it was. I had a home.

And I had classes, too. I sighed; I needed to go back. "Come on, Lardbutt," I told the gelding, and we galloped all the way back to the stable. After grooming him, I went to fetch my books, still smelling of horse.

The professor wasn't in his library. Instead he was in his office, on the phone. He motioned me out and I waited in the hall. Finally, in my head, he told me, Come in, Scott, and when I entered the mahogany wood office, he smiled and said, "Today, unfortunately, I have a good deal of business to see to. You're on your own. I'd like you to finish Mauss' The Gift, and be prepared to discuss potlatch behavior. Also, do the second half of the logic problems I gave you. Did you have any trouble with the first?" I shook my head. "Good. We'll also continue with our discussion of Islam, and of chemical kinetics. I shall see you at dinner tonight."

"Where's the new guy?" I asked.

"My driver has already left to return Warren to his family home on Long Island."

"So he's not gonna stay here?" For some reason, I felt a flutter of disappointment at that. Warren had seemed . . . nice. Not an adjective I'd ever have expected to hear myself apply to a member of the pampered jet set.

Xavier was watching me thoughtfully." At some future point, he might join us here. Or he might not. Would you like to have a fellow student?"

I shrugged, unsure how to answer that. "It'd be okay. You know -- to have someone to talk to." Then I realized how that had sounded. "Um, I mean, someone my age. I like talking to you and Hank." In fact, I liked talking to Hank a lot. "But Hank's not around much. And you have your own stuff to do."

Xavier just smiled. "No need to apologize, Scott. It's perfectly normal to want a friend your own age." He tilted his head. "And you're right. Hank is often busy, Jean has not even had time to drop by this fall, and I am frequently preoccupied. It's no wonder if you're a bit lonely."

I shrugged again. "I've been alone a lot. I'm used to it; it's okay. I'm not complaining, sir."

"Nor did I take it that way." He smiled again. "I know that you are still deciding how honest you can be with me, but trust me -- I prefer it when you worry less about offending and more about expressing yourself." The smile turned mischievous. "I find you refreshing, Scott." It was an odd compliment, and made me blush. "Go on, now," he added. "Do your lessons, and I'll see you at supper."

I moved back out the door, but before I could shut it, he called, "Oh, Scott." I glanced back. "Hank tells me that the rescue plan yesterday was mostly your idea."

"Well, sorta." Nervous, I ran a hand through my now-shorn hair, wondering when I'd get use to the lack of weight. "I wasn't trying to be bossy."

"He didn't say you were 'bossy,' merely that you took the bull by the horns."

I hadn't thought about that, but I guess I had. And even though Hank was older than me and a lot smarter, he'd done what I'd suggested. "I just . . . had an idea," I said now. "If he'd had a better one, I would've gone with that."

"Of course," Xavier said. "And Scott -- I'm proud of you. You can go now."

I left, oddly warmed by the professor's words. In fact, I wasn't sure which made me feel better: that I'd helped Warren because I could, or that I'd made Xavier proud.

As it turned out, I didn't see the professor at supper after all. He had to go into the city to take care of some of his vague business. I was pretty sure it had to do with Warren. Hank was around but was studying, so I didn't bother him. The next day, Hank went in to the hospital and, for the first time since I'd come there, I found myself left to my own devices for an entire day. Their trust felt good, though I didn't spend much time thinking about that before I broke it. Calling a taxi to drive me to the local metro station, I took a train south into the Village. I'd never asked for permission to go back there after that first day, when Xavier had told me it was too dangerous. Now, I just went, deciding to bank on forgiveness being easier to get.

I wasn't sure why I had to do this, but I did. A closing of doors, I guess.

I still had my key to the apartment, and was moderately surprised to find that it still worked, too. I let myself in, not sure what I'd find.

The place was a mess. Mariana and neatness were passing acquaintances at best. When there'd been any cleaning done, I'd been the one to do it. No one came to greet me, which meant she wasn't here. I wondered if she'd found a new roommate yet, but it didn't look like it. Everything lying about was hers, or stuff I'd left behind. With a sigh, I set about cleaning up.

I was washing dishes when she came home in a familiar rasping click of seven locks. Entering, she squeaked at the sight of a strange guy with short hair standing in her kitchen, then yanked a gun out of her purse, leveling it at my head. I grinned. "Shooting the maid? No wonder the place is such a fucking mess, Mari."

Terror turned to delighted shock, and she shouted, "Que pinga estas haciendo aqui?" What the fuck are you doing here? And then, "Dios mio estoy feliz de verte!" My God, am I glad to see you! And I suddenly had my arms full of Mariana Olivares. We laughed and hugged hard. She's such a little thing, but as tough as gut rope, and worn like it, too, frayed at the edges from overuse. I'd forgotten how frizzy her hair looked with the constant bleaching. She'd never been pretty, like me, but that wasn't what the johns were interested in.

