Unheeded Warning: Synergy by DZAuthor AKA DZMom

Category:Maximum Ride
Genre:Adventure, Romance
Characters:Fang, Max
Published:2008-12-02 11:26:49
Updated:2011-01-07 12:11:33
Packaged:2021-05-12 13:15:44
Summary:IN PROGRESS. The Flock faces danger while Max faces her worst enemy. Who can she trust? Does anyone ever tell her the truth? What really happened after The Final Warning? Rated Teen for Limes - non-explicit sexual activity - and violence. AUDIO - SEE CH 1

Table of Contents

1. Chapter 1 WITH AUDIO, 2010
2. A Shield REVISED DEC 08
3. Food For All
4. Groom Time REVISED DEC 08
5. Campers, Unite!
6. Stabilization
7. What's Happening?
8. New Perspective
9. News Flash
10. Peace
11. Come What May
12. Trepidation
13. Blackberry Briar
14. Hostile Territory
15. Together
16. The Unexpected
17. Love Alters Not
18. Reunion
19. Mom
20. Something Is Different
21. Leader of the Flock
22. Girls' Night In
23. Living Daily Life, For Once
24. Playin' Basketball
25. How 'Not' to Make Up
26. Worst Nightmare
27. Life's Funny That Way
28. Separateness
29. But Love Bears It Out
30. Earnestly Chasing Max
31. Unwavering Resolve
32. The Flock
33. The Flock cont'd part 2
34. Homecoming
35. Surveillance
36. Cuckoo Club
37. Spitifre and Spice and Everything Nice
38. Dragon Spy
39. Reveal
40. Listen and Learn
41. Down Under

1. Chapter 1 WITH AUDIO, 2010

Word count is doubled.

What others said in reviews ...

"I think I love it already." Rootlessdream, 2008-12-07

"Lol Max bit Fang." Eighthnote, 2008-12-07

"Well, the one thing I love about this story is the craziness!" Kris{(^.^{), 2009-03-22

November 29, 2010
This contains two versions of Chapter One: a present tense re-write, followed by the original past tense version.
Chapter One is the only present tense chapter posted to date.


Check out the differences between past and present tense versions.

Past tense allows for a more literary tone.

In present tense, I want to describe everything, especially character's actions, instead of just telling the reader something.

Ex. 1, Fang was deep in thought was omitted because a reader knows this simply by reading: Fang stares at Iggy with a peculiar expression on his face.

Ex. 2, Fang flew off immediately was replaced: Without any more words, Fang flies off.


You can download or stream 3-minute mp3 files at {http:/ yourlisten. com/ user/ public/ ?username= Dee%20Zoble} (cut and paste inside the {funky brackets}, and remove the spaces to get the correct web address).

This is my first ever audio recording. I edited the audio, but there are still some weird sounds mixed in like the crunch of my headset's microphone arm when it jiggled during recording.

The audio quality gets better as the tracks progress. The worst audio is track 1. I mixed the music into the track before I learned how to edit the spoken audio.

[Audio track numbers will be shown, centered above the text.]

- 2,330 Words -

[Track 1]

A Maximum Ride Fan Fiction

by DZMom

Audio recording by Dee Zoble [author's voice acting name]. Royalty free music downloaded from {www. musopen. com} [(cut and paste inside the {funky brackets}, and remove the spaces to get the correct web address]. Sonata 14 in C Sharp Minor Moonlight Op. 27, No. 2 by Ludwig van Beethoven, contributed and performed by Paul Pitman.

[Original] Author Note

It is so much fun to play with Max and the Flock on their days off that I decided to submit my own fan-fic. The characters and concept of the Maximum Ride series belong to its rightful owner, James Patterson. A special nod of thanks to Fang's Blog for pointing me to this site. Many Maximum Ride Fan Fic stories by other authors have inspired, intrigued and captivated me. Thank you for all of your imagination and playfulness.

Chapter 1

No Worries

The Flock stands around drooling as Iggy and Angel unpack a picnic basket. Iggy, a lean and tall boy, is one of the oldest members of the Flock. He holds up sandwiches, one at time, announcing, "Whole wheat bread, white … who used pumpernickel?"

The Flock snarfs down the sandwiches. Smells of peanut butter and strawberry jelly waft through the crisp air. Nudge's stomach grumbles. The rumbling echoes around in her air sacs.

"I'm hungry," she shrugs sheepishly. She is probably eleven or twelve years old, but no one in the Flock knows their ages for sure.

Angel, the youngest, drops a half-eaten sandwich onto the ground. She stands up stiffly. "Where are they coming from?" she asks.

The rest of the Flock stares at her.

Angel scrunches up her cute face. "They think like a commune … led by radio signals."

Iggy is frozen, standing beside the picnic basket. His head tilts to one side, listening. "It's not alive - not like an Eraser. These are tiny living organisms, working together. A computer. Or several computers."

[Track 2]

Angel's voice trembles, "They're creepy. Their only thought is, 'Kill it.'"

So much for a quiet afternoon in the glorious sunshine. Max is the appointed Leader of the Flock. She slides next to Angel and hugs her closely. "Kill what, Ange?"

Angel creases her eyebrows in concentration. "Mostly they will kill something … I don't know what they mean. It sounds like dyoxy and nu-clee and acid."

"DNA," Iggy says. "Deoxyrihbonucleic acid."

Max shoots him a look. "And you know that because?"

"I'm smart," Iggy states.

Max rolls her eyes and looks at Fang. He's the same age as Max and Iggy. Fang stares at Iggy with a peculiar expression on his face.

Turning her attention back to Angel, Max prompts, "Okay, so they want to kill any DNA they find? Everything in their path?"

Angel slowly says, "They know exactly which string of DNA they are looking for. They will only destroy that kind. Other DNA they will ignore. They can read it somehow."

Flippin' fantastic. Max gently turns Angel's chin up. She searches Angel's fearful eyes. Touching a wisp of Angel's blonde locks, she promises, "Don't worry, sweetie. We can handle anything Itex sends our way."

The kids in the Flock are 98% human and 2% avian, thanks to recombinant DNA experiments performed on them as in utero test subjects. They have been on the run, avoiding the whitecoats that had treated them no better than lab rats for most of their lives.

Max straightens and glances at Fang. His face is so damn unreadable. It would really help to have his opinion. Right now!

Max takes a deep breath. "Split up! Iggy, Gazzy and Total. Fang and Nudge. Me and Angel."

The mutant hybrid Total, who looks mostly like a black Scottish terrier, scratches his ear and says, "For once I'm glad Akila was too moody to accompany me on this outing."

"I want to be with Total," Angel whimpers. She was the one who had discovered Total and seized him from an experimental laboratory in New York.

[Track 3]

Max says firmly, "Iggy has the best chance of keeping Total safe with that carrier he snagged from Mom's place."

Angel morphs into a perfect cherub, halo and all. She can change into whatever she wants, if she practices enough. She also is capable of manipulating people's thoughts. Angel's voice softens and she coyly demands, "But Max, Total is coming with us. I know you want Total with us."

Max flashes an angry look at Angel. "No!" Then Max sends a thought to Angel. Never try that again! Not on the Flock. Not even on your brother Gazzy. Do you understand?

Angel frowns and returns to her normal adorable appearance.

Max looks over at Nudge, Gazzy and Fang staring into the sky. Everyone in the Flock, except for Iggy, has hawk-like eyesight. Max just barely detects strange floating clouds approaching from the Southwest.

Iggy senses the movement of the particles, even from such a distance. He muses, "Is that how a virus moves through air?"

"I wondered when they'd loose a bird flu on us," Fang mutters, barely audibly.

Total grumbles, "I rather preferred the torturing and killing. Watching all of you die of the flu will be terribly boring."

"I hate this part," Gazzy peeps. He is Angel's eight-year-old brother, older than Angel by two years.

Fang snaps at Total, "Watch your mouth, dead weight. Whatever it is will have to get through me before it hurts anyone else."

Total lifts up his tiny wings and stretches them out in protest. He really should just leave them tucked in, because he still can't fly with them.

Max casts a sideways glance at Fang, curious about how he plans on protecting everyone. She feels the adrenaline surge of her fight or flight defenses boiling over. "Go! Go! Go!" she shouts. "Report to the eaglet ledge by dawn."

Angel nervously fingers her teddy bear's fur. Max snatches Angel into her arms. Then she goes airborne and uses her unique high-speed flight acceleration. She leaves the Flock behind.

Once in the calming, cold sky, Max slows and turns to look back. The Flock on the ground looks like frozen specks.

[Track 4]

"Get out!" she shouts, knowing that her voice will be picked up by their keen hearing.

Max quiets her voice and gives Angel a tight hug. "Angel, we both gotta fly now."

"Okay, Max," Angel says with complete trust in her voice. When Max lets go, Angel stretches out her snowy wings and flutters below Max.

Fang watches Max disappear into the cottony white clouds. He abruptly looks away and grabs Nudge's light brown arm. "Heading west?" He grins, unfurling his massive, black wings.

Fang lets go of Nudge and leaps into the air. "Nudge …" he urges gently.

Gazzy flicks out his wings and hovers above Iggy's tall height. "To the river?" Gazzy suggests in a quiet, nervous voice.

"To the river," Iggy confirms. He holds out his arms and Total leaps into them. Then Iggy stuffs the dog into a baby carrier while running and leaping into the air. His long wing span elevates him above Gazzy quickly.

Fang flies in a circle above the wide-open plateau. Swooping low to the ground, he warns, "Nudge, we have to leave now!"

Nudge stares at the sky and points. "Look, Fang! It's turning away from us. It's heading for … Max. Or Angel. Poor Angel, I hope she doesn't get hurt. But what would we do without Max? Fang, what would we do?" Nudge tries her best to hold back the horror in her thoughts. Her voice betrays her failed attempt at bravery.

Fang reluctantly turns his gaze away from the menacing cloud chasing Max and Angel. He tells Nudge, "First, let's get the guys to turn back. You'll stay with Gazzy. I'm going to need Iggy to follow me to Max." He cruises toward the boys.

Nudge wipes a stray tear from her cheek. She unfolds her wings and runs after Fang, until she lifts off.

Nudge follows Fang to the squiggles in the sky that are Iggy and Gazzy. As they close the distance, Fang shouts into the wind, "Iggy. Turn back. Now!"

Iggy hears and whips around immediately. Gazzy soon follows.

Fang looks Nudge in her eyes. In a gentle voice he commands her, "Nudge, listen closely. I want you to stay with Gazzy and Total on the plateau. But if anything unusual approaches or you think there's a threat, fly to the river. Hide behind the waterfall if you have to."

Nudge's eyes are wide. "'Kay," she nods. She is unusually silent.

[Track 5]

Iggy approaches. Gazzy flaps his wings frantically, trying to catch up.

Fang tells Iggy, "Total and the Gasman stay with Nudge. You're comin' with me."

Without any more words, Fang flies off. Iggy opens the baby carrier and drops Total into Nudge's arms. "Bye," Nudge manages to say.

Iggy swings back around and assures her, "You'll be safe. We'll be back right away. I promise, Okay?"

"Uh huh," Nudge whispers.

Iggy turns to pursue Fang but hesitates. He swoops over Nudge once more, angling the tip of his wing to gently breeze over Nudge's black, frizzy hair. Then he shoots after the sound of Fang's wings beating the air.

When Fang sees Iggy above him, he shouts, "The organisms turned to follow Max and Angel. We have to reach them first so that we can shield them."

Iggy shouts back, "We can cut a course through the high pressure air current. It's the only way we can beat their time."

"Good plan. You take the lead, Ig. Keep your bearing so that you can find your way back. Without me, if necessary."

Iggy pushes forward with determination. "What about Max?"

"You'll take Angel. I promised Max that I would never leave her."

Iggy frowns and says in an angry, low voice, "Now is not the time for chivalry."

Fang ignores him. "If those organisms are after Angel, it's up to you to protect her. Max and I will join you as soon as I know Max isn't their target."

Iggy pushes forward through the heavy drafts. He grouses, "They're after Max. You'll both be gone, and the rest of us …"

Fang grimaces. "Ig, you're the leader of the Flock now."

Iggy reminds himself to flap his wings. He bends his head down as he resumes his pace and takes back the lead to press across the air current. He has an innate sense of the direction Max was flying in, which is why he, the blind kid, is leading through the current.

They break through the high pressure current and Fang sees Max a mile ahead. In a low, commanding voice he says, "I'm going to send Angel your way. Don't lose her!"

Iggy is startled by Fang's voice. "Yeah," is all he manages to say.

Fang bursts forward on his powerful wings. Iggy hears their wings beating. He lags behind Fang. Not because he can't keep up. He knows he could out fly Fang. He just realizes that it is essential to protect Angel. And the only way Angel will turn away from Max is if she thinks Iggy needs help with navigating.

[Track 6]

Angel glances back and sees Iggy flying alone, aimlessly. "Max, Iggy's here and he's scared because Fang made him leader of the Flock." Angel glides next to Max.

Max looks behind her. Fang flies above her, out of Max's range of sight. She fixes her eyes on the menacing cloud of organisms that steadily approach. "Those organisms … they followed us! Angel, listen to me. You have to go with Iggy, okay sweetheart?"

"Okay, Max." Angel begins to veer away from Max but stops. "Those clouds are getting awful close to Iggy now!"

Max gives Angel a reassuring look. "Honey, Iggy will protect you. Just tell him you're coming – in your mind – and tell him where the clouds are headed."

Angel nods. "I love you, Max," she whispers as she flies away.

"Oh Angel, I love you, too," Max says under her breath, confident that Angel will hear her words.

The clouds of particles don't shift direction when Angel flies to Iggy. Max knows that she alone is their target. "Let's have some fun," Max jeers as she draws the clouds further away from her beloved Angel.

Fang intercepts Angel, grabbing her waist and stopping her in mid-flight. She looks into his fierce eyes. "Go with Iggy and don't come back!" he says firmly. Angel is shocked by the power in his arms as he throws her in a wide arc above the approaching clouds.

"Look out, Iggy!" Angel screams as she is propelled in the air toward him, unable to manage slowing down with her wings. Max turns toward the sound of Angel's shout. A brief flash of black covers her vision. She doesn't see Angel at all. Straining her neck to search for Angel, she feels her wings retract involuntarily. Steely hands pin her arms against her body.

Max waits for her body to plummet to the mountains below. Instead, she is whisked along by a silent predator. She struggles against the vice grip. "Not going to another School," she spits. "And not going to die a fourteen-year-old, either." She curls her head forward and sees wiry arms holding her. With a feral grunt she clamps her teeth on the flesh of her attacker.

Whatever it is, her attacker doesn't flinch. It seems to Max that it doesn't even recognize pain. Not another Gozen.

Max looks up and sees the tops of trees zooming toward her face. She tries to free her arms and kick with her legs. Her effort has no result. She feels powerless, for once. "If there is a God …" she whispers.

A soft laugh breezes past her ear. There is something familiar about that laugh that makes her even more terrified. Her muscles begin to lock down. She curls into fetal position. She doesn't want to play dead, but her body takes over.

[End of audio recordings]

- - End Chapter One - -

- 2,180 words -

Original Chapter One - late December 2008 edits applied
(with minor corrections *blush*)
- true original version has been lost - - if you have a copy, contact me so I can post it -

The six bird-kids in the Flock stood around drooling as Iggy and Angel were unpacking a picnic basket. Iggy was one of the three oldest members of the flock. He held up sandwiches one at at time, announcing, "Whole wheat bread, white … who used pumpernickel?"

The kids in the Flock were 98% human and 2% avian, thanks to recombinant DNA experiments performed on them as in utero test subjects. They were on the run, avoiding the whitecoats that had treated them no better than lab rats for most of their lives.

As the Flock started snarfing down sandwiches, the smell of peanut butter and strawberry jelly wafted through the air. Nudge's stomach grumbled and the sounds echoed around in her air sacs. "I'm hungry." She shrugged sheepishly. She was just three years younger than the oldest teens.

Angel, the youngest, dropped her half-eaten sandwich onto the ground. She stood up stiffly. "Where are they coming from?" she asked. "They think like a commune led by radio signals."

Iggy stood frozen. His head titled to the side as he listened. "It's not alive, not like an Eraser. These are like tiny living organisms, working together like a computer. Several computers."

Angel's voice trembled, "They're creepy. Their only thought is, 'Kill it.'"

So much for a quiet afternoon in the glorious sunshine. Max was the appointed Leader of the Flock, the same age as Iggy. She slid next to Angel and hugged her closely. "Kill what, Ange?"

Angel creased her eyebrows in concentration. "Mostly they will kill something … I don't know what they mean. It sounds like dyoxy and nu-clee and acid."

"DNA," Iggy said. "Deoxyribonucleic acid."

Max shot him a look. "And you know that because?"

"I'm smart," Iggy stated.

Max looked at Fang, the third teen who shared Max and Iggy's age. He was deep in thought, staring at Iggy with a peculiar expression on his face.

Turning her attention back to Angel, Max prompted, "Okay, so they want to kill any DNA they find? Everything in their path?"

Angel slowly said, "They know exactly which string of DNA they are looking for. They will only destroy that kind. Other DNA they will ignore. They can read it somehow."

Flippin' fantastic. Max gently turned Angel's chin to her face. She searched Angel's fearful eyes. Touching a wisp of Angel's blonde locks, she promised, "Don't worry, sweetie. We can handle anything Itex sends our way."

Max straightened and glanced at Fang's now impassive face. His face is so damn unreadable. It would really help to have his opinion. Right now!

Max took a deep breath. "Split up! Iggy, Gazzy and Total. Fang and Nudge. Me and Angel."

The mutant hybrid Total, who looked mostly like a black Scottish terrier, scratched his ear and said, "For once I'm glad Akila was too moody to accompany me on this outing."

"I want to be with Total," Angel whimpered. She was the one who had discovered Total and seized him from an experimental laboratory.

Max said firmly, "Iggy has the best chance of keeping Total safe with that carrier he snagged from Mom's place."

Angel morphed into a perfect cherub, halo and all. She could change into whatever she wanted, if she practiced enough. She also was capable of manipulating people's thoughts. Angel's voice softened and she coyly demanded, "But Max, Total is coming with us. I know you want Total with us."

Max flashed an angry look at Angel. "No!" Then Max sent a thought to Angel. Never try that again! Not on the Flock. Not even on your brother Gazzy. Do you understand?

Angel frowned and returned to her normal adorable appearance.

Max saw Nudge, Gazzy and Fang staring into the sky. All of them except for Iggy had hawk-like eyesight. Max just barely detected strange floating clouds approaching from the south-west.

Iggy sensed the movement of the particles, even from such a distance. He mused, "Is that how a virus moves through air?"

"I wondered when they'd loose a bird flu on us," Fang muttered, barely audibly.

Total grumbled, "I rather preferred the torturing and killing. Watching all of you die of the flu will be terribly boring."

"I hate this part," Gazzy peeped. He was only two years older than Angel.

Fang snapped at Total, "Watch your mouth, dead weight. Whatever it is will have to get through me before it hurts anyone else."

Total lifted up his tiny wings and stretched them out in protest. He really should have left them tucked in, because he still couldn't fly with them.

Max cast a side glance at Fang, curious about how he planned on protecting everyone. Then she felt the adrenaline surge of her fight or flight defenses boiling over. "Go! Go! Go!" she shouted. "Report to the eaglet ledge by dawn."

Angel was nervously fingering her teddy bear Celeste's fur. Max snatched Angel into her arms. Then she went air born and used her unique high-speed flight skill to accelerate. She left the Flock behind as tiny specks.

Once in the calming, cold sky, Max slowed and turned to look back. The Flock on the ground seemed like frozen specks. "Get out!" she shouted, knowing that her voice would be picked up by their keen hearing.

Max quieted her voice and gave Angel a tight hug. "Angel, we both gotta fly now."

"Okay, Max," Angel said with complete trust in her voice. When Max let go, Angel stretched out her snowy wings and fluttered below Max.


Fang watched Max disappear into the clouds. He abruptly looked away and grabbed Nudge's light brown arm. "Heading west?" He grinned, unfurling his massive, dark wings.

Fang let go of Nudge and leapt into the air. "Nudge …" he said gently.

Gazzy flicked out his wings and hovered high above Iggy's tall height. "To the river?" Gazzy suggested in a quiet, nervous voice.

"To the river," Iggy confirmed. He held out his arms and Total leapt into them. Then Iggy stuffed the dog into a baby carrier while running and leaping into the air. His long wing span elevated him above Gazzy quickly.

Fang flew in a circle above the wide-open plateau. Swooping low to the ground, he warned, "Nudge, we have to leave now!"

Nudge stared at the sky and pointed. "Look, Fang! It's turning away from us. It's heading for … Max. Or Angel. Poor Angel, I hope she doesn't get hurt. But what would we do without Max? Fang, what would we do?" Nudge was trying her best to hold back the horror in her thoughts. Her voice betrayed her failed attempt at bravery.

Fang told Nudge, "First, let's get the guys to turn back. You'll stay with Gazzy. I'm going to need Iggy to follow me to Max."

Nudge wiped a stray tear from her cheek. She unfolded her wings and ran after Fang, until she lifted off.

Nudge followed Fang to the specks in the sky that were Iggy and Gazzy. As they began to close the distance, Fang shouted into the wind, "Iggy. Turn back. Now!"

Iggy heard and whipped around immediately. Gazzy soon followed.

Fang looked at Nudge in the eyes. In a gentle voice he commanded her, "Nudge, listen closely. I want you to stay with Gazzy and Total on the plateau. But if anything unusual approaches or you think there's a threat, fly to the river. Hide behind the waterfall if you have to."

Nudge's eyes were wide. "'Kay," she nodded. She was unusually silent.

Iggy approached, beating his wings powerfully. Within a minute he was already much closer to Fang and Nudge than Gazzy. Fang told him, "Total and the Gasman stay with Nudge. You're comin' with me."

Fang flew off immediately. Iggy dropped Total into Nudge's arms.

"Bye," Nudge managed to say as Iggy's wings beat the air in powerful strokes.

Iggy swung back around and assured her, "You'll be safe. We'll be back right away. I promise, Okay?"

"Uh huh," Nudge whispered.

Iggy hesitated. Swooping over Nudge once more, he angled the tip of his wing to gently breeze over Nudge's black, frizzy hair. Then he shot after the sound of Fang's wings beating the air.

When Fang saw Iggy flying above him, he explained, "The organisms turned to follow Max and Angel. We are going to reach them first so that we can shield them."

Iggy shouted back, "We can cut a course through the high pressure air current. It's the only way we can make it there first."

"Good plan. You take the lead, Ig. Keep your bearing so that you can find your way back. Without me, if necessary."

Iggy pushed forward with determination. "What about Max?"

"You'll take Angel. I promised Max that I would never leave her."

Iggy frowned and said in an angry, low voice, "Now is not the time for chivalry."

Fang ignored him and replied, "If those organisms are after Angel, it's up to you to protect her. Max and I will join you as soon as I know Max isn't their target."

Iggy pushed forward through the heavy drafts. He groused, "They're after Max. You'll both be gone, and the rest of us …"

Fang grimaced. "Ig, you're the leader of the Flock now."

Iggy had to remind himself to flap his wings. He bent his head down as he resumed his pace and took back the lead to press across the air current. He had an innate sense of the direction Max was flying in, which is why he was leading through the current.

They broke through the high pressure current and Fang saw Max a mile ahead. In a low, commanding voice he said, "I'm going to send Angel your way. Don't lose her!"

Iggy was startled by Fang's voice. "Yeah," was all he managed to say.

Fang shot ahead on his powerful wings. Iggy heard Fang's wings beating the wind. He followed a bit slower than Fang. Not because he couldn't keep up. He knew he could out fly Fang. He just realized that it was essential to protect Angel. And the only way Angel would turn away from Max was if she thought Iggy needed help with navigating.


Angel glanced back and saw Iggy flying alone, aimlessly. "Max, Iggy's here and he's scared because Fang made him leader of the Flock." Angel glided next to Max.

Max looked behind them. At the same moment, Fang flew in a wide arc above them, out of Max's range of sight. She fixed her eyes on the menacing cloud of organisms that were steadily approaching her. "Those organisms … they followed us! Angel, listen to me. You have to go with Iggy, okay sweetheart?"

"Okay, Max." Angel began to veer away from Max. Then her voice trembled as she told Max, "Those clouds are getting awful close to Iggy now!"

Max gave Angel a reassuring look. "Honey, Iggy will protect you from the organisms. Just tell him you're coming – in your mind – and tell him where the clouds are headed."

"I love you, Max," Angel whispered as she flew away.

"Oh Angel, I love you, too," Max said under her breath, confident that Angel would hear her words.

When Angel flew toward Iggy, the clouds of tiny particles didn't shift in her direction. Max knew that she alone was their target. "Let's have some fun," Max jeered as she flew away, drawing the clouds further away from her beloved Angel.

Fang intercepted Angel. "Go with Iggy and don't come back!" he said firmly. Angel saw his fierce eyes just before Fang used his powerful arms to throw Angel in a wide arc above the approaching clouds.

"Look out, Iggy!" Angel screamed as she was propelled in the air toward him. Max turned to see what happened to Angel. She saw a brief flash of black in her eyes. Suddenly her wings retracted involuntarily and steely hands pinned her arms against her body.

Max waited for her body to plummet to the mountains below. Instead, she was whisked along by this silent predator. She struggled against the vice grip. "Not going to another School," she spit. Finally she curled her head forward and saw the wiry arms of her attacker. With a feral grunt she clamped her teeth on the flesh.

Whatever it was didn't flinch. It didn't even recognize pain.

Max looked up in time to see herself being flown headfirst into the tops of trees. She tried to free her arms and kick with her legs, but felt powerless, for once. "If there is a God …" she whispered.

A soft laugh breezed past her ear. There was something familiar about that laugh that made her even more terrified. Her muscles began to lock down as she curled up into a fetal position. She didn't want to play dead, but her body took over.

© 2008-2010 Delia Noble Zhang

2. A Shield REVISED DEC 08

Author Note December 29, 2008 /Monologues of Max and Fang are added to the scenes. Now, instead of the narrator telling what they're thinking, they are talking out their thoughts. It adds a nice effect, plus it allows Max to explain why she takes action./

Iggy heard Angel whizzing past. He listened for the droning of the organisms computing their continuous calculations. They were drifting on an unerring path toward Max and Fang.

He lost track of Angel's trajectory. That's just great, he thought to himself, chagrinned that on his first day as leader he had already lost one member of the flock. "Now's not a good time to develop your new super-speed powers, Angel," he shouted into the air, not knowing where Angel was.

He heard Angel fluttering toward him. "It wasn't me, Iggy! Fang threw me here."

Iggy reached Angel with two beats of his wings. "Threw you?"

"It's like his arms are extremely powerful – it must be his new skill."

Iggy thought about it, questioning in his throat, "Hmm."

Angel flew closer to Iggy. She was unconsciously whispering, as if she had a secret. "Something else is going on too. Things are going to be different after today."

Iggy scoffed, "Like Max and Fang will be dead!"

Angel clutched Celeste. "Fang won't let anything happen. He's got a plan. It's just that things are going to be … different. That's all."

"Really?" Iggy laughed. "Things are different already," he said sarcastically. "I'm the leader now, says Fang."

"I know," Angel smiled, but Iggy didn't hear it in her voice. He was thinking about too many other things to pay attention to that nuance.

He said gruffly, "We'll meet up with Nudge and Gasman at the plateau. From there, we'll go to … somewhere." The weight of leadership was heavy on his shoulders. His stomach flipped uncomfortably as he thought of the three youngest members of the Flock looking to him, the blind kid, for direction.

Angel flew as close as she could to Iggy, careful not to clip his wings. "You're great at leading us, Iggy. Being blind isn't a bad thing for you. You sense things that the rest of us ignore."

Iggy grinned. Now he knew how Max felt when Angel read her mind. "Thanks," he said.

Iggy couldn't have asked for a better prepared Flock. He knew right then that they would continue to thrive. It would only be a matter of time before Max and Fang showed up, he hoped.


Max closed her eyes and tried to tuck her face away from the branches she was crashing through. Then everything stopped moving. She couldn't see because it was completely dark.

She knew she was alive. Her heart beat rapidly and her breath came in short puffs that seemed to echo back to her immediately.

Max willed herself to become calm. Her breathing slowed and returned to normal. She was kneeling with her head nearly touching her knees. She struggled against the vice that gripped her arms and pressed down on her wings, but was still unable to free herself. "I will not give up," she vowed through clenched teeth.

Behind her she heard the muffled sounds of the droning organic computers congregating. She heard clicks and snaps that sounded like a robot growing increasingly agitated.

Listening very carefully, Max heard the droning and clicking sounds rushing toward her and then being repelled by something. That's how she knew. She wasn't being held captive. She was being protected.

Max closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her muscles relaxed and she retracted her wings completely.

Faint breaths made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Her feathers tingled at their quills. This was such a familiar sensation … and she tried to remember. Then she sighed as she remembered one May morning that seemed so long ago. She had stood in a kitchen, opening cabinets, and later looking for food in the refrigerator. The feeling that something was lurking behind her gave her goose bumps that morning. She remembered whipping around and looking up into the inscrutable eyes of Fang.

I was still close to his height then. I could have leaned into him and kissed those warm, thick lips of his. Oh God, the mere thought of those soft lips sends quivers of excitement down my spine.

Back then, I never thought of Fang as anything other than a bother … an annoying brother. But now … anytime I try to sleep, I look into his dark eyes, partially obscured by jagged black bangs. I can barely shut my eyes without his cool, olive complexion kissing my dreams good night.

In the stillness Max breathlessly whispered his name, "Fang."

The droning particles were supercharged by the sound of her voice. She heard them hurling toward her and bouncing back as if an invisible force field was protecting her. The clacks and clicks became frantic, as they fought off their own eminent deaths.

Her mind drifted to Fang's special ability to camouflage himself, becoming nearly invisible. She remembered the night his skill was revealed in a city park.

That night it was like Fang never existed. That's how completely invisible he was. One minute he was sitting in that tree, alone. The next minute, he was gone.

I wouldn't have been able to go on without Fang. I would have given up. The flock would have been captured by Itex. We would be back in dog crates, back in experimental labs with probes and wires and heartless whitecoats who have never known what it means to need someone the way I need Fang.

Fang, motionless, covered Max. His body leaned over hers. He sheltered her with his wings.

Those stupid little computers! Seeking me, they can only find Fang. Finally someone other than me has met up with that wall that Fang puts up. Someone else has to suffer the frustration of not breaching his unbreakable defenses.

Fang's heartbeat fluttered in Max's ear as she lay curled underneath him. Air whooshed through his air sacks. She listened to his rhythmic breathing.

Max closed her eyes. Safe. Hidden from all my enemies, no one can harm me now. Because Fang is here, protecting me. Like my personal shield. His wings are like an eagle's protecting his nest.

Max lowered her hands and touched thick, gnarled tree bark under her legs, As she moved, Fang loosened his arms almost imperceptibly. Very slowly, and very carefully, Max began to roll over. As if knowing what Max wanted, Fang's rough hands gently steadied her and guided her around. Now instead of crouching beneath Fang on her knees she managed to lay on her back. She stretched her legs by straddling Fang's waist.

My captor's eyes. Did I do something to deserve a front row seat viewing those amazing dark windows into the soul of my favorite predator?

Here for a moment, and then gone again. His camouflage tricks truly are going to make me crazy.

His breathing. That's how I know he is still with me. And the warmth of his body under my legs. I know he is here.

Max lay very still. When she was completely still, Fang appeared before her eyes.

So this is how I break through his disappearing act. I can drown in these eyes. If only I could break through his stone expression ... I suppose not even Iggy's sensitive fingers know how to read Fang's face … if Fang would ever let him close enough to try. Does Fang let anyone get close enough to penetrate his guarded face and invade his thoughts?

Outside the Fang cocoon the noise of droning particles began fading. They weren't leaving. They were simply expiring.

I would have died if Fang wasn't here. And Fang would have died if that's what it took to protect me. He might be willing to die for anyone in the flock, I suppose. But today he came to rescue me.

Did Angel really know the truth about Fang when she told me he loves me? I think he really must love me. Why else would he risk his life fighting something as intangible as these death threats carried on the wind?


Fang's head hovered over Max.

I could look into those bright eyes and die a million deaths gladly. Those eyes shine the brightest of all in the world. They open to her soul, I swear.

Why the frack doesn't Max see that I'm always going to be here for her? If she would just stop running away every time we locked lips! Jeez, Max. Do you try to drive me insane? Because I'm really close to losing my mind over you, pup-girl.

If I just touched your cheeks, if I just felt your face in my hand … God! That would be better than heaven.

Every frickin' time I try to hold you, do you have to move away? Just let me belong, Max. That's all I'm asking of you. Let me be someone to you, not just another mutant bird-kid in your flock. Let me be your mutant. We could be the poster children for Avian-American young love.

Fang, get a grip. Get a grip before you mess up! If you kiss Max right now, you know she'll run. Then she'll die. And everything you've done to protect her will be useless.

But take in this peace. Being so close to Max, breathing her breath, this is joy. When Max whispers, "Fang" just the way she did, I still have a last strand of hope that she might love me back one day.


Max was lying perfectly still. Her eyes were swallowed up in Fang's black pools. Then she gasped.

Love. Deep, abiding love. And so many other emotions. How can he possibly have all of these thoughts inside of him when he says nothing, shows nothing on his face?

Fang is afraid. Afraid of dying, of being unlovable, of being unable to love. He really is afraid of losing me. Like he can't live if I don't love him back.

But that's not all. He still wants something else from me. I'm sure he does. Well I'm not going to just hand that over. Forget it, sucker.

But there's something else that he wants from me. I can see it in his eyes.

Get with the program, Fang. It is scarier than hell itself to think that I'd give my trust away. Because Jeb taught me to trust no one. And he was right. Jeb was right about everything. There is no one I can trust. Not even you, Fang.

Why would I waste my words on you? If there ever was a rebel, it's you Fang. I can see that you're not going to give up on our battle of the wills. You are in this for eternity, aren't you? Why did I have to see that in your eyes, Fang?

I guess I'm the one who has to give up the dream. 'Cause I'm never going to hear those words from your mouth, "I love you." But I see it in your eyes.

Here we go again. I knew this was coming. Look, Fang, it was painful for me, too, up on that rock-ledge. How the hell was I supposed to know that you were going to kiss me? That's what you thought would relax me and let me leave my troubles behind? What were you thinking?

I know it hurt you. I know you felt rejected. Fang, can't you see how hard it is for me to let anyone in?

Oh no, not this crap about Ari again! He's my brother. Or he was my brother. Before he expired, wiped out by Itex's cruel justification of experimental controls.

Fang, I had to choose Ari! How could I let that seven-year-old boy die without his sister's love? He needed me, Fang! Even more than you'll ever need me. You've always known that I loved you, like a brother. Ari never knew that! You have to see that, Fang! He was my blood brother! And his miserable life as a mutant dog-boy Eraser was a worse hell than we'll ever know.

I know you've gotten over it. I mean, you came back, didn't you? We're never going to split up the Flock again, just like we said.

"Are we back on track?" That's what you asked me, right? Just what track were we on?

I'm ready for a new track, Fang. I'm ready to take a new track with you. It's the scariest thing I've ever done, and that's saying a lot. But I'm going for it.

Max propped herself up on her elbows. Then with one arm she grabbed a fistful of Fang's shirt and pulled herself face-to-face with Fang. Her other arm grabbed his back, her fingers grazing his wing.

She slowly, ever so slowly, searched for his mouth and placed her closed lips onto his dry, cracked, chapped lips. Fang's stoney façade tilted just a little to the left and he opened his mouth over Max's lips.

His arms pressed around Max's back, crushing her wings, hugging her to his chest. One hand slid up her neck, and his fingers dove into tangles of hair at the nape of her neck.

"Max," he whispered. "Oh God! Max. Maximum Ride. Max!" His lips pressed into her face relentlessly, taking in as much of her as he could.

In a desperate last attempt, like a dying mosquito, an organism flitted toward Max. Fang grabbed it, crushing it in his hand, smashing it into the bark of the tree.

Jostled, Max let go of Fang. She fell back against a humongous tree trunk and caught her balance on the thick tree branch.

"Don't run away," Fang pleaded.

Max said nothing for a while. Then she looked into his face and said, "No. I won't fly away this time, Fang."

Max briefly looked away When she looked back at him, she saw his wings arched awkwardly forward, bending in the wrong directions to shield her.

"You must be in excruciating pain. How did you do that with you wings? Are they … stuck?" Max tentatively fingered a feather on the edge of his left wing.

"Just a little stiff," Fang groaned. He straightened up, arched his back and let out a long sigh. "You okay?"

"Of course." Max sat up and took hold of his arm, looking where she had bit him. She had drawn blood, but it was already beginning to heal. "Sorry about that. I didn't know it was you."

Fang grinned. "I thought you were just excited to see me."

Max nearly melted in his bright smile. "Why didn't you tell me what you were up to? Why did you sneak up on me?"

Fang's expression became serious. "I didn't sneak up on you. How else was I going to shield you from those particulate nightmares?"

"I'm not mad, Fang," Max soothed, stroking the bite mark on his arm. "Not anymore, at least." She smiled up at him.

Fang said nothing, his face unreadable.

Big surprise here! thought Max.

3. Food For All

Nudge and Gazzy looked at each other. Then Nudge looked longingly at the picnic basket.

"I'm so hungry," she said to herself. Then she said to Gazzy, "We shouldn't waste the sandwiches Iggy made for us. I mean, if we wait until everyone comes back, maybe the basket will be full of ants. I don't want to eat ants. Ew!"

Gazzy had already grabbed a sandwich. Now he tore into it and noisily swallowed before he took another huge bite.

Total sniffed, "I don't care for peanut butter. It sticks to the roof of mouth, making it dreadfully difficult to actually eat it."

Nudge sat next to Gazzy. "We could save some sandwiches for everyone else."

Gazzy wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and then tore into his second sandwich. Nudge dug around for a soda can and handed one to Gazzy. He popped it open and then chugged the entire can.

"Ahem," Total said.

"Oh, sure. Here's a can for you, Total." Nudge popped the tab and put the can in front of him. He glared at the tiny opening and sniffed it repeatedly.

By the time Nudge had a sandwich in her mouth, Gazzy let out a belch that resounded over the entire plateau.

"Do you mind?" complained Total.

Gazzy threw a sandwich to Total. He bit into it hungrily and then began chewing and licking his mouth.

Nudge finished off one sandwich. "Of course, we need strength," she continued.

Gazzy looked at Nudge and then went back to eating.

Nudge finally settled into eating quietly. The plateau around them was quiet except for a few crickets chirping.

Nudge guzzled down half a can of soda. After eating until she was completely full, she let out a loud burp.

Gazzy rolled over laughing, accidentally releasing noxious gas. Nudge ran away giggling. They both crawled under the shade of a huge stone and fell asleep.

Total was still licking his lips. Standing guard is an honorable duty, he assured himself. But as long as this peanut butter is in my mouth, I am reduced to a fool, at best. He growled and trotted to the top of the rock, standing lookout.


Iggy and Angel landed back on the plateau with a loud whoop of victory. Total yelped excitedly. They all quieted when Angel said, "Nudge and Gasman are sleeping!"

"How'd you get those rug rats to sleep?" Iggy asked Total.

Total licked his lips and made some guttural noises, as if he was trying to talk.

"Hey, they ate all the sandwiches!" Angel complained.

"All of them? Isn't that a bit of an exaggeration?" Iggy asked, cocking one eyebrow.

Angel ran to the basket. She looked inside. "Oh," she said quietly, and then she stuffed an entire sandwich in her mouth.

"What's with Total?" Iggy asked.

Angel saw him licking his lips. "Oh no! I think he ate some peanut butter. He can never get it off the top of his mouth. Are you okay, Total?" Angel ran to the rock.

Total jumped into her arms, still licking his lips.

Iggy walked toward them and his foot knocked over the can Nudge had opened for Total. "What's this?" he said, righting the can.

"I bet that's Total's drink. How come they didn't pour it into a cup for you?" Angel petted Total's head, concern in her eyes.

Iggy said flatly, "They didn't know. They didn't know I made a special pepperoni sandwich just for Total, either."

Total finally was able to beg, "Drink!"

Angel poured the can into his toothy mouth and he swallowed vigorously. "What would I do without you?" He licked Angel's face.

"Yuck! You still have peanut butter on your tongue."


Iggy tossed a special pepperoni sandwich directly into Total's mouth.

"Sooo good," Total mumbled, chewing.

Then Iggy found a shallow cup. "For your drink." He set it next to Total and Angel emptied the can into it.

"Hey, Ig, aren't you going to eat something?" she said, tossing the empty can back to Iggy. He caught it.

"Does Total even like root beer?" Iggy asked as he crushed the can and dropped it into the picnic basket.

"No, but I'm not complaining now. Got any more of those humdinger Dagwoods?"

Iggy brought the whole basket over and sat between Angel and Total. He laid a stack of sandwiches in front of Total.

"For me?" Total questioned, moved nearly to tears.

"Of course. I wouldn't let you go hungry."

"More PB & J, please," Angel smiled up at Iggy.

He piled some on a plate in front of Angel.

"So how about you? Aren't you hungry, Iggy?" Angel looked at him with concern furrowing her brow.

"I gotta make sure you guys are taken care of first," he said quietly.

Angel said in an aside to Total, "Iggy's in charge of us now. Max and Fang are off on an extended 'vacation.'"

"Oooh," Total giggled with glee. "I wish I could get Akila to agree to one of those."

They didn't see Iggy's face go paler than usual or his knuckles tighten on the basket. Iggy was so good at hiding those things. He slowly began to eat. Yes, he was practically starving. It's hard to get enough calories in a day. But there was no taste to the sandwiches. He popped open a can and drank it quietly.

"I'm sorry," Angel whispered, leaning toward Iggy. "I didn't know you'd be upset."

"Get out of my freakin' head," he screamed at Angel, lunging forward.

Total jumped up to defend his best friend in the world. He bared his teeth and said, "I challenge you, man to man."

Iggy laughed, but there was no happiness in his voice. "Listen, Angel. Don't go poking around in my thoughts. It's … it's not good for the Flock."

Total cocked his head to the side and asked sympathetically, "Max and Fang … jealous much?"

