Chapter 21


There was nothing more soothing or better for firing the senses than a hot cup of tea. The shiny black kettle was already half empty, and the loose black leaves inside had settled to the bottom. The smells that wafted up from it to fill the observatory were fragrant; with the rim of a porcelain teacup brushing against his lips, Maxwell was enjoying the aroma to the fullest extent. The warm kiss of the liquid on his lips and the sensation of it rolling down his throat were, to him, sources of the highest enjoyment possible. There could be nothing better in the world.

Unless you were Surge, apparently. The vigilante hadn't even touched his cup of tea, though he had eaten several muffins already and had left a trail of crumbs across the table and his lap, Maxwell noted. At least he cleaned up nicely. The long black coat, worn out jeans and T-shirt had been replaced instead with casual dress slacks and a crisp white dress shirt. Aside from the blue patches in his hair, he was a passable image of a man of consequence. The subject of bleaching the color out had been dropped as soon as the Surge had begun showering sparks onto the carpet, and he was allowed to remain an icon of individuality.

That he'd won that argument didn't change the fact that he looked like a hoodlum, though, so his motions were limited to Maxwell's personal estate where no one of any real importance would notice him. The restriction didn't seem to bother the vigilante; he was apparently content as long as he was able to exercise some measure of self-determination.

At the moment, he seemed to have determined that he would look back and forth among the pastries and the milk pitcher until one of them jumped into his hand on its own. It was annoying.

"If you're expecting me to serve you you're quite mistaken. If you want something, ask for it or get it yourself. Did you want milk with your tea?" Maxwell asked, unable to silently observe him any longer. His hesitation was making him anxious.

Surge’s frown was crooked as he sat back in his seat. "Well, not in it. I'd like just some milk. In a glass."

"What's wrong with your tea? Did you put too much sugar in it?"

"No. I just don't like tea."

Maxwell put his cup down onto its saucer with a loud clink. "You can't say that. You haven't even really tried it. You took one sip."

"I don't need to try it. I've never liked tea."

"But you haven't had this tea, I'm sure of that."

"I can safely say I've never had anything you had to strain before drinking." Surge lifted up the thin wire meshing from a napkin beside cup to show Maxwell the soggy tea leaves left behind when the tea had been poured. "That right there," he said, "is enough to make me vomit."

"Loose leaves have the most flavor."

"You know what this looks like, James? I'm not drinking it." Surge set the meshing back down and pushed his teacup further away from him.

Maxwell rolled his eyes. "You really are a child."

"Yeah, well, you're not my dad." He wiped the crumbs from his side of the table onto the floor. "So can I have some milk? Actually, cola'd be nice if you've got some."

Though it shamed him to comply, Maxwell signaled for a servant to bring the requested drink. "Would you like a swirley straw to go with that, Surge, or are you old enough to drink from the glass itself?"

"You're never too old for a swirley straw, James."

When the servant returned with the cola, he took the serving tray of tea and cakes with him, leaving the tier of sandwiches and spreads as he backed out of the room. Surge took a long drink through his straw, looking pleased as the cola looped through the plastic. Somehow, despite the inanity of the situation, his pleasure was all that really mattered to Maxwell at that moment.

"I never pictured you as a swirley straw kinda guy. Either this is Phineas's or you're not as much of an uptight asshole as I thought," Surge remarked as he grabbed a sandwich triangle. He never seemed to pass up the opportunity to be casually insulting.

It was hard to feel insulted by someone of greater significance than himself, though, Maxwell thought. The fact that he could command the Surge's attention at all was quite a feat; the man didn't have to like him. He did demand respect, however, and despite being rude and uncultured, the Surge at least appeared to be trying to be respectful. He kept his elbows off the table, he dressed more nicely than before in the clothes provided for him, and he had accepted Maxwell's invitation to tea without complaint. That was enough for Maxwell to respond to his comments with laughter and to accept of the fact he felt comfortable calling him by his first name.

