Book 5, Chapter 13

Maxell stared at the files fanned across the surface of his desk, and then looked up at his assistant. Ashe-im, standing to his left, had his eyes on his datapad, his gaze flickering over the newsfeed scrolling across the bottom.

“I can pull files myself, you know.”

“If I let you do that,” Ashe-im said without lifting his gaze, “The files would never be in order.”

“Are you saying I don’t know my own filing system?”

“I’m saying you don’t know my filing system.”

Maxwell’s mouth twisted in a grimace. “It’s alphabetical. What more is there to know?”

The other man--god--pried his gaze away from the device in his hand and fixed golden eyes on the man beside him. “That you have your job and I have mine.”

A lesser man would have squirmed under those eyes, but Maxwell just looked back at him. “And I’m supposed to just continue to command you, am I?”

Ashe-im sighed and ran a hand through his curls, hardly seeming to notice how they snarled around it. He slid his datapad into his pocket and rounded the desk, disentangling his fingers with disinterest as he moved to a side table to pour some tea.

“Since when have you ever actually had to give me commands, sir?”

He had a point. Although now Maxwell knew where that ethereal ability to predict his every whim came from, the man still grimaced again. There was no need to rub in the fact that their two man operation was really a one-god, one-pretty-face operation. “I’ve given you orders before.”

A cup of tea was placed in front of him, steaming slightly and just the shade of brown he liked. He lifted the cup and wondered if making perfect tea was really an efficient use of divine power.

“In the past several weeks, we have had this conversation or some variation of it thirty-six times, Mr. Maxwell. And it always ends the same way.”

Maxwell peered over the rim of his cup at Ashe-im. “With you saying that there’s too much work to waste time discussing this.”

He received a wry nod for his recall. “Do you know what I’m going to say next?”

Instead of answering, Maxwell sipped his tea, pursing his lips when the hot drink scalded his tongue. It was hard to align the two images he now had of his assistant and best friend: there was the god, swathed in power, facing down a monster the likes of which Maxwell hadn’t even imagined could exist, and there was the man, standing next to him with that abominable sweatshirt on under his blazer, ready to run and fetch for him as though he couldn’t just make things appear out of thin air.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to drink it too fast?”

And to nag. Always ready to nag him. “I bet that wasn’t what you were intending to say next.”

“You get the point, though, sir.”

For once, Ashe-im didn’t bother pointing out that he never intended to do anything; that everything he did or did not do had been scripted at the beginning of time. Maxwell was getting sick of hearing the phrase “because it is written.” That seemed to be Ashe-im’s reason for everything he did, from destroying monsters to making tea.

After several hours of concentrated pestering fueled by too many cookies, Ashe-im had explained to him that the civilization he had helped to rule over millions of years ago had believed that the fabric of the universe was preceded by a template made up of strings of tiny, written words describing everything that was and would be. The template was then filled in with those souls that reached a specific balance and left the cycle of reincarnation. Ashe-im referred to it as the “universe-form”. It sounded like a remarkably inefficient belief system to Maxwell.

No amount of pestering, however, would get Ashe-im to give any other answer concerning why he had chosen to be a politician’s personal aide, or why he continued to serve in that capacity when his cover had been blown. In his less thoughtful moments, Maxwell was happy to believe it just had to do with his own personal charisma: he had caught and held the attention of a god. When he actually sat and thought about it, though, usually over a glass of gin, he wondered what could possibly be in store that required Ashe-im to follow him around and do as he said. Whatever the greater goal was, it was possible that he was just a passing amusement on the way to bigger things.

It didn’t help that he had gotten used to Ashe’s limited emotional range over the years they had known each other, and that Ashe-im’s full spectrum of expression threw him off balance at times. Where Ashe had just been amused or at most slightly annoyed, Ashe-im was caustic, petulant, and self-satisfied. It wasn’t so much that his assistant had become an alien entity as that he was suddenly seeing parts of him kept hidden before. His oldest friend was suddenly new again. It made him feel both cheated and excited.

He sipped his tea, watching as Ashe-im continued to regard his datapad with a bored expression.

“Why are you bothering? You already know what the news is going to be.”

Ashe-im’s gaze flickered to Maxwell and his lips quirked. “I like to check it for misspellings.”

Maxwell rolled his eyes. “You have boring hobbies.”

“At least my hobbies don’t put me in danger of being arrested, Mr. Maxwell.”

“So that’s what we’re calling him now then? A hobby?”

Ashe-im cast golden eyes toward the “hobby” in question and Maxwell followed his gaze to the seating area of his office.