"Please don't talk about it with anyone else. Especially not Nudge or Gazzy. That's the last thing we need …splitting up the Flock again."

Angel stood up and hugged Iggy. She had a tear in her eye. "I didn't mean to listen to you. Sometimes I do it without thinking."

Iggy patted her shoulder, "Its okay. It's nothing. I totally over-reacted …it just hurts too much …" He broke off quickly.

Total put his head on Iggy's leg. "Whatever you need. You know, a head to lean on your leg, a back to scratch, you just let me know. I'll be there for you."

Iggy sniffed and laughed without mirth.

Angel gushed, "You'll work it out. I mean, look at what a good leader you are already, and it's only your first day. You're our shining star, Iggy. I mean it."

Iggy smiled and Angel read a shred of hope on his face. Then he got up to canvass the plateau. Total trotted over to Angel and laid his head on her leg, crying soundless tears.

"Don't be so melodramatic, Total."

"I can't help it," he blubbered. "Unrequited love … oh, I know that pain so well!"

"But you heard Iggy. He doesn't want us to talk about this. To anyone. Don't even think about saying anything out loud. We can only talk in my head, okay?"

Total sniffed and then lifted his head to see Iggy walking the perimeter of the plateau with his hands shoved into his jean pockets.

"It used to scare me to see Iggy walking so close to the edge of a cliff. Now, I bet he's safer than any of us would be walking that close. Yup [author edit: Change 'Yup' to 'Yes indeed'], that's my man, Iggy."

4. Groom Time REVISED DEC 08

Author Note December 31, 2008 /The order of events in this section has been changed up. The missing section at the end will have to be added to the beginning of the next FAX scene. Until that is added back in, there will be a disconnect between how they got from outside the station to inside the station.

I really like how the FAX turned out in this rewrite. I'm getting kind of discouraged with no more reviews, now that chapters aren't being added daily. It is like a drug, that release of endorphins that comes from being loved. I thought I wouldn't stoop to this level, but I'd really like to read your thoughts on this chapter. If you've already reviewed it once, send me a PM and I can even add it to the end of the chapter as a review. Or maybe there's some other way ... I'll do my best to publish it with the story if you make the effort./

Fang was waiting on the high branch of the tree where he had used his wings to protect Max from an attack on her DNA. Now Max was returning from a surveillance flight. She angled her wings and parted the swaying upper green leaves of the tall tree. Feet pointing down, she drew her wings up quickly. As soon as her feet touched the branch, she crouched and grasped the thick bark with her fingers to steady her balance.

Then she straddled the branch and looked into Fang's eyes. Her reflection in his pupils showed the flush of excitement on her face that came every time she flew.

"I found the perfect place to camp for the night. It's a forest service station elevated high above the ground." Max couldn't hold back a smirk when she said, "You can climb up the ladder – just like the rangers do."

Fang tugged at her hair in mock annoyance. "You still think I'm won't be able to fly by tonight?"

Max reached out and let her fingers brush over one of his delicate flight feathers that was pointed out at an odd angle. In a motherly, soft voice she said, "I know it."

Fang's hand curved around the back of Max's head. His mouth opened, like he was going to say something. Instead he simply looked into her eyes.

From the depth of the forest, a tree began to creak and then there was a soft thump as the trunk fell over. Max looked around, but the tree was too far away and the leaves were dense this high up.

A breeze blew through the leaves, whispering shush, shush. Fang's eyes watched in wonder as a few strands of Max's hair blew up like kite strings before floating back down to her face.

The late afternoon light filtered through rustling green leaves, dappling the branch and Fang's face with sunlight in contrast with splotches of green-tinted shadows.

Max broke the silence. "Turn around, Fang."

Without questioning, Fang turned and straddled the branch the same way Max had done. His wings had not yet contracted. He wouldn't admit that he was still in pain from wrenching them forward to shield Max from the attack. But Max knew it.

Max wordlessly lifted the bottom of his black muscle shirt up his waist. He automatically lifted his arms above his head so that Max could bring the shirt over his head. She stood up to draw the arm holes off of his lanky arms. Carefully, she extracted it from between his wings and dropped the shirt into his lap.

Fang tucked the shirt into his waist band and let it hang over his back pocket.

Max sat down to begin her examination of his wings and his back. On his neck and back there were deep scars from the claws of wolf-human hybrid Erasers. The scars stared at her, gut-curdling reminders of deadly fights Fang had lived through. Even the bird-kids' hyper-drive metabolisms couldn't make their bodies heal from these tortuous wounds completely.

Max ran her hands up from his waistline over dark bruises along the skin on both sides of his back.

"Ow!" Fang growled through clenched teeth, "Could you be a little gentler?"

"I was gentle. You're bruised everywhere, Fang!" Max asked, "How heavy was that attack?" She peered at him under his wing. To see his face, she bent forward and lay her elbow on his thigh, curling around his back.

Fang's face hardened and he looked away from Max. "It hurt enough to make me want to run away," he managed to say nearly soundlessly.

Max waited for his eyes to turn back and meet hers. Eventually she gave up and straightened herself out behind him.

Hesitating for a moment, she carefully fingered a contour feather at the base of his wing along his back. She pulled her fingers down the feather gently and watched a few particles of dusty dirt float into the air. They reflected the yellowish light of the sun like dust motes in a sun drenched room.

Then she continued feather by feather, smoothing them, fitting them neatly back where they belonged. She picked bits of leaves and twigs out from between his feathers. There were a few red mites that she squished between her thumb and forefinger, too.

Max worked like she was in a trance, methodically straightening each feather and restoring order. In an absentminded voice she said aloud, "We should do this with the rest of the flock. Get everyone to preen each other. That would help develop teamwork, don't you think, Fang?"

Fang looked over his shoulder. His eyes were heavy and glazed over as he said, "That's not going to happen."

Max was silently working on his wing again. She gently eased closed the bones in his enormous wing until it was nearly folded in. Then she began fingering each of his primary feathers.

In a low, meditative voice, Max said, "You're letting me groom you. If I can get you to do this, then I can get anybody on board."

Fang laughed nearly silently. "I also let you kiss me. Are we going to build the team with a kissing contest?"

Max straightened her back and warned in a harsh voice, "You're asking for trouble."

Fang searched for her leg with one of his hands. When he found it, he leaned back to croon, "I'm only asking for your love."

Max pursed her lips together tightly as she fingered each of his feathers. Fang kept on humming some off-key music. Every once in a while he glanced behind him with a smirk on his face. Max kept her eyes on her work whenever he turned around.

"Your wings are huge!" Max muttered as she completed work on his right wing.

"You know what they say. 'The bigger the wing, the bigger …'"

"The mouth," Max snapped. "Do you want me to work on your other wing? Because if you do, you better behave."

Fang twisted around to show Max a funny puppy dog expression on his face. Max kept a straight face for a moment, but finally laughed aloud. "Alright, alright. Show me your other wing."

His left wing was more damaged than the right one. She pulled out a tangle of debris and a broken feather came with it. Fang winced.

"It really hurts, doesn't it?" Max whispered sympathetically.

Looking down, Fang grumbled, "Next time I decide to rescue you, remind me how this turned out."

Max stopped and reprimanded him with a tsk and a huff of air. She slowly started grooming him again. Some of the feathers had bled where they were broken off. The dried blood broke into dusty particles when she fingered those feathers. A bit of blood had dripped on the skin beneath his wings.

When she finished, she tucked in his gigantic wing gently, next to the right one. Then she rested her forehead on the small patch of warm skin between his wings. "Thank you for keeping me alive," she whispered.

Fang was silent. Max turned her head and rested her cheek on his bare skin. His warmth radiated into her face.

She gently eased her fingers under his wings where she let her fingers glide through the filoplumes and downy feathers. Her hands felt warm there, buried in the soft feathers.

Max applied slight pressure on the left side of his back and along the breastbone as she massaged his taut wing muscles.

"A little bit higher," Fang requested. "To the left. No, the left." Max moved her hands where he directed. He finally sighed contentedly. Max next worked on the muscles on his right side.

After the sun's yellow brightness diminished by a few shades, Max's eyelids drooped heavily. She put her arms around Fang's waist and dozed off, leaning on his back. She drooled slightly on his back.

Fang began to slump forward, sleep threatening to overtake him as well. His head nodded forward and he jerked it up. Max didn't wake up.

After a few minutes, Fang's head nodded forward even more. This time when he jerked back, Max's balance shifted. She slowly slid off the right side of the branch. Her eyes opened just as she fell to the ground below.

She landed on her back, and the air was pushed out of her chest with an oooff.

"Max!" Fang's distant voice called out.

Max lay still.

I'm thinking that I don't want to hurry up and find out if anything's broken.

Fang will be more than happy to point out any breaks I have. Why is he climbing down that tree? You look stupid. Just fly down. It'd be faster.

Oh, I was fixing his wing earlier, wasn't I? He can't fly, is that it? We make a great comic relief team, don't we, Fang?

He knelt at her side and felt along the bones in Max's neck with both hands. Then he ran his fingers across Max's skull. "'S good," he said to himself.

He gently moved each arm and leg, then ran his hands behind Max's back and ribs. Finally, he fingered her collarbone.

His taut face finally relaxed and he looked into Max's eyes. "I think you're going to be okay. How do you feel?"

Max opened and closed her mouth, kind of like catching flies. "Besides the headache? I don't know," she finally said.

Fang leaned closer. "You don't know?" He ran a finger in front of both of Max's eyes, and she tracked it.

"You're supposed to be feeling okay," he said with a tense voice.

"Fang," Max said quietly.


Max just looked up at him.

"What is it, Max?" Fang said, leaning closer.

Max lifted her hand and found his hand. Then she whispered, "I'm crushing on you right now."

Fang's face went blank. Then he flushed slightly and leaned in to kiss her lips. He followed with another two light kisses, and caressed her cheek with his free hand. Max's eyes opened again to look into his.

Fang cleared his throat and looked away. Then he helped her stand up.

She lost her balance slightly, leaning into Fang for support. "I got it," she managed to mumble. She shook her head.

"Clearing out cobwebs?" Fang chuckled, avoiding her eyes.

Max muttered, "Ha ha. Let's see you fall three stories and get up without broken bones."

"I'll leave the stunt work to you," Fang joked.

Max glared at him.

Fang put his arm around her shoulder, "Take it easy, Max. Let's focus on survival. That's always good for a laugh. Which way to the station you scouted out?"

Max trudged forward.

"And the fearless leader Maximum Ride resumes her trek across the wild woods …" Fang did a poor imitation of Jacque Cousteau.

"You're in a good mood," Max muttered.

Under his breath, but loud enough for Max to hear loud and clear, he said, "You kissed me today. What kind of mood did you expect me to be in?"

Max huffed. "I was glad to see you."

Fang took her hand and whispered in her ear, "You lllllooooooveeee me. That's what, two times now?"

Max grumbled, "You were helping me. It seemed like a nice thing to say."

Fang stopped Max and angled her to look at him straight on. "It was a nice thing to say. And it was even nicer when I kissed you just now, wasn't it?"

Max turned away abruptly. "Can't you just drop it?" She stomped ahead of him.

"No, I can't," Fang said, striding beside Max.

"Why not?" Max spoke into the air in front of her, not looking at Fang.

Fang kept pace with her. He said nothing. Max glanced at him. He was looking ahead, with a blank expression on his face.

Great. He has to think about. Can't he just say he loves me?

Max ran ahead of him without explanation. Then she heard trickling water on the side of a hill.

"We need water," she shouted behind her and trotted up the rocky hill until she found a tiny spring.

She splashed the water on her face. When she looked up, Fang was kneeling beside her. He cupped water to his mouth, thirstily gulping handful after handful of the cool tonic.

She fought herself. He's going to think you're flirting, Max. Don't do it.

Ignoring her better judgment, she blurted out, "I should wash your back, you know. How 'bout I use your shirt? It can dry overnight."

Fang nodded. Max tugged the shirt free from his waistband where he had tucked it in earlier. She let the spring water flow over it until it was saturated. Then she wiped down his back. He stood up wordlessly and turned to face her. He was almost a foot taller than Max. She stood on her toes and reached up to wash his neck and shoulders. Then she ran the shirt down his arms, like a mother hen doting on her chick.

Fang said nothing. He looked off at the trees, standing immobile. Finally Max wiped down his chest and then rinsed the dirt out under the trickling spring, which took some time. Fang looked down at her, watching her hands squeeze out the shirt and soak it over and over again.

Finally she handed the dripping shirt back to Fang. "Wash your face," she told him.

He wiped the shirt over his whole face in one swipe. Then he turned the shirt over and wiped Max's face in three gentle, caressing strokes. "You really ought to let me wash your back, too," he said in a lulling voice, suppressing a smirk as he eyed her shirt.

"You're a beast," Max huffed and walked away.

"Does that mean, 'No?'" he asked, catching up to her.

Max refused to look at him or talk to him.


When the forest station came into sight, Fang watched Max fly up to the top platform. She wordlessly disappeared behind a green metal door.

He climbed the ladder quickly. Now this is much higher than most forest stations I've seen. There's probably not any ranger who would even be fit enough to make it to the top of this ladder. But that's a good thing. I suppose there will be plenty of supplies here. Hopefully the kind that aren't supposed to fall into the wrong hands.

Once on the platform, he walked the perimeter of the station. It had a railing on all four sides except where the ladder was accessible. An extra foot of mesh wire extended beyond the railings to keep small gadgets from smashing to the ground if they were somehow dropped over the railing. Next to the green door was another ladder up to the top.

Fang leapt onto the roof of the station. A helicopter landing circle was painted on the sheet metal. At the west corner of the station, he jumped back onto the platform. Climbing over the railing, he sat on the ledge with his feet dangling and he stared into the colorful sky. It was transforming from broad orange hues to feathery pink strokes.

"Come and see this, Max," he said just loud enough for Max to hear.

The green metal door opened with a clang. The sound of birds flying out of nearby trees filled the air momentarily.

"Looking at the sunset," Max remarked. She climbed between the rails and plopped down next to Fang.

The bronze sunlight reflected off of Max's hair. Fang gazed at her. Then he leaned to her side and his mouth nearly grazed her ear with its wisps of bronzed hair falling around it.

She has no idea what she does to me when she looks like that, does she?

He moved closer to her and reached over to hold her hand. She didn't flinch when they touched.

[FF PM] from: Eighthnote‏
Wed 12/31/08 12:25 PM
Profile: .net/u/1530412/

So good idea, having people PM you since we can't review. I really like the
rewrites - I wasn't sure what you were going to change originally, but now
that I'm reading it, I'm thrilled at all the differences. I especially like
that less of it is in third person. The parts where you do Fang's thoughts
are different from Max's thoughts so it's easy to see the difference between
their characters, something a lot of people forget. I can't wait to see what
else you change. I'll keep a closer lookout this time, promise.


5. Campers, Unite!

Nudge stirred. She and Gazzy had been sleeping next to the big rock for a few hours already. She yawned with a huge wide open mouth and then stretched out on the ground.

Gazzy was mumbling incoherently in his sleep, barely audible unless a mutant bird kid was listening.

Nudge sat up suddenly and then the Nudge Channel was on. "Hey, they're back! At least I see Angel and Total. And there's Iggy. I wonder where Max is. Gazzy, wake up!" She playfully kicked his head with her bare feet.

Gazzy rubbed his eyes and moaned. "Is it morning-mff?" he mumbled. He squinted through soft eyelashes.

"No! It's late afternoon. Get up! Help me find Max." Nudge pulled Gazzy by his arm, trying to make him stand up.

"Go ask Total to look for Max," Gazzy protested, forcing her hand off his arm. When he got Nudge to let go, gravity was against him and he ended up face planting in the dirt. "Ouch."

Nudge saw Iggy walking closer. "You're back!" Nudge shouted, leaping over and practically jumping onto Iggy to give him a hug. Iggy smiled with crow's feet showing in his eyes as he gently held the utterly enthusiastic Nudge. She squeezed him tightly with a high-pitched, "Squee!"

Iggy lowered Nudge carefully. "It's getting cooler now. We're going to return to camp before Akila gets too lonely."

Now Iggy grabbed Gazzy's forearm and whipped him to standing. "Wakey, wakey!"

Gazzy managed to keep his balance on two feet when Iggy released him. He called dibbs, "I get to fly next to Fang this time!"

Iggy ruffled Gazzy's hair and told him, "Fang got to Max in time to keep her safe. We don't know how long she'll be in danger."

Nudge gasped.

Iggy quickly explained, "I'm sure they're safe. They'll probably lay low for a while just to make sure there's no other threat – to Max or any of us."

Nudge pouted, "So Max is away again? I don't want her to stay away for too long this time. I really need to sleep next to Max. I feel so safe near her!"

Iggy pulled Nudge close and he squeezed her under his shoulders. "I promise that you'll be safe, Nudge. With both Max and Fang gone, I'm going to be in charge of everything. So there's no need to worry, kiddo."

Nudge leaned against Iggy, hugging him in relief and trust. "Okay."

Angel skipped over and took Nudge's hand. "At least we can sleep together, Nudgey. But I know what you mean. I feel safest when Max is next to me, too."

Nudge bit her lip. She knew that Angel was the younger one and that it should be Nudge comforting Angel. But for now, Nudge just held Angel's tiny hand and hoped that she could be as brave as Angel.

Iggy clapped his hands together. "Let's clean up. Nudge, pick up all the metal stuff – cans – whatever. We need to leave the place as nice as we found it. Gazzy, you'll start carrying Total in the carrier. Do you think you can handle it?"

"I get to carry Total?" Gazzy sounded so excited. "That's awesome. I'm like you and Fang now!" Gazzy said with a goofy, boyish grin.

Iggy grinned at Gazzy's excitement. "Angel, Total," he called out. "Make sure all the paper and food is in the picnic basket, then bring it to me."

Iggy folded his arms across his chest as he monitored everyone's duties. I'm good at this, he admitted to himself.


Soaring in the high altitude was invigorating to Iggy. The late sun's warm rays soaked into his speckled wings and pale skin. The wind was like a jet spray washing through his hair. It was much easier to breath at these heights.

The Flock approached the make-shift tent camp which was just as they had left it in the morning. Iggy and Gazzy landed first. Total jumped out of the carrier and ran around camp calling frantically, "Akila! Akila, my love!" He sniffed inside and outside the tent. Then he sniffed the base of several trees and the surfaces of boulders.

When Nudge and Angel landed, somehow holding hands, Total ran to them. He whined, "I can't find Akila anywhere!"

"Oh no, poor Total," Nudge said, hugging him.

Angel picked him up and said, "Don't worry. We'll find her." Total licked her nose.

Iggy asked Total, "Do you think she was frightened? She was alone all day today."

Gazzy hemmed thoughtfully and added, "If those cloud bots came here first, it might have been pretty scary. She'd smell them coming, wouldn't she?"

Angel drew in a breath. "Max was petting Akila this morning. Do you think her hair or skin got into Akila's fur?"

Total jumped down and groaned, "How could I have left you alone, Akila!" He put his head between his paws and sobbed.

Iggy scratched Total's neck. "Listen, she wouldn't have been hurt. It was just like Angel said. They were interested in only Max's DNA. Even if they found flakes of Max's skin or whatever on Akila, she wouldn't have been harmed by them."

Iggy took Nudge aside. "Hey, kiddo. I need to teach you how to hunt for food with me. And I know that you don't like all the blood and guts and stuff, but we really need to make sure Angel and Gazzy get enough to eat. So can I show you how its done?"

Nudge looked a bit sick to her stomach. "I guess so. Can we start with something like fish?"

"That'll work."


Iggy was kneeling next to deep stream bed. He had a sharpened branch in one fist and placed his other hand on the surface of the water. He waited patiently. When Nudge tried to talk, he shushed her.

Nudge watched as shadows moved around in the water. Eventually a big one glided below Iggy's hand. Nudge was about to say something but just then Iggy speared it and pulled out a meaty rainbow trout impaled on the stick.

"How'd you know?" Nudge gushed excitedly.

"Vibrations. But you could see the fish in the water, right?"

"Yeah. That was amazing. Can I try one?"

Iggy tossed the fish over his shoulder and wiped the bloody end of the stick in the grass nearby. Then he placed the spear into Nudge's hand and shaped her fist around it. He guided her to practice a couple of thrusts into some soft mud at the edge of the stream.

"Wow! I'm doing it, right?"

"Mhmm," was all Iggy answered. Then he guided her hands as he wiped the mud onto the grass. His adept fingers smoothed over the point to make sure it was clean.

"Give a try, Nudge," he said quietly.

He let her kneel near the water, but he sat right behind her and placed his hand on the surface of the water. Nudge watched the fish swimming on the periphery but waited patiently. She really wanted to make Iggy proud of her and refused to mess up by striking too soon.

Mesmerized by the fish movements, Iggy's hand became almost invisible to Nudge. A trout finally swam below the raised spear. It was actually quite low in the water and swam very fast. Nudge lunged at it, while Iggy kept her from falling into the river with his free hand.

"I missed," she groaned.

"You did great, Nudge," Iggy spoke quietly behind her head. "I was impressed that you waited for a fish to come near you instead of you aiming for it. You've definitely got a knack for this."

"You're just saying that," Nudge grumped.

"Start again," Iggy whispered, positioning Nudge's fist on the makeshift spear and feeling the surface of the water to detect the location of the fish.

Nudge waited a long time. She felt so special to be trained by Iggy. She wouldn't let him down. A small fish came within striking distance but she let it go by. Iggy whispered, "That's right, Nudge. Save your energy for the large fish that's swimming toward us now."

Nudge looked but couldn't see it. Frustrated, she went back to staring just below the spear. A catfish prowled into view. Nudge felt a jolt of energy run through her back as she speared the fish and lifted it out of the water triumphantly.

"I did it!" she squealed. "Iggy, I did it, I did it! Did you see?"

Iggy was still hanging onto to her to keep her from falling into the river. She was completely oblivious to her lack of balance. One step at a time, Iggy reminded himself.

"Let's show the crew what you can do," he joked, pulling Nudge up.

Nudge jumped up and down. "Did you just rap, Iggy?" She clapped her hands gleefully and giggled. "You did! You can sing rap!"

Iggy rolled his eyes at Nudge's giddiness. He carried the two fish between elephant cabbage weeds and headed back to the camp.

Nudge was flitting around to everyone telling them how she learned to fish using a spear. Iggy smiled. It was a true smile, like a big brother watching his little sis learn a new skill.

Iggy restarted the campfire that they had doused that morning. He added twigs and leaves until a decent flame was able to burn good sized logs.

When it was burning steadily, he gutted and cleaned the fish and roasted them on the fire. Soon everyone was moaning in sheer gastronomic pleasure, trying not to burn their tongues on the blackened fish. The catch of a big catfish made feeding the small army quite a bit easier than most fishing escapades.

6. Stabilization

Pain jolted Max back to consciousness. Wire mesh cut through the denim to dig into her knees.

An overwhelming urge to wretch forced Max's head forward. She still couldn't see well enough to grab hold of the railing.

Fang heard the twang of the platform and felt it reverberating under his feet. Then he heard Max gagging and he immediately turned around to look outside.

Max vomited up a tiny bit of water. Then she heaved again and produced nothing but stomach bile. Her abdominal muscles were tightening and contracting relentlessly as the dry heaves continued. Her arms blindly groped between heaves.

Fang hardly believed his eyes when he saw Max leaning closer and closer to the ladder opening. Knowing what was about to happen, he lunged forward.

Max violently knocked her head on the ladder's hand rail and then completely tipped her balance to begin a head-first plummet to the ground.

Wings flashing, Fang sprang over the rail of the platform and wrapped one arm around Max's waist. His wings were nearly useless. He flipped Max around in the air like a rag doll, catching her head up this time.

With his free hand he grabbed a rung of the ladder and his other arm clutched Max to his side, protecting her body from slamming against the metal as his did. Beyond thinking now, he ascended the ladder two and three rungs at a time, propelling himself forward mostly with his free arm.

By the time he reached the top of the platform sweat had broken on his forehead. It dripped down as he cradled Max in his arms now, carefully bringing her into the dark station.

A cot was barely visible in the corner. He stumbled over some gear before gently laying Max on her side, head lolling on the pillow.

Having excellent night vision was essential. He ripped open cardboard boxes searching for any liquid to get into Max's mouth. When his hands landed on a highly sweetened electrolyte drink, he wrenched off the cap and ran it to Max, sloshing sticky red stuff on his hands and his chest.

Gently easing Max's head up, he ordered, "Drink it!"

The booming voice was nearly impossible to disobey. It reminded Max of when she was younger and Jeb would take care of her cuts and scrapes. Max's eyes fluttered open briefly. She opened her mouth weakly and tasted the extremely sweet fluid running smoothly over her tongue.

"Keep on drinking," the Jeb-like voice commanded. So Max swallowed and waited for more drink to pour in. This time she coughed a bit as it trickled into her windpipe.

Already gaining energy from the sugar and water, she leaned forward to find the lip of the drink bottle. The arms behind her head felt comforting. She wished she had been held like that when she was still a little girl, instead of shivering in a dog crate.

The voice that oddly wasn't Jeb's demanded, "Why the hell didn't you use your wings? Did you really want to die?"

Max tried to say, "No," but her lips wouldn't cooperate. She began to shiver. The drink began dribbling down her chin because she couldn't keep herself from shaking.

A moment later her head was being propped up again. She didn't remember when she had lay down. Tiny bits of dry dough were being put into her mouth. It was tasteless. Alternating between drinks and smashed something, she slowly began to regain her senses.

Fang guzzled an electrolyte drink between feeding Max from her bottle. He also downed two energy bars while working another one into Max's stomach bit by bit.

He was unforgiving to himself for not observing the signs of dehydration Max had obviously been showing. Of course she was weakened, being one of the few who never actually began eating lunch before the rude interruption, courtesy of Itex.

Max was acting a bit spacy still. At least now she was beginning to chew the pieces of the energy bar he dropped into her mouth. Her tongue licking his fingers was driving him nearly insane. But the way she lay so weakly in his arms kept him focused on survival instead of sex.

The room had become completely dark around him. Without even the light of the moon, he was lucky to be able to make out anything in the room.

Max yawned and moaned. Sensing that she was out of danger, he let her lay flat on the cot while he searched for a flashlight and made sense of the chaos around him.


Iggy sat next to the glowing embers of the campfire. He racked his brain, trying to decide which of the young kids could keep watch for the second half of the night.

If he thought Fang and Max would return quickly, he wouldn't need to find anyone to trade with. But knowing it could be a long time, he figured he needed to find someone to help out sooner than later.

He wondered if Total would help out. Nudge was a possibility. But Angel and the Gasman were out of the question. Their young bodies wouldn't allow them to stay awake through the night, and they'd be horrible to deal with in the morning if they were continuously sleep deprived.

He poked the glowing red embers and faced the fact that sleep was hunting him down. He'd be pulled under by the Siren song very soon. Crawling into the tent, he gently patted Total's head and scratched behind his ears until Total woke up.

"What? Where? Oh. Iggy? Is Akila back?"

Iggy signaled Total to come outside the tent. Then he spoke in a hushed voice, "I need you to take the last watch. I hope Akila does return, but I haven't heard her out there yet. Make sure she gets food and water as soon as she comes into camp. And wake all of us up if you sense a threat of any kind."

Total stood up and shook out his fur. "It is an honor to serve you, my liege."

"Cut the crap, Total," Iggy scowled.

With wounded pride Total said, "Anything to help you. I won't let you down."

Iggy crawled into the tent. Total's spot between Nudge and Angel was just wide enough and plenty long for him to sleep in. His eyes closed the moment his head hit the tent floor. He didn't care about the chill in the air.

His quiet breathing blended with the others' in the tent. Gazzy was in the corner mumbling to himself and kicking his legs like a dog does in its sleep.

Nudge rolled over and ended up next to Iggy. After a while she was even holding onto Iggy, as she so often clutched Max when she slept. Even Angel was drawn to Iggy. She curled up next to him and snuggled contentedly.

7. What's Happening?

Max felt a throbbing sensation in her head. Her hand drifted above her eye. When she touched the goose bump she withdrew her hand quickly. "Ow!"

She felt something sticky on her neck, making it hard to twist her head at all. When she sat up a haze of purplish-black overcame her before dissipating into the first light of early morning. It peeked through a high window.

She didn't recognize the place she was at. Seeing the torn, bloodied knees of her jeans and the red sticky drips on her sweatshirt clued her in that she wasn't at the School. Was I dreaming of the School last night?

Then she saw the worn out shoes dangling over the edge of the work table. She didn't need to look to know that the legs they were connected to belonged to Fang. When did Fang get here? Wasn't Jeb with me? Or was it Fang and I thought he was … Too complicated.

Rations of food were piled on the floor, on chairs, on a desk, even stuffed in a hanging wall file.

Max found the candy bars and started eating. Coffee would be nice.

She looked around, and saw a coffee maker next to Fang's head. Okay. Would you like ground coffee to go that coffee maker, Max. Why that would be lovely, thank you.

Max knew she was losing it – probably for good, this time. As she poked around Fang she saw the same sticky red drink on his chest and at least one drop on his pants.

Fang opened his eyes while Max was checking him out. "You're awake," he said quietly.

"So are you," Max replied in her "get with the program, people" tone of voice.

"Oh good, you're back to your normal indifference," Fang said darkly.

"What are you talking about? Why do you always have a problem with me?" Max had fire in her eyes.

Fang sat up. Don't tell her that she looks beautiful when she's angry. And don't tell her that the flush in her cheeks looks absolutely edible.

"Well good morning, Mr. Verbose. Can I get you a word or two to start out your day?"

Fang reached out and fingered Max's hair. "Why are you in such a bad mood?"

Max liked Fang's familiarity. It felt daring to let him get so close. Totally throwing caution to the wind, she worked herself between his legs and pressed against the table. With fire in the pit of her stomach she said, "Because of this," pointing to the bruise on her head. "Did you have anything to do with my massive headache?"

Fang pulled himself close to Max and pet the hair near the bruise on Max's head. "That's gotta hurt."

Now Max was staring at his waist. Many of the bruises were healing but some indicated broken ribs.

"I didn't do that to you, did I?" Max asked, afraid to know the truth.

"You? Max, you're obviously having memory problems. By midday your brain will probably heal itself and things will start to make sense."

Max looked at Fang warily. "So something happened."

"Yes, Max." He leaned forward and kissed her forehead.

Max sensed that this wasn't as dangerously scary to Fang as it was to her. She wondered what had happened.

"So … did we … do anything?"

Suddenly drawing her close Fang laughed, "I can only wish!"

Max laughed reflexively. "What didn't we do?"

She could tell that Fang was having way too much fun with this. "We didn't get married. You didn't commit suicide. Itex didn't kill you. That about sums it up."

"This better make sense later," Max threatened.

"Maybe a good morning kiss would speed things along?" Fang suggested hopefully.

"It would?" Max asked. Is he tricking me? Why do I feel like he's tricking me?

Max's thoughts were interrupted by Fang's lips on her mouth. It was pure pleasure. There was no other way to describe it. Suddenly it didn't matter if the kiss would speed things along. The only thing that mattered was making now last forever.

Max wondered how often she and Fang kissed like this, going on and on. He was obviously delighted, tilting his head this way and that way as he approached her freshly. His hands getting tangled in her hair and him working them out again. Sliding his fingers down to her waist where they lingered, not quite sure what to do next.

This had to be the longest kiss in history. It was beginning to lose its novelty.

"Mmmfffang," she finally broke off.

Fang's face was flushed with excitement. His eyes were lit and his mouth was red with ecstasy. She knew this was the most animated she would ever see Fang, so she commit it to memory now, hoping it would stay.

"Was that helpful?" Fang managed to ask, breathily.

Max laughed. "I don't think so. But it sure did feel good."

Fang got serious. "So it's okay if I kiss you, holding nothing back, but I just shouldn't talk about it with you?"

Max was confused. "What are you talking about?"

"You practically fainted last night when I told you how I see us."

"I did not," Max insisted, vehemently.

"Then what do you call it?"

"I'm still missing something, aren't I?"


Max didn't know what to think of the impasse. "Are we together?" she asked curiously.

"I'd like to know the answer to that one, too," Fang scoffed, folding his arms.

Max paused. "I think I'd like to be together."

"I know you would."

"Fang, I honestly can't remember what is going on," Max pleaded.

Softening, Fang said, "It'll come back sooner or later. So should we pretend we're an item until you remember all of it or should we act like one of us has the plague."

Max went with her gut, which was daring her to take a risk, to get dirty for once. "Act like we're an item?"

Fang was frozen. Clearly he hadn't expected this answer. Max had absolutely no idea why. She wondered where this was going to end up if there was some very good reason that she didn't want to be with Fang. But right now, she wanted to figure out the hard way why she should stay away from him. It seemed that the daring challenge was more important than status quo.

She held out her hand, and Fang took it in awe, climbing down. "I meant everything I said yesterday. You have to know that, Max," he whispered.

"I don't remember what I said," Max retorted.

Pulling Max's hand closer and drawing her in, Fang grinned and said, "What do you think you said?"

That smile was something else. "I probably should have told you … that you look like you could hold your own in a fight to the death?" She touched the scars on his stomach where Ari had nearly mauled him to death. "Or that you obviously spend a healthy amount of time in the sun? Um…you have nifty, shaggy black hair, your dark eyes mesmerize me, you're as tall as the mountains. Even if you weren't so good looking already, you have wings, by golly."

"So do you," Fang reminded.

"I know." Duh. At least that's one thing I can get straight.

"I don't know what to do with the new Max," Fang admitted.

"What did you do with the old Max?"

Fang looked away before answering, "Tried to keep my hands off her."

"Probably a good plan with the current Max, too. Wouldn't want any broken bones or anything unpleasant like that," Max murmured.

Fang nodded. "I figured as much."

Max was getting really uncomfortable. Not because of Fang. Because she was hungry.

"Can you make coffee?" she asked tentatively.

Fang nodded his head, smirking. "Can I make coffee? Baby, you'd sell your wings for my coffee."


Fang leveled his eyes at Max and refused to back down.

"I hope you make coffee as good as you kiss," Max said.

Max could read Fang's face as clear as a text message: Yes!

Fang couldn't contain his smile. He burst into whistling as he grabbed a water container and disappeared outside. His spirited whistling first descended to ground level and then wandered off into the thick of the trees.

Max looked around and tried to make sense of things. Then the Voice chimed in. Everything is going to be just fine, Max. Seriously, enjoy the vacation from reality. You definitely deserve it. And even if I had planned it myself, I couldn't have picked a better person than Fang for you to be stranded with … until your memory comes back.

At least Max still knew she had a Voice. If that had snuck up on her, she might have literally flown the coop.

Max looked down and grimaced at her clothes. And she couldn't forget Fang's tattered threads either. First things first. Maybe work out the relationship thing first. Then move on to clothing.

Max ripped open a bag of potato chips and popped them in her mouth one by one. Then she started snooping through the supplies and found a first aid box, a survival guide with a Swiss army knife, a botanical guide to edible food in what she assumed was her current location, a satellite hook-up, and computer, an i-Pod, a propane Weber grill. Wow. This place has it all. Even a bed. Um …yikes?

8. New Perspective

Total peeked his head in the tent. Iggy was sleeping with his arms hugging Nudge and Angel, one on each side. They both had their heads snuggled under Iggy's armpits.

Gazzy was sleeping with his legs in the air propped against the edge of the tent. That boy acts more like me every day,Total thought. Then he looked back at Iggy's face. He found it hard to deny that Iggy's composure demanded a newfound respect. "Authority becomes you," Total complimented as he withdrew his head.

Iggy's eyes flicked open immediately. He took in the situation of two girls surrounding him. Very careful not to wake them, he stood up. They rolled toward each other, Angel's head curled in front of Nudge's chest.

Iggy went outside the tent and checked the fire. Then he strolled over to Total. "Want a catnap before we start our search for Akila?"

Total pawed his eyes and yawned. "I'm above sleeping with the children during the crucial planning of the day."

"Whatever," Iggy said. "Any suggestions for breakfast?"


Iggy laughed aloud. "You're easy to please."

"I smelled some campers in the valley below. They apparently brought a fully loaded RV for the weekend."

"Excellent," Iggy grinned. "I'll get Gazzy on it with me."


"Oooh, I love pancakes with sausage and syrup for breakfast," Nudge said, clapping her hands. She was still too sleepy to jump up and down.

"Thanks for getting the eggs, guys," Angel said, stuffing two fried eggs into her mouth at once.

"And coffee with real coffee cream!" Total practically crowed.

"The best part of all was the Itex logo on the camper!" Gazzy howled.

"No," Iggy laughed, holding his stomach, "It was your Gazzy-brand stink bomb that completely cleared the RV while you entered using the air vent on the roof! You should have heard them complaining to each other about 'last night's Boston baked beans!'"

Gazzy was quite proud of his handiwork. "It was one of my finer moments."

Iggy chuckled for a while and then the mood turned serious.

"Poor Akila!" Nudge crooned.

"We'll have to scout for her starting at camp and extending our radius."

"Ooh, like in real-life search parties!" Angel said cheerfully. "I wanna place the orange flags!"

Gazzy turned to Angel and said, "That's for murders, Goofball."

"No it isn't. It's for clues."

"Right. Clues for a murder scene!"

Total whined softly.

"Hey, kids," Iggy said, "I bet Akila is just fine. Maybe she's a bit hungry, but she's a tough mutt."

Total growled.

"Malamute," Iggy corrected himself.


Total and Iggy stayed on turf while Nudge, Gazzy and Angel took to the air, searching for Akila.

After several hours of no success at all, everyone was beginning to get crabby and Nudge was loudly announcing that she was hungry. Total looked like he was going to start crying. Again.

Then Angel swooped down to Iggy and Total, "Akila's here! She's trying to get our attention but she's too weak to bark."

Iggy and Total froze while Angel rose up in the air, scanning the landscape while conversing silently.

Iggy heard a quiet whimper. He pointed Total in the general direction. Excitedly, Total picked up the scent, but he was so nervous that he kept on backtracking and then had to start over again because he couldn't remember where he had been.

Iggy couldn't see any place where Akila might be. He called for Gazzy. "Whistle the way Akila was trained for search and rescue."

Gazzy's imitation was flawless, of course.

There was a yelp and Nudge caught sight of a tiny bit of the windblown tall grasses waving distinctly. She dove to the area. "Iggy," she screamed. "Akila's been hurt really badly!"

Total flapped his wings so excitedly that he actually lifted off the ground about two feet. It was too slow for him though, so he concentrated on keeping his wings folded while he bounded to Nudge's location.

Angel and Iggy arrived at the same time. "She's got a bit of blood crusted around her mouth, Ig. It looks like it might not be too bad."

Total leaned against Akila's shoulder and she cried out with a Malamute yell. "Total, wait for Iggy to check her bones. Plus, we have to keep her completely still until Iggy finishes examining her."

Iggy's fingers lingered under Akila's nose to assure her that he was a safe person. When she whined acquiescingly, he carefully probed her neck and backbone. Everyone was holding their breath until Iggy said, "No breaks on the neck or back."

Angel reached out and scratched Akila behind her ears. She looked up appreciatively and then let out a plaintive groan.

Iggy checked her skull and snout, then moved on to her ribs. "She's definitely got some breaks," he told Total in a hushed tone. "It's going to be very painful for her to move."

Then Iggy ran his fingers over Akila's legs. One by one, he examined her legs, his face showing that he was increasingly disturbed. At last he sat back and said, "All four of her legs are shattered. It's like she was dropped from the sky."

Total licked Akila's nose and snout. "You must be in terrible pain, darling. Please tell Angel if there's anything I can do to make you feel better."

Angel leaned over to whisper in Total's ear, "Keep licking. She really missed your loving care."

Total began weeping and his tongue flicked all over Akila's face.

Iggy announced, "We absolutely have to get Akila to a vet. But there's no vet who would ever believe that we found Akila out here in this condition. They'd call animal protection, rightly so, and we'd be in the dog house. So to speak."

Nudge said, "Oh, I know, I know! How about Dr. Martinez. Max's mom. She's a vet. And she said we're always welcome to visit her."

Gazzy looked at Nudge like she was an idiot. Angel zapped a thought to Gazzy to keep his trap shut.

Iggy deliberated in his mind. "Maybe we can get Jeb to help us out, somehow. It's always dangerous for Dr. Martinez, and Ella, when we're around them. If anything happened to them because of this, Max would …" he choked off.

Angel sent him sympathetic thoughts while Gazzy picked his nose.

"Jeb never shows up when we need him to," Nudge complained. "He's completely useless as a Guardian. Whoever pays him is an idiot."

Iggy suddenly brightened. "Of course. Nudge, you're brilliant."

"Thanks!" Nudge gushed. Then she asked, "Why?"

"All we have to do is get the attention of Itex. In a subtle kind of way, of course. Then they'll put Jeb on the job to hound us and we can slip him the message that Dr. Martinez needs to examine Akila."

"That sounds complicated," Nudge said. "Are you sure I thought of that?"

Iggy hugged Nudge close and said, "Almost." Then he winked at her.

Nudge asked him, "Why did you just wink at me?"

"Did I?" Iggy shrugged.

"And that's how I shrug. How could you possibly know the Nudge shrug, when you've been blind all this time." Nudge may have sounded upset, but she was more spooked than anything.

"No, that's so not me. I don't know what you're talking about," Iggy protested.

"Now you're using my words!" Nudge shouted. "Quit teasing me!"

Iggy was dumbfounded. He didn't want to accidentally offend Nudge again, but he realized it was rude for him to say nothing.

Then Angel announced, "Oh, I understand it now! Iggy has a new skill. Wow! It is so amazing, because it's like two skills wrapped up in one!"

"A skill?" Iggy whispered. "Wouldn't I know if I was using it?"

"You do know, but you just don't realize that it's extraordinary."

"I can't stand not knowing. Tell us, tell us!" Nudge insisted.

"Okay, so it's like, when Iggy knew he should do more leadership kinds of things, he sort of realized that he'd need to persuade people to do things. And so, from his perspective, he just naturally began talking to people in a way that would help them see his point of view. And then, since mirroring a person's behavior is really important in developing rapport, he developed this ability to innately perceive the way people move, and then he can imitate it."

Gazzy said, "That tops toxic farts any day."

Iggy burst out laughing and rubbed Gazzy's hair – just the way Gazzy liked it.

