"What are you reading?"
"Mmm?" I glanced up. Hank had dropped down beside me on the couch. He must have come into the den across the ceiling because my peripheral vision hadn't seen him cross the floor. But I was getting used to his sudden appearances, didn't jump out of my skin any more. Instead, I held up the book so he could see the cover for himself.
"Islam, Gender, and Social Change?" he asked, with something like astonishment.
"The professor assigned it to me. After the debate."
The debate a couple of nights ago, when Hank and I had made the mistake of trying to have a conversation about religion. The only thing we'd been able to agree on was that neither of us believed in it. "And are you learning anything new?" he asked now.
"Don't start on me, Monkey Toes. And I thought you were on-call last night?"
"I was. Got home half an hour ago." Reaching over with one of those impossible feet, he plucked the book from my hands and held my place while he checked the table of contents. "'Islam and Gender: Dilemmas in the Changing Arab World,' 'Gender Issues and Contemporary Quran Interpretation,' 'Islam, Social Change, and the Reality of Arab Women's Lives.' Now that chapter sounds interesting. And it would appear that many of the contributing authors are Arab women."
"They are. And that chapter is interesting. Now give it back."
He did so, then settled down to unfold that morning's New York Times and we read in companionable silence. He didn't say anything else about the book, and I didn't admit that it was making me re-think my position from our debate -- as the professor had known it would, I'm sure. Maybe Islam wasn't as repressive as I'd thought. A lot depended on interpretations of the Quran. But wasn't that usually the case? Everything in life is a matter of perspective.
Except math, maybe. That's why I love numbers. Call me crazy, but I do. Numbers are straightforward. You learn the formulae, you plug in the numbers, and if you're careful, the right answer comes out the other end. Nothing gray. No guessing, like in the rest of my life. No emotions to confuse things. You just do it.
The professor had figured out pretty quick that I'd finish all my math and science homework first, then history and humanities, but would tackle literature only if I couldn't find anything else to distract me. And there's plenty around the mansion to distract. Swimming, riding, watching TV, playing pool, even teasing the squirrels in the garden. It's not that I don't like to read. I'll read anything -- fiction, non-fiction, doesn't matter -- but if it's a story, I want to feel it, lose myself in that world. I don't want to pick it apart after. Maybe that's why Xavier sicced Monkey Toes on me.
Hank McCoy is seriously weird. He hangs from the fucking ceiling to read his mail, for Christ's sake. And he talks like somebody crammed a dictionary down his throat. But I like him. He's never in a pissy mood, he doesn't judge me, and he always seems glad to see me when I show up in his downstairs lab. 'Frankenstein's Retreat,' he calls it. He knows more about opera than anybody ought to, and can read a four-hundred page book in a single afternoon, but he still likes Twinkies, has the whole Star Wars collection, plays a mean Nintendo, and has a real human skull he named Yorick sitting on one of his filing cabinets. We have water-gun wars with green Kool-Aid instead of water -- but not in the mansion. It'd ruin the wood paneling.
He's not my teacher, like Xavier, but he teaches me things. When I hadn't gotten the joke about Yorick, he'd howled over the horrors of modern cultural deprivation in America, then proceeded to quote whole chunks of Hamlet from memory and found a local performance to take me to see. Some high school drama department production, but he didn't care. It had to be on the stage. Attending a play had been a new experience for me, and I'd loved the immediacy of it, the connection between the actors and the audience, even the darkened theater that transported me to another world -- but not passively, as in a cinema. This was how story ought to be: lived and breathed. Experienced. Not analyzed. So now we go to plays, and Hank knows all the best -- old, new and in-between: A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen, which made me want to cheer when Nora slammed the door on Torvald; The Marriage of Bette and Boo by Christopher Durang, which was so blackly ironic I hadn't known whether to laugh or cry; and only the week before, Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. That last had sucker-punched me. Hard.I want more life. I can't help myself. I do. I've lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much much worse, but . . . . You see them living anyway. When they're more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they're burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live. Death usually has to take life away. I don't know if that's just the animal. I don't know if it's not braver to die. But I recognize the habit. The addiction to being alive. We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that's it, that's the best I can do. It's so much not enough, so inadequate but . . . Bless me anyway. I want more life.
