Chapter 15


He could feel the needle under his skin, cold and alien, giving birth to primal cries that would not let him forget it was there. He could feel the slow drip, the cold surprise of a foreign substance in his veins and the greedy race of his cells to assimilate it. He hated it but did not dare move. It was more annoyance than pain--something he could live with but would rather not. He'd take it over the sawing and prodding any day, though. He was afraid to pull it out; if he let them know he was aware, that he could feel and hear and probably see if he dared to open his eyes, they might begin again. And he would die.

Julian kept very still, tried to keep his breath from making his chest tremble, to keep the nervous sweat from pouring down his face by imagining the darkness that had been his sanctuary. He missed that quiet where the pain could not reach, but something had changed. Something was different. The dripping fluid in his veins was calling him back and he had no choice but to obey. Voices still sounded far away and muffled, but they grounded him, letting him know the world he found himself on the edge of was real. The metal under his skin was a cold reminder of what the world still had waiting for him.

Then a hand stroked his hair and it was over. His instincts flung him away from the contact so violently that remaining safe through silence was no longer an option. He pulled at the tube in his hand, ripping it out. In his mind he was moving fast, leaping from the bed and running for the door in a desperate attempt at escape; in reality his legs refused to carry him and he went from the bed straight down to the floor, trembling from exertion and breathing rapidly. The floor vibrated with hurried steps and he found he could not breathe at all. Not again. He couldn't let it start again.

"Stop. Don't touch him," someone warned with strangely gentle assurance. He sounded familiar, thought his voice seemed distant. Julian opened his eyes to a world of blurs and lights from which he could not distinguish his assailant. Then everything was black again. He moved his arms against the obstruction and found that it was a comforter. Someone had thrown a blanket over him. He was confused and alarmed, and those feelings expanded when arms grabbed him and lifted him off of the floor and placed him back on the bed, with the blanket shielding them from his touch, his only weapon. He let out a frustrated roar but it came out pathetic, nothing more than a whimper.

"Leave that over him. We need to give him a moment to collect himself. I doubt he's aware of where he is or even that he has been rescued."

"He pulled his IV out."

"It'll be fine for now, Mr. Maxwell. We must keep ourselves safe against him until he understands what's going on. He could kill you before you even knew you were in danger and in doing so he might even kill himself. I won't allow that."

Julian pushed against the comforter, trying to throw it off. No. There had to be a mistake. He did know those voices but.... There had to be a mistake.

"Julian. Calm down. No one is going to hurt you. You're home."

It was his father.

Julian's arms fell limp at his sides. His heart was still beating painfully fast, his breath coming in short, uneven gasps. Trying to thinking was as absurd as trying to move--the only thoughts in his head were of how much softer his bed felt compared to the steel table and what it felt to be warm again. He let the smell of vanilla in the air keep him fixed on the present, replacing the memories of too-sterile air, cigarette smoke and blood. It wasn't the lab, could never be the lab. It was too human, too accommodating; the voices had to be telling the truth. Something miraculous had happened in his sleep. There would be no more experiments.

He was thankful for the blanket. His cheeks were already wet from panicked and then relieved tears. As he dragged his arms up to cover his face, tears of relief became fearful. He bit his bottom lip hard, trying to choke down the moan that rose up from his gut. No. Being away from him was not good enough. Not good enough by a long shot.

"Julian?"

"What's wrong with me?" It came out weaker than he wanted it to, as pitiful and vulnerable as he had feared it would. It was out there, though, and he couldn't pull it back under the covers with him.

It was a sign, though, and apparently one the others had been waiting for. The blanket pulled back, lighting up the world behind Julian's hands. He didn't want to look at it. They knew he was crying, but he didn't have to show them.

The hand that had shocked him to the core only moments before came back down on his head and resumed gently stroking his hair. Short hair. "You want the full list or just the abbreviated version?"

"Ignore your father. He isn't very good at alleviating tension, nor is he very funny," Ashe said from somewhere to his left. "You're fine, Julian. No permanent damage. Once you've rested and had time to heal, you'll be exactly as you were before the incident with only the one exception."

"I can barely move."

"It's temporary. Don't be afraid. You're not paralyzed."

