Chapter 14

When Maxwell walked into his office, the last thing he’d expected to find was his elder son’s corpse on the sofa. He ignored it--there was nothing else he could do given the circumstances--and instead turned his attention to the man who had been gently arranging Julian's arms at his sides. Childlike in stature, his black hair messy from exertion and yellow-gold eyes flashing with intensity, he was as much the image of Ashe as Julian had been of Maxwell. It gave him pause; nothing in the room had made much sense since he'd walked in. He questioned whether he had really woken up--if perhaps he was dreaming and would wake up from this strange reality soon. It was real, though. Julian was still dead and the small man was still standing near him, looking as unsure of Maxwell as Maxwell was of him.

Ashe, always present at his side, regarded the stranger in silence. No one spoke or even moved for the span of several heartbeats.

"Who the hell are you?" Maxwell found himself asking, impatience overruling any tact the situation may have called for. No one was supposed to be able to enter his home unannounced and yet this one had.

The small man's eyes narrowed but he didn’t answer. His movements were smooth and graceful; he did not run, but somehow still ending up across the room by the floor-length window in less time than Maxwell would have thought possible. With one last flash of his large eyes, the stranger opened the window and was gone.

Maxwell ran to the open window, looking down to spot the rapidly shrinking form of the man's falling body. He was descending, but not falling. He climbed unnaturally down the side of the building--a sheer face of metal and glass--without any recognizable tools for the job. He was fast. Within moments, he disappeared through an open window many floors below. Maxwell continued looking down in slight awe, trying to understand the mechanics of such a feat and coming up with nothing. It had to be another Shard, he decided. There was no other explanation for such a bizarre show of supernatural ability.

"Ashe, I want video footage of every entrance to this building. Crosscheck every database you can access. I want to know who that man was."

"Don't you have more pressing concerns, Mr. Maxwell?"

Maxwell turned back to the room, finding Ashe standing near the center with Julian's body cradled in his arms. He sighed and looked away, shrugging his shoulders uselessly. "I'm not sure what you expect me to do about it. That can't be found here, it'll raise too many questions. Arrange for it to be dropped off around the Fringe."

Ashe's fury seemed to fill the room with uncomfortable heat. "It is your son and he is still alive. I'm not dropping him off anywhere." Ashe floated across the room, Julian’s weight no more a burden to him than a tea tray. "If you're not going to be of any help, then I suggest you stay out of the way."

Maxwell could count the times Ashe had used that tone of voice with anyone, much less himself, on one hand. He could count the times Ashe had bluntly told him what to do on one finger. It kept him rooted to the ground, unable to speak or move as he watched Ashe bark orders to the staff and work them into an organized frenzy in his wake. When Ashe took command, one didn't argue. Maxwell shared the same look of stupefied submission as the staff, every one of them seemingly as unnerved and simultaneously inspired by how uncommonly forceful Ashe had been.

It was…sexy. Maxwell had to wonder if the man would still have been a bachelor all his life had he chosen to show such forceful, confident use of power more often. Then again, it was its rarity that struck the hardest.

Ashe was long gone by the time Maxwell's limbs felt capable of moving without further commands from his assistant. He moved to his chair and took a seat, calling up his compound’s surveillance files to his desk terminal so that he could look into the face of the stranger again. It took less than half an hour to find where he had entered: the service elevator shaft that was often used by the staff. It required a code rather than a key and Maxwell wagered it would need to be repaired unless the stranger had had access to the code. Given all else that the small man had apparently had access to, it wasn't completely out of the question. And that was as intriguing as it was frightening.

Maxwell rose and left his office to track down his assistant, questions brewing in his mind along with thoughts that required an ear and calculating mind to bounce them off of. He knew where he had gone even without asking the staff members hurrying around. Ashe was predictable in many ways and even with the doors to Julian's room still shut, as they had been for years, Maxwell knew Ashe was inside. He didn't bother knocking, but opened a door partway to make his presence known before coming inside and closing it behind him. Ashe looked over at him with a distinct frown of disappointment on his face.

"I'm sure it can wait, Mr. Maxwell," he said, heading off business- or security-related questions and details.

Maxwell sighed and walked closer, hands deep in his pockets. "You sound rather sure of that, but I'm afraid I don't share your lack of concern. The man who brought him here knew he was my son and therefore there is a chance whoever took him knew that as well. This might not be as removed from myself as I had previously thought."

"It has nothing to do with you." Ashe's voice was low and scornful. "The fact that he happens to be your son is of little consequence, I'm sure. If you have your doubts, I am more than willing to settle them for you, but this is not the time. I would have thought that even you would see that."

The bite in his tone made Maxwell wince. He wouldn't be winning any father of the year awards; Ashe was very well aware of the problem's he'd had trying to raise Julian, both with his mother and without her. Yet somehow it seemed the man was still surprised by how little concern Maxwell had for his son. For whatever reason, Ashe had expected more from him. Maxwell hated that. "If you're so worried about him, why is he still here? Why not take him to a hospital?"

"He can't go to the hospital for what I gather is the same reason he was abducted in the first place."

Maxwell was taken aback by that. Ashe knew something he didn't about his own son. "What do you mean?"