Those words burn. Life can be shit, but you live anyway. Or at least you exist, and you want to keep existing. I've sat so many times with a razor, or pills -- and once with a gun -- thinking how simple to just . . . stop. Stop trying, stop hurting, stop being. But I hadn't done it. I don't know if that had stemmed from inertia, or cowardice, or foolishness, or plain stubbornness, but dying was the ultimate 8-Ball sink. It's all over and you don't rack them again. And I refuse to lose.
Whatever had stayed my hand, here I am. And for the first time, I really want more life. I look forward to waking up in the morning. Harper said at the end of Angels in America, "In this world there is a sort of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead." I can't say I long for much in my past except the family I can barely remember, and I lost them, I didn't leave them. But I am learning to dream ahead.
I'd been at the mansion for three months, now. I had plenty to eat and more to keep me busy. Even school wasn't so bad because the professor was more interested in what I learned than in giving me a grade. In fact, I hadn't gotten a grade on anything yet, wasn't sure he was going to bother. I either understood the material or we went over it again -- and that made a hell of a lot more sense to me. I didn't mind taking a test when the point was to find out what I hadn't followed. If school at the group home had been like this, I might have tried. But fun and games came to a screeching halt on a Tuesday morning, three months and four days after I'd arrived.
I'd never been a big person for mornings, and while the professor got up with the sun, he didn't seem to care when I came to class, as long as I came prepared. So we'd fallen into a routine of starting my lessons around ten o'clock over coffee, tea and bagels. And we worked until we were done. I might not be a morning person, but I'm not a slacker, either. I do something well, or I don't do it at all. And I wanted to please him, which might have scared the shit out of me if I'd stopped to think about it. Caring meant eventual disappointment. In life, I'd learned quickly to stay detached. Here, I'd become anything but. Simply put, I liked these people. They treated me as if I were a human being, not a piece of fuck-meat. Neither Hank nor the professor had ever laid a hand on me that extended beyond camaraderie. And believe me, I knew the difference.
But that Tuesday morning, I got blasted out of bed a little after eight-thirty by a mental call from Xavier. I am sorry to wake you at such an 'ungodly' hour -- I could almost hear his amusement -- but we have a situation.
"A what?" I'd said to the air. I knew he could hear me if I just thought it, but it felt weird to me. I preferred speaking aloud.
A young man at a private prep school in New Hampshire, a young mutant. He's been 'outed' by his classmates, and I fear for his safety.
"So why wake me? Can't you call the cops?"
A mental sigh. And just what do you think the police would do?
Good point. I'd met some decent cops in my time on the street, cops who did their job, but I knew first-hand just how much 'help' others could be to anyone whom they thought undeserving. And as I'd come to like these people, I'd also become protective of them. 'Mutant Menace' my ass. I felt safer at Xavier's than I'd ever felt in my life since my parents had died. Nonetheless . . . "So what can we do?"
Why, go and fetch him, Scott.
"How? Hop a handy-dandy private jet?"
Some days, it's better to keep your mouth shut.
I showed up in the mansion's underground, still struggling into clothes and trying to comb hair that hadn't been washed yet. I wasn't any too sure about this little adventure. For one thing, I wasn't sure I could get on the damn plane. I'd lost my parents in a plane crash, and hadn't been on one since.
Yeah, right. Like I'd had the money to buy a ticket anyway? But that didn't ease my fear as I approached the professor, waiting beside a nondescript door near Hank's lab. I'd never been through that door.
Sometimes, living here, I felt as if I were in a James Bond movie. Imported marble floors, oak wainscoting, and crystal chandeliers upstairs, while down below, we had steel hallways, recessed fluorescent lighting, and pneumatic entryways. I did know my way around a little -- enough to get to Hank's lab, the workout room and the computer core. I'd seen Cerebro, but that place gave me the heebie-jeebies so I just stayed the hell away from it. Now, the professor opened this new door for me . . . onto a hangar bay that housed the jet to which he'd referred.
I'd been expecting a nice, white, private Leer jet like the rich buy. But this . . . It was black and sleek and quite likely capable of breaking the sound barrier.
