Max returned twenty minutes later to the safety of Barreau Orphanage, cradling the cat he had named Marie Antoinette in his arms. It had taken a few moments to track her down; she was startled by some lunatic yelling in a nearby alleyway, and Max thought it best not to approach the building for the time being anyway in case the Dispatchers got to Quentin. His heart sunk when he peered around the corner and saw the patrol car speed by. But he hadn’t heard any sirens on the way back, which he took as a good sign.
“Bernard, you better have gotten rid of them,” the elder sighed. He was about to proceed up the front steps when he noticed several red blotches of blood and mucus drying on the sidewalk. “Shit!” Max rushed the rest of the way up and banged furiously on the front door. Please don’t tell me they took him, he thought, squeezing the cat tight to his chest. After several more bangs, Bernard finally answered the door.
“Welcome back! You just missed them,” he said, backing up as Max rushed in and slammed the door behind them.
“They took him?” the elder asked, tearing off his head covering.
“Surprisingly, no. He’s back in your room, said something about them receiving a more important call about an anomaly in the courthouse. I was afraid they’d get to you.”
“Not a chance.”
“I see you’ve brought a friend.”
“Oh, yeah,” Max smiled. “Thought we could use a pet around here. I found her wandering around in the old factory next door. Her name is Marie Antoinette.”
“I was lost in thought, she jumped out at me and almost took off my head, so…”
“Good one,” Bernard laughed. “You’re sure she doesn’t have fleas?”
“Ah,” Max smiled. “Get me a phase unit.”
Bernard stepped into the hall and found Tomas toying with one of the units again, as he always liked to do. The interim elder tore it off his wrist. Max assumed something must have gone down while he was away that had him so frustrated at the boy. He tossed it over, and Max strapped it on.
“What are you doing? You’ll kill the poor cat!”
“No I won’t. Here, you just turn it down to the lowest possible setting. Put the knob just above the power switch, and…” The phase unit suddenly sparked up, and the cat let out a screech. “Shit, hold her still!” Bernard managed to keep hold of the animal as she struggled to break free. Max carefully passed his hand over the cat, letting the blue bolts make contact with her black fur. She immediately appeared to calm down and began purring after several passes.
“I think she likes it,” Bernard smiled.
“Et voila! No more fleas.” Max switched the unit off and gave it back to Tomas, who was standing in the doorway waiting to tinker with it again. “Put it away. It’s almost lunch time.”
“Awww,” he mocked. “Do it! Children,” the elder rolled his eyes, turning back to Bernard. “What did the Dispatchers say?”
“It was Edmond. He took a look around the hall-”
“All the equipment was put away?”
“Not exactly,” Bernard sighed. The cat leapt out of his arms and scampered under a nearby bed. “Edmond came at me with his phase unit, Tomas raised his to defend me.”
“Goddamn it, Tomas!” Max yelled.
“It’s all right,” Bernard assured him. “They didn’t seem worried about that. They just wanted to talk to Quentin.”
“What did they say to him?”
“I don’t know. They dragged him outside.”
“Yeesh. Well that explains the blood on the sidewalk.”
“Yeah,” Bernard cringed. “They busted his mouth pretty good.”
“So he just ran back to my room…why?”
“You had better talk to him. He seemed really upset, and I know Quentin’s not the type to break that easy.”
“All right…” Max trailed off. For a moment, he thought back to what happened down in the old courthouse, and that Bernard mentioned something about the Dispatchers leaving due to some emergency with an anomaly. He hoped that wherever his guardian angel had zapped off to, it was somewhere safe. Don’t lose your head, the voice had said.
“You okay Max?”
“Yeah, no…just something I thought I saw at the courthouse. This thing…this boy…or at least I think it was a boy, I can’t be sure. A squad of Dispatchers showed up there chasing it. They thought it was an anomaly, but it was way off their charts from anything they’d encountered before. The lights were flickering a lot. Far more than usual. And in between each one, this thing would appear and knocked them all out until I could get to the records room. A kid with a shaved head…”
“Man, you sure you’re not seeing an Igor mirage from being in that desert all morning?” Bernard laughed.
“I swore I saw something though. Like maybe a Dalishkova gauntlet, or-”
“A Dalishkova gauntlet? No one’s ever got their hands on one of those!”
“I know what I saw.”
“Whatever you say,” Bernard feigned a yawn.
“Bastard!” Max chuckled, shoving him. “Well, I suppose I’ll talk to Quentin. Make sure the boys are ready for lunch, I’m starved.”
