The Protectors of Antiquity was an awfully long name for an organization, Julian decided as he rode the bus to the address listed on his datapad. It sounded nice, he had to give them that much, and had an almost militant ring to it, but it still brought to mind pissed off religious protesters in charge of organizing pickets and judging everyone based on ancient dogma. Their listing had the Protectors of Antiquity down as appraisers and collectors of fables, legends and myths, and while it was an interesting array of interests for a legitimate business it still didn't explain why Surge had told him to seek them out. There had been one ad that offered a possible reward for information on the Surge, but somehow Julian doubted that that was what Surge had in mind.
He hoped the caged man was doing well.
Julian disembarked at his stop and looked around for a moment, getting his bearings. The street seemed familiar enough, and the alley he was instructed to follow was well lit. He walked at a leisurely pace, taking in a few of the shops and remembering the good places to eat located nearby. It made the sight of the familiar motorcycle parked outside a doorway in the alley less shocking, almost as though it should have been there or he had known it would be. He paused for a moment to stare at it, though, to be certain it wasn't just a bike that looked like his, as unlikely a scenario as it was. When Rabbit exited the building, though, and stopped to stare back, it was very plain Julian had not been mistaken.
Rabbit had a woven bag in his hand, with what looked like an invoice attached to it. His scarf hung loose over his shoulders and a pair of goggles held his bangs back, causing his hair to flip in different, jagged directions. Around his eyes were the slight impressions left from where the goggles had been on his face instead and his cheeks looked slightly wind burned. He looked good, all things considered, and Julian smiled at him, though he grudgingly wondered how Rabbit would try and dodge him this time.
Rabbit looked at him, his shoulders sinking slightly as he crossed to his bike. "Hey."
Progress. "I left a couple messages. And knocked on your door. Guess you don't check your machine and you leave your game system on when you're not at home."
"Don't be a dick, Julian." Rabbit hung the bag on his handlebars and turned to him, arms crossed over his chest as he leaned against his bike. "I was avoiding you, and I know you know it was intentional, so don't play like you're ignorant."
Julian grimaced. "Fine then. I did apologize, you know. And it's not like you have no idea what Maxwell is like. You might not have done the same thing in my position, but don't pretend not to understand why I did it."
"Actually, you're wrong. If it were to save one of my siblings, I'd have killed you in a second." Rabbit's voice was conversational and pleasant despite his cold words. "Yeah, it pissed me off--having a gun to my head usually warrants that reaction--but it's not like you were the only person I was avoiding. So how about you drop that ego down a few notches and start thinking, ya know, maybe I have shit going on in my life that doesn't involve you and I don't need your drama thrown on top of it."
"You're not exactly lacking in the drama department either." Julian was almost more angered by Rabbit's composure, which didn't falter even when he was insulting, than by what he was saying. "I just wanted to make sure everything was okay. With Greg Waters still on the loose, the police inquiry because of that, the whole thing about being dead and who knows what kind of mess you might be in next, I was really worried about you."
Rabbit sighed, tying his scarf around his neck. "I don't see why you're worried. I mean hell, we're not even friends."
"We could be."
"I don't know how to say this nicely, but I don't really like you." He smoothed his scarf over his chest then zipped his jacket up to keep it in place. "You're not a bad person or anything, not really, but there's just a lot about you that either gets on my nerves or I just don't like. I'm not against you being gay, but the fact you're attracted to me is a good example of what I don't like about being around you."
"Right...this is where I'm supposed to say something pitiful in hopes of gaining sympathy or start yelling at you to hide the fact that that's pretty hurtful." Julian sighed, looking at Rabbit's boots on the concrete. And to think he'd been actively pursuing this conversation for months. "In all fairness, though, most of the time you've spent with me was devoted to one case or another. How about you meet me for lunch tomorrow and see if just regular Julian is someone you could be friends with? My treat."
Rabbit eyed him for a minute then nodded, straddling his bike and pulling the goggles back down on his face. "That'll be fine. Split check, though--you don't owe me anything. I might not be home, but call me anyway and let me know when and where."
"All right. See you tomorrow, Rabbit."
Rabbit gunned his engine, giving him a curt nod, then sped off down the alley and around the corner.
"So, are you a stalker or a customer?"
Julian turned around to the door Rabbit had come through. A short man, at least half a foot shorter than Julian, was standing there holding it open with a crooked grin on his cherub face. His slanted eyes looked mischievous, but he exuded an air of congenial amusement. "I can't really blame you, he needs to get laid anyway, but I'm going to have to ask that you either talk louder so I can overhear you better or not show up around here to bother him."
"I'm looking for the Protector's of Antiquity," Julian responded, deciding not to get into it with the other man.
