It wasn’t the destruction that amazed Julian; it was the lack of it. Hands in his pockets with his black shoes scraping against the unmarred walkway of an upper level skyway, he glanced from building to building for signs of the war, but only saw the dust cast up from the demolition below coating everything. The demons hadn’t visited the upper levels outside of the Core, where the buildings were always full of people and the lights never went out. He’d seen enough news feeds from the capital to know the extensive damage there was caused as much by the weaponry used to combat the demons as by the demons themselves. But here along the pleasant walkways where the wealthy spent their time, the world was the same as always except for the dust masking the glimmer of the metal and glass towers.
It was no surprise to him that the coffee shop was intact. As he pulled open the door, he noted a hand-written sign that read “Yes, We’re Open.” Inside the line was long and the air was warm with the flavors of vanilla, cinnamon, and espresso. A display case of glazed pastries and flavored breads caught his eye, but the low growl from his stomach was hardly audible under the sounds of the other people in the queue.
When it was his turn at the counter, he smiled brightly at the harried young man taking orders and unsympathetically ordered the sweetest, most decadent desert-like coffee he could concoct, adding a pastry onto the order for good measure. He thought he detected a slight eye roll from the barista but ignored it; everyone had jobs they hated and an eye roll was much better than spit in his drink.
Order in hand Julian, took a seat at his regular table facing the doorway and waited for his company to arrive. He pulled the pastry apart, eating it bit by bit. It was heaven. He missed the opulence of his youth at times and the overpriced flavors of the coffee shop catered to his spoiled taste buds more than anything else. He hoped he would have enough time alone to finish his treat so that going through the line for a second one would be a secret between himself and the barista. It wasn’t going to happen though; the door opened at exactly the agreed upon time, and Ashe entered in his iconic hoody and blazer combo, curls wild at his temples.
“If only the trams had your punctuality,” Julian said, not bothering to stand as Ashe took his seat across from him with his drink. He had gotten through the line with surprising speed, considering the fact that it was just as long as when Julian had entered.
Ashe smiled with out-of-character warmth at the compliment. “Not just the trams, I’m sure. Nothing is running on time in this city. I’ve had to give most of the staff paid vacation for them to take care of personal affairs.”
“That was nice of you. Doesn’t that mean everything’s up to you, though?”
“Mm. Most everything.” He took a sip of his drink, licking whipped cream off of his lip as he set it back down. Ashe had always taken his coffee black. “It was a matter of necessity, anyway. No one was unaffected by what’s happened, as you may have guessed. I am glad to see you’re unharmed.”
“If anything could do enough damage to kill me, I guess they could have.” Julian waited until he’d swallowed another sticky-sweet bite of pastry before asking what would have been considered a general nicety to anyone unfamiliar with him. “Uh...how’s dad?”
Ashe’s eyes widened behind long black lashes. “Your father is perfectly fine. Did you think I wouldn’t take care of him?”
Julian shrugged. “At the time, I figured you’d be the first to die if anything did happen, but I guess if you really are some kind of god then that night was an easy affair for you.”
There was a faint static in the air similar to but oddly different from the kind that Surge produced when he was agitated. Ashe’s eyebrows remained raised as his demeanor seemed to shift from casually collected to slightly discomfited.
“You’ve been talking to my son, I take it.”
“You never mentioned him to us even once.” Julian leaned across the table and lowered his voice so that only Ashe could hear him. This was a conversation they should have had in private, but Julian was too impatient to change locales now.
Ashe, true to form, leaned back in his chair in nonchalant arrogance. “I didn’t consider it necessary.”
“About as necessary as telling us what you are?”
“It would have complicated things a bit, wouldn’t it?”
Julian paused, feeling flustered and annoyed at his own inability to stay focused. He wasn’t angry with Ashe despite the accusations he was leveling at him. He sighed and rubbed his face, trying again. “I don’t know. I mean...you’re like a father to me and it’s like I don’t know the first thing about you.”
“What does that really change, Julian?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted, resting his cheek on his palm. “I mean...if you’re a god, does that mean you have precognition and other powers?”
“I am omnipotent and omniscient, yes,” Ashe said in the same tone he would have used to remind Julian that it was Tuesday.
“So you knew everything that was going on at home before it happened, but you didn’t do anything?”
Ashe’s eyes, more expressive than in the past, glinted with slight disquiet. “Let’s speak in hypotheticals,” he began, his voice almost devoid of the emotion in his gaze. “If I had, for instance, stopped your father from killing your mother--which we both know I could have done with or without godly powers--would you be what you are now?”
“Is what I am now anything to be proud of?”
“I’m proud of you.”
Julian froze. Every vices and misdeed piled up in his mind where the critical part of him always waited to admonish him, and overshadowed the good he tried to be and do. Being omniscient, Ashe had to know all of the things he himself was thinking of. Julian would have called Ashe on it, but the other man had always been as sincere as he was punctual. Julian hung his head, staring at the crumbs on his half of the table, and in a small, surprisingly choked voice, managed a quiet, “Thanks.”