"But now we have two people in the flock that can make us do things!" Nudge complained.

"It's not exactly like what I can do," Angel admitted. "I can make you think a thought. Iggy doesn't really get into your head like I do when you're talking too much."

"Hey!" Nudge shoved Angel.

"Iggy is really good at helping people see that his idea is a good one. Then people are free to make up their minds. But as long as he's around, most people will probably side with him."

Iggy was embarrassed. "That sounds unfair. I'm sorry, guys. If I've …"

Total stood up suddenly. "You have absolutely nothing to apologize for. If anything, we all should stand in awe of your humility to even think such a thing."

Iggy rolled his eyes. Nudge giggled, "Well, I agree with you now, Ig."

"That completely sucks," Gazzy complained. "Now when I want to see a movie, it'll always be one of the ones you like. The kinds where you make me tell you what the girls are wearing."

Everyone except for Gazzy looked around uncomfortably.

"What did I say?" Gazzy protested.

"I doubt the young ladies have any interest in 'my' kind of movie, either," Iggy tried to explain delicately.

Angel thought she understood by had no idea why it would be so important to tell Iggy about girls' shapes and the way they wore their clothes.

Nudge shrugged and said, "I'm hungry."

9. News Flash

Fang had set up the satellite receiver and was on the computer. He told Max he was checking his blog.

Blog schmog. Max was sitting cross-legged on the work table devouring the botanical guide.

"Iggy's been online," Fang announced.

"Don't tell me he has anything to do with your blog."

Fang was reading silently. "Weird."

Now Max was interested. She loped over.

Hey boys and girls, birds and beasts,
I'm talking about the weather event of the century. You've heard the expression, "raining cats and dogs," right?
Witnesses say a white malamute fell from the sky. To bad it wasn't a cat. 80 pounds doesn't land on four legs without some serious damage.
What's the most amazing thing that you've ever seen fall from the sky? I thought it was funny when Max went sleep flying and fell out a tree.
If any bird droppings fall on your head, it wasn't us.
Over and out, dawgs,

"Do I sleep fly?" Max asked Fang.

"Like I'd tell you," Fang evaded the question.

"So what's with the 80 pound dog?" Max ignored Fang's smirk.

"I'm guessing Akila was hurt by the DNA hunters. Did you pet her yesterday morning or something?"

"You're asking me?" Max intoned, giving Fang her best "get real" face.

"Do you want to make a visit to your mom, Max?"

"I'd love to! Ooooh, chocolate chip cookies. My mouth is dreaming already," Max drooled.

"Mine's been dreaming since our good morning kiss," Fang said under his breath.

"That good, huh?" Max said, playing with his long hair now.

Fang leaned against Max, his shoulders loosening as Max stroked his long hair. "You've never done that with my hair before," he slurred.

"It is pretty messy. But I don't know how I'd keep my hands off of it. Really, it defines you. It defines how I want to see you, anyway."

"I've been pretty lucky in the grooming department these past two days. First you gave my huge wings a full manicure. I can't wait to find out what comes after the hair."

Max said matter-of-factly, "You do need a bath. I guess that's the one thing missing here. No portable hot tub."

"Who needs a hot tub when there's a lake?" Fang mumbled. His eyes were closed as he rolled his head closer to Max's fingers.

Max gave up trying to detangle the hair. She rubbed Fang's shoulders instead. And his triceps. And his biceps. Those well-defined muscles were quite meaty and tantalizing, truth be told.

Fang groggily straightened his back when Max got bored of playing with him. She went back to reading her field guide while he memorized every line in her face, from a distance.

Max looked up at Fang's longing face. "So we should get on that lake thing. How far is it to fly there?"

"I doubt I'm ready to fly yet. It's not a long walk though. If you bring your book, maybe we can get lunch en route."

"Why can't you fly?" Max asked, putting down the book.

"You don't remember that either?" Fang laughed.

"Should I," Max asked tersely.

"I hoped you would. Anything that involves me crouching over you seems like a pleasant memory. Don't you think?" Fang's eyes met Max's.

"And what does that have to do with flying?" Max asked.

"My wings got a little bent out of shape," Fang answered.

Max thought about this. "Does this have anything to do with a mating ritual?"

Fang burst out laughing. "If it promises to turn out like today, I'd say we should try 'mating' at least once a year. Maybe more often, when you're up to it."

"You think that's funny?" Max asked.

"You have mating on your mind?" Fang teased.

"Yes," Max said. "Don't you?"

"Let's not go there," Fang said, suddenly standing up.

"Why?" Max drifted toward him.

Fang gently pushed Max away and went outside.

"Why?" Max persisted.

"Because you aren't being you right now. It's not right." Fang refused to look at Max.

"What am I normally like?" Max pressed.

"Usually I do the chasing. And you fly away. No fair chasing me when I'm injured, by the way."

Max held onto his arm and stared out into the tree tops. Fang put his arm around her shoulders silently.


"I'm thinking we should start with the laundry and get to the bathing a bit later. So, my suggestion is this. Do our underwear stuff first. That way we can have something dry to put on when we wash the rest of our clothes." Fang was quite the detailed planner.

"Okay," said Max agreeably.

When she started to shrug out of her sweatshirt, Fang took that as his cue to leave.

A few minutes later he came back and she had her tank top and panties in her hands. "We saw each other naked all the time when we grew up in dog crates," Max told him. "Our outsides haven't change that much since then."

"I can tell the difference," was all Fang would say.

"So, you've got your tidy whities off, too, I see," Max leered.

"You're starting to scare me," Fang said, cramming his into his jean pocket. "I'm climbing down the ladder. Feel free to flutter down. No funny stuff like hitting your head and diving, though."

Max watched Fang slowly crawl down the latter. Boring, boring, boring. She flew down and waited for him on the ground.

"You really can't fly?"

"Not today. I can try tomorrow." Fang strode into the woods quickly. Max had to jog to keep up.

"You're pretty serious about this staying clothed at all times thing, aren't you," Max huffed, tagging along behind Fang.

"One of us has to be," he shot her a frustrated look.

Fang insisted on washing their underwear first and hanging it to dry in the sun.

As soon as Max's tank top, panties and socks were hanging on a sunny branch, she shouted, "Up for a skinny dip?" Then she stripped off her jeans and shirt and ran for the lake.

It was too much for Fang to resist, so he joined her.

The lake was small enough that they could swim to the middle and not worry about getting too tired to swim back to shore. Of course, being Avian-American, they tended to have a lot more strength and energy than the garden variety humans.

"We're gonna have to bring the whole Flock here next time," Max said, floating on her back.

"I don't mind having you all to myself," Fang replied.

"But this really ought to be a rite of passage, you know. Stripping away your worries and just being yourself with the people you trust the most."

Fang swam closer. He was still having an awful time figuring out how to keep his eyes from popping out on cartoonish springs. "You trust me the most?"

Max turned over and swam up to Fang. "I can't seem to remember our relationship, exactly. But I am sure that I trust you more than I trust anyone in the whole world. Fang, I know that you're as close as any brother."

Fang dipped his head under water and splashed his hair behind his head. "Just a brother to you then?"

The hurt in Fang's voice was tangible. Max felt a pain cut through her heart. "Is that something about our relationship that … that defines who we are?" she whispered.

Fang treaded the water and scrutinized Max's eyes. Then he pulled her hand and began swimming closer to shore.

When Max could stand up to her shoulders in the water, Fang stopped and turned her toward her. "You've always said that you are nothing more than a sister to me." His voice broke. A stone façade covered his expression.

"Why?" Max asked.

Fang bore into her eyes.

Who could resist his eyes? Why would I? "The Voice approves of you."

This caught Fang off guard. "Really?"

"You sound surprised. Does the Voice usually say something contradictory? I mean, I can accept the possibility that I am having some serious psychological problems here." Max gripped her forehead, as if that would help.

"The Voice never says anything about me." Then Fang thought and restated, "Actually, you never told me the Voice talked about me."

"This is significant because?"

Fang stroked Max's hair. "I hated that Voice. You always told me that the Voice wanted you to do this or that. 'Saving the world.' That's all that Max cares about. Forget developing a real human relationship with a guy who actually lives and breathes and can touch you. You're practically in love with that ridiculous Voice!" He splashed the water angrily.

Max could see that the rant was only beginning. "You think that the Voice can do everything for you? Let's see it hunt for your food. Let's see it wipe your crying eyes and absorb your pain on its shoulder. Let the voice kiss you – and do whatever else it is you want from me. That Voice is like your God! Do you really think I'm the incarnation of the Devil thwarting you from your purpose in life?"

Max was cringing now. Fang was really losing control. "So now the Voice approves of me! Great. In a world where I could rape your virginity in a heartbeat and then you'd forget me tomorrow, what is the purpose of loving you at all? I don't want a one night stand, Max. I can't take your flirting, knowing that you'll hate me when you turn around. But I can't leave you alone either. I'm damned whatever I do." Fang shouted loudly and the echoes came back again and again, hitting Max in the heart each time, causing more and more pain.

Max swam to shore, trying to keep her face from revealing the tears. She walked to the branch and took down her tank top and panties, which were modestly dry. Slipping them over her wet skin, she grabbed the clothes she had left crumpled on the ground and took them to the edge of the lake. She kept her head down and looked only at the blood spilling out of the cuts in the jeans into the pristine lake water.

Things were beginning to get a little clearer, but the fog in her memories was still too thick to make her way back to the trail head. She'd just have to stay in this charming fairy tale world until she could find the trail of bread crumbs leading back to sanity.

She let go of the jeans in the water and closed her eyes, letting tears flow like a waterfall over her cheeks, dripping from her nose and making salty inroads into her mouth. Her heart was ripping in pain. She tried to breath but ended up taking in wailing sobs instead. Finally she let go and the sound of her cry was like the earth splitting in two.

Fang was hovering behind her, naked, dripping. "Max," he said. "Max," he repeated more forcefully. He couldn't break through her prison of pain.

He fell to his knees behind Max and held on to her spasmodic shoulders, eventually hugging her from behind, carefully wrapping his arms around her chest. "I can't believe I hurt you like that," he cursed himself.

Max couldn't breathe, couldn't talk, couldn't think. She couldn't even wail. She was caught between worlds, frozen in time. Somehow the merry-go-round slowed and eventually came to a complete stop. Max turned and buried her face into Fang's bare shoulder.

Some memories are meant to last a lifetime. Why is it that it's the pain that we remember, not the joy?

Max felt Fang gently lifting her up, slipping his arms beneath her knees and her shoulders. Her eyes were closed, and the rhythm of his gait felt like a sailboat bobbing gently on a lake. It seemed like she was flying – like in one of those dreams non-mutant people have. And then she was lying on a cool, soft surface. A scratchy wool covering was draped over her before the lights went out.

10. Peace

Max had nothing to say as she ate the grilled chipmunk with barbeque sauce. Then she moved on to the raccoon leg.

Fang was in his black muscle shirt and boxers. He stared at Max between bites.

When Max started walking over to the case of drinks, Fang got there first and handed one to her. Of course his hand had left globs of barbeque sauce and grease all over it. Like that really mattered to Max.

She tried some tubers that Fang had experimented with, hoping she wouldn't be poisoned. He didn't seem to be eating any of them. Of course, Max realized he only took the effort to find plant-based food since Max had been reading the field guide earlier.

Max grabbed a chocolate bar and took her drink outside. She leapt up to the helo pad, barely flapping her wings at all.

She sat there and did whatever she could to keep her mind empty. She wanted to think of nothing other than the moment.

Fang landed next to her and sat down. He tossed a bag of corn chips in front of her as he ate cheese curls and caramel candies.

All that was left of the chocolate bar was the stuff melted in between the circling lines on her fingers.

Above them, the tiniest sliver of the moon danced its way across the sky. Endless stars greeted the night visitors with their songs.

Max looked at Fang. His head was angled up at the sky, too. She smiled at him tentatively. Since he didn't scowl, she felt it might be somewhat safe to move closer to him. Then she changed her mind and just lay down, looking up into heaven.

Fang lifted her head gently onto his shoulder, laying back to stargaze, too. The birds' eye view showed them forming the kind of V kids write when they're just learning with crayons.

Max breathed deeply and inhaled through her nose. Fang's body smelled like him tonight. Instead of smelling like mud or fish or blood. She wanted to talk. She wanted to talk so very much. Part of her was screaming to talk.

Fang was completely silent. Max practiced that silence. It felt painful. But as the minutes ticked by in deafening thuds, it gradually became easier and easier. The feel of Fang's muscle, its relaxed state, was a form of talking, Max realized.

Their touch itself was a kind of talking.

Just deciding to be together and to observe such an amazing evening contained more knowledge than a three-hour vivacious conversation could ever hold.

The peace was like a blanket. A fluffy comforter. Not too hot in the summer and cozy in the winter. Time and space made sense in that peace. Life itself made sense.

Max reached out her hand toward Fang's. He simultaneously moved his arm toward her and they entwined their fingers. Softly stroking his flesh with her index finger, Max sighed. Fang's hand practically encompassed hers.

Max tried to speak and found her voice blocked after all the silence. Finally clearing her throat she said aloud, "This is what I want, Fang. Just this."

Fang gently closed his hand over hers. "Okay."


Fang flew ahead of Max. He looked kind of blurry. The way pictures of things moving fast look.

Max shouted to him, "What are you doing here? Where's Nudge? You didn't leave her alone did you?"

"Ever heard of, 'Hello?'" Fang said, grinning. Max radiated a smile back.

Now Max was sitting in a tiny cave in a wall of rocks. Fang flew at her with giant strokes and landed at the opening. She tried to make room for him to sit next to her, but there wasn't any space. He kneeled at the entrance instead and flattened his wings against the outside rocks.

Max sat in darkness. She wondered if this was a trap. She knew Fang wouldn't ever betray her. But what if there was a Fang Two? Would she be able to tell them apart?

The darkness was bearing down on her like the suffocating nothingness of the isolation tank at Itex. "Fang?" she whispered urgently.

Suddenly Fang appeared and took Max's hand in his. He squeezed her hand reassuringly, but disappeared again.

He was still holding her hand, but she couldn't see him. In fright, she jerked her hand away and lost contact with him completely.

"Fang!" she screamed.

Max was covered in sweat and was sitting straight up. She was on a vaguely familiar cot. It was that one at a forest service station in the middle of no where.

"I'm here," Fang reassured. His knees were on the floor and he wrapped his arm around Max as she shivered. Reaching for the forest green wool blanket, he briefly let go of her.

"Don't leave me, Fang!" Max pleaded.

"Shh!" he whispered into her hair. "I'll be with you forever. I promise." Fang stroked her hair and then brushed his fingers on her cheeks.

Max turned her face into his chest. Her fingernails bit into his arms. Eventually losing their grip, she slumped in his arms, asleep.

Fang gently lay Max back down on the cot. He fixed the pillow and kissed her forehead. The wool blanket stretched from her shoulders to her bare feet.

Max turned onto her side and nestled in the blanket. A blissful smile was on her lips as she breathed deeply in slumber.


Max had the wool blanket twisted around her. She writhed on the cot and further entrapped her legs in the blanket's loops.

"No!" she screamed. "No, not Fang! No! No!" Sobs erupted from her chest.

Fang was beside her in an instant. He sat on the cot and touched her hair. "It's okay, Max," he consoled her.

Her face turned to him and he swept a long lock off her face.

Contorting her lips into a demonic snarl, she scathed in sharp staccato, "Never touch me again." She took in a quick breath. "You will never, ever touch me again, Jeb!"

Fang had moved far away from her until he heard Jeb's name. He moved closer now, trying to hold her.

"I hate you! I will always hate you! I don't care who loves you – even Mom! I will hate you forever because you killed Fang!"

"Max," Fang whispered in Max's ear, holding her up.

Max turned in bed, her open eyes seeing nothing but phantoms. "You will die. You will die and the whole world will die with you! In pain! In agony!"

Fang brushed his fingertips over Max's lips, desperate to ease her out of her nightmare. "Shh! Shh! Shh!" he rocked her like a child.

Now Max was maniacal. Her voice was louder than Fang had ever heard. "The world is not worth saving if Fang is not in it! You are a liar! You! You are a killer! A killer! A kil-ler!"

"Max," Fang shouted, grabbing her face.

With a scream Max dug her fingers into Fang's face and roared, sounding quite like their formidable enemy, the Erasers.

Fang swatted her hands away and she lunged forward to attack.

"Jeez," he yelled, pinning her arms to the cot.

Max's face changed immediately and her head fell to the mattress.

"You're alive!" Max wailed. "Fang! It's you! It's really you! Fang!"

Fang had released her arms and she grasped Fang in a powerful embrace. "I thought you were dead! I thought Jeb killed you! I thought I was alone …"

Running his hand from the top of Max's head to the base of her spine repeatedly, Fang soothed, "I'm right here, Max."

Max pulled away to look at his eyes. "Thank God, Fang!"

She kissed his cheeks, his forehead, his lips, his eyes, the tip of his nose, his chin. Like a chicken hungry after a night's sleep.

Fang pulled her away gently and made her lay down. She pulled him to her. He tried to move away but she wouldn't let go.

"Max, you need to sleep," he whispered, pleading with her.

"Lay down with me," she ordered him. The only answer that Max would let Fang choose was "yes."

In defeat, Fang lay on his side, wrapping his arm over Max. Her head was snuggled under his chin. Sleep came quickly, both exhausted.


Max had turned to Fang and was rubbing her legs against his. He woke up hearing Max talking in her sleep, "I want to, Fang. Please. I want to."

She moaned drawing his body to her.

As Fang attempted to extricate himself, Max's eyes spoke with true consciousness, "Were we having sex?"

The very word was a power that Fang could not conquer, forcing his eyes to her face. She was flushed in all the right places, and his heart pounded relentlessly.

Laying on top of her, propped up on his arm, he put his mouth to her ear and whispered, "Did you want to have sex?"

Max's arms came around his back like snakes trapping their prey. "Yes," her answer rang out. It was the voice of Max, Leader of the Flock. It was Max who would get her way, always. It was the voice of power mandated by the sun and the moon and the stars.

So familiar to him, Fang's mouth sought out that voice. His tongue made love to that voice. He adored that voice.

Max's tank top was slipping higher above her waist as Fang kissed her passionately. His hands explored the unchartered territory. There was perfect symmetry on this landscape. He could not escape its lure or deny his fingers their expedition over it.

Max vocalized her passion in a high voice. Fang's harmony in a low, quiet plea was creating a fantastic overture to what promised to be an unforgettable event.

Max took command of Fang's hand, dragging it under her panties. It was unwilling to go there but weak against Max's dominance.

"Nnnnnnno," Fang pulled away with every ounce of strength. "This isn't the right time for this," he pleaded.

Max tried to pull him back under but he had cast his anchor and wouldn't run the danger of drifting at sea.

"I can't let myself be this close with you, knowing that I can't stay permanently."

Max whined in protest, her legs rubbing against his.

"You are more than a body!" he whispered. "I love Maximum Ride. Human, bird, Eraser! Whatever you are, she-devil, I love you. Not this." He groped her panties, thrilling her senses. Unintentionally. Really bad move. Resist!

Max saw that the battle was over. They'd have to make camp for the night and continue to war against each other under the most hospitable of conditions.

Max gently pulled Fang down to her again. Her defeat was evident on all sides.

Fang slipped his hand under her tank top to run reconnaissance. Make sure things were just as he had left them last time he was there.

Satisfied with his findings, Fang warily allowed sleep to bring them under the wool blanket, together.

11. Come What May

"Fang?" Max's voice accused in his ear.

Searching for the alarm clock, his finger pressed the button, resulting in a startled gasp.

"Fang!" He was pushed onto the floor.

Maximum Ride. She was looking down at him, furious.

"What did you do to me?" she seethed.

"Not much," Fang answered dryly. It was like he knew this was coming.

"How do explain your hand under my shirt, and you sleeping in your boxers next to me?"

"I figured it would be safer for us both if we kept our clothes on. Most of the time." Fang scratched his head.

"Having sex is safe? What, do [you] happen to carry a condom up your butt everywhere you go?" Max was back.

"Think about it, Max." Fang said. "Are you sure you had sex with anyone, ever, in your life?"

Max had to think. And think. How would she know? Oh, yeah, testing at a hospital emergency room. Hey Mom, could you run a rape kit on me? Fang and I were sleeping together. I don't know why. I don't know where the rest of the Flock is. Yes, Fang is a trustworthy person. No, I'm not exactly sure we had sex. That's why I'm calling you. Oh. I see. I'm disowned? I won't inherit the family fortune? Sorry to bother you. Goodbye, Dr. Martinez.

"Max," Fang said, laughing sadly, "You look completely devastated. I swear to always tell you the truth, Max. We slept together. But we didn't do everything together. I didn't go below your waist, Max. I swear, it is the truth."

Fang's face was genuinely pleading with Max.

He didn't want to look into that confused face any longer. This was becoming a high maintenance relationship. Much more maintenance than Fang had to spare.

He pushed open the station door and flew into the morning air.

Max sat on the cot.

Figure out the facts, Max.

That was the Voice speaking.

Max didn't know the facts. She couldn't explain anything.

She fell back onto the cot and let her mind wander. The pieces began falling into place. Once two pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were put together, the remaining pieces fell easily into place around it. It was a stunning picture. No one would ever want to frame it. No one in their right mind would celebrate the admixture of crazy emotions thrown haphazardly in the details.

She waited outside for Fang to return.

He flew in a wide circle, cautiously. His wings looked majestic against the streaked clouds of the sky. Sir Fang, Max mused. Lady Max. She suddenly burst out laughing.

Fang couldn't resist the hysterics. He shot down and revealed [a] toothy grin. "Are you going to tell me or do I have to guess?"

Max raised both eyebrows and said, "I think it would be nice if you referred to me as Lady Max from now on."

Fang disapproved. "That would be a lopsided kind of thing, you know. A distinguished woman running around with the likes of me. Low-life. Scum of the world."

Max shook her head seriously. "It seems clear in my brain, now. I don't think you are like that. I would have called you Sir. Not let you grovel apologetically for the rest of your life.

"I can see that I never had reason to doubt you. Ever. You could not have done any such thing to me that I was accusing you of."

"Wait," Fang said. "You've only got half-truths. If your zipper is the gold standard, I probably could pass inspection. But you're wrong that I could not have taken your body to the places of no return. I almost did it. I wouldn't have even been guilty of any wrongdoing. Don't you see how you were begging me for sex earlier this morning? And now your 'virtue' [author edit: change 'virtue' to crotch] is so damn important to you?"

Max's head was lowered. Without meeting his eyes, she said, "I remember."

"Who the hell are you, Max? How'd you like me served up? Carved into shreds or roasted whole, bone-in?" Fang was hurt. He was angry. He was confused.

Max didn't look at him. "Fang, when we were awake, we said things to each other that I can't deny. In my sleep, I have no idea what I really did or meant."

Fang grabbed Max by the arm. He was about to yell again.

Max gently placed her finger over his lips. "You are the person I will always trust the most. More than even the Voice, Fang! You're real.

"I love you in all the wrong ways and all the right ways. You can't deny we grew up like brother and sister. I can't deny that you drive me insane. If I don't act normal around you, it probably has to do with hormonal imbalance. I begged you for sex because I am ruled by this animal instinct that I never chose.

"I need to choose you, Fang. I never really chose, you. It wasn't like I searched the world over and found you. You've always just been there with me."

Fang's face had dropped like it weighed two tons.

"Of course I 'want' you. There is hardly a female of eligible age who doesn't. You see that, don't you? I mean, other than Sam, of course, do you see any guys nipping my ankles? That's because I don't have your 'sexy' factor. You know male birds have that, don't you?"

Fang was shaking his head. Max had it wrong. All wrong.

"Or would you rather I picked sexy and available instead of my hearts' true desire?"

Fang's eyes smoked like dry ice in front of Max.

"Don't make me choose one of those today, Fang," Max begged. "It would be awful to choose sexy and available. It would be so hollow. It would be like that for the rest of our lives! Which probably isn't that long, with our drop dead dates etched somewhere on our necks, but still. I want the life I still have left to count!"

"So what about never leave you?" Fang asked in a deep, dark voice.

"That hasn't changed, Fang. Has it? Was it conditional on being your girlfriend all along? I really thought it was about leading the Flock together, partners, equals."

Fang's eyes warmed slightly. But it was still pretty damn chilly in that morning air.

Max didn't know what to do.

"Don't hate me, Fang."

She stepped forward, [fluttered her wings delicately] and planted her lips on Fang's. He didn't respond. She [landed lightly on her toes and then fluttered up to his face one more time. This time she wrapped her arms around his neck tightly. Undeterred by his passive stance, she hitched her legs around his torso,] planted her lips [over his once] again and kissed him in gentle earnest.

Fang ferociously crushed her in his embrace.

12. Trepidation

Iggy rode the air currents in the azure dawn sky, letting the air cool his flaring anger. He could feel the approach of Itex crud. It resided beneath Jeb's thin, pathetic skin.

Fresh rage boiled within Iggy as he remembered Jeb's desertion of the flock. It shouldn't have bothered Iggy so much. But it was thinking of what Max had borne when Jeb was gone that hurt.

Sure, Iggy was blind when the young Flock took up residence in the E-shaped house. But he had seen exactly how Max had clung to Jeb as her surrogate father.

Who else was she going to turn to back then? He and Fang were more interested in playing Erasers and Science Experiments, content to chase each other around in their boyish pursuits. Neither of them knew then what Max would become. Neither of them loved Max then. Not the way she allured them now.

Some time after the Flock had recovered Max's only love left in the world, Angel, they passed by the Statue of Liberty. Gazzy had told Iggy exactly what he saw. The woman in the statue didn't sell sex or power or fame. But she stood for a dignified pride and an unfettered determination that nothing would thwart the freedom of all people. And he fell in love with Lady Liberty and Max all at once that day.

But by then it was too late. Max was already oh so cozy with Fang. Of course she hadn't sought out the blind kid. Iggy was the Flock's burden to bear. Isn't that why Max had left him with Gazzy back at the E-shaped house?

Iggy wished he'd had the words to express himself back then. Max should have trusted Iggy's sense of direction. How could she be blind to the fact that his sense of direction was keener than any other member of the flock?

Iggy refused to let his anger point at Max any longer. He'd long accepted the fact that he couldn't have her in the temporal world. Instead he had secretly enshrined her with a place of honor in his soul. This he concealed all too well. No one would ever see it, as he was so fluent in the banter and teasing that the Flock dished out to each other.

Considering his rival afresh, he couldn't blame Fang, either. How could Fang not love Max? Of course her potency set fire to his soul as much as it did to Iggy's.

But it did make Iggy sad that he himself didn't own the shoulder that Max preferred. He hated knowing that Max in pain, Max thrilled with life, Max in any state of mind, always sought out Fang.

Very distant chopping sounds of helicopter propellers brought Iggy back to focus. He knew he needed to calm his mind to lead effectively. Even more so when the traitorous Jeb was in their midst.

So he pointed himself up and raced into the sky as high as he could physically endure. Then he made himself into a missile, aiming straight back to Akila's make-shift shelter. He pulled himself up at the last possible second and landed on his feet running faster than humanly possible. Because he wasn't human. At least not completely human. None of the flock were.

His mind was clear and focused now. He whispered an endearing good morning to Angel and gently shook Nudge awake. He tickled Gazzy until his eyes squinted open and he scratched Total's head. The Flock needed to be alert and ready when Jeb arrived.


Jeb Batchelder directed the copter pilot to land on a flat rocky surface that was some distance from the tall grasses where the Flock was hovered. He held out his arm to support Valencia Martinez as she descended through the side door of the chopper. By the time they had run out from underneath the still winding propellers, Iggy was flying toward them alone.

"Where's Max?" Valencia asked, in a panicked voice.

"I'm not exactly sure. But I believe she is with Fang at a relatively safe location."

Valencia studied Jeb's cryptic face. She knew that he was keeping mum for Max's protection, but it infuriated her that he knew of her daughter's whereabouts more than she did.

Iggy landed and approached with an extended hand. "Dr. Martinez. Thank you for coming so quickly." Iggy nodded his head toward Jeb but made no effort to extend the hand of friendship. He did feel compelled to utter the minimally decent greeting, "Jeb."


It was obvious to Valencia that these two were not on good standing with each other.

"Why don't you show me Akila, Iggy," Valencia directed.

"We decided not to move her due to the extensive injuries that I felt beneath her skin," Iggy began as he directed their steps toward the children crowding in the grasses.

Valencia listened and watched Iggy as he talked. Walking along beside him, she was certain that he was acting more mature than the last time they had met. He had the air of a veterinarian's assistant, not an adolescent run-away.

Iggy explained the extent of the injuries that he had found through his primitive touch and feel knowledge. He then provided a detailed summary of the fluid and solid food intake Akila had received. He described her responses to interventions the Flock had attempted.

Valencia quickly realized how desperate the dog's situation truly was. She sent Jeb back to the helicopter to fetch the large animal stretcher.

As they approached, Total appeared at her feet in the tall grass. "Dr. Martinez, I am honored that you have come to treat Akila. Please let me know if I can repay you in any way at all."

Valencia knelt down and provided her hand for Total to lick. Then she rubbed under his chin and said, "I'd like to know that Max is safe. Perhaps we can talk later."

Total looked up to Iggy. Valencia followed Total's eyes. Seeing that they were directed to Iggy, she stood. His leadership role in the Flock was unmistakable now. Valencia's stomach turned as she wondered what would necessitate this transfer of power from her strong-willed daughter Max to the previously passive Iggy.

Iggy turned straight toward the veterinarian, as if he were actually looking in her eyes, and he said, "We've sent some cryptic messages back and forth through Fang's blog. I can assure you that they are both safe right now. Max and Fang are recovering from minor injuries. And I emphasize minor. Thankfully, Max and Fang fared much better than Akila when faced with our latest threat."

Valencia hurried to Akila now, feeling the choking in her throat that came from knowing she would see first hand the dangers Max faced daily.


Jeb spoke to Valencia through the microphone attached to his earphones. Even with the microphone, it was difficult to converse above the sound of the propellers. "There are experimental laboratories at certain uiversities. I am confident that I can locate some experts who see things from our point of view. I do think that you should consider the medical breakthroughs available in a situation of this nature."

"Explain further, Jeb."

"Considering that this Malamute has been adopted into the Flock, it may be best to consider retrofitting her with wings. She and the dog are obviously bonding in a relationship that the rest of the Flock has encouraged.

"It would certainly help the Flock deal with her transportation issues if she were more mobile. And it could prevent similar injuries in the future, considering the dangers they face when slowed by carrying her weight.

"I'm sure you see that the Flock needs to be highly mobile in order to survive day to day." Jeb looked down to check the vibrating Blackberry attached to his belt.

"Yes, I do see that. So are you familiar with the process of grafting functional wings onto mammals?" Valencia asked, leaning forward with great interest.

"Perhaps you remember that I had a son, named Ari?" Jeb looked away briefly, remembering the horrible pain his son had endured.

"I see. He did not have genetic wings. He was fitted with them, then?" Valencia was thinking the situation through in her mind. "And you think that the Malamute has a better chance to learn how to fly than she will ever have of being able to run again."

"Precisely. So perhaps we may be able to find surgeons who have interest in discussing the options available at present."

Jeb leaned forward and gestured to the pilot.

Valencia looked down and saw that they were flying over a vast university campus. She turned and looked to the animals. Akila was sedated. Total doted on the huge dog constantly.

13. Blackberry Briar

Max drew in a sharp breath when she reached up to pick a blackberry high up in the briar bush.

"Take it easy. Quit making me remind you," Fang ordered.

"It's actually a good kind of wake up call," Max answered, looking through the green leaves and prickly swirl of branches to see Fang's face peering down from above.

Fang looked like he didn't want to hear what Max was about to say. Because he didn't.

"Reality tops fantasy ten to one. Knowing that nothing is safe. Knowing that taking time out to play is dangerous. Facing the fact the every gol' darn relationship ends up in pain!" Max wiped a stray hair out of her eyes.

Fang turned away, wordlessly. He busied himself with the neighboring briar bush.

Max let him stew. It was good for him.

"My bag is just about full," Max finally broke the silence.

In a very quiet voice, Fang told her, "There's a black bear five feet behind you. It's minding its own business."

Max turned slightly. She saw the gentle giant pawing for berries and licking them into its enormous snout.

"If it becomes agitated, you'll just have to fly straight up through the briars." Then Fang added with acidic sarcasm, "It'll hurt like hell … but since you're into that kinda thing, I guess you could call it a wake up call."

Max watched the bear lower itself on four paws and sniff the area. It could smell where Max had been five minutes ago. Now the bear's nostrils pointed into the air, seeking her out.

Max stood still as the bear turned its head to look her over. The recombinant DNA changed Max's scent. The bear didn't interpret her 97% human body as a danger. Curiosity was its true interest.

Max observed the bear's coarse but silky hair. In her mind she imagined a fat Fang, covered with that hair, an adorable teddy bear. The image was so incongruent with the real Fang that she quickly lost interest.

The black bear's eyes glistened healthily. It had sniffed quite enough and went back to berry slurping. After some time it lumbered off. That's when Max noticed the two cubs bumbling out of the thickest briar and following their mother.

Angel came to Max's mind. How she wanted to see Angel face to face.

Fang was next to Max now.

"She was a beauty," Max now marveled aloud.

Fang nodded slightly. He looked off, away from Max, and said, "Kinda like someone else I know."

Max wasn't paying attention. His voice didn't have the bite that usually accompanied any of Fang's comments about her anyway.

"Time to head home?" Max asked. Then she stopped. "I mean, to that station."

Fang began walking through the leafy underbrush.

"You can fly, if you want. Don't let my cracked rib stop you," Max said to his back.

Fang just kept walking.

They arrived at a downed log. It was just perfect for sitting on, and it seemed pretty new, so there weren't obvious signs of termites and slugs riddled throughout the bark. Fang patted a place on the log to invite Max, and he hopped up, too.

They fed each other blackberries, sitting there, saying nothing except what their eyes dared to reveal.

"So love hurts," Fang finally said.

Max thought back to the Wendy K. and the unbearable confrontation she'd had with Fang at the bottom of the stairs. Even now she felt the residual impulse to make a run for it.

Max squirmed in discomfort, remembering how Fang had later dialed her number the afternoon she'd teased him about his Dr. Brigid Amazing blog entry. How could Fang have understood Max so well to cut straight through her krill and pinpoint her weakness? Her jealousy?

"A regular Catch-22, whatever that means," Max finally replied. "If wanting to love someone doesn't skewer you, then Itex surely will." It was so depressing to think this that Max sighed deeply.

Fang wrapped his arm around Max's back very gently. She still winced in pain, but tugged his arm back when he tried to move away again.

"So exactly when did you go from strong Fang to super Fang?" she asked him, looking up uncomfortably and then looking away.

"When Nudge told me that you were being hounded by the nebulous floating threat, I suppose." Fang's arm curved around Max's back and his fingers twisted a stray bit of hair jutting in front of Max's face.

"So hugging is an occupational hazard, now that you've got incredible upper body strength," Max laughed.

Fang looked away. Max read him, though. He was frustrated.

"I don't know how much longer I can let myself be comfortable next to you," Max suddenly admitted. "I'm already feeling jittery as it is."

Time continued to pass. Neither spoke, and neither moved much. Eventually Fang popped a few more blackberries into Max's mouth, savoring them vicariously.

A light sprinkle began to fall around them. Neither of them moved.


The rain fell in heavy drops. Lightning bolted across the sky, followed immediately by booming thunder.

Fang insisted that they climb the station ladder instead of flying to the platform. The grounding of the station would transfer stray electric current out of them. Max climbed the monotonous rungs. Then she decided to enjoy the view of the backseat of Fang's jeans. It amused her for a while, until it was just Fang in his torn jeans and the rogue excitement was gone.

Inside the metal box called home, they dripped puddles on the metal floor. Their shoes and clothes were soaked. Their hair clung to their faces. Even their feathers drooped.

Fang first opened his wings slightly, letting water drip out. Max followed. There wasn't a whole lot of room in the box, so they stood looking at each other and looking away periodically.

"I can handle this," Max said, laughing. "Drenched, cold, hungry … that's the life I've come to appreciate."

"It does build character," Fang added, grinning.

"I guess we're getting soft, with no Erasers around to kick our butts," Max agreed.

"We could always try sparring each other. Have you seen yourself as an Eraser in a mirror lately?" Fang teased.

"No. I'd almost forgotten."

"After last night, I can imagine you as one, after you tried to rip my face off in your night terror. It wasn't exactly Pekinesey."

"So I blasted you with the full strength of my temper," Max laughed. "Lucky for you, you've got power arms."

"Unlucky for you," Fang apologized. Then he joked, "It did buy me one more night alone with you."

"It's going to be weird tonight, isn't it?"

Fang looked Max in the eyes, "It doesn't have to be. I'm still Fang. You're finally back to being Max. Life goes on."

Max chewed on her lip. "It was interesting to see what life is like for a normal fourteen-year-old. I didn't have worries about Itex. I wasn't dreading the safety of the Flock. I was just being a girl who felt so lucky to be with an amazing guy like you."

"And now?" Fang asked, reluctantly.

"I am relieved that it was you. It let me see what I wish life was like with you, Fang. I don't know if I'll get that life back again. But it was the way kids are supposed to live. Freely. Not saving the world."

Fang couldn't say anything.

"I'm going to get back to my mission in life. I just hope you're around for the ride, for a while."

Fang was stubbornly silent.

"I won't blame you if you find someone who can love you, Fang. The way you want. I'd be so sad to lose you, but I'd never hold it against you if you decided to leave the Flock."

Fang was angry now. "Why do you think I would ever leave the Flock? I'm in this just as much as you are. Even more than you are, if you'd open your … gorgeous eyes for once."

"More than me? When's the last time you were asked to save the world?" Max said, ruffling her feathers defensively.

"I get to back you up, Max. I'm your 'go to' guy when things get too rough." Fang spoke very quietly.

That bothered Max. Because she didn't want to admit her need for Fang. Miss Independent, that's Maximum Ride.

"You aren't my kind of guy, Fang – 'go to' guy, fall guy, sex guy, conversation guy. Why don't you get over it and move on.

"There's a million Red-Headed Wonders and Dr. Amazings out there who will jump your skin and give you the time of your life. Good luck finding any who are actually doing something to actually help the world. Let alone saving the world.

"I'm sure you don't mind sticking your business in their lives and pretending that you actually know what it is like to be the most important person in history."

She turned away from Fang. There was just as much room facing away from him. She preferred this view.

Max's muscles were tense. She expected Fang to come up from behind. He would either continue to pick a knock-down drag-out fight or he would try to kiss or hug or make up some how. Only he didn't. He didn't move much, other than to shake water out of his wings one time.

After ten minutes of this Max was being eaten alive by the suspense, waiting for Fang to bust a move so that she could swing her fist squarely in his jaw. She wouldn't make his teeth loose or anything. She'd just get her anger out and leave him alone to lick his wound.

Except Fang never approached her. Could he sleep standing up? He was awful quiet back there.

When Max turned around finally, she saw Fang looking at the floor, dejected. The trail of tears was shiny on his olive-toned face.

Max stared in horror. Fang wasn't doing his invisible thing because he was just slightly shaking. He was trying not to break into pieces and Max saw that he was losing the battle.

Fang didn't recover. Max was waiting. But Fang couldn't pick himself up and move on.

Max looked inward. She saw the Eraser in herself. The one that was vicious, brutal, a murderer. And she'd just killed her only friend in the world. Blood gushing out and there was no stopping it.

She dropped to her knees in shock, reflecting on the disgusting reality of Maximum Ride and her hatred of the world.

"I … Fang … It's not …." Max had no words to bring Fang back to life. Then she remembered the only words that had power to heal. "I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry for what I said. I didn't say anything true. I only said hateful lies. I had to hurt you so that I wouldn't let my heart feel anything like love."

There were no more words to say. They spent the whole night that way. Saying nothing. Doing nothing. Barely moving. Like slow death.

The faint rays of morning showed Fang leaning on the wall sleepily.

"Fang," Max pleaded. "It's your turn to sleep on the cot. Please go lie down on it. I won't bother you. So you can strip off your wet clothes and get warm under the blanket. Just, please don't stand there any longer, denying yourself the sleep you need."

Fang wordlessly trudged over to the bed. Max busied herself with the i-Pod, listening to the music Fang had downloaded. She heard the springs on the cot squeak and guessed that Fang was lying down.

She walked over quietly, but not sneakily. Fang was covered in the itchy wool blanket, facing the wall, lying on his side. Max knelt next to him and put her hand on his shoulder, covered by the wool. "Do you need me to get you anything, Fang?"

He didn't answer.

"I'll hang your clothes to dry."

Max picked up the wet jeans and shirt. She didn't need to wring them out. Most of the water had run off already.

While she sat down again to listen to the music, she heard Fang say weakly, "Max."

She checked on him. "What do you need?"

Fang looked at the wall and said weakly, "You, Max. Just you." He turned onto his back and looked up at Max with vacant eyes.

"Okay." Max sat on the floor, listening to the music, and she held Fang's hand while he slept. Eventually she grew tired and made her way to the work table. She climbed up and curled into a wet ball.

14. Hostile Territory

Rage turned Iggy's normally pale face reddish-purple. "How exactly did you persuade Dr. Martinez to let Akila become a new experiment?"

Jeb was shorter and stockier than Iggy. He knew enough to tread carefully around his fledgling race of recombinant humans. The only means Jeb had of controlling their strength was fostering their sense that they were still children.

Jeb calmly explained, "Akila's injuries are so extensive that anesthetizing her would be the only other option. I'm well aware of how fondly some of you feel about her. I only permitted this kind of medical intervention because I knew how difficult it would be for you children to lose her."

Iggy saw through Jeb like a sheet of glass. His soul was empty, sold out long ago to false Itex promises. "What you did to your son was unconscionable. I thought you'd have developed at least a drop of compassion after witnessing the horrors he lived through."

This pained Jeb. Iggy felt it.

Jeb slowly responded, "Akila won't be required to morph into a different form as with Ari. If she can grow wings and integrate her muscles, she can join you on all of your expeditions. Then the unfortunate kind of accident that happened last week can be completely avoided."

"The 'unfortunate accident' last week was genetic warfare against Max." Iggy's stance was towering over Jeb.