"That's us. Come on in and I'll run you through the preliminaries." He stepped away from the door and beckoned Julian to follow. The sitting room beyond the door was nicely furnished and situated opposite a large terminal. The man sat down in a rolling chair, picking up what looked like a checklist and spun around to face the couch and chairs. "Go ahead and sit down. This usually doesn't take long, but it makes me nervous when people just stand around."
Julian took a seat on the couch across from him, not quite sure what was going on.
"So, first of all, what's your name? Oh, I'm Jin by the way."
"Julian Vaughn. Nice to meet you. If you don't mind, I'd really like to speak to the owner. It's sort of important."
Jin smirked knowingly, putting his list down on his crossed legs. "That's not how it works. See, if I let everyone who knocked on our door speak to Ath'ran right away, he'd probably yell at me for wasting his time. I don't like it when he yells at me, so that's why I get to ask you questions and make sure it's really something worth bothering him with."
Julian sighed. He wasn't sure why he had thought it might be easy to just walk in, say his piece and move on from there. "Look, the Surge has been captured. He said I needed to come here and talk to you guys and tell Nyr to watch his cat for him."
"Right. The Surge has been captured." Jin's tone and manner betrayed nothing: he wasn't buying it. "Gimme a sec, okay?" He stood up and left through a hallway, calling out as he walked. Julian could hear another voice join his, softer but deeper. One pair of footsteps became two and Jin returned with someone in tow. He was broad and fair skinned and Jin addressed him when he spoke. "This is the guy, Nyr. You'd know better than me if it's a load."
Nyr seemed slightly alarmed but mostly confused as he looked Julian over. He quietly took a seat in one of the armchairs in the sitting area, folding his hands in his lap as he broached the topic of concern. "Jin says you spoke with the Surge and that he's in danger."
At least they were getting somewhere. Julian scooted closer. "Yes. And yeah, I know it's pretty out there, but I've seen him and it's true. He needs help and this is where he told me to go. You know him, right?"
"I've met with him several times. If you've seen him, could you describe him to me then? It'd make it a lot easier to believe you."
And a lot easier to catch him if that was their intention. Julian had a bad feeling about divulging more information than he could risk parting with. He stared into Nyr's face, looking for some hint of dishonesty, but the other man looked back at him, betraying nothing that wasn't already evident. He seemed sincere. If he had Surge's trust, Julian figured he could trust him, too. "Yeah, I can describe him. He's about my height, too skinny, has blond hair that kinda sticks up with blue streaks all through it. He has big, beautiful brown eyes and wears a long back coat. Oh, and his cat's name is Ash."
The way Nyr's eyes grew larger as he spoke settled Julian's fears. Nyr rose, hands shaking just slightly at his sides. "I'll go get Ath'ran," he told Jin as he hurried back into the interior of the building.
Jin turned to Julian, his own expression stupefied. "Surge has blue hair? That is fucking awesome."
He seemed to have missed the point.
Soon, all five members of the business had assembled in the large, open kitchen, and almost as quickly everyone was provided with fresh, warm coffee. It was fewer people than Julian had expected, but they were still a welcome addition to what had been a rescue team of one. He told them about Phineas's machine and about James Maxwell's secret floor on which Surge was being held captive. He conveniently omitted his relationship to either of them, as he generally did when the situation allowed for it. For the most part, they didn't question how he had known the Surge was there or how he had managed to see him. Nyr vouched for the accuracy of his description, promising it could not have been guessed at, and from there they accepted his words for fact.
All but Du'shan. The brooding man sat across him, unimpressed and skeptical. Julian often felt his honey-colored eyes burrowing into him as he spoke, but ignored him when he could. He did not seem like the sort of man who was accepting of being ignored, though. "If it's so hard to get onto the floor he's being kept on, and you somehow managed, and you're so concerned about getting him out, why didn't you do it when you were there?"
The others looked between them both, not saying anything.
Julian grimaced. Being called out was not high on his list of pleasures. "Several reasons. There are two ways in which freeing the Surge can be understood: an accident or an attack. If it were to be seen as an accident, like Phineas's device just didn't work right, Maxwell would try again. There's nothing to stop him. For his failure, Phineas might even be punished. That's not exactly the best outcome for anyone," he explained. "If it's an attack, Phineas is blameless. Maxwell now has an unforeseen and unknown enemy and he might hesitate to try again for fear of being attacked again and the threats to his privacy that an attack might entail."
"In other words, you want the P of A as your scapegoat to take the fall for it if this Maxwell guy manages to find out who attacked him," was Du'shan's sharp reply.
Julian had to admit that P of A was a lot easier to say than The Protectors of Antiquity. That the P of A didn't employ idiots was another fact made very clear. "Well, as you say, that is a risk. But you are the Protectors of Antiquity. I would have thought it was your job to man the front line and do everything you can to get the Surge out of there before he either dies or is put to ill use."
"It's not my job to get killed because you were too scared to do anything about it on your own."
