Book 3, Chapter 18

He'd said goodbye many times. This time though, there was a strange sort of permanence to it--a bitter-sweetness that hadn’t ever been there before. If there had been a button that would have made the elevator doors slam rather than glide shut behind him, Julian would always have pressed it so that everyone would know how much he hated his father. But this time, if he could, he’d have made the doors close even more slowly than they usually did.

This was home, whether the thought pleased him or not. He'd grown up here; half his memories included the staircase, stretching up on either side of the entrance hall, which greeted every visitor as the elevator doors opened. Home was regal, elegant and sterile, painted in warmth without absorbing any. But it was still home and the man before him was and would always be his father.

Maxwell's momentary lapse of emotional control had passed, and the glimmer of concern had disappeared. He shook his head, as ever, not bothering to hide his disapproval.

"There's no reason for you to leave. In fact, you shouldn't even be out of bed. I can tell just by looking at you that you're not fit to go anywhere."

"Fit enough." Julian offered a tired smile. "I'll be fine. I'll take the bus to and from the tram stations. That's not much walking at all."

"And who's going to take care of you when you're home?"

"I've got friends. I'll be fine."

Maxwell shook his head again. The glass of brandy in front of him had been refilled. He didn't offer any and, though he would have appreciated the drink, Julian doubted his ability to judge his tolerance without full use of his healing.

"And just what," Maxwell started, having taken another hard sip of brandy, "is wrong with my hospitality? You've been given every comfort and consideration possible. I've only yelled at you once and I think we can both agree you deserved that one."

Julian nodded deafly. Considering the fact that he hadn't seen his father since that outburst, it was rather hard to say that the lack of a repeat performance really meant anything. "It has nothing to do with the treatment and everything to do with the fact that I'm not a child anymore."

"Oh, for Christ's sake, Julian. You were tortured. Do you really think anyone expects you to be on your feet and back on your own within a couple days?" Maxwell slammed his glass back down on the metal tray. "There is maturity and there is recklessness and you have never been able to tell the two apart."

If it weren't for the hint of regret in his voice, Julian might have pointed out that they were now almost two-for-two. "Look, it's not that either. The truth is that you run this house like a fortress. So long as I'm here, I have nothing to fear from anyone but you. That's a sense of security I can't get anywhere else and I don't want to become dependent on it. You might think that's stupid, but I know for a fact you know I'm right. So let's just accept the fact that I'm leaving and move on to other things. Like who I should be thanking for rescuing me."

"Tell me who he rescued you from and I'll do my best."

"Not going to work like that." Julian offered him another tired smile in consolation. "I tell you, you might go gung-ho and try and take the guy out. And you won't be able to. And I doubt he takes kindly to aggression and he'll know you know what happened and probably where I am, should he want to continue. So we won't worry about him. The guy who saved me, though, is a different story. He's got more information on this than I do and, in general, I'd just like to shake his hand for doing what he did."

"I'm sure." Despite the skepticism in his voice, Julian could tell his father was relenting. "Very well, then. All I have is a description, but if you bump into him, I'm sure you'll know it's him. Think of Ashe, only less than five feet tall with large eyes. Same coloring, but with straight hair rather than curls."

Julian nodded, committing the description to memory. "That actually sounds sort of familiar. Thanks. And now that I've gotten what I want, I guess I can tell you what I've done in the past couple hours to warrant a hasty retreat."

"What did you do?"

Julian wished he didn't sound so lifeless, like he’d asked the question so many times it had lost most of it's meaning. "I told Phineas about his true parentage. And he took it about as well as can be expected."

Whatever Maxwell had expected the confession to be, that hadn't been it. He scowled, his brows casting shadows over his eyes. "The hell did you do that for?"

Julian sighed, leaning back into his chair and peering up at the ceiling. "I know, it was stupid. Sorry." He meant it too. Phineas hadn't known what had happened or that his calculating gaze sent shivers down Julian's spine. He'd looked so much like they had, with his curious expression and tactile responses. Julian closed his eyes, hating to continue. "And that's unfortunately not all."

"Do I want or need to hear about it?"

"Yes and no, because Phineas is probably going to want some medical attention. He didn't sound so good after I beat the crap out of him. I think I might have cracked a rib or something." Julian waited for the shouting to begin--he even braced himself for a backhanded slap or a punch in the face.

If either was coming, though, the timing was off. Julian peeked over at his father, who was still standing at his desk, drinking from his glass of brandy. He didn't say a word, just sipped down the last drops from his glass and poured himself another. Three glasses already. He was troubled.

Maxwell slipped the stopper back into the top of the delicate liquor container. "You really are an amazing fuck up."

