Chapter Twenty-Seven: Ashe
We're all on the same bloody team here mate.
Mal was right. He was being an ass about things, but he was having a hard time calming himself down. They’d been trapped like rats in this house for days on end, forced to go through this run-around. Wanting to fly, but stuck to the ground. It made him crazy.
Even in their little place back home, with his father, he’d been able to get out into the sky when he felt cramped—to soar above the world for a few moments of peace and quiet.
I’m my father’s son.
It hit him like a bucket of cold water, cooling his ire instantly.
How many times had he chastised Kino for losing his temper and getting in a fight? And at least Kino had alcohol for an excuse.
Ashe needed to get his shit together.
He stood unsteadily, bracing his hand on the kitchen chair.
The knight was staring at him from the other side of the kitchen table, his hand over one eye. Probably from one of Ashe’s elbows, thrown unconsciously when his vision had gone red with rage.
“I’m sorry, Gian,” he said, his voice calm. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, truly. I need a few moments, if that’s okay.”
Gian nodded, staring at him warily. “Take all the time you need.” He put his hand down, coming away with a smear of silver eyeshadow. A bruise was already forming under the man’s eye.
Ashe nodded and left the room.
There was nowhere to go, really—that was the problem. Nowhere but the room he shared with Jaxx, which now seemed more like a prison cell.
Edwige shot him a look as he passed her, one that might have been concern.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, and hurried on to his room. He pulled the door closed behind him.
He sank down on the bed, remembering his father—all the times Ashe had dragged him out of a bar, the times they’d gone on the run together after his father’s rage had burned down a barstool, or a wall, or sometimes the whole place.
His father, Kino, who had left him all alone in this world.
He started to cry, first in small sobs, then full-on in ugly cry mode. He really was all alone in the world. His mother had been taken from him long ago—that wound had mostly healed, or at least scabbed over. But his father’s death still burned like a motherfucker. Kino had been gone in a flash, in the blink of an eye, leaving Ashe all alone.
Ashe rolled over on his side, racked with sorrow now instead of rage.
He felt rather than heard Jaxx when he came into the room. “Hey.”
Jaxx sat on the bed, hovering over him, and turned him over to pull Ashe onto his lap. The satyr leaned over and held him, his body warm against Ashe’s shoulder and back.
Slowly Ashe calmed down as Jaxx rubbed his back, whispering softly in his ear.
At last, he squeezed Jaxx’s arm in thanks, and rolled over onto his back, staring up at the plaster ceiling, which was showing a few cracks.
"I miss him," he said simply.
"I know." Jaxx dropped down to lie next to him, following his gaze.
"Is Tibo okay?"
"Yeah. It'll take more than a pissed off phoenix to bring that little goblin down, I think. Last I heard through the bedroom door, he and Rolly were going at it pretty good."
"So what happened?"
Ashe was silent for a long time. Jaxx squeezed his hand.
At last he turned to face the satyr. "I don’t know. I just feel trapped. It's been ages since I last flew, with the long trip cross country and then overseas, and the broken wing--"
"Which has healed nicely, by the way."
“Thank you.” He allowed himself to smile, just a little. “Now, cooped up in this house for days on end with these ‘knights’…” He looked into Jaxx's eyes. "How can we trust them?"
Jaxx shrugged. "I don't know. But what's the alternative?"
"I could take you in my arms and burst out of that window into the sky,” he said hopefully. Oh God, it would feel good to fly again, with Jaxx in his arms. “We could run."
Jaxx laughed softly. "Yeah, right. And be looking over our shoulders for the rest of our lives?"
"Yeah. When I said it out loud, it did sound a little half-assed." Ashe wondered how he had gotten so lucky to have this Being as his own.
"You want to find the people who took away your parents, right?"
"Yes." It came out as a hiss.
"Then you need to find a way to be a patient. Surely a few more days stuck in this house are worth bringing them to justice?"
Ashe nodded. Jaxx knew just what to say to calm him down, though he still looked longingly over the man's shoulder, out the window at the open sky. A few more days. "I've been an ass, haven't I?"
"Maybe. A little." Jaxx kissed him and tousled his feathers. "It's understandable."
Jaxx sighed. "Not good. It's like he's broken inside. I don't know how to help him.” He wiped the moisture from Ashe’s cheek. “I’m hoping Akemi has someone who can fix him.”
Ashe sat up. He pulled off his shirt and let out his wings, which manifested themselves with a rustle. “Come here.”
Jaxx grinned, pulling off his own shirt. “I love it when you share your wings with me.” He kissed Ashe hungrily.
Ashe grinned. Even better than flying.