Finally, she let go and pushed me back. "Scott Summers -- estupido cingado come mierda! Why you come back here? And when did you cut your hair?"

"I cut it a while ago," I lied, and, "I had to see that you were okay."

"I'm okay! Now get your pretty ass gone before Jack -- ese come mierda -- finds out you was here. I told him I don' know where you'd gone. And I don' wanna know, either, so don' tell me, eh? You go back where you're safe."

Sighing, I ran a hand over my face. "Okay. But here." I pulled a wad of bills out of the inner waistband of my underwear where I'd stashed them for safekeeping, and pushed them into her hands.

"What the fuck!"

"Just take it; you need it. Don't argue with me, woman. I'm not going to starve. And I want you to leave. There's enough money there to take you a long way away from here, and feed you too." I'd been saving it from the money that Xavier had given me but that I rarely spent.

"And what am I supposed to do if I leave, eh?"

"I don't know. Just go somewhere else. Go to Podunk, Montana and wait tables for all I care. Just get the fuck out of here." I grabbed her wrists. "Promise me. Promise you'll leave, and promise you'll call me when you get somewhere safe." I shoved a piece of paper into the pocket of her red vinyl jacket. "That's a number where you can reach me. If you go far enough, Jack won't bother to come after you."

"Scotty . . . ."


"She sighed. "Okay, okay. I'll go. Just get your ass out of here before you land us both in neck-deep shit."

I kissed her cheek and rubbed my thumbs across them, under her eyes, smoothing away the dark circles of smeared liner and mascara. "Love you, babe."

"Te quiero, ojos que matan." Love you, too, Killer Eyes. "Now go."

So I picked up the little plastic grocery bag of things that I'd packed earlier to take back with me, kissed her cheek again, and left. The bag held very little: a pair of jeans that I especially liked, torn at the knees but well broken-in, a couple of favorite CDs, and the blue woven pullover that she'd given me over a year ago for my birthday. It was late afternoon by the time I'd returned to the mansion, all set to defend my impromptu excursion to the Village . . . but no one was there. I made myself tea and sat down at the puzzle table in Xavier's den, working on it for a while until my eyes began to cross and it was time for dinner. I ate alone that night, surfed the Web for a few hours after, then retired to bed early. I understood better now why the professor might have opened his home to others. The place was damn eerie with only me and the cook, and she'd left at seven. Charity could go both ways. He gave me a place to sleep and an education. I kept him company.

The next day -- the third since the angel boy had left -- things got back to normal. Xavier came home around mid-morning, and we took up lessons again after lunch. For a while, we discussed the study assignments he'd given me, then he had me fetch down the game of Risk and set up the pieces. Bemused, I did so. Usually, we played in the evenings. But that wasn't the end of the day's surprises. When the board was set up, he used the intercom to call in a guy I'd never seen before. "Scott, I want you to meet Special Agent Fred Duncan, of the Federal Bureau of Investigations."

Holy shit. The fucking FBI. I'd been betrayed again just when I'd begun to trust, and came within inches of bolting out the door on instinct. But Xavier's voice in my head held me immobile. Have no fear, Scott. You are not in trouble of any kind, I assure you. Agent Duncan is here at my request. I want you to beat him at Risk, if you can.

How very . . . odd. But after a polite introduction, the agent and I sat down to play Risk. And as the professor had asked, I beat him. Barely, but I managed. Instead of looking annoyed though, he sat back and steepled his hands in front of his face. "You say Mr. Summers here just began playing two months ago, Charles?"


"He's Chris Summers' son, all right. Has the same gift for strategy."

I jerked upright and for a moment, shock stole my voice; I could barely take in air enough. But then I managed to get out, "You know -- knew -- my father?"

"We served together at the tail end of the Vietnam War; I first met him in '72 when he was released from a POW camp after six months. He walked out with his chin up. I'll never forget that. The rest had their heads down. His wasn't."

I just blinked because I didn't know what to say. I hadn't even known my father had been a POW. But he'd come out with his chin up? It was a mental image I clung to. "What else can you tell me about him?" My voice sounded tight and high to my own ears. "I was only eight when he died. I don't remember a lot."

Agent Duncan stayed through supper and told me stories about my father and his time as a pilot until the US had pulled out of 'Nam in '73. He told me about the moldy cheese he'd kept in his helmet to supplement MREs until the whole helmet had stank of cheese. He told me about his stubborn fondness for his mustache. And he told me about his decision to try for the SR-71 program after the war was over -- he'd flown in at his own expense from Germany just to submit an application. And he'd been accepted as a Habu -- made it into that coveted club. My father had flown a Blackbird. I'd never known that, or if I had, I'd forgotten that I'd known it.