Looking up, he caught a pleased smile on Ashe’s face, accented by whipped cream on his upper lip. “Very few people can destroy demons, even people like you. Even fewer can impress my son.” He licked his lips and the smile fell flat. “I mean, I certainly don’t impress him.”
Uncomfortable with praise, Julian was thankful for the conversation shift. “Yoko’s really something,” he said, savoring the last bite of his pastry.
“Indeed. Do you remember the word he used for me?”
He nodded. “I can’t pronounce it, but yeah.”
“Sa’dzra-im.” Ashe pronounced so effortlessly it was like the language was part of him in the same way his hair was. “It’s a vulgarity for father,” he continued. “Literally it means ‘my sperm donor,’ but the connotation is that my role in his existence is reduced to the half of his genetic material he received from me. I suppose it’s applicable, except the part that implies that either of us is human.”
Julian paused but wasn’t exactly surprised. It hadn’t sounded like a good word the way Yoko had said it. “Sorry.”
Ashe shrugged as he sat up in his seat. “We are very old. The fact that Yokoshima is only half-divine is illustrated by the fact that he’s still upset with me after so long.”
The irony of the situation was not lost on Julian as he sat across from Ashe: a son who hated his father at the table with a father hated by his son. Even though he didn’t know all the details, he couldn’t blame Yoko for his feelings any more than he blamed himself for his own. But he felt sorry for Ashe, the man who had always been there for him, for having a son who could not see beyond their past to the man he was now and had been all Julian’s life. He felt the implications of that sympathy weighing heavily in his chest, but he would save those thoughts for later, when they didn’t spoil the taste of his coffee like expired milk.
“Does dad know you’re a god?”
“He does now,” Ashe admitted, his own mixture of gratitude and reluctance at dropping Yoko from the conversation coloring his words.
“How did he take it?”
“Considering what he had just seen, he took it easily.” He smiled a little, trusting that Julian recalled the somewhat abridged version of events he had related during their conversation on the phone when they had arranged to meet.
“You give him any reason for why you’ve been following him around for thirty years?”
“He hasn’t asked for one.”
“I’m curious,” Julian admitted, leaning forward with his elbows on the table.
In the background a man began raising his voice over the service at the counter. The barista, the same bored young man that had been there when Julian had passed through the line, looked as unimpressed by rage as he was by smiles. He offered the customer another drink, and the man quieted almost immediately. Julian was amazed that a miss-mixed drink was at the height of anyone’s priorities in the wake of the disaster outside the shop.
Ashe waited for the noise of the complaint to die down before speaking. “If I hadn’t been there, would he be the person he is today?”
“No,” Julian admitted. “But what did it matter to you?”
“For a plant to mature and blossom properly, it needs to be rooted in the right soil.” As though amused by how unhelpful that cryptic explanation had been, Ashe smiled and continued. “Think about yourself and the others like you. You all have roles to play. Who you are is very important.”
“So why is Maxwell so important? He’s not a Shard.”
“He is a very influential man. Think of how many Shards he knows.”
Julian could think of several he had met that his father hadn’t. “So? You know all of us at least in some ways I’m sure. Why him?”
“Do you trust me?”
It wasn’t a question Julian had expected, but he hadn’t expected to see so many slight differences in Ashe’s demeanor and actions either. “I trusted you more before I knew that you knew everything, but yes. I still trust you more than I trust most people,” he answered, more honest than he had intended to be.
“Then believe that it matters.”
Julian sighed, still discontent.
“Things are meant to happen the way they happen.”
“So you know how this ends? With Hiroki?” It felt like a secret sin to say the name of Yoko’s brother in connection with everything that had gone on. Ashe would know, though; would have to have known already, even before the other had acted. Omniscience was something Julian was having a hard time wrapping his mind around, but at least it was a concept he understood.
Ashe had known Rabbit wasn’t the Surge before the idea had even sprouted from uncertain seeds in Maxwell’s mind. He had known that Greg was going to find Rabbit and only just be stopped before killing him before William Speight had even been abducted. He had known Sasha would become the Witness without even being told that Julian was seeing him; had known Julian would be abducted by Tokoyo, what he would do to him, and had sat across from him at the coffee shop without so much as a cryptic warning.
“I know everything,” Ashe said.
Julian fought to keep the one spotless, healthy relationship he had from crumbling under the accusations forming in his mind.
He took a sip from his now lukewarm drink, using the action to mask the moment needed to steel himself against self-pity. He sat back. “Yoko said something about another cataclysm. We’re not really going to be responsible for the end of the world, are we?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
Because things are meant to happen the way they would happen. Julian frowned but forced himself to accept it, at least for the moment. “It seems like the end of the world should have happened after the last cataclysm, you know? With everything being dead and all and no real hope of things getting better...this might really be it.”
“Really?” Ashe’s brow arched with interest. “Do you know how many times the planet and the human race has survived the same sort of event?”
It was a rhetorical question, but Julian shook his head anyway.
“Have you ever heard the old world myth of Ragnarok?”
Shaking his head again, Julian wondered why an omniscient man bothered asking leading questions.