Jesus H. Christ. My jaw must have hung down four inches. "Where in hell did you get this?" I asked, forgetting all about my fears. Lust at first sight.
I have my connections. Come, Scott. We must hurry.
The door was already open, and there was a specialized lift to get the professor's chair into the plane. I'd assumed he was going to fly it, but once aboard, I found Hank in the pilot's seat. "I thought you were on-call last night?" I said, coming forward cautiously to sit in the seat behind his as the professor motored up to take the co-pilot's chair, shifting himself easily from the wheelchair to the seat, folding up the chair and storing it behind, then strapping down the harness and putting in a radio earpiece.
Like I said -- a James Bond movie.
"I am still on-call," Hank told me now. "A doctor's primary call is the preservation of health -- which is what we are going to New Hampshire to do."
I found the harness and strapped myself down even as the jet was lifting off -- straight up. "Shit! Is this a plane or a goddamn helicopter?"
"Language, Scott," the professor said mildly. "And to answer your question, this craft has been modified for VTOL -- vertical take-off and landing -- thanks to Hank."
"Yeah, I know what VTOL is. And man, is there anything you can't do, Monkey Toes? Medicine, jet design, debates on the finer points of Islam?"
"I can't dance."
"You can't dance? Mr. Agility?"
"I look ridiculous, and I refuse to make myself a laughing stock." There was an edge to his reply, so I dropped it and turned my attention to strapping on the knives I'd brought: three throwing knives and a switchblade hidden up a compartment of my jacket sleeve.
The professor watched me do it. "I don't think you'll need those, Scott."
"Maybe not. Maybe so."
"We work without bloodshed."
I raised my head to meet his eyes. "Peachy keen. I'm glad for you. As long as no one tries to shed mine, I'll be happy to go along with House Rules."
He shook his head at that, more in disappointment than disapproval -- and disappointment works a hell of a lot better on me. He knows it, I'm sure.
"Look," I said after a moment, "you dragged me out of bed to come help. Fine, I'll help. But not unless you let me defend myself. Unlike you two, I don't have any special 'gifts.' I have to make do with my wits and some sharp steel."
"Your wits would worry me more than your knives," Hank said from the pilot seat, even as he was leveling us out at cruising altitude and pushing the throttle. I could feel the pull on my face and skin from the accelerating speed, and all my previous fears suddenly struck back. I was on a freaking plane. Gripping the armrests tightly, I swallowed twice, trying to clear my ears and my memory, but my heart had started to pound in my chest.
"Did you log and clear our flight path?" the professor was asking Hank, oblivious to my distress.
"Already done. I would rather not impact another aircraft at mach two."
Mach two? Fuck. If something went wrong at this speed, I'd be dead before I knew what had hit me.
I squeezed my eyes shut and swallowed again -- bile this time. Holy Fuck, I was not going to throw up. I could do this. I'd done worse. This was just a little plane ride. I could handle this. Slow the breathing, Summers. Don't freak out.
"Scott." The professor's voice cut into my private terrors. "You're going to be fine. Nothing will happen to you. You're going to be just fine." The voice was hypnotic, and calmed me -- perhaps with a little telepathic help, but just then, I didn't care if it let me unscrew my eyes and get them open. I found the professor half-turned, regarding me. "You're very brave, Scott. And I am very sorry. In my haste, I did not think."
"It's okay," I lied. But I didn't want to talk about it, especially not in front of Hank, who was thankfully playing deaf.
June 22nd, seven and a half years ago -- the worst day in a life full of shitty ones. The day I'd been tossed out of an airplane with my brother tied to my chest and one parachute between us. The day I'd lost both my parents. The day my whole fucking life had blown apart like the plane above my head.
Now, Xavier nodded to me once, smiled tentatively, and turned back to face the cockpit window.
It took us less than twenty minutes to reach New Hampshire. We parked the jet in a pasture for the school's horses, empty at the moment, and Hank and I deplaned, leaving the professor to await our return . . . hopefully with a new mutant in tow. He kept the engines primed, in case we had to leave in a hurry -- which, as it turned out, we did.