"What I mean is that Akila can escape a similar threat the next time it happens." Jeb was careful to not back down from Iggy or show any sign of intimidation.

"You talk like genetic warfare against Max is going to become commonplace." Iggy clenched his fists to avoid strangling Jeb.

"That is a very real threat, Iggy. I'm sure that you and Fang will take excellent care of Max, as you always have." Jeb was distracted by his Blackberry.

Iggy snatched it away from Jeb. "Whatever business you have can wait until our conversation is over."

The two faced off against each other. "That was an email from Dr. Martinez. It is quite important for all of us to be in constant communication. Hand me back the phone."

Iggy didn't understand how Jeb was so resistant to Iggy's manipulation. The Flock would fly through a sand storm if Iggy told them to. But Jeb was so adept at sidestepping Iggy's influence.

Reluctantly, Iggy relinquished the phone. His mind was racing, putting together future scenarios. He kept getting stuck, like a scratched up DVD, when he pondered the point Jeb had just made about taking care of Max.

"Well, it seems that Valencia – Dr. Martinez has found a team of scientists that she is satisfied with," Jeb said cheerfully.

"We'll see about that," Iggy threatened. "But before we discuss anything else, you need to tell me exactly what you meant about protecting Max."

Jeb smiled. "My dear boy, have you never considered why you and Fang are the same age as Max? You've never thought out the reason you have grown up with Max?"

Iggy felt his stomach contort violently. Knowing whatever information Jeb was about to cough up far outweighed Iggy's personal discomfort. "You make it sound like a controlled experiment," he laughed offhandedly.

"Of course it was, Iggy. How you and Fang could be so unobservant is shocking, actually. You are both far more intelligent than you act." Jeb had a smugness about him that made Iggy want to rip out his jugular vein.

"We're just kids. We can't understand all the plans you have for us. If you would tell us, we'd be able to cooperate more readily." Iggy oozed sincerity and innocence. He had discovered Jeb's weak point as a dominant father figure. It had been there all along. Iggy was so preoccupied with conversing as an adult that he had overlooked Jeb's inward motives for doing Itex's bidding.

"You really must be blind, Iggy. Don't you see that Max needs to have a partner? Would you and Fang really expect Max to endure all of these obstacles alone?" Jeb laughed in a patronizing tone of voice.

"When you put it that way, it is rather silly that we didn't see it," Iggy confessed. "So if Fang is injured, I'm supposed to step in?"

"I suppose it is a bit late for you to step in now. Although, it really wasn't a choice that you'd been able to make."

Iggy's plan was working. Jeb began to spout information in a superior tone of voice. "You can't imagine the hours of planning that went into selecting the perfect companion for a breed such as Max. We knew that only boys capable of accepting the highest level of risks would be suitable matches for her. What we didn't know was how Max would respond to strong emotions or strong logic. So we ran our own side experiment, allowing you two to interact with Max.

"Soon it became evident that you, Iggy, were so dominant in logic that it overpowered Max's tendency to think with her heart instead of her brain. While you certainly are more suitable as a protector and partner for Max, there was a definite risk that Max would fail to reach her potential if your strong personality overtook hers.

"So when the experiment to enhance vision was approved, it seemed an acceptable risk to allow you to participate. If you were further empowered by the vision experiments, we would deal with that. Unfortunately, the experiments had claimed your eyesight. This made things much easier for all of us when you retreated to your world of self-pity.

"It opened the possibility of Max bonding with the less responsible of you two boys. Since Fang was attuned to his emotions much more than he practiced impartial thought, Max was drawn to him.

"Of course, Max was already exercising her incredible powers and had formed a mother-like bond to you. So we had no choice but to allow the three of you to continue to grow up together. The incredible compassion that Max displays for the most vulnerable is just one of her many amazing abilities."

"You really did spend a lot of time considering this," Iggy innocently gushed.

"I know about your skill, Iggy. You don't need to pretend." Jeb seemed to tower over Iggy.

Iggy took a step back, like he was shot in the chest. "So if you're spilling the beans, can I ask you some questions?"

"Did you think you needed to ask permission? Really, Iggy, you have so much more potential than you show." Jeb flicked lint off his shirt.

"I want to know if I'm supposed to fade into black. Let Fang and Max do their thing. I mean, I don't have any hope of stealing Max's heart, do I?" Iggy was acting like a little boy. He wasn't manipulating Jeb. Instead, Jeb had effectively squished him down to size.

Jeb shook his head. He had real regret in his voice when he told Iggy, "You had your sight taken away, not your courage. It is very disappointing to see you like this. You should be able to think this through for yourself. You would see that the race isn't over until someone crosses the finish line."

Iggy was beginning to shake nervously. "The finish line? Is that what I think you mean?"

Jeb laughed haughtily [author edit: Change 'haughtily' to 'heartily']. "Probably not, given your adolescent state of mind. When Max succeeds in saving the world, that will be the finish line. Who is going to be there with her, Iggy? You? Fang? Angel? Ella? Will all of you fail and make me do these things myself?"

Iggy was wordless for a long time. Jeb busied himself with his Blackberry while Iggy processed everything. Jeb was an extremely patient man.

"So now my lot is thrown in with the likes of you," Iggy finally spit up.

"You are quite ignorant, young man," Jeb reprimanded. "If you knew what Max has to conquer, you'd gladly take my hand and sing a campfire ditty!"

"What about Fang?" Iggy mumbled.

"What about him? Why are you so intimidated by his connection with Max?"

Iggy stood helplessly.

"A word of caution, Iggy. Never make the mistake of thinking that Max is tame. Even I am not fully aware of all that she is capable of. But I am certain that if she were crossed, she could be more deadly than any challenge you've ever faced." Jeb walked away.

When Iggy was sure Jeb was gone, he lost his lunch.

15. Together

Valencia met Iggy at a cheap pancake place for a 5 a.m. breakfast. Iggy had six tall stacks in front of him and two tall glasses of orange juice with a full careen [Author edit: Change 'careen' to 'carafe'] of coffee, just for himself.

While Valencia sipped her mug of coffee and nibbled at dry toast with grape jelly, Iggy spoke quietly and urgently.

"Dr. Martinez, releasing Akila to a research group is a very bad idea. The problem is exacerbated by Jeb's involvement. Wherever Jeb goes, Itex is sure to follow." Iggy's face was cautionary.

Valencia stirred her coffee and took a sip before responding. "The research group that I have selected has one of the best track records, if not the best, for genetic engineering applications in canines. Akila will be in the care of the very best."

Iggy leaned toward Dr. Martinez. His voice was as cold as steel. "Max is an application of genetic engineering. All of the flock are. We lived first-hand the kind of 'engineering' that Itex promotes.

"I can't blame Max for not telling you the truth about how we lived before Jeb removed us from the School. She wouldn't have told you what we witnessed week after unending week. There was no reason for Max to tell you about the horrors Itex produced. Researchers left part human, part animal creatures [to] suffer slow, agonizing deaths next to our dog crates."

Valencia choked on her toast. "Your dog crates?"

Iggy deliberated exactly how much information to reveal. "We were raised as lab animals, Dr. Martinez. Max would have no reason to explain that to you, either. Perhaps she would never have wanted you to know.

"Before Jeb, we knew nothing about normal life. We had never heard of beds. There were no toilets. Dining tables? How about slop on the lab floor instead. We didn't even eat real food - what you would consider food – until Jeb took us into the real world."

Valencia's face was contorted in shock. Her mind replayed her role in Max's life.

"We know exactly how lab animals are treated at institutions. It is something none of us would ever willfully submit a living creature to."

Valencia asked tactfully, "What university were you at?"

"We don't actually know the academic affiliation with the facility, the School. Perhaps it was industrial. I'd venture a guess that Itex was the primary sponsor of all research conducted on us."

Valencia folded her arms across her chest. "I could take a sabbatical from the practice. I could join the research group as a visiting scholar …" She began to make plans in her mind, forgetting Iggy across from her.

Iggy said quietly, "If you are determined to hand Akila's life over to a laboratory, your involvement would be prudent."

Valencia listened with a far away look.

Iggy shoveled pancakes into his mouth at a rate that made Valencia believe that he truly was raised like a dog.


"Cock-a-doodle-doo," Fang whispered into Max's ear.

Max groaned as she stretched out on the hard table. Her damp clothes stuck to her skin uncomfortably. Then she sneezed.

"Get yourself warmed up," Fang told her. "There's hot coffee and a smorgasbord over at the grill."

Max yawned obnoxiously. She scratched her chest, through the uncomfortable layers of rain-soaked shirts.

Fang tossed the wool blanket around Max's shoulders. Curiosity drew Max's eyes to him. He was fully dressed. There was no fun in that.

Fang handed her a steaming cup of hot coffee and a pheasant drumstick. She gnawed on the meat hungrily and scorched her mouth with the coffee. Fang suppressed his smirk as he listened to Max's unconscious vocalizations of pleasure. He would never get over her. She was just too Max.

Max abruptly lowered the coffee cup and berated herself, "What have I been thinking? How could I have left the Flock alone for – how many days has it been?" Her distressed eyes gazed past Fang.

"Everyone is just fine, Max." Fang gently lay his hand on the top of Max's head. "Relax."

"Anything could have happened to them? They're not 'just fine!' What if a second wave of attacks were sent to them?" Max's voice began its ascent into hysterics.

Fang lowered himself to the level of the table and peered into her eyes. "You worry too much." He carefully rearranged hair that had gone astray, blocking her eyes.

Max flared, "They're alone! Don't tell me not to worry!"

Now Fang slid next to her on the table. He comforted her with his arm around her shoulders. "They're not alone. Iggy's with them."

"Iggy? Well that helps a lot. Thanks for putting my worries to rest." Max jumped off the table and began pacing the floor.

Fang felt like he was talking to a two-year-old Eraser. "You don't see Iggy very clearly, Max. He can hold his own as well as you and I. He could probably take care of the Flock better than us both!" He laughed softly.

"Iggy taking care of the Flock? I'd like to see that day."

Fang grabbed Max's arm and reeled her in. "Well, then, I guess we'd better head off to the Flock this morning. If we're lucky, you'll see Iggy in his splendid glory yet today."

Max smelled the dried rain in Fang's hair. It drew her eyes to his. She wanted to say something sassy, something smart, but Fang's dark lashes left her speechless.

Fang was having his own party going on, with Max standing so close.

Without warning, Fang stood up and said in a tense voice, "Incoming!"

Within ninety seconds Fang and Max had thrown essential supplies into a spare duffle bag laying around the station. They snagged the survival kit, the field guide, first aid kit, and most importantly, the fully loaded i-Pod. A meager stash of energy bars – with a few chocolate bars snuck in by Max – were topped off with the wool blanket.

Outside on the platform, Fang's bright eyes met Max's. "Up and away," he suggested.

Max grew a mischievous grin on her face. "Wait!" she shouted excitedly. Then she emerged from the station with a bright orange spray paint can. She giggled and sprayed on the door:



Fang laughed right along with Max. He snatched the spray paint and amended the byline:


Max might have peed from laughing so hard as she tried to take off. She really couldn't tell, seeing that her clothes were thoroughly damp to begin with.

When she finally got into the air and reached Fang, at the rim of the tree tops, they both saw the helicopter in the distance.

"Grab my leg, cowboy," Max managed between giggles.

As soon as Fang clamped on, she accelerated to 250 miles per hour and shot into the sky. Fang hollered, "Yeehaw!"

Reaching the cloud line, she slowed and they both turned to take one last look at the station.

"I'm really going to miss that place," Max said, still laughing.

"I just wish I could see Jeb's face when he reads your note," Fang chuckled.

Everything is back to normal. Life on the run. That's the life for me. Max sailed through the misty clouds, following Fang's lead.

Fang glided along the air currents. He had those hawk moves down to a science.


Rain was falling in sheets. Fang dipped into a cave opening on the face of a rocky ledge. Max was next to him a second later.

"I hate this rain," she muttered to herself. "Can't a girl get some sun around here? At least get partially dry before being drenched again? I'm gonna hunt down a weather man and make him pay …"

Fang ignored Max. He surveyed the cave and found enough twigs and dry wood to build a small fire.

Max huddled next to the tiny flames, shivering. Fang pulled the blanket out the duffel bag and draped it over her head and shoulders.

When he sat across from her and saw her through the waves of heat ascending from the fire, he remembered a statue he'd seen once. It had been at a cathedral somewhere in some place. The blanket draped over Max's head and shoulders reminded him of the lady in the statue. Max didn't have the baby in her arms like the statue did, but Fang could easily see how Max would cradle an infant in her arms and coo lovingly at it. I am the luckiest man in the world tonight.

He shook himself out of his daze, which had thankfully gone unnoticed by Max. He would have been razzed for that episode until the cows came home.

Fang took some energy bars and rationed out two each. Max's fingers looked almost blue with chill as she devoured the pitifully inadequate food supply.

The rain had let up slightly since they'd inhabited the cave. It was no good to try to scavenge in the downpour, so Fang watched helplessly as the tiny fire burned itself out.

Late afternoon seemed like evening in the dark cover of rain clouds.

Fang eventually said the inevitable. "We need to sit together to stay warm."

Max crawled around the red embers, blanket in tow. "I was thinking of sleep, actually."

Fang brushed dirt off the rock floor with his hand and helped Max ease her head down gently. He leaned against Max to distribute warmth under the blanket. Max tried laying on one side. Then she turned around and tried facing Fang. She quickly went back to laying on her back. Stirring once again she lay on her stomach, but rolled back to her side quickly.

"What's going on Max?" Fang impatiently demanded. "Find a comfortable place and stick with it."

Max sat up. She was in a bad mood. "It is physically impossible to find a comfortable place on these rocks. I swear, if it isn't my back, it's my stomach. You know, I think I'd be more comfortable sleeping in the rain on a tree branch than in this chilly cavern." She began to get up.

Fang held her arm down, keeping her from standing up.

"What?" she demanded.

"I have an idea," he said quietly.


"Try lying on top of me."

"What?" Max tried to stand up again, but lost the battle.

"Just try it, Max. You're wet, you're cold, you're making me miserable, so just bite your pride and try it." Fang implored with his deep eyes.

Max began laughing. "Yeah. This is gonna work. Bring it on, Fang. I'd like to see how long you can handle my weight on you."

Fang rolled his eyes, going unnoticed by Max.

He lay on his back and let Max find her way to a comfortable place with her head on his chest.

"You're warm," she sighed. "I take back what I said. I never would have thought that your bony body could be so … comfortable."

Max sighed, stretching out her arms over Fang's shoulders. Then she pulled herself up quickly. "This would be perfect if I could just get my boobs to cooperate and quit hurting me."

Fang coughed a laugh and wrapped his arms around Max's back tightly.

"Well, what I have of them. Oh. You know already. Why am I even bothering to explain it to you?"

Fang laughed and felt for the place between Max's wings where she especially loved his touch.

Max sensed that Fang had a mischievous secret. At first she tried to ignore him but something else happened. "Fang, do you have something … oh. Fang, this is embarrassing."

In a husky voice Fang laughed, "You're telling me."

"Okay. You know, we don't have to do this. I can sleep on the rock floor. It really isn't necessary for me to sleep right on top of you."

Fang's voice slurred, "Humor me."

"Well, uh, I don't think I could humor you any more than I already have." Max tried to roll away but Fang's gentle embrace didn't let her move.

"I suppose you're right about that." His face was plastered with a goofy smile. Max didn't see it but she would have used it for future ammunition if she had.

"Fang," Max protested.

Rubbing Max's back tenderly, he pleaded, "It's just biology, Max. Give me a break. I'll get it under control, okay?"

Max huffed uncomfortably. "Just biology. That's an interesting line, Fang. You'll have to remember that in case this ever happens again."

Fang said soothingly into Max's ear, "It happens every time I'm near you."

Max's face ran red. "Oh please."

"I seem to remember a little speech about being ruled by animal instinct. It goes both ways." Fang's rapid breaths eventually eased and Max relaxed over his chest and stomach.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" she stalled.

"I think it's the best idea I've had all week."

"Not again."

"Be patient with me, Max. I'm trying."

Max finally settled into a slight curl, her ear listening to the rhythm of Fang's heart.

Fang gently ran his fingers between Max's wings. The tempo of Max's breathing slowed to smooth, steady inhalation and exhalation. The sound filled the cave, accompanied by the soft percussion of the drizzling rain. Fang could think of no music sweeter than this.

16. The Unexpected

In the early hours of the morning, Fang woke up. The rain had ceased. He gently crawled out from under Max's grasp and hurried outside.

A fire was burning when Max opened her eyes. She liked the warmth. She almost felt like crawling into the flames to warm herself completely. I could really use one of those unbearable flashes of heat, Voice. Of course there was no answer. You're not helpful at all.

Fang was sitting across the fire, eating some kind of rodent. It made Max's mouth water.

She stood up and stretched. Then she looked into the appalled face of Fang.

"What's wrong?" Max asked.

"I, well, I'm not exactly sure." Fang was actually blushing. Fang!

Max tried not to laugh. "C'mon. Tell me."

Fang wouldn't look at Max. He stared at his sneakers and mumbled, "You need to look through the first aid kit. Maybe you can find something in there."

Max stared at him. He did his invisible thing. Max huffed and grabbed the duffle bag.

Fang got up quickly and said, "Give me the card – Anne's card. I need to buy some supplies."

"It's for emergencies, Fang," Max admonished.

Fang persisted. "This, possibly, could count as an emergency. It has some of the elements of an emergency."

Max reluctantly handed over the card. "You know I'm only doing this because I trust you. And because you've been so good to me these last few days."

Fang tried to look up at Max's face but his eyes didn't raise up high enough before he looked away and ran out of the cave.

Max ate his leftovers. It was slim pickings at best. Then she inspected the first aid kit. That was precisely when she noticed the bright red splotch below the zipper of her jeans. She leaned forward to inspect the cause.

She nearly screamed. But that wasn't a Max thing to do, so she suppressed it.

She thought of Fang's horrified reaction and the way he ran away from her. It's the Ebola virus. I'm bleeding from the inside out. Itex somehow got to me. No wonder Fang left without saying anything. Not even goodbye.

Max sat next to the fire in despair. Then the Voice chimed in. Max, this is not a test. Calmly consider this. Your reproductive organs are mammalian. What do all female mammals have in common, Max?

Max thought about it and ventured a guess. Pubic hair?

The Voice said impatiently. Think about something else to do with reproduction, Max.

Max emptied her mind, exhausting the possibilities that she knew.

Finally, the Voice said in exasperation, I'm not going to have this conversation with you. You should talk with your mother.

Max laughed aloud. My mother! My telepathic skill hasn't emerged yet, stupid Voice. You are as useless as Fang said you were.

The Voice responded, No I am not.

Max countered, You are.

The Voice was more firm in its resolve. No. I am not useless, 'as Fang said.'

Max said aloud, "Yes you are. You're completely useless."

Fang emerged at the opening of the cave. "Who are you talking to?" he asked suspiciously. He still averted his eyes. Of course now Max had a general idea of what bothered him.

"Why'd you come back?" she asked in a monotone.

Fang looked like he was angry. Instead of lashing out at Max, he said absolutely nothing. Then he put a giant coffee-to-go carton in front of Max, with a bag full of fifteen cups, about 30 creamers, and handfuls of little colorful packets containing non-nutritious additives.

Finally Max realized, "You got coffee for me? All of this?"

Fang spoke uncomfortably, "I thought it might make you feel … better."

Max wisecracked suddenly, "Well, since I'm going to bleed to death, I suppose two gallons of coffee will make the process all the more enjoyable."

Fang stared at Max directly in the eyes. "Did you find anything in the first aid kit?"

"There's nothing I can do to stop it."

"I know that. I'm not stupid. But wasn't there anything for you to use?"

Max stared at him blankly.

"Nothing at all?" Fang choked.

"Thanks for the coffee. You don't have to stick around any longer to witness my demise." Max's face softened unexpectedly. "And Fang … I really appreciate that you tried so hard to protect me from Itex." Now her voice broke. "I guess they finally got to me. I really do love you, Fang. Forever and always."

Fang stood up and turned away from Max. "I can't believe this," he muttered. "Why me? Why always me?"

Max said in tears, "I'm sorry I've been so much trouble to you. When I'm gone you won't have to worry about me any more."

Fang whirled around. "What are you blabbering about, now?"

Max coiled away from him, unintentionally.

Then Fang laughed. It was a relieved, embarrassed, overly stressed out kind of laugh.

Max seethed.

"You don't know what it is, do you?" Fang laughed uncontrollably. The way normal fourteen-year-olds are supposed to laugh at least once in their lives.

Max decided to lie down and cover herself with the blanket.

"Max, its … menses."

Max snorted. "Menses, schmenses."

"Don't make me explain this, Max."

"You sound like the Voice," Max accused. "I guess you're both useless cowards." She sat up and complained, "And the Voice had the audacity to tell me to talk to my Mom about it. Like that was really helpful."

Fang said, "I'll come back in an hour. You're going to stay right here, right?" He added some more wood to the fire and rearranged the blackened embers. Hesitating, he poured coffee into a cup with butterfly handles. "Drink it," he commanded.

Not this again, Max thought. But she felt so tired. So she took the coffee and let the hot liquid spread through her body.

"Please don't go anywhere, Max. I'll come back as soon as I can." Then Fang was up and away.

Max put the coffee cup next to the fire and watched it cringing at the unrelenting wrath of the flames. The edges of the cup blackened. Then it began to sway this way and that way. The cup gradually shrank. Finally the black water spilled out, conquering some of the fire, but hardly enough. In agony, the black cup writhed until it was a gray wisp of its former self.

When Fang returned, many plastic bags in hand, Max was still having a staring contest with the fire. Her overheated face looked up. "You really did go shopping."

Fang dropped all the bags at once. He pulled out a pair of black jeans and handed them to Max wordlessly.

Max took them and rubbed them between her fingers. She would never take for granted the satiny feel of department store clothes. She lifted the denim to her nose and sniffed deeply. It made her feel happy, almost like she had a new toy.

When she looked up, Fang was smiling at Max's endearing behavior.

Then Fang's face became serious and he dumped out a bag full of plastic and cardboard packages.

"I thought we were trying not to leave a footprint with excess packaging," she said.

Fang gritted his teeth. "Well, what do you need?"

Max looked at him curiously. "Need?"

Finally Fang shouted at her, "You have your period. How much more do I need to explain?" He immediately got up and went out of the cave smoldering in anger.

Max had the slightest inkling of what "period" meant. Girls at school had talked about it like it was an annoying friend who visited far too often and stayed much too long.

Max picked up a box and opened the flap. She pulled out a cylinder, also wrapped. Curious now, she ripped off that packaging and found a plastic tube with a string tail hanging out.

She tried to figure out what it was, but ended up tossing it in the fire in annoyance. The smell of plastic burning almost made her gag.

Then she grabbed a plastic bundle. She ripped it open and out fell tiny packages. In wonder, she picked one up and noticed that it had a flap clearly begging to be opened. There in front of her eyes was the oddest looking thing she'd ever seen. There were designs made of embossed dots and strange squares of waxy paper. When she ripped off the paper she found that Post-It Note kind of sticky stuff. It was much too bizarre for Max to comprehend. At least this time she didn't throw it in the fire.

A smaller package looked interesting. It had a disgusting fragrance, but Max was exploring fearlessly now and she wouldn't let some offensive stink bother her. She'd survived living with Gazzy all these years, so this was nothing in comparison.

Cute plastic wrapper squares fell into her lap. She opened one up and read on the inside cover in cursive script, "We're happy when you're happy."

"I'm not happy," Max accused. "So now what are you going to do?"

She didn't see Fang lingering at the outside edge of the cave. He was losing his patience with Max. Just pick something.

As if Max had read his thoughts, Max bent over and covered her face with her hands. She was crying. Crying! For all that effort, Max was crying. Fang had to take deep breaths to prevent himself from striding over to her and ripping out her hair. He did explode at her in his mind, though. So I get every kind of thing I could find, and nothing works for you? You're on your own. I'm making camp in the next state over.

Max wiped her eyes and looked at the piles. She bravely opened another box. This one had literature in it! Okay, now we're talking. Toxic this, toxic that. Yes, I'm dying. Quit rubbing it in!

Then she read something that made sense. Something about changing the product every six to eight hours. An unassuming tendril of understanding was beginning to take root.

She flipped the paper over. Spanish is not helping, she complained. Finally she shouted at the unfolded rectangular sheet, "Pictures. I need diagrams. Every other packaged product comes with diagrams. Even toys, for crying out loud. So where are the freakin' illustrations? How the heck can I use your delightful product without an example?"

Fang realized that Max knew nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Max then picked up a small box. It looked inviting. A man and a woman were kissing passionately on the picture. Max understood that.

More tiny packages inside. Another white sheet of paper with tiny black print. And pictures!

Fang stomped over and grabbed the box from Max. "Those don't fit you."

Max was surprised to see him there. She tried to discretely wipe away any telltale tears from her cheeks. "How do you know so much?" she sneered.

"Just a wild guess." Fang finally sat down. "Listen to me, Max."

Max looked up at him. He really did love her. It was palpable in the air.

"I can explain all of this. If you want me to," he quickly amended.

With a huge sigh of relief, Max said, "You can!"

"Yeah. Okay. But um, before I start, there's something I wanted to give you." Fang pulled something small out of his pocket and lifted it to Max's hair.

"Don't touch me," she warned, backing away with mean eyes.

Fang looked a bit disappointed. Then he tried a different tactic. "I got this for you, Max. It's a barrette. For your hair."

Max took it out of Fang's hand. It had an adorable teddy bear decoration at one end. With excitement, Max looked up at Fang. "You got this for me. Like the blackberries. Like the mother bear with the cubs."

Fang nodded. "Can I put it in your hair?" he asked cautiously.

"Uh, okay."

Fang let his fingers linger on Max's hand when he picked up the small barrette. He gently smoothed some hair out of her face and then set about the business of figuring out how those girly girl kinds of things worked.

When he finally succeeded, he leaned forward. His eyes asked Max permission before he gently kissed her lips. Just one sweet, gentle kiss.

17. Love Alters Not

Talk about intimacy.

I already knew about his stuff. It's kind of hard to ignore when you live together twenty-four seven.

But I never knew about me.

Yes, I knew where babies came from! Sheesh … well, not exactly, but close enough. I get that mothering part. Easy peasy. And the sex part …I'm not having any trouble understanding that either. But …I guess I won't know for sure until I try it.

The part that no one ever told me … and this is a shocker, let me tell you …not having babies. No one ever told me there was a price to pay for that.

So, me and my Crush. Some day we're going to do it.

That's what our eyes keep saying to each other, anyway.


Fang held Max's hand as they walked to a coffee shop. He even let her go through the door first. Max didn't really notice, but Fang was trying so hard to be a perfect gentleman. Except when he deliberately tripped Max on the welcome mat just to see her reaction.

He was going to pay for that. Rest assured. Fang didn't get the mood part of Max's dilemma – yet.

Max looked into his eyes, though, and decided to enjoy their first date. Fang didn't know it was a date. But Max did, and that was all that mattered, really.

Fang commandeered a computer along the inside wall of the shop. Never sit with your back to the door. Fang had learned that from reading Westerns.

"So are you going to give me a tour of the Fang-o-Sphere?" Max said, leaning on his shoulder.

"You … actually want to see my blog?" Fang was treading in new territory. It made him nervous. Before he never thought what Max would think about Fang's Blog. And now it was like she wanted to see it in the nude.

He wished he could dress it up a bit. Make it look as beautiful as this goddess sitting next to him, sipping hot chocolate with sub-vocalizations that would make a sex therapist blush – that is, a sex therapist with enhanced mutant bird kid hearing powers.

"Yeah," she said, slipping her hand down his inside thigh …without really thinking about it. This would be a very difficult date for Fang.

"Let me IM Iggy first. Then we can take a look around." Fang tried to sound natural, as if he wasn't wishing that he'd taken Max up on her request when she was in that un-Max state of mind a few days ago. 'Cause even if he did steal her away to the cave in the rocks right that instant, it would be awkward for both of them. Today.

"So you've been talking with Iggy this whole time and didn't bother to let me in on it?" Max folded both hands over her chest, which she had to do in a way that wouldn't make her wince in pain. Fang was glad her hands were finally elsewhere.

"Not exactly." Fang sounded much more relaxed. "We kinda have this weird way of posting blogs and then the other one knows what we really meant by it. Like a secret code."

Max grinned. "I want a decoder ring, too!"

Fang was having trouble concentrating now that Max's immortal smile had wrapped itself around his heart.

The computer dinged, announcing Iggy's IM reply. Fang looked away from the screen, seeking Max's stunning eyes. "Your Mom is with the Flock. She's helping Akila. Are you feeling okay to fly there tonight, or do you want to stay one more night to rest up at Cozy Cavern?"

Max's face showed a raging internal war. Her eyes begged for Fang's tenderness. Her mind said there was a different kind of love that she needed tonight.

Finally Max said apologetically, "My inner fourteen-year-old really wants to see Mom tonight."

Fang nearly kissed her on the lips right there in the middle of the coffee shop. Right there in front of all those strangers who would be watching for their telltale displays of affection.

Instead he quipped, "I knew you'd get tired of seeing my face when you go to sleep and when you wake up."

Fang busied himself IMing Iggy about location, time, need to know kind of stuff.

After Max feigned interest in his blog – well, she was kinda interested – he let Max play around online. Max didn't spend any time online. If she had, this morning's embarrassing scene would have resolved itself much more quickly.

Max wandered across a site that quoted a seriously important guy named Shakespeare. And since the quote was about love, Max figured it was seriously important, too.

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

And guess what was really funny. It was quoted from a book by the Penguin Group. And it was from the Pelican Text. Max was laughing so hard that she accidentally spilled hot chocolate on the jeans Fang had just bought her that morning.

"You sure do know how to make me want to eat your pants," Fang whispered, which made her burst out laughing even harder until she thought about what Fang was really suggesting. Then she blushed in silence and pretended to read the quote with academic zeal.

It wasn't hard for Max to get drawn back into those words, because suddenly the screen was shouting at her soul, "even to the edge of doom!"

Well, that just about fit Max's life story perfectly. If there's doom, Maximum Ride is going to be there. Better buckle up. You might need an air bag, too. 'Cause there's nothing safe about flying with the likes of Max.

She remembered her dying pledge to Fang – when she thought she was a goner – "forever and always." That adventure suddenly began to look terrifying.

18. Reunion

Max breezed above the city, watching the tiny cars with headlights file into a parking garage like worker ants reporting for duty in a picnic basket. She could faintly hear the roars of the Monster Truck rally just getting underway.

One city building captured her attention because of the serene angel statues that were illuminated at the skyscraping base of a cascading pinnacle of carvings. She glanced at Fang, who was ogling the fantastic river scene with gorgeously illuminated bridges reflecting their beauty on a dainty mirror.

It felt so good to be coming back to the Flock. Max's heart twittered in anticipation of seeing each face she loved: the puerile but irresistible Gazzy; the unabashed Nudge; her precious Angel; and the previously overlooked "bastion of strength" – Fang's words (seriously, he really said it) – Iggy.

Max landed in a park surrounded by university buildings. There were plenty of inviting trees sprawled across the grassy lawn, intersected by vectors of sidewalks.

Fang landed right behind her. He touched her hand and let his fingers briefly linger over hers until their last intimate moment was overrun by excited, familiar faces.

Gazzy was the first to reach Max and Fang. He clamped on to Max's legs. There were no words, just obvious relief on his face because his leader had returned. Nudge arrived. Seeing that Max was preoccupied, she flew – literally – into Fang's arms and gave him a signature "Squee!" Fang refused to let Nudge go, relishing her sweetness and her verbosity that he just now realized he painfully missed all week.

Angel clung to the side of Max that Gazzy hadn't managed to monopolize. "I missed you so much," Angel whispered through a wavering voice. Max ran her fingers through Angel's blonde tresses and soothed her, "You were always on my mind, sweetie."

As the hug-fest began to break up, and Nudge got another "Squee!" in with Max, Iggy appeared beneath the oak trees. Fang high fived Ig and they tossed around some banter. Max, possessed by some force beyond her normal self, ran to Iggy and hugged him with "Squee"-like fervor.

"You watched over the Flock! Iggy, I was so worried. And Fang said you were just perfect at taking good care of everyone." Max choked silently. She hoped neither of the guys noticed. But of course Fang would have to go and notice that kind of thing. She saw it in his unforgettable eyes.

Iggy ran his fingers across Max's face, the way close friends scan each others faces after they've been apart for some time. "Why do you smell like hot chocolate?" he asked. It took every ounce of Max's will power not to blush from the memory of Fang's suggestive words earlier that afternoon.

Not waiting for an answer, Iggy's hand ran along her hair and stopped at the barrette. "What's this?"

Now Max felt embarrassment sneak up her face. How could she have forgotten to take out of her hair that girly girl remnant of her rendezvous with Fang? Now she'd never live it down in the Flock's collective memory – especially with Iggy's observant fingers cataloguing exactly how adorable the teddy bear actually was.

Fang stepped in. He grabbed the barrette out of Iggy's hands and took it back. He was lucky that it hadn't pulled out Max's hair along with it. There would have been hell to pay.

As Iggy surmised the significance of Fang's repossessed gift, his heart beat with a little less exuberance. But he didn't have any time to ruminate over it.

Angel shouted, "There's a swarm coming for Max again!"

Fang and Iggy had no differences in this moment. Their one shared desire was to protect Max, and they nearly smothered her between their two chests. Max was far more important than silly homophobic discomfort about having their lips three inches apart. After all, they were a family – the same family – and they would never, ever let any of the Flock suffer harm.

As the first destructive tiny flying machines arrived, they searched for Max. One finally detected Max and burrowed through Max's jeans into her calf. In agony she shrieked and couldn't support her own weight. Fang's hands clamped onto her hips while Max leaned against Iggy's chest listlessly.

Gazzy was the first to understand what had happened. He dashed to Max's exposed leg and wrestled the machine out of her skin. Not a second after he had yanked it out, it disintegrated into dust.

Angel yelled, "Nudge! We have to protect Max's legs!" Gazzy, Nudge and Angel knelt around their oldest Flock members.

Angel warned everyone, "They're going to sting us. They know Max is inside. Our stings can't injure us permanently. But if they reach Max, the cells surrounding it will die, just like her first sting."

Angel demanded Nudge and Gazzy – in her thoughts – to embrace tightly and to be brave despite the pain of the stings.

Max heard Nudge whimper and Angel cry out softly. Gazzy was so quiet that she could barely hear his cries of pain. She felt the rumblings of determination in Iggy's chest and she knew Fang's most secret vocalizations enough to realize that the Flock's pain to protect her was more intense than any of them had ever experienced.

As each machine injected its painful stinger, it processed the host's DNA. As soon as the DNA tested negative, each machine disintegrated into fine dust. To the Flock's credit, not a single other machine reached Max.

Twenty minutes after suffering the last of the stings, the Flock began to disengage cautiously. Max was horrified to see the inflamed bug bite bumps all over each Flock member's skin. "You guys saved my life," she whispered, wishing it was her who had the agony on her face and not her precious Flock.

She buried her face in her hands. Soundless weeping of gratitude poured out of her eyes.

The Flock looked at each other in shock. None of them knew they had the courage – the fortitude – to endure such pain. But in each face there was an unwavering satisfaction that they'd protected Max. A pride swelled in the Flock as their victory resonated in the quiet night air.


Valencia examined the inflamed stings on the Flock. She'd never seen any "bug bites" quite like these. After seeing Akila's condition, she had no doubt that the Flock's tall tales of heroically encompassing Max in a bird-kid shield were completely true.

She treated the areas of inflammation with a topical anesthetic to relieve at least some of the pain the Flock had endured.

Lastly, she examined Max's leg, pushing up the jeans above her knee. It was apparent that permanent cellular damage left a tiny hole in Max's skin. Although it was superfluous, Valencia sterilized the injury and applied a bandage. Her mother-heart had to do something, refusing to admit that Max would always have that reminder of the attack on her leg.

Jeb was curiously absent, Valencia noted. He seemed to disappear quiet often. Sometimes he was gone for a few hours. Other times overnight. There was no rhyme, no reason, to predict his comings and goings.

Valencia's gut tensed with discomfort, making sure that her brain processed the dangerous reality of the Flock's defiant quest to save the world.

19. Mom

Max curled under the sheets that reflected her body's heat under a layer of soft blankets. She refused to open her eyes, refused to relinquish her hold on this elusive thing called sleep.

When her mother had poked her head in the room and whispered, "Are you awake, Max?" she'd stubbornly held on to the illusion that she was still drifting in dreamland.

Eventually nature called, meaning that her stomach growled like a starving Eraser. With tremendous reluctance, she pushed away the sheet and blankets and got out of bed.

Max saw a coin-sized stain of blood brightly taunting her on the surface of the snow white sheets. She erupted into rage. She tore the sheet off the bed and began ripping it into rags. Her mouth uttered words she didn't even understand the meaning of.

Valencia burst through the bedroom door. "Max, what happened? What's the matter?"

Max contained her fury, fearful of how badly she could hurt Mom if she decided that she needed a punching bag. Where's Fang when you need him?

Max fumed through frightfully exposed canines and incisors, "I bled on the bed sheets."

Valencia's anxiety turned to relief. "Oh, Max! That happens to almost every woman, at least once. It comes off easily with hydrogen peroxide."

Max stared at the shreds that remained of the sheet. It looked as tattered and torn as her emotions felt all the time these days. What ever happened to the invincible "ne'er shed a tear" Max? Who abducted her and replaced her with this body?

Valencia hugged Max tightly. "I am so glad that you are here with me. It's hard to watch you battle the world when there are so many things that you're missing by being all grown up too soon."

Max finally was able to hug her Mom back. Just for a second. Then she was uncomfortable and withdrew.

"I'm sure you're hungry. There is plenty of food prepared in the refrigerator. All you need to do is microwave it. And if you want something else to eat, I'd be happy to make it. Just let me know." Valencia was prepared to serve any need she could think of.

I guess I get my mothering instincts from my mother.


"Where's the Flock?" Max asked between bites of eggs, English muffins, tablespoons of peanut butter and chocolate cupcakes.

"The girls went to Iggy's place. Jeb is putting the boys up in a house down the street."

"Where exactly are we?" Max finally asked.

"I'm taking a sabbatical from the practice, Max. So I rented this old house for six months. We're on the south campus of the university." Valencia reached over and curled one of Max's stray hairs over her ear.

Max thought of Fang's gentle touch and wished he was sitting with her, just the two of them, in Cozy Cavern this morning. Then she thought about the comfortable bed and erased that wish. She quickly fast-forwarded to the present reality.

"Do you have coffee?" Max asked.

"I can make some. Let me get it brewing right now." Valencia eagerly went to the kitchen, happy to serve her wild daughter with any request.


Cuddling the coffee mug in both hands, Max relaxed at the now cleared table with her Mom.

Venturing the courage, Max said, "Mom."

Valencia encouraged her with a "Yes?"

"There's something I need your help with. I don't understand how to use these things that Fang bought. I mean he tried to explain it to me, but it was just too weird."

Valencia's face paled slightly. How could she have expected to escape the inevitable mother-daughter safe sex talk? She felt conflicting emotions thinking about Max having sex with Fang. Valencia wished that Max would see how easy it is to rush into relationships at that age. In Valencia's mind, Iggy seemed like a much better match for Max.

Then Max appeared at the table with a bulky grocery bag.

Valencia flushed, wondering what kinds of sex toys she was going to be forced to explain to the daughter that she wished was still a virgin.

Max saw her Mom's discomfort and back-pedaled, "I don't have to talk about it with you if it makes you feel uncomfortable. I totally get that. I could wait and ask Ella about it, if you want."

Valencia composed herself. "No, no, Max. You're doing the right thing by coming to me. I think I'd better make sure I have the same talk with Ella before she encounters the same situation."

Max nodded vigorously. "You should talk with her. I wish someone would have told me about it. I mean, can you imagine how embarrassing it was for Fang to be telling me about this stuff. How he knew about it is still a mystery to me."

Valencia swallowed and said with determination, "Show me the first item you want to discuss."

Max turned the bag upside down and out fell various sizes, shapes, colors and fragrances of feminine hygiene products like maxi-pads, tampons and liners.

Valencia narrowed her eyebrows.

"You don't know what they are either?" Max asked with relieved surprise. "I thought I was the only person on earth who had absolutely no idea how to use this stuff."

Valencia's throat tightened. "Fang bought all of this for you? By himself? He picked out everything without your help?"

Max sighed happily, "Pretty amazing guy, isn't he? At least one thing in my life is going right."

Valencia recomposed her professional visage. Iggy's description of life in dog crates hit home deeply in her heart, as she realized that Max had no one who even cared to tell her about puberty and adolescence. She fought back tears.

"Why are you sad?" Max asked. What did I do to hurt her feelings? Max wondered.

Valencia swallowed the tears down her throat and said, "Max, I'm so glad you asked me about these things. I … I should have told you before. I just wasn't thinking. I really need to apologize for that, Max."

"Apologize?" Max laughed. "Why on earth are you apologizing?"

"Because it was my job to do what Fang did."

Max looked at her Mom. "Fang explained the period stuff to me because he loves me, Mom. Not because it was his job." Max really didn't understand her mom today.

"Oh, Max!" Valencia held back her sorrow. "You didn't know about your period either?"

"No. Not until it happened yesterday. You should have seen the look on Fang's face when he saw me with blood on my jeans. I wish I'd had a camera. Of course, once I realized why he ran out of the cave, I actually thought I was dying!" Max laughed softly. "It was pretty funny, actually, 'cause I was telling Fang how I loved him forever. And then it turns out I'm not dying and I was thinking to myself, 'Why did I do that?'"

Valencia got out of her chair and rushed to Max. She held her tightly. "I will explain everything to you Max. And if you ever have questions about anything – even embarrassing things like smell or color or whatever – I am always here to help you through it. Okay?"

Max nodded. Now she was catching the throaty tears that Valencia suffered from. And Max didn't even know why.

After Valencia released her, Max fished out the box of condoms. "I don't know why he put these back in here. They're supposed to be for him." Max had no shame, no embarrassment, no concept of impropriety in front of her Mom.

Valencia held her hand over Max's. "No, Max. You need to keep these. I'm really glad Fang bought these for you, too."