Ashe's jaw was set as he looked down at Julian's prone body nestled under a blanket. In the near darkness, he looked even more dead than he had when Maxwell had first seen him. His skin was nearly gray, and dark circles made it seem as though his eyes had caved in. His cheeks were hollow, his face thinner than Maxwell remembered it being the last time he'd laid eyes on him. With his hair cut short, there was nothing to soften his features or lend him any color at all. How Ashe had seen any hope of life still lingering inside the ghostly shell was beyond Maxwell.

"Julian did not want you to know because he was afraid you would think he was a freak. I agreed to help him keep his secret, but more because I did not want you plotting ways to take advantage of his gift for your own advancement than because of what you might think of him."

Maxwell's brows furrowed in a disagreeable scowl. "I've never known you to plot against me, Ashe."

"And I never have nor will I ever in the days to come." Ashe seemed more resigned than angered--even the curls on his head seemed to loose their snap as they hung gently around his face. "It was simply for his protection. Unlike with Surge, his power is not so easily used offensively. You would only have brought harm to both you and Julian had you tried using it that way."

Maxwell paused, the question on his lips easily read by Ashe.

"Yes, sir. Julian is a Shard. There can be and is no other explanation. I've observed his power since it manifested and what you see before you is the what happens when you ask too much of a mortal body with immortal powers."

The sureness in his voice was all that kept Maxwell from questioning him. Ashe knew what he was saying or else had full faith that he was right in his deductions. Maxwell respected that about him and had learned many times over not to doubt him when he spoke with the knowing manner he’d adopted. Instead he approached the bed in silence, and sat on its edge were Julian's hand lay still against the linens.

"No power is without its price, sir. For Shards, it appears to be a matter of energy. Whereas with Surge that literally translates to electricity, with Julian the energy comes from within. He has the ability to heal and as such is a flawless blueprint for humanity, with every function of his body one hundred percent perfect. That kind of efficiency generates more than enough energy to sustain not only him, but also the use of his ability at normal levels of output. The body can be selfish when it suffers, though, doing all it can to sustain life regardless of the harm it can do to itself in the process. What you see is an advancing stage of catabolysis. He's expended so much energy, his body has begun to metabolize itself to continue functioning."

Maxwell shook his head. "How do you know that?"

"Sir, if you had the information I do, you would have reached the same conclusion." Ashe's face broke into a small but warm smirk. "Julian wasn't much more than a child when he discovered what he was capable of. As you well know, he always learned more when consequences were spelled out for him. I made sure we were both well informed on the risks he ran in being found out or in using his power too flippantly. I'm sure the medical community alone would be very interested in either utilizing him or discovering how he works, not to mention groups like the military police."

Maxwell nodded, more than passively aware of the truth in his words. He felt a little bitterness at knowing Julian and Ashe had kept their secret from him, but also a great deal of respect for his assistant for doing so. Would he have tried to use Julian's powers for his own purposes? It was hard to say that Ashe’s fear was unfounded. There had been times in his younger, brasher days when any means to get ahead were acceptable. If there was anything to be gained by having a son who could heal, there was a good chance he would have pursued it.

Perhaps motivated by some forgotten instinct, Maxwell found his hand was no longer empty at his side. Instead a strangely frail, pale hand was firmly resting in his grasp. "So he was taken because he's a Shard? You don't think it could be a coincidence?"

"I doubt their reasoning was simple curiosity, as yours had been when you took the Surge. But yes, it would seem that that was their motive." Ashe always seemed to know what was unspoken. He moved towards the door without so much as a rustle of cloth to disturb the silence of the room. "I've asked that an IV be sent. He'll recover much more quickly with a little help."

"Thank you, Ashe."

"It's my pleasure, sir. I would like to say, though, that your guilt is misplaced. You can be quite an asshole, but you're hardly without feeling, unlike whoever took him. If guilt is your motivator, though, I won't dissuade you any further." He motioned towards the hand in Maxwell's as he left the room to see to business. He'd already gotten away with quite a bit in such a short amount of time that Maxwell figured it was hard to expect him not to give one last, parting jab. Ashe thought he was an asshole, did he? Like so many of his accusations, though, it was hard to find any fault with it.

Maxwell felt ridiculous sitting in a mostly empty room, but at the same time, it was a little nostalgic. It had always been Julian's room and even with him long gone, it remained his with clothes still in the dresser and the dusting and cleaning still being carried out as usual. There were so many rooms in the estate, it hardly mattered that one room went unused. There was no other use for it; it had been tailored to Julian's tastes, from the paint color--a vibrant red attune to any Maxwell's fiery personality--to the bathroom's custom fixtures to cater to his fondness for luxury bathing. Even the vidscreens were still set to his favorite settings. In the daytime, they showed beautiful waterfalls from Xifeng, which shimmered and glistened with sunlight. At night, nothing but stars filled them from every corner. Nothing, not even the vanilla fragrance he preferred filtered in through the air ducts, had been changed. The room seemed to always be waiting for young Mister Maxwell to return. Holding his son's hand, Maxwell had to wonder if perhaps he had been waiting also.