"The Surge sent him to us for our aid, cousin. If we are commissioned by a Shard for action, I don't think it right we ignore it or insult the messenger." Ath'ran cast Du'shan a rather scathing look. Du'shan held his tongue and slouched further in his seat.
Julian looked between them for a minute, becoming more and more curious. "Exactly what do you guys do here? Looks almost like some kind of bunker, but I take it you're not exactly all that actively militant."
"We're not," Riyad Shihar, a rather handsome man with crooked curls, explained. "Honestly, I never thought we'd have to do anything more dangerous than handle cursed artifacts. We're protectors in more of a preservation sort of way, cataloging and organizing information pertinent to the ancient world known as Gaigulos. The fact that the Surge is connected to Gaigulos in some way sort of makes him an extension of our efforts."
"He's a Shard. And a Shard...well, actually, that's a sort of complicated story," Riyad admitted to himself, playing with the coffee mug sitting in front of him. "He's not the only one, but he's the only one we know of right now."
Julian hesitated then dared to continue his questions. "And there's seven of them?"
"Yeah.... How'd you know that?" Riyad looked at him with the same sort of confused curiosity Julian wore himself.
Biting the inside of his lip in fretful contemplation, Julian shook his head and looked down at his own mug. "Surge said I am what I am for the same reason he is what he is. That there are seven of us. Does that make me a Shard too?"
Ath'ran leaned forward across the table, elbows resting on the metal surface. "What is it you can do?"
Holding up his hand, Julian decided it best to demonstrate rather than try and explain. From his palm, as though an invisible knife hung in midair to do the deed for him, a long, swollen fissure split the flesh of his palm. It ran diagonally along his lifeline, deep but not threateningly so. When he had been thirteen, he'd slipped on a maintenance stairwell and caught himself on a thin metal wire. In saving him from a sharp tumble, it had cut him neatly across the whole of his palm.
Though the wound had closed up seconds after its creation, just as all others did, it was no effort at all to summon it back now. With just as much effort, he set it right again, skin merging back into a solid, smooth plain leaving behind only a bit of blood to show that the wound had ever existed in the first place.
The table fell silent for the duration of his demonstration. He heard a few hisses in sympathy and once a gasp but no words, not even from Du'shan, who seemed hard pressed to conceal his amazement.
"Holy shit. That doesn't hurt?" Jin asked, first to break the silence.
Julian shrugged, massaging the new skin with the thumb of his other hand. "It hurts, but not in the way it does other people. As soon as a cut opens, it's already starting to heal itself, so it's not a lasting pain. I can hear it almost more than feel it most of the time. The body can be very talkative, especially when it's under attack."
"Is this an ability that extends only to yourself?" Riyad inquired. He was sitting close enough, so Julian took his hand in his. It was much softer than he expected and his body responded to him in the same way his own did. Renew, he ordered it. Everything that was not as it should be, every cut, scrape, sore and tired muscle was instructed to revert to its natural state. It didn't take long, the simple things hardly ever did, and within seconds he felt Riyad's hand slacken in his grip. "Oh, wow," he said, exhaling. "I thought I was never gonna get that crick out of my neck. Wow...you're good."
Julian smiled at him and slowly let go of his hand. He really was a very handsome man. "Thanks. Just don't let it get out, alright? Last thing I want is half of Solace lining up at my door begging me to heal them."
"We understand and respect the privacy and wishes of our charges." Ath'ran's voice was full of reverence. "I believe you are the Healer, Mr. Vaughn, just as the Surge is the Impulse. If you would care to meet with me privately after this discussion, I would gladly go over the details with you."
"Yeah, that's fine. I mean...that anyone has any kind of answers for why I'm like this is amazing. I'm not about to walk out of here without them."
Ath'ran nodded, looking across the table at the others. "Well, I see no reason for us to continue any further at this moment. Nyr, I believe you have a cat to retrieve. Riyad and Jin, if you would please research our target, James Maxwell, we can get a better idea of our current options. Du'shan, if you have those books from Alan, go ahead and continue your own research for now."
Du'shan did not look like he approved. "Actually, I thought I'd go with Nyr. Cat's probably got litter and food, right? He could probably use a hand."
"I'd appreciate the help," Nyr confirmed, standing up. "Ash doesn't exactly trust me, so I imagine he'll be a bit of a handful."
Ath'ran gave a nod of approval, and the table's occupants quickly dispersed to follow orders. As ragtag as they looked, Julian had to hand it to the P of A; they obviously had a lot of trust in their leader and worked like a well-oiled machine. Perhaps Surge had been right to put his faith in them.
As Julian stood to follow Ath'ran, he pushed back other pressing questions he had, like why Rabbit had been there and if they were somehow behind his dead-but-living body. The time for those questions would have to come some other day. This was going to be a purely selfish moment and after ten years of wondering and feeling like a freak, Julian felt he was entitled to it.