"But I don't have one of those. You don't, do you?" Max puzzled.

Valencia smiled at Max's innocence. "Max, have you had sex yet?"

Max said matter-of-factly, "No. Can you believe it? One night I even begged Fang for sex and he wouldn't do it. He said I wasn't being myself! What an idiot!"

Valencia wondered about Fang. She really had to reconsider him. Eventually Valencia said tactfully, "Max, some day you are going to be with a man who wants to have intercourse with you – it might be Fang or someone else. And when that happens, you need to protect yourself. The way our anatomy is set up, women are much more likely to get sick from diseases passed through sex than men are. So, you need to have these with you for whenever that day happens."

Max scorned, "You expect me to carry these things around? Mom, I'm living life on the run, here. I don't exactly have a hobo bag to stuff with my girly girl things!"

Valencia looked into her daughters eyes with tenderness. "I'll help you figure that out, too. Okay?"

20. Something Is Different

Valencia drove the tan pick-up truck down the road, stopping to let Max hop out in front of the house Jeb had rented for the guys in the Flock. Max watched her mom drive off to work at the research lab where Akila was being "treated." At the thought, Max had to swallow the bile that involuntarily rose up her throat.

She stood on the uneven, broken sidewalk, looking up and down the shady, tree-lined street. Birds were flocking on an electric wire that ran across the street at the intersection where Valencia had just made a left turn. The birds twittered to each other, leap-frogging and dashing to and fro. A jumbo jet rumbled over head on its way to the international airport.

Max tucked a stray curl of hair behind her ear as she thought of Fang. It was so odd to be away from him after spending every minute of every day with him during the past week. Max's front teeth did a dance on her lower lip and she recalled their pledges of love for each other. Now that she was back with the Flock, things didn't seem so straight forward anymore.

Max walked up the narrow sidewalk to the front door of Jeb's hideaway. The wooden steps of the porch creaked under her weight and her shoe lifted off gray paint chips each time she stepped up.

Standing at the front door, she felt a tinge of fear. Not of Fang. Fear for the safety of the Flock. Who in their right mind would make a glass door for a house? This is so easy to break into that it's comical. The image of a baseball bat smashing through the door made her shiver. She tried to shake her fears out of her head as she poked the glowing orange doorbell.

The ding dong sounded loudly through the measly pane of glass separating the house's inhabitants from the rest of the world.

Ella opened the door.

"Max!" Ella gave Max a lingering hug, as if the previous night's reunion hadn't been enough. "We're all in here. Iggy's talking about all the stuff we can do at the campus."

Valencia had come up with a brilliant idea. She had all the Flock, and Ella, too, excited about picking a topic to study and then sharing what they learned with the rest of the Flock. Max had barely heard a word of Valencia's excited discussion with Fang. He was actually encouraging her to prattle on and on by acting interested. Max just didn't get Fang sometimes.

Ella took Max's hand and began leading her further into the house. Max saw Fang emerge from the shadows with a look of pained relief on his face. Max let her eyes linger in his gaze as she tried to read him.

Ella continued pulling Max through the house until they reached an open room with sun-flooded windows. Max was not prepared for what she saw.

On a six-foot square leather ottoman, Iggy was sitting with Nudge and Angel cuddled up to him, listening intently to everything he said.

Ella dropped Max's hand and squeezed next to Angel. Iggy's hand casually played with her hair.

Max looked around for Fang? "What's going on with Ig?" she mouthed to him. He gave her a blank gaze and almost imperceptibly shook his head to say that he was clueless, too.

Iggy announced, "Max! You're here. Come on over and sit with us. There's a place right next to Nudge."

Max felt oddly drawn to follow his gesturing hand. She stopped herself. Instead she purposefully looked for Gazzy. He was building a house out of a deck of playing cards. Fang had been building the structure with Gazzy before Max arrived. Now he stooped down to place another card on top of a wall.

Max felt a strange panic in her voice when she said, "I think I need Fang to show me where to get a drink."

She pulled against Iggy's magnetic force and managed to snag a finger in Fang's belt loop just to make sure she didn't go fly into Iggy's love nest.

As soon as Max and Fang were out of the Flock's site, Max turned to Fang. She was staring right into his Adam's apple, which quivered tensely. Fang's hands seemed to pat her arms up and down in agitation.

"When did Iggy become a chick magnet?" Max asked in a low voice.

A pained expression came over Fang's face. He wordlessly dragged Max up a set of wooden stairs and down a hall. He locked themselves into a small room with an unmade bed and a desk. Fang's dirty clothes were in a heap at the foot of the bed, exactly where he had stepped out of them last night.

Fang opened his mouth to talk but no words came out of his flailing lips. He soon became flustered until his shaking hands latched onto Max's waist.

"What's wrong, Fang?" Max asked.

Fang looked at her briefly, and then dove into her mouth with a passionate kiss. Max was startled, but she also felt her body's warm response to him.

Fang pulled away and tried to talk again, but he still had no words. He ran his fingers through Max's hair and slid his hands down her body, stopping again at her waist.

Finally, in a strained, quiet voice, Fang said, "I couldn't stand seeing Nudge and Ella cozying up to Iggy, and all the time I was thinking of having you in my arms that one night …" Fang was unable to continue.

Max searched his eyes deeply. "You were jealous of Iggy?" she asked carefully.

"Not jealous. But … I was starving for you. I just couldn't bear to see how close he was to Ella, especially. I was wishing I was in your bed sleeping with you. Anything other than seeing him surrounded by these adoring girls."

Max gently touched his face and ran her finger tip across his future mustache line. "You missed me?"

"Missed you? I nearly went insane without you here." Fang slipped his hands under the hemline of Max's shirt.

Max was surprised. He hadn't tried to touch her there since the morning she'd regained her senses.

Feeling Max's hesitance, Fang brought his lips nearly to touch hers. As he talked, his lips gently tickled Max's lips. "I needed your ambrosia, Max."

"My am-bro-what?" she asked, stepping back.

Fang pulled her forward, back into place below his lips. "The food of the gods. Your lips, your kisses." Fang pressed his mouth into hers, tasting his beloved Max.

He pulled her onto his bed, straddling her and kissing her face and neck. With impatience, he pulled off his shirt.

Max stared at his bare skin. Her fingers tentatively grazed his skin and felt for every hill and valley on his chest.

Now Fang engaged her again, bringing his hands onto her chest. He quietly pleaded for more in the back of his throat, knowing full well that it would not happen today.

Max was torn between total and complete surrender and her more rational desire to gain control. She pushed his hands away, but they kept returning to the same places over and over again.

Each time she lapsed into ardent kisses, she would then come to her senses and push Fang's hands away.

Finally she pushed Fang off of her and sat up. Fang stared into her eyes with hunger. It was clear that he had not had enough.

Max wanted to lean in to kiss him, to tell him that everything would work itself out. But something in her heart was frightened by Fang's assertive claims on her body.

"Fang, I'm not ready."

Fang let himself fall back on his knees when she said this. He reached his hand to gently caress Max's cheek. "Only when you're ready Max. I swear it. I will hold back until you're ready."

Fang leaned in for a kiss and then thought better of it. Max's body was drawn into his arms again, almost against her will. She kissed and let her hands run freely on his chest.

"Can I?" she finally pulled her mouth away from his to ask.

Fang smiled revealing the lost premolar that Max sought out every time his sunshine broke through the clouds. Fang quickly changed positions with Max. With him as her saddle, and she holding the reins. "Anything," he promised her seductively. "Anything," he whispered again, love in his fantastic eyes.

Max sat astride Fang and explored his scars, his muscles. She ran her fingers through Fang's hair as he closed his eyes and sighed appreciatively. She felt safer this way. She was in control. She wasn't vulnerable under the massive arms of Fang, arms that she knew she was powerless against.

"Thank you for this," she whispered into his ear, laying on his body. "This is much better. Much more comfortable."

Her tender kisses aroused Fang relentlessly. He grasped her waist in a desperate grip to restrain himself and let Max lead. It was as if she'd descended from Mount Olympus for a tryst with a mere mortal. And he was cautious not to offend this goddess otherwise she would disappear into the clouds and never return to fulfill his conjugal pangs.

Max abandoned herself in reckless kissing. She knew this was a kind of torture for Fang. She also knew that the more she withheld herself, the longer she would have him at her beck and call. She nearly laughed a throaty laugh of gloating in her power.

But she also tenderly realized that he was human. He was fragile. And she eventually stopped and promised with a parting kiss that she would be back in his arms again another day.

Reluctantly Fang let Max crawl out of bed. She picked up the black shirt he'd thrown onto the floor and shook any dust off. After he sat up on the bed, Max gently lowered the shirt over his head, crowning him with a kiss of promised love on his freshly washed, coarse black hair.

Fang rested his face in Max's chest and held her there tightly. He ran his hands down her legs before letting her go. Then he made his way past Max, heading for the wash room, Max presumed. Max felt pained, and she felt relieved, all mixed together in these unfamiliar emotions. She waited for him to return and pressed herself silently into his arms when he did.

Leaning into his chest, she twirled his long, shoulder-length hair around her finger a few times. "What exactly did you tell Iggy to do when we were gone?" she eventually asked.

Fang shook his head, and the ends of his hair brushed across Max's nose and cheeks. "It's been the same all day today. Whatever Iggy suggests, the rest of the Flock follows."

Max ran her hand around the belt line in the back of Fang's jeans. "Even you?"

"No. Not me," Fang said. "He seems distant from me. I guess I shouldn't have taken your barrette away while he was looking at it. That seemed to bother him a lot."

Max lay her ear against Fang's chest. She listened to soft swooshing of his air sacks. His rapid heartbeat soothed her.

His hands reached up Max's back, beneath her tank top, and eased themselves into the downy inside feathers of her wings. "I think he likes you, Max."

Max pressed all her weight into Fang. "How? I've never given him a reason to think I would …" Max was speechless.

Fang breathed his words into the hair on the top of her head. "You alone are reason enough, Max. You're like an enchantress bringing all your suitors to your palace. And only one of us will get to be with you. But that doesn't stop anyone from trying."

Max pulled away abruptly. "Get to be with me? This is ridiculous. There will be no 'being with me,'" she said hotly.

"That's what we're all afraid of," Fang said to himself, staring down into Max's chest.

"This absolutely cannot cause the Flock to fall apart again. If I have to, Fang, I will put a stop to all of this. I won't be here in your room again if this continues." Her voice was like a parent admonishing her child.

Fang gently closed his lips over Max's. She thought of struggling away but then realized that he wasn't even holding her in. He was simply giving a farewell kiss if the worst were to happen.

Fang lingered his tongue in her mouth to taste the fullness of Max. He willed every sensation in his body to record this feeling for future playback when he would be alone. When he would no longer have Max's touch.

21. Leader of the Flock

Fang was unwilling to relinquish his grasp on Max. He wanted to keep her in his own private world forever.

He nimbly encompassed his hands around each side of her hips and lifted her to meet his gaze directly. His forehead rested against hers. Max closed her eyes and prayed she wouldn't have to follow through on making peace in the Flock by staying away from Fang.

"Will you wear the barrette today?" His smile burned at 7000 degrees.

Max nodded silently.

Fang gently lowered Max. He straightened her hair and stepped back, gauging the shape of her face. Leaning to the side, he opened the desk drawer and pulled out the teddy bear barrette.

First he lifted a strand of hair up one way, then he tried a different strand. When he found a look that satisfied him, he clipped it deftly into her wild tresses.

Stepping back again, he looked her over, head to toe. He straightened the way her shirt hung from her shoulders and smoothed it over her waistline.

Max had never had anyone treat her like this. She'd never been the center of attention because she was loved. It was always cold, heartless experiments that had placed her under such an unending gaze.

Fang placed his hand on the small of Max's back and guided her through the doorway and down the stairs. They heard Ella talking excitedly.

The moment that she and Fang entered the kitchen together, Iggy faced Max, as if he was looking at her straight on. "You must have been quite thirsty, Max," he accused. "Did you get lost on the way to the kitchen?"

Nudge looked at Max and giggled, "The little bear is so cute! You look so pretty with your hair pulled away from your face." Max caught sight of Fang's subtle smile. "You should wear it that way all the time."

Max had noted that Iggy stiffened the moment Nudge mentioned the bear. She felt sorry for him and absentmindedly fingered it, almost pulling it out of her hair.

"No, leave it in Max," Angel pleaded. "You look perfect wearing it."

Max felt a blush encroaching on her face. She changed the subject to stop it from securing its victory. "So what's on the menu for lunch?"

Gazzy's mouth was stuffed to the full as he tried to say, "Eggs!"

Angel explained, "Ella showed Ig how to make egg strata."

Gazzy gulped and said excitedly, "It tastes so good! And Ella knows how to make all kinds of food."

Ella said, "I'm going to show Iggy how to make everything. Then, when you guys are away, you can still eat like you're living at home. I mean with Mom."

Max took this as an opportunity to broach the dreaded subject. She cleared her throat and said, "Guys. Everyone is rested up, right? We've all gotten enough food to eat?"

Nods went around the room. Curious eyes looked at each other.

"It's time to split. Itex will have no trouble tracking us down here."

Gazzy complained loudly, "But we just got here! And we have our own beds and everything."

Nudge agreed. "I don't want to give up taking a shower every day. And I already have a great idea for my project."

Angel said quietly, "No one wants to leave, Max."

Nudge continued, "I don't want to be on the run all the time! It's not fair. I never get to do what I want. It's always what you want, Max."

Iggy stepped forward. "This is a great place for the Flock. We're still waiting for Akila, so there's no need to leave. We don't have to go anywhere, guys. We're staying put." His voice was unyielding.

Max let her mouth gape open as she stared at Iggy. "What are you …? No. Absolutely not." Max approached Iggy. "I will not allow the Flock to be put in danger any further. It's bad enough trying to recover from last night's attack by Itex. I'm not going to draw a big circle with an X in the middle of it. We'd practically lead Itex on a trail of breadcrumbs to our front doors."

Iggy was immovable. "You're out numbered, Max."

"This is insane. Crazy! You think you're safe here? Even normal people don't willingly live in this kind of place! There is no choice in the matter. We're hitting the road."

Gazzy peeped, "I have a choice. And I'm staying here with Dr. Martinez and Jeb. At least until Total and Akila leave the lab."

Max glared at Gazzy. Then she looked to Fang. He was hanging back. His face was passive.

Some help you are! You're supposed to be backing me up, Bub.

Max finally declared, "You all have one hour to pack. Ella, I'll let you explain to Mom why we had to leave."

Iggy slouched onto a center island and said to Fang, "Tell your girlfriend to put a cork in it."

"You're not getting away with this, Ig," Max said threateningly.

"Ooh, I'm scared, Max," Iggy laughed. "You've had this delusion since we were kids, Max. You can't take me out. Get over it."

Max took a look around the kitchen. "Get out of the way, Ella. Move it!" she yelled.

Iggy taunted, "Max is out of control, Fang. Get her out of here."

Fang's face was blank. Max read his eyes. He wanted to see Max take Iggy out just for something fun to do.

"Ella, you will get hurt unless you move away now!" It was the voice of Max the Leader of the Flock.

Ella's eyes widened with fright. She remembered what Max had done to Dwayne and stepped backwards until she backed into a wall.

"I'm coming for your head, Ig. It's gonna hurt."

Iggy shifted. "I'm ready."

Max round-house kicked Iggy in the side of his head, but he blocked it with his forearm.

Ella screamed, "He's blind. You're going to kill him!" She saw Jeb standing in the corner passively. "Aren't you going to stop them?" she pleaded.

Fang said, "Ig's not helpless. He knows what moves Max is making."

Max made another approach and Iggy deflected it. Iggy tried to kick Max under her chin but she grabbed hold of his foot and threw him backwards against the refrigerator. The contents shook and something glass shattered inside.

Iggy kicked one of Max's ribs in. She fell back and gained her balance by grabbing a countertop. She snarled and punched him in the eye. When Iggy reeled backwards, she lunged at his throat. He kicked her in the middle of her chest and sent her flying back five feet. It gave him enough time to recover his balance.

Max dove at him and knocked him down. She had his arms pinned to the ground under each leg, straddling him. Then she tried to strangle him.

Fang shouted, "You're not supposed to kill him, Max!" He immediately pulled Max off, pulling her away, her arms behind her back. Iggy leapt from the floor and kicked Max in the stomach, knowing full well that she was unable to deflect the kick. Fang let go of her arms as she doubled over in pain, cursing. Fang's fist smashed Iggy's nose and blood ran down his face in streams. He cupped his hand over his nose and cursed threats at Max and Fang.

"Stop." Jeb's soft spoken voice echoed in the house as he stepped out of the corner.

Ella was cowering behind a partition. The tears in her eyes glistened as they fought against the inevitable drop to her cheeks.

Nudge and Gazzy looked at each other. Angel sat on a counter with a stern face. Nudge looked to Fang, then Iggy and finally to Max, who was standing almost upright. Gazzy said quietly, "Fang?"

Jeb answered, "Get two towels and ice from the dispenser, Gazzy. Let Iggy stop the bleeding.

"Nudge, Angel. Take Max to her mother's house. If you have to, hold her down until she is calm."

Max glared hatred at Jeb.

"Ella, stay away from Max until she is completely calm. You'd be risking your life if you tried to be near her. The same goes for Valencia, your mother."

Fang took Max's arm. "I'll take Max home."

"No." Jeb was adamant. "Nudge and Angel are completely capable of caring for Max. The rest of you boys are staying here with me."

Nudge took Max's hand. Max held out her hand for Angel and led the girls from the house. She turned back to Ella and said, "I'm not going to hurt you. Come along so you don't have to walk alone." She didn't move. Angel said, "I'll walk with her. You can go first."

They all filed out of the house silently.

Jeb had his hands on his hips, "What is wrong with you?"

Fang muttered, "Our DNA is mixed up."

Jeb roared, "That's not what I meant."

Gazzy said, "But I didn't do anything." He was afraid of Jeb.

Fang sent him a reassuring glance and tousled his hair. "It's alright, Gasman. Ig and Max were just settling a disagreement. No one is upset with you."

Jeb reprimanded Iggy, "So this is the way that you persuade people now? You've decided that your new skill wasn't good enough?"

Fang's face gave away his dawning realization of what skill Iggy had developed in his absence. Immediately the façade was back on his face.

"Max is not another boy you can just fight whenever you feel like it. She's special. She's one of a kind. Not even Max Two was like her. Do you think you can remember that next time?"

Fang smirked nearly imperceptibly. Jeb turned on him. "You. You just stood there and let Max fight with Iggy? You have shown very poor judgment, Fang."

"Put a cork in it," Fang said dryly. Iggy and Gazzy laughed uncomfortably. Jeb let it pass.

"This will never happen again." Jeb's tone was threatening. "I don't care how you work out your decisions in the Flock, or who gets the final say. But putting Max in a situation where she could be overcome with anger is dangerous for everyone."

Fang's eyes squinted at Jeb. He knew Jeb was getting at something. He tried to understand what.

22. Girls' Night In

The Flock was gathered around the dining room table in Dr. Martinez's house. Jeb and Valencia stood off to the side. Ella sat with the Flock, forehead creased in anxiety.

Fang said, "Max, all of us want to stay here. We all have projects to work on."

Max looked at Fang, daggers in her eyes.

Fang said, "Ask them yourself, Max."

Max stood up. "You are all endangering our lives, and our mission. This is not a safe place. There's no reason to stay here. Hell, you could do your 'projects' online. We don't belong here."

Nobody answered her. She sat down in frustration.

Jeb stepped forward. "We'll do everything we can to keep the Flock safe, Max. It's time for you to settle for a while. You all need to understand the problem that you're fighting if you want any chance of defeating it."

Max said, "Oh, I see. 'Save the world' by picking our noses and reading books. You're more pathetic than I thought, Jeb."

Dr. Martinez stepped forward. "I'd like to know what projects you're interested in."

"Me, me, me!" Nudge shouted excitedly. "I have the absolutely most fabuloso project ever – and I mean ever and ever and ever!"

Dr. Martinez had no need to, but coaxed Nudge anyway. "Go ahead."

"Okay, so the fashion industry is, like, how many billions of dollars? And so we all have to wear clothes, right? So I'm going to find out how fashion labels are going green. I mean, everything is black now, but they're being good to the earth, right?"

"We know what green means, Nudge," Fang said in false boredom. He winked at her.

Well he never winks at me, Max huffed.

Everyone looked at her. "What?" Fang knew exactly what had set her off and resolved to use it again.

Valencia asked, "Does anyone else want to share?"

Angel stood up. "I want to go to the lab with you, Dr. Martinez, so that I can be with Total and Akila. Okay everyone, I've been working on this look." She transformed herself into a svelte blonde whitecoat.

The whole Flock cringed away from Angel. Even Iggy sensed her transformation. Only Ella stared at Angel with disbelief in her eyes. Valencia masked her shock professionally.

"Angel, I really can't have you in the lab."

"But I can be Angelica, or someone else. You know, not me. A grown-up me."

Fang spoke, "Angel, you'd be better off being Total's twin than trying to look like a twenty-six-year-old six-year-old."

"That's a great idea! But wait. Then I'd be in a dog crate again." Angel almost cried. Max send her comforting thoughts. You'll never be in dog crates again, honey. I promise. Angel smiled her full trust back at Max through wet eyes.

Ella said, "I want to do what my mom does. Or maybe do research. I know you all might not like that, but I'm really interested in microbiology and epidemiology."

Iggy looked up and said, "What-a-gee?" He had a blue Max-sized-fist bruise over one eye and dark bruises along both sides of his nose. His face was puffy in strange places.

"You know. How diseases get out of control and then everybody gets sick all at once. I want to learn ways to control it." Ella looked down at her hands.

"So, these people do research? On what? People?"

Ella glanced at Max. Then she said without lifting her head again, "Animals."

Everyone was silent.

Fang moved in his seat. Eyes drifted to him. He crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm going to continue using my blog to effect social change."

There was silence. Valencia said, "Would you like to tell us more about that?"


Valencia tried to show a neutral expression. "Okay. Anyone else?"

Gazzy said, "Total's going to teach me physics."

Fang raised an eyebrow at him. "You know, so I can build better bombs."

Valencia tried not to gasp but she didn't succeed. The Flock snickered.

Iggy said, "I'm interested in green engineering. Building a better world."

Valencia paused. The silence at the table became uncomfortable. Nudge began wiggling in her seat. Finally Valencia asked, "Max?"

Max looked up from her dirty fingernails. "Huh?"

"What project are you going to do?"

"Nothing." Max stared at the Flock. She caught the glint of rebellious approval in Fang's eyes. Then she said, "Maybe I'll read Romeo and Juliet."

The flock looked at each other uncomfortably, aside from Fang and Max who both looked down trying to suppress smirks.

"Liberal arts is an excellent foundation for education."

Angel thought to Max, How did you get away with that one? Max smiled at her and shrugged.

Max stood up and tried to hide the pain she felt in her ribs. Fang was at her side in an instant. "Are you alright?" he asked in a whisper. Max nodded.

Iggy's face contorted in regret. Then he tried to cover it up. Max noticed. She left the room saying, "Girls' night in. You guys better get lost."

Fang tried to catch Max's eyes but she would have none of it. He reluctantly left with Jeb, Iggy and Gazzy.


"I wish I could look a little razzly dazzly. It's embarrassing to study fashion when you have nothing fashionable about you." Nudge sighed.

Ella said, "Nudge, you'd make trash look wearable. You've definitely got it."

"You think?" Nudge asked brightly.

"Yes, she does," Angel whispered to Nudge seriously.

"Maybe I could get Mom to take us out and get … makeovers or something." Ella touched Angel's blonde curls. "I guess you don't need a makeover, though."

Angel announced, "I want fuchsia hair."

Max looked at Angel sternly. No, no, and no.

Angel ignored Max.

"What about you, Max?" Nudge said, leaning forward excitedly. "You want a makeover? It would blow Fang's mind."

"Ha!" Max laughed aloud. "Like Fang really cares about that stuff."

Ella said seriously, "He's a guy, Max. They all do."

"No they all don't."

Nudge said, "Let's give Max a manicure!"

Ella added excitedly, "And a pedicure!"

Max furrowed her eyebrows together. "I don't need any cures."

Angel giggled. "Your nails. Getting your nails done."

Max looked down at her hands. "I don't … nevermind."

Then Nudge and Ella looked at each other knowingly.

23. Living Daily Life, For Once

Fang lay on the cool, sloping tiled rooftop, just outside his bedroom window. The gritty black surface was surprisingly comfortable against his bare arms. He was listening in one ear to the i-Pod he'd lifted from the ranger station. His other ear gauged the environment. Experience had taught him to be constantly aware of threats.

Iggy crawled out of his window on the other side of his roof. "'S up?"

"Not much."

Iggy lay down about ten feet away. His legs were positioned similar to Fang's, with his knees bent, and his feet securing him from sliding down the roof. "Ya think Max is still pissed about us not leaving?"


Iggy let the breeze blow over his face and through his hair. The leafy trees surrounding the neighborhood whispered balmy tidings, sounding somewhat [Author edit: remove "somewhat"] like the ocean's spray. One at a time, passenger jets told Iggy that they were making their descents to the airport some 15 miles away.

"Did you really think you could outfight Max?" Fang asked, turning his head to look at Iggy.

"Yeah." Iggy brushed his hand through his unkempt blonde hair.

A few bats flew overhead, chasing gnats and mosquitoes. Iggy could hear their echolocation with his finely tuned hearing.

"You have a new skill." Fang stated it.

"Angel was the one who figured it out." Iggy paused. A gun shot was heard in the night. Distant shouting followed it. "I'd make a great politician. I can persuade people. Get them on board."

Fang breathed deeply. "So you've been using it to lead the Flock?"

"It didn't appear until you and Max left."

"Max said you're a chick magnet." Fang laughed. "Maybe she's right."

Iggy thought about it. He had taken his newfound popularity for granted. Dryly, he said, "It doesn't seem to work on Max."

Fang smirked. "Nothing works on Max the way it's supposed to."

Iggy was quiet for a long time until he asked, "What would you do if I could get it to work on Max?"

"I'd congratulate you."


Fang laughed aloud. "You're not going to get anywhere with Max. Besides, I've got that market cornered. It's practically set in stone."

Iggy insisted, "Would you let Max have a chance to be with me? Alone?"

"Would I have a choice? Max does whatever she wants." Fang scoffed. "You're a slow learner." He got up and went back into his bedroom, shutting the window.


"How did I let you guys get me into this?" Max complained. She had her feet in bubbly baths of warm water while her fingertips were soaking in warm bowls of sudsy water.

Ella said, "It's supposed to be relaxing, Max."

"Well, it's not. It makes me want to … I don't know, fly out of here like a bat having its toes singed by the Devil himself." Max scowled.

Nudge giggled. "You look cute when you do that. I bet Fang likes it."

Angel laughed. "He does."

Max shot her a look. Shut up. I mean it.

But it's true. Angel stared right back at Max.

A twenty-something Vietnamese-American man came back after the foot washers beeped. He started massaging Max's feet.

"Wow. You mean I've been missing out on this all these years?" She closed her eyes and leaned back, sighing contentedly.

"I bet Fang would do it. If you asked." Angel was quite serious.

"If you guys don't shut up about Fang, I'm leaving before we get to the nail polish part." Max sighed in exasperation. "You're making me insane. How would you feel if … Forget it."

Ella patted Max's shoulder. "We'll stop. I didn't know you hated it." The girls looked at each other and giggled. The man giving the massage pretended to ignore what they were saying.

Next the man started massaging Max's fingers. Max tried to keep from moaning in pleasure. She wasn't sure that she succeeded and then she blushed deeply. The man looked like he was enjoying watching Max's discomfort about the whole manicure process.

Max had to walk to another chair in disposable white sandals. Note to self. Wasteful use of resources at beauty parlors. Good reason to make a new law against reckless beautification.

Now a younger woman had joined the man. She was doing Max's fingers while the man focused on her toes. Max put up with the cleaning and poking. But she kept jerking her foot away when she felt tickled. She noted that the man's suppressed smirk was remarkably like Fang's.

"What color would you like?" the woman asked.

"Color?" Max looked at Ella and Nudge.

The woman pointed to a huge selection of bottles filled with colored liquids.

"No color," said Max.

"You have to have color," the woman insisted.

"Yeah Max, you have to have color," Angel said.

"How about Pretty in Pink, you know, the movie," Nudge whispered.

Ella and Angel nodded their head vigorously. The woman looked at Max. Max had a blank expression. So her fingernails and toenails were painted a luscious shade of pink. It almost made Max feel sick just looking at her hands.

After Max had her toes spread apart for the dictated amount of time by more wasteful resources, the girls left the store and went to a hair salon. Nudge and Angel excitedly talked to hair stylists and explained what they wanted. The manager kept looking at Max. Max stared back defiantly. Finally the manager asked for payment in advance. Max gave her Anne's card. She didn't want to use her Mom's money. It was going to be expensive.

Nudge chatted excitedly about fashion, hairstyles, music and religion. Angel just sat quietly and looked at her adorable self in the mirror.

Nudge had her hair relaxed, straightened and lightened. Then she had her hair styled to look like Mary J. Blige.

Ella patted Nudge's bronzed hair in awe. "You're beautiful. Even more than Max." Ella laughed when Max scowled at them.

Angel ended up with hair extensions that reached her waist, pulling down her curls, The blonde hair was streaked with fuchsia throughout. None of the girls knew what to say, but Angel looked happy.

Their last stop was a department store make up counter. Ella got a makeover. She picked light brown eye shadow and eye liner, a sparkly blush and pink lip gloss. She beamed when her face was done.

Nudge and Angel hugged her tightly. Max looked her over and said, "You'd pass for about sixteen."

"Thanks, Max," Ella said, giving her a light hug.

When the girls got back home they showed Valencia and then went to the guys' house. Gazzy opened the door. "Ew! What did you do to your hair?" he yelled when he saw Angel.

Iggy and Fang sprinted down the stairs to find out about Gazzy's outburst. Experience had taught them that whatever Gazzy didn't like was sometimes pretty freakin' awesome.

Fang stood speechless as he looked at the girls standing in the foyer. His eyes drifted to Max and showed relief that at least she had shown sense not to get ridiculously painted up. Max flashed him her nails with a grimace. Fang showed a look of disgust. Max nodded back at him, totally in agreement.

Iggy said, "Let me see! Let me see!" He touched Angel's hair and laughed. "Wow. That's a big change. But it fits you, kid."

"Mine next!" Nudge insisted jumping practically into his arms. He carefully felt her hair. He was astonished. "It is a beautiful color, Nudge. Very … pretty." Iggy blushed for a moment before continuing. "Is this what Mary J. Blige looks like?"

"You could tell! Iggy knew it!" Nudge jumped up and down and hugged Iggy at the same time. Iggy gently kept her from losing her balance by wrapping his arm around her lithe waist."

"What did you do to your hair, Max?" Iggy tried to sound casual, which was sometimes a very difficult thing to do in the presence of the opposite sex.

"They made me do my nails." Max held out her hand.

Iggy deftly smoothed his fingertips over each nail. "I had no idea you liked pink."

"I don't." Max felt uncomfortable as Iggy's hands lingered over hers. He examined every cuticle, every edge, every square centimeter of her hands' surfaces.

Finally Max said, "No one's seemed to notice Ella. I thought she'd be the center of attention."

Gazzy said, "Ella looks like a grown up."

Ella smiled happily.

Fang said, "You're pretty."

Max nervously flitted her eyes to Fang and then to Ella. A look of discomfort came over her face.

Iggy approached Ella. "I suppose you know by now how I see. May I look at your face?"

Ella grabbed Iggy's hand and put it on her cheek. "I was waiting forever for you to ask."

Iggy slowly memorized every line, dimple and curve of Ella's face. "I like your lipstick." Ella's face became slightly pink, in happiness. "You're eyeshadow – it matches your hair. What color are your irises?"

"Green, sort of."

"Fang is right. You are pretty." Iggy let his hands explore her hair style from the top, reaching down past her shoulders until his fingers were dangerously close to the breast line of Ella's v-neck. Ella's breath quickened.

Fang said, "So this is what girls' night in does to you."

Max stared him down. But he looked back at her with a suggestive invitation.

Max quickly glanced around the room to see who else had noticed. Oddly, the only person who had noticed was Iggy. He was biting the inside of his cheek and had a resigned expression on his face. Max felt sorry for him.

24. Playin' Basketball

"The guys are back," Max shouted from the rooftop through her open window. The late morning sun had not yet slithered over the chimney that provided shade for her roost.

Ella and Nudge went into Max's room and peered out the window.

"Did you see much?" Ella asked Max.

"Enough to know that Gazzy is in a heap of trouble," Max grinned.

Nudge clapped her hands. "When can we see the guys? Are they coming over here? Or should we eat lunch there? I'm getting hungry already."

Angel walked into Max's room and sat on her bed. She was obsessively brushing her hair. Nudge told her, "If you keep on brushing like that, it's all going to fall out. Then what are you going to do?"

Angel made a smart-aleck face back to Nudge. "Liar."

The girls moved back as Max hopped in through the window. "Flock rules. No infighting." She snickered to herself while the girls exchanged paranoid glances. "C'mon kids! We might as well go laugh at the guys and get it over with."

"Wait!" Ella said, running past Max into the hallway. "I haven't put on any make-up. Do you want some Nudge?"

"Heck yeah!"

Max turned to look at Angel, who was staring into long strands of hair flowing from her hand like a wispy festoon. "Don't even think about make-up, Ang."

Mesmerized, Angel answered in a distracted voice, "I won't."

Max rallied the troops and descended upon the rickety old house. Only guys would enjoy living in a dump like this.

Fang was at the door immediately. He had been expecting the raid, apparently.

Max looked him up and down. Same black shirt, same black pants, same black shoes, same black hair, same sizzling eyes. She almost forgot why they were there in the first place. Fang smirked at her complete failure to function like a normal human being.

Ella giggled. "Max. Earth to Max."

Max's face reddened. She'd been caught ogling that fine hunk of sexy that happened to be named Fang.

Fang pulled her inside so the rest of the posse could come in.

Max recovered, "So. All quiet on the western front. Who'da thunk?"

Fang furtively caressed her hand, sending shivers down her back. She was in on a secret. She just didn't know what it was.

Gazzy high-tailed it into the foyer where the search party had been detained.

"O. M. G!" Nudge squawked. "It's orange. And bright yellow! Let me the see the back!"

Gazzy showed off his dyed Mohawk atop a buzz cut. On the back of his head the letter "G" had been shaved.

"You let Gazzy do this?" Max accused Fang.

"Iggy took him. I figured he knew what he was doing." Fang was getting really good at not smirking.

"Where is Iggy. I'm gonna strangle him." Max said.

Ella whispered to Angel, "Is she serious?"

Angel rolled her eyes. "No!" Then she went back to running her fingers along her hair.

Iggy came in with fluorescently bright white high tops adorned with fat black laces. He had a new basketball in hand.

"We have sooo got to play basketball after you guys eat!" Ella demanded. "Man, I really miss playing on the team. That's the only thing I miss about home."

Iggy passed her the ball. She dribbled it on the floor, sending the floor boards into convulsions until Max snatched up the ball.


"C'mon, Max. If you let us show off our wings we can play shirts, no shirts." Iggy complained, "Do you have any idea how uncomfortable this is?"

"Yeah. You're looking at it, Ig." Max had made everyone wear shirts that didn't show their wings. The problem was that it got really uncomfortable when those wings started to sweat. Being unable to spread them out was like having an itch "down there" while being filmed on national TV.

"I wanna be a team captain," Ella shouted. "I call Iggy."

"Anyone else wanna be captain?" Max asked, looking around the Flock while Iggy moseyed on over to Ella's side.

"Yo!" a deep, loud voice shouted from across the street. "Got room for two more?"

They all turned to see a tall, muscular, deeply-brown-skinned man and a veritable twin of Venus Williams, as fashionable as ever, trotting across the street.

Nudge ran up to the teen girl and gushed, "Where did you get that outfit! I want one! I so want one!" She turned to Max and said, "Please, Max. Let me get an outfit like this."

The beautiful girl grinned back at Nudge and said, "I got it on clearance at Wal-Mart."

"No way!" Nudge squealed. "I'm Nudge! What's your name?"

"Eden. And this is my big brother, Cameroun."

Fang held out his right hand and did a fist shake with the older guy.

Cameroun's deep voice accompanied a broad smile full of straight, white teeth. "A brother of another color. Wha's happening?"

"Fang. And this is Iggy and the little guy is Gasman. Don't ask, don't tell."

Iggy stepped forward. "How tall are you? About six-four?"

Cameroun surmised, "You can't see! I'm gonna have a good time playing up against you, kid."

Fang said confidently, "Don't underestimate Iggy."

"'S cool. 'S alright." He looked over the girls. "So ya'll want another team captain?"

"Yeah!" Ella said. "I picked Ig. You pick."

Cameroun looked over each person. "You picked Ig first, huh? Boyfriend or something?"

"Or something," Ella said coyly.

"This brother," Cameroun said, slapping his hand onto Fang's shoulder.

"Eden," Ella said, smiling invitingly.

"You picked smart that time," Cameroun said. "Do ya'll even know how to play basketball? You don't look like the basketball types – accept for Captain over here."

"You're a Captain. You can teach us," Max said.

Cameroun pointed at her, "Then come on over."

"It's Max," she said, shaking his hand in the weird up and down business sort of way.

"I'm referee," Angel called.

"Yeah, you just sit out and keep your hair from getting tangled," Ella chided. "I call Gaz."

"The Nudge," Cameroun winked at her. Nudge erupted into a puppy love smile. "Alright. White girl, I know you don't know how to play. A few pointers."

He tossed her the ball and she propelled it back to Cameroun. "Nice arms. Okay, you know how to dribble?"

"Uh huh," Max said, bored.

"Free throw." He pushed her up to the free throw line with his hand on her butt.

Fang's ice cold face showed nothing.

Cameroun stood behind Max and positioned the ball in her hands, reaching around her. He corrected Max's stance. She caught the scent of his aftershave as he positioned her hands for the shot. "You release it with your wrist. Not your shoulder or anything. Go."

Max made the basket. She gave Fang a smug look, completely missing the intensity of his stare.

"Nudge. Your turn." Cameroun didn't let his hand drift as low as Nudge's butt. He did go through the elaborate set-up. Nudge made the shot on her second try.

"I'm not touching you, brother," Cameroun told Fang.

"Good," a guarded Fang replied.

"Same basic shot no matter where you are. Lay-up, three-pointer. 'S in the wrist, babe." Cameroun looked directly at Max. "Wanna play?"

"Hey, you guys done with the golf lessons?" Eden shouted over.

"Flip a coin," Ella said. "I don't have one on me."

Eden pulled one out.

"Tails," Ella shouted as the coin spun in the air.

"Heads. Cameroun's up." Eden stripped Ella of Iggy's ball and threw it courtside.

Cameroun swatted the ball to Fang. He dribbled it down court, immediately covered by Eden. She was good. Too good. He pivoted and threw to Nudge. She caught it and threw to Cameroun without running. "Two points!"

Eden dribbled the ball deep into court. Cameroun covered her but she faked left and threw the ball to Iggy.

"From Eden!" Ella shouted. Ig caught the ball, side-stepped Max and made a perfect lay-up shot.

"Sweetness!" Ella shouted, slapping hands with Iggy.

"You're alright," Eden told Iggy, pinching his butt.

Iggy blushed. Ella warned Eden, "Keep your hands off of Something Else's butt."

"There's always the other brother," Eden told Ella, covering Fang.

Max dribbled forward. Gazzy snatched it away from her and threw it to Ella. She bounced it across the court and shouted, "Ig!"

Cameroun was fast. He had Iggy covered.



Iggy faked a throw to her but bounced it low to Gazzy. "Two points!"

Max was beginning to feel miserable. Her wings were expanding instinctually to release heat and it was getting painful. Then there was Eden whose fully rounded body continually wound up two inches from Fang's face. And it looked like Fang didn't mind one bit. It looked like he enjoyed the view.

Cameroun noticed Max getting upset. "Girl, let's take a break. You look like you could use water."

"Yeah," Max panted.

He unscrewed a water bottle and poured it over Max's head. "I can get you some more."

"You do that," Max dismissed him, wiping the drips off her bangs.

Ella dribbled the ball slowly over to Iggy. She patted his butt and said, "Nice game, Something Else."

"You're all gonna make me puke," Nudge complained. "I'm not even hungry now."

Eden squatted on Iggy's spare ball, which happened to be right next to where Fang had sprawled out on the pavement. "It'll come, Nudge. It'll come."

Fang glanced at Max. She was jealously purple in the face, watching Eden's very nice looking legs spread open in front of Fang.

"Max," he said. "C'mere." Max walked over reluctantly.

"Sit," he pointed right in front of him.

At least Fang wouldn't have a direct view of the garden of Eden, Max considered. She decided to do what he said, even though her entire cellular structure rebelled against the very thought of taking orders from Fang.

Fang wrapped his arms around Max's shoulders, possessively. His hands dangled precariously close to her flat breasts. But Max didn't mind that. Not a bit.

Cameroun came back, his shirt soaked in water. "Anyone else?" he asked, seeing Max's hook up with Fang.

Eden said, "You guys play often? We should do this again."

"Same time next week," Ella said. "Bring more friends. Then we can play a real five-on-five game."

Cameroun looked at her. "I think we'll just have to do that, Captain."

Nudge suddenly complained, "If I don't get out of this tee-shirt in five minutes I'm going to spontaneously combust!"

Max didn't doubt it, considering her own experiences with flashes of heat. She gathered the troops, shook a cooler "Goodbye" with Cameroun, high-fived Eden and led the march home.

25. How 'Not' to Make Up

Max stepped outside the front door of her Mom's house. Iggy was sitting alone on the porch swing. Max sat down and tapped his hand lightly. "Hey," she said in a quiet voice.

"Max." Iggy turned his head toward her.

In front of them water dripped down in huge droplets from the porch roof. Outside the porch a cool drizzle watered the urban street. The air smelled clean and fresh, the way falling water charges the air with positive ions.

"It looks like your bruises are getting better," Max said. She reached out her hand and then paused, "Do you mind if I touch it?"

"Go ahead," Iggy said.