As ridiculous as it seemed, Maxwell had grown so unaccustomed to being called James he had almost forgotten he had a name other than Maxwell at all. Even Ashe used his surname in the most informal settings. It was refreshing to be called James. Not by everyone--James didn't carry the same harsh, commanding sound that Maxwell did--but sitting down at home, away from business and employees, it was nice to be just James.

"So, where did your shadow go?"

"Ashe?" Maxwell smirked. His shadow, indeed. "He said he was meeting someone for coffee. He's not one to dawdle, though, so I expect he won't be long."

"Wish you'd told me that sooner. I could go for a nice iced chai."

"Chai is tea, Surge."

"But it's different and cold and better. Not the same thing." He was frowning again, brows furrowed as he looked up at Maxwell. How was anyone supposed to take him seriously with hair like that? As he contemplated his guest's hair, the two-toned bangs shifted, revealing a normally obscured, thin scar running through one of his eyebrows. It caught his attention immediately, and would certainly make a more interesting topic of conversation than a continued debate on the merits and demerits of tea.

"So, what happened to your eye?" he ventured, finishing off the last drops in his cup.

Surge's scowl was priceless. "None of your business."

"Some trifle, then? Walked into a wire support?" Maxwell enjoyed antagonizing him. It was always fun to give back what he received. "With your hair in your eyes like that, I'm not surprised. You should be more careful--wouldn't want to loose an eye."

"Wouldn't really matter with that one. I'm blind in it." Surge pushed aside his bangs, and the light showed not only the scar running over his left eye in better light but also the dead look within it. The dark brown of his iris masked the difference between the right and left, though; Maxwell wouldn't ever have noticed the blindness without it having been pointed out.

"You do realize you've piqued my curiosity, don't you?"

Surge didn't seem to care. He let go of his hair, and his bangs settled back into position over his eye. "You'll just have to live with disappointment, then. It's not something I'm going to tell you about."

"Fine. But don't be surprised if I mess with you now that I know you have no depth perception." Maxwell felt like punctuating his statement by sticking out his tongue, but was above such childishness. Generally. A little sugar in his system always helped bring out a youthful energy in him. Ashe usually forbade him more than one lump of sugar in his tea in fear it would render him unable to focus afterward, but with Ashe elsewhere, Maxwell had indulged himself with two. There was nothing he could do about it now and he could only hope that his lack of self-discipline did not cause him to lose face in front of his prisoner. An extra cube of sugar wasn't going to leave him bouncing off the walls, but the surge of restlessness inside him was not a good sign, either.

Their drinks finished, they moved to the office and sat in relative silence for almost half an hour; Surge looked out the window at the city spread out below and around them while Maxwell paced and fidgeted, unable to focus. Though he was not always commanded to follow, Surge generally did. On a few occasions, he had chosen to engage Phineas in conversation, observe his tinkering and indulge some of his curiosities. Even then, he was never out of reach of Maxwell's mechanical eyes and ears, and was thus never out of Maxwell's reach.

So it made perfect sense to Maxwell that Surge would remain nearby of his own volition. When together, Surge could watch his captor while being watched and not be at a disadvantage. The quiet, calculating demeanor he adopted when not directly engaged by Maxwell was less desirable than the tactless, obstinate one he displayed when he was, though. Maxwell preferred to converse with him, but they often ran out of things to talk about due to a reluctance on both sides to discuss certain topics, as they had today in the parlor, leaving the two of them to sit in the other's presence, individually plotting and reasoning through the other's possible thoughts in a cyclical, boring fashion.

They both turned, startled out of this customary silence, when the door to the office opened and Ashe came in. He walked with purpose towards the desk, datapad in hand, weaving around the furniture without looking, as though the motions were second nature to him. He ignored Surge completely, leveling a tired look at Maxwell that seemed to chastise as well as implore. Ashe always had very expressive eyes for a man whose face and words betrayed so little.

"You've been working on the Nemo report, correct? Did you not notice the figures I highlighted or did you simply think my work not satisfactory enough to go by?"

Maxwell slouched in his seat. "No, I saw them. Surge had a few suggestions, though, and I thought it best to go with them."

