“Piotr Nikolaievich,” I say.
“You sound a little disappointed,” he says, only the faintest trace of an accent in his voice.
“As I said to Scott, I’ve never really liked you.” I shrug apologetically. He sits down in the chair—which creaks in protest—and returns the gesture.
“You think I’m, what’s the phrase? Wishy-washy.”
“And even more angst-ridden than your average mutant, which takes effort.” He doesn’t smile, just gazes at me soulfully. I have to admit he does soulful well. Big grey eyes are good for that. After a second he says, “Yet it seems that you like angst-ridden. My friend Logan, you must admit, is not free of angst.”
“But he doesn’t let it rule his life,” I say.
“And I do.”
“Piotr Nikolaievich, you killed yourself to atone for a death you didn’t cause. If that’s not letting the angst rule your life, I don’t know what is. Plus you treated Kitty horrendously.”
He frowns mightily—well, he does everything mightily. “I let Kitty down, I know, but it was for the best in the end.”
“I’m a little biased in that regard, I guess. Seems I’ve known a lot of men who do things for my own good. They just never bother to consult me before making up their minds.” This sounds far more venomous when I say it than it did when I thought it.
“And you feel that that is what I did to Kitty.”
“Damn skippy,” I say, but I’m finding it hard to be angry with him—he’s so sad that it seems a shame to make it worse. I hate that in a man. Just to change the topic, I ask, “So what’s it like being dead?”
“I don’t know yet,” he says, spreading his hands helplessly. I raise an eyebrow. He clarifies, “Once I come back, I’ll know what I did while I was dead. Until then, I won’t know.”
“You’re assuming you’ll be back,” I point out.
“I’m not worried,” he says, and this time does smile a little. “After all, people have returned from deaths far more final than simply exploding. I know some of them.”
“Here we are, back at the joys of being a character in a story,” I say wryly.
“You know, we’re not conscious of it day-to-day. I don’t think anyone could live normally if they were.” “I should think not,” I say.
“As Logan said, it’s just the way the world is.” He gets up and walks to the balcony door, pushing aside a slat of the vertical blinds with one huge finger so he can look out. He says musingly, “It doesn’t look any different here.”
“It sure is, though.” He turns to look at me.
“You say that as if we have no moral ambiguity,” he says, sounding a little defensive.
“The difference is, you guys have moral ambiguity because it makes a good story. We just have it.” This was intended to sound cynical but it comes out sad.
“You’d like some unambiguous evil.”
“I’d like to kick the ass of some unambiguous evil,” I correct him.
“Violence doesn’t sol--,” he begins, but I cut him off.
“Crap. Violence solves lots of things. It’s not necessarily the best solution, but it is a solution.”
“I admit, there are few things more satisfying than using a malefactor’s momentum against him,” he says, after a moment.
“I wish I could do that without having to invent the malefactor first,” I say.
“What makes you think you’re inventing it?” he asks.
My brow furrows as I ponder this. “Well…I’m a writer. If I want my heroes to kick the ass of evil, I have to provide the evil. That means inventing it and inflicting it on some perfectly innocent, if fictional, people.”
“But are you inventing it?” he insists.
“If I’m not, who is?”
“God? No one, perhaps?”
“You’re saying that I’m channeling my stories from somewhere else. Somewhere that they really happen.”
He walks back over to the chair, leans down, and picks up a sketchpad that is now sitting on the seat. He thumbs through it, then selects a page and hands it to me. It’s a simple, pretty drawing of a clearing in the woods with a rock face to one side. Running down the face is a stream of water which forms a little pond.
“To my knowledge, that place does not exist,” he says. “I invented it out of whole cloth. And yet, it could not be any other way. The trees must be where they are, and the rocks, and the flowers. It is as if I had seen it, and was merely trying to illustrate what I saw. It’s always that way with the things I do easily.”
“But when you try to make them up, or change what you see, it goes more slowly?”
“More slowly, or less well,” he agrees. “When I attempt to change things, often the drawings lack coherence and structure. They may be technically correct, but they have no souls.”
“Then inspiration is just a clear view of something that happened in another reality?” I ask skeptically, and he shrugs.
“It is as good an explanation as any,” he says.
“If it’s true, I wish my telescope worked better,” I reply, and he smiles.
“The trick, of course…” he begins, and I pick it up.
“The trick is writing, or painting or sculpting, when the lens cap is on.”
“I would say, getting enough from your hazy first sight that you can correctly infer what happens, or what it looks like, even when you can no longer see it.”
“An interesting thought from a fictional character.”