* * * * *
Rolly stared fondly down at Tibo, nestled in his arms in the afterglow of sex. Tibo fecking Glent, suddenly a pussycat curled up next to him, eyes closed and looking like a green-skinned angel.
Yeah, it sucked being cooped up here. But there were compensations. Like getting to spend more time one on one with his Tibo before the whole world got wind of this new development.
Someone knocked at their door.
Tibo’s eyes flickered open. “Who in the fucking seven hells is it?” He glared at the door, then up at Rolly, who had to stifle a laugh. Now there’s the Tibo I know.
“Come in,” Rolly called.
The door opened, and an abashed looking phoenix stood there. “Hey guys.” Jaxx stood right behind him, a hand on his shoulder.
“You haven’t come back to beat the shit out of me again, have you?” Tibo snarled.
Ashe frowned. He looked truly chastened. “No. I came to apologize. I’ve been an ass.”
Rolly started to say something crass, then stopped as Jaxx shot him an imploring look.
“Yes you have,” Tibo said. “You just up and fucking attacked me for no good reason.”
Ashe bowed his head. “I know. I just felt trapped. And angry.”
The phoenix looked more relaxed than he had in days. So did the good doctor. Rolly grinned. “You fecking got laid, didn’t you?”
Jaxx turned nine shades of red.
Tibo cackled. “Holy crap, you’re right, Rolls. That’s all our man Ashe needed.” He slipped out of bed and pulled on his pants, and marched up to Ashe. “Why didn’t you just say so? I would have sent you off to your bedroom days ago with marching orders.”
“Marching?” Rolly raised an eyebrow.
“You know what I mean.” Tibo spat on his hand and held it out to Ashe. “Square?”
Ashe looked at the wet hand for a moment, then shook it. “Square.”
“Rolly?” That was Jaxx.
“If Tibo’s okay with it, I am too.”
Ashe bowed. He actually bowed. “Thank you, both of you. Now I’ve got some more amends to make.” He pulled the door closed behind him. “Back to whatever you two were up to.”
Rolly gave Tibo his best shit-eating grin. “Up for another round?”
* * * * *
Ashe found Gian in the living room. The knight was slumped on the couch, watching DNN on the flatscreen TV—some war or other with dragon bombers flying low over gray ruins.
“The world’s going to hell in a handbasket,” Ashe said conversationally.
Gian looked up at him, grunted, and looked back at the TV.
Ashe decided to take a more direct tact. “I’m here to apologize,” he said, holding out his hand with his mother’s flash drive.
That got Gian’s attention. The big man shut off the TV and sat up. “So what changed your mind?”
Ashe shrugged. “I have to start trusting someone, sometime. We came all this way to see this through. If I go home emptyhanded, my parents both died in vain.”
Ashe noticed he’d replaced his silver eye shadow with a bright red, probably to cover up the bruise. He felt another twinge of guilt.
Gian nodded. “Okay, let’s see what you have.” He took the flash drive and led them back into the kitchen. He retrieved his laptop from his bag on one of the chairs and plugged in the flash drive. “I have got a search diagnostic app that runs a hellishly complicated algorithm with a simple aim—to pull out anything that matches several parameters I’ve set that might be of interest to our investigation. But while that runs, I want to show you something.” He flipped open Ashe’s dragonskin diary. “I was leafing through this, just to see if anything of interest popped out at me. Fascinating stories this thing tells of that time period—some of them I’ve never heard before, and I am pretty well versed in dragon lore.” He paused, probably for dramatic effect. “I asked them to pull the checkout record for this book.” He held up the journal. Then he pulled up an email.
Ashe squinted. “What am I looking at?”
Gian grinned and pointed at the screen.
Ashe scanned the list, and stopped dead at the last name. “Nancy Heyoka,” he said aloud softly. Eleven years before. “How…?”
Gian shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s not a public library. Maybe she posed as a visiting researcher? In any case, your mother was there, more than a decade ago. If we can find out what she did, who she saw—”
“We might find out who she was investigating. Who the killer was.” Ashe stared at the man with newfound respect.
His computer beeped.
The knight scanned the results. “Nothing of particular interest to us. Most of it appears to be historical research. There are a few files thrown in here from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Magic. But it looks like mostly publicly available stuff.” He frowned. “Why would she go to so much trouble to get this to you, if there was nothing important on it?”
“The key,” Jaxx said.
“What?” Ashe had almost forgotten Jaxx was standing behind them.
“The key she left you. It was spelled. And the notebook. It was coded. Neither of them were what they seemed.”
“The satyr makes an excellent point.” Gian pulled the flash drive out of the computer. He held it up to the light. “Yes, there’s something here. Can you see it? A flower. A mum, maybe? Or—”
Gian held the flash drive out to him.