Max gently pressed her fingertips into Iggy's no longer puffy cheeks. She waited to see if he flinched. When she was sure he felt no severe pain, she ran her fingers over his nose and both cheeks. As if she could make things better, she brushed the eyebrow above his nearly healed black eye. "Fang's arms got stronger. I was worried that maybe he did some serious damage to your facial bones. But it looks like its healing okay."

Iggy caught Max's hand in his. "His punch was stronger than I would have expected. Just like I had no idea how strong you really are."

"Looks can be deceiving," Max laughed. "So the saying goes."

Iggy carried their hands to Max's lips. "Still no lipstick?" He let go of her hand. "I can smell when Ella wears lip gloss."

Max smiled and said, "You know that Ella would go crazy if I told her that."

Iggy's face grew heavy. "Ella is like all girls at any school. She's fun, flirty, confident." He swallowed. "But she's not you."

Max was frozen for a moment. She hadn't been prepared for this, even though she'd been amply forewarned of its coming.

"So you'd like her better if she could punch you in the eye and try to strangle you?" Max joked nervously.

Iggy held her hand again. "I can see you, Max. Not with my eyes. But I know how you're sitting. I know how you're feeling tense right now."

Max said nothing. She stared out into the dreary rainfall, letting Iggy hold her hand captive. The patter-pattering of the rain was soothing.

Smells of baking chocolate chip cookies wafted from the front door. Max inhaled deeply.

"Why do you love those cookies so much?" Iggy asked.

"Well … I don't know, really. I guess it was because Mom and Ella were the first people outside the Flock who treated me like I was someone special. And it was a smell that I'd never experienced before. It smelled sweeter than I ever imagined anything could."

Iggy squeezed her hand and let go.

"I guess that's the same kind of way I like you so much. Do you remember when I wanted to give up? At the strip mall with the Asian grocery? The siren of a police car was approaching because I'd set off an alarm by breaking the storefront window. I wouldn't leave. I wanted to give up, to give in, to quit this life on the run.

"You told me that you loved me that day. No one else has ever said that to me, Max. Only you. I thought that I might have a chance. I held on to that hope that I might even be the most important person in the world to you." Iggy turned his face away from Max briefly. "More than just one of the Flock."

Max sat sideways on the swing to face Iggy. "I meant it when I said I love you. We are all in this together. Not now, not then, I am never going to let anyone in the Flock get hurt."

As if Iggy were looking down, he said, "You can't keep people from hurting inside, Max." He turned to her.

Iggy was sitting just like Max now. He wasn't consciously trying to mirror her. It was so natural to him that he didn't even notice. "I remember the first time you kissed Fang. I'm sure you thought the blind kid couldn't see and all that. But I knew it that day. Far too early on, I knew that my opportunity to make you fall in love with me was gone."

Max absorbed the pain in Iggy's face.

"When you and Fang are talking late in the night, when you think all of the rest of the Flock are sleeping, I hear you. And I wish that I were Fang to you."

Max felt her eyes welling with tears. She couldn't help but feel for Iggy's pain like a mother tenderly listens to a child's cry. She brushed his bangs out of his eyes.

Max understood Iggy. He was a handsome boy. He was kind. He cared for the Flock in his own way – by playing with Gazzy like a father plays with his son. Anyone would fall in love with him. Ella certainly would, wouldn't she? Hadn't she?

Iggy stood up suddenly. "Wanna check on those cookies? Snag a few, maybe?"

Max was hesitant but she followed him into the house. Then she led the way to the kitchen.

Fang was standing next to Ella, who was mixing a new batch of cookie dough by hand in a metal bowl. Fang brushed hair that had fallen in front of Ella's face and placed it over her shoulder tenderly.

Max stopped walking. She stared at her sister and her best friend, her boyfriend.

Fang reached out and picked up a piece of dough that was on Ella's hand. He licked his finger in his mouth.

Behind Max, she heard Iggy mutter, "Busted." She wondered if Iggy knew about this. It was almost as if Iggy had planned this. But her eyes saw how closely Fang stood to Ella.

At that moment Fang looked up into Max's eyes. His face was instantly filled with impatient anger at Max's jealousy.

Max strode into the kitchen. "Whatcha doing?" She knew she didn't sound casual to Fang. But possibly Ella wouldn't notice.

"I'm showing Fang how to make cookies. He said he wanted to learn how so that he could make them for you some day." Ella's face read: Isn't that so sweet?

"I could have showed you how to make cookies, Fang?" Max accused subtly.

Fang took a step back from Ella. His eyes pleaded with Max. Why don't you trust me? How can you be jealous of your own sister?

Max felt sad that she really was jealous of Ella. She was jealous of the way Ella so easily held her own around guys. She was jealous of Ella's ability to make guys look at her. More than anything Max was jealous for the tenderness that she saw Fang used with Ella, the tenderness Max thought Fang had reserved for her alone.

"Can we snag some of the fresh cookies? Iggy and I were just talking and it smelled too yummy to pass up." Max couldn't look in Fang's eyes anymore.

Ella flitted to a cupboard. "Take a plateful!" She piled warm gooey cookies on a small plate, intimate enough for just two.

Max felt numb walking out the kitchen. She didn't see the exchange between Iggy and Fang.

Angel stormed into the kitchen. Max was too preoccupied with her own turmoil within to deal with Angel – even her beloved Angel. Besides, she wasn't even looking for Max. "Fang, we have to talk," Angel barked.

Max was robotically walking up to her bedroom with Iggy following. She couldn't hear Angel anymore. At least she didn't try to hear her.

Angel stood with her hands on her hips and accused Fang, "Max would never make you into a competition! You are going to end up hurting her. She isn't some kind of prize!" Angel turned and stomped out again.

Ella looked at Fang and shrugged, "What was that all about?"

Fang faked a shrug. "I don't know."

Max fumbled for the light. Iggy took the plate of cookies out of her hand and closed the door behind him. Max heard him lock it. "Whatever," she said to herself.

Max stood in the middle of the room, looking lost, not knowing what she was doing. Iggy held a cookie up to her mouth. She understood that. Iggy fed her the whole cookie, with her just standing in the middle of the room and him keeping the sweet chocolaty fresh-baked dough under her nose.

Iggy had been in Max's room once before. He knew the layout. Gently taking Max's hand, he guided her to sit on the bed. Then he put his arm around her back and held her head to his neck. Leaning against Iggy, Max let a tear drop fall silently.

Iggy wiped it away with his soft fingers.

After a while Iggy asked, "Can I kiss you?"

Max said nothing. She didn't move. She felt numb. She didn't even feel alive anymore.

"You know that I'll never have a chance to kiss you ever again. That's why I'm asking you. Just this once."

Max didn't want to think. She didn't want to answer. She didn't want Iggy to go away.

He knelt down in front of her. "You just tell me when you want me to stop, okay?"

Max nodded.

Iggy brushed back Max's hair. His fingers drifted over Max's face. He let his fingers linger at her ear and rub it softly.

Max gasped at his touch. Then his mouth closed over hers.

Iggy was slow … patient … methodical.

He kissed her wrists, one at a time. Max closed her eyes and leaned back on her bed. Iggy moved her fully onto the bed and kissed her hands, front and back, fingertips, knuckles, everywhere.

Then he lay next to her and kissed her lips again. He slowly moved down her neck. Max moaned unwillingly.

Iggy caressed Max's arm and kissed the skin on the inner side of her elbow. He reached for her opposite ear and whispered in the one nearest him, "I can make you feel amazing, Max. I know where you like to be touched. Even with your clothes on, I can make your body come alive."

He kissed her neck everywhere. Max's hands wrapped around Iggy's head.

"Tell me when to stop," he reminded her between heavy breaths. He kissed her lips and let his hand slide from her neck all the way down, over the zipper, to the seams of her jeans. He touched her and she arched her back up.

"Do you want me to stop?" he teased.

"No. No, I don't want you to stop." Her mouth hunted down his this time.

Iggy's touch was gentle and smooth.

"Now?" he teased again.

"I want all of you, Iggy!" she pleaded.

Iggy's hands moved quickly over her jeans. She arched her back. Between kisses she let out an unwilling moan. "Oh, Ig! God! Ig!"

Then the door was kicked in. Max was underneath Iggy – straining, arching to his amazing touch.

When Iggy finally turned to the door Max saw Fang's face.

"A little privacy," Iggy said cooly to Fang.

Max saw something different in Iggy now. She saw a smug victory in his expression.

She looked at the cost of her betrayal glowing in Fang's eyes.

"No!" she whispered.

26. Worst Nightmare

Max trembled uncontrollably. Heat grew within her body as anger boiled up. "No," she said to Fang.

She pushed Iggy away. "No!"

As the heat built and her anger became like a burning hot iron core within her, she yelled at herself, "No! How could I do that? What have I done?"

The angry tears dropped. Through blurry eyes Max catalogued the pain and hurt in Fang's face. She was no longer Max. Maximum Ride the mothering leader of the Flock was gone. She was hell itself. She was destruction. She was her own worst nightmare.

Iggy tried to hold onto Max just as she morphed into an Eraser. An Eraser directing all of her hatred within, curled up in defeat.

"Oh jeez!" Fang uttered. "God, Max. You really know how to make a party fun, don't you?"

Eraser Max bared her razor sharp teeth in a desperate whimper. Then it turned to a low terrifying growl.

"You better get away from her," Fang warned Iggy. "She'll kill you. And I don't think I could stop her this time."

Max raked her claws across her own face. She accepted the awful pain as if shards of glass etched her skin. She accepted her punishment. She would have mauled herself to death if she wasn't undefeatable.

Angel appeared in the doorway, crying. Fang placed his hand on her head. "It'll be okay, Angel."

Clawing her way over the bed, she gouged huge holes in the wall as she broke through the window pane and crawled onto the roof. Then she was gone. Flying away at an angry 300 miles per hour, she left the Flock behind. Forever, she vowed. I can never be with my Flock again. Her cry of pain and hurt filled the sky.

Max didn't know what her destination would be. So long as it wasn't with the Flock, she was on her way. Leaving her only known world behind, she thought of the loneliness she'd banished herself into.

Unable to bear it, she landed on a high mountain in the middle of somewhere. She collapsed, letting Eraser Max curl up. She cried until she couldn't produce any more tears. Then she lay curled up until sleep came, days later. Rain fell on her, wind blew over her, animals tread warily around her as she stared into nothing, waiting for sleep to come.


"Congratulations," Fang told Iggy. "Max seemed to enjoy it? Did you get what you wanted out of it?"

Iggy was pale. He was still standing with his back pressed against the wall. He still felt in his body the terror he'd experienced when Max morphed.

Fang said, "I still have the monopoly on Max's love. You got her crotch. Good on ya."

Fang turned to leave and bumped into Jeb, blocking the doorway. He was holding the remainder of the Flock back.

Fang told him, "She morphed."

Jeb cursed. "How could you boys be so incapable? How could you be so inept?"

Angel said, "I miss Max. She never wants to come back." She whined in her tears, hugging Celeste until it hurt her arms.

Fang knelt down to Angel. He pulled up her chin. "Max will be back. She'll be fine. Give her time."

Angel fell into Fang's hug. Fang patted her head, "I'm sorry you saw so much. It shouldn't have been like that."

Jeb glared at Iggy. Then he asked Fang, "Why aren't you taking your anger out on the boy. Don't you care what he was doing?"

"I care," Fang said eyeing Iggy before facing Jeb. Steel was in his voice. "It changes nothing." Then he smirked at his own inward thought. "Besides, I promised I'd take care of her if she ever became an Eraser. So there's no backing out now."

He pushed Jeb out of his way. "Maybe you should fabricate some kind of explanation for when Dr. Martinez returns." Fang walked through the house to the front door. He walked past Ella standing confused in the kitchen. Smoking cookies were complaining from the oven.

Jeb looked at Iggy and then at Angel. Nudge and Gazzy peered inside the room and stared at the destruction of Max's window. They were afraid. They looked to Jeb, but he refused to pick up the pieces.

"You're back in the lead again, Iggy." Jeb walked away, following in Fang's footsteps. Then the smoke alarm went off.


"Are you going to tell me where she is?" Fang pushed Jeb backwards against the wall of his own bedroom.

"I don't know, actually." Jeb was no longer good at lying to Fang. He was beginning to show signs of fear around Fang. Now he was showing fear of being smashed into the wall.

"I don't need you to tell me," Fang muttered. "It would just make things a whole lot easier." Fang kicked a tin trash can across his bedroom.

"How do you do it?" Jeb asked suddenly.

Fang stared down at Jeb. "Do what?"

"No one ever thought Max could have a match like you. You've far exceed expectations." Jeb was marveling to himself, no longer talking to Fang.

"Great. Next time I see a whitecoat, I'll thank her for her trippin' review." Fang then suddenly put his arm around Jeb's shoulder and pulled him in. "I suppose I could just thank you for all the horror Max has lived through. A nice big hug might be in order," he threatened.

"Please," Jeb begged. "I care for Max, too. It is very important that you and Max find your way without my help. All I can say is that she's going home – her real home. Not with Dr. Martinez, I mean."

"Not the School, I hope," Fang tightened his hand over Jeb's fragile shoulder.

"No. That's not a home. That's … an abomination." Jeb felt Fang's arm loosen. Jeb walked out of Fang's room quickly, not looking back, not giving Fang a chance to change his mind and rip him into pieces.


Max stirred. She felt weak. Thirst made her throat gritty. Opening her eyes, she saw her claws. Her dreaded nightmare was real.

The Voice spoke in her mind. Come home, Max.

Max growled in disgust. I have no home.

You didn't want the home you had. Now it's time to come home.

Max sat up. A rabbit was frozen in terror in front of her. She ate her breakfast.

That her wings could bear her huge Eraser body amazed her. She flew aimlessly, on and on in the highest altitudes she could endure.

Something tugged at her. A pull made her descend to the point that she could see a landscape in front of her. It was a patchwork of farms, looking about as familiar as every other rural area in all forty-eight contiguous states. Max still felt drawn.

She saw horse ranches. There were tilled plots of land, waiting for planting. Other crops were already underway. An orchard drew her. It seemed so familiar.

She landed in one of the trees, feeling clumsy as Eraser Max. The fruit was just beginning to grow. Her mouth watered for the harvest season. Instead of fruit, a robin's nest where squawking chicks were waiting to be fed became the only sustenance she consumed.

She flew into the air and saw a familiar farm building and the huge farmhouse that went with it. The house was connected to the outside world by only a thin white snaking drive. Max landed in front of a pond couched next to the house.

"Welcome home, Max." Anne stood on the back patio just outside the sliding door of the huge house. "Your room is ready for you. This place is yours. Feel free to do whatever you want while you're here."

Eraser Max eyed Anne. Max tasted venom in her gut.

Anne turned just as she was going back into the house. "It's really good to see you again, Max. I missed you very much." Then Anne disappeared into the mansion.

Max paced around the pond. She felt no danger, no compulsion to leave – unless you'd call utter hatred for Anne a compulsion.

Max stood on a rock jutting out into the pond. In the late afternoon's golden sunshine, she carefully studied her reflection. It was the horrible Eraser Max. It was the one person Max dreaded most amongst all of her enemies in the world. And yet Anne had accepted Eraser Max as if she were her own family. It was as if Anne was accepting the "never do well" sheep back into the fold after a prodigal absence.

As Max gazed at her reflection, she gradually accepted who she had become. There was nothing she could do about it now. There was no way to turn back time. There was no way to take away the destruction she'd left in her wake.

Max watched herself morph back into Max … the Max who used to be the Leader of the Flock. This was the girl who was an indomitable hero yesterday, who used to be the savior of the world. Where was the film crew for her cameo appearance on Heroes Gone Bad?

Max wearily flew to the window of her bedroom and crawled into the bed. It had freshly laundered sheets that eased her feelings of loneliness. At least if she was a bad guy now, she had another bad guy friend, in the entity of Anne.

She slept for days. Years of terror, toil, and pain were pulled out of her in her slumber. Finally she was becoming the teen who had been abandoned from birth to researchers for inhumane experiments. There was no longer any pretension of who she was. Life was bad. Love hurt. The world seemed normal, finally.

27. Life's Funny That Way

The smoke alarm moved Iggy into action. He felt the Flock's eyes on him. And he felt Angel's eyes accusing him.

"Better take care of the smoke," he croaked, barely managing the words. He pushed Gazzy out of the way to go down the stairs.

Ella was standing in front of the oven. The door was open and smoke was pouring out of it in buckets.

"Give me the oven mitts," he demanded Ella. She handed them over. Iggy bent into the smoke and pulled the blackened cookie sheet out of the oven. Each black round emitted ropes of smoke.

"Turn on the water," Iggy commanded. Ella rushed to the sink, scooting around the hot cookie sheet in Iggy's hand. As soon as she pushed the faucet on and the blast of water splashed into the sink, Iggy dumped the smoking remains into the stainless steel basin. Then he whirled and put the black, slightly curled up sheet on the range top.

Ella splashed water over all the burning cookies until the smoke was doused. Then she began flitting around the kitchen. She started to clean up the eggs shells laying on the counter. Then she dropped them to put the butter back in the fridge. She picked up the bottle of vanilla and spun around, searching for the cap, bumping into Iggy.

"Stand still!" Iggy shouted in exasperation.

Ella shouted into his face, "What is your frickin' problem?"

Iggy faced Ella, not moving. A tear rolled down his face. He turned away from her and walked straight through the kitchen and out the front door of the house.

"You're comin' back here," she muttered. She slammed the open bottle of vanilla on the counter, sloshing it on her hand. Then she marched out of the kitchen, following Iggy, wiping her hands on the back of her jeans.

Iggy was walking swiftly toward his house. Once outside, Ella shouted down the sidewalk, "Iggy!"

Iggy paused briefly. Ella saw his shoulders tense and his back straighten. Then he continued walking away in long, quick strides.

Ella easily sprinted and caught up with him. She grabbed hold of his arm, "What's wrong?"

Iggy pulled his arm away, warning, "Let go of me."

"No." Ella deliberately blocked his way on the sidewalk. Whichever side he tried to pass on, she moved in front of him. Finally she put her hands on his arms to make him stand still and said, "Tell me! What is wrong?"

Iggy spit out in anger, "You don't want to know."

Iggy stopped. He heard the door of his house slam shut. The footsteps of Jeb's stocky body trundled down the side walk. The Hummer's door opened and slammed shut. Then the engine started and it drove away.

Iggy pushed Ella aside roughly and walked past.

"Ouch!" Ella complained. "That hurt!" She was in front of him again, this time blocking any moves his arms might make. Her anger was beginning to match Iggy's intensity.

The way Ella stood in front of Iggy, refusing to let him pass, reminded him of Max's stubborn determination. He cringed inwardly.

"I love Max," he blurted out. "I loved Max. I wanted to have her – all of her. I tried to take her out of Fang's cunning grasp!"

Ella relaxed. "That's it? Max rejected you?"

Ig seethed, "No!"

"Tell me, Ig. I'm her sister. I can deal."

"Can you deal with me spreading open her legs and thrashing her out of her mind?" he said harshly.

"So you boinked Max? And Fang is mad?" Ella asked, trying to comprehend.

Iggy's face became angry. "I did not boink Max!"

"But you wanted to." Ella's voice was sympathetic. "You were trying to find a way to, weren't you?"

Ig lowered his head. Ella spoke too close to the truth.

"So … Fang stopped you?" Ella guessed.

Iggy's face flushed in embarrassment and anger. "Max put an end to it," he replied in a weak voice. "She's an Eraser."

Ella felt the hatred in Iggy's voice when he said that word. Softly, she asked, "What's an Eraser?"

"They try to kill us. And Max is one of them." Iggy's fists clenched in rage. "She'd been leading them to us all this time!"

Ella asked matter of factly, "So now what? You really think Max is one of the bad guys?"

Iggy swore. "I can't believe I loved her."

Ella laughed. "Well, I can."

Iggy's eyes narrowed – it was a blind glare that Ella felt. "If Max is 'bad,' then she fooled everyone. Including me. I think I wanna be a bad guy, if they're all like Max."

Pain ate away at Iggy's face.

"C'mon," she said quietly, leading him by his hand to his house.

Iggy planted himself on the sidewalk. "You don't know what I'm thinking right now, Ella. You need to go away from me."

Ella squeezed his hand. "You obviously need someone to care about you right now. I'm not going to just let you go away and cry out your problems."

Iggy grabbed her wrist with his free hand. "The only care that I want right now is between your legs. Now do you see the problem?" He pushed her away.

Ella caught up to him. "You just want sex?"

Iggy walked past her again.

Ella ran ahead to the door of the house and blocked it. "Let me help you feel better, Iggy."

"What?" Iggy stepped back.

"I'm a girl. You're a guy. A plus B equals C. It happens all the time." Ella put her hands over his.

Iggy asked tentatively, "You've had sex before?"

"Hasn't everyone?" Ella laughed lightly.

"I haven't," Iggy said angrily.

Ella stopped laughing. She put her hands on Iggy's chest. "Oh, you're so cute! You're still a virgin?" Ella brushed the bangs out of Iggy's eyes the way Max had done.

"Let me do the 'honors.' Pleeaase, Ig?" Ella was standing right next to him.

Iggy was unable to move.

"Okay. It's okay if you don't want to have sex with me." She backed away.

Iggy pressed her against the door. "I want to." He kissed her mouth hard.

Ella said, "Whoa there, big fella. I think you better [let] me drive this time. You're a bit wild underneath all that, aren't you?"

Iggy pried himself away from Ella. She whispered, "You're the sexiest guy I've ever been with."

That settled it. They were in Iggy's bedroom immediately. Even Fang's dark presence in the doorway of his room didn't stop Iggy from passing him in the hallway, with Ella in hand.

Iggy discovered Ella. She was everything he imagined it would be like. Even better, she wasn't passive, like Max.

Afterward, Iggy wouldn't let Ella leave. He refused to let go of what they have done. He felt connected to Ella and everything inside of her.

Iggy's touch kept Ella a captive. Eventually she fell asleep in his arms.


Fang tapped on Iggy's door. "Ella, your mom just got home. We should probably all go over there and help the kids explain the mess."

Iggy rolled out of bed. He opened the door to Fang, who looked away, none too pleased with Iggy's birthday suit.

"We'll be there in five minutes." He turned back to the bed. "Is that okay, Ella?"

Ella yawned and stretched, keeping the sheet over her body. "Yeah. Mom's gonna be worried about me if I don't show up right away."

Fang walked away.

Iggy searched for his clothes. Ella's hands reached them first and tenderly dressed him. "It's never been like that before," she said. "No one else really cared that I was there. I was just – I don't know – an accessory, a pin-up poster or something temporary."

Iggy found her face in his hands. "I might be in love with you, Ella. You're … incredible."

Ella laughed. "It's always good for guys. Even the first time."

Iggy gently held onto her arm. "Was today good for you?"

Ella pressed her naked body against him. "I want you to come to my room tonight." Iggy's hands smoothed along her body in excited agreement.


Valencia stood, frozen in her steps, mouth unable to close. Fliers and letters fell from her hand onto the kitchen floor. "She's gone?"

Fang watched Valencia's face race through all of the unspoken things she had planned to say when there was a better time. "Alone?" Valencia asked, as if that detail could negate her shock.

Fang's arms hung helplessly. He could only watch the pain Max's mother was going through. He held back his own grief about finding her writhing under Iggy's touch.

"I'm starting to look for her. And I'll ask her to come back here when I find her." Fang left the house.

Valencia eyed Iggy standing in the corner with Ella close to him. She wondered if he was related to Max's sudden departure. She wondered if Ella was in love with Iggy.

Valencia left the Flock and Ella alone in the kitchen. The mail remained scattered over the floor. Angel was silent in thoughts and words. Nudge and Gazzy didn't know why Max had left.

Ella slowly walked around the kitchen. Unbaked cookies had melted into thinning, oily blobs on baking sheets. A half-used bowl of dough wasted away next to them. Flour was scattered on the countertops and on the floor. A brown and white bag that had been crumpled shut many times now stood with an oddly shaped gaping ring opening to the white flour inside. The uncapped bottle of vanilla extract was not distributing happiness through the air. Cracked eggshells haphazardly fell open with the clear, gooey shell linings hanging out.

Scattered around the kitchen, the Flock looked to Iggy. They found no help in each other's eyes. The floor was somewhat helpful to look at though. It made life's patterns stand out clearly, in contrast with the totally unpredictable reality that today had brought to them.

"It's going to be alright," Iggy said. "I'm sure Fang will bring Max back home."

The hope of Max's return eased the Flocks confusion. Angel and Nudge went off together. Gazzy looked at Ella and Iggy and knew that they had something to talk about without him there. He went into the room with the TV and let his brain have a fun little amusement ride courtesy of mindless cartoon dribble.

28. Separateness

Iggy lay under the covers in Ella's bed. He wrapped his arm around her waist. She curled up next to him and sighed.

"Ig," she whispered, "you don't really have to stay, if you don't want to."

Iggy spoke into Ella's ear, "I want to be with you."

Ella turned toward him. "But I understand if you just wanted sex. I really do. All of the guys are like that. You're the only one who's ever stayed with me afterwards."

Iggy brushed his fingers through Ella's hair. "How could a guy just walk away from you? I don't get it."

Ella pressed herself against Iggy. "I guess they just like the sex part. Not the Ella part."

Iggy's fingers reached for Ella's face. He felt the unhappy expression that her voice had announced. "I like the Ella part."

She smiled and laughed quietly.

Iggy's lips tenderly opened Ella's mouth. He felt her relax and he kissed her deeply.

When Iggy pulled away he said, "If it were possible, I'd stay with you all the time."

Ella stared at the ceiling for a long time. "When you and Max came into the kitchen, Max looked like she was mad at Fang. Did she tell you about it?"

Iggy rolled onto his side. "I'd rather not talk about it."

Ella ran her fingers through his hair. "I wish you would."

Iggy sighed. "Max must have seen Fang standing close to you."

"So she was jealous of me with Fang? That makes sense. That's what she looked like." Ella sat up in bed. "You were there. What did you think?"

Iggy sat up next to her. "It felt like Fang was being too familiar with you. It was like he thought Max was off somewhere else and he could get away with cozying up to you."

Ella scratched her head. "Fang does act kind of flirty like that around girls. I've seen him do it. But I'm sure he meant no harm to Max. I just thought he was being nice to me because I'm Max's sister."

"Being nice is different than being intimate," Iggy said.

"He loves Max," Ella said, looking at Iggy's face. "I know you said you were in love with Max. But its different for Fang – I'm almost positive. Like, Max has never had sex before. She told me. So even when she was alone with Fang, they didn't do that stuff."

Iggy swallowed loudly. "Do you wish I hadn't taken you to my room?"

Ella laughed. "It's not the same. I've had sex with other guys. It's not like you and me were holding out for each other."

Iggy coughed. "Will you have sex with other guys if I leave with the Flock?"

"Probably. Why?" Ella turned to him.

Iggy rested his forehead on hers. "I can't imagine being with anyone after you, Ella. I was hoping it would be the same for you."

Ella thought for a long time. "I could try not to."

Iggy replied, "I just know that I'll think of you this way always."

Ella rolled on top of Iggy. "That's sweet. I didn't know it would mean so much to you. I even thought that you might be acting like I was Max or something. I've heard that guys do that. It sounds pretty gross – doesn't it?"

Iggy kissed Ella's lips. "I stopped thinking of Max when we stood at the front door yesterday."

Ella wrapped her arms around Iggy. "Still, it's not like you can fall in love after just having sex once or twice."

Iggy said in a low voice, "The Flock doesn't stay in one place very long. I guess it's good that you don't want this to last."

"I wish it would last. But I don't believe that it will." Ella put her hands around Iggy's face. "Sex is nothing, Ig. It doesn't make us together."

Ella drifted her fingers over Iggy's face, exploring his way of seeing through touch. "It's like cotton candy at the fair. Cotton candy is one of the best parts of going to a fair. But you can buy it at the grocery store if you don't want to bother taking the trouble of getting to the fair."

Iggy felt pain inwardly. "You really don't think I'd stay with you?" He moved Ella off of him and rolled away. "You're certain I just used you as a substitute for Max?"


Iggy's pain within grew. He wondered how much Ella said was true, and how much he actually loved Ella. Hadn't he told Max that Ella wasn't his type? Didn't he say that Ella fell short of what he wanted? Iggy let silent tears roll down his face. He didn't turn back to Ella. He suffered in silence.

Ella held him. "I like having you here while it lasts." She fell asleep holding him.

When Iggy heard her breathing change into long, deep breaths of sleep, he crawled out from under her. He needed to fly. He wanted to fly into the sky and never touch down on earth again.


Fang was still awake. Iggy saw the light through the window. [Author note: I apologize for the two mistakes about Iggy's sight in this chapter.]

After a long time of flying, Iggy's wings were hot. He landed on the roof and let his wings cool in the night breeze.

Then he tapped on Fang's window, to talk.

Fang crawled out. He looked exhausted. He had worry etched deeply in his face. Iggy immediately regretted bothering Fang.

"I messed up everything for you and Max." Iggy didn't expect those words to come out of his mouth. It was like he wasn't in control of himself anymore.

Fang shook his head. His steely voice said, "Nothing can mess things up between Max and me. I won't let anything get in our way."

Iggy fluffed his wings into the cool air. "It's been a long time since any of us have been flying. Isn't it strange being here, trying to live a normal life?"

Fang was silent. Finally he said, "It's like none of us even knows what a normal life is. Maybe Max was right. Maybe we all should have left when she said so. It's like our foray into the real world is even more difficult than any disaster Itex could send our way."

Iggy nodded. Then he said, "I shouldn't have brought Ella to my room this afternoon."

Fang replied quietly, "Try not to hurt Max's sister. It would only make things worse for Max."

Iggy said stridently, "I really don't understand Ella. She's not like the Flock."

Fang turned to him and said, "None of us knows Ella very well. Of course you don't understand her. It takes time, Iggy."

Iggy nodded. "She thinks I was just in it for the sex."

"You weren't?" Fang scoffed.

"Why does everyone think that?" Iggy said in a low, angry voice.

"Because it's true?" Fang shot back.

Iggy folded his wings in. "Is it too late to change Ella's mind?"

"It's never too late, Ig." Fang turned to go back through the window. Then he said in a menacing voice, "Stay away from Max from now on." He crawled through the window and closed it.

Iggy lay down on the cool shingles and absorbed the night sounds. There were cars driving along neighboring roads. A block away there were loud voices laughing and music that was blasting. A cat let out a plaintive meow. Dogs barked messages to one another. A jet flew overhead.

Iggy missed the solitude of the wild that the Flock usually slept in.

29. But Love Bears It Out

Max lay in bed. She barely had energy to move. Her bones felt as if a child could break them, like a bone China tea set.

Max heard Anne's footsteps entering the bed room. Anne placed a bowl of broth and a steaming mug of coffee on the bed stand. Then she sat on the edge of the bed.

"Max," she said gently. "I've brought something for you to drink."

Max's eyes opened in thin slits.

Anne put her arm around Max's neck and lifted her up to a sitting position. "I have to feed you, Max. I can't let you go on like this."

Max's eyes opened slightly wider. "Anne?"

"Yes, Max. I'm going to feed you broth, okay?"

Max couldn't remember where she was. She figured she was in a crazy dream in which the despicable Anne was actually trying to mother her. Max wondered what the Voice would say about that.

"I'm really here, Max," Anne's gentle, clearly feminine voice assured her. "It's not a dream."

Anne lifted a spoon of beef broth to Max's lips. Max swallowed it. Her stomach wanted more. She tried to grab the spoon from Anne.

"I've got to make sure you go slowly at first. After I get a cup or so of broth in you, I'll let you drink your coffee. Okay?"

Max touched Anne's hand bringing the spoonful of broth to her mouth.

"Why are you doing this? Don't you want me to die?" Max's voice cracked over the memories of so many things that had gone wrong when the Flock lived with Anne.

Anne rested the side of her head against Max's forehead. "Max, none of us wants you to die. Why would we go to all this trouble if that's what we wanted?"

Max swallowed spoonful after spoonful of warm broth. She felt a little strength returning but her body was still frail, tiny, powerless.

Anne fluffed up pillows behind Max's back so that she could sit by herself. "I know how much you like coffee." She put the mug into Max's hands.

Max shook as she lifted the drink to her mouth. The exhausting effort paid off as the hot liquid smoothed down her throat.

Max lay against the pillows. "How long have I been here?"

"A few days. It's been almost a week since you left your Flock." Anne stood up.

"Are they safe?" Max asked, panic in her voice.

"They're not in any danger, Max. Jeb is still keeping watch over them, just to be sure." Anne left the room.

Max looked around. There was no school uniform, no books, nothing to remind her of what life had been like when the Flock lived together in the farm house with Anne. Max remembered Thanksgiving dinner with Anne and the Flock. Her stomach rumbled involuntarily.

The only thing in her room other than her bed was a new computer on the desk. She climbed out of the bed and walked slowly to the desk chair. She had to rest just from the effort of taking five steps across the room.

The screen lit up when Max bumped the mouse with her hand by accident. There wasn't any fancy desktop wallpaper. But the icons on the desktop looked like all the standard stuff on a PC.

Max opened an internet browser. It opened to Fang's blog.

Max read the entries slowly. She read comments left for Fang.

Fang had made a humorous comment about birds afraid of bird baths – and Max knew exactly what he really meant about Gazzy. Gazzy was obviously resisting taking baths. Fang blogged that he missed a close friend who went away. Max knew Fang meant her. Nudge blogged about fashion shows but she seemed to lack any spunk. There was no news of Angel. Apparently Iggy was moping – that's what Fang seemed to mean. There was no news of her Mom and Ella.

Suddenly Max recalled the image of Fang's shocked face when he saw her with Iggy.

Embarrassment flooded Max's face as she remembered the feelings she'd experienced under Iggy's touch. The memory sent a shiver of excitement through her. She regretted that residual reminder immediately.

During her reverie the screen updated. A new blog post from Fang appeared.

There've been some wicked reports of UFMs (Unidentified Flying Mutants). Seen anything?
Fly on,

Max knew he was looking for her. She watched comments being added.

No flying Malamutes here.
- sal

Max wondered how much the blog fans really understood of the Flock's troubles with Itex.

Then she read another comment.

Canada geese left ginormous turds all over my back yard. Gross!
- goose turd detective

Max laughed out loud.

Anne brought in a tray of giant roast beef sandwiches, a big bag of chips, and a huge fruit salad.

As soon as Anne put the tray on the desk, Max started shoving the food into her mouth. Lucky for her, the recombinant-DNA body she had was capable of healing at light speed.

Max felt her energy returning. She even felt tingling in her fingers as the nutrients reached throughout her blood system.

She turned back to the computer screen and typed her own comment to Fang's blog:

Fang, UFM at large on sprawling 50 acre Virginia farm.
- FangzGRLyGRL

She hit the post button before she lost her nerve. Thirty seconds after her comment posted, the screen refreshed with another comment below hers.

MR, I'll be there tonight.
- Fang

Max's heart began to palpitate rapidly. She wondered if there was any hope that he would still love her. She turned to see Anne standing in the doorway, smiling.

"Of course he loves you, Max."

"How do you know everything I'm thinking?" Max asked angrily.

"I guess that's the bad part about all this, Max." Anne sat on the unmade bed across from Max. "You've been genetically engineered to carry on the human race, Max. Everything you've ever done has been recorded and studied to ensure success."

Max stared at Anne. "Success? So that's why I had to undergo all the tests!" She shouted venomously.

Anne looked into Max's eyes. "The tests weren't for you, Max."

Max threatened, "Quit the bull, Anne! I won't let you be all nice and mothering one minute and then turn into a lying bitch the next."

Anne continued to look into Max's eyes. "The tests were to see if your Flock was able to endure. If they could help you fulfill your mission."

"So now we're back to saving the world again?" Max restrained herself from leaping on top of Anne and crushing her bones into smithereens.

"You contain all genetic recombinant forms of diversity. At least what was known fourteen years ago."

"I do?" Max asked. "Me?"

Anne took hold of Max's hands. "You are capable of mothering a genetically diverse race, Max."

"Mothering? Like taking care of the Flock?"

Anne continued her earlier explanation. "While the human race is destroyed through wars, disease, natural disasters, and terrorism, you will survive. And after so much testing, we're confident that your Flock will survive along with you."

Max stared at Anne. "But after the Flock … you mean I'm supposed to have babies? That's how I'll save the world?"

Anne nodded. "None of your children will ever be alike, Max. You can morph into an Eraser because you know what an Eraser is. If you knew all the other experiments and genetic recombinations programmed into you, you could morph into any of those."

Max withdrew her hands from Anne's. "What if I say no?"

Anne spoke with sincere eyes. "If you choose not to save the world, we'll start again from scratch. We'll raise another female with strength and will power like yours. We'll develop a Flock to accompany her. And we'll provide her an opportunity to bond with a mate."

Max said, "That's disgusting."

Anne's smile left her face. "It's the only way to ensure the survival of our race, Max. There are enemies who want to stop this. They all have their reasons. Some are moral, some are religious, and some are greedy."

"Itex?" Max asked warily.

"They want to make humans dependent upon their organization. They make false promises that they can save people from everything destroying the earth. But in their attempt to gain world domination, they're some of the worst offenders of ecological terrorism and human rights violations." Anne stood.

"Where are you going?" Max asked hotly.

"I want to give you time alone. To think. You have decisions to make that I have no control over. No Voice can make you choose one way or another. Now it's all up to you. My work is done."

"Are you leaving?" Max panicked.

"No, Max. I won't leave you today. I'll stay with you as long as you need me." Anne walked out.

Max stared into her hands. A weight of responsibility heavier than Atlas' burden settled over her shoulders. She was glad Fang had promised to come. She couldn't face the future alone.


Max perched on the roof top of the farm house. She let the chill of the evening air ruffle through her outstretched wings.

Waiting was hard. She wondered if Fang would change his mind. She began to imagine scenarios that would prevent him from leaving the Flock alone.

Max stared down at her nails which only had a few chips of nail polish left on them. They were beginning to look just like they had looked before manicure hell.

Then she heard heavy beating of wings and looked up to see Fang's massive wingspan lighting upon the roof.

She got up and ran into him. His body was hot. His wings were outstretched, releasing the heat of the evening flight.

Max felt Fang's arms encompass her. His lips rested in her hair.

She had no words. A lump in her throat prevented her from talking. Instead she gripped Fang fiercely. She clung to him. Every move he made she kept up with him.

Fang finally looked down at Max. His face lowered into hers for a reunion kiss. It started out sweet. It became passionate. It was wild, untame. Dangerous, even.

When they drew apart, Max saw him fold in his cooled wings. She led him through her bedroom window. The desk was filled with food.

"Did you make all this?" Fang said, stuffing bread into his mouth.

"Anne must have," Max answered. "She's been taking care of me since I got here."

Fang ate more than half of the food on the table. Max ate and laughed with him. It was like they'd been apart for a few hours. Everything felt normal with Fang near.

When he was full, she loosened his backpack and took off his jacket. Then she undid his belt and slipped his jeans off. She led him into her bed. "I think you need rest," she whispered. She massaged his scalp and ran her fingers through his hair.

In a short time he was asleep. Max was content lying next to him.

30. Earnestly Chasing Max

Max felt Fang's arms around her when she woke in the morning. When she looked up she saw his deep olive-toned skin framing dark eyes that gazed incessantly at her face. His black hair fell forward and grazed her chin as he bent to kiss her.

"Thank God you're here, Fang," Max whispered when he lifted his head away from her lips.

He buried his face into her neck and the hair that fanned out over the pillow.

Then Max remembered the reason she had left the Flock. "I'm sorry, Fang." Max stroked her fingers through his hair.

He didn't move. Max let her words fill the air. She suppressed her wish to explain, excuse … defend her transgression.

When he lifted his eyes to hers, Max expected to see anger or hatred or pain. Instead she found the same steady love that he always had for her.

She crawled out of bed. They dressed minimally before heading down the stairs to the dining room.

Max stopped abruptly when she saw the spread on the dining room table. Two place settings were arranged, with fine china, polished silver ware, crystal tumblers, and freshly pressed linen napkins. Two long-stemmed roses from the garden crisscrossed their thorny stems, poking jagged green leaves out of the top of an etched glass vase. A gentle fragrance emanated from the wide open pink and red roses.

Max looked at Fang and raised her eyebrow in surprised disbelief. "It wasn't like this yesterday," she told him.

Anne appeared in the kitchen and carried a carafe of coffee to the table. "Good morning, Fang." She set the carafe between the place settings. "I told Max that this place is hers. Make yourself at home. Do whatever you like."

Max wisecracked to Fang, "Yeah, until the Flyboys start showing up or something."

Fang swept his fingers over Max's hand. "Well, at least I know an Eraser who will protect me."

"Whose side are you on?" Max complained. "You'll just take whatever Anne dishes out?"

"If there's breakfast in the deal, I'll take everything she can dish."

Anne disappeared up the stairs to her office.

Fang looked at Max. "Jeb told me you went home. Is this home?"

Max shrugged. "It's crazy, Fang. If I tried to explain how I ended up here, it wouldn't make sense at all. Anyway, until yesterday I was sleeping most of the time. I didn't even eat until Anne made me drink something. She's kinda nice in a creepy sorta way. I mean, when did anyone ever do something for Maximum Ride?"

"Besides me?" Fang reminded her.

"Besides you."

Fang headed to the kitchen. "Let's see what's for breakfast." In the refrigerator they found bread and eggs. Fang cooked things up while Max poured juice into cups and washed some fruit.

When they got all the food to the table, Fang poured two coffees. Then everything sped up and they ate obnoxiously fast. Manners had never been requisite before and they weren't going to gain importance now. Even if they were eating off of gold-plated china and using genuine silver forks and spoons.

Fang and Max stashed dirty dishes into the empty dishwasher and retreated to her bed room. Fang wordlessly drifted to the computer. He checked his blog and left a note for the Flock.

Max leaned over his shoulders and asked, "Did you get enough rest last night?"

Fang heard the teasing in her voice and caught her hand. "Definitely enough," he said, kissing the back of her hand.

Max pulled away and opened the window. "It's a good day for being outside." She climbed out onto the roof. "C'mon," she said impatiently.

Fang followed her onto the roof. She flew up into the air.

"Where to?" he asked as she lazily drifted up to the sky.