“Despite what Jean said, I don’t feel any less real than you do,” he says with some asperity. “If writers decided on my name, and my hair color, they are no less mine. After all, your parents and your genes decided yours.”
“Tolkein said that what we mere mortals do is subcreation, mimicking the true creation of God. I don’t see why that would apply any less to you than to me.”
“It’s a pity I won’t remember this conversation,” he says.
“I’ll write it down,” I say. He takes his sketch pad back.
“I must be going,” he says.
“The busy life of a dead man?” He smiles over his shoulder at that as he walks to the door.
“Have a nice night,” I say.
“And you,” he replies. After he’s gone I sit and think in the flickering light of the TV. It’s so late that there aren’t even any cars going past outside; with the TV muted it’s about as quiet as it ever gets in my living room. So I jump and scream when there’s a sudden bang from the direction of the door. Actually it really does sound like “bamf.” And now I know what brimstone smells like. Kurt lands on the carpet in a three-point stance and I exclaim, “Jesus, you scared the hell out of me!”
“Sorry, Liebchen,” he says. He really is unnerving in person, what with the short blue fur. His eyes catch the light like a cat’s, glowing yellow-green.
“Since you’re here, you should sit down,” I say, a little more sharply than I intended. He pads over to the chair and sits, by which time I’ve got my breathing under control again.
“It’s hard to knock,” he says apologetically. I wave one hand at him.
“It’s OK,” I say. “I was just startled. It was actually pretty neat.” He manages to bow while sitting, a nifty feat.
“Thank you,” he says.
“That’s a cool talent you’ve got there,” I say. He leaps to his feet and bows again, this time deeply and complete with elaborate hand gestures.
“I have many talents, Liebchen,” he says.
“I’ll bet you do,” I say.
“Ah, no, not that kind of talent,” he says, but he’s still smiling.
“Not these days, anyway.”
His smile falters a little, and it occurs to me that a man with three fingers and a tail probably doesn’t get much action even without taking holy orders. I think about smacking myself in the forehead, but that would probably make it worse. He says, “I have not taken my vows yet.”
I shake my head. He looks at me quizzically as he sits back down. I say, “I kinda envy you, but also I’m kinda sorry for you.” That clearly isn’t much less obscure, so I elaborate.
“I don’t really have much faith. I’ve never been able to. So when I see someone who does, I envy them, because they have that touchstone for their lives. But I’m sorry for them, too, because they expend so much effort on something with no tangible benefits.”
“How can you say that there are no benefits?” he asks.
“I didn’t say there are no benefits, just none that are tangible. Being devout doesn’t make you any less blue, for example.”
“That is true, but it does make me sure that there is a reason why I am blue.”
“And does knowing there’s a reason make it easier when people call you a freak?”
“Yes,” he says simply. I have to admire that.
“Where do you get it from?” I ask.
“My faith?” I nod. He continues, “I am not certain that I got it from anywhere. It is simply part of who I am.”
“One could argue that it’s because someone thought it would be good drama to have a Catholic who looks like a demon,” I say, and he shrugs.
“That makes it no less part of me,” he says.
I say, “I guess you’re over the whole Beyonder thing, then.”
“That was difficult,” he says. “I admit that I am also finding this conversation difficult.” I blink at him, taken aback.
“You effectively have the power of a god over me,” he explains. “If the things you and your fellow authors write force my actions, then I have free will only when you are not writing. Even God does not put words in my mouth.”
“What about Piotr’s theory?” I ask.
“I do not like the idea of so many versions of me,” he says, and smiles a half-smile. “I prefer to think that I am the only one.”
“Why would there have to be many of you?” I ask, though I think I see where he’s going.
“So many people write about us that we could not possibly have done everything they write. It also seems unlikely that any one person could contain all the differences that come from so many creators. Therefore, there must be many versions of us for so many to have seen different things.”
“But it has to be that way even if they’re creating you,” I point out.
After a second he says, “I had not thought of that.”
“Sure. If everyone’s stories were canon, there’d have to be hundreds of comic books every month to keep up with the different timelines.”
“Are there not hundreds already?” he asks, amused.
“Seems that way,” I say, smiling. “But really. Every time someone writes something, don’t they start a new timeline? It’s just that the one the Marvel people use is the one everyone else’s is based on.”
“Either way, then, there are many of me.” He thinks for a while, then shrugs theatrically. “They say you cannot have too much of a good thing.”
“Aren’t priests supposed to be humble?” I ask teasingly.
“Pride is my downfall,” he says, bowing his head to hide a smile.
“Personally I think there are worse sins.”
“Some would argue with you, Liebchen,” he says.
I ask, “Would you?”
“No, I agree with you.” He looks suddenly sad. “I have seen too much evil to think that pride is the worst sin.”