“Be right back.”
The young elder lumbered up the stairwell to his flat. His feet ached with every step and he needed another shower. It seemed that he had come home to far more questions than answers, and it wasn’t even lunchtime. Of course he had yet to encounter Lucien down at the mess hall, which was another conversation he wasn’t looking forward to. Still, Max braced himself for whatever came next, though he reckoned there wasn’t much left that could surprise him after a day like this.
He knocked on the door to be sure Quentin was ready to talk first. He had no idea how the Dispatchers would have found him if he’d used the crawl space he had been so adamant about, though some of the officers were known to tear up the walls and floorboards if they were desperate enough. Max didn’t sense that was the case here. It was quite possible he had gone quietly.
“Quent?” Max called. He could hear muffled cries coming from the far wall close to the window. “Are you all right?” The elder’s heart was pounding. He hated seeing any of the boys so upset. A painful lump began to form in his throat as he became aware of the contrast between the boys laughing and playing downstairs, and Quentin crying on the other side of his door. They must have been rough with him, the elder thought.
“I’ll be fine!” he called.
“Mind if I come in?”
There was a long pause.
“It’s your room,” the boy whimpered.
Max opened the door and peered around the edge. Quentin was sitting up on the radiator with his knees drawn up to his chest, gazing absently out the window. He seemed to be tracing random patterns in the condensation on the glass with his fingertips. Every now and then, a shiver tore through his fragile body as he struggled not to cry. The elder shut the door and stepped over to join him. Quentin shifted his feet over to the sill so Max could sit. Both were hesitant to speak further.
The young elder placed a finger on the left end of the glass, tracing a curved line upwards and swirling a small design. The orphan beside him formed one going down on the opposite side. Keeping his finger pressed, Max drew an angled line over to the right. Quentin curved his up to the left. Max looked over at him and decided to try writing a word.
The boy managed a thin smile and replied.
Want to talk?
Not really. I just hurt. A lot.
Max felt his lower lip start to tremble and wiped away the emerging tears.
You’re my brother. I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I want you to be okay.
Thanks. I will be. Don’t be sorry.
You know I love you all…right?
Quentin nodded, and the two pulled one another into an embrace. Max cared about his orphans more than most of them knew. They were his only family, after all; of course it was rare he ever acknowledged it. He tried to be a leader more than a father figure to them, though sometimes the latter got the better of him. Once they let go, Quentin leaned onto Max’s shoulder and looked out the window as the elder draped an arm around him.
“Hey Max?” the boy asked.
“What is it?”
“You know how Lucien said you were hiding an Outlander?”
“Yeah,” the elder replied curiously. “I mean, that’s what you were before we got your documents forged. But you’re here now. You’re a legitimate Cavarice citizen.”
“But I am an Outlander.” He shifted toward Max, pulling up his shirt to reveal a large branding scar of the letter ‘O’ in the middle of his chest. “This is what the Dispatchers did to my kind when they exiled us. And they warned us if we ever came back…they would do far worse.” He took the elder’s hand and held it over his heart.
Max swallowed hard. “I promise I would never let that happen again. Not to you or anyone else. You’re one of us.”
Quentin still appeared troubled.
“There’s something I have to tell you…not right now. But soon,” the boy sighed. “When the time is right.”
He looked as if he might cry again. He didn’t. But something else bothered Max about this particular expression, and how the boy’s grasp on his hand suddenly tightened. There was a deep fear in his eyes. He recalled seeing the same in the face of Captain Georges just before Igor stabbed him. Igor. The elder trusted Quentin to speak of it when he was ready of course, though it was not easy to watch him being torn up inside. As Max lay his palm flat over the boy’s chest, he felt his heart pounding away like a locomotive. The most he could do was reassure him everything would be all right. He shuddered to think even that might not be enough.
“There’s nothing I can do, is there?”
“No. But I’ll be fine.”
“So we should get to lunch, eh?” Quentin deflected, pulling away and heading for the door.
“Yeah. I just need another shower. I’ll be down in a bit.”
“Thank you…for always being there.”
The boy left. Max walked over and shut the door, listening to him skip down the stairs back to his bed in the hall. He turned around and leaned back against it. Slid to the floor, held his head in his hands. More questions plagued his mind, even as he opened his eyes again to stare absently at the messages still scrawled on the window pane. What the bloody hell is happening in this orphanage? But he didn’t want to dwell on it anymore. He got up, stripped down again, and took another shower.
And this time, he didn’t turn on the radio.