Like a kick to the groin. Maxwell had always been very good at attacking a man's weak spot. Julian winced, but said nothing. Denying it would only result in another argument.

"So," Maxwell stepped closer to Julian's chair. "You burnt your bridge with your brother and pulled me into the mess all with one fell swoop. Congratulations. I have no earthly idea how you manage it, but you've certainly got an amazing talent for destruction."

"I'm just not very good at dealing with people I'm not sleeping with, I guess." Julian turned a smile on him, the self-slight making Maxwell lose his pacing and giving Julian his turn to speak again. "So you know, though, I don't hate you. And I know you don't hate me. And you can say whatever you want, but I know deep down there's a human being inside you who might even love me and bringing me down isn't going to make me forget about him. So we can continue to talk about how I messed up and how I make bad choices or we can say goodbye and leave this better than we found it."

Maxwell huffed, but his steam had run out. He placed a hand on the back of the recliner and leaned against it. "You want to act like that, I don't see why we can't just try getting along, then."

"That might work, but I don't think so." Julian tilted his head back, looking up at his father, granting him the same blank expression he'd been graced with over the years. "I can forget a lot of the stuff you've done, but I can't forgive you. I don't mean the small stuff, and half the stuff you did to me doesn't really matter twenty-something years later. But you killed mom. And to this day, I think you still think you were in the right."

Maxwell said nothing.

Julian rose from the chair. "Anyway, I've got a bus to catch. Just wanted to give you the heads up on Phineas and say my piece."

"More like make your peace. What sort of idiotic thing are you planning?"

Julian shrugged. Goodbyes were easier when they didn't drag on. "Does it really matter? I'd be more worried about Phineas right now then me. I've gotten used to the idea that I'm probably more like you than I care to admit. Whatever barrier being adopted gave him is gone now, though. Phineas is as much a part of you as I am, and I imagine that scares the shit out of him." He walked over to the door, still a little awkward on his feet for the first few steps, the newly grown muscle tissue still getting accustomed to supporting him. "And that's as much my fault as yours. He doesn't exactly look up to me. I doubt being related to me is any more pleasant for him than being related to you is."

Maxwell got the door for him, though his face was still pinched in disapproval. "And yet you leave it all in my hands while you run away."

"Pretty much." Julian gave him a smile. "I did apologize, though. I just really don't have it in me to go through some long, drawn-out family ordeal. It'd only get worse before it got better, and I've got things I should be doing."

"That's rather selfish of you."

"I'm sort of at a selfish point on my life, right now."

Maxwell shook his head is dismay. "You're very upbeat for someone walking out on his family."

"I know." Julian stepped into the elevator, still smiling and feeling it reach far deeper than just the surface. "I'm the bad guy this time. I'm not the victim or being blackmailed and storming out. That makes this the most normal goodbye we've ever had. It's a nice change. And I don't have to hate it." He pressed the button and the doors began to slide close. "Tell Phineas I love him. And thank Ashe for me."

Whether Maxwell would pass on the messages or not, Julian wasn't sure. The man raised his hand in something between a wave and a dismissal and turned away before the doors had closed entirely, the remaining points he'd have liked to make filed away for a later date. It was a small and rare victory. Julian couldn't wipe the smile from his face.

All things considered, it was a good day. The bus wasn't packed and he'd timed the schedules well enough that the wait for the trams was short. He felt uncomfortable in the presence of so many people, but standing by the watchman's podium allowed him to relax until the tram glided in. Looking like he felt and feeling like he'd been run over by the tram at least once or twice, he had no trouble getting a seat. No one spoke to him, but plenty looked. He wished he'd thought to bring a hat--something to cover the uneven tufts of hair that were out of his sight but far from out of mind.

He wouldn't let even that get him down, though. He was going to his proper home, the one he'd made for himself, and if Sasha wasn't there, he was going to call him and invite him over with promises of desperate, needy sex. Not that Sasha was in any way desperate or needy. Not in that department, at least. He still had those two girls on the side or had had them since the last time they'd spoken about it. Julian wondered which one he'd stayed with while he’d been gone for so long. He had decided on the punk-raver girl by the time he stepped off the tram, if only because she'd be so high that Sasha's condition would seem like the side-effects of whatever other drugs they were used to and not like some sort of psychosis.

He felt a brief moment of jealousy, thinking of Sasha retreating to another lover in the queue while he hadn't been there. Sasha had become very familiar; the face he’d seen on the pillow next to him every night and every morning for over a month. He'd been there for Sasha when the other man had needed someone, and if Sasha suddenly had something--or someone--better to do, Julian was going to have to break his balls. It wasn't fair to the ladies involved, but they hadn't been the ones there to soothe him on the nights when he woke up screaming. He was entitled to Sasha for as long as he needed him, which, by his reckoning, would probably be several weeks while more of his muscle tissue re-grew. He rubbed his right arm, disgusted with himself and yet relieved it had worked. It was all that remained to heal but the damage.... He needed several weeks. And Sasha, if he cared at all, would give them to him.