“I’m not sure what else he could be called.” Ashe-im’s eyes slid back toward Maxwell, narrowed and unreadable. “He certainly isn’t a serious pursuit any longer.”

Maxwell didn’t bother trying to decipher Ashe-im’s expression, instead studying the room’s third occupant. Slumped in a chair with his feet on the table, lost inside his jeans and T-shirt, the Surge looked brittle, like a bone leached of calcium. With one shoulder in a brace and the same arm in a sling, gaunt as ever, and the vibrant blue bleached out of his hair, he seemed like nothing more than a sickly man.

If Surge was awake and listening, he gave no indication.

“Now why would you say that, Ashe-im?” Maxwell took another sip of his rapidly cooling tea. His assistant could get it just to taste, but didn’t seem to care to keep it at the proper temperature for him. A pity, but Maxwell supposed he couldn’t have everything his way. “Surge is still quite entertaining in his own way.”

Ashe-im gave him an amused look. “Oh yes. Accidentally causing the deaths of thousands is quite entertaining.”

Maxwell shrugged, remembering Surge’s sudden appearance in his study weeks before. Seeing the vigilante exhausted and injured, on the verge of panic, had sent chills of mixed alarm and fascination through Maxwell. He’s already seen the newsfeeds by then, and even as he was concerned for his friend, he was intrigued; Surge had become interesting again.

It was different, though, the way Surge was interesting and the way Ashe-im was interesting. Maxwell had caught Surge and the vigilante had ceased to be an enigma: he had turned into a young man in a stolen, over-sized coat whose ideals were a little too strong. Now Surge had screwed up royally, and Maxwell wanted to watch his reactions. If the urban legend was going to unravel under the pull of his own failures and the sudden barrage of hatred toward him, Maxwell wanted to have a front row seat to the show.

Ashe-im, on the other hand, had never been easily caught in the first place. And now he was different--not so different that he made Maxwell wary, but different enough to be entertaining as he tried to puzzle him out all over again. It was maddening and enticing, like trying to outrun his own shadow or catch smoke with his bare hands.

He gave Ashe-im a wry look. “It’s nice to know that even the divine are fallible.”

Ashe-im’s lips curled in a smirk, showing the glint of his canines. “Not all of us.”

“You’re the only one who isn’t.”

Maxwell looked over to Surge, who was stretching his good arm and yawning.

“The rest of us are just regular people.” The vigilante paused, his face screwing up, and then sneezed. His body faded into static around the edges, and solidified again as he rubbed his nose.

Maxwell snorted. Regular people, indeed.

“Mr. Maxwell has work to do,” Ashe-im reminded, sending a pointed glance to the files still fanned across the desk. “He needs to help draft a proposal for the salvage of fire-damaged buildings.”

Surge looked up without tilting his head back, peering up at the man through his bangs as he approached the seating area. Ashe-im came to a stop next to his chair, and the two remained still and silent, looking at each other. Maxwell watched with interest. Ashe-im certainly didn’t pull his punches.

But then, Surge was used to taking abuse.

After a moment, Surge bowed his head, the blond spikes of his bangs hiding his eyes from view. With an odd, frail grace, he set his feet on the floor and stood up.

“I wouldn’t want to--” He stopped short, cringing.

For a moment, Maxwell thought he’d hurt his broken shoulder somehow, but Surge’s hand went to his head instead. Maxwell half rose, then settled back in his seat when Ashe-im waved him down.

“What is it?” he asked instead.

Surge massaged his temple, squinting as though the light hurt his eyes. “Cross found me.”

“She was looking for you?”

That earned him an unamused glance. “I’ve been missing for weeks.”

“Well what did she want?”

Surge gave his head a vague shake and murmured, “Something about a meeting… I don’t know.”

“Perhaps you should go rest.” Ashe-im held out an arm toward the door, and Surge neither looked at him or said anything in response, though he did move toward the exit.

“Work hard,” he said over his shoulder.

Maxwell raised a hand in acknowledgement as the Shard disappeared through the doorway, then sat back, kneading the arms of his chair thoughtfully with his fingers. If the Surge was going to unravel or break, he showed no signs of it. Perhaps the ability to take massive disappointments came with living for a very long time. If that were the case, Maxwell didn’t want to be immortal.

“Ashe-im, make a note of this.”

His aide pivoted and raised his datapad.

“If I ever get to the point where I can accept defeat and move on, I want you to brutally murder me.”

With a few dutiful strokes of his stylus, Ashe-im nodded. “Noted, sir.”

“Don’t hold back, either.”

Ashe-im gave him a chilling smirk. “I never do, Mr. Maxwell.”

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