“Now there’s a statement that could make me give up writing,” I say. “If I’ve been creating evil, I don’t think I want to do it anymore.”
“I have begun to agree with Piotr,” he says. “You are not God, Liebchen. You cannot create whole worlds, whole beings. Somewhere these things must already exist.”
“Even though that means there must be more than one universe?”
“God can make as many universes as He likes,” he says.
“I suppose She can,” I say. He smiles and stands up.
“Leaving so soon?” I ask. He is not walking to the door, of course.
“I must be on my way. This has been a most enlightening conversation.”
“Auf Wiedersehen,” he says, and sketches a bow.
“Gute Nacht,” I reply. He smiles and vanishes. Air rushes in to fill the space where he had been, taking papers with it. The cat, who had just worked up the courage to enter the room again, screeches and vanishes back into the bedroom. Between the cigar smoke and the sulphur it’s beginning to smell interesting in here, so I open the sliding door to the balcony. It’s a nice night, just cool enough to be comfortable. I’m still standing there, letting the air blow over me, when the door opens behind me. I turn around, expecting to see Rogue, perhaps, or maybe Ororo—after all, Kitty could just walk through it. Instead, it’s Logan again.
“Why’re you looking so surprised?” he asks. “I told you there’d be a quiz.”
“I wasn’t expecting you back,” I say.
“This is your dream, darlin’. We do what you want.” I raise my eyebrows skeptically at this, but it doesn’t seem worth arguing. We both sit down.
“I figured out what all those people have in common,” I say.
“What’s that?” he asks. He sounds so interested that I say, “You don’t know.”
“I didn’t say I knew.”
“You’re not quite short enough to be Yoda,” I say, and he laughs. “Anyway, I did figure it out. They’re all really good at things, but they have lots of flaws to make up for it.”
“Make up for it?” he asks.
“They’re not perfect, and the things they’re bad at are the things that can’t usually be improved with practice—bad temper, stubbornness, impulsiveness. So I have hope.” I wonder if he remembers he was on the list. Probably.
“Hope that you could be like them,” he says, leaning back in his chair.
“Well, yes. That and most of them spend a lot of time suffering.” This statement surprises me even as I’m saying it, and Logan looks frankly astonished.
“You can’t be sayin’ you like to suffer,” he says.
I say slowly, “I don’t. But it makes for great drama.”
“So you’re willin’ to accept pain if it makes your life more dramatic?” It sounds so bald stated that way that the blush starts rising in my face again.
“Sick, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know about sick, but it’s certainly different.”
“I think masochism counts as a psychological disorder,” I say.
“You just said you don’t like pain,” he points out.
I throw up my hands and say helplessly, “And yet I love stories where bad things happen to the protagonist. I’m not sure it’s healthy.”
“Better in stories than in real life,” he says.
“What do you think of Piotr’s theory?” I ask. He looks at me sharply and I say, “I’m not changing the subject. This is relevant.”
“I want to go with the kid on this one,” he says. “I don’t like the idea that there are people movin’ me like a puppet.”
“So far I prefer it too. Because if it’s true, I’m not making bad things happen to people. I’m just recording them.”
“There’s a problem, darlin’,” he says. “If what Piotr says is true, you people should have no influence at all over what happens to us. But you do.”
“Why do you say that?” I ask, startled.
“Do you think I’d be wearin’ bright yellow in combat if I had a choice?” he asks dryly, and despite myself I laugh. He continues, “The girls who’ve been with the team the longest have powers that’re no good hand-to-hand. It doesn’t seem likely that nature did that, but it sure makes sense when you look at the 60’s idea of a woman. All sorts of things like that.”
“Oh,” I say, crestfallen. “Oh. That means that I am making bad things happen. Just so I can be a hero.” I think about it for a few seconds. “I guess I could write children’s books.”
“Now who’s lettin’ the angst rule her life?” Logan asks.
“Come on! You can’t say you want people to get hurt.”
“No, I don’t. But I do want to go on livin’, and I agree with Charlie—there’s no guarantee that we’d go on if there weren’t any evil to fight. Our whole world might stop existin’ if no one wrote about us anymore. If havin’ evil is the price for my world, I for one am willin’ to accept it.”
For several seconds I can’t think of a reply. At last I say, “I still don’t want to be the one inflicting pain on innocent people.”
He chuckles. “I don’t think you have to worry about that where we’re concerned.”
“Why not?”
“It’s like you said to Kurt: if we acted out every story, there’d be a huge number of universes. Every one would be like every other, except for the parts where the stories were different.”
“You’re saying I’m safe as long as I stick to universes with a canon of their own that I can’t add to.”
