Zaid still slept when everyone showed up at the house. Max hopped off the bed and trotted into the living room, growling unhappily as Gretchen, Blair, some weird-smelling woman, some weird-smelling man in a wheelchair, and two vampires came into the house but then he turned into a human when Simba walked in.
“Max!” Simba exclaimed.
“Simba!” Max glomped him, hugging tightly as Simba spun him around before planting a friendly kiss on his lips. “It’s so good to see you again!”
“Good to see you again,” Simba chuckled, setting him down. “Looking as young and sexy as always.”
“You look good too.”
“Me? Naw, I’m getting old,” Simba laughed, touching one of his wrinkles. But then his smile disappeared. “I am so sorry I couldn’t protect Goose.”
“You were there…?” Max asked.
The vampires had finished arranging the furniture and everyone began sitting down except the weird woman who paced unhappily back and forth behind the the man in the wheelchair. Max plopped down next to Gretchen while Simba sat next to him, and explained what all happened the evening Goose was killed. From the car wreck to the explosion, Simba and the vampires covered everything–except one thing.
Once they finished Gretchen said, “It seems that not all the enemies were slain that night. One of them said that the person most thought was in charge really was the second-in-command–“
“There’s no evidence that it’s not the truth,” Blair said.
Emilian frowned. “We no longer feel any strong magic within the woods. Rather, there is strong magic but it is all natural. No… strong supernaturals. I do not think they would have been following a human and there is no indication of others supernaturals in that place since the incident.”
“Who says the head actually stayed there though? Or went there after the explosion?” Simba asked with a shrug. “Should we even be discussing this without Zaid?”
“I shall get him–” Emilian started as he began to rose but Max got to his feet, lips curled back in a snarl.
“Zaidy-boy is asleep and he will stay asleep.” he said, giving a bit of a hiss as a warning. Emilian cocked an eyebrow then looked at Akua who gave a small head movement. Emilian sat back down so Max slowly sank down as well.
Gretchen patted Max’s leg. “We’ll let him sleep. Now then, I think we need to figure out who the head of this group was. Miss Redding?”
The weird woman stopped pacing. “The faerie that had made the agreement with my brother and I, she always acted in charge. From what I understand, she is the one who murdered the elf. But as much as she acted in charge I believe she was not. There… was something about her. She had something missing. A leader but not a commander. She was the nerve system, the muscles… everything that moved the body parts however she did not give the orders to move the parts.” The woman–Miss Redding–stopped moving. “Someone else led her from behind the curtains. Curtains I never saw. And that is the only reason we are here.” She looked pointedly at Gretchen. “I wish to see this person dead. Because of them we have been tortured and used for nearly two decades.”
“If m-m-my sister w-w-wants th-them dead, w-we’ll find th-them,” the wheelchair man stammered and Miss Redding smirked. “However I h-have a th-theory.” He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, looking a bit nervous. “I b-believe the one wh-who was in charge d-died. I b-believe they w-worked in the headq-quarters as s-sort of an underc-cover boss. R-remember, s-sister?” He looked at the woman who had gone from smirking to scowling. “Wh-when we worked on the soul t-transfer project? You d-d-did the same f-for a short t-time.”
Wheelchair man nodded. “Th-that’s my theory, at l-l-least.”
“So we have nothing to worry about?” Blair asked, shaking his head. “I doubt that.”
Miss Redding marched over and leaned in close, her Zaid-eye-colored-eyes narrowing. “My brother’s IQ is most likely doubled yours, witch.” She breathed out slowly. “Before I broke free I was ready to wipe out your kind.”
“J-Jay!” Wheelchair man said, reaching out but unable to take hold of her wrist. “Don’t. J-just don’t. It isn’t h-h-his fault that we were imp-prisoned…”
His sister turned, taking the few steps to be by his side again. Blair returned to his seat but didn’t stop glaring at Redding. “Our ‘kind’ got you free,” Akua said in a snippy voice. “As well as alive. Zaid would have run you through with the sword if I did not stop him.” Redding just sneered in return, saying nothing.
“O-o-okay!” Max said, clapping his hands. “Now that we’ve tightened the tension up and all, let’s talk about the most important thing here!”
“You?” Gretchen asked with a smile.
“Yes,” Gretchen said.
“Yep,” Blair agreed.
“I’m in agreement with them,” Simba said.
“Yes,” Miss Redding spat out.
“No,” Akua and Emilian both said.
“I d-d-d-don’t think th-there is,” Wheelchair Redding stammered and his sister looked slightly taken aback.
