Thursday Fiction: Midnight Thoughts of Troubled Minds

Writing 150I was a little late with getting to the end of Veniamin’s story, so I thought I would offer two vignettes this week instead! This one is a bit longer than I expected it would be; once I got into it I really wanted to give it the time it needed. That’s why it’s up today instead of yesterday!

Anyway, this is the first of four Beast vignettes this month. I wanted to test out how a story featuring the X-Men would sound, and whether I could get a good handle on Hank McCoy, how he thinks and speaks, what the world is like for him. Consider this a bit of practice for Beast: Wild Genius. I’m hoping that the more I write this, the more I can refine the voices and make them sound “truer”. This one is 2093 words.

It was 1 AM at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning, and it was mostly quiet. The nocturnal students were catching up on their courses in the hologram room, and the bamfs could be heard apparating in the hallways and snickering in their mischief, but almost everyone was asleep. It was one of the only times Dr. Henry McCoy, Principal and Head Scientist, felt completely at ease roaming the grounds.

He stalked the empty hallways, his sensitive nose wrinkling at the faint trace of brimstone the bamfs always left behind. He tapped a console near the front door to check on Krakoa and any possible threats from outside; there were none. He glanced around to make absolutely sure there was no one stirring, and then went into the staff kitchen.

Beast tapped another console, which slid open to reveal a hidden compartment inside the wall. He grabbed the precious cargo inside, fetched himself a cup of tea and spread it out in front of his chair. A treat for oneself should be a feast for the eyes as well as for the taste buds, after all. He took a moment to drink in the sight of the chamomile tea and two Twinkies, then let the combined smell of over-processed herbal drink and hyper-preserved sugar, fat and bread fill his nostrils. It was all too rare to enjoy a moment like this.

The first Twinkie disappeared as quickly as he inhaled. The chamomile he sipped more slowly; the steaming hot liquid scalded his tongue pleasantly, mingled briefly with the delightful chemical taste of the confection before washing it away. Hank sighed deeply and leaned back in his chair, ignoring the warning creak that came from the stressed wood. After all that had happened — with all that’s going on around him — it was moments like this that he came to treasure. Moments where the world stopped and he could just be a man enjoying a cup of tea and a creme cake.

The respite was short-lived, however. His nose picked up the scent of someone in the hallway, and his ears heard the slinking footsteps of the Jean Grey School’s headmaster.

It was always easy for him to tell when Wolverine was nearby. His smell came first — wild, hot-blooded, with undertones of the adamantium that served as his skeleton. He had a distinctive gait as well; it reminded Hank of a predator stalking through its territory, hackles raised for a threat that could appear at any moment. Beast felt a certain kinship with him. Logan was one of the few people who saw the world the same way that he did, who struggled with the tension between the animal in his blood and the better angels in his head.

“Logan,” Beast rumbled as soon as he heard Wolverine outside the entrance to the staff’s kitchen.

“Hank.” Wolverine walked through the door and headed straight for the refrigerator. He wasn’t surprised by Hank’s presence, but why would he be? He had similar heightened senses. “I’m surprised to see you outside of your lab.”

Beast grinned easily, leaning further back in his chair. “Everyone has to come up for air some time. All work and no play makes one…a bit stir-crazy.”

Wolverine simply grunted as he grabbed a beer. “Want one?”

“No, but thank you. I thought I’d enjoy a cup of tea before I retired. Twinkie?”

Wolverine wrinkled his nose as he took a seat at the table. “I honestly don’t know how you can eat that stuff, Hank. Can’t you smell it?”

“Of course, my dear Logan. That’s part of the appeal!” He looks down at the tiny yellow cake, about the size of a finger. “It takes me back to my childhood. Before all this. I’d get home from football practice, down a box of these, jump right into homework.” He sighed a great breath, staring beyond the kitchen door, back to his boyhood room in Dunfee, Illinois. “I still had problems, but I was content. Life was so…uncomplicated.”

He blinked himself back to the present. “I’m sure you have something that takes you back to happier times, Logan. Some food that reminds you of home?”

A shadow passed over Wolverine’s features, and Beast almost instantly regretted the remark. “I have a lot of things that remind me of where I’ve come from. Mostly I try to focus on what’s in front of me.”

“Of course,” he said. “My apologies.”

Wolverine shrugged and took a long sip from his beer. Beast drank his tea. They let the discomfort of the moment sink in, then fade. The clock ticked on the wall.

“So how’s the school coming? Is there anything I should know about?” Logan kept staring at the table, in that way he did.

Beast shook his head. “Full speed ahead, o captain my captain. The facility practically runs itself, for better or for worse — once that business with Krakoa was sorted out, there haven’t been any significant issues. Of course, it would be nice to make sure the bamfs don’t get into the power source downstairs–”

“I’m sure you’re on top of it, Hank.” Wolverine cut him off with a hand on the shoulder. “Just…remember to be here for the kids.”

Hank stared at him. What was going through his head? “Of course, Logan. I wouldn’t forget why we’re running this school.”

Wolverine simply nodded, then finished the last of his beer. “Didn’t think you would, bub. I just…I need people who are going to do right by these kids. It’s a messed up world out there. They should be protected from that until they’re ready to deal with it.”