“Oh.” I guess I don’t sound happy, because he says, “It’s not what I’d recommend.”
“It isn’t?”
“You do it that way, sure, you don’t add any evil. You don’t add any good, either. You don’t add any heroes.” I don’t reply. After a moment he says, “You said this was relevant.”
I grimace. “It was, when I thought I was just recording things. It meant I wasn’t quite sick enough to be hurting people, just enough to like watching them get hurt.”
“I still don’t think you’re sick,” he says. “You said yourself it’s not the hurtin’ you like, it’s the drama.”
“Conflict is the root of drama, and conflict causes pain.”
“But in stories pain happens for a reason,” he says, then corrects himself. “In my world, pain happens for a reason.”
“It happens to entertain!”
“That’s better than no reason at all. If we weren’t entertainin’, we wouldn’t exist.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?” I ask.
“No. If I exist to entertain, then at least I know my purpose. To my mind that’s better than not knowin’, and one hell of a lot better than not existin’.”
“You think I should write what I want to write.”
“You askin’ for my permission now?”
“Not exactly.”
“Good. You don’t need it.”
I say, ‘That’s as may be. But I think it’s polite to ask a representative of the people I’m going to mess with whether they mind.”
“I’m not what you’d call representative, darlin’.”
“The Professor agreed with you, so I’ve got two samples.”
He smiles. “Him and me, we don’t agree on much. That should tell you somethin’.” He stands up and I do too. I take a step towards the door.
“Do you have to go?” I ask, trying not to sound plaintive. He pauses, his hand on the knob.
“If you mean, do I have somewhere to be, then no,” he says at last.
“Stay, then.”
“I should go,” he says, but I don’t think it’s my imagination that hears reluctance in his voice. My heartbeat begins to pick up speed.
“Just stay and talk to me,” I say. He turns from the door and our eyes meet. After a moment, he says, “I don’t want to talk, and that’s why I should go.”
Puzzled, I ask, “You don’t want to talk? Then what do you—“ He raises an eyebrow at me and the light dawns. “Oh. Well. Ah…you still don’t have to go.” I can tell I’m beet red.
He shakes his head. “It wouldn’t be right.” “What, you’re worried about my so-called identity crisis?” I throw my hands up in the air and turn away. “Fine. You’re only doing what’s best for me, right?” All of a sudden I’m really angry.
“I just wonder if it’s what you really want.”
I say contemptuously, “And of course I can’t decide what I want.”
“I didn’t say that, darlin’.”
“Well, you’re clearly thinking it.”
He shrugs. “I was.”
“Well, don’t let silly little me talk you out of it.” I pause for a moment and say softly, “You know, Logan, I’m not a child. I’m not Jubilee; I’m not Kitty. I never looked up to you as a father—hell, I didn’t even know who you were until I was twenty-something. Being an adult, I am perfectly capable of deciding what—who!—I want. Though I’m beginning to wonder why I ever thought I wanted you. As for my identity crisis, when I think of making love to you it doesn’t feel anything like masturbation. I’m aware that we’re different people, thanks; the fact that some twisted part of my brain wants to be like you doesn’t make me incapable of recognizing that I’m not you.” He listens to this speech solemnly at first but by the end I’m incensed to see that he’s starting to smile.
“Don’t get your feathers ruffled,” he says. The tone of his voice makes me raise mine.
“Don’t get my feathers ruffled? You just remember you said that the next time you get the crap beaten out of your puny ass. Get out.”
He crosses his arms and leans back against the door, the smile broadening into a grin. “No.”
“You are an arrogant son of a bitch and I want you out of my house.”
“No,” he says again, and I just can’t stand it. I step closer to him and put my hands on my hips. Our eyes are exactly on a level.
“Funny, am I?” I ask, and even I can hear the threat. A small part of my brain, the sensible part, gasps incredulously, but I’m too mad to pay attention. He just looks at me.
“Say something,” I say sharply. He shakes his head. I yell, “Say something or get out!” He reaches out suddenly and before I know what’s happening he’s got me by the upper arms. From a distance of about three inches he says, “I don’t want to talk.” I’m getting my wits together, working up a retort, when he kisses me.
This puts paid to the wits-gathering, that’s for sure.
Some unknown time later Logan says, “You should watch that temper.”
You should talk,” I reply breathlessly.
“That’s how I know,” he says. “Still mad?”
“Thought you didn’t want to talk.”

In the finest tradition of comic books, I’m going to insert an edit here.

I woke up alone—no big surprise. When I went to check the door it was locked and bolted from the inside. But there was an ashtray on the living room shelf.