Unsure what we were getting ourselves into, we decided it'd be best to approach the campus obliquely, so we took what was probably a service road around the main building's side. It was a small place, and very exclusive from what Hank told me -- essentially a prep school for Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton . . . places like that. The main building was straight out of a British gothic novel: old gray stone with lead-glass diamond-pane windows and entryways that soared up to a peaked arch. Creeping ivy covered the walls and arching trees shaded it. The chapel had a bell tower, and a great round stained glass window that looked like a smaller copy of the one in Notre Dame.
I'm not ignorant, even if I had made a living on my knees with my mouth open. I know what Notre Dame looks like. And gothic architecture interests me -- all lights and shadows and soaring lines -- but I had no time to admire the building. Nor did we need any help to find where we needed to go. Our quarry was dramatically outlined against a gray New England skyline . . . up on the roof. They had his shirt off, or they'd caught him with his shirt off. From his back sprouted a pair of wings. The feathered kind, like an eagle's, but as a white as a dove's. Even at this distance, I could see morning sun strike blond hair.
We were here to rescue goddamn Gabriel.
Except that Gabriel wouldn't have been swaying on his feet from a beating, and held immobile by a half-dozen of his 'buddies.' I grabbed Hank to haul him further around the building's side where we could try a door. Locked. "Damn." I kicked it in frustration, then peered through the window. There was no one about that I could see -- either inside or on the grounds -- which surprised me. It was after nine in the morning . "Where the hell is everyone?" I muttered.
"Probably in class," Hank said as he leapt to grab the top edge of a windowsill. "If the total school population, including instructors and staff, is over 300, I would be very much surprised. Now, as the door is barred against us, we shall have to find an alternative route to the roof. Grab on, Scott." I wasn't too thrilled by that idea, but I did as he said, threw my arms around his shoulders and my legs around his waist. Christ, this must look fucking weird, but we didn't have time to find another tack before the idiots on the roof did something worse to Gabriel than knock him around. They'd looked set to toss him off the edge. Though God knew what they thought they'd accomplish, throwing a guy with wings off a building.
When we did reach the top, Hank skittered over the roof edge, low, and I dropped onto flat, hard slate. No cheap gravel on tar commercial roofing, this. We crouched a moment, getting our bearings. We could hear the boys talking in the distance, though not all of what they said. "Mutie freak," came through clearly enough. It was voiced with all the same vitriol I'd heard in "faggot whore" flung at me occasionally out of car windows.
My eyes traced out a trail and I pointed, whispering to Hank. "If we sneak around that way, behind the chimneys, we can catch them off guard. I don't think they're posting sentries, y'know?"
"I think you are correct. Lead on."
I did so. Life had taught me how to move quietly and without being noticed, but it never ceased to amaze me how a big guy like Hank could make scarcely a sound. We reached a small building, probably the roof-access stairwell, and crouched behind it. There were five boys dressed in variations on expensive chinos and button downs with monogrammed cardigans and finely styled hair. They'd thrown Gabriel face down on the slate tiles, stretched out his wings to pin him, and were now pulling out hunks of feathers, bloody at the base. "Can't fly without feathers, can you, Worthington?"
"Those bastards," Hank muttered beside me.
I shrugged. Gabriel looked to be of much the same ilk as his tormentors and I wondered if he wouldn't be among the ones yanking out feathers had he not been gifted with them. But we were here to do a job for the professor, and I owed him. If he wanted me to haul winged boy's fat ass out of the fire, I'd do my best.
"Hank," I whispered, "if I distract them, can you grab the angel kid and get down the side of the building one-handed without falling?"
"You bet. But what about you?"
"I've been eluding bullies a long time. I'll be fine."
He studied me a minute, but I just stared back until he shrugged. "If you say so." I didn't wait for him to change his mind, but trusting he could figure when to make his move, I scuttled around to the side away from him, then rose up to walk out where they could see me. I'd palmed my switchblade and kept myself between them and the stairwell exit. They might be rich, but I knew better than to assume they weren't dangerous. Daddy's money could buy a lot of things, including fencing, karate, or wrestling lessons. But I'd bet none of them knew down-and-dirty street fighting, where the only rule was to be the one standing at the end.
"Hey!" I shouted at them. "Lay off!"