Max frowned and looked back towards the bedroom. “No…” he said slowly then snorted. “I mean, no it won’t be a tie cause I am saying yes. I think the threat’s still out there. I think whoever was hellbent on ruining and destroying Zaid’s life is still out there.” He headed towards the bedroom, pausing to look back over at the group. “And I am going to to be hellbent on making sure it doesn’t happen any further.”
Max moved in with Zaid though not really completely with Zaid’s permission since Zaid was just too out of it. In the morning Max hauled Zaid into the bathroom and got him scrubbed up. Zaid had a wicked hangover and vomited up the breakfast Max tried to give him but felt better after some coffee. He had no memory of trying to kiss Max, which Max felt so grateful for. He took care of Zaid that day while Chance and Specter took care of Reeny. Zaid was completely lethargic, completely out of it. Max had to practically force feed him at lunch and dinner. Not much. Just some chicken broth and crackers at lunch and another tuna sandwich at dinner. Zaid ate it all with a lot of pushing from Max.
That night while Zaid slept, Max cleaned. He cleaned as much of the house as he could bear. He grumbled as he did, not wanting to do this but it needed to be done. He didn’t need to do much cleaning around the elfling’s stuff–the tiny one. Zaid had been taking care of the little elfling very well it seemed. Though the room stank of elfness. A smell he never did like. Poor Goose though, he thought as he worked. He hated elves in general but didn’t hate Goose no matter what Zaid thought.
Max turned into a cat and slept at the foot of Zaid’s bed again, ready to protect. The next day things went the same until noonish when Chance showed up with the little elfling in his arms. Zaid had been stretched out on the couch but when the little elfling squealed he got up and ran over, pulling her close against him while Chance gave Max a hug.
Max turned towards Zaid and the elfling who were hugging tightly. “Oh. R-right. Um. Max, this is Eirene. Reeny. Um. Our–uhhh… um. Our… m-my… um… yeah. Uh, Reeny this is Max… um… M–Max.”
The elfling hid her face, giggling nervously. Zaid turned her around a bit so she could look at Max but she just wriggled around to hide her face again. After that he spent all his time with his kid. Max figured sitting on the floor watching with blank eyes as his daughter put together a puzzle seemed minutely better than curling up on the sofa. But when he put his daughter down for a nap he just trudged into his bedroom to curl up.
After about fifteen minutes Max heard whining from the nursery. He checked on Zaid but Zaid had fallen asleep. Not wanting to take him quite yet, Max went to check on the elfling.
“Shhhh!” Max said, flapping his hands. “Zaid is asleep. It’s quiet time. Nap time.”
“NO!” She fell back and began flailing her arms and legs. “Hungy! Hungy!”
“Hungry?” Max asked doubtfully and the elfling stopped crying. She looked up at Max with watery eyes and nodded. “Um. Okay. Come with me.” He turned to leave, not even thinking she couldn’t follow. But by the time he realized she had gotten out of her crib and was tottering along behind him. “Heeeyyy, elfling, you’re smarter than you look.”
The elfling giggled at that, following Max into the kitchen. He got into the fridge, not sure what kids ate. He poured a glass of milk and filled a bowl with tuna, setting it on the floor in front of her. She looked at them then up at him, eyes squinting. “There ya go,” he said. “Go on. It’s good. You ever eat tuna before?”
“Mik,” she said, dipping her hand in the glass and licking it off her fingers.
“Yep. Milk is good.”
She wrapped her hands around the glass and slowly lifted it. When she tried to take a drink it dumped all over her. But she didn’t cry, she just drank the remaining milk from the glass before dipping her fingers into the tuna. She made a face when she tasted her fingers and shoved the bowl towards Max. “No!”
“Tuna is good,” Max said, scooping some up and eating it himself.
Then she began whining loudly, tugging at her clothes. “Wet,” she said with a frown.
“Yeah, you spilled milk all over yourself,” Max said and she pouted angrily at him. Max sighed and picked her up, holding her at a distance. “Fine, let’s get you changed then… and uh, cleaned up I guess.”
He took her back to her room and set her on the changing table while looking for clean clothes. It took him a while to find some that fit but before putting them on her he cleaned her up with wet wipes. She wriggled like mad as he tried getting her clothes on her, laughing at his annoyed mutterings.
“Kittens are better than little human babies,” Max grumbled. “You carry them around in your mouth, they run around naked, and you clean them with your tongue.”
“Kittttyyy!” she screeched, flailing around excitedly.
“You like cats?” Max asked suspiciously.