"But I just--"

"The urge to fight or flee from a dangerous situation is a very strong survival instinct that can summon strength from even the weakest of men," Ashe explained. Julian heard him pour a glass of water and his throat instantly began to feel dry. "That wasn't the smartest thing you could have done, but I can hardly hold it against you. Don’t do it again, though, all right? You'll need all your strength if you want to leave all this behind you."

Ashe's hand slid under his head while the other held the glass. Julian tried to sit up to show him that it wasn't necessary, but failed to get his own hand anywhere near the cup or pull his head very far from the support of Ashe's forearm. He was twenty-four years old and couldn't sit up to drink a glass of water on his own. It was bad enough by itself, terrifying and humbling in its own way, but of all people to see him at his worst and weakest, his father sat on the bed less than an arm’s length from him, watching him.

His first sip of water set him coughing as though his throat had forgotten the way to his stomach but not to his lungs. The rest went down though, cold and refreshing, spilling out the corners of his mouth as he drank. Ashe refilled the glass, and this time Julian had no problems. More water went down his throat then dribbled onto his chest, though the feel of water against his skin was pleasant too. What he wouldn't do for a bath.

The glass was removed and his head was gently placed back on the pillow. He opened his mouth, but Ashe was quicker, his mind always one step ahead no matter how much there was to process. "That's enough. You'll make yourself sick if you drink too much." Ashe took Julian's hand in his but his grip was firm, not comforting. In his other hand he held the long needle of the IV between his fingers and thumb, ready to reinsert it. Julian pulled, as Ashe had predicted, but the force behind the motion was negligible against his sturdy grasp.

"No. I don't want it."

"If you want to get better, you do. I know you don't like it but you'll appreciate the benefits after a few days."

Julian tugged again, remembering the annoying drip and the constant reminder of the metal intrusion. "No, I'm fine without it. Don't."

"Don't talk back to Ashe." Maxwell's hand closed around his shoulder hard. "He's done nothing but what's in your best interest and you will apologize and refrain from acting like a child."

Julian froze. The needle entered and his body began to chatter. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath to try and keep his nerves in check. Just a needle--not a scalpel or a saw. It was Ashe, not the scientists. He was home, not in a cold operating room. He could feel his heart begin to race all the same and the nervous sweat returned. He couldn't control his body.

Ashe smoothed tape over the back of his hand, securing the IV in place.

"Sorry," Julian whispered, aware that his father had spoken the truth even as his body refused to see the good any amount of discomfort could bring him.

"That's quite all right, Julian. You've been conscious for ten minutes at most. I don't expect you to be thinking all that clearly."

Julian nodded, or hoped that the bobble of his head came across as a nod. He let his free hand feel around on the bed, finding his father's at last and let his own come to rest on top of it. Maxwell quickly adjusted their hands, holding Julian's in an awkwardly affectionate manner that was very unbecoming. They weren't touchy people. He must have scared the shit out of the old man. It was sort of nice.

"Daddy?"

Maxwell's hand twitched around his. "Uh...yeah?"

"Can you do me a favor?"

"Yeah. Sure. I need you to tell me who did this to you, though, first. We're going to get those bastards."

Julian smiled a little. "It doesn't matter. He's out of your league."

"I doubt that. If he is, though, there's always the Surge."

"What can the Surge do? Turn in evidence against him to the police? I'd end up a world renowned freak on someone else's dissection table." Julian shook his head, his hand squeezing his father's. "No, daddy. You can't fix this with your influence. I need a different kind of favor."

"...All right. What do you want?"

Julian took a deep breath and closed his eyes, holding his father's hand as tight as he could in case he pulled it away to hit him. "Daddy, I need you to kill me."

Maxwell did pull his hand away. His weight left the bed, his breath sounding as agitated as his movements. "You are one ungrateful bastard, you know that?"

"Daddy, listen to me."

"Stop calling me daddy! You're a grown man, for Christ's sake."

"Daddy, listen to me!" Maxwell glared at him, but Julian glared right back, tears making his eyes heavy and moist. "I don't want to be afraid for the rest of my life. And I will be, because he's not finished. He'll find me and take me back and I'll have to go through it all over again until he learns whatever it is he needs to. I don't want to die like that, in the cold all alone, not even a human being. I'd rather be dead and I'd rather you do it."

Maxwell turned his back to him, shaking his head. "You think I'd go against all Ashe's hard work? He's spent a lot of time in here looking after you. Ungrateful piece of shit. And to think some people were actually worried about you."

