Phineas's story of No Town was long, interrupted at interesting points by several tirades on specs and wiring that contained anecdotal comments only he smirked at, and seemed to start and end all in the same place in time with his first steps into the rim slum world that to him possessed a kind of unseen magic. Life was a closed circuit. A cog. A screw. To Phineas it made perfect sense for an ending to be the same as the beginning. Had his audience been the Surge or maybe even Rabbit, that would have been a little easier to follow, better accepted. But while Julian watched his animated younger brother relate his story to their father, he saw his own mostly bewildered look on the older mirror image of his face.
The three Maxwell men and the familiar but somehow altered presence that was Ashe took drinks in the study, Maxwell's glass needing a refill several times as the sweat on his brow increased. Ashe kept the decanter in hand, his own cheeks already rosy and his empty glass left untouched.
Julian had had the opportunity to digest most of this story before the meeting, and had been present for the more chronologically recent parts. He was quiet when Sasha died again in retelling and held out his glass for Ashe to fill when Surge exited the narrative.
Phineas, Julian felt, left a lot out when it came to people, but he didn't feel like jumping in and telling the tale as he remembered it. Not yet. Facts were fine, facts were what Maxwell needed more than the heroics or the uncertainties. The older man's face fell, though, when Surge vanished. Julian wasn’t jealous at the pain he saw, but still felt somewhat better when his and Rabbit’s miraculous escape at the last second elicited a similar surprise and worry. And then they all met up again. And then they all parted ways.
And soon so would Phineas: back on a tram to No Town, completing his circuit, one full revolution back towards a home that wasn't here.
Maxwell cleared his throat, rubbing it as though helping himself to swallow what liquor could not ease. "I see. Well...not something a father gets to say often, but thank you both for helping to save the world."
Phineas smiled, chest puffed out like a bird. "If you think that was hard, you should try learning Chinese."
"I doubt I'll do either in my lifetime but I would like to meet your...wife. And my grandchild."
"Oh, sure. I mean, if you're ever in the area." Phineas stretched his legs out, jeans riding up the ankles and displaying his mismatched, bright socks of neon green stripes and pastel pink polka dots. Someone--perhaps Dao Ming--had taken out the hem of his pants to give him another inch or so of cloth, but it still wasn’t quite enough for a young man ending a growth spurt. He tapped on his chin as he spoke, a gesture to convey thought or maybe a subtle check for stubble. "We're pretty busy, so I don't really know when I'll come out this way again."
Julian watched Maxwell's hopeful expression as it slipped down his face like age. "Ah...it's the same for me really.” Unspoken were the issues of media coverage, political gossip, small scandals waiting to dethrown him in his golden years during a time when all eyes would be on the government and her heads. “I guess there's no such thing as paternity leave for a self-employed young man?"
Phineas shook his head. "Sorry, Dad. Got three mouths to feed and one of them is enormous." His smile was cheeky and he pointed to himself. Ashe smiled politely, hand resting on Maxwell’s shoulder.
Why am I here? Julian looked at the now half-empty drink clutched between both hands. It wasn’t that he had other--better--things to do, or really anything at all in mind as an alternative to sitting with the people he was closest to in all of Solace. It seemed natural enough after something life-alteringly stressful that he’d want to be with them.
But he didn’t. Judging by Phineas’s almost flippant attitude towards anything not related to his life in No Town, the sentiment was something the two of them had in common. Watching the way Maxwell’s usually practiced-to-a-polish expressions rose and fell and the required physical closeness that Ashe maintained, there was at least one person in the room who did need them all there, together, just a day removed from what could have been the end of the world. Even knowing that, though, Julian found himself only slightly more inclined to be there.
It was to everyone’s disadvantage that people weren't machines. Julian had seen his brother take apart and reassemble countless household appliances; it would have been no trouble at all, he suspected, for Phineas to have taken their family apart, looked for all the loose screws and disconnected circuits, and then to have set them all down again on his work bench, a fully functional and well-adjusted family. While Julian could make a heart stop and start just by touching someone’s fingertip, there was no biological cause for fathers, sons, and brothers to find themselves at such a distance. Maxwell’s money or influence could never move them closer. None of their powers had the ability to fix what was glaring at them from each occupied chair in the study.
Ashe’s fingers curled in on Maxwell’s shoulder, a comforting squeeze for a life-long friend. Maxwell placed his hand over Ashe’s.
“You know, the hospitals in the Core offer fantastic natal care. Have you given any thought into maybe having the baby here? If you’re worried about money, I can more than afford it. Think of it as a gift.”
Phineas shook his head. “Dao Ming doesn’t like long tram rides and I doubt the baby will either. Nah, there’s a nice little place down the street we’ll go to. ‘S the one she’s been doing all the pre-baby stuff at, anyway. She likes it, that’s all that matters.”
“Do you need anything?”
“Nope. Got everything covered.”
"You'll send a picture, won‘t you?"
"Sure. I repaired this camera a couple weeks ago. Been meaning to test it out. It uses a different frequency of light than a regular flash which should be gentler on newborn eyes without making her look yellow and sickly."
Maxwell sat up straighter in his chair. “A girl?”
Phineas’s smile had never been bigger. “I’ve already made baby’s first tool belt with rhinestones.”
They were two very different men, but the moment of joy was shared. Maxwell looked prouder then than he had when Phineas had told them they’d spent a night on a rooftop thwarting universal destruction. His look turned serious, though, as the revelation’s happiness settled.
“What if she doesn’t want to do science? Kids often have their own agenda. You can’t force them to like the things you like and want for themselves the things you want for them.”
Phineas looked over at Julian out the corner of his eye. Julian stopped rolling his glass between his palms and sat up a little straighter, placing his liquor on the table beside him.
“I’m sure Phineas is aware of that,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “But kids are always interested in what their parents do. I think it’s a great idea to give her her own tool belt. Let her see for herself if she likes it.”
Maxwell shrugged his shoulders. “You say that now, but it’s not that easy. You’re older. You’ve experienced more in your life. You know what’s hard, what works, and what to avoid. It’s very tempting to try and just give your child the streamlined version of your own life so you never have to worry about not having all the answers.”
Part of Julian wished Phineas had knocked up some girl years ago. He laughed as the liquor gave him an excuse for ease. To his relief, Phineas chuckled too.
"I've got it, Dad. Don't worry about it."
Maxwell sank into his chair, looking older and more tired than Julian had ever seen him look.
Julian and Phineas didn't stay long. They shook hands with their father, drawn in for an awkward, one shoulder pat-hug that neither could remember receiving before. They shook hands with Ashe, said goodbye, and rode down the elevator is silence, hands in their pockets, and in Julian's case, eyes on the reflective surface of the elevator doors. Phineas was going to be as tall as him and their father if he kept growing at the rate he was.
"Let me know when's a good time and I'll come by."
Phineas looked up at him. "To my place?"
"I want to meet my sister-in-law. And my niece."
He nodded, musing his hair into a proper state of disarray. "You're going to have to remind me. I might not have time to reply, but just send me a message now and then and if I've got a hand free I can tell you when's good." He smiled one of his goofier grins. "I'm a little disappointed I can't pass on my awesome powers to my kids. Not sure how to explain things about machines that don't involve my ability."
Julian nodded. Defeating Hiroki hadn't stopped them from being what they were born to be. There was no cure for being gifted--not that most of the ones remaining cared if they had to live their lives with the rules of their particular shard of divinity. Nothing had changed. Even the dissonance was still there.