"You'll just have to keep up," Max teased. Then she flew higher into the sky and Fang stretched out his wings. He jumped into the air and beat his wings to close the distance between Max and himself.

There were hardly any clouds. Below, the sprawling orchard and dense trees were a luscious green, a verdant landscape surrounding Anne's farm house. Horses were in pastures. Foals flicked up their heels with morning-fresh spunk. A tractor droned in the distance.

The mid-morning sun cast elongated shadows onto the fields below. Fang flew above Max. She watched as his tall shadow overcame hers on the ground below.

Max circled around and dove swiftly toward the orchard below. As she closed the distance she slowed with strong strokes of her wings. She landed in the flower-like opening of a low orchard tree, branches opening up a space perfect for two bird-kids to repose.

Fang glided toward the tree and circled carefully. He managed to keep his wings from clipping neighboring trees. He landed with ease next to Max.

He immediately leaned into her flush face and kissed her lips. Pulling her closer, he eased his hands under her shirt and rested them at her waist.

Then he followed her gaze to a wooden fence post. Morning glory bloomed between the wire squares of the fence and wrapped itself affectionately around the worn post. They watched a bee lazily entering each flower and enjoying the private moments of gathering pollen before buzzing along to another beauty.

When Fang leaned in for a second kiss, Max said with a teasing smirk, "Time to run away!" She jumped to the ground and ran though the orchard on foot. The sound of Fang's footsteps followed her.

They breezed around the trees and through the grassy undergrowth. A startled red fox stood statuesque as they darted past.

Max sprinted toward a clearing in the middle of the orchard. Before she cleared the last row of trees, Fang caught her in his arms.

He spun her around and kissed her deeply. Max responded to his passion and Fang's grip on her loosened. His arms wrapped around her shoulders and slid gradually to her waist.

She broke away and slipped out of his grasp. From the ground she leapt into a tree and flew into the sky.

"Max!" Fang shouted after her. His voice betrayed his voracious need for her.

Max turned her head and shouted, "What's the matter? Can't keep up?"

Fang's eyes sparkled at the challenge. Midair he grabbed hold of Max's ankle just as she increased to the high speeds she had developed. She soared into the high altitudes where the air was crisp and cold. It was invigorating to their respiratory systems.

Fang had pulled in his wings and was now holding onto Max. "You're making me crazy, Max," he warned as he inched his way along her body.

He pressed himself into her. He was clinging to her, upside down. Then he kissed her cheeks and neck. She became distracted and had to slow down.

When she had finally lost momentum, Fang flicked out his wings and flipped over. He was flying and Max was clinging to him now.

She drew in her wings and wrapped her legs around his. They descended, circling above a patch of dense fir trees. Landing on the top branches of a massive tree, Fang held Max steady. As soon as he let go of her she hopped down into the lower branches, entering deeper into the enormous circumference of the tree.

She landed on the ground where a pale tan blanket of fallen needles covered the shaded ground underneath the fir tree's canopy. Fang landed and Max saw his hungry anticipation. She lowered herself onto the matted bed of soft needles.

He descended on her, eyes bright from the chase. His breath became intense and quick. He was eager now that he finally caught hold of her.

Fang fully satisfied himself with their kisses and embraces. Max made herself wholly his.

With relief, Fang sighed into the skin above Max's collar bone. His mouth grazed her neck, worn out from the chase but hungry for whatever else she could give him. He held her there, possessively, lovingly, desperately.

She clung to him. Everything she had was his at that moment. He laid claim to all that she brought to him.

Then the tears came silently. Fang looked into Max's overflowing eyes tenderly. He wiped the watery streaks off her face with his hands. He kissed reassuring promises.

Fang held Max close as the significance of their long awaited union etched deeply in their hearts the hope of the future. She buried her face into his neck. The earnest celebration of their lives together had just begun.


They reluctantly left their tree abode and made their way back to the farm.

Fang landed next to the pond in back of the house. He had no qualms about undressing Max and swimming with her. They played together and relished the devotion they each brought.

Max discovered the secret Fang had intimated more than a week prior. She found the fresh tattoo that had the initials MRF enveloped in a heart-shaped twine of prickly blackberry briar, pregnant with its sweet fruit. She let her lips linger over the tattoo and wherever else Fang begged for her to demonstrate her affection.

When they reluctantly walked out of the pond and made their way to the back porch, they discovered towels that Anne had discretely left for them.

"One thing about having a Voice in your head … every need is anticipated." Max was embarrassed.

Fang held her close. "I suppose there's nothing to be done about it now. Maybe we can work out a deal with Anne and Jeb – ask them to give us privacy between the evening hours of ten and two."

Max laughed at Fang's light attitude. Everything was right when he was with her. She was certain of this.


Anne sat on the back porch with Max and Fang as the early evening air blew across the pond. A golden oriole landed on the reeds at the pond edge. The cattail bent under its light weight as the bird searched for its end of the day meal. The three of them watched the reed spring back into the air, the soft brown "tail" waving left and right until it moved only in time with the wind.

"You'll have many questions," she told them. "Data on the hard drive in Max's room is just the start."

Fang was alert, aware. "Why this elaborate set-up? Why the ruse of enrolling us in a school so obviously tied to our past?"

Anne said, "How could you have accepted the truth without discovering it yourselves?"

Max answered tersely, "You don't give us very much credit, considering that you think we're the keys to furthering the fate of homo sapiens."

Anne was silent for a long time. She explained, "I also take direction from someone higher than me."

Max tensed. "This is ridiculous. A never-ending puzzle! Who the hell would think up this kind of nasty, inhumane, ungodly scheme?"

Anne spoke calmly, "You will morph if you continue to express your frustration, Max. I'll have to end our conversation until you are no longer a threat to me. The choice is yours."

Max jumped out of her chair and faced Anne. She shook as she spoke, "So your life is more precious than my Flock's. You get to sequester yourself away at any moment's threat, but Fang had to nearly die from his battle with Ari?"

Anne remained seated. She appeared calm. "He didn't die, Max. We stepped in and helped him recover. Your Flock passed its test."

Max screamed, "How could you test us to the edge of death?" She morphed and growled threateningly at Anne.

"We couldn't put on Pollyanna glasses and pretend that life is ever easy, Max." Anne's voice carried an authoritative tone. Would you rather die in a true battle against the forces of nature, or survive a test that strengthened your entire Flock into a family? It was the first time the Voice had spoken inside of Max since she'd arrived back at the farmhouse.

Anne stood and said in her own voice, "I need to let you work these things out, Max. I'll be in my office if you need to talk. Of course, I'll also be with you wherever you decide to go from here."

Max's claws itched to shred Anne. Something held her back. She guessed that it wasn't her own conscience. She surmised it was yet another safety designed into her psyche by pathetic excuses of human intelligence.

Anne spoke softly to Fang, "You have no idea how much I appreciate your care for Max. She's like our future Eve, Fang. Treasure her. There is no one else like Max."

Fang spoke darkly, "I have no doubt that there are people working on an Ultimate version of mutant kids."

Anne almost whispered, "I've been told that much of the research used to develop Max is being destroyed. The future of the world rests in both of your hands, but it doesn't come without risk. Max can withstand almost anything. Of course her cellular structure will eventually age and she will die, as all people do. But you, Fang, are much more fragile than Max. You'll need the help of everyone in your Flock if you wish to survive along with Max."

Fang's dark eyes simmered in distrust. Eraser Max was fighting against unseen restraints that kept her in check. Max's will began to return to her. As long as she didn't attack Anne, she could destroy anything else that stood in her path.

As Anne slipped back into the house, Fang moved closer to Eraser Max. "Okay, Max. I'm not going anywhere. Eraser or not, I'm staying by your side. I don't want to fight you, Max."

The sound of Fang's determination jolted her to attention. "She closed her mouth over her bared teeth and curled in her claws. Fang didn't flinch at any of her moves. Instead he pulled her into his embrace. "Whatever you are, I love you."

Max eased herself away and lumbered off to the wildflower fields on the other side of the barn. Fang followed. He took care to avoid her razor-like teeth and jagged claws as he enjoyed wild abandon that only an Eraser could endure. Worn out from the grip of his overly strong arms and his youthful virility, Max curled into a shaggy ball and slept in the clover and poppy flowers next to her lover.

31. Unwavering Resolve

Valencia gathered the children into the living room where they flopped onto couches and sprawled out on the floor.

Wings hung out carelessly, clothes were worn haphazardly. They had bored, lost looks on their faces.

"I think with both Fang and Max gone, we need to spend some time together, as a family. I know that I'm not a biological mother to the rest of you, other than Ella, of course. But I do care for each of you as if you were my own."

Gazzy stared up at Valencia. If only, he wished to himself.

Valencia recognized his longing for loving care. She sat on the battered recliner and held out her arms to Gazzy.

His shocked face looked to Angel. Angel peered questioningly into Valencia's expression. Then she bounded to her, and Gazzy followed. They both cuddled against Valencia's sides, squeezing themselves between Valencia and the arms of the chair.

Iggy recognized their need. His heart panged for love; at the same time he felt utter gratitude toward Ella's mother for her kindnesses.

Nudge was stoic. Her heart wasn't ready to risk love or hurt. She knew of heartbreak only too well based on Jeb's disappearance early in her life.

Valencia cleared her throat and continued. "I know that none of you have gotten a good start to your projects. It is completely understandable, considering the tumultuous events following Max's strange departure." She tried not to look to Iggy as she mentioned it.

"So if you're comfortable, I'd like to bring you to the research area where Akila is recovering."

The children immediately stiffened. Their eyes darted around the room, as if a dangerous predator were on the loose.

Valencia took a deep breath and said, "You won't actually have to enter a laboratory. Akila is able to move around the building and even spend time outdoors. And I promise that there will be no other members of the research team present. Only I will be there."

Angel jumped out of the chair. "I want to go." She ran out of the room and then dashed back in, saying breathlessly, "I have to wash my face and change my clothes. Dr. Martinez thinks I look like a messy Kindergartener." With that she bolted up the stairs.

Valencia flushed. The remainder of the Flock looked at each other and registered expressions of discomfort over their unkempt appearance. Iggy took Gazzy by the hand and they returned to their house. With combed hair and fresh clothes, Iggy helped Gazzy find a shirt that wasn't covered by too much dirt or food. Gazzy's Mohawk lay limply but Iggy assured him that it had to be wicked cool looking.

Nudge's coif had held up fairly well. She managed to find a coordinated outfit. Angel asked Ella to help her make two rope braids down the sides of her flower child meets Girls Just Wanna Have Fun hair. Ella doted over the younger girls both before excusing herself to go look for Iggy.

She met him on the sidewalk as he was returning with Gazzy. When she approached Iggy, she straightened his collar. "You look good," she assured him.

With a nervous tremble, he took hold of her hand, now holding hands with both Gazzy and Ella on each side.

Ella sent Gazzy inside when they approached the porch. "I miss you, Ig." She brushed her lips along his chin line, unable to reach any higher. Iggy tentatively wrapped his hands behind Ella's back.

Valencia uttered a surprised, "Oh!" when she walked out the front door and saw them together. Iggy quickly pulled his hands away and straightened them against his sides. Ella drifted to Iggy's side and put her arm around his back. She looked to her mom and said, "Iggy is the sweetest guy I've ever known, Mom. I probably should have told you."

Iggy became very uncomfortable. Don't say it. Not the sex part. Dear God, don't let Ella say anything about sex.

Valencia watched his discomfort. She said in an authoritative voice. "Iggy is a very responsible young man. If you decide to become involved with him Ella, I won't stop you."

Subtle relief returned to Iggy's face.

Valencia stated carefully, "Of course, you're still a child Ella. Iggy has been forced grown up early. If this becomes a serious relationship, we'll need to discuss things." Valencia turned back and reentered the house.

Iggy swallowed nervously. "I guess we don't have to worry about that." He tried to sound casual.

Ella slapped his chest. "You don't understand anything, do you? I'm telling you that I can't stand not being with you. Are you blind? Don't answer that."

Iggy's face spread into a relieved smile. He placed his hands around Ella's face and kissed her with restrained gentility.

"Oops, I got lip gloss on you!" Ella said, nervously wiping away the telltale signs of affection. "I wonder if I smeared it on my face."

Iggy gently ran his finger around her lips. She opened hungrily for more of his touch and her tongue flicked onto the tip of his finger.

"You're fine … for now," Iggy breathed in shallow, nervous breaths. He pulled away from her and tried to assume a pose that wouldn't betray the thoughts in his mind.

Ella said sympathetically, "I'll let Mom know we're ready to go. Why don't you wait out here?" She disappeared inside.


Akila wagged her tail with excitement as she sniffed the hands of the Flock. She was wary toward Ella. Total ran around her in excited circles, bubbling with tidbits about Akila's recovery and how well she'd been treated.

The children looked at Akila's back. It was hard to tell what was on her shaved skin. It looked almost like scar tissue.

"Akila will need to grow and integrate wings in order for her to use them properly. It could take a long time. Even a year. And even longer before she can use them for flight." Valencia gently scratched behind Akila's ears.

"I don't think she's aware that she's growing a new cellular structure in her back." Valencia glanced at Angel. "I don't know if she'd understand it if she knew."

Angel giggled, "She's miffed that you think she wouldn't understand. She's not stupid. Now she knows why she's been feeling strange sensations and changes."

Valencia knelt down and touched her nose to Akila's. 'I'm glad you know, Girl." After Akila licked her once, Valencia stood up.

Angel hugged Akila. Gazzy came forward to pet her under her neck.

Valencia cleared her throat. "We are in the process of surgically removing all the bones in her four legs. They were completely shattered and their regrowth is causing many complications for Akila's ability to walk. The group is using an experimental lightweight alloy that resembles your bone structures considerably. She'll be lighter and more resilient once she has healed from the operations. It is projected to take another four months to complete, including physical therapy."

Nudge furrowed her eyebrows. "That's a long time."

Iggy hesitated and then said, "Fang will return with Max soon, according to his blog. They'll be able to access the situation so that we can decide our next moves."

Iggy felt a fear of leaving Ella behind. His fingers drifted toward her arm.

Ella sensed a change in him. She was beginning to comprehend the likelihood of being torn from Iggy when he and the Flock departed.


Ella sat in Iggy's room, staring at her fingers, nervously intertwining themselves. "We're living in two different worlds."

Iggy was leaning against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest in stiff consternation. "It's the same world. But you're right that we're different species." He uttered the word with venomous hate.

"Isn't [it] more like different races?" Ella asked timidly, afraid of the temper she was beginning to experience from Iggy.

Iggy's silence was caustic.

Ella uncomfortably started, "But …"

Iggy interrupted her in anger, "Does it matter what the difference is? You won't ever have wings. I won't ever have human blood. We might as well be talking science fiction."

Ella stood up. She stomped over to Iggy. "It's not about who we are. It's about how we can make it work. You get to gallivant across the country while I'm stuck in a backward countryside school where no one has even heard of the concept biodiversity." She pounded a weak fist against Iggy's chest in frustration.

A new understanding formed over Iggy's expression. He gently took her fist into his hand and brought it to his lips. He pressed her hand against his face. "Distance makes the heart grow fonder."

Ella looked up to his face.

Iggy touched his nose to hers. "There's no one else for me. It's different for you. I can accept that. But you can count on me to be unwavering. I can hardly explain how it works. But its like there's only room for one person in my feelings. And you're it. More than I ever imagined I might have felt with your sister. More than any person on this messed up earth."

Ella closed her eyes and absorbed his words. Her mouth hung open in anticipation of him. He slowly embraced her. It was all different this time. It was slow this time. Every detail was thought out. Every movement demonstrated care and love. She believed his words as they echoed in her head. In the thrill washing over her, she surrendered to the risk of loving someone who was different, knowing that nothing after this moment was easy. Absorbing his warmth and reverberating within from his intimacy, Ella lost a part of herself in order to make something bigger than one person could ever be. The moment seemed eternal. It seemed that it would never end. It was permanent. Final. Decided. Accepted. Done.

32. The Flock

There were hardly any clouds in the night sky. Max gazed into the light of the waxing moon, nearly bursting at its seams.

At the ledge of a grassy clearing she landed in a tall elm tree. She knew they were very close to the house.

Fang reached her and dove in for a kiss. Max smiled mischeviously and flicked out her wings. Before she could take off, Fang's powerful arms came around her slim body. He took care with the more breakable version of Max.

Fang leapt into a perch that made a comfortable V between the branch and the trunk of the firm tree. He found a perfect mount along the tree branch and Max invited him in. He slept against Max, her head under his chin.

Eventually night withdrew by indigo shades. Fang stared into the wild face of Max. She opened her eyes and yawned. Fang combed his fingers through her disheveled hair.

Song birds tested their voices in the cool dawn air. Max crawled to a stand, weak in her legs. Fang embraced her from behind and shot out of the tree.

Fang's warmth pressed into Max. The movements of his muscles transferred through Max's folded wings.

They landed outside the awkwardly patched window of Max's room.

The window of Ella's room opened. Iggy stuck his head out. "It's about time."

Ella crawled under him and leaned out the window. "Max!"

Angel's voice inside the house shouted, "Max is home!"

The pounding of eager feet running up stairs and down the hall were the most joyful sounds that Max had ever heard.

Author Note, Dec. 22, 2008 / The story does go on ... Thanks to a kind reader for gently letting me know that the conclusion was hardly satisfactory. /

Author Note: /Thank you so much for following me on this journey. To learn more details about how and why I wrote this fiction, please see my profile page. I'll update there soon, too. This work is dedicated to my brothers and my parents, my uncle and my aunt, and especially the memory of Grandma Humphreys who encouraged me to write.

Would you like to see a revised version of this story? I'll try to figure out how to post a poll on my profile in a few days (hours?). I just wonder if you like it as is, or would like to see the proper revisions that a "published" work is supposed to go through. /

33. The Flock cont'd part 2

Author Note:
What shock, what grief my ignorance has caused
When so untimely this short story paused.
A novelist virgin, that's what I am.
My gentle reader, so inexperienced I
Abandoned you without forethought or plan.
'Twas not my intention your pleasure to deny.
Much like a young lover too eager for the thrill
I sought my own pleasures, so ignorant, such a boar.
I meant not your passions to thoroughly kill
By leaving you right when you needed much more.
Impetuous, I did not hold back or delay,
So without restraint I let myself be done.
Please come away again with me this day,
This night or noon or dawn or eve. Just come. /

Fang's arms still hung protectively around Max's torso. He whispered in her ear, "Nothing was right when you were gone. You can't even imagine how much we needed you here."

From the other side of the patched up window, Gazzy complained, "Aw man, I can't get through here either. What gives?"

Angel's voice insisted, "Get out of the way, Iggy. I want to see Max."

Nudge called out, "My window, Gazzy. C'mon."

Max's attention became riveted on Iggy's delicate fingers scooping Ella into his arms and crawling through the window. Max watched Ella's expression go from awe to fear as she realized the precarious nature of standing on the roof.

Iggy placed Ella on her feet but she clung to his clothes in desperate fear of sliding down the sloping roof. Max watched in horror as Iggy tenderly wrapped an arm around her waist and buried his lips into the hair above her ear.

Before Max could react, or accuse or even morph, Angel was running to her from the window. Then Gazzy and Nudge were scrambling over the apex of the roof.

Fang felt the tension rise in Max's body and he watched her accusing gaze boring through Iggy. "Max, I didn't tell you …"

"Max!" Angel cried out and propelled herself into Max's body, pushing Max and Fang back a step or two.

"Angel, honey, it's so good to be back here with you."

Angel sighed, "I heard you think you'd never come back. I was so sad, I …" And then Angel just burst into tears. Max set herself free from Fang's hold and leaned down to embrace and comfort Angel.

Gazzy leapt onto Max's back, hugging her unrelentingly. He had nothing to say. But he clung to her as if his life depended on it.

Nudge was quiet. Unusually quiet. Max tried to meet her eyes but Gazzy's fingers kept getting in the way.

"Nudge?" Max asked.

Then Max saw the streams of tears running down Nudge's face. She saw the bulging veins holding back the cries in Nudge's throat. The contorted pain on Nudge's face was louder than life itself.

Max relinquished Angel and waved Nudge to come to her. She pressed Nudge's face to her chest and squeezed her in. She kissed the top of Nudge's head. Why haven't I kissed Nudge like this before?

Nudge clung to Max. No sounds escaped her throat, but myriad tears made up for that.

"Oh, Nudge. I missed you." Max didn't know what to make of this bare naked side of Nudge, the side never exposed before.

Max glanced up to see Ella still with fright on her face. And she saw a peaceful, calm expression on Iggy that she couldn't place. His arm protectively held Ella to his side. It was like he owned part of Ella. And Max felt fury rising in her throat once again.

Author's Note: / Updating will take much longer than what you've come to expect from me in the past three weeks. I'll keep at this story until it reaches a satisfactory conclusion. Your readership is precious. Thanks for staying with me. /

34. Homecoming

The infantry arrived. A black hummer rushed up the street and skidded to a stop. Max gasped as she watched her mom stumble out the passenger door, brakes squealing desperately.

Ella shrieked, "Mom!" and Max turned to watch Iggy gripping Ella's arm tightly as she leaned precariously close to the roof's edge.

The driver-side door of the hummer slammed shut. "Damn it, Val. I only said that things were about to get interesting with Max's return. It's not like she's in any immediate danger!" Jeb huffed, skirting around the car to help Valencia stand up.

"Don't touch me, Jeb," Valencia sniffed as she batted away Jeb's outstretched hand. "You should try acting like a concerned father occasionally. It would quite complement your pretense as a philanthropic genius." Valencia hobbled up the sidewalk to the house leaving Jeb to stare after her and shove his glasses up the bridge of his nose using his long finger.

"Ella, Sis, don't lean over the edge," Max cooed. When Valencia disappeared under the porch roof, Ella exhaled and turned to lean into Iggy. "What's going on?" she questioned him, searching his face for an answer.

"That's what I want to know!" Max stormed toward Iggy, leaving Fang's outstretched hand to fall empty at his side. "If you so much as touch my sister's elbow even one more time, I'll deck you, you jerk!" she screeched.

Ella gasped but stepped in front of Iggy, extending her hands out to both sides as a brave shield. "No," she challenged Max.

Max's short, rapid breaths flared through her nostrils as she watched Iggy stand impassively behind Ella. "You're even worse than I could have ever imagined! So you'd let a girl fight your battles. Coward!"

Iggy gently tugged at Ella's elbow, the slightest hint of a grin at the corner of his lips. "Ell, you need to get back inside."

"Like hell I do!" Ella huffed, stomping toward Max, forgetting the dizzying height of the roof. Iggy fluttered his giant wings and planted himself behind Ella in one hop, curving his thumb around her belt.

Max's face softened, "Ella, I know you think you're protecting Iggy and he's probably being all nice to you and stuff," her voice steadily rose as she continued, "but he's a manipulator! Whatever he's said, he's only doing it because he hates that I picked Fang over him. You gotta believe me. He knows the right things to say and he might make you think you love him, but it's a lie. A lie! A fat, freakin' lie."

"You're wrong," Ella steeled her voice. "He's amazing, and he's mine." She turned, whipping her long hair behind her and crawled off the roof through the window. "Mom!" she crooned. "Your knee is bleeding through your slacks!"

Max stepped to Iggy and grabbed a fistful of shaggy hair at the back of his neck, pulling him down. "Ouch, crap!" Iggy inhaled, balling his fists at his sides.

Max pulled his face right down to hers, breathing on him and spitting when she growled through her iron jaws, "We're not finished, Iggy. And you're no longer welcome at my house. Crawl back to your hole in the wall until I deal with you properly." Max shoved Iggy off the roof and watched with satisfaction as Iggy beat his wings frantically. She guffawed as his dragging feet plowed straight into Jeb, oblivious on the sidewalk, Blackberry glued to his nose. "One bird-kid, two stoned idiots," she grunted with satisfaction. "That's what happens to your brain on drugs," Max said in an aside to Nudge, whose mouth was catching gnats.

"Pfft," was the only contribution made by Fang.

You're the jerk here, Angel accused with blazing eyes.

So Iggy got to you, too. I thought you were stronger than that, Angel. I'm really disappointed in you. Max crawled through the mangled window, admiring the damage she was capable of doing as Pup Girl.

She overhead Angel's thoughts: This is going to end up bad if you don't do something, Fang. But from Fang there was only silence. The pit of Max's stomach quivered in doubt. She wondered who she could trust.


Max sat at the large dining room table, nibbling on roast beef and cheddar cheese cold cuts, ignoring the big-as-her-head Kaiser Rolls piled on a black plastic platter. Fang slouched at the other end of the table, one hand scrolling through reams of information stored on the newest computer acquisition, ala Anne.

Valencia walked in, wearing shorts and a bandage over her knee. Jeb followed at her heels and sat down at the table across from her Max, Blackberry in hand. "Nice nerd glasses," she snickered.

Jeb straightened his glasses frames, avoiding the masking tape on the bridge. He glanced at Valencia and pointed to a chair next to Fang. Fang scooted over, even though there was plenty of room. Valencia slipped onto the chair and folded her hands on the table in front of her, politely looking away from the laptop screen.

Jeb leaned forward and coughed. "That laptop is compromised."

Fang froze and looked up mid scroll-flick. He glanced at Max and then back to Jeb.

Max shrugged. "It's from Anne. Chill, Jeb."

Then Max heard Jeb's tell-tale scoff. Jeb made that sound when things were serious, when the truth was so absurd that Max didn't want to believe, and when Max's life depended on believing Jeb's normally deceitful tongue. He scoffed like that when he told Max that she was going to save the world. He scoffed like that when he taught Max that she needed to know martial arts because she'd die if she didn't learn.

Fang broke the silence. "I thought Anne was your boss."

Jeb oozed into his Kindergarten teacher role. "She was my boss Fang. You're right about that. But now that we've moved to the next phase, I report to someone else."

"Next phase?" Max asked, looking up, oblivious to the booger-shaped scrap of cheddar cheese dangling above her lip.

"Anne was only necessary as long as it took for you to form a mating relationship …"

"But Anne is the Voice," Max said smugly.

"She knows how to use the Voice," Jeb corrected her. His words echoed in her thoughts. He had said the same thing about himself. So everyone gets a turn at being the Voice, Max sighed.

Not everyone, Max. You need to stop generalizing.

"Stop it!" she screamed at Jeb.

The Blackberry clattered onto the table, and Jeb snatched it up again. "Stop what?"

"The Voice!"

The laptop in front of Fang beeped twice and the CPU fan whirled on. A computer generated audio message in male monotone droned, "Jeb is not the Voice, Max."

Valencia leaned far away from the laptop. "What's going on, Jeb?" she demanded.

Jeb sighed, took off his glasses and rubbed his darkly circled eyes. "I told Max already. That thing is compromised."

A string of beeps, bloops and whistles emitted from the machine. "It's time for you to choose, Max. Who do you trust? Jeb? Or Me?"

"Who the hell are you?" Max muttered to herself.

Your Voice, her head screamed. Violent, catastrophic doom's day video images consumed her brain. "Stop!" she opened her mouth to scream, but only squeaky air came out. She contorted in the chair and writhed, trying to get free from the download. Eraser claws crushed the edge of the table into sawdust and turned the enormous table onto its side and she rolled into a ball on the floor.

The laptop crashed and irritated clicks emanated from it. Jeb leaped over the table. "Disconnect the battery, Fang!" he shouted.

The pressure in her cranium increased. Then Max seemed to release her thoughts from her body. It was like she was watching a nuclear explosion, and her brain was the bomb.

35. Surveillance

|| Author Note: It's been almost two years since revisiting this story. Don't forget to read Chapter 34. It's also a brand spankin' new. A word of caution: For those who expect a plot to actually arrive somewhere and resolve, this story simply may not be the best one for you. On the other hand, this is a fantastic experimental platform, and maybe all those plot bunnies will have a home some day.

The scene around Max filtered in through her barely open eyes for a moment. Then she let her eyes close again and just listened.

Her mom chattered, "Look at this video! It's simply not biologically possible to transform like she did, but it's right here. In slow-mo, even. There go her talons, and her paws … I was so frightened by her morphosis that I didn't get the front side.

"Have you seen her fully morphed, Fang?"

"Yuuuup," Fang yawned.

"Well, what was she like?"

"She's an Eraser." Max detected his irritation.

Jeb cleared his throat. "Not exactly an Eraser."

"Well you would know, wouldn't you, Jeb? What with Ari and all …" Fang's footsteps paced over the wooden floorboards.

"Fang," Valencia interrupted, "What does Max look like? When she's an 'Eraser'?"

Fang's footsteps stopped. "Pekingese. Not exactly. Maybe pit bull – Pekingese hybrid. Except she's Max. And she's got all the good stuff when she's an Eraser. You know, all the right stuff in all the right places."

Jeb choked. "Fang! Is that any way to talk to Max's mother?"

"What? She's hot."

Valencia gulped. "You don't mean to say that … I mean, it wouldn't be possible for you to … oh, how can I put this delicately?"

"Delicately? I never put Max 'delicately'." Max felt Fang near her. Through barely open eyes she saw him kneel down as he pulled his fingers though her shoulder-length hair.

"This isn't a locker room, Fang. You're not supposed to tell sexual fantasies to your girlfriend's mother. Good lord, what else did I forget to teach you when I was so worried about Max all along."

"Jeb," Fang paused. "It's not a fantasy. If Dr. Martinez doesn't want to hear it, she shouldn't ask."

Max whispered hoarsely, "Shut up, Fang."

The footsteps of Valencia and Jeb rushed toward her. "You're awake, Max!" Valencia pushed Fang aside. "Are you alright?"


"I can have choppers here in 25 minutes," Jeb confided to Valencia.

"What? Max is staying with me, right here, Jeb Batchelder. You will not take her from me again."

Max opened her eyes a bit more. "Go, Mom!" she cheered hoarsely. "But I'm just tired. I'm not okay, but it's not like I'm dying. You really need to chill out, Jeb."

Fang pushed his way back into the inner circle, angling in front of Valencia and Jeb. "It's not that Jeb is overly concerned, Max. He just wants an excuse to get you back to the School."

Jeb accused, "How dare you insult me. If you have a problem with me, the least courtesy you could give me is to tell me directly."

Fang kissed Max's forehead. "Up and at 'em, Max. There's something I want you to see. 'Cuz I got a problem with your daddy."

"Ha!" Max cracked, "You, too?" She tried to boost herself up on her elbows, but as she lifted herself forward, a sharp pain in her wing dragged her back down. "What the hell?"

Fang twirled a feather in front of her face. "Missing something?" Max twisted and saw that the tips of her left wing were under her elbow.

"Do I have to get up?" she complained.

"Nah." Fang lay next to Max. "Can I show Max your phone video, Dr. M?"

When Valencia handed the phone to Fang, Max snatched it. "You want me to watch myself morph on neural overload? I get the voyeurism stuff, but watching myself, no way."

Valencia tried to grab the phone back, but when Max pulled it away, Fang snatched it. Max glared at him.

Valencia implored Fang with her eyes and knelt next to Max. "Please don't take it the wrong way, Max. Things started to happen so fast, and it was just like something in my head made me want to get a video of it, to document it for resear …" Valencia flushed, rested her forehead in her hand and shook her head. "That came out wrong. I … well, I …" She let out a huge sigh.

Max looked over at Valencia's reddened face. "Mom, it's okay. Much worse things have been done than simply video-taping an Eraser morph. Believe me."

Fang snuggled next to Max. "It's not the Morph I want you to see. It's Jeb. Well, Jeb's hand, actually …"


Jeb was towering over Max and Fang, as they were still lying on the floor. "That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard you say, Fang!"

Max turned her head to look at Fang. She cocked up an eyebrow and said, "I'm sure I could think of something to top it."

Fang made a face, "Thanks for the support, Babe."


"Didn't we have this conversation already?"

"Oh yeah, way back at the forest station."

Jeb scowled at the mention of the forest station and pulled out his Blackberry. Max and Fang tried to stifle their laughter. Max tugged at Fang's jeans just to peek below Fang's belly button where the MR F heart tattoo memorialized that test of Jeb's patience. Fang simply pushed Max's hand away. "Later," he whispered.

Max turned over and stood up a bit shakily. "Let me see your fingernails, Jeb."

Jeb stared at Max. "You do realize that cell phone video pixilation is atrocious. 'Black fingernails'? And how about poor lighting?"

Max sighed. "How 'bout showing me your hand?"

Fang stood up. "Afraid of spilling the beans on your little secret, then?"

Jeb shoved the Blackberry into the hip holster and laughed, "You are so paranoid, Fang. It's a wonder Max can stand being with you. But I can't imagine it will last forev…" A gasp ended Jeb's words when Fang grabbed the man's hand and pulled him toward Max.

Max took Jeb's hand. "Doesn't look broken," she assured Jeb and then she stared at Jeb's cuticles. "Black, huh? Who knew? Jeb, a closet emo."

Fang kicked Max's shin. Max kicked back. Jeb chimed in, "My hand, please!"

"Hold your horses, Buster," Max snarled. "Hey, Mom, can you come over and look at this."

Jeb squirmed. "Is this really necessary."

Max smiled. "Of course not. That's why I'm enjoying this so much. Isn't it just jiving to be on the other side of an examination?"

Valencia stepped up. "You don't mind if examine your hand, do you Jeb?"

Jeb sucked his gut in and puffed out his chest. "Of course not, Val."

Max and Fang shared a look. Jeb saw Fang's smirk and quickly turned his face away.

Max put her hand out next to Jeb's. "If my hand can become an Eraser paw, what's to say Jeb's fingernails can't turn colors?"

"Hmmm," Valencia wondered. "Chameleon?"

Fang eyeballed Jeb. "Try exoskeleton."

Valencia didn't look up. "No, fingernails are basically the same as hair. They aren't exoskeletons."

Fang flicked some dirt out from under his nails. "But what if Jeb's nails can be covered by an exoskeleton?"

Valencia prodded Jeb's cuticles. "I don't see it."

Jeb chuckled. "You flatter me, Fang. Am I really all that tough? Old Ironsides?"

Fang didn't smile. "How about Shelly?"


"As in shell. How else could you train avian recombinants in martial arts? Or how about Erasers. How could you command hundreds of unpredictable, fledgling Erasers? Even I was practically shredded by Ari."

Jeb looked at Fang. "Are you calling me a Crab?"

Fang blew his hair out of your face. "A beetle. You're one of us. You're a recombinant."

Max dropped Jeb's hand and shuddered. "He's a Whitecoat."

Fang muttered, "More like a Blackcoat. He's one of the good guys."

Valencia stood perplexed. "Jeb looks human to me."

Max recalled others in Itex. Other leaders who were experiments and experimenters all rolled in one. "The turtle woman. She looked human."

Jeb pulled his hand back. "They are adorable when they use their imaginations, aren't they Val?"

Fang turned to Valencia. "Have you ever seen Jeb without clothes on?"

Valencia turned a light shade of maroon. "No. It was all in-vitro."

"So you've never even been swimming or to the beach, or anything?"

Valencia smiled at Fang. "Our dates were of a more professional nature. We haven't pursued a romantic relationship. Besides, I suspect that Jeb is the kind of man who is usually married to his work."

Max stepped forward. "Take off your shirt, Jeb."

Valencia gasped. "Max!"

"It's just his shirt, Mom. I don't want to see his junk or nothing."

Jeb cleared his throat. "This is a bit uncomfortable for me Max."

Fang grabbed Jeb's collar. "Do you think we care about your comfort?"

"Apparently not." Jeb grimaced. He unbuttoned his oxford and removed it.

"The muscle tee, too," Fang insisted.

Jeb removed it and tossed it to Val, not forgetting to ripple his abs and flex his muscles. Valencia was impressed.

"Turn around," Max said. She touched the top of his shoulders. And there they were. Tiny appendages that had been crushed and reshaped until they had nearly unified and became part of Jeb's unusually broad shoulders. "That must have hurt."

Jeb's Blackberry vibrated on his hip.

"Aren't you going to answer it?" Max asked.

Jeb looked at her. "Not without my shirt on."

36. Cuckoo Club

"Max can't kick you out of my house." Ella pulled on Iggy's arm, but he wouldn't budge from the cushion.

Ella dropped his arm and turned to Angel. "Okay, your turn. Make him get up."

"Uh-uh." Angel's lips quivered. "I can't make Iggy's sadness go away." Silent tears began to stream down Angel's cheeks. She fluttered to Iggy, curled up in his lap and pressed her wet face into his neck. Iggy held Angel and rocked side to side silently.

Ella huffed in exasperation, and stomped to the archway leading to the foyer. She collided with Nudge who was charging in, towing Gazzy behind her, dragging him by the hand. "Ouch!" Ella complained, rubbing her nose and checking it to see if there was any blood. There wasn't.

"Where are you going?" Nudge questioned unapologetically.

"What's it to you?" Ella tried to brush past Nudge but was pushed back.

"Me and Gazzy came here to get some answers, so you're not goin' anywhere, Ella." Nudge's eyes flashed from Ella's surprised face to Angel sobbing in Iggy's arms. "What's going on now?"

Ella smiled a fierce grimace. "Total drama cuckoo club. And I'm flying the coop." Ella pushed against Nudge.

Gazzy snapped, "Are you stupid, Ella?" He wrestled his hand from Nudge's grasp and then shoved Ella over to the huge seat cushion and pushed her down next to Iggy. "Can't you tell that Angel is crying Iggy's tears?"


"Big boys don't cry," Gazzy explained. "So Angel is crying the tears that Iggy won't."

Ella looked up at Iggy's stone cold face. She tentatively put her hand on Iggy's arm.

Angel crawled off of Iggy's lap and wiped her face. "Okay, Nudge. I think we're done crying for now."

Nudge looked to Gazzy and nodded to him. They both sat on the floor in front of the big cushion. "Ever since Max took off, this whole flock thing went all topsy-turvy. And then Ella went from being my new best friend to not even checking in on me in the morning to see what outfit I picked. And then Gazzy here was, like, all alone, too, you know? 'Cause Fang was always on his laptop and then Iggy no longer would play any card games. And then he always left the house at night and Gazzy was scared to be alone, and …"

Gazzy tried suppressed a choking sadness building in his throat, but a sad lament escaped anyway.

Iggy cleared his throat. "Aw, Gazz. Come here."

Gazzy shuffled to Iggy and sat on his lap. "Sorry, little dude. I totally flubbed up. I didn't think about what you were going through." Iggy ruffled Gazzy's hair.

Nudge wiped her nose on the back of her hand. "And we still don't even know why Max left in the first place. And then Max is all angry at Iggy today. It's like some big secret. I thought we were a family."

Iggy's face reddened. "It's mostly my fault." He cleared his throat. "Well, um … okay, so if you kind of noticed, a lot of us are getting old enough to want to do grown up stuff … like kissing."

"Eww!" Gazzy complained, scooting off Iggy's lap. "Just, eww."

Iggy snickered. "Yeah, it might sound gross. But it's kind of what happens."

"That doesn't explain why you and Max are fighting," Nudge grumped.

"That." Iggy scratched the back of his head and sighed. "Okay. There's only one Max and there's two of us, Fang and me. And so I was jealous."

"Ohhhh," Angel murmured, realization brightening your face. "I thought you were just being mean," she whispered.

Iggy put his arm around Angel. "That, too," he conceded. "So, I told Max that I liked her. But then Max showed me that she belonged with Fang. And then Ella showed me that we belong together."

"Showed you?" Nudge puzzled.

Ella's face turned bright red and Nudge looked at her. "Not that! Gross. Spare us the disgusting details of mating." Nudge blew raspberries on her hand, as if the word tasted bad. "I mean Max. How did Max show you?"

Angel patted Iggy's knee. She scooted forward and explained, "Max got really, really, really mad at Iggy and Fang fighting over her. And then there was this huge ball of fire that exploded in her stomach and she turned into a wolfy-thing."

"Wolfy," Gazzy panicked.

"An Eraser," Iggy whispered.

Nudge jumped off the ground and backed up, instincts hyperactive. "Max is an Eraser?" she screamed.

Ella complained, "What is it with you guys and those things?"

Iggy spoke softly. "Erasers were created to destroy. To erase the existence of … us. By killing us."

Ella gulped.

Nudge had panic in her eyes. "We should go rescue Fang right now. Max could kill him any minute!"

Angel stood up and said with a happy smile, "Fang loves Max. He thinks she's a cute puppy girl. And she's still leader of our flock."

"But she'll kill us!" Gazzy warned. "We have to get Fang away from her!"

Angel put her hands on her hips. "Iggy proved that no one will ever get Fang away from Max. Whatever Iggy did to her … and that was gross, Iggy, I just want you to know … and your stick thingy is gross, too, but I guess you can't do anything about that …"

"What did you do to Max?" Nudge asked.

Iggy sighed. "I tried to make her choose to mate with me."

Nudge swallowed. "Did you mate?"


Angel explained, "Fang heard Max say she wanted Iggy's stick inside her."

Nudge blushed.

Ella piped up. "So what? It doesn't prove that Fang loves Max."

Angel said quietly, "If Fang didn't love Max, he wouldn't have gone off to find her and bring her back."

Gazzy scratched his armpit. "But what did you do to make Max so mad at you, Iggy?"

Iggy sighed loudly. "I was with Max in her room. Fang broke down the door. And then Max knew what I had done. She knew I'd tricked her into feeling like she could love me. That's why she doesn't want me anywhere near Ella. She thinks that I'm tricking Ella into loving me."

"But I do love you. And nothing Max says is going to change that!"

Then Angel shouted, "Seriously, everybody, stop thinking about Iggy's stick-thing!"

37. Spitifre and Spice and Everything Nice

Spitfire and Spice and Everything Nice

Ella picked at the curling peels of paint on the wooden frame of the front door. A light breeze wafted through the doorway, into the house. Without turning to talk to Iggy, Ella stepped onto the porch and huffed, "Fine. Stay here and sulk."

Iggy leaned against the door frame. "I'm not sulking. I'm waiting to explain things to Max."

"C'mon, let's go," Angel signaled Gazzy and Nudge. They left their perches on the dilapidated porch railing and tromped down the uneven, broken walkway to the sidewalk.

Ella crossed her arms. "If you'd just trust me, I could explain it all to Max and she would get over it."

"Why do I need you to explain anything? I want to talk with Max and work this out the … the flock way." Iggy huffed.

"Oh, 'the Max kicking your balls' way?" Ella turned to him, hands on her hips.