So it wasn't the most inspired challenge. It still got their attention. All five of them (stupid fools) swung around to look. That was all Hank needed. Exploding out of our hiding spot, he snagged the half-unconscious victim with one hand and a metal support railing with the other, using it to swing around out into space and over the side, and was gone. It took him three seconds. The pack of tormentors barely had time for more than startled gasps and grunts. I used that diversion myself to beat a retreat for the stairs.
It would have been too much to ask that everything go as I'd planned. My foot slipped on a cracked piece of slate and I went skidding to my knees, felt the knife bite into my fingers. That was all the boys needed. They were on me, hissing swear words and curses, but I'd been in tight situations before and knew better than to let them catch me with my back to them. Dropping and rolling, I managed to get my feet up and into the belly of the first attacker, shoving him off. The second got slashed with the switchblade, and a third, too. Both yelped like kicked dogs. But the fourth managed to club me in the head with something hard. Maybe his shoe. "Mutie lover!" he snarled. It made me see stars and my vision tunneled for a moment, long enough for them to grab me. I stabbed one, but they threw me back, pinned my arm and got the knife away. Things were not looking up. "Now it's your turn, you interfering punk."
At that moment, I heard a gleeful howl and two of the guys holding me down went flying. "Avoiding bullies, eh, Scott?" It was Hank's voice. He'd come back for me. "Looks like you might need a little help."
"Yeah, well, I fell!" I snarled, and freed from some of the weight holding me down, got my feet under me. The boys were shouting in surprise. Which one had my switchblade? "Look out, Hank," I said, "One of them has my knife!"
"Oh, joy!" he shouted back, hauling off two more and -- quite literally -- knocking their heads together . "Now you know why it's not a good idea to fight with one. They're useful only so long as they stay in your hands."
"Gee, why don't you state the damn obvious, Monkey Toes!" I slugged the fifth into next week.
I had to admit, this was kind of fun in a perverse way. I'd always wanted to knock the crap out of a bunch of spoiled rich brats, and now had an excellent excuse. "I think it's time to go!" Hank called, and I broke away, intending to run for the side of the building, so he could grab me and we could make our escape.
Except I never got there. The biggest guy, who was probably the leader of the pack and who had shaken off the effects of Hank's stunning blow, managed to snag me by the arm, swinging me around by using my own momentum against me. But before he could throw me to the roof floor again, there was a gust of wind on both our backs and we glanced up.
Gabriel, looking decidedly grim and bloody but still with feathers enough to fly, had risen above the roof edge. He glared at us all. Surprised, my captor's grip weakened and I twisted free, making for the edge where Hank waited, but before I could reach him, the winged boy swooped down to scoop me up, saying to Hank, "I trust you can get down yourself?" and then we were rising in the air.
I squeezed my eyes shut and muttered, "Oh, shit."
"I won't let you fall," he said. His voice was unexpectedly deep, and his grip strong. "Where did you two come from? And who in hell are you?"
We were no longer climbing higher, but I refused to open my eyes. "My name's Scott," I said. "Hank's the other guy. And we came from the horse pasture."
"The horse pasture? How long have you been living in our horse pasture?" He was laughing.
"Well, we didn't come from there originally!" I snapped back, annoyed. "That's where we fucking parked!" I gestured vaguely, though with my eyes still shut, I had no idea if it were in the direction of the pasture. "Just go there. You'll see." I figured that Hank would have had the good sense to head for the plane, too, and the boys on the roof would be too busy milling around to follow very fast. For one thing, they'd have to climb down. And maybe, if we were lucky, some of the teachers might finally have gotten a clue and showed up on the scene.
We flew for a few minutes, and then my transportation said, "My, oh my. Where did you get that?" As we were finally descending, I risked cracking an eye. The professor was waiting for us in the hatchway of the sleek black jet.
"Professor Xavier has his connections," I said, echoing what I'd been told earlier.
"Where's Henry?" Xavier asked me as the two of us set down. Gabriel released me and I moved away, uncomfortable with the close physical contact, even for necessity.
"On his way, I hope," I replied. "We kinda had to leave in a hurry."