"Daddy--"

"Shut the fuck up!" Maxwell turned on Julian, pushing Ashe out of his way to get in his face. "You will stay in this room and do exactly as Ashe instructs or I will hand you back to those sadistic assholes myself. And if all you can manage when you open your mouth is stupid, then you will speak only when spoken to. You will get better, you will be the most grateful son of a bitch this side of the Divide and then you will get the fuck out of my home. Am I understood?"

Julian nodded, rendered mute in his father's presence. His chest heaved in hiccups created by trying to swallow his tears. He was a mess and he knew it. He felt terrible for angering his father; wanted more than anything to have him sitting on the bed again holding his hand.

Ashe pulled Maxwell away gently, putting much needed space between father and son. "Mr. Maxwell, as I stated, he's only been conscious for a small amount of time. You can't expect him to be thinking reasonably. He's terrified and not exactly of sound mind given his ordeal. Please don't upset him further. As it is, I think it's time we leave him alone. He needs his rest. Tomorrow you will find a different man in that bed. One who will hopefully not cause you to lose your temper again."

Maxwell relented to Ashe's reasonable tone and turned away from Julian, walking to the door with tension still stored in his shoulders. He waited for Ashe, glaring at the bed as his assistant set the covers straight and saw to Julian's comfort for the night, then closed the door firmly behind them once the two were outside the room. Julian flexed his hand, felt the cold metal sheathed in his skin, and closed his eyes to find a place outside the discomfort and memories of home where he could find peace.

By the time morning came, Ashe's predictions had come true. Julian's strength had increased and with it his outlook on life seemed rosier. He accepted being fed only after proving that his coordination was not yet good enough for him to use fork and knife, but he managed to grasp a plastic cup half full of milk with both hands and drink for himself with very few spills.

His one request was for a bath and, given the mess he had made trying to test his recovery, it was hard for Ashe to argue that there wasn’t any need. A servant was called to carry him to the tub and within minutes the thin, pale body was immersed in hot, bubbling water as jets massaged his regenerating muscles.

Julian smiled, sinking down till his chin nearly fell under the surface. The roar of the jets was beyond calming. "Thanks, Ashe. You really don't need to stay, though."

Ashe tossed his hair as he sat in a chair beside the tub, looking over his datapad. "Mr. Maxwell prefers me here if I can carry out my duties just the same. Given your actions yesterday, if I were to leave you in the tub by yourself, he would come storming up here to be certain you weren't attempting to drown yourself."

Julian winced. “I really pissed him off, didn't I."

“You really scared him," Ashe corrected him with a sigh, moving his stylus around on the screen in his hand. "He thought that once you woke up, you'd be alright. He may have thought the experience had driven you insane. You father doesn't react well to surprises, as you well know. It is probably best for everyone if you take his advice and not speak too much, at least not to him. You don't need to give him any more reasons to scour the CommNet looking for people to blame."

Julian nodded slowly. "He really was worried about me, wasn't he?" He felt silly asking, but wanted to hear the answer.

"Eventually, yes. When he thought you'd brought it on yourself, you hardly crossed his mind, but once he discovered the motivation behind the abduction was not something under your control, I believe he felt rather guilty. He hasn't stopped looking for the assailants and I doubt he will until he's satisfied you are safe."

Julian smiled and let his head roll back and rest on the pillow suctioned to his tub. He still believed with one hundred percent certainty that Maxwell could not stand against Dr. Kouhei, but it was nice to know he was willing to try. It was the first selfless thing he'd done as a father in so many years. It made it very hard to hate him. Julian figured the least he could do in return was be to get out of his hair and get back on his feet.

He wiggled his toes under the water, pleased at the way his muscles obeyed him. The ankles were harder. He could point his feet and pull them back, but they rotated clumsily if at all. His knees--

Ashe plunged his arms into the tub after him as he slipped under the surface of the water, his legs arcing up and out on the other side of the tub. He was back to sitting almost as quickly as he had disappeared below, Ashe locking his legs back into their places to keep him supported. Julian blinked in surprise, almost unsure what had happened though his hair was now wet and matted to his forehead. His bangs weren't even long enough to fall into his vision.

"Let's not engage in any more physical therapy, alright? Unlike a normal man, you're not going to need any. Just rest and relax--your body will do the rest."

