Maxwell's home was a fortress. State of the art surveillance gave him eyes where he could not see, security kept that which was his inside and that which was not out, and he could count on one hand the number of people with the knowledge and skill to work there way through that safety net. To that list Maxwell was forced to add his son, Phineas, who had, for the second time, managed to slip out unnoticed.
To his own disgrace, Maxwell wasn't sure when exactly he had vanished. Phineas had been angry with him even if it was veiled, and they had not spoken or seen much of each other for the past few days. Giving Phineas time to accept fact and heal, either physically or mentally, had apparently been the worst thing he could have done now that he was left with an empty room and nothing to guide him to his lost son.
"Am I such a bad father that being related to me is a life altering realization?" Maxwell asked from his sitting room chair, addressing Ashe, from whom he expected nothing but the most honest, if not blunt, responses.
Ashe handed him a glass of amber liquor and remained standing beside him, hands folded into the pouch of his sweatshirt. "As I recall, sir, you yourself were not immune to drastic measures when you learned your own paternity."
Maxwell scoffed as his sipped his drink. "He never said he was my father and I was going to kill him anyway. Hardly a worthy comparison. I raised Phineas as my son and called him my son. The only thing he was not aware of was the genetic relation. Not a damn thing changed, but he ran off again because of it. Are you saying I should be grateful he vanished instead of shooting me in the head?"
"If anyone was going to shoot you, it would be Julian, not Phineas."
Maxwell couldn't argue with that. Phineas had not inherited any violent willfulness, just a disregard for established reason. As a child, he had never considered “because I said so” an adequate response to a question; Maxwell being the adult and him being the child was not sound justification for any action; admitting that he did not know the answer to one of Phineas’s many questions was met with almost as enthusiastic a response as when he did know. It seemed as though, if his father didn’t know the answer, Phineas thought he could make his own and be just as likely to be right as anyone else. Always making things and building, whether it was with knowledge or tools, he was Maxwell's boundless ingenuity personified and stricken with ridiculous hair. He loved his son and yet, just like his brother, he was gone, driven away by something Maxwell couldn’t identify but which evidence suggested had to do with him.
And so, the question he ought to be asking became rather obvious. "Am I a bad father?"
Ashe wasn't quick to respond, and his hesitancy almost said yes for him. His words were careful, though--well chosen and well meant. "There have been better fathers, yes, and there have also been worse ones. You gave them what they required: food, shelter, clothing and an education. You failed them greatly in the amount of affection you showed them, but given who you are, you didn’t show love in any form to anything more than you did to them. I sometimes doubt you have the ability to display affection."
"Nirvana would have disagreed with you there."
"You shot her in the face."
"In the end, yes, but before that I was quite the attentive husband."
Ashe's cultured laugh was hardly a welcome response. "Mr. Maxwell, she despised you. You were the father of her child, but she hardly trusted Julian alone with you, considering how many times you broke his heart. And on the subject, Mr. Maxwell, good fathers do not murder their child's mother. I am thankful you at least learned that after the first one. You did not, however, learn that a child needs more from you than your financial support to feel loved. Your lovers and sons have all come away with the same understanding, sir. You may care for them, but if they desire kindness or affection from you, there is nothing to wait for but disappointment."
"I think that's a bit harsh," Maxwell said, clearing his throat and emptying his glass.
"Perhaps, though not untrue. You have not been a bad father, Mr. Maxwell, insofar as you were capable of filling that roll. You just weren’t all that wonderful a human being to start with."
Maxwell blinked at his friend in blank surprise for a moment before finding some humor in it to laugh at, morbid as it was. "You're right, of course. I wish you weren't sometimes, but you always are."
Ashe nodded slowly and took the empty glass, setting it back on the proper tray. He didn’t bother to ask if he wanted another; he wasn’t going to give him any. He placed the corked liquor back into the cabinet and then returned to his post near Maxwell, leaning against another high-backed chair that was the mate to the one where Maxwell sat, but refraining for taking a seat.
"Always being right is as much a burden as always being wrong," he stated, hands again nestled deep in his pouch. "Don't envy knowledge for knowledge's sake, Mr. Maxwell. All knowledge has its price. In this case, the topic is not foreign to myself."
"You were never a father," Maxwell insisted, only to find a rather superior look on his colleague’s face. "Ashe, when the hell would you have found time for that? You're always here."
"When and how are rather beside the point. What is of relevance, however, is that my priorities have never made many allowances for my son. Despite my wishes or best intentions, it is not within my nature to be a good father beyond the material. I can’t hold you in contempt for your mistakes in parenting when I share them. Letting go is sometimes the best good you can do for your child. Though I'm surprised you're not hailing Surge to go find Phineas this instant, I'm rather proud as well to see you accepting his absence."
"If I brought him back, he wouldn't stay," Maxwell admitted with a gloomy sort of pride in his son's abilities. No locked door would keep him where he didn't want to be. "Even if he is only sixteen, I have no doubt that he can make it out in the world. I would like to think we're on good enough terms that if he truly needed my help, he'd come back to me. Our last words to each other were...bittersweet." He gave his friend a small, self-deprecating smile. "At least he didn't storm out like his brother did."
"Phineas reacts to reason, not emotion. I'm certain he shares your evaluation of his abilities or he would not have left."
Maxwell sighed heavily, slumping in his chair. "At least you're always here, Ashe. I'm not sure what I would do if you suddenly up and vanished like my children are prone to do."
Ashe's smile was almost gentle, wrinkling at the corners of his eyes. "You will never need to worry about that, Mr. Maxwell. I will always be here."
"So long as I die before you do. Looking as youthful as you do, I'm glad to see that will probably be the case."
Ashe shrugged, looking dismissive and calm. "Was there anything else you needed, sir? There will need to be some sort of story invented in case anyone asks about Phineas's whereabouts. A good cover will be one implemented long before such inquiries are made. Since I have time in my schedule, I thought I might go ahead and get that out of the way."
"No, of course. I'm certain you'll make it believable. I'm just going to sit here for a while longer." Maxwell sank lower in his seat, losing all semblance of refinement. "You know, in a way, I've lost two sons irrevocably. It's as though Phineas is dead now. No contact information, no goodbye--just gone, and I can only hope he goes someplace suited for him. I think it's alright to mourn him for an hour. He had so much potential."
"All children do, Mr. Maxwell. I wouldn't consider that potential squandered just yet, though it may go in directions you would not have planned."
Maxwell nodded, hearing him and believing him, but still not in the mood to see past his own loss. At one point in his life, however brief and far away it felt, he'd had two healthy, bright sons who desired his attention more than anything in the world. With his business empire secure and more free time than he knew what to do with, Maxwell wished with a cold shiver of remorse that he could have those days back. It was a temporary regret, and would last only as long as he let it, but with nothing better to do, he stayed rooted to his armchair and let the memories of his family waltz through his mind until he was all that was left.