Beast nodded. Of course Logan was right. It was why he came back to the site of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in the first place. His dream hadn’t changed, but the world did — and just when it looked like there wasn’t a place to continue Xavier’s work, Wolverine jumped in to fill the void. The least likely candidate to do it, but he did.

“I know. It’s just…” His broad shoulders slumped. There was a reason he stalked the halls at night, stuck to his lab wherever he could, threw himself at his projects. He’d been trying to avoid it all this time, but he couldn’t. It was staring him in the face now, and he couldn’t look away. “Why am I here?”

Wolverine looked at him as if he had grown a second head. “What?”

“I mean, why me Logan? You have Ororo, you have Kitty…you have Bobby. A lot of other people could step up if you asked them to. Why am I here, as vice-principal? What am I doing here?”

“Your best, Hank. What are any of us doing here?”

Beast shook his head. “It’s not that. I…this used to be so different. Back in the old days. When it was just me and Jean and Scott, Warren and Bobby. Everything seemed so simple back then, and it feels like it all happened to another person. I’ve changed, Logan. Everyone has changed.”

“Cyclops is some revolutionary. He killed Xavier right in front of me. Jean is dead. Warren is…who knows what’s happened to Angel. The only person who seems blessedly unaffected by any of this is Bobby. And even then, I’m not so sure. Do I really know him? Have I ever known him?

“I thought Scott was my brother in arms. He was the consummate leader. Never left a man behind. But he left me. In a black cell with no one but my arch-nemesis to experiment on me. I never would have imagined he was capable of what he’s become, but…” Hank spread his oversized hands and sighed again. “…here we are.”

He looked at Wolverine, who was studying him with the expression of a man who had no idea what to make of what was in front of him. “We’ve never had the closest relationship, you and I. Ororo, I understand. You came up with her, and she has your backbone. Kitty, I get. You’ve helped guide her to where she is today. But why bring me along? You don’t owe me anything.”

Wolverine shifted in his seat, looking away from Hank. “Listen…bub…I’m not sure I’m drunk enough for this conversation. But here goes.”

“I know what it feels like to be betrayed, especially by somebody close to you. It shakes you up. Makes you suspicious of everybody you know for a good long while. But after a bit you move past it. You learn to trust someone again. Then a few people. And that scar just becomes a part of you. If you’re lucky, it makes you smarter. If you’re not, it poisons you. You’re smart enough to know which way this stuff with Cyke is headed.

“But I pulled you here because I want you here. Storm’s got the backbone to lead this school, and I know she’ll protect them from anything that tries to hurt them. Kitty’s great with kids, and I know she’ll teach ’em well. But you…Hank, out of the first class that’s left, you’re the one guy I know who’s still carrying the dream inside you.

“Look at this place. It wouldn’t exist without you. We could’ve maybe gotten someone else to build it, sure, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as good. This is your life’s work, Henry. I know no matter how many times Xavier’s dream nearly goes extinct, you’re gonna be the one to kick-start it again. Everybody’s got a fire under them trying to make this work. And you lit it. You were the only one who could.

“Now. I need you to be the new Xavier. Me and him didn’t always see eye to eye, but we understood each other. He gave me a shot when nobody else would. And there’s a whole new set of kids out there who need somebody to show them what they can be. That’s you. Got it?”

Henry sat, stunned. He swallowed once, hard, and nodded. “Got it.”

“Good.” Wolverine stood abruptly. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna see if I can get a decent couple of hours before Krakoa wakes us all up. Night, Beast.”

“Good night, Logan.” Beast watched Wolverine walk out of the kitchen, his shoulders slumped as if what he said had taken something out of him. He sighed and settled into his chair, staring at his empty tea cup.

It had been so very long since someone had believed in him. Wasn’t that at the core of this? He had done so much, but he had made so many mistakes…and all of his closest friends were dead, or had left him. So many nights, he only had the thrill of discovery to keep him going.

He looked around at the kitchen. This room, like almost every other within the Jean Grey School, was his design. Bright, airy, homey — a refuge from the chaos of a school filled with mutant children, from the humanity outside that hated and feared them, from their own kind who wanted them to fail. He only just noticed how much it looked like a high-tech version of his mother’s kitchen. There was the same cool beige tile on the wall, the same polished wood under his feet. It took him all this time to see just what he had been trying to do — build a home.

Beast gathered his plates and put them in the automated bin that would take them to a dishwasher that ran inside the walls, then place them back into the cabinets through hidden panels all on its own. Shi’ar technology, he mused, was a wonderful thing.

But things in this place wouldn’t make it a home; the people who lived in it would. He thought about the people here — Storm, Kitty, Logan, Bobby — and how much he had in common with them. They had all been through so much. They had all suffered. All of them, wounded but still standing.

Hank turned out the light and walked out of the kitchen, down the hall, towards the elevator that would take him down to his lab and quarters. Tomorrow, he would see how Warren was doing. He’d have a snowball fight with Bobby. Heck, he might even flirt with Ororo. He could never have his old family back at this point. But he could make a new one.

And with that, maybe the Jean Grey School would start to feel more like home.

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