How unfair, that the man across the table remembered my own father better than I did. All I had left was a memory of us putting together puzzles, and of him teaching me to ride a bike with blue-and-white streamers in the handlebars. He'd run behind me down the little street of our air force base, his hand on the back of the bike seat, holding me up -- or telling me that he was holding me up -- until I realized he wasn't. He was just running. And I was balancing the bike all by myself -- riding without training wheels. "You can do it, Scott!"

Right then, only half way through the meal, I had to get up and leave, driven by shame and pain. My father had been a soldier. I'd just been a whore. I cried in my room for half an hour until the professor came up to knock on my door. "Scott, may I come in?" he asked through the wood, using his voice instead of invasive telepathy.

"Wait a minute," I called back, going into the bathroom to splash cold water on my tear-hot face. Then I opened the door.

His eyes were gentle and concerned. "Can I help?" I shook my head in answer and went to collapse on the edge of my bed. But I hadn't shut the door in his face, and he took that for an invitation, motoring inside and shutting the door himself. Coming over to face me, he bent forward in his chair until he could grip my hand. "You're thinking that you've let him down, disgraced his memory. You're thinking you don't deserve to be his son." I didn't respond, because it wasn't a question. "You're wrong, you know."

"He'd disown me, if he knew what I was." I barely managed to choke it out. "I'd disgust him."

"Children do what they must to survive. You were alone and out of options. But you grabbed on with both hands to the first chance you had to escape. That's not a defeatist attitude, Scott." He tilted his head and regarded me for a long moment. "I think he'd understand. He was a POW."

"Agent Duncan said he walked away with his chin up."

"So did you. You're a very strong young man, Mr. Summers."

I didn't believe him, but I didn't want to talk about it. "How'd you find a guy who knew my dad?"

"Chance. Agent Duncan and I have worked together for some time, and in securing your official documents, I learned that your father had been an Air Force pilot. I knew that Fred had served in the Air Force before he joined the Bureau, so I mentioned your father to him and it was pure chance that they'd served together. After Hank told me what you'd done in New Hampshire, I began to think about that, and decided to bring Fred here. I wanted his professional opinion."

It took me a moment to sort through all that. "His professional opinion about what?"

"Your strategic talent."

"My . . . what?"

"You have a rare gift for discerning patterns, Scott. I began to suspect something of the kind when we first started putting together puzzles. You were extraordinarily good -- uncanny. But I didn't know in what directions your talent might extend. So I tested you."

"Tested me?"

"The puzzles, the games: Risk, chess, backgammon, Scrabble. Even the assignments I was giving you in logical deduction." He smiled. "After the incident in New Hampshire, I realized where your real talents lay: strategy and leadership. Put simply, you have an extraordinary natural gift, which -- given what Fred told me tonight -- you quite probably inherited from your father."

I just blinked, because I had absolutely nothing to say.

"I believe you may be a tactical prodigy." He smiled faintly. "I will have to find you some real war games, I think, to test that hypothesis."

Two blinks this time. "That's . . . absurd."

"Is it?"

Surprise transformed into anger. I didn't want my chain yanked. "I'm not any kind of fucking prodigy, professor! That's Hank."

"Yes, Hank is certainly well beyond average. But don't underestimate yourself. You are far smarter than you believe. And Hank has frequently remarked to me on the sharpness of your mind."

"He has?" But I remembered what he'd said three days ago in the jet: that my wits were more dangerous than my knives.

"I know," Xavier continued, "that you find it very hard to believe that you might somehow be special. But you are, Scott. You are special. Gifted." He waited a moment, and when I didn't respond -- because I couldn't; I was too full of conflicting emotions -- he continued, "Today has given you a lot to process . I'll go now and leave you alone for a bit. Agent Duncan has told me that he'd be happy to talk to you more about your father whenever you're ready. And Scott -- when you turn eighteen, you'll have a sizable bank account from both your parents' social security and life insurance benefits. Resources all your own. You are not my charity. I suggest you stop thinking of yourself that way."

And he left me there. Being early in December, it was already dark outside, and cold, but I went onto the balcony anyway to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes and stare at the sky overhead. Was there a heaven? Did we become angels when we died? Could we see the lives of those we'd left behind?

I hoped not. Whatever Xavier had said, I still knew the truth. My father had been a soldier, a pilot, a hero. He'd been brave. He'd been unbreakable. What was I compared to that?

Nothing. Nothing at all.

Notes: Many thanks to Rob for the street Spanish and Dex for clarification on rations. And Agent Duncan's first name was never given in Children of the Atom that I could find, but David says it's Fred. :)

Story V is Bethlehem

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Fandom:  X-Men
Title:  One Tin Soldier (Special 4)
Series Name:  SPECIAL: The Genesis of Cyclops
Author:  Minisinoo   [email]   [website]
Details:  Series  |  25k  |  09/30/04
Characters:  Scott, Xavier
Summary:  Scott and puzzles and doors to the past.
Notes:  This entire series is ADULT.

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