The bus ride was pleasantly short and he was lucky enough that there were only two stops before his floor once he was on the elevator. He paused at the door to his apartment, as though only just realizing he hadn't a clue where his wallet and therefore his key would be. He'd used a stack of preloaded cred cards he'd found in his room for the transportation fare, but the lock to his door wasn't about to open up if he gave it five creds. He looked at the knob, hoping that Sasha had absentmindedly left it unlocked, and turned the handle.

Sasha kept his apartment a lot colder than Julian cared for, but the fact that he was looking in on his own living room from the doorway made the worry inside him melt away. He stepped inside, found the light switch and illuminated the small room at least partially. One of the bulbs had burned out--the one closest to the kitchen--but there was still enough light to make out the albino asleep on the couch.

He was sleeping, curled up on his side with his arm acting as his pillow, hair greasy and matted to his forehead, turning the stark white a dull, lifeless gray. He looked peaceful, though, despite looking rather dirty. Julian sat on the couch beside him and laid his head on his shoulder. He smelled unwashed, but it wasn't unpleasant to Julian. It was human, unlike the hospital, unlike his father's home. The smell of masculine musk was inviting and he nuzzled Sasha’s shoulder as he basked in the calm and quiet before the inevitable commotion began.

Sasha stirred, invisible eyelashes fluttering against his alabaster cheeks. The dark black of his eyes peering through them was so shocking a contrast that Julian felt his breath catch for a moment. He'd forgotten how lovely it was to watch him wake up; how unique a sight Sasha was to behold. He smiled at him and leaned down, giving his temple a kiss.

"Hey." It seemed like such a silly thing to start with under the circumstances, but nothing else came to mind

It seemed to take Sasha by surprise, as well. He blinked several times, perhaps unsure that he was awake, before joy and relief washed across his face and he wrapped his arms around Julian, holding him as though he might slip away again. "You have no idea how worried I've been. What happened? Are you okay?"

"I'm okay. You?"

Sasha kissed him--nothing long or passionate, but still full of emotion. "I've been better, but I think I'll be okay now."

Julian smiled and rested comfortably in his arms. He could hear the weariness in Sasha's body, keenly aware of the unique health issues the albino had. He hadn't been well, but he wasn't bad off either.

It was always sad, in a small way, to encounter something he could not heal. Genetics, birth defects, things caused by chromosomes and other things infinitely smaller than cells, were far beyond his reach--they spoke a different language from the rest of the body. They were part of the blueprint, and Sasha's architect had deviated from the norm. That was all. Julian sighed heavily, tired yet anxious all over now that he was finally home again.

Sasha's hand moved up his back to his neck, fingers rubbing at the short hairs along his nape. "So what happened?"

"Not now. Please? It's old news. Let me show you I'm okay first. I don't want you worrying more than you need to."

"So I should be worried, then." Sasha's eyes no longer looked at Julian but past him, off into space over his shoulder as though someone were standing there. "Is it over, at least?"

"I don't know. I hope so." Julian pulled out of his arms, preferring to look at him a bit longer as they spoke. "Let's not worry about that, though. Tell me about what you've been up to."

Sasha rolled his eyes. "Yeah, because that's an interesting story. No, really. I've been sitting on your couch most of the time. Went to work. Met some of the guys you like. Rabbit's an ass, by the way."

"Rabbit was here?"

"Surge sent him up to look for you. He asked a lot of stupid questions like maybe I'd cut you into pieces and flushed you down the toilet. I mean, he didn't say he thought I was responsible, but you knew it was what he was getting at." Sasha brushed his fingers across Julian's cheek. "If the asshole's the reason you're back, though, I could probably forgive him."

Julian shook his head, though his heart was warmed at the thought of Surge and Rabbit both worrying about him. As much as they liked to pretend he was a nuisance, they obviously still cared. He'd have to remember to make it up to them.

He leaned down and gave Sasha another kiss then stood up, smiling at him though it still pained him to put weight on his limbs. "I've kind of had a long day. I'm going to lie down and rest for a bit. Afterwards, though, I'd really like it if we could do a little celebrating."

"You going to be up to that?" Sasha's expression was hopeful, but also a little reluctant. His eyes fixed on Julian's right arm, which he hugged to his side self-consciously.

"After some rest, definitely." Julian walked towards the bedroom. The best way to avoid the conversation was to be absent for it. "Don't worry about me, Sasha. I'm home now. Things can only get better."