The elfling beamed up at him, climbing to her feet as she was now fully dressed. “Kitty,” she said again. “Meow! Meow! Meow!”
Max couldn’t help but smile. “That’s just gibberish, you know.”
“Meeeowwww!” She moved her hands through the air, imitating scratching.
Max shook his head. “No, no, elfling. Cats don’t always scratch that’s just a silly misconception that is commonly enforced when imitating cats.”
She frowned at that, looking a bit confused. “Meow?”
“Uuuuup!” She tugged at his pant leg. “Up! Up!”
Max scowled as he picked her up. “You’re not as cute as you think you are.”
“Human babies are weird looking and elf babies are weird looking,” Max said. The elfling’s lower lip began trembling and then she began wailing at the top of her lungs. Max swore and quickly set her on the couch, kneeling in front of her. “Shhh! Shh, no, elfling I didn’t mean that–I mean, uh, you’re cute, okay? Cuter than most human babies, okay? Cuter than elf babies.” She just kept crying and would wake Zaid up any second. “You like kitties?” he asked and her wails quieted to pained whimpers. “Kitties?”
“Ki…tty…?” she sniffled, snot running down her face.
“Watch this!” He scooted back and turned into a cat. The elfling’s eyes went enormous and her mouth hung wide open. Max meowed and pranced around, tail waving. The elfling squealed with delight and reached out. Max went over, letting her pet him. Her first pat was a bit hard but she softened her touch a bit, running her hand down his fur. She grabbed his tail but didn’t pull so he let her hold it.
A sound caused him to look over as Zaid walked into the room. He got a small smile on his face as he sat down on the sofa. “You two seem to have bonded.”
“Kitty,” the elfling said.
“Yes, Max is a kitty,” Zaid said, pulling her into his lap. “Why are you wearing different clothes? And…” He bent in, sniffing. “Uuufff! You smell like milk.”
“Mik!” She pointed at Max. “Kitty.”
Zaid raised his eyebrows. “She just had lunch before Pa brought her here, and she doesn’t get a snack until after her nap is over which wasn’t supposed to be for another fifteen minutes… you woke her up?”
“No! She was already awake,” Max protested. “A little bit after you went to sleep she woke up and was wanting food. What, I was supposed to leave her?”
Zaid bounced his kid lightly on his hip. “Yep, until naptime was over. You’ve never taken care of kids before, have you.”
Max shook his head. “I like, saw you guys as toddlers but never did much except get my tail pulled. Your kid doesn’t pull tails. I like that.” He folded his arms, watching Zaid for a second or two before adding, “You pulled my tail. A few times.”
Zaid flicked his gaze upward. “Oh. Sorry about that. Come on, Reeny, let’s get you changed… and bathed…”
Max trailed after them, feeling a bit bad for causing work for Zaid. As Zaid prepared the bath Max remembered the mess in the kitchen so he hurried to the other room, getting the milk and tuna and dishes cleaned up. He even remembered to use some cleaning solution on the floor to get rid of the smell. By the time he finished Zaid and the elfling had finished the bath and were in the kitchen. He put the elfling in a piece of furniture that Max then remembered was a chair for toddlers. He remembered seeing Zaid in one twenty-some years before.
The elfling babbled as Zaid got her some juice in a little covered cup and a bowl of dry cheerios. She ate them happily, crunching loudly and occasionally drinking from the covered cup. Zaid sat down at the counter, head in hand, watching his daughter with empty eyes. Max hovered near the door, feeling intrusive. He didn’t want to be intrusive and finally figured there wasn’t anything he could do at this moment so he backed out of the room, letting Zaid be alone with his kid for a while.
The next few days were tense and difficult. Zaid barely spoke, except to the elfling. Whenever anyone visited he didn’t speak at all. Just stared hollow-eyed at nothing in particular. On the third day of Max being there he disappeared for a couple hours and returned only to go into the bedroom and refuse to come out. He must have texted his fathers since soon Specter and Chance showed up to take the elfling for the night.
Once they left Max turned into a cat and sat outside Zaid’s bedroom door, listening to him sobbing. He finally nudged the door open and went in, cautiously hopping onto the bed. Zaid shifted a bit, going from crying into Goose’s pillow to crying into Max’s fur. He held Max tightly (almost too tight but Max didn’t argue) and cried himself to sleep. Once Zaid fell asleep Max licked his face a bit then curled up at his feet, not sleeping but keeping an eye on him in case he needed anything.
That night Noah visited. Zaid let him in but remained utterly silent while Noah talked. “Hey Max,” he said when Max tiptoed out from the hall. “I didn’t know you were back.”