Ashe smirked as though he could read his mind--and the more Julian thought about it, he was sure he probably could--and went on with his narrative. “There was one culture who had a battle that would end the world. It was very specific about who would fight who, who would win and how. In this great battle, whole worlds were destroyed, but in the end, there were a handful of gods and other creatures that survived to start over. How do you think they knew what was going to happen? Stories like these have truth in them even if they are not truthful themselves. Like the old world stories about great floods, cities destroyed in rains of fire from heaven. All these things have happened at one time or another, but mortals and gods are still here.” Trying to be reassuring and offering a more comforting smile, Ashe leaned forward just slightly until his empty cup gave a hollow thunk against the table. “Things always go the way they should go.”
Ashe chuckled nonchalantly, raking his fingers through his curls. For once, they didn’t get caught in tangles. “I am very glad you’re alright. So was your father when I told him the good news.”
“Mm. Dad probably has a lot to celebrate. Voters like a guy who steps up and takes charge in bad situations and there you and he are in the middle of the cities reconstruction plans.” Julian felt the bitterness in his words despite the sweetness on his tongue as he finished off the last drops of his drink.
“At the moment, voters just like a guy who survives.”
“Dad’s always been good at that part.”
Ashe nodded, hands folded on the table, fingers interlaced. “He’s had a lot of help.”
Julian could not agree more. Ashe had always been a staple in his father’s life. He was the cornerstone of their empire.
“I’m not only referring to myself.”
“Oh...” Julian looked up, unable to mask most of the disbelief in his face.
Ashe smiled, making his curls dance with a shake of his head. “You have no idea how much you’ve helped him. And not just with the voters who like a family man.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Whether you believe it or not, he’s a man who learns from his mistakes. And he made a lot of mistakes with you.”
Julian hadn’t meant to laugh, but it came out anyway. He put his hand to his face, fingers against his lips to put a stop to the inappropriate response. “A lot of mistakes.” Whether it was an understatement or a simplification, he wasn’t sure. It was still a little funny to hear Ashe put it so plainly, though.
“It’s unfortunate,” Ashe continued, “that sometimes learning from one’s mistakes doesn’t mean you get a chance to put them right.”
Julian bit his lip and the urge to smile went away. They were still talking about him and Maxwell, he knew, but below the surface he could feel the sting of Ashe’s failures with his own son. Both of them were people Julian admired and they were both missing out on each other.
The lesson wasn’t lost on him, but he wasn’t quite ready to accept it yet. “Well, if it makes him feel any better, I actually refer to him as dad sometimes and not just as Maxwell. Maybe someday Yoko will think better of you too. I mean, I can vouch for you.”
Ashe laughed without cheer. “We move at a much slower pace than mortals, Julian. It’s been at least forty thousand years since he was born and he still feels so strongly. If he ever forgives me, it won’t be in your life time.”
“I’d say you never know but... Yeah.”
As though it had been waiting for a low point in the conversation, Julian’s phone began to chirp and buzz in his pocket. He smiled apologetically and pulled it out, looking down at the message he had received. It wasn’t a surprise that it was from Sasha.
Yoko’s creeping me out. Home yet? Hungry. D:
Julian sighed, looking up at Ashe who already knew what the buzzing had meant. “Mm, duty calls,” he said, pulling his empty cup closer to stand and throw it away.
Julian nodded slightly. “Something like that. I left him with Yoko. So...yeah.”
Ashe laughed as he stood. “Oh, I’m sure they get along splendidly, poor thing.”
“Well, for better or worse he’s sort of my responsibility,” Julian said by way of explanation. He ran his fingers over his hair anyway, sighing. “I don’t know. If the housing market’s as good as they say, maybe I can set him up someplace nearby that’s not...with me.”
Ashe nodded, though his face returned to the static, emotionless mask Julian remembered best from all his years around him. “Try to enjoy the time you have with him,” Ashe said, eyes impassive but fierce as they looked into Julian.
It gave him chills. “Yeah, of course. It’s just...you know, it’s not anything serious, but we have fun. I’d better pick him up something to eat, though, before Yoko decides to kill him for his bitching.”
Ashe smiled, though it was clear he very much doubted that would happen. “Good luck then.”
“Yeah, you too.” Julian shook Ashe’s hand and took three steps before the clenching in his stomach stopped him. “Hey, Ashe?”
Ashe cocked his head slightly in question.
“Has anyone heard anything from Phineas?”
“No. He remains more or less missing.” Ashe smiled though, placing a hand on Julian’s shoulder as he walked them out of the coffee shop. “That is to say, your brother is fine. Knowing him, he probably isn’t even aware of what’s happened.”
Julian’s stomach unclenched, his shoulders feeling lighter. He shared Ashe’s smile until they parted ways on the sidewalks outside the door where the warm smells faded into the dreary odor of dust. His phone buzzed again, Sasha’s displeasure at being ignored coming through in his repetition. Julian sighed in exasperation, though he continued to smile. Things were as similar as they were dissimilar from the world that had existed only a few nights before. There was still hope. He took out his phone and pressed the call back button, surprised by his own eagerness to have Sasha pick up and tell him about his horrible afternoon left in the company of their half-sized host.