Book 2, Chapter 20

Ashe walked into the coffee shop at exactly two in the afternoon; Julian could hardly keep from grinning at his punctuality. Some things never changed. Even away from work, the man was a paragon of business casual: his sweatshirt, blazer and dress pants all fit perfectly on his frame without a wrinkle. His overcoat was probably the most expensive article of clothing he wore, given to him by Maxwell nearly fifteen years before. The coat, like its owner, hardly showed any signs of its age.

There was no line as Ashe approached the counter and at exactly 2:04, Ashe took his seat across from Julian with his drink in hand. He looked harried, something the ever-busy man rarely let show, but his smile was sincere. Julian took note of this uncharacteristic display, but decided not to bother him with too many personal questions; he looked as though he was grateful for a break and Julian was happy to give him one.

"I'm glad you could get away. I hope Maxwell can get by without you for a while."

Ashe's smile slipped into a scowl, partially obscured by the hair falling loose around his face. "I don't doubt he will keep himself amused."

"And how's his guest?" There was no question about to whom he was referring.

Blowing his bangs out of his eyes, Ashe was the image of a man who had become very tired of his situation, his golden eyes fierce with dislike. "He's doing better than most."

"You don't sound too pleased."

"That is because I am not."

It was an odd answer, and certainly not the one Julian had expected. It was becoming clear that something was wrong, but it was the sort of wrong that he found impossible to describe or put his finger on. Ashe seemed different--more than just overworked. Julian leaned forward across the table. "So, what's going on, Ashe? Is he torturing him? Is it something to do with Phineas?"

"Oh no. Our...guest is in better spirits and health than most of Mr. Maxwell's employees. I believe they were sitting down to tea when I left." The way he spoke made it sound as though the details were bothersome to him because the situation was completely normal.

It was anything but. "Wait, what?" was as intelligent a reaction as Julian could muster; the thought of the Surge sitting down amicably for tea with his father was ridiculous.

"They made an agreement," Ashe explained with his hand stuck in his rogue curls after an attempt to finger-comb them into some semblance of order. "Surge gets free reign of the estate as long as he does as your father asks. It seems your father has taken a liking to him."

"This has got to be some kind of nightmare."

"It is regrettably quite real."

Julian found it hard to speak. Whatever cosmic forces ran the universe apparently enjoyed doing exactly the opposite of what he expected them to. "Well...I guess he still needs to be rescued in any case. I don't suppose I could persuade you to help me get him out of there?"

"I would gladly deliver him gift-wrapped to your doorstep."

Julian blinked. "Wait...last time I saw you, you said I had to do this on my own."

"That was before your father started to annoy me." Ashe's tone said more than his words did. Julian had never seen him so irritated. The idea that Ashe could be annoyed at Maxwell was novel and totally unprecedented to date.

"What's he done?" he asked as the other man took a drink of his coffee. Their simple meeting was becoming more interesting with every thing Ashe said.

"He doesn't shut up about him." Ashe put his cup down a little too hard, with a thunk that was probably louder than he’d intended.

Julian gawked, crazy thoughts circulating through his mind and filling in the missing pieces of the puzzle that was Ashe’s behavior. "Are you jealous?"

The look Ashe leveled across the table at him was not of the friendly sort. "That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard you say." He sipped his coffee as though to dismiss the subject.

"That's the most animated thing I've ever heard you say," Julian persisted. It was in no way an exaggeration. Ashe was always composed, his reactions and words precise and controlled. Nothing was left to chance except his hair, which seemed more unruly than normal in light of his current loss of restraint.

It was as though this was the first time Julian had ever really seen Ashe. All his life, his father’s aide had been the patient one, never really happy or unhappy, as monotone as a clock's tick and just as reliable. He displayed annoyance on occasion, generally in the form of an eye roll or a quick dismissal, but never anything as fierce and powerful as the jealousy that seemed to be boiling inside him now. Even if he denied it, there wasn't much else it could have been.

Maxwell generally had tea in the morning to wake him up and another pot in the afternoon to keep his attention from drifting away from business in the middle of the day. Ashe was always the one who served it to him--despite the fact that there were staff members whose entire job description was to prepare and serve Maxwell's food and drink--but Julian could not remember his father ever asking Ashe to sit and join him. In over twenty-five years of service, he suspected that Ashe had never been placed on level as an equal even once. Yet the Surge, a total stranger and an enemy the last time Julian checked, was being allowed that privilege. He agreed completely with Ashe on that point: if anyone deserved to be sitting at Maxwell's right hand, it was Ashe, not Surge.

Julian could respect intellectual curiosity, and would have found it out of character for Maxwell to dismiss his prisoner as anything less than remarkable, but what was it that was making the Surge stay with his captor of his own free will? Ashe wouldn’t give answers to questions like that, if he had them, though, and Julian knew it. The last thing the older man wanted to talk about was the relationship between the Surge and his employer.

That reluctance brought to mind questions of its own accord, though, the kind Julian usually dismissed. Trying to divert the conversation from the source of Ashe's anxiety, Julian decided to satiate at least some of his curiosity. "Say, Ashe, why don't you ever call my dad James? I've only ever heard you address him as Mr. Maxwell."