“Worried about my best friend,” he said, not bothering to keep his voice quiet. They both looked to see if Zaid would react but the grieving man didn’t even twitch. Noah shook his head and pulled Max into the kitchen. “Has he…?”
“He’s talked to me a little bit,” Max muttered. “Not much. He got drunk the other night. He mostly sits in silence. I don’t know what to do! Gretchen says I’m good for him but I don’t know what to do!”
“If he’s talking to you then that’s something, he’s only said two words to me since–since… Goose died,” Noah said, rubbing the back of his head. “I don’t want to seem like an asshole but I’m just so worried that he’s still like this. I know he loved Goose, and I’m not saying that he shouldn’t grieve but it just worries me he’s shutting himself up like this.”
“I know what you mean,” Max assured him. “I always figured a grieving Zaid would be more angry about things.”
Noah nodded at that. “At least he is talking to you though. It worried me he only talked to Reeny. And, uh, Goose I think.”
“Yeah, he does,” Max said a bit absently. “I dunno what all you know about, uh, what’s happened. The enemies and all that.” Noah shrugged so Max continued with, “Zaid and a few others killed off most the bad guys. The ones after Zaid, the ones that killed Goose.”
“I knew about that.”
Max lowered his voice. “Some of us think there’s still a threat out there. I don’t know how I feel about it, but I do know if there is someone still after him that they could and might strike at any minute.”
“No. I don’t know how to talk to him about it. I–I don’t know how to talk to him about anything!” Max buried his face in his hands, resisting the urge to turn into a cat and run off. “I’m scared of making it worse. Part of me wants to leave but part of me knows it’d be bad if I do–I don’t know how to help him, I don’t know what to say. I’m a disaster.”
Noah put a hand on Max’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “You’re doing a helluva lot better than anyone else, Max. As I said, at least he’s talking to you. Six weeks talking to nobody but Reeny with so many people around him wasn’t good. He–“
“I don’t have anything to say.” Max and Noah both turned towards the doorway as Zaid stumbled in, looking even more like a zombie. “What do I need to say?”
“I dunno,” Noah said, moving to put a hand on Zaid’s shoulder instead of Max. “I care about you, bro. I just want to be able to help you.”
Zaid studied him for a second before saying, “Thanks for not saying ‘I just want you to be okay’. People keep telling me that. Like what, life without him can be okay? Tomorrow it will be seven weeks to the day since I watched him die. Life is not okay. Nothing is okay. Everything is absolute hell.” He began going through the cupboards, complaining about the lack of alcohol.
“It’s going to be a long time before anything is okay,” Noah said, leaning against the counter. Max just stayed put and wished he knew what he could say. “If things were okay for you, buddy, I’d be more concerned.” Zaid looked over his shoulder–not quite a dark look in his eyes but enough of one, though not on purpose. Mostly from his lack of sleep. “I want you to know that you have a support system, all right? We love and care about you so much, bud.”
Zaid turned around, looking for a split second like he might just collapse but instead he staggered forward and grabbed hold of Noah, crying onto his shoulder. Noah put his arms around his friend, patting his back and making comforting sounds. Max felt even more like he shouldn’t be there so he backed up a bit then made his escape, hiding out in the nursery for a long while. Before Noah left he found Max and thanked him quietly for helping Zaid open up again. Max wasn’t sure what he did or that he’s the one that helped, but Noah just repeated that he had.
After Noah left, Zaid seemed a bit more active. He fixed dinner for himself (albeit a microwave one) and turned the TV on, though he didn’t pay much attention to it. Eventually he said, “I got a tattoo earlier. S’where I went.”
Zaid pulled his shirt off, showing off the G that had been tattooed on his chest, over his heart. A bit reminiscent his father’s tattoo of a heart with Chance’s name across it. “Think it was a mistake?”
“No,” Max said honestly. “I think it’s great.” Zaid raised an eyebrow and Max pouted. “Honest! It is, I think it is. Nobody is asking you to forget him or act like you don’t love him. Least of all me.”
“‘Don’t’?” Zaid asked astutely. “Present tense?”
“Present tense,” Max confirmed. “Just because he’s gone doesn’t mean your love is. You can still present tense love someone even when they’re gone.”
Zaid just stared while the TV buzzed with sound. Max remained silent, waiting for some sort of response. Finally Zaid lay down with his head in Max’s lap–still silent, but accepting the comfort of another person. Max put his hand on Zaid’s head and stroked his curls as they watched the movie, praying to the Watcher that his actions were helping and not harming Zaid in the short and long runs.