"He is on his way," the winged boy said. "I saw him." He was eying the professor, who eyed him back. "And you are?" he asked.
"Dr. Charles Xavier, of Westchester. And you," he said with a smile, "are the Avenging Angel, otherwise known as Warren Worthington the Third."
Gabriel -- or, rather, Warren -- wore an expression of utter shock. "How did you know?"
But before the professor could reply, Hank burst from the trees at the near end of the pasture and leapt the fence, shouting, "I suggest we prepare for immediate lift off! Company is on the way!"
Turning his chair, Xavier disappeared back inside the plane even as Warren and I climbed up the ramp to make our way down the aisle. "Sit there," I said, pointing to the seat behind the professor as I slid into my own and fastened the harness. I could hear Hank hit the bottom of the stairs and then he was up them and into the cabin, slamming the hatch closed. Already strapped in, Xavier had the engines priming and Hank hurried forward to take his pilot's seat as Warren finally figured out how to fasten the harness around his wings. He winced a few times and I was reminded of the pulled feathers. "You going to be okay till we get back?" I asked him.
"I'll live." The reply was short and sharp.
Great. Rich boy manners to go with the fancy name. Maybe we should have left him to his classmates. But then he sighed -- "Sorry" -- and gave me a tight-lipped smile. "Thanks. I owe you one." His eyes swept the cabin even as Hank was lifting the plane. "Thanks to all of you. They'd have killed me. But" -- his eyes were on the back of Xavier's bald head -- "I still want to know how you knew. Both that I was in danger, and . . . who I am."
"In good time, Mr. Worthington. I shall be happy to explain it all once we are safely back in Westchester."
The return was short and quiet. Now that the crisis was past, adrenaline quit pumping and both the new guy and I slumped. I was sore and tired, and Warren must have been in pain. He didn't whine though, which made me respect him, but his face was white and he kept his eyes shut.
As soon as we were home, the fancy black jet back in its hangar, Hank took Warren to the infirmary and the professor sent me off to get some rest. I smoked a cigarette on my balcony to calm down, then crashed on my bed -- didn't wake again until after noon. In the shower, what I'd done finally struck me. I could have gotten myself fucking killed. But we'd rescued someone. I'd spent most of my life just surviving -- no purpose beyond that, no plan for the future, no direction. One of life's tumbleweeds. Now, for the first time, I thought about what I wanted to do with my life. And for the first time, I realized I could do something. I had choices. I could act, not react. I'd helped a guy today, and not to get anything from him in return. I'd helped him because he'd needed it, and because I could, and because someone had helped me . . . and because it was the right thing to do.
That felt good. It felt free. It felt powerful.
I felt powerful.
Turning off the shower, I climbed out to dress, then considered my reflection in the mirror.
It was time to get a hair-cut.
When I got downstairs, there was nobody around. They were probably all still below, and not wanting to interfere, I wrote the professor a note, then took some of the spending money I'd been given and called a taxi. Henry might be teaching me to drive, but I wasn't old enough yet to have a driver's license.
The taxi took me into New Salem. I didn't go to town often -- I felt out of place there, and self-conscious. But today was different. I wasn't the same guy I'd been yesterday. I had the taxi stop at a local barber's, paid his fee and asked him to come back for me in an hour. Then I went in. When it was my turn in the chair, I had the barber cut my hair short. Not too short, but like a regular guy's haircut.
From now on, I was nobody's whore.
Notes: Regarding the plays, Durang is, I'm convinced, a modern Aristophanes, and the quotes come from "Perestroika," Act V, of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Naomi not only edited it, as usual, but saved me from errors with New York drivers licenses; New York must be different, of course. The actor chosen to be Hank is Jon Favreau. Favreau played opposite Janssen in Love and Sex.
Story IV is One Tin Soldier
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Title: The Bird Whose Wings Made the Wind (Special 3)
Series Name: SPECIAL: The Genesis of Cyclops
Author: Minisinoo [email] [website]
Details: Series | 28k | 09/29/04
Characters: Scott, Xavier, Hank, Warren
Summary: Scott and Hank are sent to rescue a mutant, who comes from a world unlike anything Scott has known.
Notes: This entire series is ADULT.
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