"Surge did, did he?" Ashe did not seem pleased. "So I'm to understand the quality and accuracy of my work is suddenly being called into question by the antithesis of your life's ambition? Very reasonable, sir."

"Don't take it personally, Ashe. If Surge has some inside information and he's willing to share it, it'd be foolish of me not to take it. He may be my prisoner, but I can trust him to some degree. He's not pretending to be nice, that's for certain. He's an outright asshole."

Surge leaned back in his chair, looking amused. "Takes one to know one, James."

Maxwell tried not to smirk. Smirking when Ashe's eyes looked as though they might engulf him in flames was not a smart thing to do. He obviously did not find Surge in any way entertaining, judging by the way he seemed to bristle like an angry cat.

"One lump of sugar, Mr. Maxwell," Ashe said, leaning over the desk, "and when I send you my reports I expect you to honor the work I put into them by giving them more than a passing consideration and more merit than you would give that man's baseless opinions."

Maxwell's jaw dropped. "How the hell...? You have the staff spying on me! Damn it, Ashe, this is my household and I can have as much god-damned sugar in my tea as I want!"

The dark-haired man was unimpressed by his outburst. "I'll see that your bed is prepared for you when you finally crash and need a nap. I suspect you'll get plenty done before then." He shook his head, making his curls bounce in a deceptively joyful way around the restrained but obvious anger in his expression, as he turned and walked away.

Surge waited for the door to close behind him before snorting gracelessly and kicking his feet up on the chair's armrest. "You are so his bitch."

"Oh, shut up. Are you enjoying pissing him off?"

"Me? I haven't done anything."

Maxwell scowled and slouched further in his chair. "I'm beginning to think I should just kill you. Perhaps this is all part of your heinous plan to bring about my undoing. You get Ashe to leave my organization and you omit the very thing that was an obstacle for you in the first place."

"Maybe," Surge admitted. "But what about the fact that I can't do anything while I'm here? He's the one who's going to turn me in to the authorities and get me reclaimed if I screw up. I'd want him on my side, wouldn't I? Why set him against you and appear to be on your side? Bad logic, James. Try again."

"You're a rat and I hate you." Maxwell sat up straight, set on proving Ashe wrong and functioning well regardless of the sugar rush. Surge snorted again, legs dangling over one arm of the chair while he leaned back against the other. He was liable to break the thing sitting in it sideways, but what did it matter? The chair was replaceable; his prisoner was one of a kind and worth indulging.

Despite his resolution, it didn't take long for the lines on the screen to blur or for Maxwell's head to fall lower and lower towards the desktop. After the seventh time reading the same paragraph and still not understanding a word of it, he put his head down, pillowed on his arms, and focused on the hum of a vacuum far away in another room. He felt more than saw the shadow passing over him, recognized the feel of the man's presences with his eyes closed, one hundred percent sure he had recognized him correctly.

He wasn't mistaken. Ashe's soft sigh swept down over him as his hand came to rest against his head. "If you sleep at your desk, you're going to be stiff for the rest of the day."

Maxwell's smirk was hidden in the crook of his elbow. "Not so mad at me after all?"

"You're an impossible man, Mr. Maxwell. Impossible to rationalize at times, but also impossible to remain mad at. I was out of line. My apologies."

Maxwell nodded and lifted his head to glance across the room. "Surge leave?"

"He's around, I assure you." Ashe's tone was icy again. "I don't suppose he found watching you nod off to be all that exciting. I believe he is with Phineas."

Of course he was. Maxwell sat up, stretching to pop his back, already feeling the stiffness Ashe had warned him about. There was nothing but patience in Ashe's eyes--the fire from before had been extinguished and with it the desire to tell his employer that he was right or that he had told him so from the beginning. He stood at ease, waiting for Maxwell to stand and follow him, waiting to show him to his room, though he could find it blindfolded in the dark. It was just the way things were and had always been; it carried a calming familiarity, promising that things would always be this way.

"You're too good to me, Ashe," Maxwell said, standing and walking beside him.

Ashe smiled only slightly, nodding his head once.