Iggy cringed at the thought. "Just go away."

Ella's had a hurt expression on her face and her shoulders slumped forward just a little bit. Iggy's temper softened. "Max needs to spend time with you, Ell. She needs to see that I haven't done any damage." Iggy held out his arms for a hug.

Ella turned away. "I don't like you right now."


Ella stomped her foot on the porch. "You're not supposed to say, 'Oh, well, okay.'" She made her voice low and sing-songy. She didn't look up to see Iggy flinch slightly at her mockery.

Iggy was silent. Ella clenched her fists at her sides and let a frustrated "aghhhhhh" come out of her throat.

Clod, clod, clod, clod. Ella jumped off the porch. Thud. Clompity clompity, clomp, clomp.

Iggy wondered, Can't she be any quieter when she walks? Freakin' non-mutant.

Iggy felt for the doorknob and gave it a yank. Wreeeeeeeek. Slam!

Wait, what am I thinking? I'm glad Ella never had to put up with the crap of growing up in a lab. Iggy walked to the stairs, feeling the wall. He walked up the steps quietly. Creak, swish, creak, swish. At the top floor Iggy found his way to the bathroom, not bothering to close the door, and whizzed in the toilet. Whungle-wungle, wungle, ishhhhh. The toilet flushed and the bowl refilled with water.

Zip. Whiissssshhhh. He rubbed soap over his hands and rinsed them under the warm running water. Then he dried them on the back seat of his pants, walking to his room.

Thung. Thung. Thung. It was a vibration, not a sound, exactly. Iggy couldn't hear it, but the rhythm he felt in his feet seemed familiar. A breeze came through the open window. Mew. Mew. Mew. Kittens were underneath the porch.

Gazzy's voice traveled from half-way up the street. They must have been at Ella's porch by now. "Hey, you guys smell that?"

Sniff. Iggy didn't smell anything other than the normal stink of three and a half guys living together. The one-half guy was in the form of Jeb, since he never seemed to stay put long enough to actually live there.

Nudge's voice drifted through Iggy's window, with a high-nasally sound, like she was pinching her nose. "You didn't fart again, did you?"

Thung, thung, thung reverberated even more strongly now. It seemed familiar. Iggy tried to imagine what would make that sound.

Whuh, whuh, whuh, whuh, whuh. A helicopter was flying low through the neighborhood. It didn't bother Iggy this time. But the first time Iggy had heard it, he'd hit the floor and crawled toward the back door. Not just him, but Fang and Gazzy, too. Jeb had been in the living room with them that night and he had to explain that it was common for police helicopters to fly overhead. With a tremor in his voice, Gazzy had asked what the deal was with the spotlight. Jeb had no concern in his voice when he explained matter-of-factly that the police were probably looking for someone running on foot between houses in the neighborhood. The excitement had culminated in the screeching of paddy wagon tires and a booming male voice shouting, "SWAT! Come out with your hands up!" The boys peeked out the windows and told Iggy about SWAT officers in bullet proof vests, armed with large guns, surrounding the house across the street. "Drug dealers," Jeb had said in a bored tone.

Thung, thung, thumm, thump, thump, thump. Iggy recognized the sound of the basketball being dribbled on the sidewalk.

Gazzy's voice drifted in the window along with a slight smell of aftershave. "I know that smell! Remember playing basketball that night?"

"What smell?" Ella asked.

"You know, the tall guy. Camaraderie. Or Carousel." Gazzy paused, "No that's not the right name, either."

Ella's delighted voice: "Cameroon!"

Nudge added with excitement, "Oh! And Eve. She is so beautiful!"

Angel's asked, "You can smell his aftershave?"


"Well I can't smell anything."

Ella's voice burst out, "Let's go find them! Gazzy's nose knows the way!" She giggled.

Whuh, whuh, whuh, whuh, whuh. Iggy began to climb out the window. Are you insane? There's a police copter and you don't even care that some sleaze-ball is running loose through the neighborhood?

Thump, thump, thump, thump. The sounds of the basketball bouncing on the sidewalk were coming closer.

"Let's find 'em," Nudge cheered.

A stampede of bird-kid feet and Ella's clunkers came back toward Iggy's house. He realized that his window was on the back side of the house, and they wouldn't see him as they approached. He decided to pull a "Fang" and remain silent-hidden but ready to come to the rescue if the rest of them ended up face to face with danger.

The stampede passed by Iggy as he crouched on the roof. The sounds of the helo drifted off and Iggy breathed in a deep, fresh gulp of relief.

Thump, thump, thump. The basketball was getting closer. So was Cameroon's aftershave. Then the direction of the sound changed. The bounces of the ball were coming up the street now. Iggy realized the movement had been along a street perpendicular to his own street. But now it was coming right up the street toward the whole gang.

Ella's happy voice rang out, "Cameroon!" Thunka, thunka, thunka. Ella was running down the sidewalk.

"It's Eve!" Nudge cried. Patter, patter, patter, patter. "Your outfit is divine!" Squeeee! Iggy imagined the tight embrace Nudge had on Eve's waist.

"Yo, Captain!" Cameroon's voice cheered. "I been lookin' all over for you, girl. Don't be shy, Captain. Come close and show a brother the love."


Fwoosh. Iggy was in the air. Whish, whish, whish, whish. Four powerful beats of his massive wings were all it took to reach Ella.

"Oh, shiiiii …" Cameroon's stunned voice gulped as he stumbled back.

Iggy landed next to Ella, who was now released from Cameroon's hug. Iggy draped his arm over Ella's shoulders. His breath came in shallow series of, huhh, huhh, huhh, huhh.

Angel screamed, "What the hell are you doing, Iggy?"

Gazzy glanced at Angel, surprised at her colorful vocabulary. Then he turned back to see Iggy's wings, still unfurled, and arching menacingly above him and Ella.

Nudge held on to Eve, who was clutching her chest. "It's okay, Eve. It's okay. He won't hurt you."

Ella's bottom lip hung down as she stared up at Iggy's angry, threatened face.

Gazzy whispered, "Iggy. Put your wings down. You're scaring them!"

"Good," Iggy grunted.

Ella glanced at Cameroon and saw that his face was ashen in fear. She put one hand on Iggy's chest. "Ig. It's okay. It's just Cameroon."

Cameroon straightened up, but his free hand was still shaking. The other hand held the basketball to his hip. His voice wavered, "How did you do that? I just about crapped my pants."

"I told you so," Eve nervously addressed Cameroon. "I told you that video wasn't a fake."

"Video?" Ella asked, her eyes shifting back and forth between Eve and Cameroon.

"Whew!" Eve said. "You just about gave me a heart attack! I wish I coulda' gotten that on video!" She pulled her phone out of her pocket and aimed it at Iggy.

Nudge asked sweetly, "What are you doing?"

"Just showing my friends how awesome your buddy looks. Damn, it looks so real."

Nudge clung to Eve's hands. "Please, Eve! Please don't show any pictures to your friends."

Eve looked at Nudge. "I posted it online already, honey. This pic is to die for. Wanna see it."

Nudge backed away in shock. Angel stepped forward. "I want to see it."

Cameroon laughed loudly, recovering from the fright. "That is some trick with those wings and all that. Are you sure you're blind, kid? Cuz I don't know anybody who could pull off a wire stunt like that, even with 20-20."

"Trick?" Iggy spit on the ground.

Cameroon wrinkled his nose in disgust.

Iggy shook out his wings. Ella clung to Iggy. "Ig. Please."

Iggy lowered his wings and leaned back. He tilted his head down to Ella. "Okay, Ell."

Angel looked up at Eve with round, innocent eyes. "Can you show me the video?"

"Sure thing, sugar bear," Eve smiled.

Cameroon chuckled. "Damn, didn't see you around for almost three weeks and this is how you show up? You guys should be in a circus or something."

Gazzy laughed and snorted.

Angel said in a serious tone, "Guys, you have to see this."

Nudge and Gazzy crowded around Angel and Eve.

Nudge gasped. "How did you get this? How did you get a video of Max flying?"

"It's viral, hon."

"Not again!" Gazzy whined.

Iggy lowered his wings completely. "Viral video, Gazz. Not a virus."

"Oh," Gazzy sheepishly shrugged.

Angel looked up to Eve. "Can you show this video to Ella's mom?"

"Why not?" Eve smiled.

Cameroon chuckled. "You all are real good at pranking."

"Yeah," Ella laughed nervously.


Fang held a tall, plastic cup to Max's lips. She stood at the kitchen sink, holding onto his hand instead of the cup, and gulped down the water.

"All better?" Fang asked, putting the cup on the counter and leaning his forehead against Max's.

"It's quiet around here." Max said, looking away.

"I know," Fang said, guiding Max's face back to his. He bent his head down and kissed Max gently.

As soon as he drew back his head, Max said, "You'd think they would have come running when I knocked over the table."

Fang lifted a stray hair out of Max's face. "They're busy."


"Have you forgotten the chick magnet thing already?" Fang asked, sliding his hands underneath Max's shirt.

"They're all taking Iggy's side?" Max pouted.

Fang caught Max's sagging lower lip in his mouth. He brushed his lips down her chin and kissed the side of her neck.

Max stood there passively. When Fang moved to the other side of her neck, she complained, "Don't you even care that they're picking Iggy over me?"

Fang stood up. His lips were full and red, swollen with desire for Max. But his eyes were hard and squinty. "Just forget about them. Here, let's go to your bed." He tried to lead Max out of the kitchen.

"No!" Max shoved him away. "You are really getting on my nerves."

Fang smirked and drew her close again. "I wish I was just getting on you."

Max pulled away. "What is with you?"

Fang pulled Max back to him. "You turn me on."

Max twisted out of Fang's arms. "You have a hand. Go use it."

Fang's smile faded. "That was harsh."

"You're being selfish."

"Selfish?" Fang breathed. "Pshh. I'm trying to help you Max."

Max's ground her teeth. "You're trying to have sex. Where's the help in that?"

Fang met her fierce eyes. "It'll help you deal with the stress."

"Oh, that's just great!" she huffed, throwing his arms off of her. "You think I can't deal with 'the stress'? I thought you knew me, Fang. I thought …"

Max turned away and rushed toward the kitchen door. Fang was faster and grabbed her arm. He reeled her in and took her face in his hands.

Hot tears spilled down Max's face onto Fang's strong hands. "Max," he whispered. "That's not what I meant."

Max choked out, "Then what do you mean?"

Fang took off his tee-shirt and wiped her face with it. He held her close and she pressed her face into the smooth skin of his bare chest. He stroked her hair, saying nothing.

Max's tears began to dry. She pressed the side of her head on Fang's chest and listened to his vitals. "Fang, I don't have an 'on-off' lever like you. I have to want to have sex."

Fang didn't say anything.

Max looked up. "Now that I want to talk, you're suddenly quiet."

Fang looked past Max's head. "If I say anything, you'll just get angry."

Max sighed. "So if you're ever having a really rotten day, you're saying that you'd want to go shag?"

"Pretty much."

"You're weird, Fang. Weird."

Fang pulled away.

Max looked up into his eyes. "How 'bout a rain check?"

Fang's eyes softened.

From the dining room, they heard Valencia's voice. "Your appendage is amazing, Jeb."

Max leaned into Fang's arms and they both cracked up. "Get a room," Fang called.

"Whaaat?" Valencia called back.

Jeb cleared his throat. "I'd better get my shirt back on. We still have some serious matters to discuss."

38. Dragon Spy

A/N: Huge mistake by me! Please replace the name "Eve" with "Eden" in each instance below, including the previous chapter. Oops.

R&R, please. The easy way is this:

:) = you liked the chapter

:( = you didn't like the chapter

:o = you were so bored you couldn't finish reading the chapter

Dragon Spy

A dragonfly hovered above the front door of the house. When Ella opened the door and ushered in Cameroon, Eve and the members of the flock, no one noticed that that the dragonfly entered as well.

Advances in nano-biotechnology made non-detectable observation very convenient. This particular dragonfly was indeed a species of dragonfly; however, it was one of the so-called "undiscovered" species. It was a living organism. But it was so much more than that.

This species had a symbiotic relationship with a virus-like organic substance which enabled instantaneous video and sound data transmission. It was a work of art and the beauty of nature all packaged up in one terrific insect. While the insects themselves had short lives, their enhanced cellular memories and extremely short larva stages enabled near continuous monitoring of the Maximum project. There was never a shortage of dragon-spies, as they were affectionately called, given the proper weather conditions and environment.

The only shortcoming of the entire dragonfly venture was the food chain conflict with the nighttime tracking organisms, which were genetically modified bats. The loss of a mate was extremely distressing to these creations. Although significant measures had been taken to ensure that the bats did not acquire a taste for this species of dragonfly, and care was taken to limit their interaction, the loss of the primary female during the laboratory testing was still a painful memory to all.

Even sitting in a secure underground observation room, the man, if that is what he could be called, cringed at the memory. He urgently guided the dragon-spy to locate Maximum. Until his eyes detected Maximum's life-signal on the hundreds of monitors, he was uneasy. She was his priority. He would not lose this female. Despite the redundancies built into Maximum, he always had a nagging fear, and an incessant regret, that the female might be consumed by another experiment. He would not be able to live with himself if that were to happen. So it will not happen, he resolved.

The man approved of Fang's doting on Max. But he knew that Fang wouldn't be able to sustain this intensity for long. Fang was hand-selected for the role, but not engineered per se. Fang had his limitations. The man behind the computer knew of limitations. He understood the passion of love that is balanced by solitude.

Satisfied that Maximum was not under any threat, the man guided the dragonfly to position itself upon a high ledge that provided an advantageous observation of the goings-on. And there were many goings-on to catalogue. The man's interest was not only in the occupants of the house. A stream of internet transactions and intelligence chatter were being analyzed by the brains on sticks. The stick-brains were disgusting to work with, but their processing speed was much faster than any man-made intelligence. So they were tolerated.


"Mom!" Ella called, walking through the door. She motioned toward the couches in the sitting room. "Have a seat, guys. I'm going to find Mom."

Ella brushed Iggy's hand off her shoulder. She had had enough of his possessive posturing for one day. But the gasp she made when she entered the dining room brought Iggy to her side without a moment of delay.

The sight of Jeb buttoning his shirt was a surprise, and completely unexpected. Added to that oddity was seeing her Mom was straightening Jeb's collar. But even that strange sight didn't merit a gasp. It was the overturned table, splinters of wood gouged out of the table top, and smashed components of a laptop.

Nudge squeezed past Iggy and Ella, who were both stuck at the dining room entrance. Nudge fingered the bits of laptop quietly.

Fang strode in. "Don't bother trying to put it back together."

Nudge didn't give Fang any indication that she'd heard him. She began running her hands over the laptop case and the cracked battery unit.

"Sam," Nudge finally said.

Max walked in from the kitchen. By now all the flock and their guests as well, were crowding into the disaster dining room.

"Who did you say?" Max asked.

"Sam," Nudge said once again. "He did something to the computer."

Iggy asked, "Max's date? That Sam?"

Nudge nodded. "Anne set up quite a few files on here. And there's someone like 'son of uber director' who provided most of the data. But Sam added something to the hardware. I can just feel it."

"Compromised," Max stated. "So you knew the laptop was compromised, Jeb?"

"I was fairly certain. After I received the news about Anne, I knew that she was not their primary target." Jeb finished buttoning his cuffs.

"What about Anne?" Fang asked.

"It's been all over CNN and FOX," Jeb sighed. "It wouldn't hurt you kids to watch the news." Jeb pulled his Blackberry out. He pulled a tiny device off of his shirt's pocket protector and attached it to the Blackberry. Aiming it at the far wall, a projection of a streaming video appeared.

Anne was being led away in handcuffs by secret service personnel – very handsome secret service men and women – very Eraser-like. The jaded voice of a female reporter spoke: "FBI controversy continues over the sudden detaining of an agent whose identity is being withheld at the moment. Sources confirm that this agent was a witness protection expert. Yesterday's FDA raid on a safe house that she managed was found to be an elaborate drug processing lab."

The video cut away to a vicious guard dog snarling and straining at a leash. "Footage provided by FDA sources show acres of marijuana plants. Here is a still of plants next to a barn on the property."

"What?" Max said.

"Watch," Fang whispered.

"But there were just flowers there when we …"

"Just watch, Max," Fang urged.

Another still image showed the kitchen area of Anne's house as an elaborate crack lab that had been destroyed hastily.

The video cut away to the school where the flock had attended during their brief stay with Anne. "Local students say that the heroes who tipped off the FDA were some out-of-town kids who happen to be very special young people. Now to Lissa."

"Thank you, Marie. For several months an undercover sting has been centered at this private school. A fascinating series of events unfolded. But the most amazing events transpired when these six children enrolled at the school."

A photo of the Flock appeared briefly.

"Initial suspicions were aroused when a six-year-old from this group shared advanced knowledge about drug trafficking in the Yucatan and appeared to be tripping on acid after listening to Swan Lake. Follow-up led agents to discover that their temporary guardian was involved in drug activity. It wasn't until the children were enlisted in the sting that a drug bust was secured.

"The most important contributions came from this young man."

The camera zoomed out and showed Fang standing next to Lissa.

"That's not possible!" Nudge said. "This footage is from yesterday!"


Lissa put her arm around Fang's back. "You are a hero today. Do you have anything to say?"

In the video, Fang looked up through his spiky bangs and gave a goofy grin to the camera. "I like to fly."

In the room Fang burst out laughing. "I'm stoned! Look at my red eyes!"

On the video Lissa smiled. "Why don't you show us why you like to fly?"

The Fang in the video tentatively stretched out his wings, pushing Lissa to the side as the wings expanded. She fumbled with the handheld microphone and then ducked under his wing to stand in front.

"These amazing children have been kept secret from the American public far too long. But thanks to their brave efforts, we were able to take down one of the most elusive crime operations of the century."

The video ended, frozen on Lissa standing very close to the on-screen Fang.

Gazzy said, "That's not Fang."

Cameroon muttered, "This is wack, ya'll."

Valencia said, "I don't wish to sound rude. But who are you?"

Eve shoved her hands in her pocket. "More like, who're you? First the girl shows up with wings on Youtube. Then Whitey here flashes his wings. And now the Asian dude has purple wings. Come on."

"Purple?" Fang asked, offended.

"Black- purple. Not the point. Who the hell are you people?"

Gazzy quipped, "If we told you we'd have to kill you."

Angel glared at him. "He was joking, Cameroon. We don't do killing. Except for Max."

Now it was Max's turn to glare. Thanks a lot, kiddo. "I don't kill on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. You should be fine."

Ella said, "Knock it off, guys. It's not even funny."

The flock looked at each other and tried to suppress their grins. Even Iggy had a tiny smirk on his face.

39. Reveal

December 5, 2010
Hello, reader and fellow fan-fiction authors!

This story has begun to take on a life of its own. Although it seems to be straying from the MR series (specifically the novels MAX, FANG and the upcoming ANGEL), it will actually encompass each of those novels.

I have a grand ol' story to tell to get us there. I've been thinking about it quite a bit over the past 2 months.

If you've read the chapter before this one, you can say, "clones." But the idea that I have is much, much bigger than simply clones. I hope there are some readers who want to go down this road with me.

Please take a moment to review. I see the story traffic stats, but they are no where near as motivating as a word of two of review. Multi-word reviews are even better! :0

- DZ


Chapter 39

"They're just a couple of people we met playing street basketball."

Jeb leaned against the refrigerator, facing Iggy. "I see."

Iggy said in an offended tone, "Of course you do."

Jeb chuckled. "You have a good sense of humor," he said, clapping his hand on Iggy's arm, not quite tall enough to reach his shoulder.

Iggy stepped back, as if Jeb's touch burned.

"When are you kids going to get over your fear of me?" he huffed.

Fang walked into the kitchen. "Maybe when you stop toying with us and start treating us as equals."

Iggy turned toward Fang. "Just you?" he double-checked.

"Yeah, I left the missy to tie things up in the living room."

Jeb's eyes widened. "You're not serious?"

Fang bumped Iggy with his elbow. "Can you believe this clown?"

Iggy gulped. "I'm just waiting for him to say he's the big bad wolf."

"Big bad bug," Fang stated with a glint in his eye. "We could squish 'im. And then eat 'im. Birds looooove to eat beetles, don't they, Jebbie?"

Iggy turned his head, listening to Jeb shift his stance. "What's Fang talking about?"

Jeb reached for a pencil tucked behind his ear, an old habit from his college days. Of course there was no writing utensil there. So he pushed up his glasses instead. "Fang always does seem to be one step ahead. Why don't you ask him?"

Fang had a sly grin. "You never appreciated how observant I can be, Jebbie, ol' boy. And of course, what I didn't pick up myself, I always learned from Iggy."


"Come on, Ig. You've got to know that you always were the first to pick up on things. But I was the one who quietly watched. And so I'd watch you, and then I'd observe, learn, and keep all nice and quiet. Like the loser bird-kid without a future." Fang's glare at Jeb was lost on Iggy.

"What are you getting at?" Iggy asked, brushing back his hair, a scowl on his face.

"You remember when Jeb taught us to fight. You were the strongest one out of all of us, Iggy. It's too bad you never saw the look of nervous anticipation on Jeb's face when he'd spar with you."

"I smelled his fear," Iggy admitted. "But since no one said anything, I dismissed it. And later I just figured it was my imagination."

Jeb snorted. "I never feared you," he said, his voice cracking in dead giveaway.

"Riiight," Fang snickered. "But Iggy, back to you. When you smashed your arm across his chest the last time you two sparred, you cocked your head. You heard something. So I watched Jeb. You see, he was hurt pretty badly, but he told you something like, 'You're going to have to do better than that if you want to live past your next birthday, boy.'"

Iggy's eyes darkened. He remembered.

Jeb stared at Fang, eyes narrowed.

Fang laughed. "And you know what he did? He went back to the house, stripped off his shirt, stared at his broken skin in the mirror, and cried."

"How did you know that?" Jeb accused.

"I can hover, Jeb. I may never fly as fast as Max, but I can beat my wings as fast as a hummingbird. And every room in that house had a window, if you care to recall."

Iggy chimed in, "And Fang has stealth mode."

"Shut up!" Fang whispered, too late. Jeb's eyebrows rose in curiosity.

Iggy's face went blank.

Fang glanced at Iggy. "Forget it. Anyway, Jeb's skin was broken. It wasn't bleeding. It was cracked. And there was something strange on his shoulders. So I watched Jeb after that. And that's when I figured out that he had some kind of black armor in his skin. The only time I saw it for sure was when he was teaching you how to cook and you were chopping like crazy with the cleaver. His entire hand turned black every time you lowered the cleaver. I wouldn't have seen it unless it had occurred so many times in a row."

Jeb crossed his chest with his arms, tucking his hands out of sight. "You saw that?"

"Yeah. Why do you think I started wearing black all the time?"

"Oh. Marian said it was just a normal adolescent phase for you."

"You're an idiot, Jeb. Back then, I kinda thought you were like a hero." Fang lowered his head.

"Are you … blushing?" Iggy asked. "There's a lot of heat coming from your face."

"Yeah, I'm blushing!" Fang said through his teeth. "I was a stupid boy looking for a father figure. And then the jerk up and left us because the skin on his chest never healed."

"You deserted us to go get yourself fixed up?" Iggy asked, turning toward Jeb.

"It's more complicated than that," Jeb whined.

"You're just a self-centered bastard. It's not that complicated," Fang muttered.

Iggy stood straighter. "You left because I hurt you and you needed to get fixed up?"

"Yes," Jeb admitted.

"Woah," Iggy said with a smile. "I knew that you left because of me …"

"You never told me that!" Fang interrupted.

"Yeah, well, on his last day with us, Jeb told me it was my job to take care of Max because I was the reason he had to leave."

"Is that so," Fang asked, jealousy rearing a tiny head.

"We all know how that turned out," Iggy told Fang in a conciliatory tone. Then he turned to Jeb. "But I always thought you left because I had disappointed you."

"No wonder Ravenclaw bonded with Maximum," Jeb murmured.

Fang cast a sharpened glare of steel at Jeb, but he side-stepped it with a shield of superiority.

Iggy missed the entire exchange. "But if it was just because I hurt you and you needed help …"

"You never saw things clearly, Iggy," Jeb said, gently patting Iggy's arm.

"You can say that again," Iggy laughed loudly.

"Yeah, well, enough with Laugh Fest. I finally figured out what our dear Jebbie is," Fang said, glowering at Jeb.

"Let's hear our favorite spy's next theory," Jeb chuckled.

"You're all recombinants. Every single last white coat in Itex is a recombinant. Jeb here just happened to get beetle juice."

"Ectoplasm?" Iggy scratched the back of his head.

"Not the movie. Rolling my eyes … crap, Max is rubbing off on me."

"What then, stardust?"

"No, not Betelgeuse! DNA, Iggy," Fang shook his head. "Beetle DNA. He's got a freakin' beetle exoskeleton. And it seems to appear as an automatic immune response when his body perceives a threat."

"So the white coats are recombos, too, eh, Jeb?"

"Black coats, in his case," corrected Fang.

"I'm rolling my eyes, Fang," Iggy said in a mocking tone. Moving extremely fast, he grabbed Jeb's arm with his hand, "What a stinking, crappy world this is. Were you ever going to tell us, Doctor Batchelder?"

Jeb squirmed under Iggy's grasp.

40. Listen and Learn

December 7, 2010
Thanks for reading and reviewing. I'm hoping there aren't errors in names in this chappy, which references events in The Final Warning. Sue was a CSM scientist who was an android or a bionically-enhanced human. Brigid, or Dr. Amazing, should be known to readers of the series as someone who made Max insanely jealous of Fang's attentions.

In the olden days, Fang really did have his own Fly On! blog which was not quite so much of publicity tool as the current Max-Dan-Wiz is. And Maximum-X did draw a lot of misguided people looking for rated X and motocross content. Oops. They (Hachette Book Group) learned their lesson.

Listen and Learn
Chapter 40

When Fang walked back into the living room, the members of the Flock were staring at him. Nudge was sitting next to Eden, hugging her arm and laying her head on Eden's shoulder, but looking at Fang. Ella turned around to face Fang, while her mom and Cameroun continued to talk.

Max got off the sofa. "Did you forget our incredible auditory powers, Fang? We heard every word you said."

"What'd he say?" Eden asked, wrapping an arm around Angel.

"You didn't hear Fang and Jeb and Iggy?" Ella asked in a tone of surprise.

"No. How 'bout you Cam?"

"Wuzzup?" her brother asked, eyes roving the room.

Ella shifted uneasily, "Well, at least Mom heard Jeb talking to Iggy and Fang in the other room, right?"

Iggy walked in behind Fang. "I heard my name," he smiled before walking smack into Fang's back. "Aww, man. Make some noise or something," Iggy complained.

Valencia looked back to Ella. "I didn't hear anything, Ella. We were having a conversation, the three of us. How could any of us hear what was going on in the dining room?"

Jeb walked in now. He took in the scene of the whole Flock looking at Ella. Iggy was looking at her in a figurative sense because he took that moment to plant a peck on her cheek. Everyone heard the sound of Valencia Martinez inhaling sharply.

"Why are you staring at me?" Ella said, shuffling her feet.

Fang broke the silence. "You shouldn't have been able to hear us."

"But I did. So get over it. I've had excellent hearing since I was a kid. I used to think Mom was half-deaf when she couldn't hear the electricity whining through overhead lines, or dog whistles or the singing of the waves at the beach." Ella pulled her long hair over her shoulder, draping it behind her back.

Iggy's arm curved around her. "Sounds like the girl has mad aural skillz."

Eden's mouth dropped open in shock. Angel quickly leaned toward her and whispered, "Aural means listening. Not oral. Whatever that means." Angel looked up to Max with a face hoping for an answer.

Max turned bright red. I'm so busted, Max thought to herself, stealing a glance at Fang's ultra-proud grin. Then she quickly looked at Angel and said, "Uh, it's a grown-bird-kid thing, Ange. So, um, can we just forget it. Until you turn 18 or something."

"Sure," Angel said. "But your mom is hopping mad at Fang right now."

"I'm not mad," Valencia said, patting her chest, looking anywhere but Fang.

"Are you all related?" Cameroun asked.

"No," Max answered, while Jeb answered, "Yes."

"Forget I asked," Cameroun said, shaking his head.

Eden scooted forward on the sofa, pulling away from Nudge's clinginess. "Angel asked me to show your mom the vid of that girl," she said, pointing out Max, "flying."

Jeb walked over. "Stream it. I'll pick it up and show it on the wall." He turned to Valencia, "This is a good one." Jeb swiped his Blackberry over Eden's phone then turned around and pointed the phone and the little projection device on a blank wall.

The image was Max flying over deeply black water. "The Wendy K." Nudge said. "Antarctica."

Max crossed her arms over her chest, and then loosened them right away. She saw that the all-observant Fang noticed that part, too. "Who filmed me?"

Fang stepped closer to Max. "That was the night you took off on your fun fly, Miss Jealousy."

Max leaned closer in the space under his arm and let him hold her shoulders. "Yeah. It was. But who had a camera?"

Jeb rocked on his heels. "It was a scientific expedition. They all had cameras."

"But they weren't supposed to be filming my daughter!" Valencia said, her voice sounding like a BMX on full throttle.

Jeb leaned away from Dr. Martinez, ever so slightly. "I'm just saying they all had cameras, Val."

Fang said. "Well, it was either Brigid or Sue."

"And we know what happened to Sue," Max nodded.

"So the CSM has been infiltrated," Iggy moaned.

"That's so not fair," Gazzy grumbled. "Just when we were finally doing something other than being bossed around by Max!"

Angel smiled and looked up at Max, a gentle expression on her face. Max rolled her eyes.

"So much for saving the world through good deeds," Nudge said, sadly.

"Saving the world?" Eden asked.

Ella sat on the sofa arm, next to Nudge. "You don't really want to know."

Cameroon coughed. "Who invited us here?"

Ella looked at the floor. "Yeah, it was me."

Fang spoke, causing almost everyone to jump. Except for Max of course. "Ever read the 'Fly On' blog?"

"Yeah. Best thing on the internetz," Cameroun nodded.

"That's me. Us."

Cameroon and Eden glanced at each other. Eden nodded slightly. Cameroon raised his eyebrows in confirmation before continuing, "We got an aunt and uncle in Germany. We told 'em about the Itex place from your blog. They saw some crazy-looking animals walking out of that place on two feet, just like people. Said it's the real deal."

Eden nodded. "Bring it. But I got a question for you. Why did you start blogging about some freak named Daniel?"

"Who?" Fang asked, eyes focusing intently on Eden.

Jeb messed with his phone and brought up Fang's blog, displaying it on the wall. "What? It's on my favorites," Jeb shrugged, when Max stared at him.

Fang read his latest post talking about a new guy in town called Daniel.

"Okay, Nudge, funny, breaking my password and all. Quit blogging for me and making me sound stupid. This is what, the third time now?"

Nudge was miffed. "First, butterflies is not all that tough of a password to hack. Second, I only write my own blogs. Third, you sound stupid without my help."

Iggy giggled, "Butterflies?"

Nudge turned to him, "Like Igmeister is any better."

"Nice," Ella chuckled.

"Pretty much everything is compromised," Jeb interrupted the banter. "If it's going to hit the fan, it's going to hit now."

Just then the blog displayed on the wall updated. A new post directed readers to a site called Maximum-X.

"Didn't see that coming," Jeb whispered.

"Oh, great, who posted my fantasy pr0n about Max?" Fang said, glaring at Angel.

"Not me," she squeaked.

"Jeb?" Valencia asked.

His Blackberry vibrated, shaking the image on the wall. He removed the mini-projector, stuffed it into his shirt pocket and glanced at the phone. "We need to get into the basement right now. All of us."

41. Down Under

January 7, 2011
Thanks for reading. Ever heard of a review?

To readers who might be offended by my ignorant use of Aussie slang, please forgive. Send me your hints or suggestions for my new mutant hybrids' "salty" vernacular. If I don't get any suggestions, my crocodilians may need to vanish from the story. So sad, since JP, bless his heart, has neglected Australia in his YA books.

Happy New Year!

If this chappy doesn't give you your FF fix, try my Daniel X crossover. It needs some love.
I just might post your Daniel X review in the heading of the chapter you review. See Chapter One, for example. How's that for bribery?

Down Under

"The basement?" Valencia asked.

Iggy grabbed Ella's hand. He pulled her toward the basement door in the narrow hall between the living room and the dining room. As he moved, he barked out orders. "I'll be behind Jeb. Max and Fang, you ride caboose and watch our tails. Okay everyone, make sure Eden and Cameroon are surrounded. And Dr. Martinez, too. At least they'll have a chance of surviving if they have cover. Move it."

Valencia and Cameroon started to cross the living room. Nudge tugged Eden off the couch, whispering in her ear.

Max coughed, "Who died and made you king?" At the same time, Fang remarked with pungent snark, "Not gonna happen, Iggy."

Valencia stopped in mid-stride and looked back and forth between Max, Fang and Iggy. She opened her mouth, but Gazzy's voice interrupted, "I'm sticking with Iggy."

Nudge concurred, still dragging Eden along by her arm. "At least Iggy's one hundred percent bird kid."

"What did you do to the Flock?" Max hissed, glaring at Iggy. Ella saw the ferocity in Max's eyes and she cringed.

"I'm keeping the Flock safe," Iggy said, grasping the door handle, twisting and pulling it with impatience. The door didn't budge. Ella quickly turned the dead bolt and the door swung open with Iggy clutching the knob. Ella took slow, careful steps down the creaking wooden staircase.

"They're kind of sagging in the middle, Iggy," she said quietly. "Be careful."

Iggy nodded to Ella and then ushered Jeb through. He noticed that Jeb was remarkably antsy. Iggy could smell the nervous sweat oozing from Jeb's armpits.

Angel gently pushed Valencia forward. Then she spoke to Cameroon in his head. Follow Ella's mom down the steps. Don't ask questions. And hurry!

She almost ignored Cameroon's thoughts as he reached for the light switch, This would be safer with some lights on.

No lights! Angel insisted in his head. He meekly complied.

Pulling away from Nudge, Eden protested, "This shiz is trippin'…"

Angel interrupted Eden's bold voice. Talking in her head, she demanded, Don't say another word. It's do or die, Eden. Please … just follow your brother. Eden's eyes widened and she glanced at Angel, letting Nudge pull her along.

Max watched them file through the basement doorway. She shouted after them, "I can't believe you guys. Picking Iggy over me? This is so not over. Anyway, we don't even know why Jeb wants us to go to the basement. What if it's a trap?"

Angel spoke aloud to Max and Fang, "Jeb is right. We need to get out of here, and he knows about a tunnel in the basement. We really need to get to a safe place before they show up."

Max watched Angel skitter through the doorway. Then she was alone with Fang. "What do you think?"

"Threat level five? Red?" Fang suggested.

There were four loud crashes on the roof, one floor above them.

"Get the flock to safety," Max ordered Fang just before she morphed.

Fang stood his ground. "I'll fight next to you."

"No!" Max growled. "They need someone strong to protect them. Someone who can see."

"Forget it," Fang grunted.

Max gently lay her razor-tipped claw on Fang's chest. In a tender voice, she spoke through the four-inch daggers between her lips, "Remember what Anne said? You need to be with the Flock if you want to survive. I'll be fine."

Fang leaned forward and nearly kissed a mouthful of death before he nodded and silently darted through the basement door, closing it with a soft click.

Max was distracted by a dragonfly flitting across the ceiling, nervously looking for a way out. The front door burst into pieces. Huge chunks of wood clattered to the floor. A rugged man, looking about Jeb's age, pushed his way through the jagged wooden maw. Three windows were smashed in. More men piled into the living room. They took no precautions against the shards of glass pointing at sickly angles in the window frames.

Max got a good look at the man who busted the front door. He was busy brushing splinters of wood off his lumberjack plaid shirt, which was tucked in under brown leather suspenders holding up dark denim pants. His feet were underscored by heavy construction boots, splattered with mud and mushy weeds.

Max scrutinized his leathery hands and his head. Without the ridges of armor on his head, he would have been bald. She saw no hair on his skin. Instead, tan, leathery scales protected his entire body, as far as she could see. She had yet to developed X-ray vision.

Max fully extracted her claws, growled and leaned forward in a territorial protective stance. The man finally stopped brushing himself off. Three other men were now casually brushing off the glass shards that stuck to their workman clothes.

The front man looked up at Max and she gulped when she saw his snout. It was actually growing as she watched. Below cavernous nostrils, his giant teeth, even larger than her own puny Eraser fangs, showed along the sides of the man's face. The teeth were those of the largest crocodile she'd ever seen – on YouTube. He grinned at her. His eyes declared that she was dead meat.

Max drew in a deep breath. She could take him. Then he opened his snout and snapped it shut. Max calculated that his jaws closed at 100 miles per hour. With the power of his jaw and the flesh-ripping design of his teeth, her Eraser flesh would be shredded.

She spread her wings. It was a good thing her mom didn't have much furniture in that house. She tentatively clawed the man's skin and quickly fluttered away from his snapping jaws.

"Oh, that tickled," he menaced. Her razor-sharp talons barely scratched his body armor.

Max willed herself to avoid looking at the basement door as a way out. The four men were slowly walking toward her, snouts growing. Max wondered when these mutants were created. They looked old, as far as mutants go.

Hoping that the crocodilian hybrids were around before she was born, Max transformed. Her fur slid back into her skin while she felt hardened scales growing everywhere over her body. Her wings folded over her back, like a pair of heavy shields. And her mouth stretched forward. She could see her jaw extending. A cruel smile played over her interlocking teeth.

The men stopped, some of them tilting their heads to the side as they watched the transformation complete in under three seconds.

"G'Day, Sheila!" the front man rumbled enthusiastically. "We weren't told we'd meet up with any beautiful specimens from Down Under," he said, as his snout receded. His massive side teeth were still jigsawed around the sides of his jaws. "My name is Hatcher," he said, holding out his leathery hand. Max was surprised that he was warm-blooded. He turned to the other men. "Don't just stand there like bloody idiots, mates. Introduce yourself to the lass."

The men stepped forward, no longer threatening her with their snapping jaws but smiling awkward toothy grins. "I'm Salty," said a short one.

A muscled, tall man pushed forward. He had a broken lower tooth on one side of his face and a black patch covering the eye on the opposite side. "Don't let 'im fool you. He's never even tasted saltwater." He and Hatcher laughed raucously.

"Shut your awful trap, Dinky," a man with charcoal black eyes said. The shape of his eyes reminded Max of Fang. Bowing slightly to Max, he held out his hand and charmed, "It's my honor to make your acquaintance. My mates call me Snag."

Max closed her jaws, speechless. She felt one pair of lower teeth brush up against her rough checks and another pair of upper teeth graze her armored chin. She shook the hands of each of the men. They were all talking at once, mostly to each other. Hatcher, the front man, finally asked, "When did you come to the states?"

Max spoke in a dry, biting voice, adjusting to her new body. "I was born here."

"A salt croc hybrid born in the States? Aren't you an Aussie?" Hatcher licked his side teeth with a human tongue.

"Nope," Max said, trying to act relaxed, like she didn't feel threatened by these strange new hybrids.

"Then who the bloody hell are you?" Salty burst out.

"Maximum Ride."

The men looked at each other and then shrugged. Finally Snag said, "Miss Ride, you best come a-waltzing Matilda with me."

Dinky reached for Max's arm and said, "Best not stand there like a stunned mullet. You've been summoned."

Max stepped back. "Summoned?"

"Didn't you follow Doctor ter Borcht's tweets? He's invited you to drop by this arvo for a cuppa," Hatcher sneared before he lashed out and grabbed her arms. "Don't let 'er be the one that got away," he encouraged his men as they latched their burly arms onto Max's writhing body. She twisted her neck from side to side, snapping her jaws at whoever got closest. The men deftly avoided her angry chops.

Max was lifted horizontally, wrestling in the arms of the four men. Without wings for flight, Max instinctually whipped her legs from side to side. She kept her legs straight and held them together. They whipped about like a croc's tail. One of the men was knocked to the floor. The sound of his "oof" led Max to guess it was Dinky.

Her teeth tore off the shirt from another man's beefy arm. "Dammit," Snag cursed, muttering other profanities Max had never heard before. "Do something about this, Salty."

Max felt a pin prick her neck and wondered how it was so easy for them to find a chink in her body armor. As she felt herself slipping down under the drug-induced torpor, she wondered if they were white coats. Her jaws shrunk back to normal beyond her control. On her back her wings were light again. She didn't like the feeling of her soft skin being scraped by the rough hands of the croc men.

Maximum Ride, lethargic bird girl with tumbling auburn tresses, was slung limply over Hatcher's shoulder as he pushed his way out of the house through the broken door. It reminded her of the picture on the cover of the romance novel that taught her how masturbate.

Well, I sure didn't expect to end this chapter with that image. You?

On a total whim, I dare any reader to write a Snag/Fang slash. Would it be Fnag? Snang? What about Fatcher? Finky? or Falty?

How about a contest? Okay. Here are the slapdash, dingdong rules.

Best Maximum Ride category croc hybrid fic of any length but no less than 800 words submitted on fanfiction. net - - with a note pointing to it in a review of Unheeded Warning/Synergy - - will be chosen by me and announced in a chapter header in the future. The winning fic and honorable mentions will also be announced on my profile and favorited. If I get more than two or three submissions, I'll need a 2nd judge. We'll see.

A crocodilian hybrid, the kind of mutant described in the chapter above, must be in the fic, as well at least one existing canon MR character. One shots are acceptable.

I thought about limiting it to a Fang slash, but figured you'd have more fun if it was open to interpretation. Minky anyone?

Submissions on FF. net are due by midnight on February 14th. Um ... if it's entered in a review and posted as a fan fic no later than midnight on Feb. 15th my time (USA CST), I'll accept it. Plus, if you create an original character (OC), the winner can request which OC in the winning slashfic will make an appearance in the chapter with the announcement. Or maybe the following chapter. Details, details.

I accept all ratings allowed by Fanfiction. net. Lemons (Mature ratings) are fine. Limes (Teen rating) are tantalizing. Puppy love (rated K) is sweet. Oh, to clarify: romance is not required! Give me at least 7 days to read the fics submitted. How about I announce the winner no later than March 1st?

Like there will be any submissions. Who am I kidding?