Ashe looked at it under the light of the ceiling lamp. Sure enough, a small dandelion was etched into the plastic, so faint he hadn’t noticed it before. “What does it mean?”
“Try holding your thumb over it for a moment.”
Ashe tried it. Nothing happened.
“How about your left thumb?”
He complied. After ten seconds, there was a flash and an audible click. The thumb drive split in half in his hands.
Inside was a second usb flash drive, less than half the length of the first.
“Keyed to her son’s thumbprint,” Gian said, whistling. “I think you’ll want to get Mal for this.”
Ashe nodded at Jaxx, who ran off to find the dragon rider.
Gian slipped the new flash drive into his computer and opened the files. He whistled again.
Mal and Kaden showed up with Jaxx. Mal glared at Ashe but didn’t say anything to him. “What did you find?” he asked Gian.
Ashe could feel the frost.
“Lots and lots of files on the dragon breeding project you were tracking, apparently.” There were pages and pages of graphs, folders full of reports, video snippets, and much more. “Looks like we hit the motherlode here.”
Ashe grinned. Finally, some kind of breakthrough. He caught Mal smiling too. The man looked at him sheepishly and turned away.
Gian was frowning. “When did you say your mother died?”
“About ten years ago.”
“What?” Ashe peered over the man’s shoulder.
“The last of these files was added to this flash drive just six months ago.”
Ashe frowned. “That’s not possible.”
“Unless she was working with someone else? Is there anyone else who might have had access to the safe deposit box where she left this for you?”
Ashe shook his head. “The only one who knew about it…” Holy crap.
He and Jaxx locked eyes. “Professor Dressler.”
“Who?” Mal looked back and forth at the two of them, looking confused.
“An old friend of my mother’s. He led us to the safe deposit box, and then helped us get here. And there’s more.” He held up the journal. “My mother was at Schloss Rotlich too. She checked out this same book.”
Mal’s eyes widened.
“We have to go back,” they both said at the same time.
Ashe was in bed, leafing through one of the books he’d found in the house’s small library, an English-language travel guide on famous Swiss castles. It was all tourist fluff, and Schloss Rotlich wasn’t included, probably because it was in private hands.
There was a light tap on the bedroom door.
Ashe glanced at the clock by the bedside. It was after 11 PM. Jaxx was asleep, snoring heavily, his back turned away from the bright moonlight streaming through the window.
Ashe got up and pulled on his pants, muttering at the late night interruption.
He opened the door, surprised to find Gian there. “I thought you’d gone home with the rest of Akemi’s crew.” The man looked tired, his trademark eye shadow faded and smeared.
Gian chuckled softly. “I got wrapped up going through the contents of your mother’s little flash drive—there’s a lot of data there. I’m more certain than ever that someone was helping her, someone who may be still alive. But I wanted to show you something.” He gestured for Ashe to follow him.
Ashe glanced back at Jaxx. Could he really trust the knight? Should he wake his lover? He decided against it. Jaxx needed his rest, and there were enough of his friends in the house who would come running if he started a ruckus.
They made their way back to the kitchen. Gian’s laptop provided the only light, casting the room in a blue glow.
Gian slid into his seat and opened a folder. “I found this. I thought you should see it.” He looked up at Ashe. “I’d do almost anything to get a message from my own mother.”
Ashe nodded. He looked at the screen. There was a file there cryptically labeled “possibilities.”
Gian double-clicked it.
Ashe scanned the contents. It included information on five people—Professor John Lynde, a mathematics expert on an extended fellowship to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Magic; Dr. Muriel Saxon, an authority on dragon breeding; Dr. Dexter Cooper, an American genetics specialist working at Türlersee; Nathan Combs, a British man working at the castle in upper management, and Talia Foss, whose title was unclear in the documents.
These were the people his mother had been investigating. The ones involved with the dragon research. Maybe one of them had been involved in her death, and Kino’s.
Cooper. That name had come up before, in the files on the main flash drive he and Mal had searched through.
Ashe reached the end of the file. There was a note:
I left a dandelion for my little bird. Keep it with you and it will guide you to the truth. —‘Mita
Ashe stared at it and the list for the longest time.
“Here, take this,” Gian said, pulling out the flash drive and handing it to him. “I’ve already copied all the files. She wanted you to have it.”
“Thanks.” Ashe looked at the dandelion on the side wonderingly. A dandelion for my little bird.
“Do you know what she meant?” Gian asked, closing up the laptop.
He shook his head. “No idea.”
It was a lie. He knew exactly what his mother intended. To find her killer.
Lynde, Saxon, Cooper, Combs and Foss.
One of you might be the one.