Julian nodded, cheeks turning red. "Sorry. I didn't mean to."

"I'm aware of that, young Mr. Maxwell. Not even you are so foolish as to try anything that stupid in my presence." Ashe's condescending tone carried with it a careful, joking lightness. He smiled as he dried his hands off on a towel and picked his datapad back up. "Do that again though and I will let you struggle with it yourself before rescuing you to make sure the lesson is learned."

"No, there's no need for that. I get it. I can't move yet."

"No, not yet. But you're filling out nicely. Your ribs are hardly visible anymore and your face looks more like you. You'll be fine in no time. Just exercise a bit more patience."

Julian turned his head towards Ashe, trying not to frown as he spied his reflection in the floor to ceiling mirror just behind him. "I look like him," he remarked. It wasn't anything new; he'd always favored his father to an almost clone-like extreme, but with his iconic hair gone, the similarity was even greater.

Ashe followed his gaze and nodded then returned his attention to his datapad. "Having seen your father at your present age, I must agree. But there are plenty of times when you look nothing like him at all."

"When?" Julian was staring at him, interested in anything that would give him back his individuality.

Ashe did not look up. "When Mr. Maxwell smiles, it's very polished, practiced--not fake but not exactly natural either. Sort of too perfect. You, on the other hand, have your mother's smile. You smile from your toes up and when you do, you're as unlike your father as you can be."

"I guess I'll just have to smile more often."

"I would like that. I'm sure your family would too."

Julian did smile, warmed by his pseudo-father's well wishes. It wasn't about smiling more often, but about finding reasons to smile again. He most certainly would, given the chance. With Doctor Kouhei out there, it was a matter of when, not if he would see him again in his cold lab. He knew what he'd do on that day, had worked out a plan that would save him no matter what the doctor did. Thanks to him, Julian’s body had been riddled with countless wounds that ranged in severity; scrapes to amputation. If he made his body reopen those wounds, as he had done as part of a demonstration for the Protectors of Antiquity, he would either die or the pain would be so great that it would force him into a coma he would never wake up from. That was the fate he had settled on, but it left the time he had between his recovery and his recapture undecided. He could either live in fear, trying to prolong his freedom and life as long as possible by living as a coward, a slave to the terror caused be Dr. Kouhei, or continue living a life he enjoyed. The former was too dismal to linger on.

"Speaking of family, I haven't seen Phineas," Julian remarked, looking up at the ceiling to avoid any more mirrors for the time being. His appearance was just another item on the list of things he couldn't do anything about for now.

"Your brother has been instructed to stay away from your room until you are in a better frame of mind. There is also the fact that Phineas is rather scientific and may find you a source of intellectual curiosity now that he knows what you are capable of. Fielding questions of that sort is not in your best interest."

Julian nodded. As much as he would have liked to see his brother, Ashe was right. Ashe was always right. "Thanks for that. I'm sure I'll see him around later."

Ashe inclined his head, but did not speak further on the subject.

Fingers well pruned and body clean and relaxed, Julian was carried back to his bed, dressed, and set beneath the blankets again. It was strange to not include the ordeal that had always been a part of the routine: the combing of his hair. It didn't feel long enough to even tangle, though. He was sure he'd appreciate the novelty of having short hair eventually.

When the IV was secured in his hand again and the risk of injuring himself was down to an acceptable minimum, Ashe excused himself and went on with his duties, leaving the servants to see to him when needed. With the room empty, though, there was nothing to do but think or sleep.

Instead of doing on either, his eyes searched the walls to see if the cameras were still in their places. They were. It wasn't worth questioning whether Maxwell was watching him through the camera lens or not: he was. It was comforting in a way only his father could make it. The man might not have been willing to see him in person since their argument, but at least he still was looking in on him.

Julian gave the camera a sheepish smile and wiggled his fingers at it. "I'm sorry," he mouthed, not even having to try to look guilty as he did so. His father read lips, but even if he didn't, it would have been hard for him to not understand the gist of what Julian meant. He hoped it would be enough to get him to come back at least once more while he was still pitiful enough that small shows of affection would not seem out of place. He liked him better as a father than as a politician.

Looking at a camera was only so stimulating, and the calm and quiet of the room lulled him. He closed his heavy eyes, forgot about the IV, short hair, his father and everything else that wasn't the way he wished it were, and succumbed to a long, healing nap.