Sasha said nothing more as Julian entered the bedroom and crossed to the bed, plopping down at the edge to remove his shoes and socks and anything else that might keep him from being completely comfortable. He threw the socks into the laundry basket along with his shirt.

He had his pants down around his ankles when something occurred to him, something not quite right, and he looked back at the laundry basket set against the wall. It was pretty full, with at least a week’s worth of clothing inside. He blinked at it, and raised his voice enough that it carried to Sasha in the other room.

"Did you work last night?"

"Yeah," Sasha called back. "Closed too. It was a pretty decent night, though. I got a couple phone numbers, even. Guess I haven't lost my touch."

Julian stood up, tossed his pants and underwear on top of the laundry pile and walked to the bathroom, looking down at the uncluttered floor. Sasha had done well enough to even remember that the towel belonged on the rack.

"Hope you took them out of your pocket before you did the laundry."

"Laundry? Did you not smell me when you were on the couch?" Sasha stood in the doorway, watching Julian with troubled eyes. "I'm not doing any right now. Want me to while you get some sleep?"

Julian shook his head, stepping back to the bed slowly, avoiding Sasha's gaze. "No, it's not important. Just wondering how you went to work when your uniform's not in the bin. You have to wear that purple stuff and there's not any in there."

Sasha said nothing. Julian shook his head again, taking a wary seat on the tangled comforter.

"Look, I don't care if you were out with one of your other lovers. It's not like it's ever been a secret that there are others. You don't have to lie to me about where you've been. You haven't been to work since you moved in here, so why do you think it would matter to me if you haven’t gone in? Honestly, what's it worth lying about that? It's just stupid. So don't lie to me."

Sasha remained silent. Julian looked up at him, expecting to find his gaze locked on his now naked arm, but instead found the albino’s eyes locked with his own. He was troubled by something, hurt deeply in some way, though Julian couldn't figure what he'd said to wound him; he'd been caught in a meaningless, trivial lie. That was all.

"I'm guessing that's going to be a problem," Sasha said at length, coming to sit beside Julian on the bed.

"What, you not working? Sasha, I told you, that's--"

"No, not the working. The, uh, lying." Sasha scratched at the back of his neck, uneasiness pinching at his face. "It's not on purpose. I it."

Julian blinked at him, at a momentary loss for what to say. "What do you mean you just do it?"

"I just...lie. Not on purpose. I don't really mean to. It just happens that way."

"What, you're a compulsive liar?" Julian put his face in his hand, not at all willing to deal with anything more complicated then the sheets. "God, Sasha, do you lie to the women you're fucking too?"

And then it hit him: no phone calls from people asking for Sasha, Sasha never stepping out to see anyone else in all the time he'd lived there, Sasha laying on the couch waiting alone rather than off somewhere else being cared for. There were no other lovers. There never had been. Julian blinked at him, not really sure what to think or do. Sasha's face told him he was right, and the pout of his lips begged forgiveness.

"You know, most men lie and say they're not sleeping with more than one person at a time, but you invented your own love triangle. That is fucked up, Sasha."

"I don't even know why I told you that. I just did." Sasha's voice carried a hint of desperation. "I can't exactly control what I lie about or to who. It's just a habit. Asking me not to is as hopeless as..." His voice trailed off, becoming distant and soft as he continued, "As me telling you to stop looking at everyone else and only to look at me."

Julian shook his head hard even as his mind pieced together every clue and hint he'd compiled over months of being with Sasha. He denied their conclusions.

Sasha's arm wrapped around his shoulders. "I can move out."

"You don't have any money."

"Wouldn't be the first time."

"I don't want to be alone."

Sasha kissed his face, fingers squeezing his shoulder softly. "Then I'll be here as long as you want me here."

"Why?" Even as he asked, he could hear the answer. His own thoughts echoed it, but Sasha only smiled. He looked away.

"You don't want to hear it, so I won't say it."

"I wouldn't believe it now, anyway."

Julian let the hurt and regret seep into the words and he crawled to the head of the bed. It was unmade--probably had been for weeks--and the sheet and comforter were a coil of twisted cloth. Sasha took them, worked the ends apart, and laid them out on top of him in silence. Julian didn't thank him, didn't even look at him.

Sasha threw off his own clothes then slid under the blankets beside him, legs and arms wrapping around him as they had on many other occasions. Julian leaned his head against Sasha's. There were no words to describe how glad he was to have Sasha there, or, at the same time, how desperately disappointed he was that things were not and would probably never be normal between them.

Sasha's breath was warm against his ear as he whispered, "You'd believe me. You already knew."

Maybe he did. Julian closed his eyes, not willing to think about it for another moment. He put his hand over Sasha's arm, accepting at the very least the kindness and warmth he offered, and drifted off to sleep.

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