Ashe's left eye twitched slightly. "Because I'd sound like a douche calling your father James, as though we were married."

Julian couldn't help but smirk at the rare choice of words. "He calls you Ashe."

"That is because I am his subordinate, Julian." His tone was yet again elevated and brimming with annoyance.

"I take it Surge calls him James?"

"As though they were lifelong friends."

Julian nodded, taking time to pause and enjoy his slowly cooling coffee as his thoughts continued to shift and sort themselves out. The conversation seemed doomed to return to the unlikely pair sitting in Maxwell’s parlor. The world did not need an alliance between James Maxwell and the Surge nor did Ashe need his life to be any more chaotic than Maxwell was capable of making it on his own. Despite the many questions Julian wanted answers to, there was a job to do and Ashe’s abnormal state of mind was further incentive to do it.

"Well, if you're willing to help, that'll make my job here a lot easier," Julian began, leaning hard on the table. "I was asked to meet with you on behalf of an organization with a special interest in the Surge. They've come to the conclusion that they can reason with Maxwell on the issue and get him to release him. Problem is, they'll need an appointment to get in."

"I will clear his schedule." Ashe's reply was rapid; he didn’t even pause to think about it.

Julian smiled. It was more than he’d expected. "I'm sure you'd appreciate it as much as they would if this could happen at the earliest convenience. How about Thursday? That'll give them another full day to work over their approach."

Ashe nodded, tipping back the last of his drink.

"Thanks. I'll let them know." Julian sat back in his chair. With his mission completed, he felt much more relaxed and able to enjoy the rarity of Ashe’s company. "Anyway, I'm sorry things are weird at home for you right now. I doubt either of us saw this coming. You ever get the feeling nothing ever works out the way it should?"

"Quite the contrary, young Mr. Maxwell. Everything works out exactly as it should."

Julian felt shivers run up his spine. More than anything in the world, he hated being called by that name. He looked enough like his father without the man’s name serving as a further reminder of what he could become. "You know it creeps me out when you call me that."

"I was making a point." Ashe's cryptic, all-knowing smirk was back in place. He also seemed much more at ease with the end of his current predicament in sight. He held his empty cup between his hands.

"I see," Julian lied. He finished his own drink. "I'm sorry we only seem to meet under these sorts of circumstances. I really should make time to see you just to see you. Feels like I'm always saying that and then I never do."

The other man shrugged. "We are both busy with other things."

"Yeah. It's good to keep in touch with family, though."

Ashe seemed to find his statement amusing. "You see more of me than anyone you're actually related to."

"The day I call my dad up for a friendly chat is...well it will never happen," Julian said. That Ashe would expect anything different from him was absurd. They both knew very well Julian that despised the tyrant.

"And your brother?" Ashe asked.

Julian frowned. "How's he doing?"

"He is pleased with your father's favor."

"I bet he is."

Ashe's lips curled in a semblance of a smirk at the dark tone of Julian's voice. "I'm surprised. It quite reminds me of you at his age."

Julian grimaced, feeling ill. That was hardly a complimentary comparison for either of them.

"He is much more pragmatic about such things than you were, though," Ashe continued, either unaware of the slight or unconcerned by it.

"So he's already figured out dad'll never love him, hm?"

"He's well aware of that. Just because he knows your father doesn't think much of him beyond his intellectual capacities doesn't mean he can't enjoy it when your father decides he approves of him, though. He knows how to be happy with his own success." Ashe leaned back in his chair quite comfortably. "Like I said, he's rather pragmatic about it."

It was hard to figure out if the older man was in any way sympathetic or was trying to state facts in an unbiased way. So Phineas was better than him when it came to dealing with their father. So Maxwell was more often proud of Phineas than of Julian. It had been a long time since such trivial matters were of even the slightest importance to Julian. He had a life all his own that didn't require the approval or love of his family.

Ashe sighed at length, eying his bangs with a futile glare. They weren't going to bend to his will any more easily than he was to Maxwell's. Julian smiled at him. He and his brother weren't the only ones abused by the tyrant, just the only two who seemed to have the sense to run away when they could. "You know, I will never understand why you've stayed with my dad this long."

"It's as I told you," Ashe replied, conceding to his curls and the way they obscured his vision.

"Doesn't mean it makes sense."

"It makes more sense than you know."

Julian smirked. "Cryptic as always." Eyeing both their empty cups and the clock visible over Ashe's shoulder, Julian sighed and started to rise. "Well, we've finished our drinks. Probably should head back before Maxwell misses you."

"He won't." Ashe gave an undignified snort to accompany his resignation.

"Sorry. I'll send their representative over soon. I promise."

Ashe gave a tired nod, rising and fastening the buttons on his coat to protect against the wind. He deposited his empty cup in the trash bin on his way to the door. "See you later, Julian," he said, looking over his shoulder at Julian.

Julian patted him on the shoulder. "Yeah. Later."

They passed through the door and went their separate ways.

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